Introduction to The Open Church (Millennium Edition)

Return to The Open Church.

The day I delivered this manuscript in New York is etched blood-red in memory. The news I learned that day brought me down from "the spirit of Vatican II" to blood and suffering and death. It may have defended me against optimism, and helped me to see in Vatican II the seeds of potential tragedy. "All things human, given enough time, go badly," I wrote into the frontispiece.

The first edition of this book was written in white-hot haste in Rome, during a six-week period from the beginning of December 1963 until January 15, 1964--at the rate, therefore, of about ninety typescript pages per week. That was in a time before word processors, when my trusty portable typewriter (a pale green Royal) was my prize possession. Some days I wrote with gloves on, it was so cold inside the unheated marble rooms, and kept three typists busy on various drafts as chapters piled up.

Driving rapidly from Rome to Nice, whence we shipped our factory-bought VW home to America, my wife and I caught a plane for an overnight in Madrid--with a few free hours to see the Goya paintings, twisted and tormented, dark, grotesque, in the Prado,. The next day TWA flew us to New York, where I delivered the bulky manuscript into the hands of my editor just in time to beat an "impossible" deadline.

My editor, the usually ebullient Betty Barthelme, a native Minnesotan, was very somber; she told me I had to call my parents in Pennsylvania urgently; she wouldn't tell me why. She ushered me into a small private office. The news was devastating.

My younger brother Rich, to whom I felt as close to as to a twin, had been declared missing, after a week of rioting among Hindus and Muslims in what is today Bangladesh. His fellow missionaries and the civil authorities believed him to be dead.

The body had not been found, they said, might never be found. There were compelling reasons to believe he had been killed; the river was full of bodies. We were unable to judge the information at the disposal of authorities on the scene; indeed, it was to take many years until we could obtain firsthand accounts.

Within the family, my brother's name was Rich; in college and outside the family, he was known as Dick. He had been in East Pakistan (later Bangladesh) for not quite two years. He was studying Arabic at Dhaka University under Muslim teachers, for his ambition was to become an expert in Muslim-Christian dialogue. For the Holy Cross Fathers, he was teaching logic and philosophy at Notre Dame College (a secondary school) across town. Years later, I met Government Ministers of Bangladesh who had had him in class, who told me they owed their Firsts in national competitions to his skill. When I first visited Bangladesh in the late 1980s, his name was still reverenced by Bengalis. In the Hilton Hotel, a young manager knelt and kissed my sleeve when he learned I was his brother.[*]

In January of 1964, his religious superior in Dhaka advised the family to schedule a funeral. Although the official word was "missing," authorities seemed to know more than they were saying. My father decided that it would be better for my mother if we took the advice of those closest to the scene.

The Church in the next forty-six years was to endure one of the worse persecutions in history, including the murder and torture of missionaries in more different places than ever before. Of this fact, Pope John Paul II was to remind all during the Jubilee Year, 2000. Even in preparation in 1997, quite by chance, I was invited on the spur of the moment to attend a special ceremony in Santa Maria in Trastevere in Rome, at which candles were lit singly in the darkened sanctuary as, one by one, Mother Superiors and male Generals of religious congregations headquartered in Rome read out the names of their own nuns, brothers and priests who had recently been slain abroad. My brother's name was included, though he had died some years earlier than the others. At the end of some ninety minutes there were four full trees of candles flickering in the darkness, rapidly burning down. Not all of those whose lives and deaths were commemorated were, in the technical sense, martyrs; but all were killed in the line of service to the Church. In my brother's case, he had taken his bicycle on a mission of mercy and, after he crossed the river on a ferry, a small band of young river pirates fell upon him. Their motive was probably robbery. When he resisted (my brother would resist), they slew him with a knife.

Rich was twenty-eight.

How I Came to Be in Rome in 1963

The mood at the Second Vatican Council during its four hectic and exciting autumns, 1962-1965, was focused not on martyrdom and death but buoyant hope. Although the victorious majority of reformers styled their foes as both "the Party of Triumphalism" and "the Party of Fear," the reformers themselves were not without their own spirit of triumphalism. The reader will detect much hubris in the The Open Church.

Ecumenical Councils are gatherings of all the successors of the twelve apostles from around the world. Such Councils have been held, on average, about once a century. These assemblies of bishops expect the quiet coming of God's grace, just as after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in the year 30 A.D., "the twelve" waited in the upper room for the coming of the Holy Spirit. So quickly did Christianity spread that, from the year 50 onward, all such councils have been multi-ethnic and multilingual. As the historian Eusebius wrote at the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D.: "The one Church, become as it were worldwide by God's grace, embraced Syrians, Cilicians, Phoenicians, Arabs and Palestinians as well as Egyptians, Thebans, Africans and Mesopotamians," even bishops from faraway "Persia" and "Spain." So also at Vatican II. Bishops as diverse as the American Robert Tracy from Baton Rouge and the young Polish bishop from Krakow, Karol Wojtyla, wrote back to their diocese periodic letters about the fascinating "brothers" they were seated next to in St. Peter's, or met in the coffee bars, and about the behind-the-scenes debates they witnessed every day. Excitement, they communicated back home, ran very high. It was the adventure of a lifetime.

In the same informal vein, perhaps, I should here explain how I, a newly married layman and graduate student at Harvard University, came to find myself in Rome during the fall of 1963, covering the second annual session of the Council as a free-lance reporter. And perhaps I should offer a word about the preparation and point-of-view I brought to this assignment. When I arrived in Rome, I certainly did not intend to write a book.

I was twenty-nine years old when on June 29, 1963, Karen Laub of Assumption Church in Cresco, Iowa, and I recited our wedding vows. My brother Rich sent us a cable from Dhaka urging "the blessings of Allah upon you." My generous in-laws were baffled by Father Richard's blessing, but even more by the fact that their new son-in-law, enrolled on a fellowship as a graduate student in the History and Philosophy of Religion at Harvard, had no visible means of income. On top of that, Karen and I had announced that we intended to use our entire wedding purse to take a leave of absence to spend the autumn in Rome at the Vatican Council. Not entirely without reason, my father-in-law, a lawyer and very practical man who had been hoping his daughter would marry a lawyer, referred to me in those days as "My son-in-law, the celestial physicist!"

Karen, a painter and printmaker and an assistant professor at Carleton College in Minnesota when we met, intended to use her Roman sojourn to execute a set of prints on the Apocalypse, a theme no one had really attempted since Dürer. She was herself a beautiful young woman, and in Rome quite won the hearts of the artists, Communists all, at the print studio. She complained to me that they did not interrupt their advances at all when she explained in resistance that she was married; they merely shrugged. She showed her ring; it did not make a difference. I told her she had the wrong idea. She should say that she was affidanzata, "engaged." She was amazed by the magic in that simple word: "Ahh, mi scusi, Signorina, non ho saputo!" "I'm very sorry, Miss, I didn't know!"

I was doing free-lance reporting for the National Catholic Reporter and The Commonweal, two lay Catholic journals, and for any British, Dutch and other publications that would run my work. Karen and I found a splendid pensione at 15 Piazza Adriana, on the moat of the Castel' San Angelo, near the wall of escape that ran from the Vatican to the Tiber. We were close to everything, and Signorina Baldoni, her sister, and her staff at the pensione took a special fondness for the newly married Karen, gave us the room nearest the corner ("A house on the corner brings good luck"), hung our "matrimonial" bed with fertility amulets, and made sure that at every breakfast Karen had a special soft-boiled egg.

Signorina Baldoni (I can see her still, short black hair, always smiling, thoughtful, practical, permanently worried but never perturbed) permitted us to invite in as much company as we liked, and the Pensione Baldoni became a local watering hole for journalists, priests, nuns, Protestant observers and others passionately interested in the Council. (Incidentally, Jim and Molly Finn stayed at the Baldoni after we left; inherited our bed, even. Then the fertility amulets that had not worked for Karen, at which the Finns had laughed when we told them, did their job. Months later, the Finns called to tell us that in their hearts they would name the baby "Baldoni.")

In some ways, Karen and I are polar opposites--for me, at least, she is a precious and indispensable balance wheel--but one way in which we are perfectly matched is that as the serious eldest children of Depression families we are both adept at saving money and making do. During the beautiful Roman autumn of 1963 we ate well, worked hard, talked with everyone, attended briefings and receptions, collected gossip, spent wonderful hours under the soft evening sky--and minded our pennies, stayed carefully within our budget. The local trattoria offered us a cut rate, and the owner (out of a fondness for Karen) poured us a free glass of Sambuca after every evening meal.

The correspondent for Time that year was the famous Robert Blair Kaiser, and he had won distinguished prizes both for overseas reporting and for his book on the First Session. An ex-seminarian like myself, he welcomed me and Karen into his friendship and later confided to me the troubles developing in his own life that necessitated his departure from Rome. Unable to complete his own contract for a book on the Second Session, he asked me if as a favor I would be willing to take his contract over, and said he would recommend it to Betty Barthelme at Macmillan. I said, Sure. I had no idea how to do a book like that, but it had always been my dream to try. The difficulty was the deadline: Manuscript in New York by January 18, rush-rush printing schedule, publication in May.

One strength I had that most reporters lacked was years of theological training. From the autumn of 1947 when I was fourteen years old until the end of December, 1959, I had studied happily in the seminaries of the Holy Cross Fathers, beginning at Notre Dame, Indiana, then at Stonehill College in Massachusetts, and including two years of theology in Rome, 1956-1958. Had I continued my studies, I would have been ordained in May 1960, in Rome. I had gone through a long struggle before I left. I had excellent spiritual direction, including the chance to see a psychiatrist regularly during the final year and a half. Just before the end, the darkness I had been experiencing lifted, and I thought I would be ordained as scheduled. But even then, in the peace that I felt, an inner certainty grew that the priesthood was not my vocation. My parents, who had never quite expected me to be ordained (my father used to ask me after every visit home, "Are you sure you want to go back?"), had just begun to believe that I would be, and plans were well underfoot. They were disappointed but took my decision very well. In any case, I knew what I had to do.

From the first day I had arrived in Rome, in 1956, I was in love with the city. I felt incredibly lucky to have been sent there to study. In my imagination, I had adored Europe, its castles and its wars and its holiness and its sins and its moral seriousness. I loved its ideological novels: Jose Gironella's The Cypresses Believe in God, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, George Orwell, Alberto Moravia, Carlo Levi's Christ Stopped at Eboli, Ignazio Silone, Gabriel Marcel, Andre Maurois, Arthur Koestler, and many others. The bottom of my steamer trunk was lined with European novels to read in Rome. In Naples, where the trunks were off-loaded from the S.S. Constitution for shipment by truck to Rome, someone apparently had gone through my trunk; it was in disarray, and the butt of a much-chewed cigar lay among the topsy-turvy books and clothes. That, too, was a special Neapolitan touch I learned to laugh at. After my professional studies in philosophy and theology, modern European culture was a passionate intellectual interest of mine. I was especially interested in twentieth-century history, the struggles of the unions, Christian Democracy, Nazism, Socialism, Mussolini, the story of the popes. I loved classical Rome, too, I loved the paintings and the palaces.

Yet the luckiest thing to happen to me, in a way, was the education I got at the Gregorian University in Rome. Run by the Jesuits, the Greg was in those days superior to its other long-time rivals, the Angelicum, run by the Dominicans, and the other colleges led by other orders in Rome. Its students came from practically every country on earth, although in those days most of the candidates for the priesthood from Africa and Asia studied at the College for the Propagation of the Faith. Many of my fellow students at the Greg were slated to be leaders of the Church in their various countries. Faculty members were either already world-famous or likely to become so. One had the same feeling there that I later had at Harvard: that one was studying among the best.

The Canadian, Bernard Lonergan, for example, had the most accomplished philosophical mind I have ever met, deeper by far than those at Harvard. His influence is felt on every page of this book. His ability to make illuminating distinctions and to set things in historical context, while at the same time elucidating the permanent intelligibility to be found within that context, has few equals in the written record. One thing I especially valued in Lonergan: He did not want his students to be clones. He stressed the individuality of insight, the fact that it has to be your own, and that there are more ways than one of putting that insight into words. He wanted us to find our own words and our own ways. His "system" was designed to awaken the eros of insight in us.

My face still reddens when I recall my first conversation with Lonergan, in the great lobby of the Gregorian. I had just completed reading his difficult but great book, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, written in an English as elegant as Cardinal Newman's Grammar of Assent, although still more ambitious, precise and clear. "You have written," I stupidly said to him, "exactly the book I wanted to write." (I was twenty-three years old.) Trying to recover, I proceeded to make matters worse. "I've been collecting references to insight in Aquinas for years. I was going to call it Intuition, from Maritain's Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry."

The great man standing there in the high lobby of the Gregorian was plainly taken aback. He said drily that Maritain was up to something very different. "That's why I like Insight better," I tried again. I had met Lonergan walking alone in the high hall totally by surprise. I had not meant to put myself on the same plane with him and Maritain. I meant to say that he had replaced Maritain in my admiration. I'm not sure if his eyes reflected amazement or amusement.

Lonergan later accepted me into his small seminar on the development of the thinking of Aquinas on nature and grace. There I learned some of the arts of intellectual history from a true master of philosophy and theology, and a mind of immense subtlety and delicacy. He could unfold the petals of a flower without bruising them, if I may so describe his way of examining the exact way in which, in a particular sentence, Thomas deployed a word such as grace, or habit, or nature. Lonergan, in the Canadian accent that always flattened his Latin vowels, could ferret out from nearby words what Thomas was reading as he came to that sentence, and what his other allusions were--not to be found in earlier or later discussions of the same topic. He had by now acquired a firm sense of what Thomas had learned and when he had learned it, and how each new insight of Aquinas changed how he would treat questions he had treated earlier. The same word in different contexts over time would acquire new layers of meaning, and it is important to look for new signs in new contexts. This was a good education in historical consciousness, so anchored in insights as not to veer over into historicism.

A living, active mind at work leaves a wondrous trail to track, like the hoofprints and turned leaves left behind by a deer in the forest. Lonergan has no peer in performing the transformations required by new contexts. In my studies, only Alasdair MacIntyre in Whose Justice, Whose Rationality? and Charles Taylor in The Constitution of Consciousness approach Lonergan in dialectical ability, and Lonergan is clearer. Most philosophers are too much creatures of one school to be able to move freely and fairly among schools, while keeping in plain sight their own standpoint and horizon.

Ironically, however, one of the things for which I am most grateful to the Gregorianum is not that I had as my teachers there such world-famous leaders of the reform in the Church as Bernard Lonergan (and others) but, rather, that I was privileged to be in the last classes taught by giants of an older era, who had lectured there since the 1920's (it sometimes seemed since the 1400's). These men, Fathers Tromp, Zapalena, and Hürth, had presided over orthodoxy for a very long generation, across exceedingly turbulent times, and had been the ghostwriters (so it was said) of many a papal encyclical or proclamation, and certainly the weightiest experts to be consulted in Rome. "Roman Theology" may not have had much of a reputation in Newman's England or the France of 1950 or the German-speaking lands of the 1960's, but in Rome such dismissiveness was brushed off as a sign of that flightiness that destabilizes theology "over the mountains."

Much that I write in chapter five (below) on the way of thinking of those who had defined "nonhistorical orthodoxy" for some generations in Rome, I learned at the feet of these older masters, who one by one died or retired during my years at the Greg. It was a privilege to be present during an axial shift at the center of the Church, having had to master the way of thinking that dominated in Rome for many generations, and then to be present four years later at the Council that "opened the windows" for the whole Church. My classmates and I experienced in the classroom, in the transition from Tromp to Lonergan and Alfaro, from Zapalena to Sullivan and Flick, from Hürth to Fuchs (and, across town, Bernard Häring), what the whole Church was to experience, authoritatively, four years later at the Council. We had had to think it through in our own minds--those, at least, who had an intellectual vocation--before it happened publicly.

I should add one thing more. At the end of our freshman year, my three best friends at Holy Cross College and I organized on our campus the first international meeting of representatives from all of the colleges that sent students to the Greg. The subject of the day-long symposium was the coming renewal of the Church. We did not imagine a Council, but we did imagine a new renaissance and an era of reform. The work of many thinkers and writers over the preceding hundred years assured us of that. (My three friends went on to distinguished intellectual careers with the Fathers of Holy Cross--David Burrell, James Burtchaell, and Nicholas Ayo.) It was our own mini-Council, in the spring of 1957.

The Ambiguity of Vatican II

We come next to an aspect of Church history that has been lost sight of since the Council. Journalistically (I later worked for Time magazine, during the third session), it was much easier to portray the sheer novelty of the Council than to portray its continuities with the past. The news business is in the business of news--novelty--and the public does not go to the press for solid scholarship. In a delicious irony the media bring us the opposite of "nonhistorical orthodoxy," nonorthodox novelty. Important realities are often distorted, and history itself is significantly falsified. For instance, the era before the Council was more like a Golden Age in Catholic history than like the Dark Age, described to an eager press by the post-conciliar "progressives." There were many glaring deficiencies in it--often pointed out in this book--and yet it was in many respects healthier and more faithful to the Gospels than much that came later in the name of "progress" and "openness."

Once the passions of those participating in the Council rose--the reader will feel them rise in The Open Church--the victorious majority (the "progressives") acquired a vested interest both in stressing new beginnings and in discrediting the leadership and the ways of the past. That emphasis shifted the balance of power in the Church into their hands. To them accrued the glory of all things promising, new, and not-yet-tried; to their foes accrued the blame for everything wrong. The more power wrested from the "old guard," the more massive the power acquired by the reformers. The more the past was discredited, the greater the slack cut for new initiatives and new directions. The politics of the post conciliar Church in the United States and some parts of Northern Europe became an unfair fight.

Within a decade of the end of the Council, every major institution in the American Church and in many others was dominated by the progressives, under the sway of "the spirit of Vatican II." That spirit sometimes soared far beyond the actual, hard-won documents and decisions of Vatican II. Some seized the right to go far beyond those. It was as though some took the Church to be dis-incarnate, detached from flesh and history--detached, that is, from Rome and the Vatican, and so far as possible from any concrete local authority. Detached, too, from past tradition and the painful lessons of the past. It was as though the world (or at least the history of the Church) were now to be divided into only two periods, pre-Vatican II and post-Vatican II. Everything "pre" was then pretty much dismissed, so far as its authority mattered. For the most extreme, to be a Catholic now meant to believe more or less anything one wished to believe, or at least in the sense in which one personally interpreted it. One could be a Catholic "in spirit." One could take Catholic to mean the "culture" in which one was born, rather than to mean a creed making objective and rigorous demands. One could imagine Rome as a distant and irrelevant anachronism, embarrassment, even adversary. Rome as "them."

One way of putting this is that "non-historical orthodoxy" (described in chapter five) was driven out from the center of the Church, only to be replaced in not a few hearts by "neodoxy," the love of the latest thing, the cult of the new.

Thus, those we used to call at Vatican II "the prophets of doom," "the School of Fear" (chapter five), turned out to have had in some respects prudent foresight. As worldweary Romans say, "To bet on pessimism is always safer."

It is not that way in America, and not in the breast of Karol Wojtyla, activist young bishop at Vatican II and in due course, thirteen years after the Council's conclusion, the pope who took as his papal name the names of the two popes of Vatican II, John XXIII and Paul VI. Wojtyla's key word is not pessimism but hope. He bears not only vision but conviction, will and total trust in the grace of God. It is one of my great regrets that I did not make an effort to meet the bishops of Eastern Europe during the Council, so that I might have come to know Wojtyla there. It is evident that his philosophical interests would have inspired me. His ancestral town is not far north of the "Slovak Alps," the Tatra Mountains, where part of my family still dwells. Moreover, we now know that the advisories Wojtyla submitted to the Vatican in the antepreparatory stage turned out to be quite prescient about the main unifying threads of the Council. When he was elected Pope in 1978, I remembered seeing his name in Council briefings. I thought I had included him in this book, but discovered from the Index that, alas, I had not.

It is not too much to say that John Paul II rescued Vatican II from disaster. His total awareness of the presence of the Holy Spirit at the Council, the new Pentecost, suffused his every action as Archbishop, then Cardinal, of Krakow and later as Universal Pastor of the Church. He brought back a sense of incarnation, concreteness, discipline, and practicality, and he has been an indefatigable theoretician. No sooner did the world's Catholic universities gear up for a year of conferences on one of his important encyclicals (formal letters intended for the whole Church) than he issued another. He has given a thorough and authoritative interpretation of Vatican II. More than that, by his actions he has dramatized its key emphases worldwide and in many ways shown hesitant bishops, and bishops intimidated by the immensity of the task, how to do it.

In a nutshell, Wojtyla proposed the following principles for the development of the Council (and continues to do so as Pope): that the chief ideologies and intellectual currents of modernity are exhausted; that the world needs and seeks a new and authentic universal humanism; and that it is just this humanism that the Church was called into existence to offer. The Creator of the universe, Who created human beings, created them free at the same time. He calls them to be His friends, in freedom and not in slavery. He made them so that by nature they seek and inquire--restlessly, urgently. He infused an eros of understanding into their hearts, so that they might turn away from all that falls short of or falsifies truth. This faithful pursuit of nothing but the truth guarantees their freedom. It is their shield against self-deception, illusion and slavery. Such a pursuit is a communal adventure, not merely solitary. For we correct and inspire one another, and not only in one country but as a worldwide community.

In this way, further, the Christian mysteries of the Trinity and the Incarnation--the community of God in three Persons, and the taking on of historical flesh by One of the Three--unveil the community, freedom, and eros of inquiry embodied in the human person. Our Creator and Father wills a universal humanism, a civilization of friendship. The Church must open itself to the world, shouting the good news of this highest calling. The Church is the forerunner of human destiny. It must be, in the words of George Weigel's apt title, a witness to hope. God has called humans toward His own infinite beauty (hinted at in sunsets and mountain streams, peonies, Alpine peaks, rolling white-capped waves, the eyes of a beautiful woman, the music of Mozart, and the breathtaking lines of the great national poets of all nations). He unites them in solidarity with one another and with Him. Communion is the inner tendency of creation. L'Amor, Dante writes, che muov' Il Sol' ed altre stelle. The Love that moves the sun and all the stars.

This is a far richer vision, theologically, than I had in The Open Church. But it may not be too much to say that in my poor philosophical way I was heading in its direction. The unrestricted, relentlessly alert drive of inquiry that I use as the interpretive key to the Council lies at the heart of human community and personhood. It is a humanistic key, and it is deeply embedded in the theology of salvation. Had I known Wojtyla earlier, I might have come to its theological depth much sooner.

3. Opening the Church

The present book had a model in the long journalistic account written by Lord Acton at the First Vatican Council in 1870. In several essays of his (cited below in chapter five), Acton recreates what it felt like in Rome during those days, the sentiments as well as the ideas, the rumors and suspicions and the hopes; and, while clearly partisan in his own leanings, he made a mighty effort to see things truthfully. Despite all this, Acton misread the events of Vatican I quite dramatically. He could not foresee how in the cataclysmic world of the twentieth century, the Church would badly need a strengthened papal leadership, and even suffer for papal weaknesses. Notwithstanding this failure, Acton awakened in his readers an eros of honesty and truth; and that saved Acton, too. How history will come out is not known to those living through the heat of the present, and much that they may have missed may turn out to have been crucial, while events that seemed to them decisive would be smothered by later twists and turns. As a historian of vast erudition, Acton opposed the declaration of the infallibility of the pope--at least at that time, when the Vatican's struggle to keep papal states on the one hand, and rampant positivistic rationalism on the other, lent the occasion exactly the wrong connotations. But he eventually came to see (after the papal states were definitively lost) that the conditions placed upon the exercise of infallibility by the Council might actually restrain later popes and chasten them, and thus narrow the channels of papal power, not broaden them.

So also in this account, I have tried to be aware of irony and tragedy--themes which the antiquity and tangled passions of the history of Rome impose upon the mind with every mocking jester of every fountain. How they laugh at the passing generations, those fountains! How they laughed at ours. I meant most seriously such passages as those in my Introduction of 1963, in which I wrestled with the problem of foresight and interpretation. I felt keenly the irony inherent in our hubris in those days, our pride of life, our sense of being special:

As the Council Fathers gathered in Rome in the last week of September, 1963, it

was difficult to understand the exact meaning and direction of the work that had been begun in the first session the year before. As the weeks of October passed and then of November, it became even more difficult to understand. It will take a century perhaps, or two centuries, before the event is put in sufficient focus for men to grasp it simply. From our position, while the Council is still going on, we grope more in darkness than in light. It is not that we lack for theories about what is going on; it is rather that our theories are inevitably partial, and probably partisan. The facts which seem important to observers caught up in the events may prove in the perspective of time to have been insignificant; small things which occur unobserved may one day prove to have had a great effect upon subsequent history.

Ten years later, the progressive theologian chosen by Cardinal Frings to brief the German bishops during the Council, who later became a Cardinal in Rome, wrote in Principles of Catholic Theology (from a lecture in 1975), "The reception of the Council is yet to begin." After chronicling many false starts among its interpreters, and chiding "the naive optimism of the Council and the self-esteem of many of its supporters," Cardinal Ratzinger concluded that the "true historical value of the Council is still to be measured." It could turn out to have been a great failure. Or an occasion of great grace:

The ultimate decision about the historical significance of Vatican Council II depends on whether or not there are individuals prepared to experience in themselves the drama of the separation of the wheat from the cockle and thus to give to the whole a singleness of meaning that it cannot gain from words alone.

Despite the manifest faults, sins, and weak minds of many of us during and after the Second Vatican Council, the Holy Spirit did preside over it, and brought the world immense fruits through it. Without the Council, we could never have had the enormously important pontificate of Pope John Paul II, and perhaps not the long hidden but energetic stirrings of Eastern Europe that erupted so magnificently in 1989, that year that will reverberate throughout history, the year that showed international Communism to be tinkling brass, whistlingly empty. 1989 was the year in which Joshua blew the horn, and again the Wall came down.

And yet the very Pope who presided (brilliantly, by the way) over the final three sessions of the Council, Paul VI, said publicly some few years afterwards that "the smoke of Satan" had filtered into the work of the Council, and blown up a mirage of "the spirit of Vatican II" that had subverted the letter of what the Holy Spirit had wrought, and blown the barque of Peter far off course and tossed her about on stormy seas. Many inhaled a spirit of self-intoxication from the air they breathed from "the spirit of Vatican II." A spirit of radical individualism and hatred for the way things had been swept through religious community after religious community, through colleges and universities, through the ranks of priests (and even some bishops, although the latter were more constrained by their close ties to Rome), and eventually through the educated laity. Thus, "Vatican II Catholicism" was born. It was much celebrated by its proponents.

It has not yet been dispassionately evaluated, and its colossal failures have not been weighed against its much-praised successes. This is not the place for such an accounting. But the new readers of The Open Church would not be well-served if its author did not place into perspective the events here recorded from 1963, by at least indicating where they had led by the beginning of the following century.

For instance, at the end of chapter 15 (below), a chapter fittingly called "October 30," I wrote as follows in 1963: "On the evening of October 30, a nearly full moon bathed St. Peter's square in such brilliance, such serenity, as was worthy of the greatest day in Roman Catholic history since 1870." On that day the central vote of Vatican II was taken, indicating a powerful consensus of the assembled 2100 bishops in favor of a renewed emphasis on the supreme authority of the entire college of bishops, united around the world with the pope, and thus stressing the "collegiality" of all bishops, including their center, their servant, and their leader, the Bishop of Rome, rather than (as Vatican I had seemed to many to have done) the authority of the pope in solitude. How has that final sentence in that crucial chapter held up, over these last four decades? Very well, I think.

Without that emphasis on the collegiality of the bishops around the world, there would scarcely have been the effort to select a non-Italian bishop--a Pole, from the Eastern bloc--in those dangerous years of the late 1970s, when the Soviet Empire still seemed to be expanding (in Angola, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Yemen, and elsewhere) and the world feared "nuclear winter." The internationalization of the Roman Curia, and the regular participation of bishops from around the world in international synods, commissions, and committees would not as likely--or at least so quickly-have occurred. Again, even as Pope John Paul II has dramatized the international pastoral role of the Bishop of Rome by a steady, relentless round of visits to his brother bishops in country after country, each of his public Eucharists in every country he visits is celebrated in a highly visible collegiality with all the bishops of that country, and of many other countries besides. There the pope and bishops are visibly united as the grains of wheat in the one bread, the grapes in one wine. This ecclesial body of bishops is visible for all the world to see, in the dramatic moments of the internationally televised Eucharists. The theology of collegiality first signaled by the consensus of the Fathers of the Council in five dramatic votes on October 30, 1963, has been witnessed in highly dramatic visual symbols by billions around the world.

Thus, in public perception the Catholic Church at the beginning of the new 21st century is in many ways more vital, more dynamic, and more important than it ever was at the beginning of 1700, 1800, or 1900. One sees this in the number of stories about the Catholic Church appearing on the front pages of major newspapers and the covers of popular magazines. The U.S. Ambassador to Italy wrote to Washington circa 1864, and with morose delectation, that he was most assuredly witnessing the last days of the Roman papacy. By the end of the 20th century, U.S. Presidents, the most consequential of world leaders, were eager to be televised with the Pope, and as frequently as possible in order to bask in his moral authority and the aura of dynamism that surrounds him. None of this is likely to have happened apart from Vatican II.

4. The Downturn

The other side of the ledger must also be added up--or, rather, subtracted. Consider solely the United States. From 1950 to 1965, religious orders of priests, brothers, and sisters had been growing more rapidly than they ever had in history. Partly because of the baby boom that followed World War II, the demand for new Catholic parishes and new Catholic schools had been furious. Catholic colleges and universities had been expanding rapidly, and vital organizations such as Young Christian Students, the Catholic Family Movement, Young Christian Workers, and cells of lay Catholics committed to Catholic Action, the Legionaries of Mary, the Family Rosary Crusade, and a multitude of other societies and organizations had been pouring out pamphlets and books of the latest scholarship and activist initiatives from around the world. Catholic morale was sky-high.

A minority of university students with intellectual ambitions were enthralled by visions of "the Catholic Renascence" of the twentieth century, and were avidly discussing Gueranger, Guardini, Claudel, Graham Greene, Heinrich Böll, Jose Gironella, Ignazio Silone, Christopher Dawson. Catholic parishes were alive with novenas, Benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament, Forty Hours, "parish missions" (preached by visiting Passionists or Redemptorists capable of conjuring up such visions of hell and heaven, sin and grace, as The New York Times doesn't dream of, the stuff of Georges Bernanos' Under the Sun of Satan). We learned all about the saints in those days, too. Every day on the parochial school calendar, as Berkeley's student leader Mario Savio said, honored another witness or martyr. Bishop Sheen was the most watched show on Sunday night prime-time television, and Walter Kerr was the best drama critic around. Harvard--the Harvard Divinity School, no less--was soon to install a Chair of Catholic Studies. J.F. Powers, Edwin O'Connor, and Flannery O'Connor were enjoying national success. At the better universities Scholasticism (and the Middle Ages generally) were commanding a new respect, such that even political commentators like Walter Lippmann began writing about "the perennial philosophy" of the West. Seminaries and convents were not big enough to hold all the new recruits, and virtually all orders were putting up new buildings. Those were great years to be Catholic in America.

The cold figures bear this out. In 1940, there were just over 2 million students in Catholic elementary schools. By 1965, that number had grown to 4.5 million--in other words, the numbers had more than doubled in 25 years. High school students had grown even more rapidly. The years 1945, 1960, and 1965 showed, respectively, enrollments of 300,000, then 500,000, then 700,000. Note how fantastic the growth was right during the period of the Vatican Council, 1962-1965. Bishops kept begging religious orders of nuns for more teachers. There was no time to educate all of them, even to be sure that all had at least some years of college. Practically all teaching sisters attended summer schools, to complete their degrees (for many of them, this was a wonderful break, an opportunity to meet new friends, sometimes a chance to travel). When the Second Vatican Council closed in 1965, there were more than 104,000 sisters teaching in Catholic schools in the United States. Then disaster hit. By 1995, the number of teaching sisters had fallen to 13,000.

Similarly, most of the congregations and orders of sisters (not all of them teachers), having grown so rapidly from 1950-1965, began losing numbers after the Council like water through a sieve. In just five years, by 1970, almost 20,000 sisters left their vocations. By 1995, another 70,000 had fled, and the total number of sisters in the United States had shrunken from 180,000 in 1965 to less than half that number, 89,000. The still more startling fact is that the median age of those who remained was in the late 60s. Ann Carey told this whole sad tale in Sisters in Crisis (1998).

New vocations have ceased in some orders and dwindled to a trickle in most others. The few orders that maintained traditional structures and practices are doing much better, and some are even vigorous. The "progressive" orders have virtually committed suicide. So rapidly and unwisely did they abandon their primary corporate purposes, lose their institutional sense of community and purpose and discipline, leave behind hallowed traditions and practices, walk away from clear lines of authority and responsibility in favor of such will-o'-the-wisps as "the authority of fellowship" and "flexibility," and pursue new gospels such as Rogerian psychology and self-realization, that their cohesion, their very essence and purpose, for all practical purposes and for more than half of their members simply dissolved. What is the purpose of religious life? What is its essence? What has been its perennial power to attract and to inspire? These questions became lost in some new "identity"--by no means for all sisters, but obviously for many who left.

Much the same thing has happened among the religious orders of men and among the diocesan clergy as well. Enormous confusion of roles followed in the wake of Vatican II.

A dispassionate observer might say that even if the theology of Vatican II was brilliantly stated in carefully drawn documents, many reformers caught the "spirit" of Vatican II--which was something else. One reformer praised the vision of the major superiors of men and women religious in these words: "At least in the countries of the western democracies, the pattern of religious life that has prevailed for several centuries has, for all practical purposes, served its purpose and is passing away." Sister Joan Chittister, OSB, boasted of the process: "Every element, every assumption, every custom, every jot and tittle of the rule, no matter how longstanding and sacrosanct, became refreshingly suspect, tiringly suspect. Here was a social scouring of immense proportions, one of the most total in social history, perhaps."

The same dispassionate observer might add that, even if the reformers had good ideas about how to reform their venerable and highly successful communities, by the time they finished their "social scouring," there wasn't much left. The old they destroyed; the new they could not call into being.

I particularly regret the advice I gave to nuns in articles ("The New Nuns") in The Commonweal and in The Saturday Evening Post. I deserve to be shamed for some of the things I wrote about experimental liturgies, about dissent in the Church, and about "the spirit" (and much too little about the carefully formulated letter) of Vatican II. I fancied myself a leader among the younger reformers, a witness of the events at Vatican II, part of a "new breed" that would accomplish great things.

If I did not do worse damage, it is largely because after 1965 I turned my attention to problems of unbelief in the secular world and to issues of public policy, believing that there were plenty of theologians around to worry about the inner life of the Church. Thus did Providence snatch me from the path of even worse sins, which I surely would have committed.

My purgatory is bound to be very long and very painful, even if all it were to consist of would be the humiliating contemplation of my past words and deeds.

5. Rescuing Vatican II

On still other fronts, what has happened to the grand project of "the open church"? Pope John Paul II's work with and in frank dialogue with Jews is one good evidence of solid accomplishment, and even more sweeping is his boldness regarding human rights around the world. His visits to the Synagogue in Rome and to Israel, his words at Auschwitz and at Yad Vashem, his conversations with Jewish survivors from his boyhood home, Wadowice--all these touched many Jewish friends of mine and writers in the public press quite deeply. So did his appeals for human rights to Pinochet in Chile and Marcos in the Philippines. John Paul II has not hesitated to upbraid the powerful, including the United States and its presidents. In Cairo, Beijing, and elsewhere he has opposed the cultural elite of a communications age--journalists, commentators, feminists, secularists and anti-Christians of all stripes and formidable powers--in calling abortion and euthanasia moral evils of a horrifying sort, and in refusing to budge on his duty to uphold the considered practice of Jesus, viz., that only males, weak and unworthy as they are, may be ordained as priests. Most of all, the Pope has urged truth within the Church, and repentance for many heretofore unadmitted sins of its members, including bishops and popes. His appeals for repentance have sometimes drummed down like rain, they have come so often--for Galileo, the Inquisition, the Czech martyrs, the massacre of Huguenots, and many more. The Church is a very human institution, whose vocation is to incarnate Christ in history, and it has not been afraid to dirty its hands in that task, as it must. If it is always to be calling the world to repentance, it must lead in that path every day.

Moreover, there is lively, not to say furious, argument within the Church (and between the Church and the surrounding culture) on almost everything. The Church in America is not dying of terminal indifference; passions run very high, and arguments cut even deeper. If there has been a failure of openness, it lies in the paucity of fora in which intelligent representatives of otherwise hostile points of view can engage one another in the same room. Richard John Neuhaus, a convert from Lutheranism, has attempted to make the scholarly seminars around the journal First Things one such forum. On a less intellectually rigorous level the Common Ground Initiative, launched by Cardinal Bernardin before his death, is another. More are needed, variously conceived.

Most Catholics, left and right, really do love the Church. They have, alas, learned to be fearful of one another from abuses by one side and the other during the past forty years. The reformers were far from generous toward the conservatives, whom they roundly defeated when they took over virtually all the institutions within the American Church. In addition, they are sometimes the last to recognize their own intolerance, since in their own self-image they are by definition tolerant. From Vatican II onwards, most liberal Catholics abandoned the practice of tolerance, towards conservatives at least, having learned to refer to "conservatives" in tones of mockery. By contrast, the besetting sin of conservatives, now that after generations of dominance they find themselves a defeated minority, is a peculiar sort of resentment born of a feeling of powerlessness. These besetting sins feed each other's worst tendencies.

Progressives seem oblivious to the heavy-handed way in which they have used ecclesiastical authority to stifle conservative Catholics throughout the panoply of "mainstream" Catholic institutions--that very mainstream that before Vatican II was conservative and since has been liberal. Just recently, a distinguished priest-writer was forbidden to write publicly in criticism of the liberal position on Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the Vatican decree that demands truth in advertising; namely, that Catholic Universities ought to be held accountable for being Catholic. Yes, he was forbidden to support the Pope. Another priest was forbidden by his bishop to write publicly about the way things are in his diocese, under pain of excommunication. Liberals do not run an open church.

Yes, but what about the "authoritarian" way in which Pope John Paul II withdrew the pontifical commission that had allowed Professor/Father Hans Küng to write and speak with the authority of the pontifical chair in Tübingen, and Professor/Father Charles Curran with that of the pontifical school of theology at Catholic University in Washington, and some half-dozen other similar cases around the world? ("Pontifical" means the privilege of an unusual distinguished mandatum or commission from the Pope.) John Paul II has been Pope for almost 21 years. Küng and Curran are still teaching, writing, lecturing. To be sure, Küng and Curran can no longer be taken to be speaking as professors of the Catholic faith, but only in their own estimable names. Thus what they write and say is no longer nearly so exciting as it was in the days when it was a legitimate question, Are these men really commissioned to teach as "professors of Catholic-pontifical no less-- theology"?

The very conception of the open church, like that of the open society according to Karl Popper, requires a falsification procedure, a test for being found out to be wrong, and being rejected on that account. Not everyone who claims to be speaking for the Catholic faith is actually doing so. It is quite important for the community to have methods for ascertaining the falsification of the witness. (Is racial segregation compatible with Catholic faith? Is it Catholic to encourage the practice of abortion, or to have one? Do Catholics still believe in Purgatory?) Down the ages, in matters of faith and morals the method protected by the Holy Spirit has been to defer to the judgment of the Bishop of Rome, when the latter is in conformity with the faith as it has been taught "always and everywhere" (in other words, not solely because it is his private opinion). To be Catholic means to be in communion with Rome.

In cases of irresolvable dispute, the noble Christian's course is, in the end, having made his case to the best of his ability, to defer to the Bishop of Rome, and in silence and peace to await the decision of history. It is not unusual for an intellectual to be in a greater hurry than the Holy Spirit. If his position turns out, actually, to be correct and that of the Bishop of Rome wrong, his willingness to have deferred for the good of the whole community will be all the more honored, and his original opinion given the priceless sanction of a position held firm at great personal cost. Meanwhile, it sometimes happens that public understanding moves more slowly than that of the learned, so that even a delay in the public presentation of an advance position may work to the good and the equanimity of the whole body of the faithful. It will sometimes secure, as well, the rounding out and deepening of the initial advance position. "For those who love God, all things work together unto good."

In no other period in my life have so many theological disputes been conducted so broadly and openly in the secular press, in the religious press, and in public debates as in the years from 1961 until now. In such an era, theologians need to develop their own mechanisms for guarding the data entrusted to them. They themselves should mark out of bounds opinions that falsify the data. If theologians watch over their own ranks, bishops and Rome will not have to intrude. An open church cannot be built if those with the crown jewels--the data of revelation--do not hold these life-giving data precious. The truths of the faith are essential for a true humanism. To treasure them, many in our blood-soaked time have given up their lives.

6. Three Scarlet Threads

Vatican II was a call to holiness sent out to hundreds of millions of hearts. It will be a success only if that call is heeded many times over, in critical mass. God sheds abundant graces among us. The task is hard, but not impossible. That is what John Paul II has been calling us to, in his own vision of opening up the Church to the world, so as to open the world to God's gracious mercies.

Many who do not understand the language of theology--who are flummoxed by theological terms (much like the spell checker in my computer)--may find it easier to grasp a philosophical model of the same. That model is not entirely adequate, but it does accustom the mind to making some fruitful moves, like a child learning to ride a bicycle with training wheels.

If you try to become conscious of the driving urgency within you to pursue questions to their conclusion--sometimes, for instance, to get to the point of a joke, or to hear the end of a story, or to solve a nettlesome puzzle--you have some clue about the yawning hunger of a woman or man to come to an understanding of all things. To see it all whole. To grasp every detail. And it might seem to you that such an understanding would be so far beyond any of your limits of time and ability that it would require an insight that is infinite, as infinite as are the questions to be raised. To pursue such an insight is what it means to love the truth, to be in the grip of the eros of understanding, restless until you rest in the full light of a limitless understanding.

To pursue that light day by day you need to be free, free to test out putative theories and hypotheses--first approximations, as it were--and to drive on to better-grounded ones; free to acquire your own insights and make your own judgments. You need, as well, a certain degree of self-command, a sobriety of purpose and equanimity of judgment, a fearlessness in the face of uncomfortable findings. You need a certain detachment from other passions, in deference to the passion for seeing things straight. In all those senses, you would come to see the meaning of the line: "Ye shall seek the truth, and the truth shall make ye free." Our love for truth nourishes in us the self-command of free men. By contrast, other loves can deflect us from following the light. They can twist our judgment, and undermine our courage, as in the case of the scientist who falsified data for the sake of advancement. Oddly enough, the profoundest characteristic of free women and men is their love for truth. That is the love that makes them free.

If you are reflecting along with me about your own love of truth and willingness to bear the burden of asking questions, you have available in your own consciousness much of the classic evidence for assertions about the nature of the human person, human community, and God, according to the traditions of the Catholic Church. The infinitely restless drive of inquiry, the appetite for truth, the discomfort with anything less than truth--all these are best nourished in community, with friends with equal (or even superior) love for truth, who keep you honest and inspire you through times of great difficulty, because they have also known dry and painful times.

If you follow me so far, then you can understand why Bishop Wojtyla wrote even before the Second Vatican Council assembled that the most important word for the Council to tell the world concerns Everyman's answer to the question: Who am I? Who are we? What is the meaning and sense of the human project? In formulating this answer, three terms seemed to him crucial: freedom, the person, and community. These three are tied together by the active energy that drives through all of them: love of the truth about man. Freedom is for truth, and is built up, constituted, by fidelity to truth. The search for truth is communal, not only personal, and it requires for its exercise the open society--open in its polity, its economy, and its culture. It is the vocation of the Church to keep this vision before the human race, in part by living out this vision in advance of the human race, through its own constant repentance, reform, and starting again.

I am here sticking, as I said above, to merely philosophical language. But the Bible also speaks richly of these three realities, as does the liturgy, and the whole of the theological tradition. The excruciating experience of our own bloody century and the exhaustion of so many competing ideologies has, perhaps, fashioned for us a more precise language for articulating this tradition than was available to earlier ages. We have acquired a sharper historical consciousness, and perhaps an even fuller sense of collision with all the different cultures of earth, such as individual bishops felt in St. Peter's. In greeting those who sat near them during the Council, they struck up friendships with men from entirely different continents and cultures. (In his letters to his diocese, Bishop Wojtyla described his amazingly diverse seat mates, as did Bishop Tracy of Baton Rouge in his, not failing to note the at times incommensurable cultural distances they encountered. One could find unity in faith and love, they learned, even when in the eyes of the other one saw a totally different world of experience.)

Perhaps, too, these searing times have taught us a richer language of interiority and consciousness than the tradition had felt need of before. Thus, Wojtyla found in phenomenology richer terms for expressing interior dimensions of the person and community than are to be found in Aquinas. He had needed to draw on such terms to understand his own inner life during the Nazi, then the Communist, occupation of Poland.

All these points Vatican II wrestled with, for instance in its debates about the meaning of the liturgy (public worship) of the Church, its most vital, inmost source of connection with God's action in the world, for this connection is at once communal, personal, and free. And then wrestled with them again in its discussion of the meaning of the Church. Person, community, and freedom were important red threads coursing through all its debates. They were woven into worldly contexts in the later debates in later sessions, first raised in this Second Session, in such documents as those on Religious Liberty and, as it was at first called, "The Church in the Modern World." In both these documents, Wojtyla played leadership roles in committee, not always in the very front rank, but by making intellectual contributions at crucial intersections.

Although he was only forty-two when the Council opened, Wojtyla made eight oral interventions in the Council hall, a rather high number, and often spoke in the name of large groups of bishops from the East. (Altogether he made 22 interventions, oral and written.) He was an unusually active member of various official drafting groups for Gaudium et Spes, and even a chief author of what was called the "Polish draft." His voice was crucial to the passage of the document on religious liberty and to the deepening of its philosophical and theological dimension, in line with the necessities of the non-free nations behind the Iron Curtain. No one, perhaps, was more influential in persuading the Americans and Europeans that their own views on liberty needed to be deepened, in order to account for questions arising from other cultures. In later memoirs about the Council, such world-class theologians as Yves Congar and Henri De Lubac praised Wojtyla's acumen in committee work as well as his magnetic presence.

All in all, the Council met for four sessions across four consecutive autumns from 1962 through 1965. It reached agreement on sixteen major documents. All these were published in official form in the languages of the nations and have been subjected to a stupendous amount of commentary. Still, it is rare how few Catholics, even well-educated ones, have actually spent time reading the documents themselves. (Those most fond of the "spirit" of Vatican II seldom sent students to study the "letter.") These "Declarations," "Decrees," and "Constitutions" are for the most part splendidly poised and balanced, and quite nourishing to the inquiring soul. They were written as if with devotional purposes in mind, to move the heart as well as intellect.

7. Final Thoughts

Over the years I have often heard the comment, "I really liked The Open Church; I think it is your best book," the suppressed conclusion being that the speaker stopped reading me around 1965. These are kind words, considering that most of those who utter them are "progressive" in outlook, and dislike my later work on democratic capitalism. Nearly all add, "I especially liked your discussion of nonhistorical orthodoxy."

The other comment I have much appreciated is this one: "Do you know the single best line in your chapter on the U.S. Bishops?" They then quote from memory: "I can think of only one of them who has earned the epithet 'pompous ass'." The beauty of it, some said, is that so many bishops will have to ask themselves, "Is it I, Lord?"

That whole chapter offers a rather detailed description of the US hierarchy circa 1963. In several dimensions, it offers a point of comparison with where the U.S. Bishops are today. But that is a subject for a different study.

My final point in concluding this Introduction is to underline how redolent with memory this work of my youth still is to me. I can remember the smells of burning chestnuts in the streets of Rome; the taste of Sambuca after dinner with Karen; the excitement of the press conferences every early afternoon; the perfect October air in St. Peter's Square with the great dome glinting in the sunlight. It was a wonderful time to be alive. Since an Ecumenical Council happens only once in a century, I am glad to have been present at this one, a great and history-changing outpouring of the Spirit, and just plain fun.

So also I am glad to have come to know Karol Wojtyla, if not in 1963, then in his time as Pope--John Paul the Great, as I think he will be known, the Pope who rescued Vatican II and gave it urgent focus; and who taught us relentlessly to focus where he focuses: on Christ. I cannot think of the Council without thinking of the Pope named for the two Popes of the Council, John and Paul-- and without thinking of the One to Whom he points: "Sia lodato Gesù Cristo!" Were these not his first words as pope?

In the old days, before the Council, the priest at mass and all the people faced toward the East, toward Jerusalem, the blessed soil of our Covenant and our salvation. The eyes of all were turned in the same direction, toward God. In one of the misleading decisions inspired by the "spirit of Vatican II," liturgists re-imagined the mass as a communal meal, in which the priest is the focal point of a circle, standing across the table "facing" the people. People and priest seem now to focus on each other.

In true love, rather than in gazing into each other eyes, lovers face together outward toward the One Who first set fire to their love:

The Love that moves the Sun and other Stars.


The author thanks Erica Walter and Cornelis Heesters for outstanding research assistance.

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