In Your Midst

On Religious Liberty

Sept. 2009

Part IV in a Series about the Second Vatican Council

Read Part I | Read Part II | Read Part III


The Third Session of the Council opened with a concelebrated Mass:  the first.  Pope Paul VI stood with twenty-four of the Council Fathers around the altar of St. Peter’s Basilica in a powerful sign of collegiality.  The altar itself had to be enlarged to allow them to stand around it together.  It was the perfect symbol for the Third Session, during which the Council itself would experience significant growing pains as the Fathers labored hard to stretch the Church in new directions.

The Third Session was both highly productive and highly contentious.  The proceedings were even more fast-paced and streamlined than in the Second Session.  Women auditors were admitted for the first time.  But the rift between progressive majority and Curia-driven, conservative minority widened dramatically.  That minority—fond of calling themselves the “remnant of Israel”—was praying hard, it was said, for the Holy Spirit’s intervention in the Council.  When he was told this, Pope Paul VI exclaimed, “But the Holy Spirit has intervened.  He inspired Pope John to summon the Council and He has given us the courage to carry out the directives of the divine will.” 

In spite of his own progressive leanings, Pope Paul VI found himself caught between two groups of well-intentioned, holy men who were utterly at odds with each other.  “He cannot bear the thought that minority and majority should remain permanently unreconciled,” wrote Xavier Rynne in 1964.  “Appreciating the merits of both sides so well, he finds all bitter-end resistance unthinkable and abhorrent.”  Paul's response to this dilemma in the Third Session would earn him the nickname “The Pope of ‘Buts,’” and frequent comparisons with the Prince of Denmark.  The Third Session revealed all the weaknesses of the ecclesiastical institution, with behind-the-scenes machinations by the minority, offensives by the majority, last-minute appeals to higher authority, and the beleaguered Pope Paul VI playing the role of deus ex machina.
“The interest of the world at large,” reported the Progress shortly before the Third Session began, “centers chiefly on… [the] statement on religious liberty…. widely regarded as the keystone of Catholic ecumenism.”

Why was religious liberty so controversial?  We take it for granted that people should be free to worship as they choose without interference—or special favor—from their governments.  But the “classical Catholic position… claimed preferential treatment of the Catholic Church by the state while according only tolerance to other religions…. this was a terribly burdensome anachronism for progressives,” who demanded that the Council proclaim “the Church’s total commitment to complete religious liberty” (Bokenkotter).  An American theologian—the great Jesuit John Courtney Murray—had been instrumental in the formation of the Catholic expression of religious liberty and in the drafting of the schema under consideration at the Council.

But the conservative minority was, as usual, loud in its condemnation.  “The declaration should be entitled ‘On Religious Tolerance,’ not ‘Liberty,’” said Cardinal Ruffini, “because those in error have no rights.”  And Archbishop Felici, the General Secretary of the Council, did not hesitate to use his position to influence the proceedings in favor of the minority.  It was suddenly announced that the document on Religious Liberty would be handed to a new commission for revision—a commission that included some of the bishops most bitterly opposed to the concept of religious liberty.

A group of Cardinals immediately wrote to Pope Paul, a letter beginning with the words “magno cum dolore,” a phrase which became associated with the whole Third Session.  “With great sorrow we have learned that the declaration on religious liberty, although in accord with the desire of the great majority of the Fathers, is to be entrusted to a certain mixed commission…. This news is for us a source of extreme anxiety.”  The whole world, they said, was waiting for this document; official hesitation could significantly set back the ecumenical movement.  They urged the Holy Father to order that the document be treated according to the rules of the Council.

Paul VI, perturbed, agreed, and the draft decree was sent to a new mixed commission for revision, with a promise that it would be returned to the Council Fathers for their vote before the end of the session.  But on November 19, two days before the end of the Third Session, it was suddenly announced that there was no time for the vote on the Decree on Religious Liberty, which would be postponed until the Fourth Session.  Uproar in the Council Hall!  Cardinal Meyer, who was seated at the front with the other Cardinal Moderators, got up and walked around the table to argue with Cardinal Tisserant, who had read the announcement.  Everywhere the Fathers were on their feet, loudly protesting the arbitrary change.  Within minutes someone had begun a petition to the Holy Father, and hundreds of names were collected; but this time Paul VI did not intervene.
That was not the only the disappointment of the Third Session.  When the Constitution on the Church, which included the hard-won notion of collegiality, came before the Fathers for the final vote, they found that the document had acquired an appendix full of juridical language, quite different from the rest of the document:  “It is the unmistakable teaching of tradition, including liturgical tradition, that an ontological share in the sacred functions is given by consecration.  The word function is deliberately used in preference to powers which can have the sense of power ordered to action…. the Roman Pontiff undertakes the regulation, encouragement, and approval of the exercise of collegiality as he sees fit, having regard to the Church’s good.”  In other words, episcopal collegiality was essentially another facet of papal power.  The whole issue had been stripped of its controversy, and its impact.

The appendix, it was soon discovered, was a concession on Pope Paul VI’s part to the minority, and it achieved its desired effect:  the final vote on the Constitution was nearly unanimous.  But many felt with Xavier Rynne:  “in his extreme anxiety to conciliate an unimportant minority, Pope Paul seems to have forgotten that he might be doing less than justice to the majority.”

The Third Session concluded in an atmosphere of gloom.  “Pope Paul was carried into the basilica on Saturday morning, November 21, for the closing public session, through tiers of stony-faced bishops in white mitres and copes.  There was no applause.  He himself looked glum and tense” (Rynne).  But in his address Paul assured those gathered that in the fourth session the schema on religious liberty would be discussed first, and that it would “crown the work of the Council.”  He concluded with a heartfelt address to Mary, whom he proclaimed Mother of the Church, and to whom he commended the cause of Christian unity:  “O Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church, to you we recommend the entire Church and our Ecumenical Council….  intercede with your only Son, mediator of our reconciliation with the Father, that he may have mercy on our shortcomings and dispel any difference between us, giving us the joy of loving.”

In spite of all that had happened during the Third Session, Father John Sheerin could write in his syndicated column at the end of November, 1964, “Today it almost seems that you can reach out and touch the Holy Spirit at work.  One would have to be awfully obtuse to deny his presence.  It is in a very true sense the age of the Holy Spirit…. In these exciting days, the Spirit is no longer whispering his inspirations.  He is working so obviously and calling so loudly that the devout can honestly say, ‘It’s a great time for a Christian to be alive.’”

In our next issue:  Archbishop Connolly oversees the implementation of the first of the liturgical reforms of the Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy:  the Mass in English.
Read more:  John O’Malley, What Happened at Vatican II.  Xavier Rynne (F. X. Murphy), Vatican Council II.


Corinna Laughlin is Director of Liturgy at St. James Cathedral.

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