This is the third and final installment of the first-ever translation of “the banned pastoral letter,” the document of the bishops of Holland to their people in preparation for the Council. Cardinal Ottaviani of the Holy Office had the Italian translation banned from the bookshops of Rome in the weeks leading up to the Council. The translation is by Janice Poss. See Part I and Part II.
Chapter III: The Ecumenical Council
The sense of faith and the council
Against this backdrop we understand more clearly what a council is. What passes more or less imperceptibly in the life of people of God under the daily teaching, pastoral care and administration of the global episcopate in communion with the pope, receives from a council a particular expressive form. A general council is then a concentration of grace in action visible from the Holy Spirit, that we send to the Head of the Church, Christ. The Holy Spirit ‘recalls’ to us what Christ did and taught when he lived on the earth. Under this aspect the council is like a sacrament: a sacred sign of the action of the Holy Spirit in the doctrinal magistrate and in the pastoral direction of the Church. Strictly speaking, the council is an act of ecclesiastical hierarchy and an act only of this hierarchy: this is an authoritarian, prophetic, and normative judgment, an act of authority, to what participates in principle as the representatives of the jurisdictional function in the Church, that is to say the hierarchy, always sustained by grace of which Christ provides it and possessing the discernment to distinguish the collective conceptions of believers of earthly hopes and human considerations not always exempt from sin. This power of discernment, gift of the Spirit, permits, not only to define the truth of faith, but to again fix ecclesiastic organization, to direct ecclesial and liturgical life, to formulate the exigencies of Christian life in confrontation with the world and its problems. From antiquity it was clear that a council was as such “the business of the bishops”, as what was said at the start of the Council of Ephesus.1 But what preceded showed sufficiently that this Episcopal activity presupposed the entire faith life of the lay community. This was not only in a general manner, but in particular in the immediate preparation of a council.
In reattaching the respectable patristic heritage, Pope John XXIII said that the proper character of the next ecumenical council comes “from the presence and the participation of bishops and prelates who the representation of the Catholic Church spread out in the entire universe.”2 The bishops receive their full power from Christ, not from the believers; but as bishops, encircled by their collective of priests, they are, “servants of God”3 and “servants of the community of faith,”4the reflection of the faith of their church. This is how the bishop of each church determined that each of them would attend the council: that in each of them would be heard the voice of the community of which he took care, voice that, in accordance with the world episcopate, he himself was already judged, directed, and accompanied, purified, corrected and encouraged. It is with this consideration that each bishop announced the Church’s general assembly, where would be heard the voices of the other churches, this is how Pope John XXIII wanted to remind the bishoprics according to scriptural custom. United, strong, not by their own strength, but by the charism of the Spirit that guides them, they will decide what is opportune for ecclesial life. This is precisely what an ecumenical council will judge, and not only “state,” what regards the content of faith and the governance of the Church, without calling to mind new divine revelations, that must assume living faith and its integration in all the ecclesial community. The assembled bishops themselves will question the norm of apostolic faith, such as it is presented in the Writings and in apostolic consciousness as in the actual life of all the Church; they must in affect “dwell on the foundation of the apostles and keep the faith of the Fathers,” as St. Athanasius wrote,5 “conserving the sacred trust” that has been confided to them.6 At this departure from this conscience of faith, they judge, in virtue of the spiritual gift of their function, from an infallible manner, our views on the problems that present us today about our existence as believers in this world. Across this judgment, it is Christ glorified who judges, as Pope Celestine already declared, “The meeting of the bishops is a testimony to the presence of the Holy Spirit.”7
The council looks inevitably to reattach itself to the general conscience of faith in the Church and to reigning public opinion among the faithful about a new problem posed by life. In union of faith with the pope, the world episcopate will pass judgment on its authentic Christian validity about all that dwells and maturely ripens among the faithful. This assembly will examine what is the real work of faith, and set the limits in regard to foreign conceptions to this faith, whether purely human conceptions or faulty. Only “The Spirit of God penetrates all, even things hidden in God. What man, in effect, knows what happens in man, if not the spirit of man that is in him? Thus we have not received the spirit of this world, but the Spirit that comes from God. Here is what we teach, not by words that we have appraised human wisdom, but instructed by the Spirit of God.”8 In the same way the conciliar sentences and dispositions are the powerful manifestation of an active collaboration in the faith of all of the community of faith, of the pope, of the bishops, of the priests and of the laity, accompanied by the judgment of the hierarchy who, transformed by the Spirit, feels, clarifies and corrects everything. At the base of this intimate communion we can say that all the believing Church expresses itself by the decisions of an ecumenical council that: “Then the apostles and the ancients with all the assembly (= the Church), decided…”9 The global episcopate teaches in effect, “in medio Ecclesiae”,10 in the middle of the ‘great assembly’ who proclaims, “Amen.”
This is more easily to render the discovery of the Spirit of God in the life of the Church that Pope John XXIII asked that, of all the corners of the world where faith lives in Christ, laity and priests, religious and bishops make known their wishes and desires. The submission of these wishes concern the actual living manifestation of the entire community of faith, that ardently desires to give also to the Church an exterior evangelical brightness, which would make more easily recognizable in this Church the immaculate Bride that Christ acquired for himself. In this way, what the Holy Spirit wants itself to cause to understand in the life of the Church will express itself in a more conscious and sharper fashion at the council.
Not only before and during the council, but still after it all the faithful will be closely interested in it. If the council does not echo itself in the community, it will then be to say it was in vain. The council will fully acquire its effect as a salvific event only if it is accepted by the people and translated into the life of the Church. Not as if the ecclesial decisions received their power only from the consent of the faithful. A council is similar to the sacraments. These can be valid, but without our response by faith and charity [love] full of hope they are fruitless and lack their end in our lives. The decisions of an ecumenical council will be sterile if they are not accepted by the entire believing community with faith and love and as a force in effective life. The hopes are expansive, but even so a global episcopate is limited. A council is as a whole the work of men, but it is also as a whole the work of the Spirit of Christ: this is a charismatic direction of the work of men in faith. It is not necessary then to wait for a council of miracles. Even if each council signifies a transformation and a renewal of life in the Church, each council has equally been led by some disillusions. Our epoch is not mature on all points. The Church is also still on the march on the road toward its celestial form. This includes that she is still situated in time and that she is only raised up by historic discontinuity toward perfect manifestation by what she contains as the plenitude of grace and faith.
The council as liturgy
Understood by faith that the power of God ‘manifests itself in weakness,’ 11 we can understand what is an ecumenical council in its most profound mysterious essence; a submission to God in prayer, an act of cult, that situates itself at the interior liturgical celebration of the Eucharistic sacrifice. In effect, ‘it is not by ourselves and by our own force that we are capable of conceiving something, but our capacity comes from God, who renders us capable of being ministers in a new alliance.’12 This is why a council is still a grandiose prayer. [It is] a prayer of impetration, but also a prayer of recognition and of the action of graces, because ‘grace…makes abundant recognition, to the glory of God.’ 13 For this reason a council must as first priority prepare itself and accompany itself to our participation with everyone in the prayer, so that the intervention of the Holy Spirit can be perceived and understood, as purely as possible by the unity of bishops. Because even then Christ has operated salvation ‘in a form of servant,’ according to the earthly conditions of his historic existence, the same as he accomplishes now his work of redemption by the Spirit in the Church, according to the limited conjunctures of life of an exterior community of men, leaders and people. The infallibility that comes again to the global episcopate in virtue of its function, in union of faith with the pope, includes that historic human acts are seized interiorly by the Spirit of God. Because of their humanity, and in spite of their infallibility, these historic acts participate in the imperfection of all that is human. The result of a council can be nothing but good. But it could be equally better. It is precisely by prayer that we defend ourselves against imperfection and the limitation of all that is human, and ask all-powerful God the triumph of his grace in the midst of human frailty.
The council before actual problems
Can this Catholic vision of an ecumenical council make us understand that she can neither slow down nor diminish our interest in the next council, but on the contrary render it more intense and situate it in a religious and ecclesial perspective. We, your bishops, have real need of your collaboration especially during these months of preparation. In this we do not principally make an appeal to your lay competence or to your theological knowledge, but as first priority as your richness as real members of the ecclesial community, that makes of you all the active representatives of the faith of the Church. It is not only from this personal richness of your affiliation by faith to the Church that your lay competencies or your theological contributions acquire their constructive value vis-à-vis the future council. It is to make appeal to your knowledge for a series of problems. The Church finds itself in effect at this moment vitally confronted with numerous and varied problems.
In the first place interior problems of the Church. One looks for a pastoral adaptation of the apostolate of priests and of the laity to new conditions of society. This adaptation can only organize itself from an exact view of faith on the structure of the Church. It is a question of distinguishing in this from what has been established for always by Christ, although susceptible to growth and progressive developments, of what has developed historically around it and what shows up culturally as outdated. So also the active participation of the faithful at the liturgical celebration of the mysteries of the Church poses all sorts of problems, as well as, for that matter, for catechesis and predication. In one Church spread out all over the world surface questions that can, on the one hand, have a definitive response on only the regional level, but on the other hand, present itself in an identical way in all the other ecclesiastical provinces. This poses a problem not only for dogmatic rapport, but yet for human rapport between the bishops, assigned directly to their community by Christly authority, and the supreme pastor, he also with divine authority, the higher authority and central in all the Church. The more the communities of bishops were not really living with, if they were all in communion with the pope, but not in tight contact ones with others and with the believers. Subsequently some new data, medical, psychological, sociological and others, pose to the moral Catholic many problems that have not yet received a definitive Christian solution.
There is also the confrontation of the Catholic Church with non-Catholic Christian Churches of whom as Pope John XXIII said it, carrying equally “the glorious name of Christian.”14 “More than ever seen among Christians is the aspiration of visible unity in faith. Before the awakening of numerous people sitting idly in the past and who became in a massive way in contact with occidental Christianity, the fact of a torn Christianity was born from painful questions, precisely because the persuasive force of the great Sign, that was established among nations and must invite all to faith, found itself obscured by the division in Christianity. The others could not see enough in Christianity what they must see there to arrive at unity. To us, Catholics, was given the mission to make our Church a viable domicile, in that our separated brethren could find the accomplishment in that which they could, as in a precious heritage, their Christian spirituality. Their spirituality itself can in its turn stimulate our Catholic spirituality.
Alongside of this alights, in our time of relations and international conversations, the problem of affinity with other opinions and beliefs and with the world’s great religions. In this point of view a series of problems of missiological order awaits a response.
There is in addition a problem posed by the confrontation of the Church with the world social order, above all with the justified, earthly aspirations of which humanity has been conscience of in our time. In our days where history becomes for the first time a great world history, where one tends to realize a world organization of temporal society, the catholicity or universality of Christian charity [love] also receives and for the first time its great chances to exercise with all modern efficiency in real fecundity. Technical discoveries open our earthly existence to a new dimension, and we are put before this problem to see how the profane task, a particular form of Catholic vocation, places itself in perspective of ‘the unique necessity,’ without which for that we compromise ourselves within profane attitudes. The Church is confronted with Marxist, humanist, [and] existentialist philosophies, that call themselves atheist or agnostic. Even so, as believers, it is impossible for us to rally to these philosophies, we must see what the kernel of truth is contained in these movements and what gives them perhaps their most powerful dynamism. In this Spirit, Cardinal Tardini has declared that “the council directs itself toward no one (man or movement0…It sooner wishes to attract than condemn whatever finds itself outside the Church.”15 All this we must carry, we faithful, to reflect more profoundly on what is contained in our faith with regard to life in the modern world.
Finally, in a cosmopolitan society as our own, the coexistence and collaboration with others becomes a complicated thing, including aspects, not only principles, but also practices, that cannot be resolved by certain general directives.
We have cited several examples of the problems that pose themselves to the actual Church, such that she clarifies herself more precisely by the wishes and desires, reaching from Rome to all the corners of the world for the preparation of the council. But this can already be grasped at the point that the contribution of all the faithful is necessary to find every just solution and to take the best dispositions concerning the future. And here we can rejoice in ascertaining that the Second Vatican Council will be the first council that most nearly approaches the geographic Catholicity of the Church. This council can then be called most appropriately ‘ecumenical.’ The ‘ecumen’ signifies the Greco–Rroman universe of the ancient Church inhabited by all the earth, coinciding in fact with the limits of the Roman Empire. This notion enlarges itself following the oriental and occidental Empire. The term ecclesiastic of ‘ecumenical council’ aligns itself first to a geographic notion: it signified, by opposition to the local and regional synods, a meeting of the world episcopate, which is to say of all the bishops spread out over the occidental and oriental Roman Empire. In the ancient Church the ‘ecumen’ received the most religious signification: it was the earth inhabited, submitting to the domination of God and servant. When the great schisms came, numerous bishops in the realm of the royal ‘ecumen’ were no longer represented at the general assemblies of the Church. The notion of ‘ecumenicity’ modified itself: its geographic contents became above all dogmatic content. From this moment on a council was designated ‘ecumenical’ when, the gathering of all the bishops in communion with the pope, addressed itself as all the Church. Viewed from this angle, the ‘ecumen’ is a spiritual gift, accorded to the Church by Christ. But in our day, where for the first time in history of ecclesiastical councils, there will be bishops from all parts of the globe, the geographic ecumenicity acquires a new significance and more realistic. This can bring to our occidental experience of Christianity an enrichment full of promise. But at whichever point that we could rejoice in this fact, we must sense all the more sadly that the intolerable spiritual gift of the ‘ecumen’, consists in what the Church unique of Christ is in principle and in its development the house of all people, be it as it may veiled by the divisions within Christianity. This nostalgia for visible unity of all Christians is like the background for all efforts of renewal for the next council, so that the Church, the ‘great Sign’ planted by Christ in this world, can be visibly and real among us as the unique Bride of Christ easily recognizable.
Council and renewal of life
For this reason precisely a general assembly of the world episcopate cannot accomplish every task. This assembly is only an impulse, a stimulation. The gigantic work can only be perfected by the believing faithful and evangelic life of all Catholics. Above all in a time like ours, it is known on the one hand a rich abundance and material goods, on the other hand so much misery and suffering, of poverty, of undernourishment, not only in the parts of world far from us, but also, in a hidden manner, in our proximity, — a time that sees a young Christian discovery, fresh with the values of the world, but where this life is only used by so many others as a drunken and savage feast that no longer leaves room for sacrifice and the altruistic gift of self, — a time of which its exhausting rhythm leaves us without leisure to commune with oneself, and where humble virtues and devotion and the forgetting of self, even that of contemplation and prayer, risk to be depreciated, at the same time we are asked as Catholics, more than ever, to give visible form to our life as evangelical saintliness, to ‘love God above all else, with all our soul, with all our heart and with all ou strength, and the other as ourselves.’ The ‘life according to evangelical advice,’ called by ecclesiastical tradition ‘a state of perfection,’ continues for this reason, perhaps under other exterior forms than previous, to play an important role in the modern renovation of real, living Christianity, on condition that this life be truly lived interiorly and logically: that it exists for all of us a permanent warning, proclaiming on high that the Church, in whatever way that she is incarnated in this world, is not however, ‘of this world’ and that she aspire ardently as the glorious venue of our Lord.
Zeal for faith and critique of the faithful
Our zeal to make of the Church a brilliant manifestation that will be, according to the words of Pope John XXIII, as a ‘sweet invitation’ for others, we will make known the franchise with which certain among you see what is missing in the Church. There is in the Church a place for ‘public opinion’, it is what has been explicitly declared and as high priority by Pope Pius XII.16 We can no longer not want to give you this right. The Church cannot flee the light of objective, historical truth, even if this is less than pleasant. But that your critique also be equally competent. Above all in questions strictly related to the domain of faith, only the faithful who have consciously examined it can deliver a justified critique without running the danger of committing dangerous errors. Catholic critique is not uniquely carried by the love of the truth, it is also by a conscience of responsibility and by the persuasion that the discovery of the truth is always a difficult conquest, where no one can recklessly make a call to a sort of ‘innate science.’ The discovery of the truth asks for competent work. Furthermore only charity [love] brings truth to light. That your critique is not only distinguished by competence, [but] that it also be free of bitterness or resentment and of abusive tone that comes from a feeling of inferiority. Catholic critique is the expression of a true love of the Church. She does not know arrogance, but sooner concern for the Church, she accompanies herself even with a certain Christian sadness. Catholic critique, the right and work of the faithful, is an expression of love that does not show faults to its Mother except with respect, with love that searches with Christian tact and delicacy the means indicated and its filial observations, from love finally that does not destroy the obedience of faith in oneself and in others. When one treats, with righteousness, the heterodox and the unbelievers with gentleness and indulgence, avoiding scrupulously from wounding them or of mauling them, this gentleness must apply itself still even more, according to the words of the apostle Paul, to brothers [and sisters] of faith: ‘do what is good,’17 principally when these, as it is said in the rule of St. Augustine, are in greater danger because of their greater and more elevated responsibility.
The Church is a patient mother
From a Church weighted by worries but rich from twenty centuries of experience we must not endeavor to attain precipitous acts or decisions. It is not a council, it is Christ who has carried by his Good News the great changes in the history of the world. The Church claims itself without ceasing this act of salvation, unique and accomplished once and for all, in its maternal worry for our good, in view ‘to bring forth healing’18 for our sins [and suffering]. It is in reflecting on the worries of this Mother, described by St. Augustine,19 that we conclude our pastoral letter:
“Oh, Mother Church, you teach the children with tenderness, the young with strength, the old with gentleness; and each one of them, not only according to the maturity of their age, but also according to the maturity of their intelligence…Tirelessly you have us learn what returns honor and respect, veneration and fear, counsel and advice, punishment and reprimand… you make us understand that everything does not befall to everyone, but that to everyone charity [love] is returned and to no one injustice.”
Utrecht, Christmas Eve, 1960.
- J. Harduin, Conciliorum collection regia maxima, Paris FR, 1715, Vol. II, col. 71. ↩
- Doc. cath. 1960, 803. ↩
- Rom., 7:22. ↩
- See Eph. 4:12. ↩
- De synodis, 54; Patr. Greek, 26, col. 789. ↩
- 1 Tim., 6:20; 2 Tim., 1:14. ↩
- Epistle 18:1; Patr. Latin, 50, col. 505. ↩
- I Cor 2:11-13. ↩
- Acts 15:22. ↩
- Ps 91:2, “In medio Ecclesiae aperuit os ejus: et implevit eum Dominus epiritu sapientiae, et intellectus: stolam gloriae induit eum. (In the midst of the Church the Lord opened his mouth: and filled him with the spirit of wisdom and understanding: He clothed him with a robe of glory.) introit; Ecc 15:5 ↩
- II Cor 13:9. ↩
- II Cor 3:5-6. ↩
- II Cor 4:15. ↩
- Doc. Cath., 1960, 705, and 709. ↩
- Only appeared in The Tablet, Nov. 7, 1959, p. 972. ↩
- Osservatore Romano, Feb. 18, 1950. ↩
- Gal 6:10. ↩
- Acts 28:27. ↩
- De moribus ecclesiae, I, 30, 63; Patr. latin, 32, col. 1336-1337. ↩