Cardinal Montini: ‘Pensiamo al Concilio’ Part II

This is the second installment of Cardinal Montini’s lenten pastoral letter to his diocese of Milan written from Rome where he is participating in preparations for the upcoming ecumenical council. See Part I.

8. The ecumenical council would be a great topic for a manifold and lengthy talk. For the purposes of our simple pastoral letter it suffices to remember the deep and august 1 complexity of the subject so that none of us would too easily deliver a hasty or superficial judgment. It suffices again to mention a few of its features so that some definite idea will help us join our devotion spiritually to the great event, to find out and mediate what about the council we consider to be important for our growth as the Church’s faithful and children of our present century.

And immediately the event took on the appearance and strength of a truly universal call. It was like provoking an awakening and a lively wave in throughout the Church.

9. The most evident feature of the council is its convocation. It happened through the exclusive free will of the Supreme Pontiff when nobody was expecting it. And only its announcement was necessary to give the impression to both the entire Church and the whole world that an extraordinary event was about to happen, as if it was expected. And immediately the event took on the appearance and strength of a truly universal call. It was like provoking an awakening and a lively wave in throughout the Church. The pope was going to contact the whole episcopacy, beyond the canonical group of the Roman Curia, to reach out directly to the vast horizon of the universal hierarchy. We could say that if the exterior concatenation of events we call history was not expecting such an event, the Catholic mood was expecting and raising it, perhaps without being fully aware. It needed such a vocation. As Catholics during the present generation have been subjected to the richest, strangest, most dramatic experiences, stricken by wars’ suffering and consequences, in many countries afflicted by brutal oppression and persecutions, eroded by a crisis mentality and the ethics of modern evolution, attacked by the most radical form of atheism and laicism, but nevertheless alive and throbbing with new energy in each field of its life, in its thinking, in it faith, in its holiness, in the mystery of liturgical celebration, in pastoral care, in missionary duties, in organization development, in works of charity, in encouraging the laity to increase the ecclesiastical community by spreading Christian principles in various fields of temporal society. As we were saying, Catholicism, full of sufferings and energy, was listening to Rome speaking with joy and veneration, was receiving regulations and directions, which they gladly obeyed, but there was often the impression that an easy dialog and call to cooperate was missing, as if the Church’s mission was meant to be carried out more through a passive acceptance, rather than celebrated in fraternity, promoted by the foundation of unity itself. In many fields spreading all over the world, it was experiencing an effusive feeling, a desire to unleash, to question and report using a more lively language, not only with Rome, but within itself as well.

So when the pope announced the ecumenical council, it seemed he had guessed a secret expectation felt not only by the college of bishops, but also by the whole Catholic Church.

So when the pope announced the ecumenical council, it seemed he had guessed a secret expectation felt not only by the college of bishops, but also by the whole Catholic Church. An enthusiastic fire passed through the whole Church. He had an intuition, maybe an inspiration, that by calling the council he would arouse an unequalled vitality. Never before was the Catholic Church surprised by such a call, but responded with a willing expression to communicate with the Vicar of Christ and all brothers and sisters spread all over the world. This first aspect of the council constitutes by itself an historical fact of primary importance and of high spiritual value for Catholicism as a whole. This is a call to the great dialog of the Church’s unity.

10. How does this dialog happen? Such an undertaking requires a rigorous procedure. Accordingly, these aspects of the council are open equally to everyone, both the legal and the canonical. We will not limit ourselves to these external, concrete, and material aspects of the council. But we will deduce some notions from the binding law of the Church. According to the customary language, a council is meant to be an assembly of bishops. When the pope convenes bishops from all over the world for ecumenical council, that council is universal. Such a council is also properly catholic. It is not merely an assembly or prayer, or study, or a friendly convention; it is an assembly of ecclesiastical government, which deliberates on matters discipline and doctrine; the teaching authority and the jurisdiction of the Church are more fully, visibly and solemnly expressed in a council. The religious issues regarding the faith, customs, and discipline of the Church are properly discussed by the council; the scope of the council encompasses the spiritual and moral good of the Christian people and indirectly of the whole world.

Therefore, the council is the supreme form of governance and teaching authority in the Church.

11. We could articulate a purely legal definition of the ecumenical council in these terms: it is a solemn assembly of bishops from the whole world, convened by the Roman Pontiff, in order to deliberate in communion under the authority and presidency of the Pontiff on religious issues that are of interest to the whole of Christianity (Dict. Th. Cath. Councils, pg. 641). Therefore, the council is the supreme form of governance and teaching authority in the Church.

12. It is most important to understand the pope’s position with regard to the ecumenical council. It must be remembered that the pope alone possesses the full and supreme authority over the whole Church; an episcopal and pastoral authority received immediately from Christ and not from the Church, ordinary and his own; when he speaks solemnly (ex cathedra) he enjoys special divine assistance, which was promised to the apostle Peter (Cf. Matt.16:18-19), and renders infallible, and therefore irreformable, such definitions by their own virtue and not from the consent of other bishops or the Church (Cfr. Denz. 1839. As St. Gregory the Great wrote to the bishops who gathered for the First Council of Constantinople in 599, Sine apostolicae sedis auctoritate atque consensu, nullas quaeque acta fuerint vires habeant 2 P.L. 77, col. 1005). It was defined thus by the First Vatican Council, interpreting the thought of Christ and the centuries-old faith of the Church, “The papacy does not derive its origin or power from the Church. When Jesus Christ, the true God, wanted to create the papacy and the pope, He did not resort to the ministry of the Church, nor to the apostles, but He did it directly, telling Peter: “feed my sheep” (S. Th. II-II, 1, 10,3. – cfr. Journet, L’Eglise du Verbe Incarné, I. pg. 516; Conclusion- God, the Church having other competency than to designate the person by election; 3- of all existing regimes, the papacy is the only one of divine origin). The authority of the pope is vicarious with respect to Christ, but regarding the Church it amounts to his own universal authority.

13. Therefore, the pope is able to act, with full authority and efficacy, without the council. He never acts, even when exercising such authority, without being aware of his communion with the episcopacy and the Church. But he has been assigned to confirm, by himself, everybody’s faith. On the other hand, the council cannot be considered valid without the pope. The pope must call and preside over the council, or at least approve its decisions. The council does not add substantive validity to the pope’s authority, while unity with the pope is essential for the council to be effective in its specificity. The council does not separate its jurisdiction from the pope’s, but identifies with the pope’s, forming with him supreme power over all the Church (Can. 228, § 1 – Cfr. Veillet, Les États généraux de l’Église, Fleurus, Paris, 1961). Therefore the council is not essential to the government of the Church, but when the council gathers around the pope, the government of the Church gains its most solemn, its most manifest shape in its fullness, and therefore the most effective one. Christ assigned to His Church the primacy of Peter, which is necessary and sufficient to conduct it; but He also established the Apostolic College with the power and the assignment of magisterium and pastoral care, in communion with Peter. When such communion of power is evident in its fullness the council materializes. Peter’s primatial power, passed on to the Bishop of Rome, merges with the Apostles’ collegial power (Peter himself was the first, but not the only one) passed on to the episcopacy. The council is not merely a particular solemnity of ecclesial power: it is the time when the mystery of the teaching Church is fully shown, the mystery of its peculiar features: apostolicity, unity, catholicity, and sanctity.

Councils cannot be suspected because of internal conflicts any longer, and they are able to become magnificent springs of spiritual energies for the whole Church.

14. Therefore, the hypothetical councils’ ineffectiveness became totally unsubstantiated after the definition of the fullness of papal power established by Vatican Council I. We think it is the opposite and that the next council’s summons is proving that. It was possible to hesitate in summoning the council, when doubts existed about the council’s authority before the pope (as it happened during the Councils of Constance and Basel), but since such constitutional truth about the papal primacy has been already established, today the main impediment to the ecumenical council’s celebration has dropped. Councils cannot be suspected because of internal conflicts any longer, and they are able to become magnificent springs of spiritual energies for the whole Church.

15. The mystery of the Church, we said, shines in the council like never before. Pope Pius IX taught: “It is in the ecumenical council that the holy dogmas of religion are defined with greater depth, expressed with greater amplitude, and ecclesiastical discipline is restored and more solidly established, …the tie between the members of the Church with their head is tightened, and the vigor of the whole mystical body of Christ grows … (Const. Dei Filius, coll.. lac. VII, 248).

16. The whole authority of the Pope does not, therefore, cancel the authority of the bishops, as some Catholics suspect (Dejaifve S.J., Pape et Evéques au premier Concile du Vatican, Desclée de B., 1961) and many separated brethren still allege. Regarding the issue relative to the relationship between the episcopate and the papacy read the article by Mons. Carlo Colombo: Episcopato e Primato Pontificio nella vi¬ta della Chiesa, in «Scuola Cattolica» nov-dic. 1960, p. 401-434. The doctrine regarding the derivation of episcopal jurisdiction from papal power was cleared up in the encyclical Mystici Corporis AAS, 1942, 212. Colombo writes ib. pg. 421 “the bishops participate in the apostolic powers of the Church as they legitimately take part in the episcopal college and maintain themselves in communion with it; they receive their ‘power’ from Jesus Christ through the episcopal college. And since the episcopal college is not autocephalous, but has a Head, which also alone possesses the fullness of ‘apostolic powers’ necessary for the life of the whole Church, because of this every power of individual bishops is already contained in this power as its source or root. In this way, it seems it can and must be explained that origin of the power of jurisdiction of the bishops comes from the Roman Pontiff, as taught in the encyclical Mystici Corporis: “the current transmission of jurisdiction, has not existed historically for long centuries; but is a radical derivation of some specifics of full power, as a radical extension of particular power from full power, which, according to the Catholic doctrine, already exists in full in the only Roman Pontiff without the cooperation of the council. The current transmission of jurisdiction is now a common historical fact …,”). From the sacrament bishops receive the fullness of the priesthood, but it is from the Supreme Pontiff they are given jurisdiction over their respective dioceses. Papal authority does not diminish that of the bishops, rather supports it, and finds in its dignity and stability, its own honor. Pope Gregory the Great wrote to the bishop of Alexandria: “My honor is the honor of the universal Church. My honor is the strength and prosperity of my brothers. So I am truly honored when the honor each of them deserves is not denied.”

17. Other issues that require an answer here, to which the event itself will respond with its resonance, are, for example, the frequency of councils whether fixed or to be fixed, or arbitrary, or by whom and by what depends the existence of other less solemn and particular councils, (on the appeal, now unlawful without doubt, by the pope at the council), of the votes in councils, et cetera.

18. One needs to be mentioned, about the members to be convened according to canon law now in force. We know, according to the above mentioned bull, who will be called to the next council: the Cardinals, Patriarchs, Primates, Archbishops, and Bishops, both residential and titular, the abbots and prelates having jurisdiction, the Abbot Primate and abbots of monastic congregations, and the superiors general of clerical religious orders.

Go to Part III

  1. Alternative translations: majestic, grand, magnificent —Ed.
  2. “Without the consent and authority of the apostolic see, no act will have strength” (i.e., it will not be binding)

2 thoughts on “Cardinal Montini: ‘Pensiamo al Concilio’ Part II

  1. Pingback: Cardinal Montini: Pensiamo al Concilio I | Conciliaria

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