He won the war after losing every battle

Yesterday, we published Ottaviani, Döpfner, and Article 33 § 1 of the Ordo Concilii, a note on the selective quotation of the Second Vatican Council’s rules of procedure by progressives during the debate over the schema De Fontibus Revelationis. In short, Cardinal Döpfner, archbishop of Munich, used a selective quotation of one of the rules governing debate to argue that no presumption existed in favor of the official schemata. What happened next is that the debate over De Fontibus Revelationis became so acrimonious that the schema was withdrawn and a commission formed to draft a new schema, which eventually became Dei Verbum. Today, Thomas L. McDonald has a piece at the National Catholic Register celebrating fifty years of Dei Verbum, including Fr. Joseph Ratzinger’s role in the withdrawal of De Fontibus Revelationis. McDonald sees the disastrous debate over De Fontibus Revelationis as a shining moment in the history of the Council, apparently. McDonald notes,

When you look at the history of the Second Vatican Council, the debate about divine revelation pops out as the central conflict of the entire process. It spanned all four years of the Council, and the arguments about its content and meaning threw the divisions between the Curial conservatives and the central European progressives into stark relief.

The Curia submitted a schema (working document) called “On the Sources of Revelation.” It dealt with the central issue of revelation and was greeted with intense disapproval from many of the bishops and their periti (advisers). One 35-year-old periti named Father Joseph Ratzinger was brought into the debate by Cardinal Josef Frings of Cologne, and he disapproved of the schema.


Father Ratzinger would later write, “The text was written in a spirit of condemnation and negation which, in contrast with the great positive initiative of the liturgy schema, had a frigid and even offensive tone to many of the Fathers.” Its approach to revelation merely repeated the standard theological manuals many bishops had used in seminary, and the former professors of some of these Council Fathers had written it! This very problem was what the Council had been called to correct, and here they were being asked to rubber-stamp the dry old formulas of the past 50 years.

This vocal rejection of the prepared text led to one of the most dramatic moments of the first session of the Council. In order to set aside the schema on revelation, its opponents needed two-thirds of the vote. The result was 1,368 voting to withdraw the text and 813 voting to keep it: 100 short of the two-thirds needed. It was clear, however, that the will of the Council Fathers was to reject the schema and begin again. Thus, Pope John XXIII set it aside on the following day, creating a commission composed of progressives and conservatives and led by Cardinals Alfredo Ottovani and Augustin Bea. It was a decisive moment in the Council, and the document that emerged from this conflict would come to be considered one of the most important of the entire Council.

(Emphasis supplied.) This is, of course, the progressive narrative. Beginning with the description of the pitched battle between reactionaries in the Curia and the progressive European bishops. Cardinal Ottaviani rammed through neo-Scholastic schemata through his Commissio de Doctrina Fidei et Morum. Only when everything was laid out at the Council was it clear how unsatisfactory Ottaviani’s schemata were, and eventually the Council produced something really, really good.

But McDonald is not quite correct on the particulars. The vote was not exactly “to set aside the schema on revelation,” as he suggests. It was more confusing than that. And these events show clearly that the progressives derailed discussion on De Fontibus Revelationis in order to achieve their broader goals. Dei Verbum might be, as McDonald suggests, a crowning achievement of the Council, but it is only so because the progressives wrecked the Council’s procedures because they did not like De Fontibus Revelationis.

On November 20, 1962, after the disastrous debate in general terms, Archbishop Pericle Felici, the general secretary of the Council, made a stunning announcement,

Post exhaustam disceptationem in universum, circa schema de fontibus revelationis, progrediendum esset ad disceptationem de singulis schematis capitibus. Sed, quia adsunt Patres qui id existimant opportunum non esse, consilio praesidentiae visum est omnium Patrum conciliarium suffragium exquirere. Proinde Patrum conciliarium suffragationi subiicitur dubium quod sequitur: «An disceptatio de schemate constitutionis dogmaticae de fontibus revelationis interrumpenda sit». Qui stat pro interruptione signet in schedula Placet. Qui, e contra, vult continuationem, signet Non placet.

Repeto dubium quod est maximi ponderis. Audiant bene omnes. Dubium hoc est: «An disceptatio de schemate constitutionis dogmaticae de fontibus revelationis interrumpenda sit». Qui stat pro interruptione signet in schedula Placet, qui, e contra, vult continuationem, signet Non placet.

(Acta Synodalia I.3.220.) (Emphasis supplied.) The English version read by Archbishop John Krol, a Council sub-secretary for English speakers, shortly after Felici’s statement was as follows:

Having completed the discussion in general on the schema of the fonts of Revelation, it is in order to proceed to the discussion of the individual chapters of the schema. However, since some of the Fathers consider it inopportune to proceed with the discussion of the present schema, the Council of Presidency has decided to seek an expression of the desire of the Council Fathers in this matter. Wherefore, the following question is being submitted to your vote. The question is: “Should the discussion on the schema, on the dogmatic Constitution de fontibus revelationis be discontinued, terminated?” Those favoring discontinuance, should so signify by marking their ballot in the Placet square. Those opposed to the discontinuance, should so indicate by marking the ballot in the Non placet square.

I repeat. The question is: “Should the discussion of the present schema be discontinued?” Those favoring discontinuance, mark their ballots in the Placet square. Those opposed to the discontinuance, mark their ballots in the Non placet square.

(Acta Synodalia I.3.221–22.) (Emphasis supplied.) Cardinal Döpfner got his way! The Council would hold some kind of vote to express its desire whether or not to continue discussing De Fontibus Revelationis. Not whether to set aside De Fontibus Revelationis. And it was not clear that the Council’s vote would be binding in any way. But Ottaviani’s argument—that the Council was supposed to debate the official schema—was plainly rejected by this action.

In a particularly confusing (or shrewd, we suppose) move, the question was phrased in terms of discontinuation, so, in order to vote to continue discussing De Fontibus Revelationis, a Council father had to vote Non placet. To support the official schema, a Council father had to vote “nay.” Confusing enough. But under article 39 § 1, a two-thirds majority was required. So, if a third of the Council fathers voted Non placet—i.e., to continue discussion on De Fontibus Revelationis—the discussion would continue. In other words, while the formulation of the question favored discontinuation, the rules of the Council permitted a minority of Council fathers to force continuation of the debate. And that’s just what happened. But Pope John personally settled the question, establishing an ad hoc commission to rewrite De Fontibus Revelationis. (Acta Synodalia I.3.259.)

Far from being, as McDonald would have it, a moment when the Council fathers rejected musty neo-Scholasticism in favor of openness or whatever, the battle over De Fontibus Revelationis shows that a committed group of progressives can derail any debate that doesn’t suit them. Henri de Lubac’s Vatican Council Notebooks show that the German bishops were opposed to the deeply Catholic schemata prepared under Ottaviani’s leadership. Karl Rahner, assisted by others, including Joseph Ratzinger, had prepared new drafts upon arriving in Rome. Döpfner’s suggestion of an up-or-down vote on schemata as a whole—unprecedented and based upon a selective quotation of the Ordo Concilii—was taken up by the Council leadership. And when it was put to the Council, the question was phrased in a confusing manner that favored termination of the debate: Council fathers had to vote Non placet continue discussion of De Fontibus Revelationis. Under the Ordo Concilii, two-thirds of the Council fathers had to vote to terminate the debate, and when they failed to achieve the necessary majority, the Pope personally intervened to give them what they wanted.

Maybe it is as McDonald suggests: Dei Verbum returned to an earlier, purer understanding of divine revelation and scripture. And maybe it is true that the neo-Scholastic tendency was a reactionary response to the problems presented by Modernist exegesis. (Though it was a poor response, if so, since the history of the Church shows that the Modernists were not routed in the wake of Vatican I and Pascendi; if anything, they learned how to go along to get along until they could seize power.) But all of that is sort of beside the point: the battle over De Fontibus Revelationis was not an instance where the Council realized how rigid Cardinal Ottaviani and his gang of fanatics were; it is an instance where the progressives complained and obstructed until they got their way.

And, again, this is a lesson that every Catholic—indeed, every person in an organization with traditions—needs to commit to memory.