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Caves of the Vatican

Memories and Hopes

by Leon-Joseph Cardinal Suenens
Veritas/distributed by Ignatius Press, 408 pp., $19.95 (paper)

My Witness for the Church

by Bernard Häring, translated by Leonard Swidler
Paulist Press, 236 pp., $14.95 (paper)


Peter Hebblethwaite’s timely and well-documented biography of Giovanni Battista Montini (1897–1978), whom he calls “the first modern pope,” brings into focus the character of a remarkable prelate, whose intelligence, ecclesial background, and career paradoxically made him overqualified for the position of supreme pastor of the Roman Catholic Church, to which he was elected in 1963. Tacitus undoubtedly would have rated him capax imperandi nisi imperasset—“a capable governor, if only he had never governed.”

This would not be an unfair appraisal of the considerable achievements of Paul VI, who in 1963 reconvened John XXIII’s Vatican Council and brought it to a successful conclusion after four years of agonizing contention between the Church’s bishops and the Vatican bureaucracy. It was Paul’s painful, Hamlet-like indecision during the aftermath of Vatican II, in dealing with the old guard in the Roman Curia, that resulted in the disillusion, resignations, and rebellion among clergy and nuns who had expected speedy implementation of the council’s liberal decrees. His indecision also caused widespread disaffection and discontent among the Catholic laity, and almost brought down his papacy in the late 1960s. Hebblethwaite has succeeded in penetrating the enigma of this highly sensitive, sophisticated, and worldly Italian churchman who almost brought about the updating of the Church projected by his beloved predecessor, and then failed to do so.

Montini came from a family that was active in the pre–World War I social, religious, and political life of northern Italy. His parents met for the first time on a pilgrimage to Rome, prophetically on the steps of St. Peter’s. His father, Giorgio Montini, at thirty-three was an established banker and publisher of the daily Il Cittadino di Brescia; his mother, Giuditta Alghisi, at nineteen was an orphan, a well-to-do socialite and a moderate feminist. Her guardian, Giuseppe Bonardi, the mayor of Brescia, a rabid, anti-Catholic socialist and an old Garibaldian, had opposed their marriage. Of their three sons Ludovico became a senator, Giovanni a medical doctor, and Battista the Pope. Too delicate in health for seminary life or for service in the military, young Battista lived at his parents’ house with his grandmother and aunt while pursuing his ecclesiastical studies. In 1920, at twenty-three, he was ordained a priest by the local bishop, who was a family friend.

Intent on pursuing studies in literature and the arts, he enrolled in the Sapienza (University of Rome), where he was spotted by Monsignor Giuseppe Pizzardo of the Vatican Secretariat of State who encouraged him to register in the papal Collegio di Nobili to be trained as a diplomat. He developed a talent for writing and a deep interest in French literature and theology. As a junior cleric at the Vatican, he became chaplain of the Federation of Italian University Students (FUCI), the only lay Catholic organization that engaged in serious intellectual opposition to Mussolini’s fascist regime, which was also opposed by the reigning Pope, the redoubtable Pius XI, who was preparing an encyclical denouncing fascism.

FUCI was the target of political violence; during a pilgrimage members were beaten up by Mussolini’s goons. Montini, having arranged for a group of these students to have a special audience with Pius XI, had the unenviable task of informing them at the last moment, outside the audience chamber, that the Pope would not receive them—because he had learned that one of them had sent a telegram of congratulations to King Victor Emmanuel, and this was anathema to the self-proclaimed “prisoner of the Vatican” who was still protesting the 1870 usurpation of the papal states. This incident, as Hebblethwaite makes clear, is typical of the pitfalls Montini would experience throughout his career.

Having been brought into Vatican inner circles, Montini found that he was now favored by Monsignor Alfredo Ottaviani, the sostituto or right-hand man of Pius XI. In 1937 Montini was entrusted with the delicate diplomatic task of dispatching Monsignor Francis J. Spellman, the future cardinal of New York, to Paris where he was to release the closely guarded text of the encyclical Non abbiamo bisogno—“We have no need of this [nonsense],” the Pope’s condemnation of fascism. Montini then found himself removed as chaplain of FUCI, on a trumped-up charge of political meddling. After setting up courses in theology at the university, he launched a theological journal, Studium, and he seemed to retain the confidence of his patrons in the Vatican. In 1937 Pius XI issued his encyclical in German condemning Nazism, Mit brennender Sorge—“With burning care.”

When Cardinal Pacelli became Pius XII in 1939, Montini became the new pope’s sostituto, while Ottaviani moved to the head of the ancient and powerful Holy Office. Montini’s new job was not easy. Pius XII, who had a penchant for omniscience, asked him and his staff to research projected papal speeches on midwifery, mechanics, basketball, and similar arcane topics. Pius XII’s neutral policy toward Germany during the war was widely criticized, most harshly in Hochhuth’s play The Deputy. Montini disavowed the playwright’s charge that the Pope was cowardly and wrote that if he had taken up “a position of violent opposition to Hitler in order to save the lives of…millions of Jews,” this would have been “not only futile but harmful.” He also wrote: “It is not true to say that Pope Pius XII’s conduct was inspired by a calculating political opportunism.”

Indeed, Montini himself had had a hand in the Pope’s Christmas message in 1942 denouncing the idolatry of the German state and condemning “the hundreds of thousands of innocent people put to death…because of their race or descent.” Von Ribbentrop vociferously objected to this message. After the war Montini supported the liberal Alcide de Gasperi to succeed Don Luigi Sturzo as head of the Catholic Partito Popolare Italiano. This gained him the ill will of the conservative bloc in the Curia, or papal administration in Rome (including the cardinals Canali, Ottaviani, Pizzardo, Mimmi, and Micara), which backed Dr. Luigi Gedda as leader of the Christian Democratic Party.

In December 1954, when Pius XII became gravely ill, Montini was unceremoniously removed from the Vatican to become archbishop of Milan, but without the cardinal’s hat that usually goes with this prestigious diocese, a familiar case of promoveatur ut amoveator—“upgraded, to be ousted.” This turned out to be fortuitous. The elimination of Montini from the papal conclave of 1958 opened the way for the election of Cardinal Angelo Roncalli, the popular patriarch of Venice, as an “interim” pope who (so the electors thought) would not rock the boat, and would soon disappear. John XXIII, Montini’s close friend, immediately created him a cardinal. After John’s death in June 1963, Montini contradicted the ancient cliché, “He who enters a conclave as pope exits as cardinal,” by being elected Pope Paul VI.

Two veteran churchmen were prominent in their support of Paul VI’s determination to continue efforts to bring about major reforms within the Church. They were Cardinal Leon-Joseph Suenens of Belgium, and the Bavarian priest and theologian Bernard Häring, both now in their eighties, who have written the books under review. In Belgium Cardinal Suenens—a tall, stately, and fearless man—had barely escaped hanging by the retreating Nazis, whose interference with the University of Louvain and with the secular universities of Ghent and Liège he had courageously opposed. The timely arrival of American forces saved his life. This experience confirmed his imperturbable parrhesia (frankness in speech) and the boldness with which he acted as one of Paul’s main confidants during the council sessions. In the first session, under John, Suenens had taken his stand as a leader of the progressives, most of them residential cardinals and prelates, including over eight hundred missionary bishops. But Paul’s other chief adviser was Cardinal Ottaviani, his early patron and protector, who led the council’s conservative minority opposition.

Ottaviani was defeated in his attempts to block the revolutionary achievements of the assembled prelates in redefining the nature of the Church, the sources of divine revelation in the scriptures, the inviolability of individual consciences, and the absolute quality of religious freedom in both civil and ecclesiastical societies. He acknowledged at the council’s end, “I have always been in the minority.” This crafty veteran understood that minority control could outwit majority will—the familiar Bolshevik tactic. As “proprefect” of the Holy Office—in effect its chief administrator—he assumed the prerogatives of personal infallibility in dealing with the Church’s doctrines and moral teachings. He never hesitated to censor fellow-prelates and distinguished theologians, and he banned the Dutch bishops’ reform-minded early pastoral letter on the council from being translated for circulation to the council members. He also prevented the preparatory commission from inviting many prominent theologians to take part, including the French Dominicans Yves Congar and Marie-Dominique Chenu, the French Jesuits Henri de Lubac and Jean Daniélou, the Swiss theologian Hans Küng, the German Jesuit Karl Rahner, and the American Jesuit John Courtney Murray. All were men of outstanding competence who attended the council itself and eventually made decisive contributions in the debates.

The irony of this situation was that Ottaviani was never a trained theologian. He was an expert in Church law who taught the subject at the Lateran seminary during much of his curial career. Though by the time of the council he was partially blind, he was possessed of an exceptional memory and a ready command of Latin, and through the power of his office he was able to intimidate many bishops and cardinals. Pope John tolerated the old warrior for his personal bonhomie and his Horatio Alger-like background. One of eleven children born to a baker’s wife in Trastevere, the poor section of Rome, he became a prince of the Church. He supported a school for deprived children within the Vatican grounds, with summer vacations at Frascati. In 1960, two years before John XXIII’s council opened, Ottaviani had republished a canonical textbook, Institutes of the Public Law of the Church, which defined the Church as a societas perfecta, a perfect society with all the prerogatives of a civil state.

This concept made of the Church a hierarchical institution along the lines of a political state, an outmoded concept.* It was rejected by most modern doctrinal theologians and repudiated by the tract “On the Nature of the Church,” proposed by the group around Cardinal Suenens. Portraying the Church as the Lumen gentium or the light of the world, as well as the traditional concept of the Church as the people of God, the Suenens group gradually replaced the old Ottaviani thesis, but not without bitter controversy within the preparatory commission. Lumen gentium was the title given to the final doctrinal constitution, which preserved the hierarchical structure of the papacy but stated that the bishops also have a collegial relation with the pope.

The Ottaviani forces never accepted the full significance of this doctrine. When Pope Paul, at Suenens’s suggestion, organized the first Roman synod of bishops—a bi- or tri-yearly assembly in Rome of the elected representatives of bishops from different countries and regions—to discuss with the Pope, their fellow-bishop, specific issues of church policy, Ottaviani managed to undermine the synod’s power by announcing, obviously with the Pope’s consent, that its conclusions were only consultative and not binding. So much for the doctrine of collegiality, promulgated with the full force of a Vatican council.

  1. *

    In the international order, papal ambassadors or nuncios represent the pope as head of the Holy See, not as the ruler of the Vatican City state—a very important distinction. This internationally recognized status is the basis for the Holy See’s absolute neutrality. This was demonstrated during World War II when an Allied representative (Cardinal Spellman) was given access to the Vatican through Italian fascist territory. See Francis X. Murphy, “Vatican Politics,” in World Politics, Vol. 26 (1974), pp. 542–559.

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