Vatican II addressed the Church in the Modern World

carville    Two documents furthered the general pastoral purpose for which Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council. They were the “Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” and the “Decree on the Laity.”
    The first of these was by far the most contentious. “The Church in the Modern World” was the only document called for from the floor of the council. When the fathers of the council accepted the recommendation of Cardinal Leo Joseph Suenens of Belgium that the focus of the council be the Church in itself and the Church in relation to society, there was no preparatory schema for the Church’s contribution to the world. So this one had to be written during the inter-sessions.
    The Church’s relationship to the world was a new topic for an ecumenical council. It was difficult to write, but both the public and Pope Paul VI wanted it. And good Pope John had asked the council he called to address the “signs of the times.”
    It was difficult to write because in the two previous council sessions, the fathers were dealing with a subject familiar to former church councils, renewal of the Church. Now they were faced with proposing a new stance, the Catholic Church as a moral point of reference for contemporary society.
Absolute truths?
    Another difficulty was that previous church councils had taught about absolute and timeless truths and viewed their teachings as valid for all eternity. But the current issues indicated by the signs of modern times concerned issues like the dignity of marriage and the family, development of culture, economic and social life, political community, and peace and war.
    For many, this debate represented the culmination of the council and perhaps its most important test. A few of the prophets of doom damned it. Cardinal Ernesto Ruffini of Palermo thought it should be redone from the beginning. Archbishop John Heenan of Westminster thought the schema was unworthy of an ecumenical council. (The Church should only speak of eternal truths?)
    However, the predominant impression was favorable, in some cases laudatory. Cardinal Achille Liénart of Lille, France, considered the schema “succeeded in providing within a few pages almost all the essential elements of the help that the Church can and ought to offer to the world in which it lives.” Cardinal Julius Döpfner of Munich, in the name of 83 German and Scandinavian fathers, hoped the schema would be considered the “true crown” of the council. Bishop Karol Wojtyla of Krakow, who later became Pope John Paul II, speaking for the Polish bishops, was generous with praise but wanted an added chapter on atheistic communism, a “sign of the times” in Poland.
    Several speakers wanted more input from the laity. Archbishop Paul-Émile Léger of Montreal made the point most clearly: “Various experts, men and women, should explain the facts regarding hunger in the world, the family, peace and so on. If our schema wishes to respond to today’s questions, surely we must first hear how these questions are understood by those who live in the world.” He wanted these people to speak to the council. Eventually, two lay men did.
Racial discrimination tackled
    Cardinal Patrick O’Boyle of Washington, D.C., devoted his speech exclusively to the issue of racial discrimination. The schema speaks of the issue, he said, “in places and accidentally,” but it must do so “formally and explicitly.” He was echoed by Bishop Robert  Tracy of Baton Rouge. They got what they wanted in the final document.
    Two important issues of this debate were birth control and war. Birth control was particularly topical because of the recent discovery of the contraceptive pill. Many theologians were urging a change in the traditional teaching on contraception. While the question was being debated in the context of the dignity of marriage, there were many conferences, discussions and indeed, public appeals to the fathers of the council – signs that something new would emerge. However, Pope Paul VI had already restricted this subject to himself and a special sub-committee for decision later.
    Despite that restriction, many fathers brought into question the current teaching of the Church as they tried to respond to the needs of the modern family. Cardinal Ruffini and Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani both said the schema placed too much emphasis on the choice of spouses in deciding the number of their children. Cardinal Michael Browne, O.P., reminded the fathers that the tradition held that the primary end of the sexual act is the procreation and education of children, and the secondary end is both the mutual help of the spouses and a remedy for concupiscence.
    The majority quickly answered. Cardinal Léger urged more emphasis on conjugal love as a purpose of marriage. Cardinal Suenens asked whether “the communion of the spouses” should not be given equal status with procreation as an end of marriage. “Let us avoid,” he said, “another Galileo case: one is enough for the Church!”
    Maximos IV Sayegh, patriarch of the Melkite Greek Church, questioned, “Frankly, should not the official positions of the Church in this matter be revised in the light of our knowledge today, theological, medical, psychological, and sociological?” A.A. McArthur, one of the Protestant observers, in his report to the World Council of Churches in Geneva, criticized the situation in which “two thousand celibates have debated the morality of birth control.”
Purpose of marriage
    Pope Paul VI sent some amendments of his own to the writing commission favoring the more conservative minority. However, the next day, through his secretary of the council, Archbishop Pericle Felici, he informed the commission that his amendments were to be taken as only “counsels” (consigli). The commission therefore decided they could deal with them freely. They rearranged the wording to leave open both the question of the hierarchy of the ends of marriage and the question of a new assessment of birth control. They carefully state only that “marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained toward the begetting and education of children.” They quote both accounts of the creation of man and woman in Genesis — Gen 2:18, “It is not good for man to be alone” and then Gen 1:28, “Be fertile and multiply.” It must have been hard to please the pope, the curia and 2,000-plus bishops.
War and peace
    In the final session, just before the close of the council in 1965, the debate on the final draft of the section of this document concerning war and peace was particularly strong. One chapter called for the outlawing of war and condemned the possession of nuclear weapons as immoral.
    The American bishops, led by Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York, Cardinal Lawrence Shehan of Baltimore and Bishop Philip Hannan, then of Washington, D.C., and later archbishop of New Orleans, argued successfully that nuclear weapons were a source of deterrence against the communist nations.
    Furthermore, the right of nations to defend themselves was asserted earlier in this document. Some feared that the whole document could be killed by lack of consensus on war and peace. But in the end, it passed overwhelmingly. The document was not perfect. Nevertheless, it gave vision and direction to the Church and urged Gospel values to help it face the contentious issues of the post-conciliar period.
    Father Carville is a retired priest in the Diocese of Baton Rouge and writes on current topics for The Catholic Commentator.
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