I haven’t finished reading Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle’s dissertation, a theological thriller titillatingly titled “Episcopal Collegiality and Vatican II: The Influence of Paul VI,” just yet, but one passage has struck me with the force of revelation.
“But Paul VI also poignantly laid bare the irony at the heart of the papacy: the divinely instituted center of communion constitutes in the present time the greatest block to Christian unity. The lofty view of the papal office supported by a sure faith is cast in an almost tragic shade.”
This insight, which I understand Paul himself recognized, is sandwiched between a recapitulation of his “abundant reflection” and “innumerable musings” on papal primacy as the gift of the first Vatican Council, and his “slow acceptance” of the teaching that supreme power over the Church was shared by the communion of all bishops, “united to its head.”
This tension which Paul felt with all his being reflected one of the central challenges of the second Vatican Council. In Tagle’s formulation: “Collegiality as a mark of the renewal of Vatican II must be related to the papacy as defined by Vatican I. This issue proved to be one of the most contested in the council”—and gave Paul, perhaps the most conflicted of all 20th-century popes, “the most torment.”
In his extraordinary Valentine’s Day address to the priests of Rome, a few days after he announced his resignation, Benedict XVI took up the same theme of completion and continuity between Vatican I and Vatican II.
“Therefore, the primary idea was to complete ecclesiology [understanding the Church as a church] in a theological way, but also in a structural way, that is to say: besides the succession of Peter, and his unique function, to define more clearly also the function of the bishops, the corpus of bishops. And in order to do this, the word ‘collegiality’ was adopted, a word that has been much discussed, sometimes acrimoniously, I would say, and also in somewhat exaggerated terms. But this word—maybe another could have been found, but this one worked—expressed the fact that the bishops collectively are the continuation of the Twelve, of the corpus of Apostles.”
I note Benedict’s wariness about the word itself, enclosing it in quotes, calling attention to the debate that has surrounded its very use (and recalling his turn away from the Concilium of Karl Rahner and company to the Communio he cofounded with Henri de Lubac et al.). Tagle devotes very many pages to this debate, although he traces it back only to the crucial decade before Pope John XXIII unexpectedly convened Vatican II.
I find it difficult to see the anguished Paul VI in the ebullient, eloquent Tagle, who seems to find great and original joy in the daily humility of pastoral service. But the new cardinal did spend many years inhabiting the mental and spiritual world of Giovanni Battista Montini; perhaps, if providence calls for it, he may yet follow in his footsteps.
* * *
Benedict’s Valentine’s Day address to Roman clergy was extraordinary, at least in my view, because it codified his views on the adverse role of the media in reporting Vatican II.
“I would now like to add yet a third point: there was the Council of the Fathers—the real Council—but there was also the Council of the media. It was almost a Council apart, and the world perceived the Council through the latter, through the media.”
Benedict, a peritus or theological expert at the Council, remembers the work of the media in a reductive way. “For the media, the Council was a political struggle, a power struggle between different trends in the Church. It was obvious that the media would take the side of those who seemed to them more closely allied with their world.”
Even if the second assertion, about journalists’ motivation, were true (and this is a complicated topic), it would not necessarily mean that the media erred in reporting the Council. Was there in fact a power struggle between factions in the Church?
Last year, one of the real leaders in reporting Vatican II was honored by The Tablet (itself one of the prominent publications covering the Council). In his 2012 Tablet Lecture, timed to mark the 50th anniversary of the start of Vatican II, Time reporter Robert Blair Kaiser found the need to reference the journal of perhaps the most prominent peritus of them all.
“The most curious among you might want to read Yves Congar’s Journal of the Council, a daily diary of his exhaustive and exhausting work behind the scenes, battling with Cardinal Ottaviani and his chief aide, the Dutch Jesuit Sebastian. To get ready for the Council, they were crafting a compendium of the faith as enunciated by all the papal encyclicals written since Pius the Ninth, doing everything they could to make Vatican II into another Council of Trent.
“‘This is all wrong,’ Congar wrote. ‘This is papalist nonsense. It is making the Council into a textbook manual that will not help bring about the aggiornamento Pope John XXIII is calling for—a recreation of what the faith was in its primitive beginnings. To rediscover the beauty of that faith, we have to take a deeper look at Sacred Scripture, and study the Fathers of the Church. And only then will the Council speak to the world in a language it can understand.’
“Reading Congar’s accounts now, I realize my reports in Time and my book on the first session reflected only dimly what a fierce battle was going on. The Observer had a poster for my series that appeared in all the tube stations of London. It screamed out the headline THE PLOT TO THWART POPE JOHN. Read Congar and you will see that headline was an understatement.”
* * *