Eyewitness Impressions of the Role of the American Hierarchy in Rome

A few cynics have taken a bankrupt view of Vatican II. In their eyes, it was a failure before it began on October 11, 1962, and this because it bad set itself the task of doing too much in too short a time, with inadequate preparation and against forces of traditionalism too entrenched to be overcome by the Holy Spirit Himself. The correct and realistic view, on the other hand, is that the Council was a success before it met in the first general congregation of its first session.

This hopeful appraisal is supported by several considerations. Vatican II, besides focusing the eyes of the world on the Church assembled in all her impressive solemnity and solidarity, has, by the very fact of being convoked, created a new atmosphere of amity and urgency with respect to the unity of all Christians. It has opened windows locked for centuries. It has provided an immense showcase for a display of the democratic side of the Church’s life. It has ventilated questions long shut away unanswered. And it has done this in a setting of overwhelming evidence of the faith, devotion, zeal, general competence and amazing catholicity of the bishops of the whole earth.

The Church is proof against essential change. No Council will alter her nature, as no Council will ever “adjust” the Ten Commandments or the Nicene Creed to the exigencies of the so-called modernity of any age. But the Church would not be the Church of Christ, guaranteed in her unfailing life until the end of time, if she were unable to rejuvenate herself from era to era, the better to carry forward the saving mission of Christ. So, from this Council we may look ultimately for changes, developments, updatings, new approaches, fresh starts and a certain prudent measure of experimentation. These will come—some soon, some slowly—but they will come. Inevitably, in this process, there will be certain human struggles.

The Church is human as well as divine. Her Head is Christ, but her members are fallible, mortal, often opinionated men. Hence debate is to be expected in a Council. There will be, and there are already, elements of struggle in this one. These incidents should not be exaggerated, but they cannot be ignored. The general press is likely to spotlight them, since they are superficially newsworthy. In such accounts, the enduring Headship of Christ is likely to be forgotten. But He is always there, somewhere in the bustle of addresses, commission reports and final tabulations of votes. The news reporter may even wryly reflect that He must even be in the meager official press releases available at the Uffizio Stampa, or Vatican Council Press Office.

Today in Rome there is an inevitable debate between those who speak for severely “traditional” theories and practices and those others whose preoccupation is with pressing problems of pastoral adaptation and historical accommodation. At bottom, it is a contest between the past and the future, between two modes of preserving the genuine tradition of the Church, and both sides seek a serene and necessary resolution of their differences in the testing ground of the present. In their majority, the Fathers of the Council will not go along with extreme views of either side: of this we can be sure. When the voting is done on particular issues involving liturgy, Church discipline or theological formulation, it will be evident that moderation has prevailed. The point to be kept in mind, however, is that many moderate solutions to which the Council will come are proposals which, five or ten years ago, before a Council was dreamed of, would have seemed unthinkable in our time.

Much has been said and written about the part played by, and the special concerns of, the various national hierarchies—Spanish, French, German, African, etc. Each has its special role to fill, its peculiar demands to make. It was inevitable that the American hierarchy should likewise be discussed: its role examined, its chief figures appraised, its tendencies and preferences debated. In fact, some observers at the Council have outdone themselves in frequently uncomprehending interest in the part played and to be played in the Council by the American Fathers.

Comment on the hierarchy of the United States has ranged from the notice given to their apparent diffidence as a group to the suggestion that they are not, again as a group, interested in, or even aware of, the problems confronting the Church in the world at large. This sort of talk, heard among Council hangers-on, springs from three sources: a certain apprehensive edginess about Americans in general, sensed most strongly perhaps among the French; ignorance of the realities of the Church in America, mixed with a bit of envy of our reputed success and material prosperity; and, finally, failure to understand the historical and cultural reasons why the Church of the United States confronts problems quite distinct from those that are peculiarly European, African or Asiatic.

The dignity and modesty of the American bishops; their evident devotion to the Holy See; their typically American tendency not to push themselves to the fore; their reputation as successful administrators; their independence of character and outlook; their bulging seminaries and large school systems; the recognized loyalty and generosity of their people; the American bishops’ very number and their relative youth—all make it unavoidable that the members of the hierarchy of the United States should be appraised as a group and looked to for support as individuals.

Many trying problems of Europe and Asia are unknown to America. We are not hobbled by age-old traditions of union of Church and State. We have few ugly barriers, apart from racial segregation, between the social classes. There is no defected and godless proletariat in the United States; in fact, in the historical sense of the word, there is no American proletariat at all, and the poor have been the Church’s staunchest support. We have practically no empty churches, and those who fill them have never been touched by the sort of anticlericalism that is prevalent in Europe. Our lower clergy (it is significant that we do not even use this term) have not known the degrading sort of poverty that is familiar to priests in some other parts of the world.

At the same time, our very successes tend to isolate and insulate us from the| tensions and debates of other Christian lands. Moreover, three thousand miles of water divide even our East-Coast dioceses from the European continent.

If distance sets us apart, so does language. We Americans are not known for proficiency in other tongues. Often enough, we haven’t the remotest practical use for them in business, as Europeans do. Moreover, we have been struggling for a century to transcend whatever “foreignisms” we may have inherited, and our consistent purpose has been to shed foreign accents, foreign ways and anything that might perpetuate the hyphenization of our Americanism. Hence, except in rare cases, we are not linguists.

What is true of Americans in general in this respect tends to be true, with notable exceptions, even of American bishops. Some of them speak good Italian, a language mastered during seminary days in Rome (if they were in Rome for studies), but for the most part they do not have the power of ready communication with brother bishops of the French, Spanish, Portuguese or German worlds. Moreover, many of the latter have little or no English, and often make no obvious effort to acquire it.

Furthermore, the realities of conciliar debate, with all that such debate implies in the day-to-day life of the Church on her human level, are strange to most members of a hierarchy that knows Rome only from the remembered experience of protected seminary days there, or from an occasional ad limina visit in recent years. In this field, however, Americans learn quickly. Most American bishops, I surmise, would say that the experience of the first weeks of the Council has been highly educative, to put it mildly.

This is not surprising. For in Rome, as the jargon of education has it, the bishops are in an ideal “learning situation.” They are far from home and the distractions and cares of routine administration. Back home, they are accustomed to speak while others listen. Here in Rome, they spend most of their time listening—through three hours of conciliar meetings per day, followed by commission meetings, formal group discussions, conferences and lectures by other prelates, or by theologians and Church historians. At home, a bishop is isolated to some degree by his high office; in Rome, he is in the constant company of his equals and superiors. At home, he is supreme in his own diocese; here he is just one of hundreds and hundreds of colleagues, each possessed of but a single vote.

The Council is a remarkable refresher course in theology. No one can seriously (and the Americans are nothing if not serious about the work of the Council) go through the arduous days and weeks of the Council without recalling and reorganizing his theological training, and without being exposed constantly to new developments and debates in the field of contemporary theology.

It is sometimes remarked that the priests who were chosen to accompany American bishops are in large part canon lawyers, not dogmatic theologians, at least not specialists in the speculative parts of theology. Doubtless, this generalization, like others one hears, is valid only within certain limits. Moreover, if there is a deficiency in this regard, it is being eliminated by the theological encounters of the Council itself, as well as by conferences and other “extracurricular” discussions that are conducted for the Americans, as for other national hierarchies, by theological specialists resident in Rome or visiting Rome during the Council. As time goes on, these specialists, many of whom speak English, are being invited in greater numbers to address the American hierarchy.

A remark on one very important development among the American bishops in Rome for the Council brings us to the end of this report. It is the fact that for the first time in this century they are all coming to know one another intimately and without regard for the miles that separate them back home. True, the American bishops meet every year for three days in Washington, but that annual get-together is brief and contacts during it are perfunctory. Whereas, previously, only bishops of a single archdiocesan province were likely to meet and become closely acquainted, here in Rome all have been thrown together helter-skelter in buses, restaurants, hotels and pensioni—and in the shoulder-to-shoulder workaday meetings of the Council. New bonds of friendship and shared interests have formed, as they worry together over the health of some older bishop, or swap stories, magazine articles or tips on where to get an American breakfast. This new sense of conscious unity among the bishops of the United States is only a by-product of the Council, but its effects will be felt for years to come. So will the work of the Council itself.

Thurston N. Davis, S.J., the editor of America sent this report from Rome.


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