16 October 2008, Review by Hilmar M. Pabel
Trying to make the centre hold
What Happened at Vatican II
John W. O’Malley
Harvard University Press, £19.95
Tablet bookshop price £18 Tel 01420 592974
Love it or loathe it, the Second Vatican Council has occasioned many of the often acrimonious controversies that have made modern Catholic life anything but boring. Vatican II embraced ecumenism, but did not Pope Pius XI denounce ecumenical encounters in his encyclical Mortalium Animos (1928)? Can ecumenism be anything more than inviting the "separated brethren" to return to Rome? A key principle of Sacrosanctum Concilium, Vatican II's constitution on the liturgy, is the active participation of the faithful in the liturgy. Is this principle better served by the Novus Ordo liturgy in the vernacular or the older Tridentine Rite of the Mass in Latin preserved in the Roman Missal of 1962 and now called the Extraordinary Form?
John O'Malley's new history of Vatican II addresses a more fundamental question. Does Vatican II count as an "event" or does it represent "business as usual"? In other words, was the council an important turning point in the history of Catholicism, or was it in complete continuity with centuries of Catholic teaching? The debate is as old as Vatican II itself, but it has become more prominent. In a book published three years ago and much praised by Cardinal Camillo Ruini, then the papal vicar for the diocese of Rome, Archbishop Agostino Marchetto argued for continuity. His book serves as a retort to the five-volume history of Vatican II, edited by Giuseppe Alberigo, that characterises the council as an event.
O'Malley's sympathies lie with Alberigo. His aim is to give readers a "basic book" that provides the council's "essential story line". It is not, however, a prosaic primer. It is a gripping account of the drama of Vatican II as it played itself out over its four sessions from 1962 to 1965. Far from being a dry analysis of the sixteen conciliar documents, the book concentrates on the debates that frothed beneath the deceptive serenity of these documents.
Personalities come to the fore in the contest between the minority of bishops who resisted change and the majority who favoured it as desirable and necessary. All the usual suspects emerge; and those known better among specialists, such as Melkite Patriarch Maximos IV Saigh, a forceful voice of the majority, who insisted on speaking in French instead of Latin, the official language of conciliar business. Maximos "was the most daringly progressive because he was the most radically conservative".
The most baffling was Pope Paul VI, who continued the council after the death of John XXIII in 1963. He followed the debates carefully and closely, editing drafts of conciliar documents. His first encyclical, Ecclesiam Suam (1964), emphasised the importance of dialogue and "infused the word into the council's vocabulary" with great effect on the pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern world, Gaudium et Spes. His visits to
Israel and India and his speech to the United Nations in New York, the inauguration of modern papal travel, won him the admiration of the bishops assembled in Rome.
But Paul's interventions caused confusion and consternation among the majority. This was particularly the case in the so-called "black week" of mid-November 1964 as the council's third period was coming to a close. The bishops were ready to vote on the base text of the document on religious liberty championed by the American bishops, the decree on ecumenism, and the dogmatic constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium). Pope Paul ordered the postponement of the first vote, demanded a series of revisions to the decree on ecumenism, and issued a Preliminary Explanatory Note to Lumen Gentium that interpreted the contentious concept of episcopal collegiality in such a way as to please the minority, who feared collegiality was the undoing of papal primacy. O'Malley concludes: "No matter what the Pope hoped to accomplish, he in fact gave those who opposed collegiality a tool they could - and would - use to interpret the chapter as a reaffirmation of the status quo."
The debates at the council were shaped by the issues beneath the issues that made Vatican II the unprecedented event that it was. They were, first, the feasibility of change driven by the concepts of aggiornamento (updating), and ressourcement (the reappropriation of ancient Christian writings so as to judge the ecclesiastical present); second, the distribution of authority between the papacy and the rest of the Church; and, third, the language or style of conciliar discourse. These three issues constitute an essential key to interpreting Vatican II, surpassing "an often myopic, sometimes almost proof-texting, approach to the council".
O'Malley's emphasis on the importance of style is arguably his greatest contribution to understanding what happened at Vatican II. The style of the conciliar documents points to Vatican II as a "language-event". Shedding the judicial language of previous councils, the documents were not a "grab-bag of ordinances". They defined no doctrines. This indeed marked a "momentous shift" from past practice. True, the documents evince the top-down language of hierarchy. Unique in the long history of councils, however, was the horizontal language, the rhetoric of persuasion and dialogue, the promise of friendship and
cooperation, the expressions of trust and appreciation. This rhetoric and the values that it embraced made possible the universal call to holiness, the description of the Church as the people of God, the unprecedented decrees on ecumenism and the lay apostolate, and the unprecedented declarations on the Church's relationship to non-Christian religions and on religious liberty.
If the minority balked at efforts to bring about change and a new conciliar style, they scored a victory when it came to distributing authority between the papal centre and periphery. O'Malley maintains: "The council was held in the centre, named for the centre, operated to a large extent with the equipment of the centre, and was destined to be interpreted and implemented by the centre." The collegiality of bishops thus became "an abstract teaching without point of entry into the social reality of the Church". This wistful tone suggests an element of tragedy in the drama of Vatican II.
O'Malley's book is a helpful remedy for preserving Catholic memory. It rehearses not only what happened at Vatican II for a growing number of readers unfamiliar with the debates and documents but, more important, it gives them a way to think about what happened. One of the book's lessons is that change within the Catholic Church, even if difficult, is possible and salutary.
Back to homepage
Medics don't want assisted dying legalised
Dr Gillian Paterson, guest contributor
Both my parents died of cancer. Both had painkilling medication in the final stages: shortening ... Why do Catholic schools need to turn to Stonewall?
There is astonishment and rage in some quarters that a Catholic primary school invited the ... Banishing O'Brien answers some questions, raises others
So Rome has ordered Cardinal Keith O'Brien to leave Scotland, three months after it was ...