Confusion over responsibility slowed council's progress

July 1, 2013

By the end of the second session of the Second Vatican Council, there was considerable unease among the council fathers. The council was proceeding at a snail's pace and it was far from clear as to who was running the show.

The diocesan bishops were uneasy about being away from their dioceses for extended periods and there was no end in sight to the council. Not only did this cost time; it also cost money – both for the individual dioceses and for the Vatican itself.

Debates tended to drag on with many points made repeatedly. Perhaps the clearest sign of the dis-ease was that when the coffee bars opened every morning in St. Peter's Basilica, a large stream of bishops abandoned the debates to go have a java with their episcopal friends.

Nobody seemed to be in charge. In the first session, there was a council of 10 presidents. When that proved cumbersome, Pope Paul VI appointed four moderators to run the daily debates, but he didn't abolish the council of presidents.

Then, there were various commissions that were to revise documents in light of discussions held in the assembly hall. To say the commissions moved slowly would be to understate the problem.

The focus of much frustration was the powerful Doctrinal Commission, headed by Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani. The Doctrinal Commission, among its many duties, was to provide an improved draft of the Constitution on the Church. However, Ottaviani and others opposed the renewed understanding of the Church in the constitution and used procedural means to slow its progress.

The presidents of the Second Vatican Council are pictured during a council session inside St. Peter's Basilica.


The presidents of the Second Vatican Council are pictured during a council session inside St. Peter's Basilica.

In early November, an unsigned attack on the work of the Doctrinal Commission was sent to the pope, an attack which theologian Gerard Philips felt came from among the Chilean bishops. It was sharply critical of the logjam at the commission, listed a litany of Ottaviani's perceived faults and called for him to be replaced. That, of course, did not happen.

What did happen was the election of 43 additional bishops to sit on the various commissions. It may seem odd that anyone would think that the already large commissions would hasten their work if they gained still more members. Nevertheless, that was the main action taken at that time to speed up their work.

The pope and many of the leading bishops and cardinals were determined that the third session of the council in the fall of 1964 would be the final one.


Before that session, Cardinal Julius Doepfner of Munich proposed limiting the number of documents, in addition to the two already approved, to six – on the Church, the bishops, revelation, the laity, ecumenism and the Church in the modern world. The remaining schemas would be cut down to sets of propositions that would be voted on without debate.

The Doepfner Plan guided the proceedings during the first part of the 1964 session, but it was doomed. Bishops were unhappy that they would not even get to discuss these cursory lists of propositions. Others pointed out that it seemed odd that the topics of bishops and the laity, for example, would get the full treatment while topics such as priests and religious orders would be drastically limited.

Although the pope was anxious to see Vatican II draw to a close, this was one issue on which he had to accept the will of the majority. The leading lights of the council felt that too much of value would be lost if the brakes were put on and an early conclusion was forced.


Without a doubt, they were correct. While three of the four main "constitutions" likely would have been approved, the council's signature document on the Church in the Modern World would never have reached anything like its final glory if the council had ended in 1964.

As well, documents on religious liberty, non-Christian religions, religious orders, the priesthood and missionary work that were so crucial in the renewal of the Church after Vatican II would never have been completed. The Church would have been poorer by their absence.

So, the council ambled along inefficiently. The bishops and theologians got the time they needed to produce those supposedly minor documents that sparked so much of the badly-needed renewal. Vatican II would end, not in 1964, but in December 1965.

(Some information for this article came from the article by Evangelista Vilanova in volume three of History of Vatican II, edited by Giuseppe Alberigo, and from John O'Malley's What Happened at Vatican II.)