The Tears of Pope Paul VI and the Third Session of Vatican II

Yesterday, I read an interesting piece over at CatholicVote about radio legend Paul Harvey and one of his commentaries entitled “What Catholic Tradition Means to a Protestant” in which he discussed the “strict discipline implied by Catholicism,” something that served as a comfort and reassuring evidence “…of a hierarchy which affirmed, ‘This is right…’ in an hour where so few seem to know what is.”

However, things changed for Harvey at the time of the Ecumenical Council (Vatican II), when “differences” between “progressives” and “conservatives” reached “…such a crescendo that the third session ended with His Holiness, Pope Paul, in tears,” after which Harvey’s “…unscholarly and largely emotional reliance on the invulnerability of the Church retreated…”

This reference to Paul VI “in tears” at the close of the third session is something curious. Perhaps I’m a sentimentalist or overly interested in minutiae, but I’d like to know exactly what brought Paul VI to tears. As a convert to Catholicism and a product of the post-Vatican II Church, I am not well-versed on what occurred during the Council. I know that, like today, there was much debate and disagreement concerning the future of the Church, but I did not know that Pope Paul was ever anything other than serene about the actions taken by the bishops.

rhinetiberA principal source for the reference to Paul VI in tears comes from The Rhine Flows into the Tiber: A History of Vatican II, by the Rev. Msgr. Ralph Wiltgen. The book is out of print, and therefore rare and expensive, however, I am hopeful that I have located a copy for a reasonable price so that I can read the entire thing. The book carries an imprimatur, and from what I can tell, is widely regarded as reliable and truthful in most Catholic circles.

The issue concerned a term still frequently contested, used, and misunderstood today: “collegiality”, and its meaning in Chapter 3 of the dogmatic constitution Lumen Gentium,
which, inter alia, discussed the infallibility of the Pope and his magisterium.

Paragraph 25 of Chapter 3, describes the infallibility of the Pope which he enjoys as “…the head of the college of bishops… in virtue of his office, when, as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful, who confirms his brethren in their faith, by a definitive act he proclaims a doctrine of faith or morals.”

And, the infallibility of the College of Bishops: “The infallibility promised to the Church resides also in the body of Bishops, when that body exercises the supreme magisterium with the successor of Peter.”

credit Lothar Wolleh, from Wikimedia Commons

Pope Paul VI at the Second Vatican Council (note his papal tiara in the picture, right), credit Lothar Wolleh, from Wikimedia Commons

In reaching approval of text on this section of Lumen Gentium, there were apparently at least three “camps” of thought on the subject of supreme authority. First were the “conservatives”, believing the pope alone had supreme authority by divine right, and could at times extend the authority he enjoyed to the College of Bishops, taken as an extraordinary measure.

Second, were the “liberals”, who envisioned a document expressing the supreme authority as found when the Pope acts as the head of the College, inviting an expectation of consultation with the bishops, at the very least in connection with big decisions.

Third was a sort of hybrid of the two, where the pope would have supreme authority, and also the College in union with him, its head, with the Pope’s consent as a necessary element of the College’s authority.

I’m oversimplifying the respective groups here a great deal, and overlooking some of the nuances of their positions and arguments. That’s okay for our purposes. Hopefully you get the idea that the “liberals” were looking for ways to change things in the Church without necessarily having papal approval. Nothing in the language of Lumen Gentium on this subject was particularly revolutionary, apart from the ambiguity and potential for exploitation. The revolution (if one was envisioned) would be in the implementation after the Council.

Apparently Paul VI was inclined to the third view, and permitted voting upon this section of Lumen Gentium on the basis of this understanding. However, among the traditionalists including Archbishop Dino Staffa in the Curia, who disliked the notion of collegiality and declared that “supreme power over the entire flock of the faithful was entrusted to Peter and Peter alone”. (TIME Magazine, “Council on the Move”, November 8, 1963). Staffa and seventy other bishops petitioned the Council moderators for time to address the assembly before voting, which was refused. He and other bishops then wrote to Paul VI, who was not inclined to take action, relying instead upon the recommendations of the Theological Commission.

Then, some indication of the intent of the more “liberal” members of the Council (accidentally, Providentially?) surfaced from Fr. Schillebeeckx and published in the Dutch magazine De Bazuin, stating that “We will express it in a diplomatic way, but after the council we will draw out the implicit conclusions.” (No. 16, 1965, quoted in French translation in ItinérairesNo. 155, 1971, p.40).

Implicit conclusions? Progressively-minded bishops would, based upon the ambiguities regarding collegiality, enjoy a means to reduce the supreme authority of the Successor of Peter, and set other paths than the one established by the Pope.

This information fell into the hands of the conservative camp, which took it directly to the Pope as a sign of betrayal, and finally persuaded him of the potential for serious damage: and so, “Pope Paul, realizing finally that he had been deceived, broke down and wept.” (Wiltgen, The Rhine Flows into the Tiber,  p. 232).

What resulted was the unusual intervention of Paul VI in the form of a “Nota Praevia“, or preliminary introductory statement, which the Council relegated to the Appendix of Lumen Gentium, contrary to Paul’s wishes. Nonetheless, it remains authoritative and part of the document, and states in part:

Since the Supreme Pontiff is head of the College, he alone is able to perform certain actions which are not at all within the competence of the bishops, e.g., convoking the College and directing it, approving norms of action, etc… It is up to the judgment of the Supreme Pontiff, to whose care Christ’s whole flock has been entrusted, to determine, according to the needs of the Church as they change over the course of centuries, the way in which this care may best be exercised—whether in a personal or a collegial way. The Roman Pontiff, taking account of the Church’s welfare, proceeds according to his own discretion in arranging, promoting and approving the exercise of collegial activity.

And so, Pope Paul VI felt it necessary to intervene in order to preserve the Church and its unbroken tradition regarding the supremacy of the Petrine Office. His tears, and the precise reason for them or his state of mind, remain something of a mystery. Did he weep over betrayal, or disappointment, or dismay that some of his bishops would look for ways to undermine the pope, or something else altogether? What we know is that he courageously intervened, which is all that should matter to us, fifty years after the close.

And now you know — as the legendary Paul Harvey would say — the rest of the story. Unless, unlike myself, you knew it already.


2 thoughts on “The Tears of Pope Paul VI and the Third Session of Vatican II

  1. Pingback: Did the Beatles Promote Abortion? -

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