I got a copy of the paperback edition of “What Happened at Vatican II” by John W. O’Malley, SJ, and it is a fascinating read. O’Malley is the author of three other books, all published, like his fourth, by Harvard University Press. He is a university professor at Georgetown University, and for those not familiar with the academe, the rank of university professor is an honor given to a very select few who are, at the very least, intellectual giants of international repute (the University of the Philippines may have less than 20 of them—among the first being Gelia Castillo, Mercedes Concepcion, and Jose Encarnacion).
What O’Malley does is give the reader not just the results but also the context (within the backdrop of church history) of the topics discussed, a flavor of the discussions/debates, as well as the backroom maneuverings that took place during the 4-year proceedings of Vatican II. What was particularly riveting, and very instructive to me, given the reproductive health bill that was just enacted into law and its attendant acrimony, was the discussion on birth control, which wasn’t even on the agenda, and not supposed to be debated, since Pope John XXIII had established a papal commission on birth control in March of 1963.
There was, though, a topic called “The Dignity of Marriage and the Family,” which was taken up during the third “period” (1964), which O’Malley described as “an explosive subject.” Why? Because, according to O’Malley, the text presented to the Vatican Council for discussion incurred the ire of what can only be termed the conservative (but very influential with the Pope) members of the council. It is noteworthy that bishops with this kind of thinking were distinctly in the minority among the roughly 2,500 bishops who were in attendance at any given time.
According to O’Malley, the conservatives took great umbrage on three points in the text. The first was that it emphasized love and partnership in marriage, and avoided the use of the terms “primary” and “secondary” ends of marriage, which they considered “the certain teaching” of the Church—the primary end of marriage being the procreation of children, and the secondary end being a remedy for concupiscence and the mutual help of spouses. The second was that the text made the consciences of the spouses the deciding factor for the number of children they should have. The third was that the text did not explicitly reaffirm a condemnation of birth control. (Note: The majority prevailed.)
What is interesting is that although, as mentioned above, birth control was not supposed to be debated in the council, the bishops, according to O’Malley, kept bringing it up “in discreet or indiscreet ways… usually with at least an insinuation that the time had come for a change in the teaching.”
Among the bishops cited by O’Malley was His Beatitude Maximos IV Saigh, who led the group of bishops and superiors of religious orders from the Melkite Church in the Middle East. Saigh is quoted thusly: “I call your attention today … to birth control. It is a pressing problem that the council must confront. For the faithful it is a sad and agonizing issue, for there is a cleavage between the official teaching of the Church and the contrary practice in most families. Moreover, the population explosion in certain parts of the world is condemning hundreds of millions of human beings to misery without hope. The council must find a solution. It must ask whether God really wants this depressing and unnatural impasse: Let me speak frankly: do not the official positions of the church in this matter require revision in the light of modern research—theological, medical, psychological, sociological?”
Other bishops cited were Cardinals Alfrink (Utrecht), Leger (Montreal), Joseph Reuss (speaking for 145 bishops) and Rudolf Staverman (Indonesia).
But, says O’Malley, it was the speech of Cardinal Leon Joseph Suenens, Archbishop of Malines, Brussels, that “caused a sensation” and “scandalized” the conservatives. It was Suenens who had proposed to Pope John XXIII the creation of a papal birth control commission, and was one of the eminent and pivotal members of the council. Unfortunately, Suenens’ speech also gained the ire of Pope Paul VI.
Two features of Suenens’ speech supposedly caused the uproar and the papal anger. First was that Suenens “more than intimated,” and in quite a dramatic manner, that a change might be in order: “We have learned a few things since Aristotle and Augustine… I plead with you, brothers. We must avoid another ‘Galileo case’. One is enough for the church.” Second was that he called on Paul VI to make public the names of the members of the papal commission on birth control, so that, he said, the members will receive the most copious information on the subject, and the whole people of God will be represented.
When Suenens finished, applause broke out among the bishops. Much was made of the speech by the media because of Suenens’ eminence, but papal ire was forthcoming. O’Malley writes of a very difficult audience with the Pope afterward, with Suenens, a week later, in another speech, saying that the decision on the matter was full in the hands of the supreme magisterium.
One wonders: All these Church fathers, whose opinions all those 50 years ago during Vatican II differed from the Church’s “certain teaching,” who arguably would have been in favor of an RH bill, who were showing concern for those in “misery and without hope”—are they suffering the fires of hell?