October 1, 2012

In mid-summer 1960, the preparations for the Second Vatican Council entered their second and final phase. Ten commissions were established to take the material submitted by bishops and Catholic universities from around the world and to develop documents to be considered by the council when it began.

The structure of those commissions mirrored the structure of the Vatican and its Curia and, for the most part, they were headed by the cardinals leading other Vatican departments. Other Roman officials and theologians took part in the commissions. Everyone involved took an oath of secrecy.

Likely there was nothing sinister or conspiratorial about this arrangement. Somebody had to do the work and who better than those close to the centre of the action? The secrecy was not unusual for the time and the Vatican was fearful of the media and of distorted portrayals of its work coming before the faithful.

Still, the preparations were a closed shop. No new ideas or approaches were going to be seriously considered. Moreover, while every Church figure of any stature in Rome knew what was taking place in the commissions, virtually none of the bishops or theologians outside that inner circle had much notion of what was being prepared.

The Holy Office – predecessor to today's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – tended to define any significant issue as a doctrinal matter, thus bringing it under its purview.

Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani sits at the far end of the table chairing a meeting of the Theological Commission, which prepared several documents for consideration at Vatican II.


Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani sits at the far end of the table chairing a meeting of the Theological Commission, which prepared several documents for consideration at Vatican II.

For example, the Holy Office determined that only it could decide whether the Vatican could send delegates to the World Council of Churches assembly in New Delhi in 1961 and only it could decide who those delegates would be.


The episcopal motto of Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, head of the Holy Office, was Always the Same, a motto which neatly summed up the office's approach to Church reform.

The 10 commissions over the next two years produced 70 schema (preparatory documents) for consideration at Vatican II, more than 2,000 pages of material. By way of comparison, the previous 19 ecumenical councils of the Church had approved documents totally 792 pages. In July 1962, three months before the council was to begin, Pope John XXIII decreed that seven of the most important schema would be send to the world's bishops.

So sure were they of the quality of their work, Curia officials expected the council would last only a few weeks, with the bishops rubber stamping the schema.

The schema, however, were of a doctrinal nature. Pope John had repeatedly said he wanted Vatican II to be pastoral in orientation; he wanted it to speak the truths of the faith to the hearts of modern men and women.

Nothing could be further from that objective than the schema prepared in Rome. The leading theologian Henri de Lubac later recalled those schema as having been formed by "the rules of a strict and shallow scholasticism, concerned almost exclusively with defence and lacking in discernment, tending to condemn all that did not fit perfectly with its own perspective."


Pope John, meanwhile, went on his merry way, seemingly oblivious to the preparations that were underway, and telling all that the council would be a time of great renewal for the Church and that it would seek to further the cause of Christian unity.

He urged bishops preparing for Vatican II to engage in spiritual reflection, meditating each day on some short passage from John's Gospel – the witness of John the Baptist, the parable of the Good Shepherd, Christ's prayer that all be one. He wrote an encyclical urging Catholics to prepare for the council through prayer and fasting.

A month before the council was to begin, the pope gave a radio message, again a jovial, positive statement that the council should develop "the concept of peace, not only in its negative expression, but much more in its positive demands."

Again, he spoke of Christ's prayer "that all may be one."

The pope was prudent enough to never criticize the work of the preparatory commissions. He enunciated a positive vision for the council and hoped that it would inspire others to enact that vision.

Historian Klaus Wittstadt wrote, "Roncalli [the pope] knew how to speak between the lines and to develop his ideas while trusting that in the long haul they would prove convincing."


No one, it appears, saw the great battle coming that would emerge on the second day of the council. The great reforming cardinals of Vatican II – Leger, Suenens, Frings and others – had not been involved in the preparations. Only in the last few months before the council's opening did they begin to view those preparations with alarm.

On the opening day of the council, Pope John would deliver an address that would surprise and inspire the council fathers.

The business-as-usual approach would screech to a halt. Vatican II would become a council that would forever change the life of the Church.