Vatican II’s “Day of Wrath”: 50 years ago today

With specific fiftieth anniversary markers related to significant Vatican II milestones so abundant in recent years, you might be forgiven for an initial yawn at the suggestion of still another. But American Catholics in particular have reason to pause and take notice of today’s fiftieth anniversary of one of the most dramatic and turbulent days in the entire history of the Council, one in which several Americans – including one of the finest theologians the United States has ever produced – played a key role.


In mid-November 1964, the Council fathers were debating what was to become Dignitatis Humanae, the Declaration on Religious Freedom – though the document’s approval was by no means certain at the time. Indeed, one of the document’s principle architects, Fr. John Courtney Murray, SJ, very nearly never made it to the Council at all, having been omitted from the roster of theological experts called to assist the bishops for the Council’s first session, in the fall of 1962. Murray had a history of conflict, at times heated, with the Holy Office’s powerful Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani.

Catholic teaching at the time was widely understood to say that only the Catholic religion had a right to exist and that a truly just government would forbid any public worship other than that which was Catholic. In the mid-1950’s, Ottaviani’s office had formally condemned theological errors in writings by Murray that suggested religious freedom was a human right and pressured Murray’s superiors to order him silent on the subject. It was only the intervention of New York’s Cardinal Francis Spellman in early 1963 that compelled the Vatican to invite Murray for the second session in the fall of that year.


Through much of that second session, Ottaviani and his staff had used delaying tactics to try to prevent a proposed text on religious freedom from ever coming up for formal discussion at the Council. It was only the personal intervention of (the recently beatified) Pope Paul VI – in response to pressure from the United States bishops, in the form of a letter drafted primarily by Murray – that pushed Ottaviani finally to relent and allow the draft text to reach the fathers. But further delays prevented it from coming up for formal debate and voting. It would have to wait until the following year.

In the summer of 1964, in preparation for the third session, the American bishops’ conference had sent every member a copy of a long article by Murray on religious freedom. When they all gathered in Rome in the fall, Murray addressed the U.S. bishops at length on the topic, in a meeting held at the North American College on September 21.

On September 23, the Council fathers received a revised religious freedom text for their consideration, and formal debate on the topic began for the first time. The U.S. bishops spoke repeatedly in favor of it in conciliar interventions that bore the mark of Murray’s thinking. But Ottaviani and other conservative prelates criticized it harshly, suggesting its teaching was dangerous and foreign to Catholic doctrine. (For his part, Archbishop Karol Wojtyla – now known as Pope Saint John Paul II – suggested to the fathers that religious freedom was “a fundamental right” that “must be strictly observed by all, especially those who govern.”)

Turmoil erupted in mid-October when Pope Paul, under pressure from the conservatives, appointed a new commission, seemingly stacked with critics of the text, to rework its contents. After quick and strong interventions from many powerful cardinals, the plan was nixed just days later. A third text was prepared, drawing on the conciliar discussion and bearing Murray’s thinking even more than the previous two versions. This is the text the Council fathers received on Tuesday, November 17. Voting on it was set for Thursday the 19th and the fourth session would formally conclude on Saturday the 21st.

On November 18, Cardinal Pericle Felici, Secretary General of the Council, announced that because this new version was so different from the previous one, many fathers felt they needed more time to consider it; therefore, before the next day’s vote on the document, there would first be a vote on whether the vote should take place.

On November 19, as Bishop Emile de Smedt prepared to step to the podium to introduce the text to the fathers, Council president Cardinal Eugene Tisserant engaged in a quick conversation with those among the other nine presidents who were seated directly around him. He then announced brusquely and unexpectedly that the presidents had decided that there would be no vote on the religious freedom document this session. De Smedt would introduce the text, he said, but discussion would wait until the following year. This effectively meant the new text would not be formally “in possession” by the Council and could therefore be removed from the agenda without ever coming to a vote by the body of bishops.

After the already troublesome issues of postponement and delay, Tisserant’s announcement was a shock. An immediate wave of indignation and frustration swept the Council floor. Bishops and theologians were suddenly – as Newsweek reported it a few days later – “milling about the floor like frantic brokers at the stock exchange. Bitterness burned through a babble of tongues.”


Cardinal Albert Meyer, the Archbishop of Chicago who was one of the Council presidents but had not been privy to Tisserant’s quick conversation with those around him before the announcement, became visibly upset. He banged his fist on the table and asked Cardinal Ruffini, seated beside him, if he’d known the announcement was coming. The satisfied smile that Ruffini offered Meyer in reply frustrated the Chicago prelate all the more. Meyer next approached Tisserant, but soon dismissed him, audibly calling him “hopeless.” A group of agitated bishops and theologians quickly coalesced around Meyer in the center of Saint Peter’s Basilica. Even those who had misgivings about the text felt they were being treated dismissively, even contemptuously, and resented it. “They are treating us like children,” one bishop complained aloud.

“Let’s not stand here talking. Who’s got some paper?” Bishop Francis Reh, rector of the North American College, called out. Soon a hand-written petition to the Pope, calling for a reversal of the move, was being passed around the floor of Saint Peter’s for the bishops to sign. “Beatissime Pater,” it began, “reverenter sed instanter, instantius, instantissime petimus…” (“Most Holy Father, respectfully but urgently, very urgently, most urgently we ask…”)

As the tense situation played out, Bishop de Smedt had little choice but to proceed with introducing the text. A speaker of lesser skills might have ended up ignored in the confusion, but De Smedt quickly grabbed the attention of the hall and his address was interrupted repeatedly by vigorous applause from his frustrated audience, at times more than once in the same sentence. Richard J. Regan, SJ, captured the drama of the moments following de Smedt’s speech in a 1967 book on the document’s history:

When he had concluded his report, wild applause, the longest and most sustained of the Council, was accorded his speech. Some of the bishops even stood up in order to clap more vigorously, and two Moderators openly joined the cheering forbidden by the rules. Cardinal Dopfner, the Moderator of the day, made no attempt to stop the sustained applause. In any event, he was powerless to control this display of enthusiasm.

When Dopfner finally tried to thank de Smedt for his report, he made several unsuccessful attempts before he was able to finish a sentence.

“Thwarted once again in their desire to have a vote,” John Coleman, SJ, later wrote, “they voted by vigorously clapping their hands.” And in his careful account of the day’s events in the multi-volume History of Vatican II, Luis Antonio Tagle (now the Cardinal Archbishop of Manila) explained, “The thunderous and prolonged applause that interrupted his speech became an occasion for assembly members to manifest their shock, frustration, disbelief, and anger at the turn of events.”

The hastily prepared petition quickly gathered hundreds of signatures on the Council floor – one account says a thousand in half an hour. Cardinals Meyer, Leger, and Ritter took it immediately and directly to the Pope, who received them promptly, though they had no appointment. But Pope Paul was unwilling to embarrass Tisserant and upheld the decision, promising that religious freedom would be, if at all possible, the first item on the agenda when the fourth session of the Council opened in the fall of 1965.

The day would come to be known as “Black Thursday.” Murray himself later called it a “Day of Wrath.” It was widely considered at the time to be a defeat for the cause of religious liberty.

The session formally concluded on November 21 with the approval and promulgation of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, the Decree on Eastern Churches, and the Decree on Ecumenism. In a letter he sent to the Pope the previous day, Bishop de Smedt wrote, “Like most of the bishops, I leave Rome profoundly saddened and disheartened by the barely tolerable methods that are constantly being employed by certain influential members of the minority and that have created an extremely serious prejudice to the honor and prestige of Holy Church.”

The Council fathers did return to the topic during the following year’s fourth session, and it was only after still more contentious debate (during which one bishop in the hall commented on the American bishops’ interventions, “The voices are the voices of the United States bishops; but the thoughts are the thoughts of John Courtney Murray”) that Dignitatis Humanae was promulgated on December 7, 1965. Explicitly acknowledging its own teaching as a development of doctrine, the document insisted that there are limits to any government’s power in religious matters and officially made the Catholic Church a defender of the idea “that the human person has a right to religious freedom.” It was, by any measure, historic.

[You’ll find more on this episode from Vatican II, and plenty more on John Courtney Murray’s work that led to the Council’s teaching on religious freedom, in my new book, Struggle, Condemnation, Vindication: John Courtney Murray’s Journey toward Vatican II.]



The Jesuit martyrs: 25th anniversary

This Sunday will mark the 25th anniversary of the 1989 murder of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her teenage daughter at the University of Central America by members of the El Salvadoran military. It happened November 16, 1989.

The Jesuit website,, offers an excellent two-part article this week on the event. Part one is here and part two is here.

Author William Bole identifies the murders as “one of the most glaring and brazen human-rights crimes of the late 20th century.” He opens by describing the event:

In the predawn hours of November 16, 1989, an elite battalion of El Salvador’s military forced its way into the Jesuit residence at the University of Central America, or UCA. The university, led by its president, Father Ignacio Ellacuría, SJ, had become a stronghold of opposition to human rights abuses committed by the U.S.-backed military.

On that night, soldiers dragged five priests out of their beds and into a courtyard, made them lay facedown on the grass, and fired bullets into their heads. They went back inside and killed another Jesuit. Then, searching the residence further, they found a housekeeper and her teenage daughter crouching in the corner of a bedroom, holding each other. The gunmen shot them too.

Boles helps us understand who the victims were and who their killers were. He explores the roots of the killings and their fallout, both in terms of government policy and Jesuit ministry.

The second article includes a moving account of a telephone conversation between El Salvadoran President Alfredo Christiani and Jesuit Superior General Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, just after the killings. Christiani — who knew his military was responsible for the deaths, but had publicly blamed leftist rebels immediately — told Kolvenbach, “Father, I hope that this sorry situation won’t lead you to withdraw the Jesuits from El Salvador.” Kolvenbach replied to the president, “Mr. President, you don’t understand. We asked for six volunteers to take the places” of those priests murdered at the University of Central America, “and more than 100 Jesuits asked to be sent.”

The articles are worth the time it takes to read through carefully in full.

Walking the walk

The Italian newspaper La Stampa‘s site, Vatican Insider, is reporting this morning that work will begin in a few days to renovate the public restrooms below the collonades of Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Shower facilities will be installed for the use of local homeless people.

The source of this information is Bishop Konrad Krajewski, the Papal Almoner (his full-time job is helping the poor on behalf of the Pope!). La Stampa is also reporting that ten Catholic parishes in Rome in the neighborhoods most frequented by the homeless have already, at Krajewski’s invitation, installed similar showers. The full article is here. Here’s a snippet:

So he decides to visit ten parishes in areas of Rome where many homeless people live. He enters parish halls. If they do not already exist, he asks that showers be built, paid by the Pope’s charity. They are not expensive projects, they are not designed to become big community centers. They are rather a diffused service for the people in the neighborhoods of a city where public restrooms are closed and the homeless cannot go into cafés to use the toilet. Monsignor Krajewski explains that «it is not simple, because it is easier to make sandwiches than run a shower service. We need volunteers, towels, underwear». Father Conrad tells the parish priests that «the Holy Father is paying!». And Providence never fails to assist. Andrea Bocelli, through his foundation, makes a substantial donation. A senator from the North requests the intervention of a firm which builds the showers in the parishes that lack them for free.

Wuerl’s catechism

The USCCB has made access to the entire text of The United States Catholic Catechism for Adults entirely free on its website. It’s a great resource for Catholics. One of its most winsome and distinctive aspects is the many American saints and holy people who are featured in special biographies at the beginning of each chapter.

Rocco Palmo, in a tweet today, called this new free access “a birthday gift” to Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the Archbishop of Washington. Wuerl turns 74 today. Palmo associates the catechism with Wuerl in particular because he was the chairman of the editorial committee that brought the book into being and was effectively the guiding force behind the project. And it was surely Wuerl’s long and impressive career in teaching the faith in sound and effective ways — including through the authorship of his own remarkable catechism decades earlier — that led the U.S. bishops to entrust this task to him.

Of course, since Donald Wuerl was one of many of the Church’s top hierarchs who were open to conversations, at last month’s Synod, about marriage and family life that might take serious account of its particular difficulties and challenges today, including conversation about the possibility of reception of Communion by the divorced and remarried, that makes him, for some, one of the enemies of the faith today. He’s one of those trying to bring about a dark and false church. Wuerl, clearly, is held strongly in the grip of the dictatorship of relativism that ruled the synod. And all that remarkable and orthodox Catholic teaching we find in the U.S. Catholic Catechism for Adults? Well, that’s just a ruse of course, a Trojan horse intended to keep us from realizing he’s really just another “liberal,” biding his time and waiting for just the right moment put his “counterfeit” and “sick” ideas in place.

Fooled us all, didn’t he?

A Romero beatification false alarm

First it was a few stray tweets yesterday afternoon from relatively obscure sources, referring to an announcement that Archbishop Oscar Romero would be beatified in 2015. Hours later, the Spanish-language newspaper El Pais reported that the source of this talk was the renowned theologian Jon Sobrino, who was saying that he had been told by the current Archbishop of San Salvador, José Luis Escobar, that Pope Francis had told Escobar, in private conversation, that this would happen. Hardly an official announcement, but interesting!

A retraction soon followed. Last night came this series of five tweets from Monsignor Rafael Urrutia, vice-chancellor of the El Salvador Episcopal Conference (translation mine):

“Following the instructions of the archbishop, I communicate to all that it is not true that Bishop Romero will be beatified in 2015.”

“It is up to Pope Francis to officially announce a beatification.”

“The archbishop only comments that things are moving well along this road and that things bode well for the cause, with many possibilities.”

“And if so we will have to start thinking about where the liturgical act could be performed.”

“We rejoice at the interest in good news like this, and we invite everyone to pray for a speedy beatification of Bishop Romero.”


Republicans: will we see pro-life action now?

There was a time in my life when I was a staunch supporter of any policitian who proclaimed him- or herself to be anti-abortion, because they were anti-abortion. I saw — and still see — legal abortion as an injustice on a par with legal slavery: an entire and vast segment of people are viewed, in the eyes of the law, as un-people. Given the moral weight of an issue like that, I reasoned, how could any other issue compare when I walked into the voting booth?

As the years went on, I realized there’s a reasonable answer to that question. In fact, there are at least two.

First, if politicians who proclaim themselves to be pro-life do so only around election time, and then once in office do very little to even try to improve the legal status of the unborn or regulate access to abortion, are they really pro-life anyway? Or am I just a schmuck who falls for a cynical strategy to get pro-lifers’ votes?

Second, while abortion is indeed one of the central justice issues of our time, there are others that arguably hold similar weight. Among these, three loom large: the environment, war, and poverty. In each case, there are fundamental issues that threaten the dignity of human life quite as severely as legal abortion.

Given that and the ways these various issues typically line up in American politics, I began reasoning more and more often as I approached voting booths: I could vote for this person who says s/he is pro-life and watch him/her do nothing about abortion after the election, and also watch him/her work in ways that only endanger human dignity further when it comes to the environment, war, and poverty. Or I could vote this pro-choice person, who won’t do anything to help unborn children (but will likely do little to make things worse), but probably will work hard on issues related to the environment, war, and/or poverty.

It’s a very ambiguous mental arrangement, with plenty of internal conflict. Such is politics, though, right? If you think there’s black and white to any of this, I’ll show you the important factors you’re (intentionally or not) ignoring.

Given all of this, something that’s very much on my mind following this week’s elections is a promise that our new Senate majority leader made over a year ago and has repeated since: if Republicans win control of the Senate in the 2014 elections, they would pass H.R.1797, the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. That bill — which would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy in the United States unless the woman is a victim of rape or incest or her life is in danger — passed in the House last year, but never got past the Senate. Now it has a chance of doing that.

Indeed, Charlie Camosy helpfully pointed out this week that H.R. 1797 is not the only abortion-related pro-life legislation that has been blocked by the Senate recently. There’s also:

  • the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion and Abortion Insurance Full Disclosure Act (that would apply the restrictions on abortion funding found in the Hyde Amendment to all federal funding streams and require that all plans offered through the ACA Exchanges disclose if abortion coverage is included);
  • the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act­ (that would prohibit sex-selective abortions);
  • and the Protect Life Act (that would ensure that no funds appropriated or authorized through the ACA could be used for abortion or insurance plans that provide abortion coverage).

Camosy notes: “Each of these bills has the strong support of the electorate, so, if they are passed by Congress, President Obama would be under immense pressure keep his veto pen dry. I think they are likely to become law if Senate Republicans decide to make them a priority.”

So I’m very interested to see whether Mr. McConnell and his Republican colleagues, who now control the Senate, will take action in these directions. I will be watching and taking note, because they now have a chance to convince me that they — that is, Republicans who claim to be anti-abortion — deserve to be taken seriously by me, and by any voters who oppose abortion, next time we walk into a voting booth.

“Strong and orthodox faith is never afraid of discussion”

Reflecting on the Church’s recent synod experience, Dublin’s Archbishop Diarmuid Martin offers wisdom and common sense in an interview reported in a new article from the Catholic Herald:

Archbishop Martin said he believed that “a longing for certainties may spring from personal uncertainty rather than strong faith.”

“A strong — and indeed orthodox faith — is never afraid of discussion,” he said….

Archbishop Martin also said that “a church which becomes a comfort zone for the like-minded ceases to be truly the Church of Jesus Christ.”

Plenty of other good stuff in the full article, which is here.