Second Vatican Council

Signficant developments follow opening of council

(The following is the complete reprint of a 1962 article run in The Criterion in the final days leading up to the Second Vatican Council)

Criterion logo from the 1960sVATICAN CITY—The week-end pause following the opening of the Second Vatican Council found participants and journalists pondering three significant developments of the previous days.

These were the meaty opening address by Pope John XXIII, the dramatic arrival of the two delegate-observers from the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Council’s brief first working session at which French and German cardinals joined forces in what newsmen chose to consider the opening maneuver in a conflict of influences.

All three events, each in its own way and degree, made a notable impression on the initial stage of the Vatican Council.

What Pope John told the Fathers of the Council reflected no doubt his own personal ideas of what the Council is or ought to be, but his words also revealed the present state of mind of the chief organizers of the Council’s preparatory work.

In his talk, the pope agreed that the Council’s first duty is to preserve the integrity of the deposit of faith, but he made it clear he expects the Council to look upon its work from the pastoral rather than from primarily a theological standpoint. This does not, of course, exclude significant decisions of highly doctrinal import during the course of the Council.

The pope’s and the Church’s concern today is not about doctrine itself so much as for its correct understanding and its due impact on the faithful. The iconic character that has consistently marked his present pontificate was evident in his disparaging of anathemas and condemnations as means of action, and also by his statement that the Church today prefers to defend its doctrines by demonstrating their validity rather than by mere condemnation of error.

Pope John’s remarks on church unity, while warm and generous, probably disappointed most non-Catholic ecumenists. In his somewhat lengthy section on church unity, he presented unity as consisting essentially in the return of separated Christians to the bosom of the Catholic Church.

It would have been unrealistic to expect a different stand at this stage of the Council and of interconfessional relations. The Pope’s general tone, however, definitely put the Council on guard against any decision likely to damage the cause of unity among mankind today.

The appearance of the two Russian Orthodox delegate-observers, representing what the official Vatican announcement termed “the Patriarchal Church of Moscow,” was made all the more dramatic by the gradual, even the hourly, unfolding of the story all the way from Moscow to the doors of the Vatican.

Cardinal Augustin Bea, head of the Vatican Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, has stated he was officially notified that the Russian Orthodox observers were coming to Rome by a telegram dated October 11—the day the Council opened.

The sending of the observers surprised everyone outside the Secretariat and perhaps even some in the Secretariat. Especially surprised must have been Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras of Istanbul, supreme leader of Eastern Orthodoxy, who a day or two before had informed the Vatican that while his prayers were with the Council, no Greek Orthodox observers would be sent.

Later Patriarch Athenagoras indicated he felt he had been let down by the Moscow Patrirarchate’s unilateral action. His complaint, published in the press, carried a faint hint, to put it mildly, of a charge of lack of candor on the part of Moscow.

More outspoken was the angry comment of Archbishop Chrysostom of Athens, head of the Orthodox Church in Greece, who said Moscow’s decision was a body blow to Orthodox unity. He said he could only explain the action as being dictated for political reasons by the Kremlin.

This explanation was promptly rejected by the Moscow Patriarchate, but the Russian Orthodox Church is today represented in Rome for whatever reasons and history will not forget it regardless of future developments.

The Vatican representative who went to Moscow late in September to sound out Patriarch Alexei, head of the Russian Church, was, according to reports, warmly and deferentially received.

Pessimistic eyes, however, are not lacking in Rome which view the Moscow act as a mixed blessing. Some fear that the sending of the observers is part of a maneuver to destroy at one stroke both Istanbul and Rome.

Having humiliated Patriarch Athenagoras whose influence, it has been suggested, the Moscow Patriarchate hopes to supplant in the Middle East, Moscow will shortly also humiliate Pope John by finding some pretext for withdrawing in feigned indignation from the Vatican Council. The threat of withdrawal was already hinted, say these pessimists, by the two Moscow observers themselves who while in Paris, en route to Rome, said they would remain at the Council “until they are recalled by their superiors.”

The short business meeting of the Council consisted in a request by Cardinal Achille Lienart, Archbishop of Lille, for the postponement of action on the composition of various Council commissions. Persons suggested for these posts, he is reported to have said, were unknown to many of the bishops.

Cardinal Lienart, who said he was speaking in the name of all the French bishops, was seconded by Cardinal Frings, Archbishop of Cologne. The German cardinal also said he was supported by Cardinal Bernard Jan Alfrink, Archbishop of Utrecht, Cardinal Franziscus Koenig, Archbishop of Vienna, as well as by his fellow German Prince of the Church, Cardinal Julius Doepfner, Archbishop of Munich.

Cardinal Lienart’s proposal was adopted without a challenge, but journalists saw in this brief episode a beginning of an attempt by bishops of northern Europe to prevent the Council from becoming a rubber stamp for the decisions of a few dominant Roman personalities.

Journalists have always engaged in the search for “conflicts” and “blocs,” and the game is at its height at the start of congresses when there is little else to speculate on any social operation including an Ecumenical Council.

There are inevitably the traditionalists versus the reformers. The traditionalists usually are found in ranks of bureaucrats who feel it their duty to protect the organization from what they regard, not always without reason, as unrealistic and impractical demands of enthusiasts.

Reformers, on the other hand, fear that professional formations of specialists and functionaries stand in the way of needed changes.

One thing acknowledged here is that the northern European bishops are undoubtedly slated to play a most dynamic role in the Council because of their position at the crucial frontline of modern church crisis, as well as because of their depth of theological experience.

Local site Links: