September 3, 2012

Between Pope John XXIII's announcement of an ecumenical council in January 1959 and the opening of the Second Vatican Council in October 1962 was a period approaching four years.

It was a long period of preparation, aimed at ensuring a smooth, efficient council. Basically, that objective was not achieved. Most of the formal preparation went for naught and the dozens of proposed documents sent to the council were, for the most part, thrown in the hopper.

Nevertheless, it was an important period. The announcement of the council was a surprise, indeed, a shock, to most of the Church. While the general populace was enthusiastic about the notion, those closest to the scene needed time to discern what the council should do.

Pope John gave no specific instructions for the council. He wanted it to encourage Christian unity and to bring about an updating, aggiornamento, in how the Church faced the contemporary world. Over the period of preparation, he spoke several times on these themes, giving what were essentially pep talks with little specific direction.

The specifics would have to come from elsewhere.

The first order of business was to establish an antepreparatory commission for the council – a commission that would prepare for the real preparation. That may sound like overkill. But it wasn't.

Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani (centre), who later gained renown as a conservative leader at Vatican II, is shown in a 1958 photo with Pope Pius XII and Cardinal Benedetto Aloisi Massella.


Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani (centre), who later gained renown as a conservative leader at Vatican II, is shown in a 1958 photo with Pope Pius XII and Cardinal Benedetto Aloisi Massella.

The antepreparatory commission's main task was to seek input from all the world's bishops and the heads of religious orders. What topics should the council discuss? What specific proposals should be considered?

Out of the 2,812 individuals and groups who were invited to respond, 2,150 did send a response to the commission. Those responses ranged from a couple of sentences to fairly lengthy tomes.

Etienne Fouilloux, who completed a detailed analysis of those responses (known as vota), concluded, "The material to which the consultation gave rise deserves neither excessive disparagement nor exorbitant esteem" (History of Vatican II, vol. 1, p. 97).

The vota, Fouilloux said, tended far more toward conformism than to originality. Such "conformism" could be seen in the use of legalistic terminology taken from the Code of Canon Law or scholastic theology manuals and in a focus on Church discipline.

Sympathetic to the bishops, Fouilloux attributes the lack of originality to the fact the bishops were doing something they had done many times previously – responding to a request from Rome. That led them to answer cautiously and with excessive respect.


He divides the vota into three categories, the largest of which advocated "a council that would define and that would condemn." It would define, for example, more Marian dogmas and would condemn the errors of the modern age and deviant trends within the Church.

The replies from Latin America, in particular, fell into this category and showed little awareness of the stark social conditions of the region. It was a striking contrast from the outspoken social stands the Latin American bishops would take a mere 10 years later.


A second category of responses called for "substantial adaptation of the Catholic Church to its times." This group showed concern for ecumenism and sometimes tried to develop a theology of what it means to be a bishop. While some vota in this group called for condemnations, many sought a reduction in repressive measures affecting theologians within the Church.

A large portion of responses in this category came from Germany, France and the Low Countries as well as from bishops in churches of the Eastern rites.

Fouilloux's third category was made up of a small but diverse group that did not fit well into either of the first two categories.

Yet another group was those responses that came from within the Vatican itself. An odd mixture of "lack of interest in the individual consultation and great effort made to channel its results in a resolute manner" marked these vota, Fouilloux said. The influential Vatican officials seemed to be disdainful of having their views placed alongside "those of far-distant prelates who for them were often only names in the Annuario Pontificio."


What happened with the great mountain of data in the vota? First, Pope John never saw it. What he did see was the highly condensed 18-page "Final Synthesis" into which reflections from the vota were shoe-horned into a pre-established grid for interpretation.

Second, the data were sorted into topics and sent to the next stage of preparation for the council. Those topics, according to Fouilloux, "could, of course, be regarded as distant echoes of the vota of many bishops, but only after they had been carefully screened."

At this stage of the process (mid-1960), the Curia had restored its dominant role in council preparations. Pope John's "desire for aggiornamento [updating] seemed to be losing out."

(Much of the information in this article came from Etienne Fouilloux's chapter in History of Vatican II, vol. 1, edited by Giuseppe Alberigo and Joseph Komanchak, pp. 55-166).