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Notes Toward an Essay on Vatican II

Robert Blair Kaiser

After Pope John Paul II passes on (if he ever does), many of the Church’s liberals are hoping that the upcoming conclave will be inspired to select a pope who understands the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, letter and spirit, as they do. No one knows at this moment whether the cardinals coming to this conclave will do that. With little more to go on than my own native optimism (and four recent years covering the Vatican), I am predicting they will do just that – elect a pope who understands that the Council aimed at giving the Church back to the people. “Giving the Church back to the people” is an oversimplification, but if you stay with me for the next 14,000 words, you may think I have made a case. Here goes.

Vatican II had given the Christian faith a new meaning and Christians a new identity based not on prohibitions and fear, but on freedom and responsibility. Christopher Butler, who was there in his capacity as the Benedictine abbot of Downside Abbey, said that, “but for the Council, the Church would have been like the Loch Ness monster – rumored to exist, of venerable ancestry, claimed to have been seen by some, but not actually of much relevance to the modern world.”

Butler’s take on the Council has been echoed the world over. In 1997, the producers of a television documentary asked men and women what Vatican II had meant to them. Answers were mostly euphoric. “If it weren’t for Vatican II, the Church would be a museum,” said a young man named Pablo Roma.

“If it weren’t for Vatican II,” said Bishop Charles V. Grahmann of Dallas, “the Catholic Church would be in the Dark Ages.”

“If it weren’t for Vatican II,” said Fr. Virgil Elizondo, pastor of the cathedral in San Antonio, Texas, “you wouldn’t see all those young people around the altar.”

“If it weren’t for Vatican II,” said Therese Bonpane, director of the Office of the Americas in Los Angeles, “I might have continued living in the fear of God instead of with enthusiasms and a passion for life.”

“If it weren’t for Vatican II,” said Dutch Theologian Edward Schillebeeckx, “I would have missed the most joyous days of my life.”

 These people – all of them Catholics – felt good about the Council because they understood that their bishops – vicars of Christ in their own churches, more than 2,500-strong – had given enthusiastic support to the man who called them together, Pope John XXIII, and to his sunny, optimistic, open definitions of what it meant to be on the road to salvation in the latter half of the century. “You do not have to be Catholics,” the pope once told some Communists from Bologna. “As long as you are helping make a better world….” In 1962, he asked some visiting Protestant monks from Baize why they couldn’t get together.

“We have different ideas,” said their leader.

“Ideas, ideas,” said John XXIII. “What are ideas among friends?” The story was told over and over again around conciliar Rome, because it represented something new in Catholic history: a pope who believed that setting itself apart was divisive, and, in a nuclear world, very dangerous as well.

But the message also fell on some negative ears – of embattled Catholics who had imbibed the dreads and the definitions that were fashioned by the gloomy Church they had known as kids. They didn’t know what the new Church stood for. They knew what the old Church stood for – as described by Edward R.F. Sheehan in his 1997 novel Cardinal Galsworthy:

…the little rituals and rubrics – the fragrant puffs of incense at Solemn High Mass; the Communion fasts from midnight; abstinence from meat; fish on Fridays; black chasubles and the macabre and beautiful Dies Irae  during Masses for the Dead; most of the penances and myriad privations, hoarded like squirrels’ nuts and stored up inside the soul as treasure to be spent in heaven – had best be junked because religion must be easier, more relevant, and chummy.

The Council would ruin the Church they had known. And they had some allies in their alarm within the Church’s central administration itself, who were still tied down by ways of thinking and acting that were more suited to a Church sitting in dry dock for the past century. They did not understand that the Council had launched the barque of Peter out on to the seas of the world – a world where only Third World dictators exercised autocratic rule.

In the civilized West, authority operated in consultation with the people who were being served, and power was collaborative not absolute. By contrast, members of the Roman Curia were courtiers in strict obedience to a monarch who took his orders directly from God and wrote infallible rules for humankind. In his name, they broadcast those orders – in Latin – over the face of the earth to almost a billion people with the expectation those orders would be followed to the letter. They did not understand what the Council journey was all about (or did not want to understand once they realized where it was headed). Moreover, they took active steps to sabotage the expedition.

Pope Paul VI, the man who brought the Council to a close in 1965, spent the rest of his 13 years in the papacy dithering about its democratic implications, and he was never quite able to take the leadership needed to share responsibility in the implementation of the Church’s new mission. And his successor John Paul II spent most of his 25-year-pontificate translating the charter of Vatican II into a number of pietistic set-pieces that helped obscure the revolutionary message – that the Church is not a sect of the saved marching in lockstep to the pope’s commands, but rather a primordial sign and germ-cell of salvation for the whole world.

On February 27, 2000, Pope John Paul II addressed a closed symposium of male theologians gathered to discuss the implementation of Vatican II. He said, “If one reads the Council presuming that it marked a break with the past, while in reality it placed itself in line with the faith of all time, he definitely has gone astray.” The pope was only reiterating a theme he had struck way back in 1985, when he explained that he had called an Extraordinary Synod “to celebrate and verify Vatican II” with a misquotation from John XXIII. John XXIII had said the Council’s greatest concern was that “the sacred deposit of faith should be more effectively guarded and taught.” John Paul reaffirmed that, period. He failed to add the rest of the quote: that “the salient point of this Council is not a discussion of one or another article of the fundamental doctrines of the Church…. For this a Council was not necessary.” Instead, John XXIII wanted to make “a leap forward” into a place where the Church’s best thinkers could reinterpret the Gospel for their own times – because “the substance of the faith is one thing, but the way in which it is presented is another.” It was the most important sentence Pope John ever uttered. But John Paul left it out. He was revising by omission – giving the Council the lip service it demanded, because not even a pope dare go against a Council, not openly, lest he seem to convey an ambiguous message to the world. In 1985, The New York Times , paying careful attention to the pope’s words, could not tell its readers what the pope's Extraordinary Synod on Vatican II was up to; it contented itself with reporting who said what without supplying the kind of context readers need to cut through the papal palaver. But The  Times, too careful of what they thought its Catholic constituency wanted, refrained from dinging the pope.

If the truth were told, the pope was upset at the way the Council was playing in places like The Netherlands. Peter Hebblethwaite saw his upset as a clash of two cultures. In his book on the 1985 synod, he said, “The Dutch say what they think. They hate secrecy. They love democracy and freedom.” For the pope, a Pole from a different culture, freedom was the rub. Catholics in Poland had hardly started to think about the meaning of Vatican II, or what it might mean to their lives as thinking persons, and to the vitality of their worship. The Dutch were light years ahead of them. The Dutch were out of control. And the pope needed to be in control.

In 1980, he had called the Dutch bishops to Rome in secret session (apologizing to the Dutch press for excluding them on the grounds that “the Church” – i.e., the hierarchical Church – “needs moments of exchange which take place in intimacy and discretion”). He gave the seven Dutch bishops 46 specific propositions that Dutch Catholics had to hold, or else. And he pulled their best selling Dutch Catechism out of circulation. For the following five years, he was also pulling their liberal bishops out of circulation, retiring them and replacing them with safer shepherds, i.e., no one who had been living in The Netherlands for the past twenty years, but Dutch clerics he dug up in Ethiopia, Louvain and the Salesian Generalate in Rome. In 1985, the pope paid another call on the Church in The Netherlands, to prop up the conservative minority there. By his institutional standards, the Dutch Church was still in a terrible state. The number of priests and religious had declined, Mass attendance had fallen to twenty percent, and its most prominent theologian, Edward Schillebeeckx, was writing things about the ministry that threatened to undermine the clergy’s choke hold on the simple faithful.

At the Extraordinary Synod of 1985, the pope tried to put his own spin on the Council, and spike the guns of theologians who were not singing the same notes as the pope’s doctrinal watchdog, Cardinal Josef Ratzinger. The best Vaticanista in Rome, Gian Carlo Zizola, spelled out what he called John Paul’s “betrayal of the Council.” He did this in a book, La restaurazione di Papa Wojtyla,  comparing John Paul II to Pius X, who pursued a reign of terror over the theologians of his day. This Synod was marked by yet another step backward, another attempt to keep everyone in line – with the launching of a new Catechism of the Catholic Church, a project suggested by Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston that was finally completed in 1992. John Paul would have pulled back even more from the conciliar spirit than he did, except for presence at the Synod of some stalwart bishops – mainly from the U.S. and Canada and the British Isles, and a few northern European bishops, led by Godfried Danneels. But when Danneels read the Synod’s final report, it was clear that he hadn’t written it. It reflected the theology and the ecclesiology of none other than Cardinal Ratzinger: The world was now a much more dangerous place. The Prince of this world and the mystery of iniquity were still at work. And the theologians appeared in the text as “people who sow confusion among the faithful.”

Virtually every commentator on Vatican II says the pope was wrong on this one. Vatican II did mark a break with the past. For centuries – in fact, ever since St. Augustine’s 4th century, the Church had taught that world history was the history of a damned mass on their way to hell. The Council reversed that pessimistic judgment. Now, even those who think of themselves as atheists can come close to God if they follow their own consciences. Was that a break from the past?


If John Paul didn’t think so, then he was manifesting his utter ignorance about the history of his own Church. There is no evidence that he had ever taken an honest course in Church history. If he had gone back only one hundred years to the papacy of Pius IX (1846-1878), he might have found that the shape of Catholicism had been dictated by the papacy’s own long time push for control, and by its frightened reactions when it started to lose that control. It was a thrust that was not informed by the faith, but by ecclesiastical politics, and secular politics as well. According to Leonard Swidler, ecumenist and author of more than two dozen books on the Church, “Most good theologians today have to spend half their time reading history in order to understand the half-baked origins of things that now pass for ‘divine institution.’”

So, let’s take a little side trip here into history. At the very least, we will understand that Vatican II was about the passing of power, from a papal elite to the people of God, who learned from that Council how to wake up and grow up as Christians with an ongoing mandate from the God who took flesh and dwelt among us to bring light and salience to a world that was already redeemed and didn’t know it. The cardinals meeting in conclave to elect John Paul’s successor will know that the man they are going to elect as successor to John Paul II will either set a course based on the navigational charts drawn up at Vatican II – or he won’t. It will be up to them. Their choice will become a blessing for the world, or a judgment on them.


In the autumn of 1962, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council journeyed to Rome from almost every nation on earth, a mixture of more than 2,500 bishops, archbishops, abbots and Eastern patriarchs, comprising a parliamentary body that would meet faithfully and argue freely every fall for the next four years. It may have been the first truly ecumenical Council in history in the root sense of the word ecumenical, that is, worldwide. The ancient councils had not drawn delegates from the whole world, but from a tight circle of peoples clustered around the Mediterranean pond, and they had been councils of exclusion, called mostly to condemn or set aside those who would not submit to the Church’s authority. There were, to be sure, bishops from Africa and Asia at Vatican I (1869-70). But they were missionary bishops from Europe, not native clergy. Vatican II marked the Church’s first great discovery and official realization of itself as a world-Church. Exclusion was no longer the order of the day. The Church was expanding. It was inclusive. This was a Council that that could not have been in any sharper contrast to the Church’s last two councils, Vatican I, a hundred years before, and the Council of Trent (1545-1563).

Vatican II reversed the defensiveness of Trent and vetoed the arrogance of Vatican I. Where the Council of Trent defined everything down to the last iota subscript of the least Greek footnote, Vatican II opened the way for Catholics to make what they wanted to make of the future. Where Vatican I abominated the contemporary world, Vatican II put its blessings on it. Vatican I assumed the culpability of heretics and non-Christians. Vatican II’s popes hugged atheists and Moslems and assumed they were living in the grace of God. Vatican I insulted every Christian who wasn’t a Roman. Vatican II opened its arms to them.

At Vatican II, Pope John XXIII himself checked the seating arrangements, and he found the Protestant observers stuck in a far corner of the conciliar aula inside St. Peter’s Basilica. He ordered they get the best seats in the house and supplied each of them with personal mentors to whisper translations of the Latin speeches in their ears, and insisted that they not be called heretics and schismatics, but “separated brethren.” By the end of the Council, they were not even as separated as many had believed, but members of the Church in a real sense, by reason of their baptism. Some of the Council Fathers even suggested the Church canonize Martin Luther, a man just a little ahead of his time, because, 400 years before, he had called for the many of the reforms then being considered at Vatican II. Some said this Council marked the end of the Counter Reformation. The pope even invited some Jews to come and observe – and talk to him about what they were seeing and hearing.

Pope John said he hoped the Council would restore “the simple and pure lines that the face of the Church of Jesus had at its birth.” The assumption – that earlier Christianity was somehow more pure than later Christianity (and therefore closer to what Jesus wanted – went unchallenged But no discussion seemed necessary to those who were familiar with the accretions of history that had made the medieval Church and the Renaissance Church and the modern Church such a far cry from the Church of the catacombs.

Pope John’s successor, Paul VI, rather liked the image of the Church as the barque of Peter that had lain in port for too long, its hull encrusted with barnacles, its sails in tatters, its instruments all covered with rust, its navigational maps and its ship’s log lost somewhere in a mess under the captain’s bunk. That barque, i.e., the Church, needed an overhaul, so it could sail out on to the seas of the world and do what it was doing in the first centuries of the Christian era, bringing the Good News of Christ’s saving message to humankind. Early in the Council, Bishop Emile Josef DeSmedt of Bruges, Belgium, voiced a popular consensus concerning a plan for that overhaul. This Council should repeal the “clericalism, triumphalism and juridicism” that had marked the hierarchical Church for much of the second millennium. His speech late in the first session drew the loudest and longest applause at the Council.

The Council Fathers applauded DeSmedt because his ideas hit so close to their prime intent, to bring the Church into the 20th century, which, if it was about anything, was about the passing of power, from old elite institutions to the people. Some may recall that “Power to the People” was a rallying cry during U.S. civil rights marches in the 1960s. But this idea wasn’t conceived by Martin Luther King. It was planted early in the century during the bloody struggles of the U.S. labor movement, it germinated in the Bolshevik revolution, was watered in India by Mohandas Gandhi, and took root during World War II in the mind of a Lutheran minister named Dietrich Bonhoeffer who saw what the Nazis were doing to his country and told his people they had to resist, because they were part of “a world coming of age.” When people come of age, they pass from one culture to another, from slavery where they have been the unthinking pawns of others, to freedom where they are acting persons in their own right. That is when power passes to the people – as it did in the 20th century.

As Kenneth Auchincloss put it, in a review of the 20th century at the end of the millennium in the December 20, 1999, issue of Newsweek:

‘Elite’ became a dirty word, and – for good or ill – authority in all its guises came under attack. Democracy, once a controversial form of government, became the norm to which pretty much everyone aspired. And though democracy’s definition was often vague and its operation imperfect, as 2000 approached the world’s people had a far greater say in their own governance than they did when the century began.

It would have been a surprise if the Council Fathers hadn’t tried to get caught up in that time-spirit, first to see how and what manner they could move the Church into a democratic age. With all the separated brethren sitting there in the conciliar aula wondering how the Church of John XXIII was going to deal with the issue of papal primacy, it seemed obvious enough where they should start. They had to cancel the absolutism of the most reactionary pope in history, Pius IX. They had to retool the Church’s structure of governance.

This wouldn’t be the first time in the history of the Church. After the Emperor Constantine granted favored status to the Church in the Edict of Milan in 313, the Church’s rule shifted from democracy to follow an imperial model. In medieval times, the Church became part of a feudal system, and by the time Church lawyers were finished writing new edicts for popes to sign during the Renaissance, they had enthroned the pope as a monarch. The Church – whatever its claims to “divine institution” – was not timeless and unchanging, but something that grew with humankind’s ever-deepening knowledge of what that Church meant – to them, as they grew, and to the world around them, which kept changing.

Following that principle – adapting to its surroundings – the Church might well have changed its governance at about the same time that the colonies in America were breaking off from England to form a new democratic nation (and the Church might have done so along the same democratic lines) – except for the French Revolution which soon followed. The French, leaning on the same Enlightenment philosophers who had given U.S. patriots their theories of freedom, were in revolt from their oppressive king; they were also in revolt against a very oppressive Church. And so, when they started executing priests and nuns and confiscating Church property, it was understandable that the popes and their courtiers would recoil from the world, and withdraw into the papacy’s most isolated and embattled era. In the early years of the 19th century, the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte actually imprisoned Pope Pius VI and Pius VII. Pope Gregory XVI (1831-1846) opposed Italian nationalism, freedom of conscience, freedom of the press, and the separation of Church and state. He also denounced and forbade the use of railways in the Papal States, and banned streetlights (so folk would not gather under them to plot against him).

Gregory’s successor, Pius IX, simply vetoed the Enlightenment with his Syllabus of Errors in 1864, declaring anathema anyone who said that “the Roman Pontiff can and should reconcile and align himself with progress, liberalism and modern civilization.” Pius IX had been hailed as a liberal himself when he was elected to the papacy in 1846, but he soon pulled back from that stance when he realized that the winds of freedom were beginning to blow in his own backyard. As the forces of the Italian Risorgimento threatened to invade his kingdom, which comprised most of the central Italian peninsula, he called the First Vatican Ecumenical Council – the first ecumenical council since Trent – thinking that when such a supreme body as a Council followed his wishes for it, he could thereby stave off the revolutionaries and, with the magical mantra of “infallibility,” retain his temporal power. His wishes for Vatican I sprang from a single need – to retain his personal rule over the Papal States. The infallibility scam was more symbolic than real, or even imaginable.


Two scenes help epitomize Vatican I.

During a key debate there on infallibility, Archbishop Josef Strossmayer of Bosnia and Herzogovina made a mistake. He was speaking well of Protestants. The council president rang a bell and said, “This is not the place to praise Protestants.” (The Council’s sessions were being held in St. Peter’s Basilica, built from the sale of indulgences; when Martin Luther first beheld St. Peter’s early in the 16th century, he began thinking about the Church’s need for reform. The rest was history. The Church had been battling Luther – and Protestants – ever since.) Strossmayer objected to the put down. Protestants, he said, were acting in good faith. Now throatier members of the majority started shouting him off the podium. One called out, “He is Lucifer, anathema, anathema.” And another screamed, “He is another Luther. Let him be cast out.” An English translation of the official Latin transcript of that session has everyone then shouting, “Come down! Come down!”

“I protest! I protest!” cried Strossmayer. But he came down.

Strossmayer was the best theologian among the thousand bishops at that council. (A vast majority of them hailed from Western Europe, and a majority of them from Italy.) He and some of the several hundred bishops in the minority knew that a declaration of the pope’s infallibity was very bad for the Church. Infallibility not only said the pope was infallible, but that all the popes of history were infallible, too. A declaration now would only enhance papal responsibility for the discredited acts of the buried and repented past. Often enough, popes launched these initiatives with often ditzy pronouncements, called “bulls.” Lord Acton named some of them:

The Bulls which imposed a belief in the deposing power, the Bulls which prescribed the tortures and kindled the flames of the Inquisition, the Bulls which erected witchcraft into a system and made the extermination of witches a frightful reality, would become as venerable as the decrees of Nicaea, as incontrovertible as the writing of S. Luke…. And the sentences of every Protestant judge (by the Bull Cum ex Apostolatus Officio ) would be invalid.

The author of these lines was one of the most fascinating figures at Vatican I, a member of the English nobility named Acton – John Dalberg, Lord Acton – with blood ties to the nobility of two European nations, as well as England. In the bull Cum ex Apostolatus Officio, Pope Pius V excommunicated Queen Elizabeth, declared her a non-queen, and told the English people they no longer owed her loyalty and civil obedience. Naturally enough, the Queen’s good servants made English Catholics pay for the pope’s spouting off by launching a bloody persecution that lasted for decades. Dozens of English Jesuits felt the effects of Pius V’s asinine act most acutely. They were hanged, drawn and quartered.

Acton was a descendant of the small remnant that survived Pius V’s destruction of the Catholic Church in England – which helps explain why, though he was only 36 at the time, Acton helped lead the anti-infallibility faction at Vatican I. Not only did he write secret news dispatches out of Rome, first printed in the Augsburg Allegemeine Zeitung under the soubriquet, Quirinus, he even wrote speeches for some of the Council Fathers, who didn’t think it opportune for the pope and his loyalists to dictate a new doctrine in the Church. When one of the bishops dared point out that the doctrine had no precedent in ancient Church tradition, Pius IX exploded. Traditio sono io, he said. “I am tradition.” And then he added, Sono io la  chiesa.  “I am the Church.”

Acton and the minority bishops had more perspective than the pope did, and they knew what was driving him – his acute need to preserve the temporal power of the papacy. And they knew that he had one sole justification, something that he had not picked up from Scripture but from the crowned heads of Europe, who assured him that he, like they, ruled absolutely, by divine right. Of these popes, Lord Acton was moved to observe, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Most great men are also bad men.” To Acton, Pius IX was a bad man. (One can only imagine how Acton might have felt had he been present in St. Peter’s Square on September 3, 2000, when Pius IX was beatified by his Ultramontane admirer from Poland, John Paul II.)

Pius IX a bad man? Perhaps not bad. But he had more than several idiotic moments. In his Papal Sin , Garry Wills has detailed one of his extended follies – his adoption of a Jewish lad, Edgardo Mortara, who was baptized by a Catholic maid without his parent’s knowledge, and, on that basis, taken from his parents and deposited in the papal household, never to see his parents again. Another loony tune in the Pio Nono Hit Parade came wafting out of Vatican I – the story told by the Greek Melkite Patriarch Gregor Yussuf who was himself summoned to the papal chambers to answer to Pius IX, angry at the patriarch’s vocal opposition on infallibility. When Yussuf kissed the foot of the pope in the traditional fashion, the pope placed his other foot on the patriarch’s head like a pagan conqueror, and said, “Gregor, you hard head, you.” Then he rubbed his foot about on the patriarch’s head a while longer. After Pius died, the Holy Synod of the Greek-Melkite Church filed two separate reports of this event in Rome to order to block any attempt to canonize Pius IX. (This story comes from August Bernhard Hasler, How the Pope Became Infallible. Hans Kung’s praise of the book in a jacket blurb only served to anger those in the Roman Curia who were after him.) Yussuf was not alone in his anger. Many of the bishops at Vatican I left Rome in protest over the pressure they were getting from the pope. On July 13, 1870, only 601 remained to vote in secret on the decree, Pastor Aeternus – though 1054 were eligible. Those voting placet (yes) numbered 451, those voting non placet : 88; some 62 voted yes with reservations – that is to say, if they could modify the wording of the decree (which defined the pope’s primacy as well as his infallibility), they might vote yes. Here is Richard McBrien’s account of what the decree meant:

It gave him “full and supreme power of jurisdiction over the whole Church, not only in matters that pertain to faith and morals, but also in matters that pertain to the discipline and government of the Church throughout the whole world.” This power is “ordinary [i.e., not delegated] and immediate [i.e., not exercised over some other party] over each and every Church [and] over each and every shepherd and faithful.” Regarding infallibility: “It is a divinely revealed dogma that the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when acting in the office of shepherd and teacher of all Christians, he defines, by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the universal Church, possesses through the divine assistance promised to him in the person of Blessed Peter, the infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to be endowed in defining the doctrine concerning faith or morals; and that such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are therefore, irreformable of themselves, not because of the consent of the Church.

The bishops voted again on the same matter five days later in a public session, with each Council Father shouting his placet in a ceremony where the elements of a storm added to the high drama. Each yes vote seemed to be delivered to the accompaniment of a flash of lightning, followed by a bolt of thunder, while the pope himself added up the votes inside a dim St. Peter’s by the light of a taper.

The very next day, the forces of the Italian Risorgimento marched into Rome. The Council was suspended in mid-course. The pope fled his Quirinal Palace and retreated in pouting isolation to a 107-acre kingdom across the Tiber and became a self-styled “prisoner in the Vatican.” He had lost most of the papacy’s temporal power, but, thus embattled, ascribed an absolute spiritual power for himself and for his successors that made the papacy, as defined in Aeternus Pastor , even more of an anachronism.

According to Richard McBrien, “No definitions could have been further removed from the teaching of the Council of Constance (1414-18), from the theology and practice of the Eastern Churches, and from the practice of the universal Church, West and East alike, of the first Christian millennium.” After Vatican I, a significant number of Catholics who had opposed infallibility seceded from the Church.


 Long after monarchy had died, the popes of the late 20th century were still monarchs. They were the last absolute monarchs in the world, laying down laws people could not follow, because they were couched in authoritarian terms that were alien to moderns who had learned (from watching Hitler’s Germany, for example) not to follow blindly whatever those in power told them to think and do.

The Fathers of Vatican II were leaning on a theology that was called “Incarnational,” something worked out by four of the Council’s brightest theologians – Yves Congar, Karl Rahner, Edward Schillebeeckx, and Hans Küng. These men were coming to see that the Church was always growing, and must grow, in all modesty, if it was going to carry Christ’s message to the people of its time. History was speaking to the Fathers of the Council, if they cared to listen “to the signs of the times” (as Pope John XXIII had suggested). That kind of listening would not only help the Church update itself in the early 1960s, but it would set a new style of thinking that would make it easier for the Church to keep doing so in the future.

One of the signs of the times at this Council: the presence of hundreds of reporters, representing newspapers and magazines and radio and television stations from around the world. The bishops were startled. They were making news – and it wasn’t church news, it was front-page news. They weren’t quite sure why. Was it the rarity of a council? The fact that ecumenical councils happened so infrequently? Yes. But that wasn’t enough to draw this kind of press crowd. Was it the revolutionary nature of their message? No. So far, the bishops had not come up with any calls, explicit or implicit, for revolution. Maybe it was the spectacle itself, of an institution once thought unchangeable setting out quite deliberately to update itself – to a world which, since Vatican I a hundred years before, had undergone more changes than it had in the entire history of the planet. If this ancient Church was trying to get in step with that world, then this might be a show worth watching. That is what I told my editors at Time and that is what many of them believed.

That belief had a resonance inside the Vatican – and inside the Council as well. The Fathers of the Council knew their words and their ways were being watched – primarily by the world press, and, more importantly, through the press, by the people of the world. Time magazine (hardly a Catholic magazine) took an early lead in delivering those expectations through a series of stories on the Council, beginning with a cover story on Pope John XXIII that praised him for the aggiornamento  he had set in motion. Time  expected these bishops to do something, and, largely unconscious that they were reacting to Time  (or, indeed, to any press organ), they set to the task of doing it. But on Wednesdays, we were told, the bishops were seen passing copies of that week’s Time up and down the aisles of the stadium seats that had been erected in the middle of St. Peter’s Basilica.

We had to be told, because no members of the press were allowed inside. The reason was that the pope’s courtiers hadn’t looked very hard for the signs of the times. They thought the Council was nobody else’s business. It was “the Church’s business” – and they were right about that, except that their definition of “the Church” was becoming obsolete. “The Church” would soon include everybody. But the Vatican bureaucrats didn’t understand. They went on doing what came naturally. They tried to keep the reality under wraps. They set up the Council as a secret meeting (and they made it even more inaccessible, even to many of the bishops inside, by ordering that all the speeches be delivered in Latin).

But the Council soon became an open affair, thanks mainly to some hard working reporters and their allies among theology professors in Rome, from men and women of the missionary orders who were stationed there and the liberal theologians who had come to the Council with their bishops. One ambitious missionary type, Ralph Wiltgen, an American from the Society of the Divine Word, scurried about Rome after every Council session and was able to collect complete texts of the day’s most important speeches from the bishops who delivered them, mimeograph them and distribute them to the reporters – in six languages. Reporting from the secular press soon told the world the hitherto hidden truth: that the pope and the bishops made up their mind through discussion and debate, and compromise and consensus – like any parliamentary body anywhere. Catholics everywhere were stunned. All their lives, they’d assumed that Catholic truth came directly from God to the pope on a special hot line. It was a myth. And when the myth broke down, the people began to grow up. The process took some time. (In some places, the demythologization of the papacy is still going on.) The Council was almost over before much of the Catholic press, which did have priest-reporters inside the Council all along, got over their surprise sufficiently to start reporting as fact what was so counter to what they’d assumed for much of their working lives, that the pope had a direct pipeline to God.

In that sense, the most revolutionary thing about the Council was the presence of the press – which needed to know what was happening inside the walls of St. Peter’s and would know, despite the best efforts of the Roman Curia to keep them uninformed. The leaders of previous councils had tried to keep their meetings secret because they didn’t want the kings and princes of Europe to know what they were doing. During much of Europe’s history in the second millennium, the Church (and particularly the papacy) was a political pawn. In July 1809, Napoleon kidnapped Pope Pius VII and kept him prisoner at a town near Paris for six years. So, the less the Napoleons of this world knew, the better. Knowledge then, as now, was power. This Council would be secret for a different reason. To members of the Curia, the Council was their thing, and those on the outside didn’t need to know what was happening inside. When the Church (i.e., the institutional Church) made up its mind, the people would know. Making the Council open to the people, would not only imply that the Vatican conceded that they had a stake in what was happening, and that they might want to express their opinion about it, as well. Curialists maintained that press access would destroy the freedom and autonomy of the Council.

There was another ancient canon in the Church, however, which said that “What concerns all should be discussed and approved by all.” The world’s press ended up helping millions of Christians (and others) know what the Council Fathers were saying (even if they fell somewhat short of telling them what it all meant). As a result, the Council’s doings made special news for four years. In the Council’s first year, I did four cover stories for Time . Despite the Curial secrecy, the Council ended up being accountable to the people of God, something that smacked of the still-suspicious concept called democracy.


And so, in sixteen conciliar documents, the Council Fathers wrote a new charter that would make the Church less clerical, less legalistic, more human, more humble, less satisfied with itself – and at its higher reaches at least, more collaborative in its governance. They came very close, in fact, to reestablishing the democracy that had marked the Church’s first several hundred years, when bishops (including the bishop of Rome) were elected, and presiders over the liturgy were selected out of (and by) the community of believers.

Given the preponderance of bishops at the Council who had been brainwashed with the seminary slogan, “the Church is not a democracy, you know,” it would have been too much, perhaps, to expect the Council to use the term democracy. (John Paul II has repeatedly said, “The Church is not a democracy” – according to one Roman wag, he has said it 1487 times. In some Church circles democracy is still a dirty word. When Chile was struggling to make the transition from the dictatorship of Auguste Pinochet to modern democracy, the cardinal-archbishop of Santiago, Jorge Arturo Medina Estévez, voiced doubts about the project: “The fact that democracy exists does not automatically mean that God would want it to be put into practice,” he said on Aug. 3, 1990.)

Editors of the conciliar texts contented themselves with a Latin term that seemed better to them than the word democracy, because it did not carry any political connotations. They used the obscure Latin communio, and a Greek word, diakonia, terms which, taken together, come closer to the concept “a family whose primary function is to serve.” Quite rightly, the Council theologians were not thinking of the Church as any kind of government, much less a temporal power. Their Church was a community of loving persons, “a radically different kind of community from the state – different in origin, purpose, history, identity, inner dynamic and destiny.” (The quote comes from James A. Coriden, “The Canonical Doctrine of Reception,” a pamphlet published in 1998 by the Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church.)
Through history, that community of loving persons had gone through a variety of incarnations, and it now had a structure of governance that needed updating, like practically everything else in the panoply of the Church’s faith and practice. The Council found another word to describe the kind of joint power-sharing that would occur within this family-in-service: it was a concept called collegiality – one that also needed a good deal of explanation.

In its prime, conciliar sense, collegiality at Vatican II referred to the cooperative, collaborative, consultative relationship that should mark the relationship between the pope and the bishops. In an extended sense, that collaborative style should also extend to all the members of the Church – bishops with their priests, and priests with their people – so that a geometer would no longer imagine this new communio/diakonia as a pyramid, but a circle.

The Fathers of Vatican II found various ways of tearing down the underpinnings of the old pyramidal structure. They would get rid of DeSmedt’s clericalism, for instance, by insisting on the radical equality of all believers – in a way other councils never dreamed of doing. They said there is one basic priesthood in the Church that everyone received in baptism, and that both ordained and baptismal priesthoods share in this one priesthood. In fact, the notion of the priesthood of the community is older than the concept of an ordained ministry. As a result, ministry could well become more inclusive in its exercise as the Church’s members plunge into collaborative ministries together, each exercising their own gifts.

Service would be the hallmark of all power in the Church – and that applied to everyone: pope, bishops, priests, and people. The pope would still be the pope, to be sure, and the bishops would still be bishops. But the power of the pope was not an absolute one; it was a power he would share with the bishops, who were not vicars of the pope, but vicars of Christ, linked in turn to the service of the people of God. And the pope and the bishops must also listen to the prophetic voices of the people of God.

The Council’s first session began as very much of a churchy affair, but changed course late in its first session in 1962 when Leo Josef Suenens, the cardinal-archbishop of Malines-Brussels, proposed that the Church had to find new ways of relating to the real world. Those writing a new document on the Church’s internal governance were put to the unprecedented task of writing another on the Church’s relationship to the world outside. The texts of both documents themselves reflected a new view of Church. If there was a radically equal relationship now between all Christians, by reason of their baptism, then the Church was not to be defined as clerical, much less hierarchical. The Church was “the people of God” and they would not only pursue their work as Christians inside the walls of this church or that cathedral. They would be men and women in the world, at the service of the world. They would “complete creation.”

This was an idea that first came flashing across the Catholic world in 1950. It was given expression in a pastoral letter written by Emmanuel Suhard, the cardinal-archbishop of Paris. Suenens and a team of theologians from western Europe had been meditating on it ever since.

Being an apostle means taking on everything and penetrating everything belonging to man and the world he has made . . . to extend the benefits of the Redemption to the whole created world. The Christian has not only the right but also the duty to complete creation and then make of that an offering to the Creator. To convert the world, it is not enough to be a saint and to preach the gospel; or rather, it is not possible to be a saint and invoke the gospel we preach without doing all we can to assure for all men conditions of work, housing, food, rest and human culture without which life ceases to be human.

“Completing creation.” Such a task, said Cardinal Suhard, would not be easy, nor could it be done in a generation or two. But it would have to be done by men and women who not only had faith, but competence as well, because their job was to help remake society, to join the world's movers and shakers in the task of making life more free, more responsible, more loving, more human. It was a new definition of holiness, and Christians couldn’t put it on as easily as a priest puts on his Roman collar, or a monk his habit. Everyone in the Church was called to holiness. But it wasn’t a formula, or a set of belief-propositions, or a matter of taking a vow, or even an oath, like the Pius X’s oath against Modernism.

The Church as “the people of God” didn’t always have all the answers, but they were dared to search for them, as members of a Church that was now less stately, less stuffy, less mysterious. Now it was “a pilgrim Church.” (Two conciliar documents contain the outlines of this idea: Lumen Gentium, Chapter Two, on the people of God, and entire text of Gaudium et Spes, on the Church in the Modern World.) Quite a reversal. Before the Council many Catholics imagined that the Church (i.e., the official, hierarchical Church) made its (always unchallengeable, if not infallible) decisions after God spoke to the pope and the pope spoke to the bishops and the bishops spoke to the priests and the priests spoke to the nuns and the nuns spoke to the people. And always with certainty.

This once-Godly pyramid, with an absolute monarch sitting on its peak, was an inane notion to begin with. Alain Woodrow put it eloquently:

This theological vision of the pope as an absolute monarch is not only contrary to the Gospel, it is impossible to put into practice. Contrary to the Gospel, because it leads to an excessively centralized, bureaucratic Church, which tries to control every aspect of Christian life from a narrow European, and even Roman, point of view. Born in the Middle East, the Gospel is increasingly imprisoned in the narrow confines of a Western, Latin vision of the world… and the juridical straitjacket of Roman Canon Law.

Impossible to put in practice, because a single man cannot run a worldwide Church of 976 million people [now more than a billion] and, as in all autocratic, non-democratic institutions, the pope’s administration (the Curia) is tempted to speak in his name – often without his knowledge. (I got this quote from a 1998 essay by Alain Woodrow, “Superstar or Servant,” in Gary MacEoin, ed., The Papacy and the People of God. )

A monarchical Church cannot complete creation. One pope cannot do it. A billion Catholics working together might be able to chip away at it, each in their own way, in their own communities, in their own time – if they were encouraged to think about their shared responsibilities for history and for one another. The U.S. journalist John Cogley summed up the new spirit in one of his famous conciliar postcards:

Who Is The Church?


That new spirit was shot through many of the conciliar documents. The Council’s first debate – on the liturgy – highlighted the notion that the sacraments were for the people, even that most solemn part of Mass (actually then called the Secret) that the priest had, up to now, been saying quietly to himself. Since the days of its early history in Rome, the Western Church had administered the sacraments in Latin. Now, the Fathers of the Council were asked to consider allowing the Mass in the vernacular – in everything from English to Urdu to Swahili. For more than a month, the traditionalists were on the attack. How could the universal Church turn its back on almost 2000 years of celebrating Mass exclusively in Latin? Those seeking change stood their ground. Mass was only in Latin in the western Church. The Mass was meant for all; it should be understood by all.

The Fathers debated the question for more than a month. When the Council presidents finally added up a preliminary vote, everyone was stunned. The traditionalists had less than 200 votes, the liberals more than 2,000. (I call them traditionalist and not conservative, because they were self-styled conservatives who were on a course that wouldn’t conserve much, except the recent and corrosive traditions of the past 100 years. Archbishop John Quinn has the same distinction to make about reform movements at the Council versus the reform movements that made their appearance under the reign of John Paul. Conciliar reformers “derived their inspiration from a deeper study of the Bible, the fathers and Church history. They were also inspired by an analysis of the existing pastoral situation of the Church in the light of these sources. The contemporary anti-reform movements do not emphasize the sources – scripture, the fathers, etc. They emphasize ‘tradition’ and call themselves ‘traditionalists,’ but it is in the narrow sense of what has happened in the last 150 years, or, at most, the last 400 years.)

The Council had struck a blow for the people, because, as one of the theologians had pointed out, Latin was the language of the elite, and the vernacular was the language of the people. But this wasn’t simply a debate over language. “Vernacular” has a larger meaning of immense philosophical and sociological import. It is a concept that can also stand for whatever is homebred, homespun, homegrown, and homemade – which is one reason why the centralizing Roman mind was so opposed to the vernacular. For centuries, the Church had been engaged in a centralizing and expropriating control – and it was a process that had only gotten more outrageous over time. Allowing the Church’s worship in the vernacular would reverse that centralizing process, of not only worship, but of power in many other areas as well. Those who resisted the vernacular were implicitly resisting a shift of power in the Church – power to the people.

The late Ivan Illich, one of the 20th century’s most original minds, pointed this out in a book of essays entitled Shadow Work.  In one of those essays, “Vernacular Values,” he discussed the role of a Spanish grammarian, Elio Antonio de Nebrija, who in 1492 presented to Queen Isabella a new grammar of the Castilian language, with the express purpose of providing her with a new instrument of imperial domination. Illich interprets Nebrija as a forerunner of the modern age, in which the business of government (including Church government) is expropriation. Governments take away from people what they can create for themselves (in this case, ordinary speech) and forcing them to take it back in a transformed version, the standardized language taught by formal educators. The expropriation of language, said Illich, foreshadowed all later expropriations, each of which drove people further in the direction of helplessness and dependence. (There was nothing more standardized, of course, than the Church’s official books of prayer and the Church’s official theological handbooks, in just these exact Latin words and no other.)

Encouraging people everywhere to worship in their own language was, then, a revolutionary move very much in keeping with other liberations of the century. It was revolutionary because the hierarchical Church was abdicating a long-presumed right to impose its dominance over the people in the provinces. Some said the bishops had joined the human race.


The debate on the liturgy foreshadowed other conciliar debates dealing with the key question of how much power the center would continue to exercise over the periphery.

In the Council’s second debate, on Revelation, the people won again, when a majority of the Fathers voted to let the Church’s Biblical scholars do their work – which meant they could now help the people of God understand how radical a document the Bible really was, for modern Scriptural scholars are now of the firm belief that the fundamental vector of meaning in the Bible is against the domination of the many by the few. The Bible is about liberation. As a young scholar in Harvard’s School of Divinity wrote to me:

But Biblical scholarship can help in that struggle – our struggle, I think - for the recovery of Jesus' mission of freedom and liberation. It can unmask the misrepresentations that are used every day by the hierarchs as a kind of hermeneutical shield for their eternal scheme, which is, of course, maximizing their own power and deflecting the power of the rest of the Church.

For years, Catholic Biblical scholars were forbidden to use the modern methods of literary research to help them understand the entire canon of scripture (which, of course, was written by men from ancient cultures for people of their own time and place). In 1943, Pope Pius XII removed those restrictions, thereby freeing up the scholars to help moderns understand the Bible in all its variety of literary forms. Again, it was an example of serving the people with what they needed – if they were to understand revelation at all. But at the Council, the forces of Roman reaction launched an assault on the Biblical scholars and their work, even daring to incorporate that attack in a draft document “On Revelation.” If that document had passed a conciliar vote, the scholars would have found their hands tied once more – not by the power of reason, but by the power of power.

Fortunately, Pope John XXIII understood what was afoot. In his opening keynote speech to the Council on October 11, 1962, John told the bishops he would have the Council “take a step forward toward a deeper penetration and developing realization of the faith… through modern research and scholarly disciplines.” In 1907, at the height of the Church’s anti-modernism crisis, one Jesuit scholar from England, George Tyrrell, was forced out of his order and out of the Church for saying what John XXIII was telling the Fathers of Vatican II in 1962 – to reformulate Catholic doctrine “in such a way that is adapted to our own times.” Others could guard the faith like an ancient heirloom. Pope John wanted Church scholars free to pursue new formulations, because (almost an exact paraphrase of what George Tyrrell had been saying: “The substance of the faith is one thing. The way in which it is presented is quite another.”

The conclusion was clear: Catholic scholars had a duty to be relevant to their own culture, speaking to men and women in language they could understand. Catholic intellectuals who were amazed and delighted to hear words like this from a pope drew an unmistakable corollary – that “the meaning of any statement of doctrine is always open to interpretation, never finally captured in any particular form of expression for all times and for all cultures.” In a real sense, then, the Council accorded legitimacy to the subjective interpretation of religious truth.

In the Council’s Constitution on Revelation, the Fathers said:

There is a growth in understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure things in their hearts, through the intimate understanding of spiritual things they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through episcopal succession the sure gift of truth.

For a full century before the Council, there was no room in the Church for any interpretation at all, not even by those bishops who received “the sure gift of truth… by episcopal succession.” Now the Council was showing the faithful a tolerance toward different theological approaches that were once forbidden.

That same Constitution on Revelation had this passage regarding the inerrancy of scripture:

Since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching firmly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation.

Michael Cuneo, a Catholic scholar from Fordham, noted, “At first glance, this seems entirely unremarkable… If we look again, however, a more complex scenario comes into view. The Bible apparently teaches ‘without error,’ but only does so compellingly when dealing with matters vital to salvation. But… who is to decide (and by what criteria) what is essential for salvation?” The practical effect, said Cuneo, provided Catholic theologians interpretive power over scriptural texts already enjoyed by their Protestant counterparts. (See Cuneo’s The Smoke of Satan.)

In effect, the Council was saluting traditional theological positions, but it also suggested “rich possibilities for theological innovation.” Vatican II was “the Church’s passport to the modern world.”

With that passport, Catholic scholars were now free to enlist the Church in contemporary causes that would have been unthinkable in pre-conciliar Catholicism. My friend at Harvard Divinity, Tom Conry, wrote me:

The tactic of the authoritarian, fascist wing of the church has been to appropriate and distort the scripture and tradition. Our reluctance or simple inability to mount an effective defense against this tactic has given the erroneous but disastrous impression to much of the world that the Bible is on the side of the oppression of women, of autocracy and despotism, of every sort of repressive structure. The hierarchs know that this impression is absolutely crucial to their project; that is why they fight so ferociously for their power to define what is read, who will read, what pronouns will be read, etc. My own intuition is that this is why we get so much claptrap in the outlets that are controlled by the hierarchs about "well, if this authoritarian propaganda wasn't written by Paul, at least it was compiled by somebody who liked Paul and who was around him." In other words, it's a bid to legitimize a certain view of the universe, one that I hope we reject.


In the Council’s third major debate, the Fathers had to confront what they called “the unfinished business of Vatican I” – to try to right the overbalanced, embarrassing and unhistorical declaration made by the Fathers of Vatican I that when popes speak solemnly on matters of faith and morals, they do so infallibly, and have always done so. Those representing the majority wing of the Council told themselves they could best complete (the word “completed” was a way of not offending the memory of a former pope (no matter how much he really deserved having his memory offended) the work of Vatican I, by defining the infallibility of the Church , rather than the infallibility of the pope.  And they made a very good stab at it with their Chapter Three of the schema De Ecclesia , a document that would later be called Lumen Gentium.

It was a redefinition that could have led to a further power shift, from the center to the periphery, with every one of the people of God getting into a more collaborative mode. At Vatican II, some of the Fathers were quoting Cardinal John Henry Newman’s brilliant essay, written in 1859 for Lord Acton’s Rambler , “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine.” In that essay, Newman asserted a long Christian tradition – that, through time, God guides and preserves the whole Church, and that prophetic lay voices often guide the Church as it pursues its way through time. Newman recalled the celebrated history of the Arian controversy in the early Church, when the pope and the bishops were off in heresy on the question of the divinity of Christ, while the people were faithful. In effect, the teaching on the divinity of Christ was maintained and preserved far more by the laity of the time than by the pope and the bishops at the Council of Nicaea. Wrote Newman:

I think certainly that the Ecclesia docens [the teaching Church] is more happy when she has such enthusiastic partisans about her… than when she cuts off the faithful from the study of her divine doctrines and the sympathy of her divine contemplations, and requires from them a fides implicita in her word, which in the educated classes will terminate in indifference, and in the poorer in superstition.

To the Council’s credit, it even cited Newman, the Church’s most famous convert of the 19th century, in Chapter Two of Lumen Gentium , on the people of God. In the general voting for Lumen Gentium, more than 90 percent of the 2,200 bishops were lined up to go with the majority’s view of collegiality, namely that “the College of Bishops, whose head is the Supreme Pontiff and whose members are the bishops, is also the subject of supreme and full power over the universal Church. The College of Bishops exercises power over the universal Church in a solemn manner in an ecumenical council.”

But the traditionalists in the minority couldn’t abide any lessening of the pope’s absolute authority – even though, if one went back far enough in history, one could find a time when the pope was hardly the absolute ruler he became in the 19th century. Nevertheless, toward the very end of the Council’s Third Session, they prevailed upon Pope Paul VI, who had taken over the helm of Peter’s barque from John XXIII to bring the Council to a close. At that moment, in mid-November 1964, just before the final vote on Lumen Gentium, principals from the Roman Curia brought to the pope a draft of a document laced with juridical specificity – four points, a kind of pre-note, that added up to this: that the bishops were never a college without the pope, and could never act without the pope at their head. Paul VI listened to the minority opinion – no more than 328 votes against 1907 on the other side – because he wanted unanimity on this issue. He had no doubt about the rightness of the majority opinion. But he didn’t want the semperidems  in his own Curia to undermine the rest of the Council’s work. There were other fish to fry. A document on ecumenism and another on religious liberty had drawn vociferous opposition and, like a president trying to get some favorite bills through Congress, he wanted to buy time. So the pope allowed the minority, no-change faction to put a gloss on the collegiality of the bishops that would make it almost meaningless.

The Church’s move toward collegiality was, thus, blunted by supporters of the old absolutism – many of whom had hitched their ecclesiastic careers to an all-powerful pope. Leonard Swidler commented, “Papal supporters, because they are in possession of power, will be impervious to all theoretical arguments against papal power; this is not to accuse them of being evil men – only of being men.”

It really didn’t matter. As Hans Küng has pointed out, the pope “is supposed to use his infallible teaching office in relation to the Church, for the building up and for the good of the Church as a whole. But he and he alone (together with his court of course) can decide from one case to the next what is for the good of the Church… No one in the Church can prevent him from acting willfully and arbitrarily…. [I]f he wants, the pope can do everything, even without the Church.


Losing the battle over collegiality at Vatican II took the edge off all the victories of the Council majority, and it would point up a weakness in the system that the men in the Curia would continue to exploit. The Council majority won all the often bitter legislative battles over those committed to preserving the dominance of the Vatican on every issue facing the Church in the 21st century. Unfortunately, the minority didn’t give up, and, “by dint of sheer dogged committee work,” succeeded in reinserting minority positions back into every text they could. Those positions, which had been “ignominiously abandoned, would find their way back into various constitutions and decrees.” (See Giuseppe Alberigo, Jean-Pierre Jossua and Joseph A. Komonchak, eds., The Reception of Vatican II.)

As a result, in the postconciliar Church there has been an insoluble conflict between the majority’s apparent intentions and the Council’s actual text. Partisans can appeal, therefore, either to ‘the spirit of Vatican II’ – in effect, to its legislative history – or to its actual language. For 22 years, naturally enough, members of the Roman Curia have been appealing to its actual language, and, since they were the ones who were writing the pope’s speeches, homilies, allocutios, apostolic letters and encyclicals, the pope tended to take the same tack as he careered along on his course of Restoration. In many cases, John Paul II didn’t feel any need to justify his unilateral moves. He simply bulled his way ahead, imposing bishops who were unwelcome to the people they were supposed to be serving, issuing more dogmatic encyclicals, approving investigations into the work of suspect theologians (even the excommunication of one, Tissa Balusuriya of Sri Lanka), making more calls to order (Ad Tuendam Fidem , to punish dissent, and Apostolos Suos , to keep episcopal conferences in their place), acting for all the world like the king of the world. Collegiality? There is no evidence that John Paul II ever gave it much of a thought. In August 1999, the retired cardinal-archbishop of Toronto, Emmet Carter, then 87, told me, “The pope used to nod and tell me I was right; he should consult more with his bishops. But he never did.”


Despite all the hanky panky in the corridors of the Vatican, the Council liberals came up smiling in the last days of the Council. A year before, in December 1964, Hans Küng had been called on the carpet at the Holy Office after his open criticism of Pope Paul (for declaring Mary the Mother of the Church without consulting anyone, though the declaration had little justification in tradition and, because it seemed to exalt Mary in ways that could only have puzzled the “separated brethren” at the Council).

But in December 1965, Küng was pleased at what the Fathers of Vatican II had been able to accomplish. They moved the Church into the mainstream of history. They got the Declarations they wanted on Religious Liberty, putting the Church’s blessings on not only religious freedom, but on freedom of conscience as well. They repealed Pio Nono’s “error has no rights” not by talking about error, which was an abstraction, but by talking about real people who certainly did have rights – among those rights the right to worship God (or not worship God) according to their own inspirations. They got their Decree on Ecumenism pointing out that the truth of Christ should make men and women free and open to whatever was good in every legitimate religion, because all paths lead to God. To be authentically Christian, Christians had to stop being enslaved to their tribal forms of Christianity. In particular, they had to recall their Jewish roots and remember that Jews are still God’s chosen people. And they needed to turn aside from their old militant missionary posture, to convert people of other religions. If Catholics could only bear witness to Jesus Christ in their own lives, and encourage Moslems and Hindus to be better Moslems and Hindus, the world would be a more peaceful place.

 And they won virtually unanimous endorsement of the Council’s last crowning document, Gaudium et Spes,  which challenged Catholics to drop holdover beliefs that came more from an ancient heresy called Manicheism than from Jesus. The Council Fathers rejected the old distinction between a supernatural world and a natural world. Rather, the whole world was graced, because it was redeemed by Christ. And, because the redemption was supposed to go on, in time, through the mediation of “other Christs,” i.e., His followers, then Christians should get to work – stop fleeing the world, and/or fretting because it was evil. Rather, they should roll up their sleeves and make it good, i.e., complete the work of redemption.

This, the Council said in effect, would be a new way, a new truth and a new life for the people of God, who would be guided as much by the unpredictable winds of the Holy Spirit as by certain literal ordinations of the hierarchical Church. In a way, the Council was getting us ready for a new kind of world, one in which the official Church would cease to be an answer machine, but a place where people could come together and inspire one another in a new global community.

Gaudium et Spes  was echoing Pope John XXIII, when he said that if the Church was going to be at the service of the world, it had to go through an aggiornamento. Only then could the Church speak the life-giving, freedom-message of Jesus to people in language they could understand. Only then could it put its blessing on a world that was basically good (because God had made it and because it was redeemed by his Incarnate presence).

To understand how radical that move was, moderns should look back a hundred years, when three successive popes saw the world as basically bad. No wonder, then, that 20th century Europe took shape without the help of the Church’s better thinkers. Two horrible world wars later, some of those thinkers (many of whom had themselves been ordered to stay out of the intellectual mainstream) realized that the Church, now verging on one billion strong, could not stand apart from the world any longer, to condemn it; they must get involved in it, in order to redeem it.

In Latin America, some theologians developed a new theology in the spirit of Gaudium et Spes , and they succeeded in demonstrating to the wider Church that it must support what was called “a preferential option for the poor.” Their liberation theology, unfortunately, drew down the wrath of the well-heeled aristocracy in Latin America, which had the ear of the Vatican. Soon, the liberation theologians had to answer wild-eyed charges of heresy by a spate of right wing prelates. Many of the liberation theologians left the Church, and their accusers won high-level jobs in the Vatican as a reward.

In 1968, three years after the Council, Hans Küng was still oozing optimism:

In spite of all, what is now important is not to complain of the indisputable obscurities, compromises, omissions, imbalance, retrograde steps and mistakes as defects of the past, in a critical maneuver directed backward, but to see them in forward-looking hope as tasks of the future, in the spirit of the Council, which did not want to close any doors. For in a sense the Council, the true realization of the Council event, began on December 8, 1965. And precisely in order to prepare the better future, we must at the present time not make the better the enemy of the good, but the good the herald of the better. The Council offered a splendid program for a renewed Church of the future. (This from Hans Küng, Truthfulness: the future of the Church. (London: Doubleday, 1968), p. B6.


Paul VI was too good a pope, and too good a thinker, to let collegiality die the death it did during the back stairs intrigues that were needed to get the unanimity he craved in November 1964. He, too, could read the signs of the times, and he knew there was something the 20th century did not love about monarchy. And so, he tried to make amends for the Council’s Third Session by announcing the next fall, during the Fourth Session, that he would seek the advice and consent of the world’s bishops in a planned series of synods that would meet every two or three years. In his motu proprio  of September 15, 1965, he called particular attention to the fact asserted (but attenuated) in Lumen Gentium  that “the Holy Spirit has placed bishops to rule the Church of God.”

Pope Paul VI held five synods – generally for two, three or four week periods in the Rome autumns of 1967, 1969, 1971, 1974 and 1977. By many accounts (they were conducted in secret), the pope was unhappy with the synods. They didn’t help enkindle any of the fire experienced by the bishops at Vatican II. They were too short, they were over managed by the Roman Curia, and the theologians who had been so much present at the Council weren’t there. Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was named the relator, or reporter, at the Synod of 1974, which was called to discuss the problems of preaching the Gospel in the new world Church that had suddenly become so visible at the Council. But when it came time for Wojtyla to deliver his summary of the Synod’s conclusions, he found it impossible to get the Synod’s agreement on the text he proposed writing. In retrospect, it was a bad omen of trouble to come, an indication that the Polish cardinal was not a great team player. (His text was handed over to a post-synodal commission, which didn’t do any better with it. They gave it to the pope, who gave it to the Jesuit editor of Civilta Cattolica, Roberto Tucci. Tucci, now Cardinal Tucci, tinkered with it and pulled an apostolic exhortation out of it, Evangelii Nuntiandi. It is one of the finest documents of Paul VI’s pontificate – a proof perhaps that the diverse input of sixty or seventy fellow bishops (and a marvelous editor) led to a richer, more textured treatment than the average papal speech generated by the Curia.)


Paul VI came closer to setting the Church on a more radical course when he ordered a commission working on a new Code of Canon Law to set up something he called a Lex Ecclesiae Fundamentalis, a kind of underpinning for the Code that resembled nothing so much as a Bill of Rights for the Church. The work proceeded under a seal of secrecy – probably because that was the norm for everything at the higher echelons of Church governance. Perhaps also, because no one challenged the anomaly, of a Church commission working in secret on a Bill of Rights, which might have contained a fundamental right of all Catholics to know what is going on in their own Church. The Commission, which was led by Cardinal Pericle Felice, an archconservative from the Roman Curia, and Msgr. William Onclin, a canon lawyer from Louvain University, had a draft prepared by the middle of 1966 and a revised version the following year 1967. That year, the Commission submitted to the International Synod of Bishops a set of ten principles to guide the revision of the Code, and that document was overwhelmingly approved. The Commission circulated another draft in 1969, and then, in 1971, an amended text was sent to all the bishops in the world, still sub secreto . Leonard Swidler reported that that draft was leaked to the press and published on March 15, 1971, by Il Regno , a Catholic magazine published in Bologna, Italy; its editors were all fired for their efforts. Swidler noted two things about the Lex Ecclesiae Fundamentalis:

1) It clearly was to serve as a “Constitution” in the sense that it was to provide the fundamental juridical framework within which all other Church law was to be understood and applied. Like the American Constitution, if any subsequent law passed were found to be contrary to the Lex Fundamentalis, the subsequent law would be void. 2) the Lex Fundamentalis  was to serve as a fundamental list of rights of the members of the Church, like the American “Bill of Rights.” (See Leonard Swidler, Toward a Catholic Constitution.  (New York: Crossroad, 1996), p. 126.)

Why didn’t the Church go ahead with this Bill of Rights? Or, in fact, with an entire Constitution modeled after the U.S. Constitution? Swidler reported that “the whole Lex project was put to death, without explanation, in 1981 after it had been approved by a specially convened international commission earlier in the year.” (Some of Msgr. Onclin’s rights ended up being enfolded in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, but few Catholics-in-the-pews know they have any of the rights delineated there.)

Paul VI didn’t get the support he needed on this project – from either his own Curia or from the eminent theologians who had had such an important role to play in Vatican II. He was in a typical quandary – ever the Hamlet, often trying to please everyone, and ending up on everyone’s hate list as a result. In this case, the publication in Il Regno  didn’t help any. First, there was a furor over the project because it was being conducted in secret, this by a pope who had just signed a papal instruction, Communio et Progressio , which said that the Church should tell the world what it was doing (“its intentions as well as its works”) because, “When ecclesiastical authorities are unwilling to give information or are unable to do so, then rumor is unloosed and rumor is not a bearer of truth but carries dangerous half truths. Secrecy should therefore be restricted to matters involving the good name of individuals or that touch on the rights of people whether singly or collectively.” (This is from Peter Hebblethwaite, Paul VI , p. 575.)

Onclin called a news conference and was challenged by an unfriendly Vatican Press Corps, always angry when long-time Vatican secrets are sprung on them. In this case, the press people were rather stupid not to recognize that a constitution was precisely the instrument needed by the people of God to stop the abuses of power that were so endemic in the monarchic Church, abuses which angered the press covering the Vatican more, perhaps, than any one. A constitution which held everyone accountable to the people of God would have made their lives more interesting and more productive as well. But the press was hostile.

One reporter said that the Church had gotten along without a constitution for 2000 years. Why was one needed now? Onclin said, “It is a part of the evolutionary processes of society.” He pointed out that France did not have a constitution until after the Revolution, and that Italy did not have one until after World War II. Someone else wondered why the Church needed secular models. Wasn’t the Church that was defined at Vatican II better understood in Biblical images – the people of God, the body of Christ, the bride of Christ – not in terms of civil society?

Too bad there were no U.S. theologians around to enter the debate. American Catholics had long ago come to terms with democracy and religious freedom (even in spite of a condemnation of Americanism by Pope Leo XIII in 1899), and they found the U.S. Constitution’s neutrality on religion more of a help than a hindrance to the vitality of their Catholicism. Americans understood what a constitution could do. But Continental Catholics didn’t seem to get it. German theologians were the worst. In his Infallible: an Inquiry,  Hans Küng found the Lex ominous, “crammed with formularies of Vatican II, but conceived in a completely absolutist sense, which, if it were ever to be accepted, could bury once and for all the progress made at Vatican II.” Karl Rahner said the nature of the Church and a constitution were incompatible, “since the Church is always developing in response to the promptings of the Holy Spirit who could never be part of its constitution, and yet with the Holy Spirit the Church would simply cease to be itself. (Rahner, a Jesuit, didn’t seem to flash on the fact that St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus not only wrote a constitution for the Order, but gave a thorough-going raison  d’etre for having a constitution that has never been topped – for its intelligence and its brevity.) And a fellow German theologian, Walter Kasper, argued in a long, learned article that the Lex was an instrument in a policy of restoration that would undo all the achievements of the Council. According to the Vaticanista Peter Hebblethwaite, “That was the end of it.”

But it wasn’t the end. The eminent American ecumenist and theologian Leonard Swidler has made a constitution for the Church into a cause. He has drafted a model constitution for the universal Church and analogous constitutions for a diocese and a parish, with a delineation of rights and responsibilities, separation of powers, election of priests, bishops and popes, and terms of office (for a bishop or a pope: ten years). He has teams of translators turning his Catholic Constitution into seven languages. And he fully expects to have a team of men and women in Rome to lobby the cardinals arriving for the conclave to elect John Paul II’s successor. Their purpose: to see whether and how they could nudge the next papacy into making plans for a constitutional government.

Swidler even had Hans Küng rethinking his original objections, for he had shown Küng that constitutional law could beat the Roman Curia at their own game and “make an absolutist monarch into at least a constitutional monarch.”

Swidler also had Andrew Greeley on board. In a preface to Swidler’s Toward a Catholic Constitution, Greeley said the Church needed a constitution to help Catholics vindicate their rights against oppressive pastors and bishops.

Priests and religious educators all over America have added extracanonical regulations for the reception of the sacraments and often deny sacraments to those who don’t live up the regulations. It would appear that neither bishops nor pastors nor the laity knows that the laity has rights and that these rights are violated constantly.

Greeley added, “Obviously there will be a strong opposition to the notion of a Constitution for the Church. It would severely limit the absolute power that many church persons think they have.” And he disposed of Rahner’s Holy Spirit argument by pointing out that membership in the Church does not erase our human nature. “It would be like saying that the Lord Jesus, because of His special relationship with God, did not need sleep.”


Pope Paul VI had the best intentions on so many issues, but he was caught up in the papalist culture so completely that he could not conceive of a papacy in which the pope did not have to decide everything all by himself. He had the uncanny capacity for broad jumping halfway across every ditch, and ending up, of course, with his backside in the mud. The best example: he expanded John XXIII’s birth control commission, and then agonized for more than two years as if the whole burden of sending all those souls to hell were his alone….

The Council had a chance, for instance, to deal very specifically with a question that was causing modern Catholics huge problems – the problem of regulating birth, possibly with a new invention called The Pill. Wisely, the Council deferred discussion on this, not least because one of its canniest members said his fellow bishops were in no position to give couples any advice here; the bishops suffered, he said, “from a celibate psychosis.” Translation: their clerical mindset told them that since sex was a no-no for clerics, married people shouldn’t enjoy it too much; love-making should be “secondary” – in keeping with a classic formulation: the primary end of marriage was the procreation and education of children and the secondary end, the mutual love of husband and wife. So the Fathers contented themselves by rejecting the old primary-secondary formula entirely, set aside their celibate psychoses for the moment, and put a new blessing on conjugal lovemaking.

Such love, merging the human and the divine, leads the spouses to a free and mutual gift of themselves… Such love pervades the whole of their lives. Indeed, by its generous activity, it grows better and grows greater. Therefore, it far exceeds mere erotic inclination. This love is uniquely expressed and perfected through the marital act.

They also warned couples not to break off full intimacy when “they find themselves in circumstances where at least temporarily the size of their families should not be increased.”

Old line Catholics who wanted permission to use The Pill (or any kind of contraception) were told that if contraception was wrong, the Church couldn’t give them permission, and that if it wasn’t wrong, they didn’t need permission. Those made uncomfortable by all this new responsibility insisted: couldn’t the Church tell them? Was contraception wrong or wasn’t it? Leaks from a special papal birth control commission set up by John XXIII and expanded by Paul VI gave them an unsettling answer: “That’s up to you to figure out. The morality of contraception depends more on your motives than your methods, and maybe more on aesthetics than ethics.”

Something new was happening in the Church; Catholics were learning that morality was no longer a question of obedience to a set of literal laws from on high. They had to distinguish right from wrong on some intrinsic criteria, by asking themselves whether whatever it was they were doing was hurting themselves, or hurting others. And then they had to let their own conscience be their guide. Conscience was a new word in the popular Catholic lexicon.

Kaiser covered Vatican II for  Time magazine. You can email him at rbkaiser@justgoodcompany.com