Shall we unite with Rome?

ET staff writer
ET staff writer
01 March, 2012 5 min read

Shall we unite with Rome?

Fifty years after the Second Vatican Council was convened by Pope John XXIII, ET features W. J. Grier’s far-sighted evaluation of Vatican II, first published by the British Evangelical Council in 1965 and reprinted here in full, by kind permission of Affinity. This month the author traces tensions between Catholic ‘conservatives’ and ‘progressives’.

The Second Vatican Council came to a close on 8 December 1965. Has it brought sweeping changes in the Roman Church? There are those who say ‘Yes’ and those who say ‘No’.
   In this [account] the whole situation is examined, debates and decisions of the Council are referred to, and its significance is assessed. Momentous issues are at stake and it is of the utmost importance that we be wide awake as to what [happened].


The Second Vatican Council was formally opened with a ceremony of great splendour on 11 October 1962. Some 2,300 bishops walked six abreast in cope and mitre to St Peter’s, where heads of states and diplomatic representatives of 84 countries and 30 observers from ‘non-Catholic churches’ stood to receive them.
   The Council closed with another ceremony of splendour. Its meetings were spread over a period of more than three years and its proceedings made headlines in the press of a great part of the world.
   ‘One hundred and fifty-five miles of magnetic tape was used’, the Catholic herald informs us, ‘to record 6,000 speeches made by the prelates’.
   Pope John defined the aims of the Council as reform and renewal. ‘A reformed and renewed Church could, he felt, engage more effectively in dialogue with the “separated brethren” in other Christian Churches and with the world at large’ (Catholic herald).
   To a cardinal who wished to know what it was all about, he is reported to have said: ‘We want to let some fresh air into the Church’, throwing his study window open as he spoke. Has there been reform and renewal? Has the Council really ‘let some fresh air into the Church’?
   Of many volumes written about the Council, among the most illuminating are three under the pseudonym Xavier Rynne, particularly the third volume, which bears the title The third session.
   The Catholic herald says of Rynne’s first volume Letters from Vatican City, ‘It speaks with a more direct, personal authority than anything else yet published’, and the Times literary supplement says, ‘Xavier Rynne writes with the insider’s awareness of what was going on — and of what was left unsaid’. In this [essay] much use will be made of Rynne’s third volume and other Roman Catholic sources.

Black Thursday

A striking feature of the Council was the pronounced cleavage between the ‘conservatives’ and ‘progressives’, the latter being in the majority. One of the crises in the conflict between these two parties occurred on Thursday 19 November 1964, called ‘Black Thursday’ (Rynne, p. 228), when Cardinal Tisserant announced the postponement of the vote on religious liberty.
   The feeble burst of applause from the ‘conservative’ minority was, says Rynne, ‘at once drowned out by a wave of grumbling, protests and commotion which spread throughout the hall’.
   Rynne comments: ‘One would have to go back to one of the early church councils, that of Trent, for example, when an enraged bishop pulled another’s beard, to find a precedent for the scene of consternation, outrage, and disarray that took place on this memorable morning.
   ‘The bishops felt cheated, betrayed, insulted and humiliated … By what authority, the Fathers asked, had Cardinal Tisserant made his announcement? How can they — meaning either the secretariat or the pope — treat the Council in this way!
   ‘The Council was transformed into a beehive, as bishops swarmed from their places. Two of the four moderators and seven of the ten presidents got up from their seats and joined groups milling around the confession of St Peter’s.
   ‘Nobody was paying the slightest attention to the remaining speakers on Christian education, when finally a semblance of order was restored and the debate went on. The rest of the morning was completely dominated by the agitation produced by Tisserant’s thunderbolt’ (Rynne, p. 258).

Rynne describes the ‘conservatives’ as ‘a persistent, well-organised minority’. ‘The minority’, he says, ‘makes up for lack of numbers by astuteness, cohesion and the influence it can bring to bear through members well-placed in Rome’ (p. 6).
   He adds: ‘What the third session has revealed more clearly than ever before, however, are the lengths which Pope Paul is willing to go to soothe the feelings and assuage the doubts of this powerfully placed group of resisters’ (p. 6).
   Xavier Rynne comments that Paul VI is committing the mistake of Pius IX in 1870 — only in reverse. Whereas Pius IX sacrificed the minority to the majority, Paul VI is willing to risk ‘appearing to sacrifice the majority to the minority’.
   Why does Pope Paul do so? Rynne suggests that his attitude on this point is partly because he is confident he can win them over; partly because he shares some of their misgivings; and partly and undoubtedly because of his spirit of loyalty to a body with which he was once associated — the Roman Curia (the Curia is composed of cardinals residing in Rome and their assistants. These man ‘the congregations’ that control the government of the Roman Church).
   Rev. Enrico Paschetto, head of the Spezia Mission, reporting in the Life of faith on the Fourth Session of Vatican II, states: ‘The last days of the (fourth) session were, as in the previous sessions, the “days of the Curia”, who fought fiercely to recapture all that they possibly could of the lost ground’ (Life of faith, 30 December 1965).
   Rynne refers again and again to ‘manoeuvres’ behind the scenes. This picture of the inner circles of the Roman Church is certainly not that of a united body, but of dogged and persistent resistance to the so-called policy of reform and renewal by a powerful and well-entrenched ‘conservative’ minority.


In his address at the opening of the Third Session, Pope Paul declared: ‘We represent here the entire Church’. He went on to repeat the claim to be the ‘authentic successor of the Apostle Peter … and therefore … true head of the Catholic Church and the vicar of Christ’.
   He referred to the First Vatican Council, which in 1870 ‘defined and proclaimed the truly unique and supreme powers conferred by Christ on Peter and handed on to his successors’, and added that Vatican II ‘is certainly going to confirm the doctrine of the previous one regarding the prerogatives of the Roman pontiff’.
   Later in this speech he said, ‘As successors of Peter and, therefore, as possessors of full power over the entire Church, we have the duty of heading the body of the episcopate’.
   In his encyclical Ecclesiam Suam, issued just before the Third Session began, Pope Paul ‘stressed the prerogatives of the papacy in the most uncompromising terms’ (Rynne, p. 3).
   Pope Paul showed his ‘higher authority’ by his 19 last-minute changes in the Decree of ecumenism and in his reserving the consideration of the matter of ‘birth control’ to himself. In a Milan daily paper he is reported as saying in an interview with a journalist, ‘It is up to Us to decide. And, in deciding, We are alone’ (Herder correspondence, January 1966).
   This is the pope’s own view of his power. It found expression also in his closing address of the Third Session, when he referred to the ‘monarchical’ character of the Church.
   The decree relating to the synod of bishops was promulgated on 28 October 1965. It provides for the establishing of a synod or senate of bishops to help in the government of the Church. Its ‘help’ however, will be given ‘in ways determined or to be determined’ by the pope.

Earlier, there was a notable intervention by the pope in this matter. An ‘explanatory note’ was read by the secretary-general on 16 November 1964. There is no doubt that this was ‘requested, willed, revised, reviewed and approved’ by the pope himself (Rynne, p. 247).
   The minority had ‘literally besieged the pope with entreaties (p. 246), and the pope himself was evidently sympathetic to the view that his supremacy (as over against the Synod of Bishops) must be made clear. The power of the synod of bishops must depend on the consent of the Roman pontiff for its exercise’.
   The explanatory note says, ‘The sovereign pontiff as supreme pastor of the Church, can exercise his power at all times at will — as his office requires … It (the college of bishops) performs strictly collegial acts only at intervals and only with the consent of its head’. This explanatory note was really imposed by ‘higher authority’, that is, by the will of the pope.
To be continued

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