Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Review: Roberto de Mattei's The Second Vatican Council: An Unwritten Story

Michael J. Miller, who headed the team of translators who prepared the English edition of The Second Vatican Council - An Unwritten Story(Loreto Publications, 2012), has written a review of Mattei's book, "History's View of Vatican II: The Who, What, Where, When, and Why of the Council" (The Catholic World Report, October 12, 2012), which is worth reading:
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.
[Hat tip to Anthony Sistrom]


I am not Spartacus said...

I have the book but I am saving it to read on a plane trip to Italy this spring.

I would note that... 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....is interesting in that the schemas prior to Vatican 1 were also ditched so the fact that a similar thing happened at Vatican 2 was not, necessarily, bad (although it proved to be the case that it was bad).

As to a pastoral council, that is apt; there were no Canons and Decrees to which the Fathers at the Council had to swear fealty to before leaving the Council and the plain and simple truth is that not a few Council Fathers left that Council in full communion with the Church despite voting against several of the Documents whereas Mons Lefevbre voted in favor of accepting every single one of the
documents; that is, he was for them before he was against them - and such is the state of internecine warfare of the New Israel.

Anonymous said...

Fr. Chad Ripperger has an article in Latin Mass magazine (years ago) that takes basically the same approach.

JM said...

The confusion wears on you.

On the one hand, we have the Popes, the guardians of the Faith.

On the other, this:

"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.”

Back to the other hand, as a convert I certainly believe the Evangelical movement has spiritual life in it. So coments like this, which alarm many, sit fine with me:

Rev. Gregory Venables of Argentina says, "Many are asking me what Jorge Bergoglio is really like. He is much more of a Christian, Christ centered and Spirit filled, than a mere churchman. He believes the Bible as it is written. I have been with him on many occasions and he always makes me sit next to him and invariably makes me take part and often do what he as Cardinal should have done. He is consistently humble and wise, outstandingly gifted yet a common man. He is no fool and speaks out very quietly yet clearly when necessary. He called me to have breakfast with him one morning and told me very clearly that the Ordinariate was quite unnecessary and that the church needs us as Anglicans. I consider this to be an inspired appointment not because he is a close and personal friend but because of who he is In Christ. Pray for him."

Others think assocuation with Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa is damning, whereas I find his preaching helpful.

Back to the other side, Vatican II is clearly a compromised mess.

So the fault lines are tough to discern.

Sheldon said...


If I understand what is meant by being "much more of a Christian, Christ centered and spirit filled," I should think it a good thing, despite the inherent dangers the language poses of subjectivism.

The trouble I have with the quarter from which this sort of language often eminates is that it seems almost entirely indifferent, if not ignorant, regarding Catholic tradition. Cantalamessa, for example, thinks everything about the ad orientem concerns of traditionalists is silly nonsense. As a charismatic, what matters for him is "what the Spirit is saying" to the Church. But how is that to be understood and interpreted.

Pope Francis seems to be no more disposed toward appreciating the TLM than Cantalamessa or other charismatics. And I worry that he may have little appreciation for Catholic tradition.

Anonymous said...

I am wondering if I am alone in my concerns regarding the new Holy Father. A night or so ago I read the article about the Anglican who said that Cardinal Bergoglio told him that he did not need to convert. IMHO this is very troubling and I hope it’s not true. I wonder if Pope Francis is or was a member of the Charismatic movement. As a Lutheran I was introduced to the Charismatic movement I can’t believe that it has any place in the Church. Here in the US the Charismatic movement traces its beginning to the Azusa Street Pentecostal movement. I wonder who introduced the charismatic movement to the Argentine people.


Ralph Roister-Doister said...

"He is much more of a Christian, Christ centered and Spirit filled, than a mere churchman."

Yes, I would be one of those who find comments like this alarming. Why should a double antithesis of "Christian" and "churchman", "Christ centered and spirit filled" and NOT so "Christ centered and Spirit filled," spring so readily to the mind of this "mere churchman?" Why should he with such ease of mind downplay his -- and Bergoglio's -- roles as Catholic priests, as if that was only incidentally related to his spirituality? It brings to mind Rahner's "anonymous Christianity" -- it is that for which the charismatic egoism that this "mere churchman" finds so spiritually edifying is a dress rehearsal.

For most neo-Caths these days, all of the above is just peachy. For me, the real antithesis here is "Catholic" and "charismatic."
When I think of the effort to subsume Catholicism within a truly "anonymous" Christianity, I do not think even remotely of the bible. I think of Stephen King's bestseller of happy memory, "The Stand." Here we find Rahner's "anonymity" stripped down to its comic book simplex: good guys vs bad guys.
What makes them good? What makes them bad? Why, like all proper charismelodramatics, they listen to their inner voices, and act out.

Dare we hope Bergoglio has thrilled to it? (:D)

Ralph Roister-Doister said...

Hmm. You know, in the case of anonymous Christianity, there can't be any really "bad" guys. So I guess "The Stand" is more of a fundamentalist thing? Oy, don't let Bergoglio read it!!

JM said...

Re: The Charismatic Movement. I have had a slightly different experience. Against liberal clerics who do not believe in the supernatural, it blew through the Protestant Churches not so much as emotionalism as a conviction that spiritual reality changes lives, the Bible is true, and the Holy Spirit moves people. Easily prone to excess? Sure. But downright bad?

I suspect that if the new pope told an Evangelical co-belligerant the Anglican ordinariate was 'unnecessary," he meant he already saw him as a believer, and they could cooperate. That seems pretty reasonable, and is quite a different thing than discussing the merits of the Reformation.

All that said, reading Mattei's book is like having a pallet of cinder blocks dropped on you. The portions on the schema on the sources of revelation alone explain so much of what has gone wrong.

It is fascinating to me that a review of Mattei's book here is followed several posts on by a review of Ratzinger's "Faith and the Future." That little volume can be read as a faith-reassuring exercise, or, for those detailing cracks in the former CDF head's orthodoxy, as a teaser into the forces that have forced his thinking into its more opaque and hyper-qualified contemporary trajectories.

A more striking juxtaposition of the historical crisis of the Church against recent uneasy attempts at course correction cannot be found. Interestingly, the Anglican reviewer who praised FATF at the conservative NRO is also quietly in favor of gay partnerships... I'd say shades of Christopher Schonborn and Rowan Williams! I always feel reading Joseph Ratzinger that his sympathies are entirely with that sort of theology, and yet as Catholic cleric he feels duty-bound to hold the line with Tradition, which inescapably tugs in a somewhat different direction (thus you have his more frustratingly vague conjectures in one place, and you have his stirringly concise stuff like the CDF thing on Pastoral Care to Homosexuals). It can lead to frustration or to gratitude that the Holy Spirit proves faithful in corralling the Magisterium. Or both.

Pertinacious Papist said...

Some good food for thought, JM. Thanks for that, as always. I have some similar and dissimilar experiences with the charismatic renewal, which I haven't really quite come to terms with yet, I think.

I never personally encountered a charismatic until I became a Catholic twenty some years ago. When I was in college in the U.S., my Protestant missionary parents in Japan told me they had undergone some sort of charismatic experience, though it was never part of my upbringing. But those who welcomed me into the Catholic Church and whom I trusted from the beginning tended to be charismatics. Why? Perhaps because of a similar style of discourse to certain evangelical Protestants with which I was acquainted. Perhaps because of a sense that they had a living and personal experience of the presence of Christ in their lives. Yet as I proceeded to acquaint myself with the resources of Sacred Tradition as a Catholic, a quandary arose: what was Catholic, precisely, about speaking in tongues, singing in tongues, holding one's hands in the air, and praise music accompanied by guitars and drums? I'm not sure how any of this squares with either the description of "tongues" in the Book of Acts, where it seems more a matter of an audience hearing the language of the Apostles in their own vernacular; or in Paul's epistles where he urges individuals in the congregation to avoid the use of unknown tongues unless interpreters are available for purposes of edifying the whole body of those present. Neither of these seems to accord with "tongues" as a "language of praying in the spirit," as is so often witnessed. And whatever that is, it seems to have arrived on the Catholic scene comparatively recently, and as a direct result of the influences of movements like those associated with Oral Roberts of Tulsa Oklahoma, which are about as close to Catholicism as oil is to water.

Ralph Roister-Doister said...

Egoism, fakery, self-delusion. Catholic mysticism is full of cautions of carryings-on that may appear miraculous (and fun!!), but are actually coddlings of vices (pride, typically), and ultimately of demonic origin. The greatest Catholic mystics are the most likely sources of such cautions. If the new pope -- or any pope -- shrugs them off, then he shrugs off centuries of Catholic teaching, and much of his credibility as a Catholic leader.

Anonymous said...

Have you seen that Prof. de Mattei will be speaking on his book next month at the Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C.? April 9, 6:30pm. Admission is free and refreshments will be served.
See this link: http://corrispondenzaromana.voxmail.it/nl/qlepc/wrvjlx?_t=44d10432