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Don't let anyone tell you the Council didn't change much

Fifty years on from the start of the Second Vatican Council, Robert Blair Kaiser, who reported on the council for Time Magazine, shared his recollections in the 2012 Tablet Lecture
11 October 2012, 9:00

These days, both wings in the Church are saying the Council was a failure. The left wing is saying the Council didn't go far enough. The right wing is saying it went too far.

I do not believe the Council was a failure. It has already changed the way we live - and think - as Catholics. I believe the charter that was written at Vatican II is the only thing that will save the Church, the people-of-God Church, not the hierarchical Church.

I had a peculiar vantage point on Vatican II. I was Time magazine's man the Council, sent there in part because I had spent 10 years in the Jesuits and because I was one of the few reporters on earth who could speak fluent Latin, the official language of the Council. So, here I am in mid-August 1962, chatting with Pope John XXIII's secretary, Loris Capovilla, at the papal summer residence, Castel Gondolfo. All of a sudden here comes John XXIII bouncing up the marble hallway. 'Why,' he says, arms outstretched, 'What a wonderful surprise!' Of course, it wasn't a surprise at all. It was all prearranged by Time magazine's friend in New York, Cardinal Francis Spellman, arranged that way so the Pope wouldn't be breaking tradition.

I thought I might have a few mostly chatty minutes with the Pope, and then make my move to leave. But no. The Pope grabbed my elbow and said he had some things he wanted to tell me. He was at last ready to tell the world (and he chose to do it through Time magazine) that he did not intend his Council to be a strictly churchy event, but a worldly event designed to bring people together, people of all faiths, even the so-called godless Communists.

His predecessors, Pius XI and Pius XII had mounted crusades against communism. As an historian, Papa Roncalli knew what a disaster the Crusades had been. Now, he said that, in a world that was armed with megaton nuclear warheads, the time had come to say, 'No more crusades.' In fact, he didn't want the Council to launch condemnations of any anything or anyone.

Time magazine's foreign editor Henry Grunwald didn't want to believe my report, but what could he do? This Rome correspondent had talked with the Pope and he hadn't. So Time ran with my reporting, on this NO MORE CRUSADES story, and on a good many other initiatives the Pope was starting to make.

Grunwald had to admit: 'We've got to watch this Roncalli pope. What's this word aggiornamento? What is that all about?'

I had to admit: aggiornamento was a pretty bold word for the pope to use, in Roma aeterna, where nothing ever changed. How do you bring a Church that never changes 'up to date'? The top cardinal in Rome, Alfredo Ottaviani, the pro-prefect of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, could not conceive of any of the changes that the word aggiornamento implied, and I soon found out from theologians like Yves Congar, Jean Danielou, Karl Rahner, and Edward Schillebeeckx (all of whom had been silenced before Vatican II for their 'radical thinking') that Ottaviani was doing almost everything he could to put roadblocks in the way of Council's major change-projects. And why wouldn't he? His coat of arms said it all: Semper Idem. Always the same.

How would the Council bring things up to date? Early on, this wasn't too clear to anyone, not even perhaps to the Pope himself. He was a modest man who used to end jokes with his secretary with the punch line, 'I'm not infallible, you know!' But he had an intuition: that 2,500 bishops encouraged to speak freely in a kind of parliament of bishops would figure it out.

They did this very quickly. After a month-long debate on whether the Church should scrap its traditional Latin Mass for the vernacular, the Council Fathers voted 2200 to 200 in favour of the language of the people. It was our first clue: that Vatican II was trying to re-create a people's Church.

Up to now, the bishops had been part of the ecclesia docens, the teaching Church, while the rest of us were the ecclesia discens, the learning Church. Here at the Council, the bishops all became part of the learning Church. Hobnobbing with theologians like Congar, Danielou, Chenu, Schillebeckx, they began to start speaking of the Church in new ways, promising to create a new kind of Church, a people's Church, not a Church that was making itself less and less relevant with its excessive clericalism, juridicism and triumphalism. Some of the best Council speeches were now calling for a Church that believed God was at work in all men and women, in individuals as well as in humankind as a whole, a Church that wanted us to be all that we could be - in this life as well as in the next.

As the Council opened, I sought out America's most famed Catholic preacher, Bishop Fulton Sheen (he was staying at the Excelsior, the most pricey hotel on the Via Veneto), to ask him about his hopes for the Council. He turned down my request by denying the very humanity of the Council itself. 'It will be all about the Holy Spirit,' he said. 'He will tell us what to say and do.' Bishop Sheen didn't tell me how I should go about interviewing the Holy Spirit.

I went on to interview everyone else I could find, often in 18-hour-days, and, much to my surprise, I was getting stories about the Council into the magazine almost every week. And then at the end of the Council's first session, the Macmillan Publishing Company in the U.S. and Tom Burns of Burns, Oates and Washburn asked me to do a book on that first session of the Council. Time's editors gave me six weeks off to do it. I went off to the Rome headquarters of the Society of the Divine Word and wrote pretty much around the clock (with a couple of hours home for lunch every day). The Observer serialised the book, installments on page one every Sunday for four Sundays in a row in August 1963. And when the book came out, first in London and Dublin, it shot to number one on the bestseller list.

In the book, I used an extended metaphor, imagining the Church as the barque of Peter, a boat that had been in port for too many centuries, its bottom so encrusted with barnacles that it couldn't even sail. Now, by calling a Council, I said that Pope John had figuratively launched that vessel out on to the seas of the world.

Pope Paul VI liked the image so much that he got one of his American monsignor friends who lived in Rome to ask me for permission to have my book translated into Italian and published for the benefit of the Italian bishops who didn't quite understand the Council was trying to create a new kind of Church, one less concerned with its own power, one more at the service of humankind.

My barque-of-Peter image underlined what was different about Vatican II. For all the other councils of history (20 of them) the Church turned inward on itself. This council was turned out to the world.

Not everyone understood that right away. Pope John's Curia didn't get it--they may have never gotten it. The most curious among you might want to read Yves Congar's Journal of the Council, a daily diary of his exhaustive and exhausting work behind the scenes, battling with Cardinal Ottaviani and his chief aide, the Dutch Jesuit Sebastian. To get ready for the Council, they were crafting a compendium of the faith as enunciated by all the papal encyclicals written since Pius the Ninth, doing everything they could to make Vatican II into another Council of Trent.

'This is all wrong,' Congar wrote. 'This is papalist nonsense. It is making the Council into a textbook manual that will not help bring about the aggiornamento Pope John XXIII is calling for--a recreation of what the faith was in its primitive beginnings. To rediscover the beauty of that faith, we have to take a deeper look at Sacred Scripture, and study the Fathers of the Church. And only then will the Council speak to the world in language it can understand.'

Reading Congar's accounts now, I realise my reports in Time and my book on the first session reflected only dimly what a fierce battle was going on. The Observer had a poster for my series that appeared in all the tube stations of London. It screamed out the headline THE PLOT TO THWART POPE JOHN. Read Congar and you will see that headline was an understatement.

Why am I telling you these stories? Because I want you to be aware during the coming year of efforts to dumb the Council down, of efforts to convince you that the Council didn't change the Church very much. I think it did, and after you recall what kind of Church we lived in before Vatican II, I think you will agree with me, and rejoice with me and be glad for what the Council did do, irreversibly, I hope.

The Council changed the way we thought about God, about ourselves, about our spouses, our Protestant cousins, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims
and Jews, even the way we thought about the Russians. When a handful of bishops kept pushing for conciliar condemnation of Communism, John XXIII kept insisting that that kind of talk would only blow up the world. Pope John and his Council made some preliminary moves that helped end the Cold War. For this, the editors of Time made John XXIII the Man of the Year.

The Jews? The Council reversed the Church's long-standing anti-Semitism. Until the Council, Catholics believed that, if Jews didn't convert to Catholicism, there was something wrong with them. The Council Fathers took another look at that idea and decided that Jews were still living their ancient covenant with God. We decided there was nothing wrong with the Jews; they became our brothers and sisters.

Before the Council, we thought we were miserable sinners when we were being nothing but human. After the Council, we had a new view of ourselves. We learned to put a greater importance on finding and following Jesus as 'the way' (as opposed to what we said in the Creed. It didn't matter so much what we said. What mattered was what we did: helping to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and find shelter for the homeless. That's what made us followers of Jesus.

Before the Council, we were told we were excommunicated if we set foot in a Protestant Church. After the Council (where Protestant observers were welcomed, given seats of honor, and spoken of no longer as Protestants, but as 'separated brethren'), we stopped fighting the Methodists and the Presbyterians and conspired with them in the fight for justice and peace and marched with them to Selma.

Before the Council, we thought only Protestants read the Bible. After the Council, we've seen a new Catholic appreciation of the Scriptures; they've been given a more prominent place at Mass; and in many parishes, we have groups gathering every week for Bible study.
Before the Council, we took pride in knowing that we were the only people on earth who could expect salvation, according to the centuries-long mantra, 'There is no salvation outside the Church.'
After the Council, we began to see there was something good and something great in all religions. And we didn't think we had all the answers. After Vatican II, we started thinking of ourselves not as 'the one, true Church'. We were 'a pilgrim people'. It was a phrase that summoned up an image of a band of humble travellers on a journey who, though we are subject to rain and snow and high wind and hurricane, to thirst and starvation and pestilence and disease and attack by leopards and locusts, keep on plodding ahead with a hope and a prayer that we will someone reach our destination. The image was calculated to counter an old self-concept that hadn't stood up to scrutiny - of a triumphal Church that had all the answers, lording it over humankind.
Before the Council, we identified 'salvation' as 'getting to heaven.' After the Council, we knew that we had a duty to bring justice and peace to the world in our own contemporary society, understanding in a new way the words that Jesus gave us when he taught us to pray, 'thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.' By the end, among the most influential figures at the Council, we encountered two humble souls, one a woman, Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, who wasn't allowed to speak to the assembled bishops at Vatican II (no woman was), and a bird-like figure, Dom Helder Camara, the archbishop of Recife, in Brazil. Both of them went around Rome telling individual bishops and those who were putting together the Council's crowning document, Gaudium et Spes: please don't forget the poor.

The Council did not forget the poor, and the statement out of Rome in October 2011 allying the Church with the world's have-nots only proves that even the current powers-that-be in the Church (still so unaccountable in so many other ways) get it. I will quote Gaudium et Spes:

The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.

Before the Council, we were sin-obsessed. It was even a sin to eat a hamburger on Friday night after the game. After the Council, we had a new sense of sin. We didn't hurt God when we sinned. We sinned when we hurt somebody else. Or ourselves. After the Council, we had a new holy hopeful view of ourselves, redefining holiness as the famous Trappist monk Thomas Merton did: to be holy is to be human.

Before the Council, we were told we were condemned to hell if we made love to our spouses without at the same time making babies. After the Council, we knew we had a duty (and the God- approved pleasure) to make love even if we could not afford to have another baby.

Before the Council, we thought God spoke directly to the Pope and that he passed the word down the ecclesiastical pyramid to the bishops, then to the priests, then the nuns, and, properly filtered, to us. After the Council, we learned a new geometry. The Church wasn't a pyramid. It was more like a circle, where we are all encouraged to have a voice. We are the Church. We have a right and a duty to speak out about the kind of Church we want.

Please note that most of these changes did not come about because the Fathers of Vatican II revamped what we had already professed believing in the Apostles Creed. They didn't change our faith, they didn't come up with a new understanding of God. Still one God, two natures, three persons. Only in this sense can I agree with Pope Benedict XVI when he keeps insisting on something he calls 'the hermeneutic of continuity.'

I have to agree with him when he says the Council didn't come up with anything new. No, no new dogmas. (And thank God for that. The last thing modern, thinking Catholics want are dogmas of any kind. 'Dogma' and 'dogmatic' are words that we do not much resonate with. When I think of dogma, I think of the hundreds of anathemas laid down by the Council of Trent: 'believe these dogmatic propositions or be damned.')

When Jesus addressed the multitude on that hillside overlooking the lake, he did not enlighten their minds by reading them the Ten Commondments. He enkindled their hearts by telling what would make them happy.

The Council Fathers did not follow the example of Trent. They followed the example of Jesus. They did not anathematise anyone or anything. They set a new style of thinking about ourselves as followers of the guy who told us how we could have life and have it more abundantly.

We make a mistake if we comb through the sixteen documents of Vatican II and hope to find explicit warrants for the Church we want to see take shape in the future. We can only capture the real, revolutionary meaning of the Council by looking at the new kind of language that permeated all those documents. It was not the kind of legalistic language Cardinal Ottaviani loved. The American Jesuit John W. O'Malley, author of the most authoritative work on the Council, What Happened at Vatican II, says the Council's message was hidden in plain sight. Fr O'Malley describes it by contrasting the old language with the old:
...at stake were almost two different visions of Catholicism: from commands to invitations, from laws to ideals, from definition to mystery, from threats to persuasion, from coercion to conscience, from monologue to dialogue, from ruling to service, from withdrawn to integrated, from vertical to horizontal, from exclusion to inclusion, from hostility to friendship, from rivalry to partnership, from suspicion to trust, from static to ongoing, from passive acceptance to active engagement, from fault finding to appreciation, from prescriptive to principled, from behaviour modification to inner appropriation.

Mere words? I do not think so. They underline my thesis - that the Council helped us all be more real, more human and more loving. The Council helped us realise that the world was a good place. It was good because God made it, and he made it because he loved us and loved the world, too. As should we.