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.]



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