Just before the Second Vatican Council opened, The New Yorker published a “Letter from Vatican City.” This was followed at the close of the session by another equally outspoken article describing and summarizing what had taken place. The measure of the distance we have traveled since then may be gauged by the sensation occasioned both by these articles and by those which Time’s Rome correspondent was writing simultaneously.
I know their habits, their next of kin,
But who the hell is Xavier Rynne?
asked Mr. John Cogley, Religion Editor of The New York Times. Speculations about his, her, or their identity gave rise to a spate of closed-circuit jokes of the kind the years render tedious. Once internal evidence had indisputably established that he was not one (or all) of a group of singing nuns it only remained for his readers to assess his reliability as a reporter. And if many have disagreed with his opinions, no one (so far as I know) has questioned the substantial accuracy of his facts. Encouraged by the great interest his work aroused, Mr. Rynne expanded his original articles and had them printed in book form. Subsequent volumes appeared in due course, of which The Fourth Session is the latest, and, naturally, the last. Together they form the only comprehensive history of the Council at present available.
Mr. Rynne’s books will not become the standard work on Vatican II because they are written too close to the event to make this possible. They are, however, exceedingly valuable works of reference written by one who not only had access to inside information but has drawn on an astonishing number of commentaries from all over the world.
The Fourth Session follows the same pattern as its predecessors. An account of each meeting is given with reasonably full quotations from speeches. At the end of every chapter the author sets out a summary of the day’s proceedings, lists all officers and speakers, and tabulates the votes. The last quarter of the book confines itself to straight documentation. A very full appendix gives the Pope’s opening and closing addresses, his speeches at the public session in November, also to the Observers and the United Nations General Assembly. It includes the text of the Motu Proprio which established the Synod of Bishops, the Constitution on Divine Revelation, and the Declaration on Religious Freedom.
Mr. Rynne not only sets the scene but takes us backstage, in one instance giving snatches of a discussion between the members of the Commission set up to revise that awkward Constitution, The Church and the Modern World. The snatches are not in themselves particularly exciting, but they throw light on the way things were done, the pains-taking manner in which a measure of unanimity was achieved, and show us a few moving cogs of a cumbersome machinery ill-adapted to express divergent views.
THE AUTHOR, INDEED, makes no bones about the maneuverings, procedural manipulations, and dishonesties by which the minority attempted to frustrate the general will. But it does not do to be excessively high-minded. These things should come as no surprise to anyone who has read accounts of previous Councils; they are as familiar to politicians as the contour of their thumbs. Those censorious critics who point out that the Vatican Council purported to be a special instrument of the Spirit exhibit both a naive ignorance of ecclesiastical history and a failure to appreciate how narrow are the crevices through which the wind has to blow. The more people are convinced they possess the truth, the less concerned they are with individual truths. Catholics remained unscrupulous in this respect longer than the heirs of the Reformation principally because they retained certitude for a greater length of time.
Everyone knows that the Third Session of the Council ended with a glum Pope being carried into the basilica between rows of equally despondent and unresponsive bishops. The main reason for this was the last-minute success of the conservatives in blocking a vote on the eagerly awaited Declaration of Religious Liberty. Many feared that the Pope was so paralyzed by his doubts and hesitations, so much a prisoner of the reactionary forces within the Curia, that no further positive gains could be expected. They were proved wrong. As Mr. Rynne’s narrative makes plain, the achievements of the Fourth Session were considerable, and include what he judges to be the most striking accomplishment of the whole Council—the proclamation of episcopal collegiality. It is, however, not his estimate of the more immediate gains which interests me, but what he has to say about the situation in general.
To an extent which has not only laid him open to the charge of onesidedness, but, so he jokingly tells us, merited a dossier which reposes in the files of the erstwhile Office of the Holy Inquisition, Mr. Rynne makes no secret of his liberal sympathies. He is an interpreter and his running commentary throughout has been not only amusing and lively, but perceptive. He entitles the concluding chapter of the whole series Towards Vatican III. Judged as the work of a more ordinary theological journalist it would be first class. Coming from Mr. Rynne, it is in part disappointing.
He is quite right to insist that it is not the documents themselves that are so important but “the new spirit destined in the course of time to remake the face of Catholicism.” But I do not get the impression he is prepared to recognize either the implications of his “radical reappraisal” or the sufferings, confusion, and enormous difficulties which must, of necessity, accompany its eventual attainment.
The present crisis within the Roman Church is doctrinal. By doctrinal I unequivocally mean that it is concerned with the truth or falsehood of fundamental Christian dogma.
Modern knowledge has put a strain on the letter of Christianity which it cannot bear. No one familiar with the desperate attempts of Protestantism to disentangle the Christian faith from its traditional formulation could have imagined that the doom of man was reversed for Rome. Sooner or later the last stronghold of orthodox Christianity in the West would have been obliged to confront those forces of unbelief which appear so massive and so cogent.
The reform of the Curia, the Synod of Bishops, the vernacular liturgy, papal visits to the Holy Land, India, or the United States, are, in their various degrees, well enough. But they leave the central problem untouched. Man wants to know what he can believe and what are his grounds for doing so. He seeks a statement of faith which is neither incredible nor so nebulous as to preclude intelligent commitment.
Mr. Rynne accepts that the question of “doctrinal development” was the “number one theological problem of Vatican II.” He is pleased that the Church has turned away from the dogmatism of the past to a more plausible explanation of its message, in terms, he says, which the modern world can understand. I think his rejoicing will be ultimately justified. But not yet. There are no caesarian operations in the history of thought. The child must be delivered with much pain and without an anaesthetic.
“If,” remarked Augustine Birrell with his usual urbanity, “papal infallibility is not an attractive doctrine to the English mind, a dumb Church also presents difficulties.” It is plain both from the conciliar debates and the compromises written into the two key documents on the Church and Revelation, that Rome can no longer answer many radical questions with any certainty. And, as Mr. Rynne admits in an amused parenthesis, many of the answers she is tentatively giving are borrowed from thinkers outside her communion. These thinkers are outside her communion because they do not accept her teaching. Only by intellectual legerdemain, tightrope walking of the utmost skill, can much of the new theology be reconciled, not just with that scapegoat “post-Tridentine Catholicism,” but with what the Catholic Church has always thought about herself. It is the author’s adversaries, the despised old guard, the Ottavianis, Siris, and Cardinal Brownes, who think most consistently, who most fully understand the implications of the revolution we are witnessing.
MR. MACEOIN IS A JOURNALIST who was at Rome during the Council and is the author of at least three books on the contemporary religious scene. In his Introduction to What Happened at Rome the same Mr. John Cogley tells us that its author has been unconsciously preparing to write this book all hit life. He has studied philosophy, history, theology, and canon law, is widely traveled, has detailed knowledge of specific problems facing the Church in many different countries, and has interviewed leading prelates the world over.
Many of Mr. MacEoin’s observations are just and shrewd. He is an experienced journalist and technically skillful. It is no easy task to survey four years of intense activity which was by no means confined to the council chamber but has spread over the entire globe. Nor can it have been a simple matter to select the salient points from such an abundance of material or so dexterously to have woven fact and comment into a most readable and interesting narrative. The author writes from the progressive viewpoint, is heavily influenced by Mr. Rynne and therefore, by extension, Dr. Hans Küng. He can be urgent without being peevish.
His general conclusion is sound enough. He agrees with Rynne in thinking that it is the new spirit, not the conciliar documents, which is of first importance. But alas, only too often his “new spirit” turns out to be a very familiar revenant.
Mr. MacEoin wants a liturgy “closer to that of the Early Church” in order that it may be more meaningful to twentieth-century man. Coulton, in his amusing extravaganza, Friar’s Lantern, made a zealous High Church parson go back to the Middle Ages. The unfortunate man did not like what he found and ended up at the stake. If we could go back to the Early Church we should find profound truths held by enthusiasts who turned away from the beauty of paganism in much the same manner as the sixteenth-century Reformers turned away from the beauty of Catholicism. (Incidently, the author is surely wrong to refer to Greece and Rome as “secular cultures.” They were far from secular cultures. For that we had to wait until our own time.) What reason has Mr. MacEoin so confidently to suppose that his “service of the World” rather than a “sacramental liturgy” will be more meaningful to modern man? Most certainly our worship should appeal to the intellect. But like poetry it speaks to much else beside, and as Coleridge perceived, poetry gives much more pleasure when not perfectly understood. It would be a pity if Roman Catholics were persuaded to go back to the kind of thinking which many Protestants themselves recognize to be inadequate.
It seems that Mr. MacEion has been infected by that kind of well-meaning philistinism which has turned “baroque” into a dirty word. The Pope should rid himself of any more tiaras he might have knocking about his closet, beautiful vestments and “ornaments of the liturgy” must disappear. Monasteries and convents might well pull down their walls and throw open their gardens as parks and children’s playgrounds. For the life of me I can’t see why we don’t turn all our churches into recreation halls or rehabilitation centers for juvenile delinquents.
We are betrayed as much by our virtues as by our vices. It would be a mistake because we are theologically uncertain or have for too long indulged in a bogus supernaturalism, been insensitive to the “giant agony of the world,” indifferent to the very real evils of poverty and racial intolerance, if we now turn Christianity into a friendly society. That would be to dress up a basically secular interpretation of the world in religious language. Feed the hungry? Clothe the naked? A thousand times, yes. But so do the heathen.
Mr. MacEoin is not the only one to be haunted by the specter of nineteenth-century liberal Protestantism. Many have been reluctant to concede that far from unbelief turning a man into a scoundrel, atheists and agnostics have been, and are, in the van of humanitarian reform. No longer does any fundamental ethical difference separate the Christian from the unbeliever. To canalize all our energies into good works is to be drowned in our own compassion, to despair of ever finding our indentity, above all to mistake the nature of that giant agony itself. It is to satisfy man’s metaphysical hunger that religion exists.
“Never think on futurity,” was John Wilkes’s cynical advice to a fretful inquirer. “There isn’t enough data.” As long as his subject lives, this notorious drawback defeats even the most experienced biographer. Existing data concerns itself with the external and the obvious. The seasoning is synthetic. What we most want to know cannot be told.
MR. ALDEN HATCH has called his biography of Pope Paul Apostle on the Move, a title taken from the Pope’s description of himself. His book is typical of a genre and not intended for the sophisticated. A great deal of weeping goes on over Vatican telephones, voices are hoarse, faces white with emotion, and sometimes the Holy Father’s eyes shine like a small boy’s at Christmas. But for those who like to see everything faintly couleur de rose, are interested in the Pope’s early life, want to trace his career from curial official and Archbishop of Milan to a Sovereign Pontiff responsible for the management of an exceedingly restive Estates General, it is capable and informative. But for a more acute picture of Paul the reader would be advised to turn back to Mr. Rynne.
Rightly, I think, Mr. Hatch does not look upon the Pope as a person suffering from an innate weakness of character. He certainly lacks those qualities which made his predecessor so greatly loved. But that is his misfortune rather than his fault. He is someone caught between two differing interpretations of Christian fact. If he is a trimmer it is because only by trimming can the craft be kept afloat. And the man who played such a part in framing that remarkable speech with which Pope John opened the Council knows all about Scylla and Charybdis.
It seems that the last words of the dying Pius XII to Montini were instructions to “preserve the deposit.” Earlier we are told that when Paul was a young priest a farmer gave him some eggs. Too courteous to refuse, he juggled them in his hands for a moment, then solved the transport problem by placing them in his hat. Whether he will reach his destination safely is the concern not only of these authors but us all.
November 3, 1966