JOHN W. O’MALLEY
Councils in the history of the Catholic Church once dealt with legal matters in legalistic language – doctrine and discipline were their raison d’être. John XXIII overturned all that, and in their place brought joy, passion and reconciliation. But can Vatican II really be called prophetic?
Prophets denounce the evils of the times and in imperative mode insist their voice be heeded. Repent! Change your ways! As far as I know, no historian has ever described church councils as prophetic. Councils have, as essentially legislative and judicial bodies, looked to preserving the status quo and to ensuring the smooth functioning of time-honoured institutions. They employ plodding mechanisms to arrive at their decisions and strive to speak in measured prose. They lack the prophet’s fire.
True though that analysis of councils’ enactments might be, it misses the sharp edge of some of them. Councils met to deal with abuses, either doctrinal or disciplinary, and they assumed an adversarial stance against the perpetrators of such evils, not hesitating to censure them in the strongest possible language. The Council of Constance (1414-18) denounced John Wycliffe as a man “of cursed memory” who promulgated “doctrines dealing death to the soul”. The Fifth Lateran Council (1512-17) excoriated the cardinals who had convoked a council at Pisa to call the reigning Pope, Julius II, to account, and it described them as “sons of damnation.” Such outbursts are, however, rare. Nonetheless, until Vatican II, councils consistently expressed themselves through a form that partook of the uncompromising and censorious quality of prophetic discourse. Although they utilised other literary forms, of which the most honoured were creedal statements, the form that appeared most frequently through the centuries was the relatively short, prescriptive ordinance called a “canon”, which often carried with it punishment for failure to comply.
Canons might deal with doctrine or discipline. The Council of Trent, for instance, issued 33 canons in its decree on justification, 12 in its decree on the sacrament of matrimony, and similar numbers in its many other decrees, both doctrinal and disciplinary. The canon was alive and well at the time of Vatican II. The Roman Synod held in 1960 at the behest of Pope John XXIII, a meeting of the clergy of the Diocese of Rome, considered at the time to be a dress rehearsal for Vatican II, ratified 755 canons. Canons often concluded with a pronouncement of anathema, that is, of ex-communication. The penalty for noncompliance was, therefore, extremely serious, cutting the offending party off from the body of the church. Canons use a hard, tough, uncompromising rhetoric. With or without penalty attached, they, as measures against evils that threaten the integrity of the Church, have been prophetic in that they aimed to stamp out those evils. If implemented, they presumably ensured the Church’s insulation from outside contamination.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries fear of contamination from the “modern world” seized the papacy and resulted in pronouncements filled with foreboding and injunctions to hold oneself aloof. In 1831 Pope Gregory XVI stigmatised, among other modern evils, freedom of conscience as an “absurd and erroneous proposition”. His successor, Pius IX, wielded a broader scythe in 1864 in his “Syllabus of Errors”, which was a proclamation of uncompromising alienation. When in 1907 under Pius X the Holy Office of the Inquisition issued the decree Lamentabili Sane, the prophetic stance of the Church against virtually all that was outside it reached a peak, which became patent in the draconian measures employed to implement the decree.
Vatican II issued no canons. Except for an insinuated condemnation of nuclear stockpiling and an outright denunciation of the “arms race”, the council abstained almost completely from negative assessments of the “other”. Despite strong pressure inside and outside the council for a condemnation of Communism, the council refused to do so. On the surface, therefore, Vatican II seems utterly to lack prophetic voice. In its language and in the programme it adopted, it seems to have pursued a soft course, diametrically opposed to the prophet’s hard line.
It’s clear now how great an impact Pope John XXIII had on the council’s direction in his address to the assembled prelates on 11 October 1962, the opening day. He urged them to distance themselves from those who see “in modern times nothing but prevarication and evil” and similarly urged them to “make use of the medicine of mercy rather than severity” in their deliberations. He wanted the council to show the Church “as the loving mother of all, benign, patient, full of mercy and goodness”.
Although Pope John did not use the word “reconciliation”, that was what he was speaking of. When three and half years earlier, in 1959, he announced his intention to convoke the council, he gave as one of its two principal aims the extension of a “cordial invitation to the faithful of the separated communities to participate with us in this quest for unity and peace, for which so many long in all parts of the world”. Thus, even before the council opened, reconciliation, not alienation, had begun to take hold as a theme and goal.
During the council the scope of reconciliation broadened. The first document that it approved, Sacrosanctum Concilium – “On the Sacred Liturgy” – implicitly asked the Church to break out of its Eurocentrism and admit other cultures as partners. It set the council on a course when it affirmed the “Church cultivates and fosters the qualities and talents of different races and nations”. In subsequent documents the theme of reconciliation with cultures other than the Western one recurred. The most obvious and direct acts of reconciliation were the decrees, “On Ecumenism” and “On Non-Christian Religions”. The former instructed Catholics to respect the beliefs of those not in communion with the Church, and it laid the groundwork for a process of dialogue with them over issues that had festered for centuries as causes of alienation. These steps might seem cautious, but they constituted a reversal of course from condemning all other Christian bodies and demanding from Catholics that they as far as possible avoid all contact with them. The Code of Canon Law, 1918, for instance, forbade Catholics to participate in any non-Catholic religious service, even weddings and funerals. Textbooks on moral theology enjoined that, if a Protestant was in extremis in a Catholic hospital, his minister not be called to assist him.
“On Ecumenism” signalled a change of 180 degrees – so much so that a small minority at the council denounced it as heretical. As a result, however, of decades of study and conversation carried on semi-officially behind the scenes, the council accepted it with unexpected ease. “On Non-Christian Religions” – Nostra Aetate – did not enjoy the same easy course. The opposition to it was so severe that at one point it was almost withdrawn from the agenda.
John XXIII, out of his deep concern about anti-Semitism and Christian responsibility for the Holocaust, mandated that the council consider a document on the Jews. Objections were raised to it on theological grounds – were not the Jews an accursed race? – and also on political ones. The prospect of such a document stirred up fear in Arab countries that this was a step towards the Vatican recognising the state of Israel, which up to that point it had not done. The council was finally able to overcome these problems and approve the document, but only after it was expanded to include other non-Christian believers, most notably the Muslims.
Few decrees of the council seem more timely today in our post-9/11 era. Nostra Aetate sounds a note of reason and compassion. It is the diametrical opposite of hate-inspired polemics, and it invests Catholics with a special role as agents of reconciliation in the present tense international situation. In this regard Pope John Paul II performed a marvellous service. His gestures of reconciliation with the Jews are well known. Less well known but today perhaps more important were the many times he met with Muslim groups in attempts to increase mutual understanding.
The council’s final document was entitled Gaudium et Spes, “The Church in the Modern World”. Although the Church-world relationship was not on the agenda when the council opened, it emerged clearly by the end of the council’s first year. No wonder, for it took up the theme of reconciliation with the modern world that John XXIII proposed in his address opening the council. The title is significant: not the Church for the modern world, not the Church against the modern world, but simply the Church in the modern world.
The title is a recognition of fact. Every member of the Church lives, perforce, “in the world”. There is no alternative. Mere mortals such as ourselves cannot escape time and place. Gaudium et Spes affirms that the Church act as a leaven in the world but also that the Church receives from the world. Obvious though such an affirmation of reciprocity might seem, it was unprecedented in official church pronouncements and would have been difficult to imagine before the council.
By being addressed to all men and women of goodwill, whether believers or not, Gaudium et Spes extended reconciliation to its ultimate limits. The council “as witness and guide to the faith of all God’s people, [wants to express] this people’s solidarity, respect, and love for the whole human family”. It “offers the human family the sincere cooperation of the Church in fostering a sense of sisterhood and brotherhood”.
The council turned its back on alienation and thus came face to face with the challenging task of reconciliation. In its enactments it extended the task to the Church’s relationship with non-Western cultures, with non-Catholic Christians, with non-Christian believers, with the “modern world”, and, finally, with “all humanity”. There is, however, an even more pervasive level at which the reconciliation theme operated. We must return to Pope John’s opening address. When he asked the council to refrain from condemnations, he introduced the question of the style of discourse the council was to adopt.
By the second period of the council, 1963, when discussion on the “Constitution on the Church” – Lumen Gentium – began, the council had chosen its style and found its voice. Unlike the version originally proposed, the first chapter of this version almost overflowed with images of the Church and its members that suggest fecundity, dignity, charism, goodness, safe haven, welcome, tenderness, warmth, communion and reconciliation.
The council began to speak in a style new for councils, which only intensified as it moved forward. The theme of reconciliation, though expressed in a variety of terms, emerged with dominant force. Instead of words of disdain, anathema, alienation and denunciation, instead of verdicts of guilty-as-charged, the council spoke most characteristically in words of friendship, partnership, kinship, brotherhood, sisterhood, reciprocity, dialogue, collegiality, conscience and a call to interiority: a call to holiness. This was a momentous, even if often overlooked, shift in values. Taken globally the council’s vocabulary conveys the sweep of a newly formulated and forcefully specified way of thinking, feeling, believing, and acting. It constitutes a call to conversion, incumbent upon individual Christians and especially upon the leadership of the Church. Change your ways, says the prophet! Change your ways, says the council!
In its soft rhetoric, so different from the rhetoric conventionally associated with prophets, Vatican II spoke out against the status quo and asked us to work against the fear, hate and resentment of the “other” that we often find in our hearts. It called us to heed and make operative in our hearts and in our deeds the fundamental reality of the Christ-event: “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19). And with acceptance of that reality comes the consequence: “... leave your gift there before the altar and go; first, to be reconciled to your brother and sister” (Matthew 5:24).
Bold yet soft-spoken, the message of Vatican II was directed to the hearts of all persons sensitive to the call of conscience. Today, in a world increasingly racked with discord, contempt, hate-spewing blogs, senseless bombings of innocent people, war and the threat of war, the message could not be more timely. It is a message prophetically countercultural while at the same time responsive to the deepest yearnings of the human heart. Peace on earth! Goodwill to men!
■ John W. O’Malley SJ is professor of theology at Georgetown University, Washington, DC, and the author of What Happened at Vatican II (Harvard University Press).
(Next week: Nicholas King on Dei Verbum: Scripture and morality.)