The closing ceremony of the Second Vatican Council, Vatican City, December 1965

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The closing ceremony of the Second Vatican Council, Vatican City, December 1965

In John O’Malley’s When Bishops Meet—the latest of his five books on ecumenical church councils—he compares and contrasts what he has written on the three last councils and argues that there should be a new one. This is the culmination of a great project that was almost forced upon him in the years 1963–1965 when, as a young Jesuit priest, he was in Rome as a fellow at the American Academy, finishing research for his Harvard dissertation on Giles of Viterbo (1469–1532). Giles, a reforming superior of the Augustinian religious order, whose members at one time included the young friar Martin Luther, had delivered the opening address at the Fifth Lateran Council (1512–1517). So the young O’Malley was studying sixteenth-century church reform while watching, along with the entire world, the concluding two years of the Second Vatican Council assembled by Pope John XXIII in 1962. He was given access to the council’s deliberations through Roman connections at the American Academy and through his Jesuit order, headquartered in Rome.

He has maintained this double focus, on the sixteenth and the twentieth centuries, through much of his distinguished career as a Renaissance historian. After receiving his doctorate, he regularly taught a course at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology called “Two Great Councils: Trent and Vatican II.” They seemed to make a natural pair, since the common view was that Trent (1545–1563) launched the Catholic Counter-Reformation and Vatican II ended it. O’Malley does not like the term “Counter-Reformation,” and he wrote the first of his conciliar books, Trent and All That (2000), on the historical treatment (and mistreatment) of the Council of Trent, giving a nuanced account of what the council actually tried to achieve and what uses had been made of it. He argued that Catholic efforts to reform the church had predated the council, and that many of the rigid rules adopted by popes and bishops as “Tridentine”—from the Latin name for Trent—were later accretions to the council’s doctrines. The subsequent ban on reading the King James Version of the Bible, for instance, was part of the reason a separate Catholic school system was set up in America, to escape Protestant indoctrination in public schools.

Vatican II

After this glance at one of the two foci of his years in Rome, O’Malley wrote a book on the other council treated in his course at Weston: What Happened at Vatican II (2008). This was “the biggest meeting in the history of the world.” Pope John XXIII surprised everyone by announcing the council in 1959. The two preceding councils had been called to confront a clear menace—Trent to deal with the Protestant Reformation spreading throughout Europe, Vatican I (1869–1870) to deal with the democratizing energies unleashed by the French Revolution. But there was no such obvious crisis in 1959. Catholics seemed happy in the 1950s, a period of bubbling religiosity. But John XXIII had a sense that all was not well in the church he had observed in his many diplomatic posts and as patriarch of Venice.

His predecessor, Pius XII, had been afraid of liberalizing trends in theology, so he had suppressed them in the encyclical Humani Generis (1950). Leading Catholic thinkers were quietly told to shut up—to stop teaching or stop publishing. Silencing Karl Rahner, Yves Congar, Marie-Dominique Chenu, John Courtney Murray, and others was a form of unilateral intellectual disarmament. Little of this was known to the general public. But it was known to the bishops and the religious order superiors who had to implement this narcotizing of the mind in their seminaries and schools, and it was guessed at by the colleagues and students of those who were muted. But finally, in the progress of Pope John’s council, bishop after bishop brought along, as his theological adviser, another person on Pius XII’s dishonored list. Eventually, they were all in attendance. It was like the swarming of freed prisoners at the end of Beethoven’s opera, Fidelio.

Another thing Pope John knew, but few of his fellow bishops were admitting, was that the church could no longer, after the Holocaust, retain its old “supersessionist” view that God had canceled his covenant with the Jews to replace it with the New Testament. When John sent out a letter to bishops before the council asking what issues should be dealt with, no one mentioned Jewish relations. But John sympathized with the persecuted Jews and over the course of his career had known many. As pope he commissioned Cardinal Augustin Bea to shepherd through the council a change in the church’s attitude toward them. Bea was able to draw on the experience of Jews who had “converted” to Catholicism without giving up one God for another (there is only one)—Karl Thieime, John Oesterreicher, and a dozen others.1


There was a fierce battle on this issue. When Bea told Pope Paul VI (who continued Vatican II after Pope John’s death in 1963) that Maximos IV Sayegh, the patriarch of Antioch, was threatening to withdraw from the council if the view of Jews as “deicides” was renounced, Paul said that in that case he would have to suppress the discussion of the Jews. After that, Bea and Paul were at odds, and Bea won when the bishops voted for Nostra Aetate, a document saying that the chosen people remain God’s chosen. Other hard-fought changes were brought about: a recognition that freedom of conscience demands the separation of church and state (John Courtney Murray won here), that church liturgy could be celebrated in the vernacular instead of Latin, and that “collegiality” of all the bishops should stand on a par with papal primacy. It was a stunning victory for change in the supposedly “changeless” church.


Though O’Malley had already written Trent and All That, which was close to his scholarly interest in the sixteenth century, that book dealt mainly with the council’s afterlife. Now, borrowing part of the title of What Happened at Vatican II as a subtitle, he wrote Trent: What Happened at the Council (2013). The impulse for calling that council did not come from the pope at the time, Paul III, who feared councils but was pushed into it by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. There was nothing unusual about this initiative. The first eight ecumenical councils, held from the fourth to the ninth centuries, were called by Roman emperors, and popes played little to no part in them. Even as late as the Council of Constance (1414–1418), the superiority of councils to popes was made clear. Constance ended a nearly forty-year schism in the church by deposing three rival claimants to the papacy and, on its own authority, electing Otto Colonna as pope, though he was not even a priest, much less a bishop (he was ordained and consecrated within three days after becoming Pope Martin V).

Martin was elected with certain conditions, especially that he call a council every five years. He called and quickly dismissed one after six years, then waited until he was dying eight years later to call another, the Council of Basel, which reaffirmed Sacrosancta, the decree of Constance that declared the authority of councils superior to that of popes. No wonder Paul III was afraid to call another in 1545. But he needed the political and military support of Charles V, and Charles wanted to reconcile Protestant reformers and Catholics within his vast realm. The pope had to agree that the council would convene in German Trent instead of Rome, and that no personal condemnation of Luther would be issued (though his doctrines were attacked). Paul III was hundreds of miles away in Rome, but he sought to steer the council through his authorized delegates.

Against the three powerful dogmas of Luther (called the “three onlys”)—salvation comes sola scriptura (only from the Bible), sola fide (only from belief), and sola gratia (only from grace)—the bishops convening at Trent tried not to issue a simple denial but a nuanced reading of them: salvation comes from the Bible, tempered by tradition; from belief, tempered by authority; and from grace, tempered by performance (“works”). It was hard to oppose Luther’s powerful streamlined doctrine with such Scholastic distinctions about free will and God’s foresight, or about grace and human effort, and some Tridentine theologians put a thumb on the scales, defining what they believed only by emphasis on what they should not believe—in Luther’s grace alone (without efforts, “works,” to earn the grace) or Calvin’s predestination. Trent forbade all joint services with other Christians. That would be “countenancing error.”

The council gave tools of control to the pope and his curia, such as the authorization of the single Latin translation of the Bible (the Vulgate), the Index of Forbidden Books (on which Luther’s works were included), and the supremacy of the pope over these and other tools. O’Malley traces the delicacy of the council’s deliberations, which he calls Trent, and the crudity of their competing implementations, which he calls “Trent.” It was “Trent” that said Catholics could not read any of the hundreds of books on “the Index.” Thus a council called by Charles V to reconcile his Protestant and Catholic subjects was, in stages that O’Malley carefully traces, turned into an instrument for deeper division between the two bodies of believers.

Vatican I

The only council held between Charles V’s and John XXIII’s was the First Vatican Council, as Pope Pius IX’s secular rule over the Papal States in Italy was being wrested from him by the forces of the Italian Risorgimento. The council was broken off as the city of Rome was being captured by the army of Raffaele Cardona. In Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church (2018), O’Malley traces how Catholics in Europe, looking ultra montes—“over the Alps”—to a Rome-centered church, dominated the council. The fanatical ardor of ultramontanes was demonstrated by a scene O’Malley describes from two years before the council’s opening: Matteo Liberatore, a Jesuit cofounder of the Vatican journal Civiltà Cattolica, wrote a vow for Cardinal Edward Manning of London and Bishop Ignaz von Senestrey of Regensburg to take at the tomb of Saint Peter in Rome, pledging themselves to promote a doctrine of infallibility for Peter’s supposed successor, the pope—a vow they vindicated, with the help of other ultramontanes, at the council.


The Vatican Council was the culmination of “Trent” in O’Malley’s broad sense. It finally reversed the Sacrosancta of Constance, declaring the pope not only superior to the body of bishops but infallible when pronouncing doctrine formally (ex cathedra). “Infallibility” has been used more often as an aura about papal utterances than as an actual assertion of unquestionable truth. In this latter sense, it was cautiously deployed only once, on a comparatively safe and long-established devotion, when Pius XII declared the Virgin Mary’s assumption into heaven to be infallibly certified (Munificentissimus Deus, 1950). O’Malley, though a Jesuit himself, gamely shows that the Jesuits of the nineteenth century were the principal enablers of Pius IX’s pretensions to absolute authority. After their order’s suppression and restoration by popes, they were hesitant to disagree with them on any subject.2

Councils often have paradoxical results. Pius IX, by insisting that Catholicism must be the established religion of all valid states, made life difficult for Catholics living in states with no established church or with a non-Catholic established religion (like England’s). But this just led to Catholics’ working out a modus vivendi with political authorities of various sorts. These arrangements with a number of different rulers led to acceptance of a separation of church and state at Vatican II.

Councils also have backlashes to their new doctrines or new emphases. Opposition to the changes of Vatican II began even while it was underway, with Paul VI’s attempt to sabotage the decree on Jews (he gave a Passion Sunday sermon during the last session of the Council in which he continued to say that Jews killed Christ) and his reassertion of papal primacy even as he adopted the council’s plan for frequent “collegial” synods of the bishops. Pope John Paul II tried to dampen the enthusiasm for “good Pope John”—there had even been some effort in the council to canonize him by acclamation at his death, in the original church practice—by beatifying him along with his antithesis, Pius IX, in 2000. Both John Paul and Benedict XVI were grudging in their acceptance of the council’s liturgical and other reforms. They encouraged conservative Catholic groups like Opus Dei (whose founder John Paul canonized), Communion and Liberation, and the Legionaries of Christ (whose pedophile founder John Paul befriended, though Benedict XVI forced his retirement).


At the end of When Bishops Meet, O’Malley discusses whether there can or ought to be a future council, and answers the question with “a resounding affirmative.” He does not underestimate the difficulties in the way of one. He notes that Vatican II, which was attended by just over two thousand bishops, was held in the nave of St. Peter’s Basilica; no bishops sat in its transepts or side aisles. The number of participants would be greater now, not only because of new bishops from new areas swelling their ranks, but because of the need to include more of the laity and the leaders of other religions cautiously invited to Vatican II. Even more pressing would be the need to include women in greater numbers with new responsibilities (there were only a few women auditors at Vatican II). O’Malley notes that the council could be contained (barely) if the transepts and side aisles of St. Peter’s were fitted out with acoustic improvements. But an ampler place for holding such a giant meeting could, with some major adjustments, be the Paul VI Audience Hall (which can hold 6,300).

O’Malley does not say what the new council might consider, but no one who reads the news or knows the facts can doubt that the present emergency of the church has to do with the horrible priestly attacks on children and the sinister protections of criminal priests by conniving bishops. And that is just one aspect of the church’s sexual problems. One drawback to pretending to be an unchanging church is that views and attitudes once adopted tend to outstay their usefulness or defensibility. The church has accumulated a number of ancient views on sex, including the fourth century’s Neoplatonic deprecation of the body. This view was confirmed at Trent by a declaration that marriage is inferior to celibacy.

The celibacy of priests was a problem raised at all the “modern” councils O’Malley has discussed. At Trent, where Charles V wanted the matter of Luther’s marriage to be considered, an envoy from one of Charles’s holdings introduced a study in Bavaria that found that “out of a hundred [priests] only three or four were not secretly married or keeping concubines.” He concluded: “Better a healthy married life than an infected singleness (contaminatus caelibatus).” At both Vatican councils, the presence of married bishops from the Eastern Church was a tacit challenge to the celibacy imposed in the West. At Vatican II, Pope Paul forbade the consideration of priestly celibacy, but Maximos IV Sayegh, who had prepared a speech to defend the East’s position, sent it as a letter to him: “Most Holy Father, this problem exists and is becoming daily more difficult. It cries out for a solution…. Your Holiness knows well that repressed truths turn poisonous.”

The celibacy issue arose again at the sixteenth synod of bishops in October, with a proposed waiver of the requirement for men of proven virtue (viri probati) to serve in places with few or no priests. This should not be surprising, since a waiver was already given to Anglican priests who could remain married after becoming Catholics.3 But conservative Catholics find any such change of the celibacy requirement a move toward the “slippery slope” into making celibacy voluntary for priests, not mandatory.

That issue is just one aspect of a general sex-craziness that had led the church to declare a whole series of acts to be mortal sins: masturbation, oral sex, anal sex, premarital sex, contraception, homosexuality, divorce, artificial insemination, abortion, stem cell research, vasectomy, tubal ligation, and coitus interruptus. This last practice for contraceptive purposes was condemned by a scriptural citation to Onan in Pius XI’s encyclical Casti Connubii (1930). Dorothy Parker responded to this idea by naming her pet bird Onan because he “scattered his seed on the ground.”

Scripture scholars pointed out that Onan’s sin was not contraceptive in intent; it was defiance of the duty of a levirate marriage—having a child heir by the widow of a brother, to continue his line. Scripture is no longer used as an argument against contraception, but the rest of Casti Connubii was held firmly enough by Paul VI to make him ignore the recommendations of a “birth control commission” set up by John XXIII and continue the ban on contraceptives in Humanae Vitae (1968).

Without a clear scriptural basis for this extraordinary chain of sexual obsessions, church authorities rely on a goofy argument from “natural law”: God made sex for procreation, so any use of it without direct procreative purpose is against God’s plan. We could as well say that God made food and wine for bodily sustenance, so any use of them without a direct intent to sustain life is thwarting God’s intent—there go the wedding cake and champagne toast.

The councils treated by O’Malley have largely avoided the weird sexual legislation listed above for a good reason—and it was the reason bishops tried to hide, ignore, or belittle the crimes of sexual predator priests. Open any of these sexual subjects and the church’s entire constellation of bizarreries comes into view. Can any new council avoid an inspection of this catalog of the absurd? But how could it? The pedophilia scandal continues to explode daily, with secular authorities exposing the inadequacy of the Vatican’s attempts to handle it. By now, this is a church-devouring matter. It seems unlikely that even a council could effectively take it on. But before Vatican II, it seemed impossible that the church could change its long-standing positions on Jews, pluralism, liturgy, or episcopal collegiality. The new situation may be hopeless. But a council may be the one true “Hail Mary pass” that brings back hope—to the entire church, not just its rulers.