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Vatican II

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The Second Vatican Council

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Professor of Theology
West Baden College

(An address to a regional meeting of the Society of Catholic Teachers of Sacred Doctrine,
University of Dayton, Ohio, November 28, 1959.)

Taken collectively, the councils of the Church are a synthesis of Catholic teaching on faith and morals and the best evidence we have that Christ founded a living society that grows and adapts itself to human needs without compromising its divine mission.

In Approaching a subject as complex as the forthcoming Ecumenical Council of the Catholic Church, the first thing to do is give some reasons for speaking on the topic at all. Why talk about something that is still a few years in the offing, and what, in any case, seems to concern only Catholics and among them only professional theologians and churchmen?

The fact is that the second Vatican Council concerns not only Catholics but the whole Christian world; indeed, the spiritual welfare of mankind. Although formal deliberations may not be held before 1963, in a true sense the council has already begun in the minds and hearts of millions of persons who share the hopes of Pope John XXIII for a revitalization of Catholic faith and practice and a possible reunion (or at least renewed sense of solidarity) of all those who bear the Christian name. On both levels will be needed light and courage, derived from human effort, no doubt, but under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This, in turn, calls for prayer which needs enlightened motivation that I hope in some slight measure to supply.

What is a General Council?

Broadly speaking, councils of the Church are authorized gatherings of bishops for the purpose of discussing ecclesiastical problems with a view to passing decrees on the matter under deliberation. If all the bishops are called to participate and actually represent the Catholic world, the assembly is called ecumenical which means universal; if only part of the hierarchy is invited, the council is particular. The latter may be plenary or provincial, depending on whether a single provincial area, like the dioceses of Ohio, or a whole country sponsors the gathering. A point to note is that councils, even on a provincial basis, enjoy juridical authority in religious matters that is distinct from the legislative powers of individual bishops. In this respect also councils differ from episcopal conferences which are not, as such, legislative assemblies.

General councils are named after the place where they are held. To date there have been twenty such in the history of the Church, the first occurring in 325 A.D. at Nicea in Bithynia, Asia Minor. As a matter of record, 318 prelates and the Emperor Constantine took part in the Council of Nicea, and we even have the names of the papal legates who presided: Hosius, Bishop of Cordova, with Vitus and Vincent, two Roman priests. At Nicea the council condemned Arianism which denied the divinity of Christ.

The last ecumenical council was held at the Vatican in 1870, at which 700 prelates clarified the relation of faith and reason, condemned the errors of pantheism and rationalism, and defined the Roman Primacy and papal infallibility.

According the norms of Canon Law, it is impossible to have an ecumenical council which has not been convoked by the Roman Pontiff. By divine right only residential bishops are asked to participate. But ecclesiastical privilege now extends the invitation also to cardinals and titular bishops, abbots and heads of monastic orders and generals of exempt religious congregations of men. All the foregoing will have a deliberative voice and vote in the next general council. Theologians and others participate only in a consultative capacity.

What about non-Catholic participants? In a published statement made in Rome by Cardinal Tardini, Papal Secretary of State, since ecumenical councils are internal functions of the Catholic Church, only those can actively promote its operation, who profess Roman Catholicism. However, the Cardinal explained, this does not exclude others from attending the council in the quality of observers. Moreover, the precise degree and manner of non-Catholic participation “is being attentively studied.”

To understand the authority of a general council, we must avoid two extremes: neither vesting it with rights that merge on the old heresy of conciliarism, nor so delimiting its powers that it becomes only a mouthpiece of the papacy.

We might compare the council with our own American Congress. Both assemblies are representative of the people, elected in one case and ordained or consecrated for their office in the other. In both sessions, conciliar and congressional, free discussion is permitted and encouraged, and opinions are put to vote. An absolute majority is required for approval at a general council; and the same for Congress, except in a few cases provided by the Constitution.

But here the parallel ends. Unlike any parliament or secular congress, councils of the Church are assemblies of the Catholic hierarchy as witnesses and interpreters of the faith of their people. United with the Pope and under his authority, the bishops possess the gift of infallibility in their final and definitive decrees on matters of faith and morals.

Since the Vatican Council defined papal infallibility, the suspicion may arise that the bishops, even in ecumenical session, are supernumeraries; that their only function is to counsel and advise the Pope, and nothing more. This is not true. Certainly papal primacy is one of jurisdiction and not mere honor. Yet this does not exclude bishops from the government of the Church. Indeed, by divine mandate it cannot. Christ established the Church as a hierarchical society, consisting of the Christian faithful under the leadership of the hierarchy, which exists on two levels - the bishops as successors of the Apostles, and the Pope as successor of St. Peter.

The bishops, united with the Pope, participate in the Church’s infallibility, and at the forthcoming council will be specially assisted by the Holy Spirit, to avoid doctrinal error in dealing with problems that face the Church and reaching solutions demanded by the will of God. Unquestionably the acts and decrees of the council must be confirmed by the Pope to become binding on the faithful; but in all the conciliar deliberations which precede the papal approval, it is Catholic teaching that the bishops, under the Roman Pontiff, are divinely guided to preserve and interpret the deposit of Christian revelation.

Possible Agenda

I should like to preface my remarks on the possible agenda for the council by saying that my observations are largely, though not entirely, speculative. They are speculative because until the questionnaires sent by the Pope to the bishops are returned, no one can have a definite idea of what subjects will be treated. All the questionnaires have not yet been answered and consequently a definitive prospectus for the council still remains undecided. According to the Vatican Secretary of State, about 2,700 prelates have been interrogated, and answers received (as of November 1, 1959) from 1,600. Incidentally 80 per cent of the residential bishops have already made their replies. But the actual tabulation of what matters are to be dealt with and in what order, is still in the ante-preparatory stage.

However, we are not left entirely in the air on certain areas of interest which many persons believe are likely, if not certainly, to be treated at the council.

Church and State Relations. There is good reason for believing that high in priority among the possible agenda will be the relations of the Catholic Church to the civil government. World communism has created ecclesiastical problems that have no counterpart in Christian history. Without compromising on her principles, the Church must give directions to the millions of Catholics who are suffering under Communist domination.

Unfortunately, many people outside of Russia and the satellite countries are still fascinated by the Marxist Utopia. The council may undertake (as the Popes have done since 1864) to expose and publicize the utter incompatibility of Christianity and communism, unlike the Evanston Assembly in 1954 that obscured the issue by its practical silence on the Red persecution of the Catholic Church and its fear that anti-Communist hysteria might be a greater evil than communism.

Closer to home, a much agitated question which the council may undertake to solve is the problem of tolerance by Catholics of their non-Catholic fellow citizens. Is this tolerance only a matter of expedience or does it rest on absolute principles? Should Catholics legally tolerate heresy in their midst only to avoid greater evils, but once in power, restrict the exercise, if not the profession, of what from the Catholic viewpoint is a heretical religion? Or, as Maritain would have it, “Even if one single citizen dissented from the religious faith of all the people, his right to dissent could by no means be infringed upon by the State in a Christianly inspired modern democratic society. Catholics who are ready to give their lives for freedom do not cling to these assertions as a matter of expediency, but as a matter of moral obligation or of justice” (Man and the State, p. 181). Catholic theologians may be found on both sides, with perhaps the majority in America favoring Maritain’s theory, that tolerance is not merely a hypothesis (until Catholics can change the status quo), but a thesis, where tolerance yields to political fellowship, while recognizing theologically that only Catholicism has the full possession of revealed truth.

Bishops and the Holy See. Another area of possible concern for the council is to insure an efficient operation of the Church’s huge juridical structure, while keeping pace with the growth of Catholic membership and the complexities of modern life. At the close of the last century, the Catholic world population was estimated at 280 million; the most recent figure is 520 million, an increase of almost a quarter-billion members in less than sixty years.

Along with numerical growth has been the multiplication of problems, especially in the field of marriage, which call for solution and which in many cases (according to present norms) must be submitted to Rome for adjudication. Add to this detail of administering to the ordinary needs of more than 2,000 ecclesiastical jurisdictions, including 1,600 residential sees and 500 mission territories, and we get some idea of the problems this creates for a centralized organization like the Catholic Church.

It seems not unlikely that some plan will be worked out by the council to both guarantee the Church’s Roman solidarity and at the same time facilitate the handling of diocesan and national problems on a diocesan or national level. Whatever solution is finally reached, it will certainly be along the lines indicated by the late Pius XII, who described bishops as united by a very special bond to the divine Head of the Mystical Body.

As far as their own diocese is concerned, each bishop as a true shepherd feeds the flock entrusted to him and rules it in the name of Christ. Yet in exercising this office, they are not altogether independent, but subordinate to the Roman Pontiff, although enjoying the ordinary power of jurisdiction which they receive directly from the same Supreme Pontiff (Mystici Corporis).

The council’s problem will be to conserve the existing dependence of the bishops on Rome while expediting the regular business of the Church with the least red-tapery and delay.

Role of the Laity in the Church. Comparable to the need for an efficient liaison between the bishops and the Holy See is the call for a greater participation of the laity in the Church’s liturgy and apostolate.

Since the time of St. Pius X, it has been the constant endeavor of the Holy See to promote a more active sharing of the faithful in the Church’s liturgy, especially in the Sacrifice of the Mass. Among other postulata, therefore, the next general council may deal with requests for use of the vernacular beyond the privileges already granted for the administration of the sacraments and in some phases of the Eucharistic ceremonies.

However, it is especially lay cooperation in the Church’s apostolate that the council may undertake to promote. For many people Catholic Action is only a kind of adjunct of the Church’s evangelism and a temporary expedient to make up for the lack of clergy in a particular area. The council might clarify and settle definitively that the lay apostolate, under the direction of the hierarchy, belongs to the essence of the Church and was so intended by Christ her founder.

As an extension of Catholic Action, serious thought is being given to restoring the diaconate as a permanent way of life, even for married persons in the world. Deacons, we know, were ordained since the first century to assist the Apostles in the work of the ministry, and soon became the intermediaries between priests and people, with functions and duties that included caring for the altar and the sacred vessels, preaching and baptizing, distributing Holy Communion, preparing converts and catechumens, visiting the sick and those in prison, leading the people at prayer and assisting in liturgical ceremonies. Among saintly deacons who left their mark on Christian history were Lawrence, the martyr, Ephrem the Syrian Doctor of the Church, and St. Francis of Assisi.

Since the Middle Ages, the diaconate has been so entirely regarded as a stage of preparation for the priesthood that, until recent years, interest no longer was attached to its precise duties and privileges. But this attitude is changing. On the home front and especially on the missions, Church leaders feel there is pressing need for restoring the lesser sacred orders, including the deaconship.

A vicar apostolic from Indonesia voiced the opinion of many of his fellow bishops when he expressed the wish that the diaconate might be re-introduced, also for married men, in view of the expansive demands for an auxiliary ministry in modern times. “This concept,” said the bishop, “was once a living part of the Church’s heritage, and from it the lower orders came into being. It is greatly to be desired that this concept and practice return. There is reason to fear that the Church is lost to some areas because of the scarcity of priests. In addition to the many factors contributing to a local decline of the Church, it must not be overlooked that a parish or a community which does not function formally, organically, with definite duties and privileges (inside as well as outside the sanctuary) must be lost to the Church. I say with definite duties and privileges according to the principles laid down by the Holy Father [Pius XII]. I believe we place too little confidence in the laity, and precisely in those areas where their role, in our day, is of greater importance than ever” (Wilhelm van Bekkum, Assisi Papers, p. 111).

Judging by the interest in this subject among high-ranking prelates and theologians, the council may be asked to establish the diaconate for married and unmarried men as a permanent institution in the Catholic Church.

Further Definition of Papal Infallibility. It may come as something of a surprise that in some circles there is talk of having the council deal with the infallibility of the Roman Pontiff. Although purely hypothetical, two possible refinements of the existing Vatican definition are suggested: One to settle a domestic dispute among theologians on papal infallibility as regards truths that are not formally in revelation, also called secondary objects of infallibility. The question is whether the proximate motive for such truths is immediately the word of God revealing or only mediately through the teaching authority of the Church.

Another and more practical aspect of the problem is the precise binding power of papal pronouncements other than solemn documents like Munificentissimus Deus defining Mary’s bodily assumption. Ten years ago Pius XII complained that some theologians lightly set aside the doctrine contained in Encyclical Letters on the pretext that the Popes do not exercise in them the supreme power of their teaching authority. He further seemed to equate the Encyclicals with what is technically “the ordinary magisterium” of the Church, which by its nature is irreversible. Yet we know that Encyclicals, as such, are not ex cathedra pronouncements on a par with solemn definitions. Hence the value of clarifying norms to distinguish not the subjective levels of adherence which may be assumed among Catholics, but the objective “theological note” or dogmatic hierarchy among various statements emanating from the Holy See.

In the same context is the important question of papal authority to pass judgment in ostensibly temporal matters, and so bind the consciences of the Catholic faithful. Not a small part of the tension in Church and State relationship arises from a misunderstanding of the Catholic position on the essential superiority of the spiritual over the temporal, and the corresponding right which the Church has to defend her spiritual interests when these are endangered or impugned by the secular authority. “We are willing enough to listen to the Church,” some might say, “as long as she keeps within the limits of her own competence, in dealing with the altar and sanctuary, but she has no business dictating policy or giving directions in mundane affairs like capital and labor, or commerce and industry.”

More than once in his last years, Pius XII castigated this isolation of the Church to the sacristy, and insisted that as vicegerent of Christ she has the duty and right to speak on secular matters to her children and to all who will listen whenever the spiritual welfare of souls is involved. As custodian of revelation, including the revelation of the natural law, the Church was commissioned by her Founder to interpret this law to the people. The Second Vatican Council may see fit to spell out these principles in further detail. It is said the council will be asked to give moral judgment on total atomic warfare or at least to co-ordinate in a supernatural atmosphere all work for peace based on the fundamentals of morality.

Reunion of Christendom. We have tried to save the best wine for last. All the evidence points to the serious efforts which the council will make to heal the disunity in the Christian world, dating in the East from 1054, when the Oriental churches separated from Rome, and in the West from 1517, the year Martin Luther nailed his theses to the church door of the castle at Wittenberg.

Whatever may be said of other subjects on the agenda, this question does not have to wait for the council to meet before something is done to solve it. In fact, depending on the earnestness with which people like ourselves examine the problem and strive to solve it in the social and professional ambit in which we live, the future decisions of the council will be correspondingly effective. As a sober reminder, the reunion efforts of the Council of Florence in the fifteenth century remained sterile because the soil of popular opinion had not been properly tilled.

What are the prospects of reunion with Rome for the Dissident Orientals? I believe they are the best in nine hundred years, since the unfortunate Patriarch Caerularius was excommunicated for closing churches of the Latin rite and allowing his chancellor to trample under foot the sacred hosts that were consecrated from unleavened bread.

Much has happened since the great Eastern Schism. Looking for independence from the Pope, the Oriental churches found themselves the unwilling victims of political tyranny: under the Byzantine Emperors in Constantinople, under the Moslems in Asia Minor and southeastern Europe, under the Czars in the Russian Empire and now, most cruelly, under the Red dictators in Moscow. Suffering and persecution have chastened the people and their clergy. The old hostility to Rome has changed to respect and friendliness. At the Evanston Assembly of the World Council of Churches, the Orthodox delegates were outspoken in their sympathy for the Church of Rome. When Pope John in his Christmas message referred to Eastern Orthodox Christians as “our dear separated brethren” and declared that he would “pursue humbly but fervently a loving invitation” for their union with Rome, the Orthodox patriarch replied on New Year’s Day, expressing joy at the Pope’s overture. He said it “would be the dawn of a really new year in Jesus Christ” if such a reunion could be achieved.

The last reunion council at Florence (1439) failed to produce lasting results because the Byzantine Government was opposed to Rome and Orthodox churchmen sided with the political power, which they had vested with final authority in ecclesiastical matters. But today the Soviet rulers in the Kremlin cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be conceded rights in the internal life of the church. This separation of Church and State in Russia, though painful and costly in many ways, may have the salutary effect of allowing Orthodox leaders to consider union with Rome without deference to the Communist Government.

However, two great obstacles stand in the way: primacy and divorce with the right to remarry. According to Catholic teaching, the Roman Pontiff has supreme jurisdiction over the Christian world, transmitted through Peter from Christ Himself. The Orthodox claim that individual bishops, as successors of the Apostles, are the visible heads of the Church and that some bishops, namely the patriarchs, have wider (but not supreme) authority. They are willing to call the Pope Patriarch of the West, with corresponding primacy of honor, but not supremacy. This is foreseen as the crucial problem that must be solved before the Orthodox will be reunited with Rome.

On a less dogmatic level but equally critical is the growing practice of divorce among the Orthodox. From a sixth century concession of Emperor Justinian, Eastern canonists have built an elaborate set of ways to dissolve marriage: infidelity and dislike between husband and wife, grave sickness and prolonged absence, in fact any reason accepted by the patriarch may cause “moral death” and free the two partners to remarry. Though less publicized than the primacy, the Catholic prohibition of divorce with the right to remarriage is perhaps the greater obstacle to healing the Eastern schism; yet, by the grace of God, within grasp of the Orthodox faithful.

Unfortunately publicity given to the coming council has underplayed the Pope’s desire for a return to Catholic unity of the Protestant churches of the world, currently numbering over 200 million members. His statements on the subject, however, leave no room for doubt. Both Orthodox and Protestants are foreseen as the object of papal solicitude and of the council’s plans to facilitate their return to Rome.

Yet we must be realistic. Unlike the Orthodox, Protestant churches have retained much less of their Catholic heritage. Rationalism and liberalism have made deep ravages in the Christian faith. Compare the unqualified supernaturalism in Luther’s Catechism, Calvin’s Institutes or the Journal of John Wesley with the compromising doctrine of many Protestants today, and we see what has happened to Reformation theology. If we add to this the general acceptance of divorce and birth control, the prospect of ever recalling Protestants to Catholic unity seems more like a dream than even a remote possibility.

That is, naturally speaking. But the past fifty years have witnessed a new phenomenon in the non-Catholic Christian world, conceived and promoted by dedicated Protestant churchmen and popularly called the ecumenical movement, organized under the aegis of the World Council of Churches.

From the earliest years, the shadow of Rome hovered over the beginnings of the future World Council. In 1919, when the founders were canvassing for member churches, they called on Pope Benedict XV and invited his cooperation, which he courteously declined. In 1937, at the opening service of the Edinburgh Conference on Faith and Order, the Archbishop of York told the delegates, “We deeply lament the absence in this collaboration of the great Church of Rome - the Church which more than any other has known how to speak to the nations so that the nations hear.” In 1948, at the first assembly of the World Council in Amsterdam, one of the principal topics of discussion was “The Roman Catholic Church and the Ecumenical Movement.” And shortly before the Evanston meeting in 1954, the chairman of the Faith and Order commission frankly said: “That the Church of Rome has not found it possible to take active part in any of the gatherings which we have been used to call ecumenical in spite of the absence of so large a part of the Christian world, is a tragic fact which we have had to accept.”

The purpose of the ecumenical movement is to re-establish what Christ Himself desires, unity of faith and worship among those who believe in His name and who look to Him for salvation in the world to come. For more than half a century now, Protestant leaders have been struggling to heal their disunity, and remove what they call the sin of sectarian division among people who profess to follow a Saviour whose parting testimonial at the Last Supper was “that they all may be one.”

If we couple these two factors, a desire for unity and a sympathy towards Catholicism, I believe we have a hopeful sign that the Protestant churches are closer to Rome than ever before in their religious history.

The barriers that stand in the way are myriad: a caricature of Catholicism that was born of the Reformation and that still haunts too many of our Protestant brethren; misunderstanding of Catholic doctrine and a failure to distinguish between objective faith and subjective piety (which, incidentally, was Newman’s great difficulty); the bad example of people who are Catholic only in name, sometimes in public office, and too often strengthening the prejudice that the Church is more interested in doctrinal conformity than in ethical principles; ignorance among Catholics of what Protestants believe, how they worship, and what their religion means to them; and a strange modesty about their convictions or reluctance to talk about religion in the company of their Protestant relatives and friends.

Yet when Pope John announced that he planned to summon a unity council of the Church, the response of the Protestant world was spontaneous, genuinely respectful, and in some cases even enthusiastic.

Episcopalian leaders said they looked forward to entering into “consultive dialogue” with Catholic churchmen, and the Archbishop of Canterbury indicated that the Anglican Church would send observers, if invited. Secretary Visser T Hooft of the World Council of Churches commented that much would depend “on how ecumenical the council will be in composition and spirit.” But he personally hoped that all the churches could unite in a common allegiance to the Saviour.

President Marc Boegner of the Federation of Protestant Churches of France recognized that a new climate of friendship has developed among the great Christian confessions. His American counterpart, President Dahlberg of the National Council of Churches of Christ felt that “anything that would bring together all the churches of Christ would be blessed of God.”

But friendship and good feeling are not enough. There is no doubt that one of the primary aims of the next Vatican Council is to promote a reunion of the Christian world. Pope John has been explicit on the point. After attending to what needs correction or improvement in the Church, he said, “We shall say to the people who are separated from us, Orthodox and Protestant: Come, and take, or resume your place in the Church of Christ, which for many of you is the place of your ancient fathers.” Nor is there any question that non-Catholics also want religious unity.

Yet if either the plans of the council or the hopes of the ecumenical movement are ever to be realized, the main source of unitive energy must come from the Catholic laity. Many of them are only mildly concerned over the disunited state of Christendom. Others are concerned but have only a faint idea of what can be done to remedy the situation. However, I think most of them are sincerely interested and know what to do - if only to invite their Protestant friends to Mass or inquiry classes - but they lack the motivation. It is our privilege as educators to offer what they need.

Transmitting other factors, I would stress this motivated knowledge as more value than a passing familiarity with religious cultures that are not Catholic (in America mostly of Protestant ancestry) and among which the students live. Knowledge precedes action as surely as the dawn comes before day. In the degree to which our students know what they have in common with those who are not Catholic, their sense of Christian solidarity will be deepened. In the degree to which they see what these same people lack, but which they possess, their charity will be stimulated and their zeal animated to share.

Educational Opportunity

Addressing myself to Catholic teachers, I believe the projected ecumenical council will be terminally successful to the extent to which we recognize it as a grace of God and cooperate with the same accordingly. If nothing happens by chance with God, certainly the council will not just “occur” or “take place,” but will have been divinely ordained for profit to souls and its effectiveness conditioned by the predispositions which it meets.

I suggest, therefore, that we use the council as an occasion for teaching our students certain aspects of the faith that have special bearing on the historic event which is taking place; an event, be it noted, that comes on an average of once in a century, and only twice in the last four hundred years.

History of the Councils. Students should become familiar with the history of the ecumenical councils that have been held by the Church, from Nicea to First Vatican. Taken singly they represent so many crises which the Church has faced in her existence and has overcome in her conflict with error from within and opposition from outside of her ranks. Taken collectively, they are a synthesis of Catholic teaching on faith and morals and the best evidence we have that Christ founded a living society that grows and matures and adapts herself to human needs without compromising on her divine mission.

As Christians we properly venerate the Scriptures as the word of God and in recent years have come to emphasize their importance in the college curriculum. But as Catholics we know that revelation is not all contained in the Scriptures and, more seriously, that without tradition we should not be sure of their meaning or interpretation. And the most prominent voice of tradition is the councils: like the Council of Trent which defined the canon of the Old and New Testaments, or Ephesus which defended Mary’s honor as the Mother of God, or the Second Council of Constantinople which condemned those who denied the eternity of hell, or the Second Council of Nicea which safeguarded the worship of sacred images, or the last Vatican Council which defined the primacy and repudiated the errors of anti-supernaturalism.

Nature and Authority. Corollary to the study of the history of the councils is the investigation of their nature and authority. If we are tempted to regard our modern parliaments or sessions of Congress as something new, we should remember that for over a thousand years before the idea took root in secular politics, it had been “old stuff” for the Church, since 325 A.D. for all Christendom, and on a provincial basis from the early two-hundreds.

But general councils are not only deliberative parliaments. They are organically united to the papacy, and ultimately derive their authority from convocation and confirmation by the Roman Pontiff. At this point there opens up the whole panorama of conciliarism, which claimed that councils are superior to the Popes; and the whole question of papal authority in relation to the councils, which if properly understood will reveal insights into the character and meaning of Catholicism that I think no other phase of theology can give.

Conciliar Problems. As preparations for the council are advanced, it will become more and more clear what subjects are to be treated and what may or even must be the general lines of approach. By keeping abreast of these developments, teachers can prepare their students (and through them thousands of others) to see the wisdom of whatever conciliar decrees or definitions are finally made.

In the preceding sketch we could only touch on a few of the possible agenda for the council. Other topics and new features of the same problems have already been suggested and more will certainly arise. I understand the Holy Father would like to see a revision of the Code of Canon Law, currently numbering 2,414 pieces of legislation affecting every aspect of Catholic life and worship. We spoke about Church and State relations, and relations between Catholics and others, as prospective subjects for deliberation. Among these I would emphasize the Church’s laws on marriage, divorce and marital morality as the crucial areas of conflict between the Catholic and secular thought of which the council may take cognizance - in order to strengthen the faithful in their fidelity to Christian principles and relieve others of concern that Catholic ideals will be imposed on them by political action or against their free will.

Precept and Obedience. A final word. There is no reason to expect the Second Vatican Council to impose regulations that would meet with serious misgivings on the part of Catholics. Yet Catholics are human and therefore prone to a natural reluctance to obey when their freedom is constrained. Witness the resistance in some quarters, admittedly few and small, that papal infallibility met when defined by the last Council of the Vatican. By a judicious preparation beforehand, through reasoned exposition of the pros and cons, the conciliar decrees will be guaranteed that generous acceptance among Catholics for which their gift of faith has disposed them.

But more than passive obedience will be a need for zeal to promote and put into apostolic effect the teaching of the future council. Here the teachers in our Catholic schools have an open field. Recall the phrase used by the first assembly at Jerusalem, which met to settle the question of whether Christians should continue to practice Judaic rites. “The Holy Spirit and we have decided…” the communication to the churches began. We believe the same Spirit of God protects the Church today and animates her decisions when speaking, as the next council will, to the whole Christian world. As instruments of the Church’s magisterium and the means by which her teaching reaches the souls of her children, we know the duties and opportunities that lie ahead.

Catholic Mind
Vol. 58 - #1149, May/June 1960, pp. 196-208

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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