Copyright (c) 2001 First Things 114 (June/July 2001): 52-55.
History of Vatican II, Volume II: The Formation of the Council’s Identity, First Period and Intercession, October 1962–September 1963. Edited by Giuseppe Alberigo; English edition edited by Joseph A. Komonchak. Orbis/Peeters. 603 pp. $80.
History of Vatican II, Volume III: The Mature Council, Second Period and Intercession, September 1963–September 1964. Edited by Giuseppe Alberigo; English edition edited by Joseph A. Komonchak. Orbis/Peeters. 532 pp. $80.
Reviewed by George Weigel
These two hefty (and ridiculously expensive) volumes, the second and third in a five–volume series being produced by an international team of scholars under the leadership of Giuseppe Alberigo, an Italian layman and historian, bring the story of Vatican II to its chronological mid–point. They also demonstrate that, by September 1964, the direction of the Council was firmly set and that the third and fourth “periods” of Vatican II (in the autumn months of 1964 and 1965, respectively) were a matter of playing out in detail the tack taken by the Council’s reformist majority during the first and second periods, and during the all–important “intercession” between the first two formal conciliar sessions. Indeed, one of the strengths of this series is its exploration of the crucial role played by the “intercession” discussions, in Rome and elsewhere, which profoundly shaped what happened during the Council’s actual meetings.
As I indicated in my review of Volume I of this series (see First Things, November 1996), the great challenge to any history of Vatican II is to avoid what might be called the “Cowboys and Indians” interpretation of the Council, in which a small, hardy band of courageous liberals is finally vindicated when it crushes its intransigent, Curia–led conservative opposition and launches the Catholic Church into a new dialogue with the modern world. Professor Alberigo’s team is not altogether successful in avoiding this temptation in Volumes II and III. But the wealth of detail assembled in each of these books, despite the occasionally skewed selection of materials and reference points, is such that the careful reader can make his own interpretive judgments, and can do so in a much more informed way.
Volume II rightly stresses two crucial moments in the dynamics of the Second Vatican Council. The first of these was Pope John XXIII’s opening address of October 11, 1962, Gaudet Mater Ecclesia (Mother Church Rejoices). That address is remembered by proponents of the “Cowboys and Indians” hermeneutic for its unexpectedly sharp dismissal of those ecclesiastical “prophets of gloom” who “in these modern times can see nothing but prevarication and ruin.” No doubt such nay–sayers about the Christian possibility in the late twentieth century had to be challenged. But with what? As a close reading of Andrea Riccardi’s fine chapter on “The Tumultuous Openings Days of the Council” makes clear, Gaudet Mater Ecclesia was a summons to the Catholic Church to think of itself less in institutional terms and more as an evangelical movement in history—a movement which best served the modern world by telling the world the truth about human origins, human nature, human community, and human destiny. As the Cowboys and Indians alike have continued their power struggle in the almost four decades after Gaudet Mater Ecclesia, readers of that remarkable statement can only conclude that its prophetic message to the Church has yet to be fully heard.
The second pivotal moment in the Council’s first period was more protracted, and involved a series of interventions from bishops throughout the world between November 14 and December 8, 1962. During these three weeks of debate, the bishops made the crucial intellectual shift from a juridical model of the Church (rooted in a concept of the Church as “perfect society” that was far too beholden to the state as the paradigm of a “society”) to a more richly biblical and theological conception of both the Una Sancta and the bishops’ responsibilities in it. Giuseppe Ruggieri’s useful chapter on this momentous change is marred by what seems, in some quarters, an irresistible temptation to get in a few digs at Joseph Ratzinger, who as a young theo logian and advisor to Cologne’s Joseph Cardinal Frings played a seminal role in this development in ecclesiological consciousness.
Councils have their politics, of course, and these two key conceptual shifts could get the traction they needed in the actual work of Vatican II because of two other important decisions in the Council’s first period: the early postponement of a series of votes on the Council’s working commissions, which blocked a Curial attempt to stack the commissions with reliably unadventurous bishops, and John XXIII’s decision ten days into the Council to make the Secretariat for Christian Unity a full conciliar commission. Under the leadership of the German Jesuit biblical scholar (and former confessor to Pius XII) Augustin Bea, the Secretariat emerged as the primary vehicle for advancing the agenda of those who really grasped the meaning of Gaudet Mater Ecclesia.
Volume II suffers from several deficiencies, which are nonetheless instructive for the light they cast on the contemporary Catholic academy and its shibboleths. Father Gerald Fogarty, S.J., of the University of Virginia rightly reminds us that the Cuban Missile Crisis broke out publicly less than two weeks after Vatican II formally opened, creating an atmosphere of profound political concern that could not help but shape the Council’s deliberations. But Fogar ty, following the lead of Norman Cousins, gives what most historians would reckon as far too much credit to John XXIII as the “catalyst needed to ward off an impending nuclear holocaust.” Jan Grootaers’ otherwise valuable chapter on the “intercession” between the first and second periods of the Council, which saw the election of Pope Paul VI and what Grootaers rightly calls the “second preparation” of Vatican II, betrays virtually no understanding of how the Orthodox Churches of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact were manipulated by the KGB and its allied intelligence services. This vastly complicated both the Council’s ecumenical initiatives and the relations between the Secretariat for Christian Unity (which occasionally seemed unaware of the manipulation issues, too) and Eastern–rite Catholic Churches like the persecuted Greek Catholic Church of Ukraine. Given these lacunae, Grootaers’ uncritical celebration of the new Vatican Ostpolitik is both predictable and unpersuasive.
Pope John Paul II, who was one of the youngest Council fathers during the first period, has insisted for almost four decades that the Council can be grasped in its essence only if we think of it as an epic spiritual event, at which the Holy Spirit led the Catholic Church into a new en counter with modernity precisely for the sake of evangelizing the modern world. That view, which takes us far beyond ecclesiastical Cowboys and Indians, is beautifully captured in Volume II by Bishop Gabriel–Marie Garrone of France, reflecting in his diary on what the bishops experienced when they looked around the Council aula:
The Church today is experiencing what might be called the physical reality of its universality. We believed in this, we proclaimed it in our Creed; now, for numerous reasons, it has come home to us in a sensible way. Distant peoples, who used to be only names on a map to us . . . are in many cases acquiring a face and coming very near to us: it used to be a country, now it is a group of human beings. Suddenly and forcefully we understand what it means to say that Christ is King of the universe, for this universe is there before our eyes. At the same time, however, the Church grasps with a kind of amazement the real limits of this kingdom: Haiti, Goa, Katanga, Kuwait are no longer mere ideas but human beings for whom Christ died. . . . Here you have the soul of the Council.
The discovery of that soul was the chief achievement of the Council’s first period in the fall of 1962; the exploration of what that universality might mean ecclesiologically and liturgically was the business of Vatican II’s second period, which met in the fall of 1963 and is the subject of Volume III of History of Vatican II.
The least satisfying chapter of Volume III goes into painstaking, even excruciating, detail on the evolution of the conciliar document that would most directly affect most Catholic lives around the world: the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. Unfortunately, Reiner Kaczynski provides no analysis—celebratory, critical, or otherwise—of the ideas of the twentieth–century liturgical movement, which profoundly shaped the Constitution and, even more, its implementation. As those ideas are now under serious criticism, the result is a history of the Constitution in an intellectual vacuum.
Of far more interest in Volume III are the number of contemporary issues and controversies whose origins can be traced to the Council’s second period. Foremost among these is the question of the role of the college of bishops in the governance of the universal Church. Contemporary proposals for a Vatican III, or for a Synod of Bishops with legislative authority, or for a super–congregation of bishops that would, in some presently undefined manner, occupy a position between the Pope and the Roman Curia, are all anticipated in the ecclesiological debates of the Council’s second session. So is the recent reconfiguration of the ecumenical movement, with the World Council of Churches abandoning the goal of Christian unity restored on the basis of agreements about “faith and order,” and the Catholic Church picking up the fallen banner of classic ecumenism by insisting that the unity worth pursuing must be unity in the truth that Christ bequeathed to his Church. (Throughout Volume III, as in Volume II, it is striking to learn just how nervous Geneva was about what Rome’s entry into the ecumenical lists would mean.)
Then there is the question of the role of theology and theologians in the Church. In the concluding chapter to Volume III, editor Alberigo frankly admits that, for many theologians, “the dynamic clash of ideas” at the Council “was much more attractive than the dull debates of academia.” It is, Professor Alberigo concludes, “much more interesting and gratifying to develop formulations for conciliar discussions than to produce books.” Beyond the oddity of that judgment coming from the editor of a five–volume series that bids fair to top out at close to three thousand pages of closely printed text, there is a problem here that is hinted at but never analyzed: the trahison des clercs, the seduction of intellectuals by power. No one can doubt that Professor Alberigo is right about the attitude of some theologians at the Council (and afterwards) to the exercise of ecclesiastical clout; but one has to wonder why there is simply no discussion of whether this attitude doesn’t pose serious problems for theology.
Volume III sheds light on the complex personality of Pope Paul VI and on his achievement. It will be remembered that, when John XXIII an nounced his intention of summoning the Council, then–Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini called a friend and worried out loud, “This holy old boy doesn’t realize what a hornet’s nest he’s stirring up.” Giuseppe Alberigo suggests that Montini continued to worry about the hornet’s nest after his election as Pope Paul VI, feeling that “he had been given the responsibility to supply Vatican II with the program his predecessor had failed to give it.” Alberigo describes this as the difference between the “pragmatic” John XXIII and the “programmatic” Montini. But while “programmatic” nicely captures Montini’s sensibility, formed as it was in the Curia of Pius XI and Pius XII, one wonders whether “pragmatic” is the mot juste for Papa Roncalli. John XXIII seems to me to have been less pragmatic than charismatic.
In any event, Alberigo is surely right in thinking that Montini was disinclined to preside over the kind of conciliar free–for–all with which John XXIII seemed reasonably comfortable. And one doubts that the Council could have been brought to a successful conclusion by anything other than a more “programmatic” pope. Still, the question remains: Did Montini, by making the Council more “programmatic” and less charismatic, contribute inadvertently to the post–conciliar politicization of the Church, in which the evangelical summons of Gaudet Mater Ecclesia was frequently lost in the midst of ongoing, internal ecclesiastical power struggles? On the other hand, what was the alternative? Large questions, to which there are no simple, or perhaps definitive, answers.
Volume III, alas, continues the unhappy trend of Volume II in its reading of late–twentieth–century history. There is some interesting information on the Ostpolitik buried in a lengthy footnote: West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, it seems, thought the new Vatican attempt at a rapprochement with Khrushchev’s Soviet Union was profoundly wrongheaded, and predicted that it would become even more accommodating under Paul VI than under John XXIII. Despite this countervailing evidence, Volume III’s general attitude toward the Ostpolitik remains uncritically celebratory, and there is, once again, simply no reckoning with the indisputable fact that Mr. Khrushchev was intensifying his persecution of the Catholic Church during the very period in which Giuseppe Alberigo discerns a “thaw” in Soviet–Vatican relations. Professor Alberigo’s further comment that “the deterioration of the situation in Vietnam [was] due to the increasing involvement of the United States” does not survive even a moment of informed reflection.
These volumes, which breathe the somewhat stolid air of the European academy, would be even more daunting were it not for the editorial and translation skills of Father Joseph A. Komonchak of the Catholic University of America. Those who will use these valuable, if limited, volumes owe Fr. Komonchak a considerable debt of gratitude.
George Weigel’s Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II
is an international bestseller. The expanded English paperback edition was released
recently by HarperCollins.