The third session of the Second Vatican Council, held in the fall of 1964, was without doubt the darkest time of the council.
Everyone wanted to get the council finished so that they could get back to dealing with their main responsibilities at home as well as to halt the flow of money that it took to keep the bishops in Rome and to run the council itself.
However, Vatican II would not end in 1964. In fact, only two more documents were approved that year – the Decree on Ecumenism and the Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium). It wasn’t until 1965 that the remaining 12 documents that make up the vast bulk of the council’s teaching won final approval.
Although defeated on virtually every issue, the council minority that was based in the Vatican Curia continued to pressure the pope to change documents to meet their concerns.
While the principle of the collegiality of bishops had been overwhelmingly approved by the council fathers in 1963, the Constitution on the Church had not yet been approved and the minority continued to argue strenuously for the view that all authority in the Church rested in the hands of the pope.
The bishops ended up holding 52 votes on the different sections of Lumen Gentium in 1964 – 39 of those votes on the contentious Chapter 3 which dealt with the role of the bishops.
CNS FILE PHOTO
Poland’s Archbishop Karol Wojtyla (right), the future Pope John Paul II, began to rise to global prominence with his contributions to the Decree on Religious Liberty and the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World at Vatican II.
The council’s most unique document – the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) – began to resemble its final form during the 1964 discussions. However, it too met with strong opposition.
It was here that the neat division of council fathers and theologians into “progressives” and “conservatives” broke down. Many who had been considered progressives were as opposed to Gaudium et Spes as were the traditionalists.
The German theologians, such as Karl Rahner and Joseph Ratzinger, found much to criticize in the document. However, one of its greatest champions was Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Krakow, Poland.
What was to become the Decree on Religious Liberty also moved toward centre stage in the 1964 third session. Again, Wojtyla was one of the strongest proponents of a document that was also heartily proposed and defended by the American bishops.
On the other side were those, such as Cardinal Ernesto Ruffini, who maintained that since the Catholic Church was the one and only true Church, it would be harmful to accept the existence of religious freedom.
The issue of Catholic relations with Jews also moved more to the forefront. At first, this concern was tucked into a corner of the Decree on Ecumenism. However, the council fathers felt it did not belong in a document about relations among Christians.
Eventually, Catholic-Jewish relations became the cornerstone of a document that attempted to cover the Church’s relations with all non-Christian relations (Nostra Aetate).
The topic of Jewish-Catholic relations, nevertheless, attracted more media attention than did any other issue raised at the council.
Also on the front burner in the third session was the council’s document on divine revelation. The rejection of the Curia-sponsored schema on that topic in the first session was one of the key moments of Vatican II. Coming up with an acceptable document to take its place was not easy.
When approved in 1965, Dei Verbum revolutionized Catholic understanding of Scripture and its relationship with tradition. The document’s assertion that the Church’s teaching authority is not above the Word of God, but is its servant, was another key teaching that cut into the triumphalistic understanding of the Church.
The blackest week of the council came near the end of the third session when, after the council fathers had approved the documents on the Church and ecumenism, Pope Paul VI changed those documents in ways that some believed undermined the council’s commitment to collegiality.
In due time, this series of articles will look at the so-called black week. But first, we will present an overview of the final text of Lumen Gentium, The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.
That constitution is made of eight chapters:
Although this series cannot examine every chapter in detail, it will try to give a bird’s eye view of the main aspects in what was considered – at least at the time of the council – as Vatican II’s most important document.