An Insider At
Vatican Council II
by Terrence G. Kardong
The following review of Mon Journal du concile I-
When in 1961 Dominican theologian Yves Congar received a letter from the Vatican inviting him to participate in the preparatory sessions for Vatican Council II, he was both relieved and surprised. Surprised, because he had been under a cloud with the Holy Office since 1937 when he published Christians Disunited: Principles of Catholic Ecumenism; but also relieved because he wanted nothing more than to contribute to what promised to be the peak theological event of the twentieth century.
Congar’s experience in the advance committees was not very satisfying to him. He found that the Roman Congregations had already drawn up documents that they wanted the bishops of the world to approve. Since the mentality of the Curia was almost entirely conservative, the plan was to simply reinforce the Church’s teachings and, in time honored fashion, to issue condemnations of the multitude of harmful ideas and movements that plague the modern world.
Progressive theologians like Yves Congar were only called upon because Pope John XXIII insisted on their presence. But they were not given any kind of decisive role in the preliminary planning. Congar says he and his colleagues (the periti) were not seated at the table with the bishops and curial officials. They were seated along the walls, where they were not permitted to speak unless bidden. On the few occasions when Congar was asked his opinion, he warned the Curia that the bishops were not likely to accept their formulations. But no one paid him any attention.
Once the formal sessions of the Council began in 1962, the Curia learned to their dismay that Congar was quite right. The bishops rejected almost all of the Roman documents and sent them back for reworking with instructions for specific improvements. Congar says that even though the first session of the Council in 1962 approved almost none of the papers the Vatican offered it, nevertheless the very rejection of the old regime and its ideas was decisive. After that, nothing would be the same. With the benefit of hindsight, we can also say that the Catholic Church thereby changed course for the first time since the momentous Council of Trent in the sixteenth century.
Once the various commissions were faced with a thorough revision of their work, it was obvious that different people would have to be called on for their expertise. There was no way that the Curial tigers could suddenly change their stripes. What was needed was input from the leading thinkers of the Catholic theological world, namely, people like Yves Congar. Very soon these theologians were asked to reformulate the church’s statements on all manner of basic issues. In fact, many intellectuals like Congar, Henri de Lubac and John Courtney Murray, had to be summoned from virtual exile. During the long theological winter that stretched back to Pius IX, progressive thinkers had been marginalized by Rome. Now they were suddenly deemed indispensable.
As for Congar, he was especially noted for his writings on ecumenism, a very touchy subject with the Holy Office. But apparently he was recognized as an expert on many other areas of importance as well. As time went on, he was appointed to more and more commissions and committees. In the end, he had his hand in most of the Council documents. Of course, these documents went through a very demanding process of debate and rewriting. And the Old Guard fought them every inch of the way, using whatever methods they could to subvert the “new order.” But eventually all of the progressive declarations were approved by a large margin. Congar admits experiencing a good deal of satisfaction at the final session when he heard several of the most important documents read aloud and acclaimed. He says he recognized his own work echoing through St. Peter’s Basilica that morning.
Even though Congar was instrumental in writing and rewriting many conciliar documents, he did not feel his contribution was all that decisive. In his opinion, the really effective people at Vatican II were the Belgians. This may surprise some people; I know it did me. I always assumed that the French and the German bishops and theologians more or less controlled the proceedings. Certainly it was true that many of the greatest theologians at the Council were from those two countries, and their bishops also made important contributions. In the opinion of Congar, however, the Belgians really had the greatest impact of all:
The Belgians are not numerous: five or six, but they are everywhere. Not only have
they placed their people in all the interesting positions.... They all come from
Louvain and refer to Louvain. They know each other; often they are classmates and
on familiar terms. They are consistent and they use the same references.... What
comes from Louvain is sacred. It is almost as if “The Master has spoken.” Often I
react exteriorly, and more often still interiorly.... The theological center is Msgr.
Philips.... First of all, he has great intellectual solidity. He knows his business
very well. He sees clearly. He is well aware of the expressions and the documentation
of a question. He can situate the problems very well.... The Belgians have a militant,
aggressive attitude. They are not content, like the French, with timidly proposing
corrections of details, in taking the text as it is: they modify the text. They have
assigned themselves certain objectives, they want to make certain things happen.
They act, they intervene, they cause their friends to attain their goals. They are
not fixed on certain ideas like the Chileans, with Medina, and somewhat like the
Germans;...The Belgians dare. They have not been hectored and they don’t feel watched
like we do. I am convinced that this plays a big role. Personally, I have never been
able to transcend the fears of a suspect man; one who is suspect, sanctioned, judged,
According to Congar, the Belgians were highly effective at the Council for at least two reasons: 1) They were a cohesive, highly organized and serious group. They strategized together, they did not undercut each other and they respected each other’s competence. On the last point, Congar sometimes rages at the way the men from Louvain quoted their theologians and exegetes (especially L. Cerfaux!) as if they were biblical prophets. 2) They were generally calm and effective in the discussions that took place in the commissions. Thus they were gradually able to win over the confidence of Curial officials such as the redoubtable Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani and his top assistant, Sebastian Tromp, S.J.
The Belgian contingent was lead by the charismatic Cardinal Leon Suenens, one of the Synod Presidents of the Council. He and his three presidential colleagues made brilliant strategic decisions to keep the vast, unwieldy Council moving and heading in a positive decision. Suenens made sure he brought with him the top Louvain theologians, men like Gerard Philips, Gustave Thils, Charles Moeller and Albert Prignon. These are not exactly household names, nor do they figure too prominently in popularized accounts of the Council such as the famous New Yorker reports of “Xavier Rhynne” (F.X. Murphy). But in the opinion of Congar, they were the ones who actually brought off this incredible undertaking.
When we think about it, Vatican Council II was an impossible happening. How could over 2,000 bishops from all over the world come together and bring about a virtual revolution in the Catholic Church? The sheer numbers were more or less unmanageable. For example, it took 30 minutes for the group to just process into St. Peter’s on the opening day! And then there were the endless general sessions. How could they be productive? Speakers were allowed eight minutes each, and on some questions hundreds of bishops signed up to orate. Since the Council stretched out over eight months (in four years), it is not hard to imagine the stupefying effect of this endless parade of speakers. Add to that the problem that all talks had to be given in Latin and that few of the bishops actually understood that dead language. How could such a meeting be anything but a fiasco?
Of course, much of the really decisive work went on in the sub-
The theological and political history of the Council can be learned from any good history of Vatican II, but Congar’s Journal is not a history of the Council. It is a personal account made on the spot by an extremely acute observer. The French Dominican took notes at most of the official meetings he attended. He also recorded innumerable conversations he had with the other participants at the Council, plus many encounters with other people during these years. Given the number of general sessions and committee meetings that took place, this amounts to a truly vast memoir. As the reader slogs through 1,300 pages of the Journal, he wonders how Congar could have brought it off. If you have ever watched people taking notes at a public meeting, you notice that most of them cease after about five minutes. Congar did not cease for four years. He must have possessed mighty powers of concentration, and his ability to synthesize speeches was simply phenomenal.
Nevertheless, such an account could easily become a deadly bore. The only thing that saves it from that fate is the personal element. Far from being a dry, impersonal reporter, Congar records his unvarnished impressions of everything he sees and hears. So unvarnished are they, that the author arranged that they would not be published for five years after his death when most of the principals would be long dead. Since Congar was a man of strong opinions, many of these remarks are fascinating. Sometimes they are hilarious:
Every day (Cardinal Pizzardo of the Congregation of Studies) arrives at his office at 8:30, he sits in his armchair and stays there, not moving a muscle, his eyes glazed, doing nothing. He signs papers without reading a word on them. When he has to preside at a meeting and give a talk, someone else writes his speech. And he says “The Congregation of Studies thinks or says this or that.” (II.532; my translation)
In the preliminary sessions, Congar witnessed the antics of the infamous Fr. Joseph (Butch) Fenton, the American protégé of Cardinal Ottaviani. The French savant was not afraid to label Fenton an adolescent buffoon, which was also evident to those of us who used to read his editorials in the American Ecclesiastical Review. Sad to say, Fenton was one of the few Americans who were active in the conciliar process. But Congar is also brutally frank about some of the other famous people at the Council.
For example, he found the young Swiss theologian, Hans Küng, insufferable. The problem
with Küng, as Congar and others (Paul VI) saw it, was not that he was avant-
Another eventually famous man who gets high marks from Congar is Karol Woityla, Archbishop
of Krakow. In collaborating with the then young Polish bishop on Schema XIII, the
Church in the Modern World, Congar found his presence and his ideas very impressive.
But Woityla, like the rest of the Polish bishops, was not good at theological conversation.
The Polish style was to expound their ideas with great force and conviction. As for
the listening part, that was not their forte. Perhaps these mental habits were a
Of course, one of the chief actors on the stage of Vatican II was Pope Paul VI, who
reigned during the second, third and fourth sessions. Congar found Paul basically
sympathetic to many of the progressive currents of the Council such as ecumenism
which was one of Congar’s main concerns. But Congar also thought Paul VI’s gestures
did not always match his long-
One incident involving Paul VI symbolizes his effect on the Council. The Pope made
only one decisive incursion into the Council sessions when he appeared to strongly
urge the bishops to vote for the statement on the missions as crafted by Cardinal
Agagianian and the Propaganda Fidei. After the Pope’s discourse, which was preceded
by a fawning introduction by Agagianian, the bishops were invited to come forward
with rosaries and other devotional items to be blessed by the Pope. Congar was predictably
disgusted by this conversion of an official session of an ecumenical council into
a virtual celebrity-
Still, Congar is not unfair to Paul VI. He knows quite well that Paul was under enormous pressure from the minority to rein in the conciliar majority. Even though this sometimes resulted in maddening delays and Byzantine maneuvering behind the scenes, it was not without a good purpose. The Pope knew that he was the pope of all the Council Fathers. Therefore, he had to do his best to preserve the dignity of the minority in the midst of their resounding defeat on all sides. That Paul succeeded in this was suggested by the fact that when the time came for the final votes, when everybody knew that the Curia had “lost,” they did not opt for an early departure as did the minority at Vatican I (1870) who refused to vote for infallibility.
The personal element in Congar’s Journal is not limited to his candid observations of other people. He also is quite free to tell about his own feelings and also the condition of his body during this time. In general, his health was not good. In fact, if it was as bad as it seems from his constant complaints about his problems with walking, hearing, seeing and sleeping, he was a virtual invalid. As he drags himself around day after day to meeting after meeting, he often wonders if he will have to retire home to Strasbourg. Especially as the editorial work piled up in the third and fourth sessions, Congar found it harder and harder to get his theological work in on schedule. At times, one wonders how he can go on with his hectic schedule. If it did not kill him physically, then surely it would psychologically. And it seems that it nearly did:
Since the beginning of this Roman sojourn, there has been a great feeling of emptiness in my life. I divide my time between the Secretariat, in whose work I am not really involved, and this phantom commission from which no one expects anything, and which does not really know its own reason for being. I see other people really involved in their work. But I am a sort of wandering Jew, here today, there tomorrow. I am like a stranger, excommunicated from that which has some assurance and peace and usefulness. I see that I will never be fully involved, but always ready for the moment, without close friends, without confidants. (II.373; my translation)
When this almost heartbreaking remark turns up toward the end of the fourth session,
it strikes the reader as at least curious. How could this world-
This comes through in his report of an interview he had with Cardinal Ottaviani just after the Council concluded. Since Congar’s book True and False Reform had never been taken off the Index, the Pope himself suggested that he should dialogue with the Holy Office on what changes would be acceptable. He did agree on a formula for acceptability, but not before the Cardinal again lectured him sternly on the absolute necessity of hewing to the views of the Roman magisterium. Congar could not think of anything to say to this kind of paternalistic and insulting integrisme.
Someone able to read between the lines of this giant memoir will come away with an
impression of Yves Congar that is not entirely one-
Furthermore, Congar could not have been a very practical fellow. When he continually kvetches about the piles of manuscripts and letters on his desks in Strasbourg and Rome, one wants to shout: “For heaven’s sake, why don’t you get a secretary?” Eventually Congar stopped attending the general sessions in St. Peter’s in order to complete his work on the documents in his room. But even then he often seems to be on the edge of a serious physical collapse. He must have known that, because he records with horror the day when Fr. Gerard Philips, whom he regards as the greatest of the Louvain masters, succumbs to a coronary. His doctor simply banishes him from Rome and the Council. The alternative was sudden death. As for Congar, he made it to the end of the ordeal. In fact, he lived to age 91 and even received a cardinal’s hat at that age.
To read this wonderful memoir of the Council is almost like being there in person. Indeed, the account is so long and so vivid in its detail that the reader (at least this reader) begins to suffer from the same fatigue that the Fathers and periti of the Council must have experienced. I found the account somewhat confusing in places because I do not understand the whole process whereby the documents were debated in committee and in the general sessions. But it is not necessary to keep exact track of all that detail to benefit from this great account. In fact, I, who lived through the Council and tried to keep up with its doings, have never understood before what an astounding achievement it really was for the Catholic Church. And Yves Congar deserves a good deal of the credit for it. q
Volume 38, Number 2
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Abbot Brian (right) blesses the Easter fire and candle, which is being held by Fr. Boniface. The monks share most of the Holy Week liturgy with St. Mary’s Parish, Richardton.
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