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.]

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