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Vatican II viewed from afar.


Pope John XXIII announced his intention to call a general council of the church on 25 January 1959. I was a student in the Pontifical Faculty of Theology at Manly at the time, about to begin my final year. The study of councils had figured significantly in our courses on Church History, not in great depth, but with enough colourful detail from the wonderfully histrionic lecturer Thomas Veech to encourage anyone interested to consult the relevant sources. Indeed, we all had access to a basic primary source in one of our main textbooks, the Enchiridion Symbolorum, The Handbook of Symbols, Definitions and Declarations concerning Faith and Morals, edited originally by H. Denzinger in the mid-nineteenth century, and by Karl Rahner in the thirtieth edition which appeared in 1955 (the last edition before Vatican II). Our courses in doctrinal theology focused, as one would expect, on the great early councils of the fourth and fifth centuries--Nicea, Constantinople, Ephesus and Chalcedon--then took a leap across the centuries to the greatly changed world of the IV Lateran Council of 1215, then another jump to the Council of Trent in the mid-sixteenth century, the counter-Reformation council that continues to shape the modern church. Finally, there was considerable emphasis on the council held in the Vatican three hundred years later in 1869-70.

That first Vatican council came to a sudden end on 18 July 1870 when, in the midst of a great thunderstorm, the vote was taken on papal infallibility. The following day the Franco-Prussian War broke out, and a couple of months later Italian troops entered Rome undeterred by the token resistance offered by the Papal army, no longer the force it was in the days of Pope Julius II. The bishops, who had left Rome in the meantime, never returned, not to the council at least, for it was formally adjourned on 20 October 1870 'sine die'.

As theology students in the 1950s we were aware that the Vatican council of 1869-70 (or Vatican I as it came to be called) had left unfinished business, especially regarding the place of bishops vis-a-vis the papacy and the life and structure of the church more generally. I recall James Madden, President of the Faculty, saying that it could be recalled one day, and breaking into a characteristic laugh. The general conviction was that with the 1870 decree of papal infallibility, ecumenical gatherings were a thing of the past. Pope Pius XII had formally declared the doctrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary on 1 November 1950, an exercise of papal infallibility, the first (and so far only) instance of its kind since the controversial definition of that doctrine in 1870. On the whole, the Curia in Rome and bishops and members of the church throughout the world considered that occasional papal definitions, along with regular papal encyclicals on lines established by Pius XII, would be the way of the future. But then Pius XII died in 1958, the avuncular Angelo Roncalli was elected pope in late October, took the name John XXIII, and in January 1959 announced his intention to call an ecumenical council.

John XXIII made his announcement at a ceremony at St Paul's 'without the walls' on the Ostian Way, apparently without advising anyone of his intention in advance. In his opening address at the council in 1962 he said simply, 'The first conception of this council came unexpectedly into our mind'. And he went on to recall that those present in St Paul's that day were suddenly and deeply moved, as if illuminated by a supernatural ray of light. In his recent history of the papacy, Roger Collins comments that this might be seen 'as a kindly interpretation of their shocked silence' (Collins 2009, 484). Collins also records that John's intention was for the council to be held at St Paul's and be called Concilium Ostiniense, 'The Council of the Ostian Way'. In other words, John wanted to take a modest step outside the Vatican into the great world beyond and to signal that the council would have a missionary focus, a Pauline rather than a Petrine stamp. But then the curial cardinals convinced him to choose the Vatican, their (and his) home ground, 'for reasons of greater practicality' (Collins, 483). So we speak now of Vatican I and Vatican II.

If the announcement of the council came as a complete surprise, there was nonetheless considerable evidence in the 1950s, making its way even into the narrow world of our Rome-based education at Manly, that significant change was afoot in theological, biblical and liturgical studies especially in France and Germany. Pius XII's encyclical 'Humani Generis' had caused alarm in 1950 when its broad condemnation of 'la nouvelle th6ologie' reverberated through theology faculties especially in France. In the following years, leading French scholars such as Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar, Marie-Dominique Chenu and others, were removed from their university positions and forbidden to publish; and for a decade from 1951 the major German theologian Karl Rahner was also occasionally subject to censure and forbidden to publish.

As the 1950s moved on, however, there was a growing sense of confidence that the church had emerged from the age of fear and suppression that marked the anti-modernist campaign of the first decades of the twentieth century. For many at least the announcement of the council was the promise of a new dawn, particularly when it became clear that de Lubac, Congar, Chenu, Rahner and others hitherto under suspicion, would be involved in the council as 'periti' (expert advisers). On the other hand, the prospect of a general council did not initially strike much of a chord with the world's bishops. By and large they asked for a tightening of the status quo, the condemnation of modern evils such as communism and for new doctrinal definitions especially concerning the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The council opened on 11 October 1962 and the first session ran to early December. Within a few months, a flood of books appeared. Among them, I read Xavier Rynne's Letters from Vatican City, Robert Kaiser's Inside the Council, Bernard Haring's The Johannine Council: Witness to Unity, and Rene Laurentin's L'Enjeu du Concile: The Balance Sheet of the First Session. On that basis I felt bold enough, from the far distance of Sydney, to write an article on the council, essentially a review of the first session, for the 1963 Manly magazine. This began as follows:
   The contemporary Church is gripped by a sense of momentous
   possibility.... With the announcement of the Council in January
   1959, we entered upon a new and decisive era in the life of the

   If the idea of a Council had not been in people's minds before this
   time ... everyone now at least began to realise how opportune it
   was. For many years, important movements have been stirring in the
   Church. A new spirit of theological inquiry, the remarkable
   advances in biblical studies, the liturgical and pastoral
   movements, the catechetical movement, the renewed appreciation of
   the Church as the mystical body of Christ with the consequent
   realization of the place and role of lay people, the ecumenical
   movement opening windows to the separated Christian churches and
   beyond, the deepening sense of common hope and fear that the Church
   shares with the contemporary world: these, and many other factors,
   have given the Council its historic significance. (1963, 13-14).

(Many readers at the time would have reflected that there was an air of hopeful idealism in these sentiments, for it was well known that quite a few bishops and even the new pope, Paul VI, elected in June 1963 following the death of John XXIII, viewed the council with alarm, fearful that everything was getting out of hand.)

Three years later I had a brief close-up experience of the council when I was present in St Peter's on two occasions at its final session in 1965. I had spent much of the summer in Munich where David Coffey, the now eminent Australian theologian, was a post-doctoral student in the University Faculty of Theology. In early September we drove south on a path to Rome, travelling by way of Trent, an appropriate place for a short visit en route to an ecumenical council. We also spent some days in Florence, the site of another significant council in the fifteenth century at which it seemed for a time that the separation between the Greek and Latin churches had been resolved, and resolved entirely on papal terms: recognition of papal primacy, acceptance of the filioque clause in the Creed, and the use of unleavened bread by the Greeks. But that quickly proved to be ephemeral.

David and I arrived in Rome in time for the opening of the final session of Vatican II. Armed with admission tickets Bishop Tom Muldoon had secured for us, we attended the opening Mass in St Peter's and were present at a general meeting during the debate on religious liberty later in the week. We sat among the official observers, saw the great assembly gathered along each side of the immense basilica, listened to a succession of speeches long since forgotten, and met some distinguished participants. Cardinal Gilroy, who presided that day, was particularly zealous in detaining various confreres to whom he introduced us, all of whom showed signs of preferring to hurry off to lunch. And later in the day we were regaled with stories from Bishop Muldoon, not least about his triumphs on the council floor.

The record shows that Muldoon played a minor but relatively prominent part among Australian bishops at all four sessions of the council. Indeed he figures on several occasions, not too gloriously, in Yves Congar's journal of the council. The meeting of the world's bishops offered him a world stage and he loved it, speaking almost always in defence of a defiantly triumphalist standpoint. At that final session in 1965 he was concerned that the proposed declaration on religious liberty was far too liberal, especially in according other Christian denominations 'the freedom to scatter religious errors of every kind in society'. And he ridiculed the proposal that the church should acknowledge its share of fault in its relation to other churches from the time of the Reformation. He also took part in the final debate on the document Gaudium et Spes ('The Church in the Modern World'), speaking on marriage and the family and again on peace and war in the nuclear age, propounding in each case a form of aggressive conservatism. In all, Bishop Muldoon espoused a closed stand from beginning to end in defence of his idea of the church. Away from the battlefield, however, he was a warm, open, and expansive host.

Following these largely personal reflections, I want to focus now on the topic of episcopal collegiality at Vatican II. This emerged as a deeply controversial issue in the debates on the much-anticipated document on the church (which eventually became known as Lumen Gentium). Indeed, in the words of John O'Malley, 'collegiality would become the lightning-rod issue of the council' (O'Malley, 163). O'Malley is a distinguished American Jesuit historian, and his scholarly and engrossing study What Happened at Vatican II (2008) will be my primary guide in considering this issue.


Vatican I is best known for declaring papal infallibility and for taking a stand against the modern world. Vatican II, by contrast, sought to effect internal reform of the church and engagement with other Christian churches, with other religions, especially Judaism, and with the modern world more generally. As a central part of its reform program, the council sought to develop a new approach to church governance based on the ancient practice of collegiality--the sharing of authority and responsibility--between the bishop of Rome and other bishops and the church more generally. For all its achievements, the council failed to win this battle with the Pope and the Roman Curia.

The sixteen documents of Vatican II manifest a pleasantly eirenic style in contrast with most past councils, which were so often taken up with condemning error and putting heretics or other dissidents in their place. But there is the danger that the calm and measured teaching of the council documents might be seen as so many platitudes--a danger, as O'Malley suggests, that their literary style might seem to encourage. His aim is to bring out the deeper significance of these writings by putting them in the wider context of argument that surrounded them and allowing 'the high drama of the council and the profound, almost intractable problems implicit in it to surface;' (O'Malley 2008, 3). There were, in his view, three underlying issues that ran through the council as a whole: (1) the circumstances in which change is appropriate and the arguments by which it can be justified; (2) the relationship in the church between centre and periphery, or, more concretely, between the papacy and Vatican Curia and the rest of the church (bishops in particular); and (3) the style or model for the exercise of authority in the institutional church (O'Malley, 8).

It is almost a truism to say that the issue of authority has been a central concern at every church council beginning with the fourth-century council of Nicea (now Iznik in Turkey) to which bishops were summoned by the Emperor Constantine. (Sylvester, bishop of Rome, was then an old man and sent a couple of priests in his place; of the estimated 250 bishops present, no more than five were from the West). In just about every council from Nicea onwards the outcome has been fought over by contending parties, often with a good deal of vitriol, beard-pulling, and mutual denunciation, occasionally of a kind that would make a bad day in the NSW Parliament look like an afternoon tea party.

What was at issue fundamentally at Vatican II was the task of clarifying the status and role of bishops in relation to the pope, their authority in their respective dioceses and their status as a whole specifically as constituting a college in union with the pope. These were issues bequeathed by Trent and Vatican I where the focus had fallen almost entirely on affirming papal primacy and authority. The affirmation of these two councils was never in question at Vatican II. But, a large majority of bishops (as it turned out) wanted to go beyond them by placing their teaching in the context of long-neglected traditions and practices. Against this a small but influential minority insisted that any such attempt would be nothing less than an assault on the authority and prerogatives of the Roman Pontiff as defined by these earlier councils. Controversy on this issue rolled on between majority and minority parties within the council, between the council and the Curia, and between council and pope throughout the years of the council and beyond.

The issue came to a head in the debates on the several drafts that led eventually to the constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium (Christ the Light of all Nations). A focus on other documents, for instance Gaudium et Spes, the pastoral constitution on the church in the modern world, or the declarations on religious liberty or ecumenism, would bring out other important themes (and disputes). But all the other debates were shaped in one way or another by the controversy that swirled around the constitution on the church, especially the chapter on collegiality, for three of the council's four sessions.

Popes have long been wary of councils, especially since the fifteenth century when conciliarism--the doctrine of the supremacy of councils over the pope--took hold in various quarters. Indeed, the problems that affected the papacy early that century could hardly have been resolved without the intervention of a council with authority to determine who, if anyone, was the legitimate pope. When the council of Constance met in 1414, there were three contending popes, each elected by a set of cardinals, each with a degree of political support in different quarters of Europe. At its end, two had been deposed and the third, Gregory XII, having been recognised as pope by the council, agreed to resign. A commission of cardinals and others appointed by the council then elected a new pope, Martin V, in 1417. Constance also decreed that the pope was to convene councils on a regular basis. But that decree soon fell by the wayside. Popes have preferred to govern alone with the help of the Roman Curia.

Constance was in the air for a moment at Vatican II in fact when it became clear that John XXIII was dying. With his death imminent early in 1963, the opening of the second session was moved from May to September. According to Roger Collins, 'there was concern in curial quarters that if [John were to die] while the council was in session, the assembly of some two and a half thousand bishops might interfere in the process of selecting the next pope, citing the election of Martin V by the Council of Constance as precedent' (Collins, 484). (Pope Pius IX had similarly decreed in 1869 that his death would automatically terminate the first Vatican Council, again with a view to preventing council members from taking the initiative in electing his successor.)

At Vatican II the Curia had the upper hand, certainly at the beginning, for curial cardinals chaired and controlled the ten commissions and two secretariats responsible for drawing up the preparatory documents. But then, as everyone knows, the assembled bishops took control of the agenda. Beginning with the first session in 1962 they threw out, or greatly revised, almost all the original documents. That was not the end of the matter, however, for a lively struggle between curia and council continued over all the big issues under debate. The defining controversy, as already indicated, concerned the nature and structure of the church, especially the question of collegiality. Following the long but generally fruitful debate about the liturgy, the preparatory document ('schema') on the church came before the council towards the end of the first session. It was met with round after round of criticism. And within the week it had been sent back for a complete revision, with a virtually new document expected for the second session.
   In reviewing the first session in the Manly article, I commented on
   the reception of the preparatory draft, perhaps with some
   hyperbole, as follows:

   As expected, the document on the Church has emerged as the central
   concern of the Council. Perhaps never since the great Trinitarian
   and Christological debates of the fourth and fifth centuries has
   the Church been engaged in such important deliberation, for in this
   constitution the council is bringing to completion the work that
   was begun at Trent and the first Vatican Council. The extensive
   schema discusses such fundamental topics as: the nature of the
   Church, the episcopacy and its relationship to the primacy of the
   Pope, the significance of the episcopal college, membership of the
   Church and its necessity for salvation, the priesthood and the
   religious state, the place of lay-people in the Church, Church and
   State, ecumenism, authority and obedience and the question of
   public opinion in the Church. Once again the document was
   criticised in the initial debates. The Council Fathers indicated
   that they were looking for a full scriptural and theological
   treatment rather than a scholastic or juridical document. (1963,

The concluding observation in this passage is a mild rendering of the strong criticism voiced on the council floor. Bishop De Smedt of Bruges, for instance, denounced the draft document for its three '--isms': triumphalism, clericalism and juridicism. And Archbishop Frings of Cologne declared that it could not be considered catholic since it ignored the traditions of the Eastern church and took no account of patristic and medieval sources; limited in its outlook to the first Vatican Council and Trent, the draft failed to provide an adequate conception of the church as a whole.

When the council members re-assembled for the second session in late September 1963, they received a greatly revised document prepared by a sub-commission of bishops with the support of leading theologians, G6rard Philips, Karl Rahner, and Yves Congar in particular. Various topics in the eleven chapters of the original draft had now been set aside for separate consideration in favour of a more concentrated focus on the key issues. The new document, with an enhanced scriptural, patristic and pastoral approach, consisted of just four chapters: (1) the mystery of the church; (2) its hierarchical constitution, focused on bishops especially, with particular attention to episcopal collegiality; (3) the people of God, with an emphasis on the place of the laity; and (4) the call to holiness for all, lay and clerical.

A long and often heated debate--concerned primarily with the issue of collegiality and its ramifications--ran across the whole of the second session. This reached a level of high drama in the second half of October when the new pope, Paul VI, initially gave approval to the council to conduct an indicative vote on the chapter dealing with collegiality (as a way of gauging opinion in advance of a formal vote). Soon afterwards, the pope, under pressure from other quarters, withdrew the approval and had the ballot papers burnt. Uproar ensued, and a week later Paul VI reversed his stand once more, this time to gave approval for the vote on a revised set of questions (on the character of episcopal consecration, on episcopal collegiality as a matter of divine ordinance (not by papal delegation), and the reinstatement of the diaconate as a permanent form of ministry). The ballot, taken on 30 October, showed very strong support for all the issues, something that could not have been predicted, as O'Malley says, from the interventions in St Peter's (where the minority was strongly represented on the list of speakers).

The driving force for change in this debate, and the conciliar debates generally, came from a relatively small number of 'transalpine' German, French, Dutch and Belgian bishops (Alfrink, Bea, Frings, De Smedt, L6ger (Montreal), Li6nart, and Suenens). There was also the refreshingly outspoken Maximos IV Saigh, Melkite patriarch of Antioch (Syria), who insisted on speaking in French rather than Latin as a way of showing that there is more to the Catholic church than the Latin rite. The strength of this group did not rest simply on the overwhelming case for change in an institution still largely immured in a nineteenth-century adaptation of the Tridentine mould. More significantly, this group had a good command of biblical and patristic sources and the history of Christian practice from the earliest times and they could build on the significant developments that had been stirring in the church, and Christian scholarship more widely, from the 1930s. Furthermore, they had informed advisers on hand, notably Karl Rahner, Yves Congar, Edward Schillebeeckx, Joseph Ratzinger, and John Courtney Murray.

Along with the Italian term 'aggiornamento', the French word 'ressourcement' acquired particular resonance at Vatican II. This is the idea of a return to the sources in the scriptures and earlier traditions of the church as the primary criterion for the development of doctrine and practice. With their knowledge of the sources, the majority leaders could argue that they were the true conservatives at the council, able to draw new things and old out of the storehouse of Christian tradition. And they could point out that, for the core minority leaders, tradition meant going back no further than Vatican I or Trent. Eamon Duffy, the well-known Cambridge historian, put this wittily in commenting that 'tradition had shrunk from being a cathedral of the spirit to a storeroom in the cellars of the Holy Office' (Duffy, 2003, 60). On this basis the majority leaders put a substantial stamp on the council documents and eventually secured a vote over 90 per cent on key issues in the face of a tenacious and powerful minority (led by the Italian cardinals Ottaviani, Ruffini, Carli and Siri, Larraona from Spain, and the Irish Dominican Browne).

The issue of collegiality was how to reconcile the definition of papal primacy with a sharing of authority with bishops specifically and more generally with the whole church as a community of communities across

the world. Proponents of collegiality argued that this was in no way a new or dangerous idea, that it was in fact the rediscovery of a dimension of church organisation and Christian life that had existed for a thousand years in conjunction with the primacy of the bishop of Rome. But this tradition, they argued, had been increasingly pushed aside in the West in favour of a narrow emphasis on papal primacy from the eleventh and twelfth centuries in the wake of the formal split between the Christian East and West. Subsequently, in the social and political conditions of medieval and early modern Europe, the papal leadership role came to be formulated in terms of an absolutist monarchical structure. This reached a pinnacle in the definition of papal primacy and infallibility in 1870 and was further cemented in the ever increasing centralisation of the church under successive popes in the twentieth century. In popular terms, all authority resided in the centre, and bishops had become, in effect, no more than managers of branch offices of the Vatican.

The indicative vote showed clearly that most bishops at Vatican II were satisfied that there was no conflict between the ancient observance of collegiality, when the bishop of Rome was 'primus inter pares' with other patriarchs, and the doctrine of papal primacy. Nor did they think that collegiality would lead to conciliarism. What they sought was primacy balanced by collegiality, papal authority situated more effectively within the church as a whole. As Maximos IV put it in debate at the council, 'The primacy makes sense only within the perspective of collegiality'. On in Joseph Ratzinger's words, writing in Concilium in 1965, 'the concept of collegiality, along with the office of unity which belongs to the Pope, signifies the element of variety and adaptability that is fundamental to the structures of the church and may be realised in many ways ... for the church is an ordered plurality' (Linden, 2009, 156).

The sustained response of the minority was that collegiality and primacy (which they understood in strong monarchical terms) were by definition irreconcilable. As Cardinal Ruffini argued, drawing on the Petrine text in St Matthew's gospel, Christ built his church on Peter alone, not on Peter and the other apostles: there could be no biblical basis, therefore, for episcopal collegiality. In short, the idea was a novelty, a diminution of papal authority, in conflict with the teaching of the first Vatican Council. (There was also the view that change was unacceptable for it could imply that the church had been at fault in some way.)

The indicative vote late in the second session showed that 'in principle, collegiality had achieved secure and central status as a way the church operates--or is supposed to operate' (O'Malley, 184). But that did not mean that its critics would give up the fight. In the period leading up to the third session in 1964, the text underwent further revision on a range of issues as it moved towards its final form of eight chapters. Again there was a focus on the question of collegiality, generated in part by the late arrival in May 1964 of thirteen suggestions from Paul VI offered 'in order to prevent as far as possible future erroneous interpretations of the text'. After some unease, the responsible commission incorporated the suggestions, demurring only on a couple of points, especially the proposal that the pope should be recognised as 'responsible only to the Lord'. For as the review commission pointed out, in being responsible to the Lord, the pope is responsible to revelation and tradition, the church, and the definitions of previous councils (O'Malley, 202).

The third session of Vatican II, which Paul and many others had hoped would be the last, opened on 14 September 1964. Yet another drama concerning collegiality was soon to unfold. On the previous evening, 25 cardinals, 16 from the Curia, had sent a confidential memorandum to Paul VI arguing that episcopal collegiality posed a mortal danger to the church by undermining its monarchical structure. For this reason they urged the pope to take the topic off the agenda, submit it to a commission of theologians of his own choosing, suspend the council indefinitely after the third session, and recall it for a fourth and final session only when this matter had been settled once and for all. Finally, they foresaw catastrophe if he did not take immediate action on his own authority without consulting the council. Paul VI had his own serious reservations about collegiality (or what it might mean in practice--for already Maximos IV and others had canvassed specific proposals for its implementation). He was not pleased, however, to be confronted in this way; more importantly he was unwilling to proceed on the lines urged by the minority group for it would have meant disaster for the council. In the weeks that followed he was to receive a flow of memoranda for and against the proposal. Still hesitant when the vote on the relevant chapter drew near, Paul VI asked Pericle Felici, the council secretary, whether it would be advisable to postpone it. Felici advised that that would be unwise, and the final vote on the troublesome chapter went ahead on schedule at the end of September.

On the way to that point there had been 39 votes on specific items in advance of the vote on the chapter as a whole, an unprecedented reception for any other topic at the council. But at each stage the majority support for collegiality remained firm, over 90 per cent. The subsequent vote on the constitution as a whole took place many weeks later at a formal ceremony on 19 November 1964. The result was an overwhelmingly supportive, with 2160 in favour, just 5 against. It might have seemed that a new order in the exercise of church authority was now in prospect. Collegiality had finally secured not only the support of the majority hitherto, but the support of almost everyone who had opposed it at the vote on the chapter earlier in the session. But by then the idea had become a dead letter in the document that sought to affirm it. What had changed in the meantime?

By the time of the final vote on 19 November, a supplementary 'Preliminary Explanatory Note', highly juridical in character, had been added to the document. This took place on 16 November, many weeks after the debate in the council. The Note, it soon emerged, came directly from the Pope Paul VI, although Felici would say no more than that it came from 'the highest authority'. Writing about the Note soon after the council, the young theologian Joseph Ratzinger commented that, while it did not change the meaning of the document, it was 'a very intricate text' marked by ambivalence and ambiguities, which tipped the balance in favour of the primacy' (Ratzinger, 1966, 114-16; cf. O'Malley, 244).

Every reference to collegiality in the document had long been accompanied by an immediate emphasis on the authority and prerogatives of the Roman Pontiff, as illustrated in the following typical paragraph:

Just as by the Lord's will, St Peter and the other apostles constituted one apostolic college, so in a similar way the Roman Pontiff as the successor of Peter and the bishops as the successors of the apostles are joined together. The collegial nature and meaning of the episcopal order found expression in the very ancient practice by which bishops appointed the world over were linked with one another and with the Bishop of Rome by the bonds of unity, charity, and peace; also in the conciliar assemblies which made common judgments about more profound matters in decisions affecting the views of many. The ecumenical councils held through the centuries clearly attest this collegial aspect.... But the college or body of bishops has no authority unless it is simultaneously conceived of in terms of its head, the Roman Pontiff, Peter's successor, and without any lessening of his power of primacy over all, pastors as well as the general faithful. (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, chapter 3, section 22.)

This, and similar statements in Lumen Gentium, failed to convince the vocal minority group. What made the difference was the addition of the 'Preliminary Note'. Cardinal Siri exclaimed, 'Everything is all right. The Holy Spirit has entered the council.... The pope has dug in his heels, and only he could have done it' (O'Malley, 244). The upshot was that those who had opposed collegiality, or indeed any change from Vatican rules, had a basis on which they could, and would, interpret chapter 3 as a reaffirmation of the status quo. There would be no going beyond Vatican I in this regard.

This is certainly how the pope himself saw it. Speaking after the promulgation of decrees at the end of the third session, Paul VI expressed his particular pleasure in regard to the constitution on the church. Specifically he stated that 'the most important word to be said about the promulgation of that decree is that through it no change is made in traditional teaching' (O'Malley, 245). Members of the council may have interpreted this remark in different ways. Many among the majority who supported collegiality may have wondered about the long departure from the traditions of the first centuries of Christianity. Furthermore, the Pope avoided the term 'collegiality' altogether in his address. He spoke firmly of the church as 'both monarchical and hierarchical'; the thought that it might be 'both primatial and collegial' did not make an appearance.

In the first session of the council in 1962, John XXIII intervened at just one point on a procedural matter to allow for a rule of closure on debate. That was when it seemed that the debate about the liturgy would go on forever. With Paul VI, intervention on substantial matters became a regular occurrence. This was occasioned sometimes by a delegation from the minority group urging him to intervene, more rarely by a delegation from the majority group. More commonly, it seems, the pope himself took the initiative, beginning with the debate on the church in the second session. From this point 'the procedural issue under all procedural issues was the role of the pope himself' (O'Malley, 185). Paul VI, a learned and generally liberal man, would go over documents with a 'red pencil', editing them as he went, something unheard of in the history of councils. At critical points he simply took controversial issues off the agenda, closing off debate and reserving them for papal decision. This was the fate of four major topics at Vatican II: priestly celibacy in the Latin rite, the prohibition on artificial contraception, the reform of the much-criticised Roman Curia and, indirectly, the future of collegiality.

At the Council of Trent in the turbulent sixteenth century priestly celibacy was an item for debate on the agenda. At Vatican II the scheduled debate was ruled out (initially by John XXIII and subsequently by Paul VI). The council decree on the ministry and life of priests reaffirms the discipline for priests of the Latin rite in an idealistic and unexamined way. In 1967, two years after the council, Paul VI released an encyclical letter on priestly celibacy, reaffirming the discipline, turning a blind eye to deep and manifest problems in the priesthood, and ignoring the evidence of longstanding and continuing abuse. It is not that problems surrounding celibacy were unknown in high places. Denied the opportunity to speak on the topic at the council, Maximos IV immediately addressed a letter to the pope in which he told Paul VI that he was obliged in conscience to insist that the problems the Latin church faced in this matter had to be acknowledged openly and not buried as a taboo: 'Most Holy Father, this problem exists and is daily becoming more serious. It cries out for a solution.... Your Holiness knows well that repressed truths turn poisonous' (O'Malley, 272). The great scandal of clerical sexual abuse was in the offing.

The question of birth control remained in the background for most of the council only to burst into prominence at its end in the discussion of marriage and the family, a topic of some importance in the document 'The Church in the Modern World' (Gaudium et Spes). This was set running initially by Cardinal Suenens and then by papal intervention. Everyone knew that a papal commission had been established to consider the issue as 'a question in dispute' and that debate at the council had been ruled out. In this situation the proposed text of Gaudium et Spes took a cautious approach: it neither affirmed the teaching of recent popes explicitly, nor did it say anything in conflict with that teaching. The approach was to emphasise the goodness of married love along with the affirmation of children as the fulfilment of that love (this rather than the traditional teaching on the primary and secondary ends of marriage). As for the number of children a couple might have, the text proposed that this was a matter for their judgment 'governed according to a conscience dutifully conformed to the divine law itself ... and submissive toward the Church's teaching office' (Gaudium et Spes, section 51).

This was not enough for some council members who pressed for an explicit statement affirming the teaching of recent popes. Others were equally insistent that the text should remain unchanged, for on the pope's own ruling a decision on birth control rested with the papal commission, not the council. But the issue was broken open when, in a speech to the council, Cardinal Suenens made a dramatic appeal for a change in church teaching. Reproved by the pope, Suenens stepped back. But then the crisis erupted anew when Paul VI, acting under pressure, indicated that the council document must include an explicit rejection of contraception in terms expressed by Pope Pius XI. Faced with resistance from the council over several days, and amid growing uproar and publicity in the world media, the pope himself now stepped back, advising that his intervention should be seen as a recommendation, not a command. The council committee responsible for Gaudium et Spes responded by modifying the document with a footnote referring to the teaching of recent popes, but stood firm in not including an explicit condemnation of artificial birth control. Paul VI indicated that he accepted their decision, and the vote went ahead with no more than minor opposition. This particular crisis, in the second last week of the council, had been resolved. Three years later, on 25 July 1968, Paul VI set aside the report of his commission of experts on birth control and issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae, giving rise to a notorious and unresolved crisis in authority.

In dealing with the reform of the Vatican curia, Paul VI announced soon after his election that some changes could be expected. But he quickly allayed curial concern with the assurance that the reforms would be formulated and promulgated by the Curia itself. Tensions between the council and the Curia ran high at many times in the years 1962 to 1965, above all in the wake of Cardinal Frings' attack on excessive centralism in the church and specifically his criticism of the Holy Office towards the end of the second session. But time and power rested with the centre. In an address at the end of the council in 1965, Paul repeated substantially what he had said about the Curia in 1963: 'There are no serious reasons for changing its structure' (O'Malley, 283). By this time he had also decided that the implementation of the council's decrees would rest with the Vatican congregations. A few days later Osservatore Romano published the papal document setting out the modest reform of the Holy Office, the sometime Roman Inquisition, henceforth to be known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Finally, Paul VI effectively sealed the future - or non-future - of episcopal collegiality in a document, issued on the opening day of the final session of the council, in which he established the Synod of Bishops (Apostolica Sollicitudo). This initiative, taken without consultation with the bishops, a symbolic stroke of unmistakeable intent, caught the assembly and even the conciliar commission on bishops completely by surprise. The initial response was generally positive, but it soon became clear that the Synod was strictly an advisory body with no authority beyond the little the pope might concede to it. In short, in O'Malley's assessment,
   Whatever the merits of Apostolica Sollicitudo, it was an expression
   of papal primacy, not of collegiality, a word never mentioned in
   the text. It was a preemptive strike by the center ... (2008,
   252-3). On the center-periphery issue the minority never really
   lost control. It was in that regard so successful that with the aid
   of Paul VI the center not only held firm and steady, but, as the
   decades subsequent to the council have irrefutably demonstrated,
   emerged even stronger.... The creation of the Synod of Bishops
   severed collegiality, the doctrine empowering the periphery, from
   institutional grounding.... Collegiality, the linchpin in the
   center-periphery relationship promoted by the majority, ended up an
   abstract teaching without point of entry into the social reality of
   the church. It ended up as an ideal, no, match for the deeply
   entrenched system.

Fifty years is a long time in the life of an individual, a short time in the long history of Christianity. The documents that emerged from the council were significant achievements in their time, and one can expect that some of them will remain significant for time to come. Is there any person of good will anywhere in the world who would not welcome the opening words of Gaudium et Spes (addressed to all of good will) with their echo of the ancient Roman playwright Terence:

The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way affected, these too are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community composed of human beings. (Gaudium et Spes, section 1).

Along with achievement, however, there was the failure occasioned by the power of a centre that held only too well. The prospect of a form of institutional authority that would be collegial as well as primatial collapsed at the council and seems to have disappeared entirely in the exercise of papal authority ever since. Perhaps the idea was a change too far and impossible given the loss of earlier traditions and the dead weight of practices and power relationships that go back to the split between Christian East and West and the terms set by the beleaguered councils of Trent and Vatican I. Even so, it might be that Vatican II has sown the seed of collegiality, that it is growing quietly in hidden places, and that its time will come in a future age. But for now, the great unresolved issue of authority at the second Vatican Council and the other critical issues reserved for papal resolution at the time seem only to have become more deeply intractable and damaging for the church and the world of which it is part.


The Documents of Vatican H (1966) W. J. Abbot (ed.) London: Geoffrey Chapman Collins, R. (2009) Keepers of the Keys of Heaven: A History of the Papacy, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson

Congar, Y. (2012) My Journal of the Council, transl, by M. J. Ronayne and M. C. Boulding, Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press

Crittenden, P. J. (1963) 'The Second Vatican Council', in Manly vol 9, no. 5, Westmead NSW,

--Changing Orders: Scenes of Clerical and Academic Life, Blackheath: Brandl and Schlesinger

Duffy, E. (2003) 'Tradition and Reaction: Historical Resources for a Contemporary Renewal' in A. Ivereigh (ed.), Unfinished Business: The Church Forty Years after Vatican II, London: Continuum

Linden, I. (2009), Global Catholicism: Diversity and Change since Vatican II, New York: Columbia University Press

O'Malley, J. (2008) What Happened at Vatican II, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press (Belknap Press)

Ratzinger, J. (1966) Theological Highlights of Vatican II, Henry Traub (transl.), New York: Paulist Press.

Paul Crittenden was Professor of Philosophy and Dean of Arts at Sydney University. He is the author of Learning to be Moral and Changing Orders: Scenes of clerical and academic life. This presentation was given to the ACHS on 17 June 2012.
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Author:Crittenden, Paul
Publication:Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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