A day at Vatican II: on the road to church teaching on religious freedom

In the interest of sharing some of the fascinating work I’ve been doing with my John Courtney Murray project, here’s a morsel. It’s a look at just one day during the Second Vatican Council, as the bishops of the world debated the draft of what would ultimately become Dignitatis Humanae, the Declaration on Religious Freedom. Though we take for granted today both the document and its teaching, I have found that there were quite a few points — during the Council itself, but also during the decade leading up to it — when the path of church history could easily have taken a different direction.

Monday, September 20, 1965, was the fourth day of the most recent round of debate on the document. The previous three days had seen several interventions in favor of the schema (often from American bishops prepared for the task by John Courtney Murray), but some of the most powerful prelates of the church harshly denounced it. Cardinals Ottaviani, Ruffini, and Siri, for example, had all spoken against it, suggesting that it would promote religious indifferentism and even that it flatly contradicted previous church teaching.

The first to speak that Monday morning was Cardinal Joseph-Charles Lefebvre (not to be confused with Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who will also show up below). This Lefebvre used his intervention to respond carefully and effectively to six objections repeatedly raised by opponents of the religious freedom schema. Then came Baltimore’s Cardinal Lawrence Sheehan, who spent his time at the podium addressing criticism that the document was unfaithful to Catholic doctrine. He provided a careful and systematic review of teaching of past popes (that was clearly the handiwork of John Courtney Murray) in “the ardent hope,” he said, “that the fathers will approve the schema almost unanimously.”

A rather remarkable series of interventions on behalf of the document followed. Cardinal Josef Beran took his place before the fathers. During the 1940s, Beran had been imprisoned by the Nazis in the Theresienstadt and Dachau concentration camps. After four years of freedom, during which he had been named Archbishop of Prague, Beran was imprisoned in 1949 by the Communist regime and remained so until 1963. Since his release, he had been forbidden by his government from exercising his ministry. As he stood on the floor of the Council that fall of 1965, he had just moved to Rome a few months earlier, in exchange for concessions from his government for more freedom for the Church in Czechoslovakia, and had been named a cardinal by Pope Paul VI.

Standing for the first time before his brother bishops, who knew well the suffering he had endured for his fidelity to the Church, Beran reminded them of the burning of the Czech priest Jan Hus in the fifteenth century and the forced conversions of Czech Protestants in the seventeenth century. These events, he said, “left a certain wound hiding in the hearts of the people” and damaged the Church’s credibility. He called for repentance on the part of the Church and said that “the principle of religious freedom and freedom of conscience must be set forth clearly and without any restriction flowing from opportunistic considerations.” (Beran died in Rome in 1969 and is buried in the grottoes of Saint Peter’s Basilica. His cause for canonization is under investigation.)

Following Beran, Cardinal Joseph Cardijn took his place before the bishops. Cardijn was the founder of the Young Christian Workers, an impressive movement that at that moment was made up of nearly two million members in almost seventy countries around the globe. Pope Paul had recently named Cardijn a cardinal, too, though he had not even been a bishop, in recognition of his remarkable work. Cardijn, too, spoke in favor of the religious freedom schema. (The cause for Cardijn’s canonization has been officially launched in his home diocese in Belgium.)

As if that were not enough, the next speaker was Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, Archbishop of Warsaw and Primate of Poland, who also had suffered imprisonment – in his case for three years – under the Communists. He too spoke in favor of the schema.

Despite these dramatic statements, there still was a great deal of disarray on the issue among the bishops and theologians at the Council. Several interventions were highly negative. Archbishop Lefebvre — who was then the superior general of the Holy Ghost Fathers, but later excommunicated from the Catholic Church — bitterly condemned it the schema, saying that the principle of religious freedom “is not one conceived … by the church.” The sharp conflict even generated some apathy on the part of some Council fathers. Many of the official Protestant observers began to sense that the schema might not succeed. Historian Gilles Routhier has written of this point, “The debate seemed to have bogged down, and no one could find a way ending it.” The next morning’s headline in the New York Herald Tribune would read “Vatican Council near Crisis over Religious Liberty Issue.”

On Tuesday morning, Pope Paul (who was just a month away from a historic visit to the United Nations headquarters in New York City) summoned the Council leadership to his apartment to say he thought it was time for a preliminary vote on the schema.

[My sources on what I offer above are Gilles Routhier, “Finishing the Work Begun: The Trying Experience of the Fourth Period,” in the remarkable multi-volume Alberigo History of Vatican II; Richard Regan, SJ, Conflict & Consensus: Religious Freedom and the Second Vatican Council; and John Coleman, SJ, “The Achievement of Religious Freedom,” U.S. Catholic Historian, 24:1 (Winter 2006), 21-32.]


Progress report: John Courtney Murray

It’s been ten days since I posted anything here — the longest pause in quite a while at this blog — because I’ve been spending as much of my free time as possible plugging away on the John Courtney Murray book project. Almost every moment I’ve spent on this project, from the time I began it a couple of years ago right up to today, has been fascinating!

Now, as the end of the project moves into sight, I’m very excited to see what its final form shall be — the entire, remarkable story, told as a coherent narrative. Only in the past week or so have I really felt like I could see that in my mind; now I’m getting it banged out onto the screen (we’d have said “onto paper” not too many years ago). I took a vacation day from work yesterday because I felt like I really needed to spend one big chunk of time focused on the thing (beyond the standard couple of early morning hours before the workday begins, which is my typical research and writing routine).

As I’ve moved through the project, my admiration for Fr. Murray has increased at the same time my skepticism about some aspects of his work also has. Regarding my admiration, there’s no question the guy was brilliant. And faithful. And courageous. These qualities just pour out of the various chapters of his life.

As for my skepticism, I find him to be a little too anxious to canonize an American approach to what it means to live as Christians in society, even if it means twisting some teaching of past popes into a form that those popes would likely have found almost unrecognizable. Far better (it has at times seemed to me) to acknowledge that not every word that comes from a pope’s pen or mouth is valid for the ages, than to try to fit those words onto a theological procrustean bed in the name of doctrinal continuity.

The result of his life’s work was an important, admirable, and necessary development of Catholic doctrine, but it also came at the expense of failing to address American culture and society in a prophetic mode (the route chosen, for example, by his contemporary, Dorothy Day).

In addition to all this, I have also been rather captivated by the “supporting actors” in his story — Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, Msgr. Joseph Fenton, Fr. Yves Congar, and others. How interesting to watch “from afar” his interactions with them, their reactions to him and his to them, how the interplay between these personalities became catalysts of church history and even of doctrine. I’m sure professional historians frequently experience in their own work what I have with all of these folks, including Murray — pangs of regret at the barriers that time and space place between me and them, knowing that no matter how many of their letters or journals or books I read, or how many pictures of them I peer at, I’ll never fully know them and understand them as the real people they were. All I can do is sift through the detritus they left behind them and try to shape it into something that hopefully resembles who they were.

Anyway, it’s getting there.

By the way, I’ve noticed that we’re coming up on the fiftieth or sixtieth anniversaries of some big moments in Murray’s life: the day in March 1954 when he sealed his fate with the Holy Office as it considered formally silencing him; the dramatic day of Vatican II deliberations in November 1964 that he called a “day of wrath”; the day in December 1965 when decades of his own work and struggle culminated in a formal doctrinal declaration by the pope and bishops of the globe that he had been right, and that those who criticized and — is it too strong a word? — persecuted him in the name of truth and fidelity were wrong.

I’m sure I’ll post on these moments when the anniversary days come. But in the meantime, if anyone is interested in scheduling a good presentation at a parish or institution to discuss these and other events in Murray’s life, let me know. It would be fun to talk about them with a group.

“The ultimate thanksgiving to the Father for his love”: Francis on the Eucharist (UPDATED)

A very fine summary of eucharistic/liturgical theology from Pope Francis today. The few snippets contained in the CNA report this morning caught my eye and I found myself going to find the full text. [UPDATE: Video of the address here.]

It’s only available (so far) in Italian at the Vatican website, so here it is in English:

Dear brothers and sisters, good morning!

Today I will talk about the Eucharist. The Eucharist is at the heart of “Christian initiation,” together with Baptism and Confirmation, and it constitutes the source of the Church’s life. From this Sacrament of love, in fact, flows every authentic journey of faith, of communion, and of witness.

What we see when we gather to celebrate the Eucharist, the Mass, already suggests to us what we are called to live. At the center of the space meant for the celebration is found the altar, which is a table, covered with a tablecloth, and this makes us think of a banquet. On the table there is a cross, to indicate that the sacrifice of Christ is offered on that altar: He is the spiritual food that we receive, under the signs of bread and wine. Beside the table there is the ambo, which is the place from which the Word of God is proclaimed: and this indicates that we gather there in order to listen to the Lord who speaks through the Sacred Scriptures, and therefore the food we receive is also his Word.

Word and Bread in the Mass become one, as at the Last Supper, when all the words of Jesus, all the signs he performed, came together in the gesture of breaking the bread and offering the chalice, anticipating the sacrifice of the cross, and in those words: “Take, eat, this is my body…. Take, drni, this is my blood.”

The gesture performed by Jesus at the Last Supper is the ultimate thanksgiving to the Father for his love, for his mercy. Thanksgiving in Greek is eucharistia. And for this reason the sacrament is called Eucharist: it is the supreme thanksgiving to the Father, who loved us to the point of giving us his Son in love. Hence the term Eucharist summarizes fully that gesture, which is gesture of God and of humanity together, the gesture of Jesus Christ, true God and true human.

Therefore the eucharistic celebration is much more than a simple banquet: it is the memorial of the Passover of Jesus, the central mystery of salvation. Memorial does not just mean a memory, a simple memory, but it means that every time we celebrate this Sacrament, we participate in the mystery of the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ. The Eucharist constitutes the summit of God’s saving work: the Lord Jesus, taking bread broken for us, pours upon us all of his mercy and love, in order to renew our hearts, our existence, and our way of relating with Him and with one another. It is for this reason that when we commonly speak of receiving this Sacrament, we speak of “receiving Communion.” This means that in the power of the Holy Spirit, the participation at the eucharistic table conforms us in a unique and profound way to Christ, giving us a foretaste already now of the full communion with the Father that characterizes the heavenly banquet, where with all the saints we will have the joy of contemplating God face to face.

My dear friends, we never thank the Lord enough for the gift that he has given us with the Eucharist! It is such a great gift, and this is why it is so important to go to Mass on Sunday. To go to Mass not only to pray, but to receive Communion, this bread that is the body of Jesus Christ who saves us, forgives us, unites us to the Father. It is beautiful to do this! And we go to Mass every Sunday, because it is the day of the Lord’s resurrection. This is why Sunday is so important to us. And with the Eucharist, we feel that we belong to the Church, to the People of God, to the Body of God, to Jesus Christ. We can never fully grasp the value and the richness of this. Let us ask Him then that this Sacrament will continue to keep his presence alive in the Church and to form our communities in love and communion, according to the heart of the Father. And may this happen throughout our lives, but begin on the day of our First Communion. It is important that children are prepared well for First Communion and that every child does it, because it is the first step of a close belonging to Jesus Christ, after Baptism and Confirmation.

Grillo’s Beyond Pius V: follow the conversation

grilloAndrea Grillo’s Beyond Pius V: Conflicting Interpretations of the Liturgical Reform was published in December. It is a book by a gifted Italian liturgical theologian that I translated into English. (It quickly earned some high praise from Professor Paul Ford, liturgical theologian and composer, here.) An interesting conversation about the book and its main ideas has been developing on the blogosphere.

First, on January 21, Alcuin Reid, OSB, posted a critical review of the book at the New Liturgical Movement blog, which has a strongly traditionalist character to it. The criticism is not surpising, as Grillo’s book takes on some aspects of liturgy that the NLM crowd have been enthusiastic about in recent years, including the broad permission given by Pope Benedict XVI for use of the 1962 (pre-Vatican II) Mass. It’s also true, though, that he strongly supports other ideas that the NLM crowd have a deep appreciation for, like the original intentions of the liturgical movement, of the 1940s and 50s, retaining a central importance.

Next, on January 29, Professor Grillo responded to Reid’s review on his blog (in Italian). I prepared an English translation of that response for the Pray Tell blog, which was posted there two days later. It was a tad contentious — well, maybe more than a tad — but worth reading.

Then on February 1, Reid responded to Grillo’s response, again at the New Liturgical Movement blog. That’s here.

Now, Grillo has offered another contribution to the conversation — this one less heated — first in Italian at his blog, and now, in my English translation, posted at Pray Tell yesterday.

For anyone interested in liturgy and the liturgical movement (yesterday and today), it’s a conversation worth following!