The Who, What, Where, When, and Why of the Council

A book review, by Michael J. Miller, of The Second Vatican Council: An Unwritten Story, by Professor Roberto de Mattei, reprinted with kind permission of Loreto Publications.

The famous black-and-white photograph of the Second Vatican Council in session, taken from a high balcony at the back of Saint Peter’s Basilica, shows more than 2,000 Council Fathers standing at their places in slanted stalls that line the nave, with more than a dozen rows on either side. It resembles nothing so much as a gargantuan monastic choir—unless it puts you in mind of the British Parliament with the dimensions quadrupled.

Contemporary perceptions of the Council varied widely, partly because of the extensive media coverage.  Although it promulgated a dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, Vatican II was not a “constitutional convention.” An ecumenical council can teach about the Church but cannot modify a divine institution, any more than a pope can invent a new doctrine or change one of the Ten Commandments.

In his latest book, The Second Vatican Council: An Unwritten Story (Loreto Publications, 2012),Roberto de Mattei, a historian in Rome, writes: “[Ecumenical] Councils exercise, under and with the Pope, a solemn teaching authority in matters of faith and morals and set themselves up as supreme judges and legislators, insofar as Church law is concerned. The Second Vatican Council did not issue laws, and it did not even deliberate definitively on questions of faith and morals. The lack of dogmatic definitions inevitably started a discussion about the nature of its documents and about how to apply them in the so-called ‘postconciliar period.’”

Professor de Mattei outlines the two main schools of thought in that discussion. The first and more theological approach presupposes an “uninterrupted ecclesial Tradition” and therefore expects the documents of Vatican II to be interpreted in a way consistent with authoritative Church teaching in the past. This is the “hermeneutic of continuity” emphasized by Pope Benedict XVI.

A second, more historical approach advocated by Professor Giuseppe Alberigo and the “School of Bologna” maintains that the Council “was in the first place an historical ‘event’ which, as such, meant an undeniable discontinuity with the past: it raised hopes, started polemics and debates, and in the final analysis inaugurated a new era.” The “event-dimension” of the Council is Exhibit A in making the case for the elusive “spirit of Vatican II” that looks beyond the actual words of the conciliar documents to the momentum that they supposedly generated.

Professor de Mattei counters such tendentiousness by making a clear distinction: “The theologian reads and discusses the documents in their doctrinal import. The historian reconstructs the events…understands occurrences in their cultural and ideological roots and consequences… so as to arrive at an ‘integral’ understanding of the events.”

Drawing on the work of two Catholic historians and the director of a Catholic news service, this article highlights features in the historical background to the Second Vatican Council by asking the basic questions of journalism: who, what, where, when and why.

Who: John XXIII

Although several were soon to become world famous, none of the 2,381 prelates in the stalls at St. Peter’s on October 11, 1962, and no combination of them, could have initiated an ecumenical council; that was the sole prerogative of the Supreme Pontiff. At that moment the bishop of Rome was the former Cardinal Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, who when elected pope in 1958 had taken the name John XXIII.

The media image of “Good Pope John,” the unpretentious, grandfatherly pontiff, had its basis in fact. Roncalli was gracious and optimistic by nature, and studiously avoided taking sides in the theological disputes that increasingly divided the Catholic Church. Yet a full portrait is more complex, as we read in Pope John and His Revolution, by the Catholic British historian E. E. Y. Hales.

Roncalli did have “peasant roots”—his parents were sharecroppers—but he was also descended from the impoverished branch of a noble family. His diary shows that he had pursued sanctity since his seminary days, yet he excelled in history rather than theology. His priestly ministry was spent almost entirely in chancery, seminary, and diplomatic positions (with the exception of a few years as an army chaplain during World War I); it is ironic that the ecumenical council he convened as pope should proclaim itself to be “pastoral”.

Hales’ specialty is 19th-century Church history, a politically tumultuous era when Catholic social doctrine began to be formulated officially. “John was as anxious as any previous pope to reaffirm some continuity in papal teaching; but in fact, in his brief reign, he changed both its spirit and its content.… The novelty of Pope John consisted in his embracing, with enthusiasm, novel ideas about world unity, colonialism, aid to underdeveloped countries, social security, and the rest, which belonged mainly to such recent times as the period since the Second World War;  it consisted in his accepting these new ideas, saying they were good, and urging the world to pursue them.”

The 1961 encyclical Mater et Magistra, “On Christianity and Social Progress,” brings Catholic social teaching “right into the world of the Welfare State,” according to Hales. “The Pope…is embracing what many would call socialism, and he is acknowledging that a new concept of the duties of the State is involved.”

Another characteristic of the Roncalli papacy identified by Hales is its “universal quality.” “Addressing himself to ‘all men of good will,’ he went out of his way to make friendly contact not only with the separated brethren but also with those who professed a philosophy hostile to Christianity.” The 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris, “On Establishing Universal Peace,” transcends the interests of the Church, or even of Christendom, and “looks steadily at the world as a whole.” Pope John XXIII took his role as Universal Pastor literally: “He was not directly trying to get the world ‘back in’ [to the Church]. He was going out into the world, to help the world. … [H]e was thinking of all men as sons of God and therefore of himself as their spiritual father on earth.”

Pope John’s contribution to the writing of the Vatican II documents may have been minimal, yet his view of his own pastoral ministry and of the Church’s role in the modern world had a momentous effect during the Council and in the years that followed.

What: Theological Currents

The question, “What was Vatican II about?” is objectively answered by reading the titles of the documents that the Council approved. From a broader perspective, it is often noted that in some respects the Council completed the work of Vatican I, which had defined precisely the powers of the papacy but had been adjourned before it could discuss episcopal authority in the Church.

Roberto de Mattei sees the remote causes of Vatican II in the early 20th-century Modernist crisis. Although Pope Pius X peremptorily clamped down on a wide range of philosophical and theological errors, many of them “went underground” in the academic world and in certain provinces of religious orders. The real need for reform in the Church continued, but it was not being addressed by erudite and antiquarian studies or fantastic speculation. (Recall that Teilhard de Chardin, SJ had many enthusiasts in the Council hall.)

Besides Modernism, de Mattei examines various 20th-century movements within the Church: biblical, philosophical, liturgical, ecumenical. He depicts a fruitful theological pluralism which in places was bursting the seams of the neo-Thomistic system that was still prevalent, especially in the Roman Curia. Through the participation of theological experts at Vatican II, the best of that scholarship contributed significantly to the conciliar documents. But the journals of several “periti”—scholarly experts—that have been published in recent years confirm that neo-Modernism was a real force and that some advisors arrived with scores to settle and strategies for refighting old battles.

Where: Spotlight on the “European Alliance”

An ecumenical council by definition is a gathering of prelates representing the Universal Church, and since Vatican I the Catholic hierarchy had become thoroughly international. During the preparatory phase of Vatican II every effort was made to consult the bishops worldwide and to distill from their input outlines on topics to be addressed during the council sessions. Professor de Mattei writes:

During the summer of 1959…the “vota” or recommendations from the bishops, the superiors of religious orders, and the Catholic universities arrived [in Rome]. The compilation of this enormous quantity of material began in September and concluded in late January of 1960. The approximately three thousand letters that were sent in fill eight volumes…

When the Council first met on October 13, 1962, “the day’s agenda provided that the assembly would elect its representatives (sixteen out of twenty-four) on each of the ten Commissions that were delegated to examine the schemas drawn up by the Preparatory Commission.” All Council Fathers were eligible, unless they already had been appointed to the commissions. Ballots were distributed with a separate page listing the names of those who already had expertise in certain areas because of their work on the related preparatory commissions.

In a planned preemptive strike, Cardinal Achille Liénart of Lille, France, grabbed the microphone out of turn, complained that “it is really impossible to vote this way, without knowing anything about the most qualified candidates,” and recommended that the Council Fathers defer the vote until they could consult with their national bishops’ conferences. His illegal “motion” was seconded by Cardinal Frings of Cologne, and Cardinal Tisserant moved to adjourn. De Mattei points out that “one immediate consequence” of Cardinal Liénart’s unsettling “solution” was “the introduction of a new organizational form…the episcopal conferences into the conciliar dynamics.”

“The Central-European conferences were the first to play the new role assigned to them,” according to de Mattei. The bishops’ conferences of the Rhineland nations—France, Germany, and the Low Countries—had a disproportionate share of the Church’s wealth, universities, publishing houses, and news services, so it was no surprise that most of the candidates whom they proposed were elected to the Conciliar Commissions. The “European Alliance,” as it was nicknamed, then used its position of dominance to discard many of the schemas that had been drawn up by the preparatory commissions, and to start over with texts drafted by the progressive periti.

These two shifts had momentous consequences during the four sessions of the Council and in the postconciliar period: (1) authority was displaced from individual bishops and Curial officials (who held authority delegated directly by the Pope) to ad hoc geographical gatherings of prelates that were usually run by a few movers and shakers, and to theologians who were simple priests; (2) the Council strangely became less “ecumenical” and more Eurocentric—an ominous trend, in hindsight. This influx of Central European and “democratic” ideas into the workings of the Roman Church was captured by Father Ralph M. Wilgten, SVD, editor of the Divine Word News Service, in the title of his classic book, The Rhine Flows into the Tiber.

When: Cold War politics

Political unrest interrupted Vatican I: King Victor Emmanuel of Italy captured and annexed the city of Rome, and French armies could no longer vouch for the Council Fathers’ safety. Less than 100 years later, Vatican II conducted its sessions during the Cold War, with Europe divided, the Soviet sphere of influence expanding, and an uneasy peace maintained by a policy of mutual assured destruction.

Father Wiltgen, in his week-by-week eyewitness account of Vatican II, notes that a significant percentage of the vota from the world’s bishops had recommended that the ecumenical council explicitly condemn Marxist socialism. During the third session, on October 23, 1964, Archbishop Paul Yu Pin of Nanking, China, speaking on behalf of 70 Council Fathers, asked that a new chapter on atheistic communism be added to the schema on “The Church in the Modern World.” “It had to be discussed in order to satisfy the expectations of our peoples…especially those who groan under the yoke of communism and are forced to endure indescribable sorrows unjustly.”

Despite this intervention and others like it, when the fourth session of the Council opened, the revised schema still made no explicit reference to communism. A petition asking for a reiteration of the Church’s teaching against communism was drawn up by the International Group of Fathers, headed by Archbishop Sigaud of Diamantina, Brazil, and Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, and signed by 450 Council Fathers. Although it was submitted in due form and in a timely fashion, a French prelate in the Curia shelved it, so that the intervention never reached the commission to which it was submitted.

Some Council Fathers had warned that the Council’s silence about the errors of communism would be viewed by history as cowardice and a dereliction of duty. The progressives at the Council argued that a condemnation would jeopardize negotiations with communist governments. Was a crucial teaching moment missed?

Why: Light to the Nations

Those who wonder why the Church held its 21st ecumenical council at all might have to wait until the next life to learn the full answer. Still, the stated purposes of Vatican II should be our starting point. Professor de Mattei notes that in October 1962 the Council Fathers informally issued a “Message to the World.” In it they proclaimed: “In conducting our work, we will give major consideration to all that pertains to the dignity of man and contributes to true brotherhood among peoples.” Good Pope John was apparently persuaded that a war-torn world was finally ready to listen again to the age-old wisdom of Holy Mother Church—a truly international society—and that the institutional Church had to gear itself up for this new dialogue with contemporary man.

This rapid, journalistic survey of Vatican II focused not on what it taught in its documents but rather on several important circumstances of the “event,” some of the opportunities and obstacles that helped shape the Council. As the Church observes the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Second Vatican Council, the conciliar teachings should be understood against the contrasting background of historical facts, without being reduced to an “epiphenomenon” determined by those facts.

Michael J. Miller writes from Glenside, Pennsylvania. He headed a team of translators who prepared the English edition of The Second Vatican Council: An Unwritten Story by Roberto de Mattei.

Additional Materials from the Publisher

No event of the 20th century produced a greater effect upon the Catholic Church than Vatican II, the 21st Ecumenical Council. To many it might seem to have been simply a meeting of important churchmen gathered to discuss church matters, but because the Catholic Church is the only church founded on this earth by God himself to guide men to salvation, the reality is that centuries from now historians will likely consider it, (as well as the message to the world delivered by the Mother of God during her personal visit at Fatima in 1917), as one of the two pivotal events of world history for the recently ended century.

Vatican II opened fifty years ago on October 11, 1962. Since it ended in 1965, the council has been written of in countless books, articles, scholarly journals, magazines, and newspapers all over the world. Things said and done since the council, in the name of the council and in opposition to it, have affected the lives of everyone living since that time.
As with any significant historical event, it is only after considerable time has elapsed that a fuller story of exactly what happened in those years before, during, and after “the event” can be engagingly told and wisely summarized. Professor de Mattei’s genius lies in the application of a lucid, literate, and philosophical mind to thorough scholarly research and mountains of documentation. From this framework he has presented us with a story; a story of an event, a previously unwritten story that has been begging to be told for many years. This book will unfold for you the answer to the question, What happened at the Council?”

“A work that is as erudite as it is relevant. I am certain that thanks to its rigorous historical-critical method it will convince a vast readership.”
Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, President Emeritus
of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Science


Introduction . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .i
1. Vatican II: a council different from the others i
2. The two conciliar hermeneutics iii
3. The reception and implementation of the council vi
4. A “pastoral” or a “doctrinal” council? x
5. The primacy of practice and reform in the Church xv
6. “Rewriting” the history of the council xviii
Bibliographical Note . . . . . . .  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .xxi
I: The Church in the Age of Pius XII . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1
1. The pontificate of Pius XII: triumph or the start of a crisis? 1
a) The high point in the Holy Year 1
b) The “theological crisis” of the 1950s 4
2. The modernist “reform” of the Church, 9
a) The “historical-critical method” 9
b) The principle of immanence 13
c) Between modernism and anti-modernism: the “Third Party” 15
3. The biblical movement 17
4. The liturgical movement 24
5. The philosophical and theological movement  33
6. The ecumenical movement 42
7. A secret society inside the Church? 49
8. The reactions to neo-modernism during the pontificate of Pius XII 55
a) Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira: in defense of Catholic Action 55
b) Father Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange: where is the new theology going? 58
c) Monsignor Joseph Clifford Fenton: a “Roman” voice in the United States 60
d) Father José Antonio de Aldama: modernism has not disappeared 65
e) Father Antonio Messineo: the relation between modernism and progressivism 68
9. Between false reforms and true revolution 71
II: Toward the Council . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .79
1. The death of Pius XII: the end of an era? 79
2. The 1958 conclave 82
a) The “great maneuvers” 82
b) The election of John XXIII 85
3. Angelo Roncalli: conservative or revolutionary. Roncalli the enigma 88
4. Toward the Second Vatican Council 91
a) How the idea of the council was born 91
b) The “Estates General” of the Church? 93
c) Cardinals Ottaviani and Ruffini suggest the council 95
d) What does “ecumenical” council mean? 98
e) Archbishop Pericle Felici, Secretary General of the Council 100
5. John XXIII and “the signs of the supernatural” in the Church. 102
a) “Fatima is not concerned with the years of my pontificate” 102
b) John XXIII and Padre Pio 107
6. The “vota” of the council fathers 108
a) Like the “cahiers de doléance” of the French Revolution 108
b) Bishop de Proença Sigaud: the council between revolution and counter-Revolution. 111
7. Italy “opens” to the Left 117
8. The “Roman Party” takes sides 122
a) The “Roman school of theology” 122
b) The Theological Commission’s “Profession of Faith” 128
9. Cardinal Bea appears on the scene. 131
a) The Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity 131
b) Bea and Ottaviani square off 134
10. The biblical controversy 136
a) Monsignor Romeo’s cry of alarm  136
b) Cardinal Ruffini enters the fray 141
11. Cardinal Bea’s ecumenical “tour”  145
a) Dialog with the “separated brethren” 145
b) The meeting in Metz 149
c) Communism at the council 151
12. The battle for the liturgy 155
a) Latin is the language of the Church 155
b) John XXIII removes the heads of the Liturgical Commission 159
13. The progressives declare war 161
a) The central European bishops organize 165
III: 1962: The First Session. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .171
1. The opening of Vatican II 171
a) The ceremony on October 11 171
b) John XXIII criticizes the “prophets of doom” 173
c) The observers from the Russian Orthodox Church 176
2. The break with council procedures: the session on October 13 177
3. A new organizational form: the episcopal conferences 180
4. The “message to the world” 184
5. The progressives at the council 187
a) The party of the theologians 187
b) The “network of relations” 193
c) The “Bologna workshop”  198
6. The “Little Committee” of the conservative fathers 202
7. The overturning of the “schemata” 210
8. The debate on the liturgy 213
a) The one “progressive” schema 213
b) The question about Latin 217
c) Bishop Peruzzo’s intervention 221
d) An ecumenical Mass? 224
e) The liquidation of the Breviary 226
9. The attack on the schema on the sources of revelation 230
a) Scripture and Tradition 230
b) The progressive critiques of the schema 232
c) “The crime” of November 20 237
10. Discussion on the constitution of the Church 241
a) The various schemas brought to the hall 241
b) The full-scale attack on the Theological Commission’s schema 243
11. Toward a new leadership  246
12. The role of the means of social communication 247
13. “Some fresh air in the Church” 251
14. Assessment of the first session 253
15. Majority and minority at the council 255
IV: 1963: The Second Session. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .259
1. From John XXIII to Paul VI 259
a) Assessment of the council according to Father Tucci 259
b) The last months of John XXIII’s life 263
2. Giovanni Battista Montini on the papal throne 267
a) The conclave of 1963 267
b) The election of Paul VI 271
c) The turn to the left in Italian politics 276
3. The intersession of 1963 277
a) The Fulda Conference and Father Rahner 277
b) The “moderators” of the council 280
c) The reform of the Roman curia 282
4. The opening of the second session 283
5. Pilgrim church and church militant 284
6. The Marian question 289
a) “Maximalists” and “minimalists” at the council 289
b) The anti-maximalist offensive gets underway 292
c) The success of the “minimalists” 296
7. The anti-Roman party in the second session 299
a) Jacobins and Girondists 299
b) The Belgian “middle way” 300
8. The birth of the Coetus Internationalis Patrum 305
9. Between the primacy of Peter and collegiality 310
a) The roots of the debate 310
b) The discussion in the council hall 314
c) The battle of The Twelve is won 318
d) The attack on the Holy Office 322
10. From the European alliance to the progressive world alliance 326
11. The debate on ecumenism 327
12. The constitution Sacrosanctum concilium 331
13. Appeals against communism 335
14. Paul VI’s journey to Palestine 340
V: 1964: The Third Session. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .341
1. The opening of the third session 341
2. The encylical Ecclesiam suam 343
3. The conservatives to the counter-attack  346
a) The official birth of the Coetus Internationalis Patrum 346
b) Cardinal Larraona’s “confidential comment”  348
c) Bishop Helder Câmara’s maneuvers  352
4. A compromise on the chapter De Beata Maria Virgine 354
5. Why doesn’t Vatican II speak of hell? 359
6. The clash over religious freedom 362
a) Two contrasting concepts 362
b) The debate in the hall 366
7. The Jewish question in the council  372
a) From 1959 to 1964 372
b) The 1964 discussion 376
8. “Let us lift up sacred scripture, not tradition” 378
9. Gaudium et spes: The council’s “promised land” 382
a) The Church in the contemporary world 382
b) First skirmishes in the hall 384
c) Teilhard de Chardin’s presence at the council 386
10. A new vision of the Christian family 389
a) Going beyond Casti connubii 389
b) The ends of matrimony 392
11. Marxism and communism are again discussed 397
12. The “updating” of religious life  401
13. Open conflict concerning collegiality 406
14. The “black week”: but for whom? 411
a) Bishop Felici’s announcements 411
b) The revolt of the bishops 414
15. The promulgation of Lumen gentium 418
16. Paul VI sets aside the tiara 423
VI: 1965: The Fourth Session. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 427
1. From the third to the fourth session 427
2. The conservatives’ new initiatives 430
a) The corrections by the Coetus Internationalis  430
b) Cardinal Siri’s criticisms 432
3. The opening of the fourth session 434
4. The battle over religious liberty 435
a) Again the conservatives critique the schema 435
b) The two groups confront each other 437
c) Vatican Council II and Freemasonry 442
d) Paul VI’s decisive intervention 444
5. Schema XIII: criticisms from opposite sides 447
a) The presentation of the schema 447
b) Critiques of the document’s optimism 449
c) Teilhard de Chardin mentioned again in the hall 452
d) Overpopulation and birth-control 454
6. Paul VI at the U.N.O.: a symbolic event 457
a) The speech in the Glass Palace  457
b) The pacifist appeal in the council hall 459
7. Non-Christian religions and Nostra aetate 462
8. Compromise on the constitution Dei Verbum 467
9. The council and communism: the story of a missing condemnation 469
a) Schema XIII and communism 469
b) The mysterious pigeonholing of the anti-communist appeal 473
c) The petition vanishes 476
d) The council fathers protest against the pacifism of schema 13 481
10. The final public sessions 483
11. The historic day, December 7 487
a) The promulgation of the final documents 487
b) The unsuccessful condemnation of communism 489
c) The reasons for the conservatives’ defeat 492
d) The final homily of Paul VI 497
12. The curtain falls on the Second Vatican Council 500
VII: The Counciliar Era (1965–1978). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .503
1. The era of the “Conciliar Revolution” 503
2. The reform of the curia by Paul VI 506
3. The explosion of the crisis: the new Dutch catechism 512
4. The dissent against Humanae vitae 514
5. 1968: the revolution in society 518
6. Liberation theology 523
a) The birth of CELAM 523
b) The encylical Populorum progressio 525
c) The Medellín Conference 527
7. “The smoke of Satan” in the temple of God 530
8. The defeat of the conservatives after the council 535
9. The Vatican Ostpolitik 539
10. The post-conciliar period and the liturgy 544
a) The Novus Ordo Missae 544
b) The secularization of the liturgy 547
11. The Jubilee Year in 1975 550
12. The “Lefebvre case” 554
13. The “Italian way” to communism 556
14. The proximate and remote causes of the “world split apart” 561
15. Twenty years of Church history 564
Conclusion. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 567
Glossary of Technical Terms and Abbreviations. . . . . . . . . . . . . .569
The Translators. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .573
Index of Names. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 575