Behind the Scenes at Vatican II | Rev. Peter M.J. Stravinskas | Catholic World Report
The first volume of Henri de Lubac's Vatican Council Notebooks (Ignatius Press, 2015) is filled with detailed and often surprising accounts of conversations, disputes, and key figures at the Council
On January 29, 1959, Pope John XXIII shocked the Church and the world with his announcement at the Basilica of St. Paul outside the Walls in Rome that he was convoking the first ecumenical council in nearly a century. In fifth grade, Sister Regina Rose began to inform us of the impending council, noting that we would be living through a once-in-a-lifetime experience. With that in mind, she also assigned us the task of compiling a scrapbook of newspaper clippings about the Council – which project I dutifully fulfilled until the completion of the Second Vatican Council during my sophomore year of high school (unfortunately, that relic was lost in a family move). From 1962 to 1965, the first item on the evening news was the day’s proceedings at the Council, with the NBC reporter signing off with his signature line: “Reporting from St. Peter’s, Irving R Levine, Rome!”
It was with such historical reminiscences that I picked up the notes of Henri de Lubac, the Jesuit peritus at Vatican II who lived under a cloud prior to the Council and eventually was named a cardinal by Pope John Paul II. At the same time that I was reading this work, I was also moving through Father Louis Bouyer’s memoirs, tracing his life from infancy through his stellar theological career (with a strong emphasis on the lead-up to Vatican II and its aftermath). I link the two for two reasons: First, the amazing capacity of both men to recall in astonishing detail (with no tape recorders or other such devices) word-for-word conversations. Second, because both men had reputations (rightly or wrongly) before Vatican II as rather “progressive” – with both becoming totally disillusioned with the post-conciliar life of the Church.
This first volume out covers the preparatory work of the Council, the first session, and the period between the first and second sessions. De Lubac must have had a recessive gene for stenography, given the nearly verbatim citations from private and official meetings, as well as interventions from the hundreds of Council Fathers, with direct quotations from their Latin presentations and de Lubac’s vernacular commentary on them. From time to time, his recollections of speeches fail (amazingly few times, however), but the editor does a superb job of correcting those errors and of giving background information on every bishop cited.
The documents debated during the first session included those on the Sacred Liturgy, the Church, Divine Revelation, and Social Communications. From the outset, it is clear that there were: mutually exclusive theologies vying for the ascendancy; lobbies of every kind; appeals to secrecy; cloak and dagger maneuvers. Indeed, the title of Father Ralph Wiltgen’s “post mortem” on the Council got it right: The Rhine certainly flowed into the Tiber. The bête noir of the “progressives” was Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, and de Lubac identifies with those opponents in no uncertain terms. There is no doubt that Ottaviani was heavy-handed in his planning of the Council and in the proceedings themselves, however, there is likewise no doubt that his intuitions about heterodoxy were on-target. Interestingly, although de Lubac had a strong animus against Ottaviani, he also expressed concern about danger signs: “a path of ‘progress’ that is dubious and dangerous”; that further development of episcopal conferences would foster nationalism; Cardinal Siri being observed on more than one occasion “weeping, feeling the Church endangered.”
De Lubac mentions a lecture tour of Hans Küng encompassing Notre Dame University, Boston and Chicago during which he “launched a sort of radical program of reforms.”