Paul Blanshard on Vatican II
The Drama of Vatican II: The Ecumenical Council, June 1962-December 1965
If time is reckoned by months and years, it is not so very long since Mr. Blanshard published his bestseller American Freedom and Catholic Power. If, however, time is measured by change, so much has happened to the Roman Catholic Church in the short interval between the publication of that book and the summoning of the Second Vatican Council that we might all have been living for centuries. Then we wondered when reform would begin; now where it will end.
American Freedom and Catholic Power was a vigorous protest against all those things that made the Church of Rome, in its functioning, resemble a police state. It takes courage to make enemies, and of course Mr. Blanshard was much abused. In those days most Catholics, if they read his book at all, probably thought him mad, bad, or both. But I imagine that if the Council came as a shock to them, it was an equal shock to Mr. Blanshard, who might fairly complain that the Romans have caught him bathing and stolen his clothes. Most of the criticisms he then voiced have now been expressed as repeatedly and as strongly by those within the fold.
AS SO OFTEN HAPPENS, many who attacked American Freedom and Catholic Power did so for the wrong reasons. The weakness of that book lay not in its exposure of Roman illiberalism, but in its lack of balance. This was owing to the author’s failure to recognize what religion is fundamentally about. Paul Blanshard on Vatican II suffers from the same defect. The limitations of Mr. Blanshard’s outlook are apparent from his very first sentence. He tells us there that the object of his work is to report on the Council and appraise it in the light of traditional American democratic values. On almost the last page a doubt enters his mind. It could be, he says, that the American way of life is also on trial in the light of the Council’s philosophy. But in order to appreciate what is of worth in this book the reader, like the author, must put this question to one side and take Catholicism at Mr. Blanshard’s original valuation.
For he represents a very large section of our society. He speaks for those who are repelled by the externals of institutional Christianity, whose theology is superficial and knowledge of Church history confined to the more spectacular manifestations of clerical folly or the grosser doctrinal errors of the Papacy. Such people make no distinction between religion and the kind of behavior well-bred atheists agree to call good. They do not really understand that the purpose of the entire paraphernalia of the Roman Catholic Church is to direct man’s eyes to God in this world so they may be capable of a fuller communion with him in the next. For them the word became flesh in order to disclose the Western democratic tradition. To the extent that this tradition stands for values held precious by rational men everywhere and that its neglect has obscured the real meaning of religion and made its very name suspect, they are absolutely right.
For these reasons then, and not because he has anything to contribute to the religious debate as such, Mr. Blanshard did not spend his years covering the Council unprofitably. The dust jacket shows us a picture of a sardonic-looking man striding past St. Peter’s in a bow tie and mackintosh with the air of a disillusioned and faintly dyspeptic private detective. But Mr. Blanshard can be perfectly amiable. He is scrupulously fair. When he fails in this respect it is not because of spleen but lack of perception. Above all he is candid. His lack of involvement, indeed his insensitivity to what is fundamentally at issue, frees him from that scourge of religious liberalism, the double think. Unlike some Catholic commentators, he does not have to assert infallibility while in effect denying it, to pretend he is merely “refining” a doctrine when he is in fact contradicting it, to declare the Scriptures inerrant while accepting the conclusions of biblical scholarship, and generally to employ defensive arguments he would scorn to use in the secular field.
THE COUNCIL lasted on and off for three-and-a-half years. Wisely, in such a comparatively short book, Mr. Blanshard does not attempt to report its proceedings in strict chronological order. He sets the scene, explains the machinery, selects the most important subjects that came up for debate, and deals with them chapter by chapter. This makes for clarity. Apart from the retention of Latin in debate and the refusal of Cardinal Cushing’s offer to install the equipment required for simultaneous translation, the Conciliar machinery anyway was slow, cumbersome, and open both to manipulation and pressure from unrepresentative groups. But considering the enormous number of bishops present—some 2500—it is amazing that it worked as well as it did. In brief, draft documents—called schemata—were drawn up by a preparatory commission and presented for debate. Those who wished to speak had to submit what they wanted to say in writing well in advance. The schemata were withdrawn for amendment, re-presented, and eventually promulgated as solemn conciliar documents. There were in the end sixteen of these, variously called Constitutions, Decrees, and Declarations.
Although all the schemata discussed in St. Peter’s are noted and listed, naturally enough Mr. Blanshard writes best and most fully about those matters which interest him most. To those who interpref the Council in theological terms, the most significant final decrees must be the Dogmatic Constitutions on Divine Revelation and the Church. Mr. Blanshard is concerned, not to say obsessed, with two things: first with the autocratic structure of Catholicism; secondly with the Church’s attitude toward the great humane movements of our time. His most useful chapters and most astringent reporting are devoted to the questions of religious liberty, treatment of the Jews, the relationship of Church and State (he is a notorious opponent of State-aided Church schools), racialism, the status of women in the Church, clerical celibacy, mixed marriages, divorce, and contraception. He gives two entire chapters to the prolonged struggle to get the decree on religious liberty passed, significantly calling one “Religious Liberty, External” and the other “Religious Liberty, Internal.” It is hard for those who live in societies where religious toleration is as much taken for granted as the right to brush one’s teeth to understand exactly why the opposition to this measure was so strong. By means of judicious excerpts from various speakers, Mr. Blanshard indicates what the historical, social, and theological reasons for this were, and has the sharpness to link one kind of liberty with another. For if, as the Fathers eventually proclaimed, man in general has a natural right to follow his conscience, to what extent and in what way does this principle apply to those within the Church? Mr. Blanshard takes his opportunity to tilt yet again at Catholic restrictions on intellectual freedom; but by reporting the mounting attack on the Holy Office (Inquisition) triggered off early on by Cardinal Frings of Cologne, he makes his readers aware that the whole wretched system is doomed. In fact the Index of Prohibited Books has already gone, and after this volume was published, further relaxations of censorship even for priests have been granted in America.
I found Mr. Blanshard’s attitude toward the American episcopate a little ambivalent. In his opinion they arrived at the Council as unsure, bewildered, hard-working, narrow-minded administrators, generally of Irish stock, passively accepting the dominance of the Italian curia and inclined to be shocked at the signs of rebellion among the more progressive German, Dutch, and French bishops. Educated as they had been in the “dogmatic rut of the seminary system,” they did not present to the world a picture of great intelligence. They were saved from vacuity only because they were fed by their theological experts. (In fact Cardinals Ritter and Mayer were scholars in their own right.) On the other hand, these same bishops are to Mr. Blanshard the heroes of the Council. As time went on they “blossomed forth in the true American spirit, emerging as the leading champions of religious liberty, racial justice, and fair play for the Jews.” It is true, I think, that nearly all the American bishops, like the British, came from an exceedingly narrow educational environment, an environment which had totally unprepared them for the new opinions they were to confront when the Council got under way. But the same might be said of most of the Council Fathers. The surprising thing is that what was at the start a mere handful of progressives should so quickly have turned into a majority. I can suggest various reasons for this, but one of the most important is given by Mr. Blanshard himself. That is the influence of world opinion on the conciliar debates. As soon as the attempts at secrecy broke down, modern communications made certain that what was said was known. What was known was commented on. The bishops found that statements and attitudes which go down well enough from pulpit or seminary lecture room appear rather less impressive when placed in a wider context.
Mr. Blanshard’s final pages are given up to a balance sheet, a profit-and-loss account which is entirely in character and consistent with his estimate of the purpose of Catholicism. With strong reservations about what was actually achieved, he thinks that the commitment to social reform was the Council’s greatest practical advance. Secularism gives the Church B-plus for effort. About one matter, however, and that, if the total implications are honestly faced, possibly the most difficult moral decision humanity has ever had to make, Mr. Blanshard must stand convicted of a fundamental inconsistency.
He is not the sort of man who hesitates to apportion blame, who is so aware of delicate gradations from black to white that all rebuke is paralyzed. He takes Pope Pius XII severely to task for his dealings with Hitler and for failing to use his full authority to protect the Jews. “…there must be,” he writes, “occasions in history when a Church has the duty to die rather than compromise on a moral issue.” I agree. Without in any way belittling the help given by the Vatican to the Jews, a man who calls himself the Vicar of Christ surely should have condemned categorically the action of any Catholic who fought on the side of such a diabolical regime. But what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Mr. Blanshard is far too shrewd to think moral principles decide the balance of power. It was the Royal Navy, not admiration for the English nanny, nor the rectitude of Dr. Arnold’s pupils, that made Great Britain respected in the nineteenth century. In time we shall all come to see that as an instrument of policy, war is nothing less than criminal folly. But this stage has not yet arrived. If the United States here and now gave up atomic, bacteriological, and chemical weapons she would cease to be a world power and lay not only herself, but those she protects, open to their enemies. Mr. Blanshard gives a short but fair report of the extended debates on this subject. The Fathers came to the conclusion that modern weapons merit unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation. But with the moral weakness of Pius XII and the strong support of the American episcopate, they refused to condemn the possession and manufacture of the instruments whose use they declare to be “a crime against God and man himself.” What of the American bishops now? What of the duty of dying rather than compromise on a moral issue? There are, it seems, occasions in history when even Mr. Blanshard’s censures are mute. The accusing finger hovers over the profit-and-loss account without making any significant entry.
NO ONE WHO BOTHERED about the Council at all could have failed to have come across the distinguished dispatches from the correspondent of the French newspaper Le Monde. And here they are, as they were written, an account of the proceedings from the first day until the last, collected by an enterprising publisher into a single fat volume of more than 800 pages entitled The Drama of Vatican II. The combination of strict documentation and highly informed comment make this a reference book of an unusual and particularly valuable kind. M. Henri Fesquet writes as a sharp-eyed, sometimes predatory journalist, taking in atmosphere, informal gatherings, comments of the Protestant observers, extra-Petrine lectures, and the reactions of the world press. Since there were long gaps between sessions, and newspaper readers cannot be expected to remember precisely what was said the day before, there is a certain amount of repetition and recapitulation but nothing to outweigh the great advantages of the method employed. The reporting has an immediacy, verve, and color absent from any retrospective analysis. Some of his shots are unforgettable—his description of an average morning session in St. Peter’s; the American bishop who (it is said) shouted “the bastards” when the schema on religious liberty was suddenly and suspiciously withdrawn on the point of vote; the Mass in the Ethiopian rite, the deacon with bells stitched to his headgear, and the Fathers clapping their hands in unison with rolling drums.
M. Fesquet, in contrast to most American and English laymen, was a reformer before the Council started. Not for him the ludicrous left-about-turn which, as the movement gathered momentum, characterized so much Catholic writing in the English-speaking world. He shows that from the very beginning he had a grasp of which issues were likely to be fought over and which individuals and groups would constitute the spearhead of the progressive party. This is not surprising. M. Fesquet is a student both of the Dominican theologian Yves Congar and Jean Guitton (the latter not only the first Catholic lay observer but one of the very few actually to address the Council), and the author of a well thought of book Catholicism: Religion of Tomorrow. What is remarkable is his gift for making what are really rather difficult and subtle theological questions clear and above all meaningful to the ordinary intelligent reader. He explains, for example, why there was so much fuss about the exact relation between Scripture and Tradition, and untangles the complicated arguments for and against the establishment of an episcopal “college” to assist the Pope. He uncovers motives, pinpoints pressure groups, and thoroughly understands both the Italian temperament and the workings of the Roman curia.
“THE COUNCIL,” Mr. Blanshard asserts, “brought the Church down from pie in the sky to the great human movements for peace, racial justice, and plenty.” M. Fesquet is aware that without pie in the sky he might just as well have been reporting the proceedings of a trade-union congress. He knows that Christianity came into the world primarily to change not our environment but our hearts, and that if it is to survive, it must show where and why it is distinct from the humanism which proclaims the self-sufficiency of man. Yet he shares Mr. Blanshard’s consciousness that the Church has tended hitherto to neglect an entire area of human experience and in so doing cut itself off from the very humanity Christ came to save. This consciousness colors his whole attitude and his estimate of the Council’s achievements. He attaches, therefore, great significance to the famous “schema 13.” Schema 13 was the basis for the Constitution The Church and the Modern World, which Fr. Comgar called “the promised land of the Council.” It is addressed to all men, of any religion or none, and is concerned with race relations, social justice, the population explosion, and all those matters civilized people deal with through the exercise of their reason. When this constitution was only a twinkle in the eye of the progressives, M. Fesquet was asking if it would or would not furnish proof that the Church is capable of transcending its internal difficulties to confront the problems of mankind directly. He thinks that proof has been furnished and that, whatever the defects and platitudes in the constitution, the Church has at last come down into the market place. Never again, as a speaker put it in debate, will people “get the impression that the only laymen the bishop has occasion to dialogue with are his doctor and his housekeeper.”
It may be, as M. Fesquet thinks, that Pope Paul’s moral authority was enhanced by his handling of the Council. But the Council ended in December 1965, and since then his vacillation about birth control has greatly diminished the respect in which he was held. Very many Catholics have had their marriages ruined because they believed what they were told. Deeper than that, they feel that if they have been deceived about one matter, they may have been deceived about all. Of course it is absurd that the breakdown of what is now a mere sexual taboo should prompt so many people to doubt the truth of those fundamental and universal intuitions of the spirit which Catholicism exists to defend. But once an authority claims a literal infallibility, detected error discredits that authority altogether. M. Fesquet’s narrative bears witness to the disastrous consequences which have followed a superficial and legalistic understanding of what is in any case a misleading term. Rather than admit past error the reforming party within the Council had to resort again and again to prevarication and conscious half-truth. Cardinal Lienart had the effrontery to remark that the Church “faithful to the Gospel” had always been against war. The attempts to argue that it was only nineteenth-century theologians who condemned toleration should have made the relics of St. Augustine rattle in their casket.
WE OWE a great debt to M. Fesquet. The least we can do is to pay his conclusions the compliment of serious attention. Unpopular though it may be, I am bound to say that I cannot share his optimism about the immediate future. “This liberation of Catholic thought,” he writes toward the end of his book, “…in a way enables the Church to take up the standard of the French Revolution…. Liberty, equality, fraternity: this glorious motto was the quintessence of Vatican II…” History should teach us to be wary of hasty and indiscriminate rejoicing. The liberation of Catholic thought, which was a direct outcome of the Council, has followed the pattern of, all such violent liberations. The Church of Rome has been plunged into exactly that kind of doctrinal and liturgical confusion familiar to other Christians but from which, up to now, Catholics imagined themselves to be immune.
The reasons for this are plain enough. It is not merely that the Pope’s position as shepherd and teacher has been gravely impaired by the birth-control controversy. Before the Council, as Mr. Blanshard pointed out in American Freedom and Catholic Power, the Roman Church was as illiberal in its strictures as any Communist regime. It is easy to make harsh distinctions between cowardice and prudence. But whatever excuses are made, the fact remains that in those days the Church’s natural leaders allowed themselves to be silenced as easily as a canary when a cloth is put over its cage. Mr. Robert Speaight has recently disclosed that Teilhard de Chardin was on one occasion forced by Rome not just to keep quiet but to make a formal denial of what he believed to be the truth. This cooperation with tyranny resulted in the association of the Church with established error. It made it impossible for Catholics to join their Protestant brethren in the attempt to meet those moral and intellectual objections to Christian belief posed by modern knowledge. They are now free to do so and in the process have discovered that honest examination requires them to reject part of their basic teaching.
Mr. Blanshard refers contemptuously to the “fantastic assumption that the Ruler of the Universe had chosen one group of narrowly educated prelates in one church to be the prime ducts for the transmission of all divine truth to an unenlightened humanity.” This fantastic assumption, however, was shared by the Apostles, taught by the Evangelists, preached by the Early Church, acted on in the Middle Ages, and firmly adhered to by the Protestant communities long after they had broken away from Rome. Christians did not burn each other alive for the sake of an opinion, for what might prove to be anybody’s guess, but because each church thought that the teaching authority of Christ was conferred on it alone. Mr. Blanshard fails to appreciate the fundamental importance of this claim or the extent to which it has been relinquished by the one church that still maintained it. M. Fesquet knows better, but his optimism has blinded him to the radical implications of its virtual, not verbal, abandonment.
If the Roman Catholic Church is not the one true Church, if other Christian communities are allowed any sort of legitimate status whatever, then Rome becomes undoubtedly if the most important, nevertheless just one church among many. In that case the Second Vatican Council, which represented only those Christians in union with the See of Peter, has no claim to be called “Ecumenical.” Further, if Rome is not, after all, the sole appointed voice of God on earth, what reason is there to prevent anyone having his say, and who is to judge the truth of his utterances? This is the question the Council has raised. On its answer the future of Christianity depends.