The history of the Second Vatican Council—which is to say, the nitty-gritty, technical stuff—has largely receded into inaccessibility. While the faithful are told—and told and told and told—how important the Council was to the life of the Church. It was a second Pentecost, a rebirth of the Church, and any number of other things. But the how and why of the Council are so poorly understood that this seminal event in the life of the Church might as well have happened on the dark side of the Moon. For our part, given our deficient formation in Church history, we have endeavored to find out more about what actually happened during the Council, including, when possible, the technical aspects of the events. While these technical aspects are, of course, interesting from an antiquarian standpoint, we think that there are lessons that can be drawn from them that may well be applicable today.
For reasons perhaps obvious to you, dear reader, we have followed the arguments of Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani, then the secretary of the Holy Office (popes were their own prefects in those days). The first session of the Second Vatican Council did not go well for Cardinal Ottaviani. Not only did he find himself outmaneuvered by the Modernists and progressives but he also found himself humiliated openly during sessions of the Council. Perhaps the most notable incident occurred on October 30, 1962, during the debate over the draft constitution De Sacra Liturgia, which, after amendment, was issued as Sacrosanctum Concilium. Ottaviani rightly apprehended that the progressives were aiming at a complete revision of the Mass, widespread use of the vernacular, and communion under both species, among other things. (Acta Synodalia I.2.18–20.) And he said so. And in saying so, he ran over the allotted time for interventions. (The allotted time wasn’t exactly a hard-and-fast rule, either: the Ordo Concilii, art. 33 § 3, provided, merely: “Quilibet Pater de una eademque re, ex regula, semel tantum loqui potest, idemque rogatur decem momenta ne excedat.”) But Bernardus Cardinal Alfrink, a confirmed progressive, was presiding on October 30, and he ordered Ottaviani’s microphone cut—to applause in the hall, which was noted, perhaps cruelly, in the Acta Synodalia.
But the indignity suffered during the debate over De Sacra Liturgia would not be Cardinal Ottaviani’s last battle during the first session of the Council. The progressives, recognizing that some of the approved schemata prepared by the preparatory commissions would not achieve the sweeping changes they demanded, began to prepare and circulate their own draft schemata. The progressive Jesuit Henri de Lubac, in his Vatican Council Notebooks, reports that the Germans, including Jesuit Karl Rahner, prepared an alternate draft of the doctrinal schema almost as soon as they hit the ground in Rome. (Among the bright young priests helping Fr. Rahner draft an alternate schema was a young priest of Munich and Freising and rising theologian, Fr. Joseph Ratzinger. What a life the cloistered monk of Mater Ecclesiae has led!) The alternate schemata were, of course, circulated among sympathetic Council fathers. It goes without saying that Ottaviani objected to this practice.
The issue really began to come to a head on November 14, 1962, in the context of the hugely contentious discussion of Cardinal Ottaviani’s schema De Fontibus Revelationis. (One could write a book on the disastrous course of events surrounding De Fontibus Revelationis and its eventual replacement, Dei Verbum.) Ottaviani did not read the relatio personally—Msgr. Salvatore Garofalo, a professor at the Urbaniana and a member of the theological commission read the relatio, as a matter of fact—but he did make some prefatory remarks, including a very pointed comment about the alternate schemata then circulating:
Circumferuntur quaedam schemata quae essent substituenda schemati officialiter proposito. Hoc mihi non videtur congruere cum dispositione can. 222, par. 2, quae unice Summo Pontifici reservat materiam disponendam, et non esset reverens et obsequiosum erga Summum Pontificem, qui dedit discutiendum propositum schema officialiter, et igitur mens eius est ut hoc schema discutiatur, non alia quae privatim proponuntur. Si sunt correctiones faciendae, huic schemati fiant. Est liberum omnibus proponere correctiones, emendationes. Sed super hoc schema debet fieri discussio, non super alia.
(Acta Synodalia I.3.27.) In fact, Ottaviani’s spoken remarks on this issue were more pointed than his prepared text (cf. Acta Synodalia I.3.28). The theological commission had prepared—not without controversy—schemata for the Council to consider. The Council was supposed to consider the official schemata!
In support of his argument on this point, Ottaviani cited canon 222 § 2, which provided:
Eiusdem Romani Pontificis est Oecumenico Concilio per se vel per alios praeesse, res in eo tractandas ordinemque servandum constituere ac designare, Concilium ipsum transferre, suspendere, dissolvere, eiusque decreta confirmare.
(Emphasis supplied.) In Ed Peters’s indispensable translation of the 1917 Code, this is rendered:
It is for this same Roman Pontiff to preside himself or through another over the Ecumenical Council, to establish and designate the matters that are to be treated and the order to be observed, and to transfer, suspend, dissolve, and confirm the Council and its decrees.
(Emphasis supplied.) That is to say, the pope sets the agenda for ecumenical councils and determines what they will consider.This remains, essentially, the law of the Church today (can. 338 § 2). Cardinal Ottaviani could well have also cited chapter 8 of the Ordo Concilii Oecumenici Vaticani II Celebrandi, which plainly anticipates that the official schemata would be discussed and amended through debate in the public sessions. Regardless of the legal authority, Ottaviani had a point: when John XXIII distributed the commissions’ draft schemata, he “establish[ed] and designate[d] the matter . . . to be treated.” In Cardinal Ottaviani’s opinion, the Council fathers were therefore obligated to consider the “official” schemata, not agitate for the alternatives, such as the one prepared by Karl Rahner and his collaborators.
The debate over De Fontibus Revelationis went badly. As soon as the relatio was over, Cardinals Liénart and Frings, two leaders of the progressive faction, rose to attack the schema on various issues. (One can read the Acta Synodalia to see exactly why the progressives hated Ottaviani’s De Fontibus Revelationis, needless to say the effects of such a clear, precise statement of Catholic doctrine on ecumenism were deplored.) The battle continued on November 17. Julius Cardinal Döpfner, the young archbishop of Munich and another confirmed progressive, rose to criticize Cardinal Ottaviani’s points. In fact, he argued for a major revision to the procedure of the Council that would open the door to the alternate schemata:
Hanc disceptationem minime timeamus—ceteroquin in quaerenda veritate spectaculum unionis et caritatis in Spiritu Domini praestantes—neque ut irreverentia erga Summum Pontificem censenda est talis discussion. Nam in Ordine ab ipso Summo Pontifice dato legimus (art. 33 § 1), quemvis Patrem de unoquoque schemate admittendo vel emendando vel etiam reiciendo verba facere posse. Ex quo constat: ex laboribus praeparatoriis nullum oritur praeiudicium, et omnino intactum remanet nobis munus diiudicandi quid fiat de unoquoque et etiam de hoc schemate… Post disceptationem in genere autem fiat suffragium, utrum schema ut totum accipiatur an non. Quo suffragio peracto, videbimus quomodo ulterius procedendum sit. Si revera praesens forma schematis maioritati competenti Patrum placuerit, uti subiectum ulterioris laboris adhibeatur; si non, novum schema elaboretur. Et hoc, secundum meum humile iudicium, praeferendum esse videtur, quia a punctis diversis tendentiis et curis magis approprinquante exordium sumeretur.
(Acta Synodalia I.3.125) (Some original formatting omitted.) In other words, according to Cardinal Döpfner, because the Council fathers could, under article 33 § 1 of the Ordo Concilii, urge the rejection of a schema, there was no presumption in favor of the official schemata. And, based upon this lack of presumption, Döpfner took took the argument a step farther: after the general discussion of an official schema, there should be a vote whether the schema should be taken up or not. Obviously, as a German Council father, Döpfner knew that there were alternate schemata circulating, especially Rahner’s draft of a doctrinal schema. And given the course of the debate over De Fontibus Revelationis, one wonders whether Döpfner knew something the rest of the Council fathers didn’t.
Cardinal Ottaviani intervened shortly after Cardinal Döpfner’s speech and responded to the German’s points, suggesting that Döpfner simply did not understand how the preparatory commissions worked. (Acta Synodalia I.3.131.) Ottaviani also responded to Döpfner’s extraordinary suggestion that the schemata receive a general up-or-down vote after the initial debate:
Quod attinet ad novam propositionem factam quando iam labores sunt in fine istius constitutionis, quando iam maioritas…, fortassis cuidam non placet quod iam maioritas se expendit pro approbatione in forma generali cum emendationibus utique istius constitutionis; nunc fit propositio, ut respuatur. Hoc mihi videtur contrarium canoni 222, § 2. Videtur contrarium etiam ipsi dignitati istius consessus.
(Id.at I.3.132.) Once again, Ottaviani raised canon 222 § 2 as an objection to the notion that the Council could reject an official schema. The pope sets the agenda of an ecumenical council and the pope proposed the official schemata.
But Döpfner’s position got an unexpected boost against Ottaviani’s canon 222 § 2 argument. Norman Cardinal Gilroy, an Australian, was in the chair on November 17, and he read a note, responding to Ottaviani’s remarks:
Aliquis Pater conciliares mihi tamquam praesidi scripsit: «Enixe rogo em.mum praesidem congregationis ut attentionem Patrum dirigat ad canonem 33, sectionem primam. Est quod sequitur: “Quivis pater verba facere potest de unoquoque proposito schemate vel admittendo vel reiciendo”. Attentio dirigatur ad verbum reiciendo».
(Id.) (Emphasis supplied.) It is apparent, then, article 33 § 1 is therefore a significant procedural rule for this moment in the history of the Council: Cardinal Döpfner cited it as in support of his argument that no presumption existed in favor of the official schema, and it was the basis of the note passed to Cardinal Gilroy to shut Ottaviani down. And, given that the debate over De Fontibus Revelationis turned out to be a tremendously significant moment in the first session of the Council—indeed, the whole Council—one might say that article 33 §1 is a significant procedural rule for the history of the Council as a whole. But what does it say?
One must look for a copy of the the Ordo Concilii Oecumenici Vaticani II Celebrandi, as it was during the first session of the Council. (The Council’s procedures were later revised during the Council itself on a sort of ad hoc basis, including during the debate over De Fontibus Revelationis.) However, the 1962 Ordo Concilii can be found in Latin as an appendix to John XXIII’s motu proprio Appropinquante Concilio, helpfully available in Latin and Spanish on the Vatican’s website. There, you find article 33 § 1:
Quivis Pater verba facere potest de unoquoque proposito schemate vel admittendo, vel reiciendo, vel emendando, suae orationis summa Secretario generali saltem tres ante dies scripto exhibita.
It’s a procedural provision. The Council fathers could make an intervention urging the adoption, rejection, or amendment of an official schema so long as they provided a copy of their written text to the Council general secretariat. That’s all. It is certainly not a mandate for an anything-goes discussion. And the progressives at the Council probably knew that, since they assiduously avoided quoting the final clause of the provision: suae orationis summa Secretario generali saltem tres ante dies scripto exhibita.
If the procedural aspect of article 33 § 1 weren’t clear enough from its words, the remaining provisions of article 33, make it clear:
§ 2. Oratio ita ordinanda est ut prius de principiis generalibus, postea vero de particularibus dispositionibus agatur, schematis ipsius. semper ordine servato.
§ 3. Quilibet Pater de una eademque re, ex regula, semel tantum loqui potest, idemque rogatur decem momenta ne excedat.
§ 4. Si orator obiecti vel temporis assignatos limites praetergrediatur, potest a Praeside ad eosdem revocari.
§ 5. Qui emendationes proposuit, absoluto sermone, scriptam relationem eandemque a se subscriptam Secretario generali tradere debet.
§ 6. Qui singula verba vel paragraphos schematis emendanda censuerit, scriptam formulam proponere tenetur, prioribus substituendam.
In other words, article 33 simply sets forth the procedure of debate in the Council aula. One doubts very much that it was intended to have the substantive significance that Cardinal Döpfner attached to it during his intervention. Certainly, the text, when it isn’t silent, seems to assume that the Council will be debating the official schemata, not preparing and circulating alternate schemata. However, when Döpfner made his intervention and when Gilroy read out the note essentially restating Döpfner’s position, the implication that article 33 § 1 abolished any presumption in favor of the official schemata went almost unchallenged. Almost: on November 20, Bishop Luigi Carli—later to become the subject of some controversy during the debate over Nostra aetate—intervened at length regarding the interpretation of article 33, and he argued against the broad interpretation articulated by Döpfner. (Acta Synodalia I.3.231–33.) Too late, though.
All of this is, of course, interesting in its way. Certainly, the inside baseball of the Council is fascinating, not least since it adds context to the documents the Council ultimately handed down. It also fosters enormous sympathy for Cardinal Ottaviani, who was, it seems, outgunned by the organized progressives at every turn. But there is, it seems to us, another reason for interest in this episode: the progressives’ approach to the law.
Consider what happened in outline form. Ottaviani cited canon 222 § 2 against the practice of preparing alternate schemata. Döpfner quoted part, but not all, article 33 § 1 of the Ordo Concilii in support of the argument that the official schemata enjoyed no presumption and that the Council should take an up-or-down vote on each official schema after the general debate. Ottaviani returned to canon 222 § 2 during the debate, and someone passed a note to Gilroy also quoting part, but not all, of article 33 § 1, and implying that it authorized that sort of practice. In other words, Döpfner’s selective quotation of the rule was used to justify a revolution in procedure plainly not foreseen by anyone but the progressives.
Laws, which ought to be construed harmoniously, were turned against each other. And it largely worked. It seems to us that one can find examples of this sort of activity in various circles today. This, then, is a reason why it behooves traditionally minded Catholics to familiarize themselves with the events at the Council.