Pius XII died on October 9, 1958, ending his nineteen-year reign as pope. On October 28, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, archbishop of Venice, was elected, to his great surprise, to be Pius’ successor (the presumed frontrunner candidate was Giovanni Montini, archbishop of Milan, who would become Pope Paul VI in June, 1963). Roncalli had arrived in Rome for the election by the College of Cardinals with a return train ticket to Venice. Upon his election, Roncalli chose the name John XXIII, the first time in over five hundred years that the name John had been chosen as previous newly elected Popes had avoided its use since the time of the Anti-pope John XXIII during the Western Schism (1378-1417). After Pius XII’s long pontificate, the cardinals chose a man who, because of his advanced age of 77, they presumed would be a short-term, a “stop gap,” or “caretaker” pope. The cardinals, however, would be proven wrong,
Far from being a mere “caretaker” pope, to the great excitement of Catholics worldwide, Pope John called into session in 1962 an ecumenical council less than ninety years after Vatican Council I was interrupted by the Franco-Prussian war, never finishing its work. Cardinal Montini remarked to a friend that “this holy old boy doesn’t realize what a hornet’s nest he’s stirring up.” Cardinal Montini was right about stirring up a hornet’s nest because from Vatican Council II would come changes that reshaped the Church and the face of Catholicism, changes associated with buzzwords like: aggiornamento (“bringing up to date,”) and ressourcement (“return to sources”); people of God, full participation of the laity, communio (“communion”) of all the baptized, collegiality, dialogue, and ecumenism.
The bishops who attended Vatican Council II came from 116 different countries, whereas 40 percent of the bishops at Vatican Council I came from only Italy. Many brought along with them a secretary or a theologian/peritus or both. To this number must be added others who came to Rome because of official or semiofficial business related to the Council, which, included about a hundred observers from other churches, as well as representatives of the media. By the time it opened, the Vatican had issued about a thousand press cards to journalists. Probably close to 10,000 people were present in Rome at any given time while the Council was in session because they had some kind of business relating to it.
Pope John set up ten commissions to compose documents on subjects that emerged from previous consultations. These commissions were headed by bishops who, with one exception, were prefects of congregations that made up the Curia, i.e. the Vatican bureaucracy . A central Coordinating Commission was to oversee the work of the others. The commissions worked for two years to produce documents that they hoped the Council would accept after discussion and amendment. The commission produced seventy documents, which were eventually whittled down to sixteen. Four sessions were required for the Council to complete its business, each of which, held in the fall, lasted about ten weeks, 1962-65. On June 3, 1963, Pope John died of stomach cancer, and the Council went forward under his successor, Pope Paul VI.
On April 8, 1965, Vatican Council II published its sixteenth document, “Declaration on the Relationship of the Church and Non-Christian Religions,” Nostra Aetate (“In Our Age”) in which, abandoning close to two millennia of religious intolerance, the Church finally committed itself to religious freedom. After the Council, Popes Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, now emeritus, publically proclaimed religious liberty a fundamental human right — a proclamation that would have been inconceivable before 1965 because for most of its history the Church had condemned it. Previously, in the “Decree on Religious Liberty,” Dignitatis Humane (“Of the Dignity of the Human Person”), the Council sanctioned the separation of church and state; the right to worship according to one’s conscience; and the primacy of conscience over obedience to external authority. It should be noted, however, that these principles, among the most bitterly contested during deliberations, met with considerable resistance from the conservative fathers of the Council and still do.
In May, 2012, for example, the book, Le ‘chiavi’ di Benedetto XVI per interpretare il Vaticano II (“The Keys of Benedict XVI for the interpretation of Vatican II,”), authored by Cardinal Walter Brandmüller (emeritus of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences), Archbishop Agostino Marchetto, and Mgr. Nicola Bux was published by Cantagalli Press in Siena. At a presentation to the media in the studios of Vatican Radio in Rome, Cardinal Brandmüller referred to Dignitatis Humane and Nostra Aetate as “non-binding” on the Church because of a lack of “binding doctrinal content.”
Notwithstanding traditionalist opposition, Vatican Council II unequivocally repudiated and reversed anti-Judaism, the Church’s centuries old anti-Jewish bias, which under church doctrine could have been done by any pope during the papacy’s nineteen hundred plus year history. At last, this pernicious doctrine on Jews as Christ-killers and rejected children of God was ended. In Nostra Aetate the Council declared:
“Mindful of (its) common patrimony with the Jews, and motivated by the gospel’s spiritual love and by no political considerations, (the Church) deplores the hatred, persecutions and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews at any time and from any source.”
Specifically, Nostra Aetate declared:
· No collective guilt can be attributed to Jews, past or present, for the death of Jesus.
· God’s covenant with the Jewish People is valid and not revoked.
· The Jews are not forsaken or condemned by God.
· Anti-Semitism is a sin and has no place in Christianity.
It should be noted further, however, that few issues sparked more controversy inside the Council and outside in the media as the relationship of the Church to the Jews and to other non-Christian religions. Regarding non-Roman Catholic Christians, for example, how could the Church now receive as brothers and sisters those whom, until the Council opened, it had regarded as heretics? The sticking point, in particular, for conservative fathers was the Church’s relationship to the Jews (i.e., how responsible they were for the death of Jesus). Cardinal Ernesto Ruffini, archbishop of Palermo, for example, opposed the concept of tolerance of any non- Catholic faith. He argued that tolerance was a license for error, which, according to church doctrine, has no rights. And Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, prefect of the Congregation of the Holy Office (successor of the Holy Inquisition), stubbornly held to the position that in Catholic countries the state had an obligation to profess and favor the Catholic faith and to limit the practice of all other faiths. Historically, however, when Catholics were in a country’s religious minority, the Church demanded equal treatment with other faiths. Vatican Council II renamed the Congregation of the Holy Office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
John Courtney Murray
Fr. John Courtney Murray SJ (1904 – 67), was an American Jesuit priest and theologian, especially known for his efforts to reconcile Roman Catholicism and religious pluralism, focusing, in particular, on the relationship between religious freedom and the institutions of a democratically structured modern state. In his book, We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition, Fr. Murray discussed the compatibility of Catholic doctrine with concepts espoused by America’s Founding Fathers, including freedom of expression and religion. In discussing the relationship between church and state, he asserted that there existed a necessary distinction between morality and civil law; that the latter is limited in its capacity in cultivating moral character through criminal prohibitions, and that “it is not the function of civil law to prescribe everything that is morally right and to forbid everything that is morally wrong.” Clearly, religion had a large role to play in helping the faithful define the difference between right and wrong.
During Vatican Council II, Fr. Murray played a key role in persuading the assembled bishops to adopt the Council’s ground-breaking “Declaration on Religious Liberty” (Dignitatis Humane), arguing that Catholic teaching on church/state relations was inadequate to the moral functioning of contemporary society. The Anglo-American West, he claimed, had developed a fuller truth about human dignity, namely the responsibility of all citizens to assume moral control over their own religious beliefs, taking back control formerly exerted by paternalistic states since, at least, the time of Emperor Constantine in the 4th century. For him this truth was an “intention of nature” or a new dictate of natural law philosophy. His claim that a new moral truth had emerged outside the Church, which claimed to be changeless, not surprisingly, led to conflict with Cardinal Ottaviani, prefect of the Holy Office, and to the eventual Vatican demand, in 1954, that Murray cease writing on religious freedom and stop publication of his two latest articles on the issue. A proponent of change, Murray, nonetheless, questioned how the Church might arrive at new theological doctrines. If Catholics were to arrive at new truths about God, he argued, they would have to do so in conversation “on a footing of equality” with non-Catholics and even atheists. He suggested greater reforms, including a restructuring of the Church, which he saw as having overdeveloped its notion of authority and hierarchy at the expense of the bonds of love that more foundationally ought to define Christian living. Overdevelopment of the Church’s notion of authority has been termed “creeping infallibility” by liberal theologians.
Despite the Holy Office’s attempt to silence him, Fr. Murray was invited to participate at Vatican II as a peritus, becoming the American bishops’ leading theologian, where he drafted the third and fourth versions of what eventually became the Council’s endorsement of religious freedom in Dignitatis Humane. After the Council he continued writing on the issue, claiming that the arguments offered by the final version of Dignitatis Humanae, watered down at the insistence of conservative bishops, were inadequate, though the affirmation of religious freedom was unequivocal. Liberal bishops, especially Cardinal Gregory Meyer of Chicago, were disappointed with what seemed to be obstructive action by Pope Paul VI and conservative bishops to weaken the language of Dignitatis Humanae. When subsequently asked whether he was “impatient” with the pope’s obstructive action, Fr. Murray responded, no: he was angry over the pope’s action. Liberal Catholics cite Fr. Murray’s ideas to justify a “pro-choice” stance in the current debate taking place in the United States over abortion rights.
Watershed Event in Church History
Vatican Council II, like the Council of Trent and Vatican Council I, was undoubtedly a watershed event in church history, although traditionalist Catholics claim that little new ground was broken. In an address to curial officials Pope Benedict XVI delivered on December 22, 2005, for example, he argued that Vatican Council II did not represent any kind of “rupture” with previous ecumenical councils of the Church. This was the case, he opined, because, in all of its essential details, the Church cannot change. Rejection of anti-Judaism and other previously held church positions on such topics as cosmology, slavery, usury, religious freedom, separation of church and state, segregation/apartheid, primacy of conscience, obviously, argue against such a static view
Unlike previous church councils, Trent and Vatican I in particular, Vatican II was not called to deal with a crisis enveloping the Church. Rather, it was called to respond to “challenges facing the modern world.” In the words of Blessed Pope John XXIII, who will be canonized a saint in 2014, the Church needed aggiornamento, (“updating” and “renewal”); it needed to enter into a more constructive engagement with the modern world. “It is not that the Gospel has changed:” said Pope John, “it is that we have begun to understand it better…and know that the moment has come to discern the signs of the times, to seize the opportunity and to look far ahead.” Candidly, what the Church needed to do was deal with the embarrassment of the many unintended consequences occasioned by, among other things, anti-Judaism, the papacy’s siege mentality since Trent, Pius IX’s and Pius X’s war on Modernism, and papal absolutism, all of which too often placed the Church on the wrong side of history. Attributing his idea to convene the Council to “inspiration of the Holy Spirit,” Vatican II was Pope John’s solution for dealing with the problem preoccupying critical-thinking Catholics, namely, how an ancient Church that prided itself on its tradition and unchangeable nature could survive in a world undergoing social, political, and cultural transformation of unprecedented magnitude.
Most Catholics and non-Catholics agree that Vatican II accomplished a great deal of much needed reform, but, as noted previously, not without considerable opposition from conservative members of the Curia, spearheaded by Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, who attempted to sabotage the Council’s work at every opportunity. In fact, Ottaviani, who adopted as his motto the Latin phrase semper idem, (“always the same,”) and other members of the Curia, citing papal infallibility and other absolutist doctrines, argued against the need to convene a council at all. In their view, the Church, as a perfect society, repository of changeless truth, one true faith and only means to salvation, among other reasons, had no need to change. And this attitude continues within the Vatican to the present day. According to Fr. Mark S. Massa, SJ, in his book, The American Catholic Revolution; How the ‘60s Changed the Church Forever, a small number of extreme traditionalist Catholics even view Vatican II as an anti-council, i.e., they see the event of 1962-65 “as not being a real council of the Church at all, but rather an event abetted by the Forces of Darkness against the Fortress Church of Pius IX and Pius X.”
It remains to be seen how Pope Francis’ pontificate, still in its first year, will impact implementation of Vatican Council II reforms within the Church. Francis’ efforts to set a more pastoral and tolerant tone, to reorient church priorities from dogma to compassion, however, are hopeful signs.