Thursday, November 4, 2010

Book Review: What Happened at Vatican II, by John W. O’Malley

In the Introduction to this marvellous book, Father O’Malley states his purpose as author:

In this book I will analyze [the sixteen conciliar] documents, but I will not provide a detailed theological commentary on them….What I will do, rather, is put the documents into their contexts to provide a sense of before and after….Only by tracing the documents’ genesis, and even more important, locating them in their contexts can their deeper significance be made clear.

He identifies the main historical contexts for Vatican II as “the long and the broad history of the Western church” from Constantine and Nicaea to the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation; “the long nineteenth century,” including the French Revolution and Pius IX and Vatican I; and “the period beginning with World War II and continuing up to the opening of the council.”

O’Malley also identifies what he considers to be the most important issues dealt with at Vatican II. These included the place of Latin in the liturgy, the relationship of Tradition to Scripture, the relationship of the church to the Jews and then to other non-Christian religions, religious liberty, the role of the church in the modern world. There were many more.

But the author believes that it is really the “issues under the issues” that characterize Vatican II and make it unique in the history of ecumenical councils. These are:

1. The circumstances under which change in the church is appropriate and the arguments with which it can be justified.

2. The relationship in the church of center to periphery, or put more concretely, how authority is properly distributed between the papacy, including the Congregations of the Vatican Curia, and the rest of the church.

3. The style or model according to which that authority should be exercised. Here the council becomes more explicit by introducing a new vocabulary and literary form. Words like “charism,” “dialogue,” “partnership,” “cooperation,” and “friendship” indicate a new style for the exercise of authority and implicitly advocate a conversion to a new style of thinking, speaking, and behaving, a change from a more authoritarian and unidirectional style to a more reciprocal and responsive model.

I believe that this is the issue captured by the expression “the spirit of the council,” that is, an orientation that goes beyond specific enactments.

Once O’Malley’s account reaches the opening of the council, the book often reads like a novel, filled with characters in conflict with each other, intrigue, surprises, and pathos. The council fathers quickly split into what the author calls the majority and the minority. The latter group was made up of members of the Roman curia and its supporters who believed that the council should be a reaffirmation of doctrine laid down by previous councils and by popes like Pius X. The majority, on the other hand, soon recognized that the council was an opportunity to bring about significant change in the way that the church related to the modern world. These two opposing views resulted in four years of tension and more-than-occasional vitriolic outbursts.

While faithfully recording these dramatic moments, the author does not fail to bring us back to the issues he laid out in his Introduction, placing events and outcomes in their proper historical and ecclesiological context.

Let us take the “lightning-rod issue” of collegiality—“the relationship of the bishops, or episcopal hierarchy to the papacy”—as an example.

What kind of authority did the bishops have over the church at large when they acted collectively, that is, collegially; how was that authority exercised in relationship to the pope; and how was collegiality different from “Conciliarism” (supremacy of council over pope), a position condemned in the fifteenth century and repeatedly condemned thereafter?

The issue of collegiality was addressed primarily in chapter two—later to become chapter three—of the much revised schema on the church, which in its final form would be entitled Lumen Gentium. One of the points made by this chapter was that bishops were ordained rather than consecrated and that this sacrament of ordination conferred on them “the tripartite office of teaching, sanctifying, and governing their flocks.”

O’Malley tells us:

It was over the last of those three—governing—that the difference arose. Thus this difficult topic blended into the final point [of chapter two], episcopal collegiality. The original [version of the schema, prepared by members of the curia] insisted that, though the sacrament conferred the office (munus) of governing, it did not confer the power to exercise it, which bishops received from the Roman Pontiff.

The new text was more intent on emphasizing that bishops have inalienable authority by virtue of the sacrament….This text agreed with the original that bishops were “vicars of Christ,” and a few lines later added a telling quotation from Leo XIII that they were “not to be thought vicars of the Roman Pontiff. They are called bishops (antistites, overseers) because they exercise an authority properly their own and really govern the flocks that are theirs.

Discussion of chapter two, which was often heated, went on from October 4 to October 15, 1963 during the second session of the council. Finally, in “a congenial meeting” with Pope Paul VI, the council moderators came up with the idea of asking the fathers to vote “on the contested issues of chapter two in a way that would indicate where the bishops stood on them and also be binding on the Doctrinal Commission in its revision of the chapter.”

On the day of the vote, however, it was suddenly announced that it had been cancelled; no explanation was given for this move. According to O'Malley, “Somebody had got to Paul VI.” As a result of his unexpected intervention, the pope was “besieged” for several days, and following a series of negotiations and no doubt due to pressure from leaders of the majority, a revised ballot was created and the vote took place.

The issue of collegiality was addressed in one of five questions to be voted on by the council fathers:

Should the schema assert that the so-called Body or College of Bishops in its evangelizing, sanctifying, and governing task is successor to the original College of the Apostles and, always in communion with the Roman Pontiff, enjoys full and supreme power over the universal church?

The result of the vote on this question was 2,148 affirmative, 336 negative. But as we shall later see, this was not the end of the story for collegiality at the council.

In his Conclusion O’Malley underlines the overall significance of this issue for the council and for the church.

No instance of ressourcement was more central to the drama of Vatican II and to its aspirations than collegiality. Proponents of collegiality at the council saw it as a recovery of an aspect of church life increasingly sidelined in the West since the eleventh century. It had been virtually pushed off the ecclesiastical map by the ways the definition of papal primacy of Vatican I had been determined and implemented. Yet, though the church had never officially defined collegiality as part of its constitution, for centuries it had taken it for granted as its normal mode of operation. The church of the first millennium functioned collegially…and in local councils and other ways the collegial mode continued to function even in the West well into the modern period.

In the West, papal primacy “developed” incrementally in a steady and almost continuous line up until the long nineteenth century when it accelerated at (for the church) almost breathtaking speed—papal definitions of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption, the growth and increasing authority exercised by the Roman Congregations, the devolution of the appointment of bishops almost exclusively into the hands of the pope, and of course, in 1870 the definition of papal primacy and infallibility.

The majority at the council certainly did not press for a statement on collegiality merely to make a theological point. They brought it to the fore, like other ressourcements, because it had practical ramifications. The bishops who promoted the doctrine and fought for it so passionately wanted to redress what they saw as the imbalance between the authority exercised especially by the Roman Congregations and their own authority as heads of “local churches.” Collegiality was the supreme instance in the council of the effort to moderate the centralizing tendencies of the ecclesiastical institution, of the effort to give those from the periphery a more authoritative voice not only back home but also in the center.

I had hoped that Father O’Malley would deal with the apparent reversal of at least the spirit of the council by John Paul II and Joseph Ratzinger. He does not do so in this book but his treatment of Pope Paul VI gives a clear indication that this process was underway long before John Paul II was elected; in fact, the dismantling began during the council itself.

By the time the second session of the council opened in September 1963, it was clear that the majority of the council fathers would be more and more insistently calling for the reform of the curia. “The Curia abused its authority, its critics maintained, and tried to lord it over the bishops. The behavior of some its members during the first period seemed to justify the indictment. The animus was widespread, by no means confined to the leaders of the majority.”

In a an address to the curia shortly before the resumption of the council in 1963, Paul admonished its members to cooperate more fully with the council and informed them that changes would have to be made to the curia’s mode of operation. At the same time, “he communicated that he was removing reform of the Curia from the agenda of the council. ‘The reform will be formulated and promulgated’, he said, ‘by the Curia itself.’” Naturally, a curia that has no interest in reform in principle will be unwilling to consider reform for itself; John Paul II had a ready and willing tool waiting for him when he ascended the throne of Peter and began dismantling Vatican II and restoring the Church of the “long nineteenth century.”

Unlike John XXIII, Paul intervened often and significantly in the business of the council. “His interventions and the way they were made are a crucial part of the story of Vatican II and of the larger problem of the relationship of center to periphery” and they reflect a preference for the primacy of papal authority over episcopal collegiality.

The most substantive—and to some, the most egregious—intervention came in the last week of the third session. The pope “communicated for Lumen Gentium [the final text of which was due to be voted on during this last week] a ‘Preliminary Explanatory Note’ (Nota Explicativa Praevia) that interpreted the meaning of collegiality in chapter three.” Most commentators agreed that the Note did not change the meaning of the text, but Joseph Ratzinger “found this ‘very intricate text’ marked by ambivalence and ambiguities and saw it tipping the balance in favour of the primacy.”

The Note won the support of the minority for the chapter and for the schema, as shown in the final voting— only 5 negative votes out of 2,156 cast. The price for that virtual unanimity was high. No matter what the pope hoped to accomplish, he in fact gave those opposed to collegiality a tool they could—and would—use to interpret the chapter as a reaffirmation of the status quo.

Father O’Malley has successfully incorporated a thoughtful and credible analysis of the issues treated by the council into the gripping story of Vatican II. I could not help but wonder, all the way through, how such a seemingly powerful wave of optimism and enthusiasm for change, such a compelling movement for dialogue and conciliation could be so quickly and so thoroughly subdued.

This book will never spend long enough on my bookshelf to gather much dust. Highly recommended.


  1. Thanks Ross. You know, I must have held this book at least four times in my hand in the line up at Indigo. Every time I bailed, because my habit is to buy more books than I can actually handle. But maybe next I will stick with it.

  2. Hi JD:

    I actually got this book out of the library a few months ago when I didn't have time to read it and had to give it up after I started reading the Introduction. I finally got it from and am very happy to have it in my library. The Introduction and the chapter on the Long Nineteenth Century are worth the price of the book.

    I know what you mean about buying more books than one can possibly read. I have to restrain myself weekly from ordering all the books in my cart at amazon.