A dutch newspaper headlined the close of the most recent session of the Vatican Council this way: “Pope Closes Session of Saddened Council.” It was a Roman Catholic paper, and its headline called forth a dozen questions. The phrase “saddened council” evoked vivid memories of the surprising final week of the session, a week of severe crisis. A veritable shock wave was felt when the news came out that the schema on freedom of religion was to be postponed until a following session. A petition to get the schema approved at this session was signed by a great number of council fathers. But the effort failed when the Pope himself decided to put the schema to a vote only after the council was called into its fourth session.

That this schema on religious freedom had become a point of intense controversy was well known. The American desire for a forthright proclamation clashed sharply with the views of the Italian and Spanish bishops. Many bishops felt that this matter more than any other called for a clear and decisive statement; they wanted the outside world to sense no hesitation at Rome on this particular issue. These bishops rightly supposed that the world was not anxious about what the council might say about Mariology but was most eager to bear what the Roman church was going to say about freedom of religion. This was why the postponement of a decision on this schema was received with such bitter disappointment. For these bishops the papal decision was simply inexplicable.

In the second place, there were the last-minute papal changes in the schema on ecumenicity, changes that markedly narrowed the schema’s ecumenical outreach. Besides this there was also a papal addition, a nota explicativa, which high authority heavy-handedly forced on the schema on the collegial office of bishops. The “note” was clearly meant to give the papal authority a heavier accent than it had in the schema. This was the sort of activity that led to the Roman Catholic newspaper’s characterization of the council as a saddened one.

At the final sitting, it appeared as though everything that had occurred in that week had been forgiven and forgotten. But this was mere window-dressing. Clearly, the council was confronting a crisis. And many felt it deeply, though no one was prepared to speculate on the outcome. Many interpreted the final week as evidence that the Pope had for the first time intervened in the situation in a way that demonstrated his basic sympathies with the conservative wing of the church. The question was asked whether Michael Serafian was right after all when before the recent session he said in his book The Pilgrim, Pope Paul VI, that the Pope, following a serious personal crisis, had chosen to bring the church back to its former traditional course.

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In any case, we can no longer blame the curia for conservative feet-dragging, for it has now become clear that the Pope himself is directly and decisively involved in the situation. This is a further cause for regret and disillusionment among many Catholics. I do not mean that they are shorn of respect for the papal office or that they are prepared to display any disobedience to the Pope. But they are asking questions.

The papal additions to the schema are as serious as the reluctance to take action on religious freedom. If these additions were to be voted on separately, they would be badly defeated. But they cannot be voted on separately. The vote must be called on the entire schema, and this will be approved. Obviously, this is a forced vote. It leaves many bishops restless and disgruntled. Many are asking why the Pope forced this situation on them.

Why was this last moment chosen to force on the council a statement it had shown no desire to make during its long weeks of labor? Is this strategy not in conflict with the very meaning and purpose of the council? Was the idea of the council not to let the voice of the church be heard through the ecumenical episcopate? And is the action not in conflict with the assured guidance of the Spirit possessed by the councils as well as by the Pope? Conciliarism is dead in the sense that Rome long ago abandoned the notion that the councils stand above the Pope. But Rome has held that the college of bishops has a genuine authority “along with the Pope.” Does this authority allow for such heavy-handed interventions from above which allow no room for decision-making by the council? Very likely, the disillusionment of many delegates is related to the fear that this council may actually lose all real significance because of papal interventions. That is, they fear that the Second Vatican Council will not result in any real complement to balance the one-sidedness of the First Vatican of almost a hundred years ago.

A period of crisis may well have been introduced by the papal intervention. During the present intermission we will be hearing a great deal of discussion about the real motives of Pope Paul. Already suggestions have been made that Paul had begun to be concerned about the progressive tendencies within the council long before, but only now had come to grips with them. No one should underestimate the difficulties the Pope has in keeping the church calm and united in these days. One needed only to observe the intense differences in outlook manifest at the council to appreciate the task Paul has in keeping all the tendencies united within the church. Has the Pope indeed come out for one side and against the other? Is this why he has insisted that the schema on the church has changed nothing in the traditional doctrine of the church even though at the inception of his pontificate he expressed the hope that the Spirit would lead the council to a clearer insight into the essence of the church?

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To analyze this phase of the council is extremely difficult. But the intense disappointment obvious among many Catholics is not hard to understand at all. The great question that still must be answered is: Does real harmony exist between the Pope and the council? Or are there now tensions and disagreements of such magnitude that they can be relieved only by pressure from above? In my judgment this is a decisive question for the council, so decisive that it will determine the council’s future significance for the Roman church.

Finally, it has been said frequently that Rome has become so ecumenical that the question now is how the Protestant churches are to respond. In all likelihood, in view of the recent session, this question will be muffled for the time being. Indeed, Catholic awareness of Protestant reaction is one of the reasons for the extreme disappointment that Catholics feel in the recent council session. The way things have gone has brought about a new situation in the council. Those who refused in the past to make predictions for the council are now thankful that they were hesitant. But now too, even in view of what has taken place recently, we shall do well to withhold prognosis. The council is not yet over.

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