September 10, 2012

Canada’s bishops and Catholic universities were among those who responded to the Vatican’s call in 1959 for input about topics that ought to be considered at the Second Vatican Council.

Canada was a far different country then than it is now and the same could be said for the Canadian Church. If parishes and dioceses today seem to be somewhat isolated cocoons, it’s nothing compared with the situation prior to Vatican II.

Communications and transportation networks were far less developed then. As well, the Church’s theology of collegiality among bishops was practically non-existent and there were few joint episcopal efforts. When the bishops got to Vatican II in 1962, they were not only meeting prelates from around the world, but also getting to know their peers from Canada.

Given all that, it is perhaps not surprising that the suggestions that Canada’s bishops had for the council were lacking in vision.

In the mid-1990s, Michael Fahey of St. Michael’s College in Toronto examined the input of the Canadian bishops prior to the council. For the most part, that input reflected “notably weak” theology and the “generally poor state of collegiality in Canada,” Fahey wrote. (His two articles were published in L’Eglise canadienne et Vatican II, edited by Gilles Routhier.)

Among the proposals bishops made for Vatican II were that it give priests permission to wear a black suit and roman collar in public rather than the soutane, that priests receive permission to pray their daily breviary in the vernacular rather than in Latin, and that Mass stipends be eliminated.


The bishops were somewhat lacking in an ecumenical spirit. One prominent cleric in his brief referred to Protestants as “fanatics,” while the papal nuncio called them “dissidents.”

Even with regard to Catholics of the Eastern rites, the Latin rite bishops were at a loss. Some said that it was time for them to conform to “the Canadian way” of being Catholic.

The bishops were unable to conceive what an ecumenical council might achieve, Fahey said. What is remarkable is the extent to which their vision was transformed by the time Vatican II ended in 1965.

Fahey found a couple of exceptions, the most prominent being Bishop Isidore Borecky, the Ukrainian Catholic bishop for Eastern Canada. Borecky sent the Vatican an insightful presentation calling for a dogmatic constitution on the Church, recognition of the equal status of the Eastern Catholic churches and the pursuit of full Church unity.

Borecky and his fellow Ukrainian, Maxim Hermaniuk of Winnipeg, were far more prescient about what a council might accomplish.

Fahey also examined the input of Canadian Catholic universities and theology schools to the pre-Vatican II process. While only four institutions responded, it seems those that did were far ahead of similar institutions in the rest of the world in their thinking.

“Unlike the lacklustre response from the bishops, some of the responses from the academic institutions are remarkable for their creative vision,” he wrote.


The faculty of theology at the University of Montreal suggested the council study the sources of revelation, including biblical inspiration, the role of tradition, and the relationship between Scripture and tradition. Those topics were taken up in a major way in one of the council’s most important documents, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation.

The university’s political science department wanted the council to teach about how spirituality pertained to those working in the modern business world. The university’s dean of commercial studies asked for the council to examine issues of inculturation, globalization, economics, politics and social change.

Those two presentations were harbingers of the council’s most innovative document, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.

The input from the universities of Ottawa and Laval and the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies also raised topics that showed a real vision of what the council might accomplish.

The letter from the University of Ottawa came with a covering letter from its rector, Oblate Father Henri Legare, who later became the long-serving archbishop of Alberta’s Grouard-MacLennan Archdiocese. Those who knew Legare will recall what a visionary and learned man he was.


While it may not seem surprising that academic institutions had clear ideas of what Vatican II might accomplish, even if the bishops didn’t, that was not the case in the rest of the world. There, for the most part, the intellectual leaders were as vague as the episcopal leaders on the potential of the council.

The great Catholic universities of Rome, in fact, were buttressing the status quo with great vigour with little insight into how the Church could live up to the challenge given to it by Pope John XXIII.

One cannot say that the Canadian institutions influenced Vatican II. Those in Rome who were planning the great council were not listening with much attention to voices from the hinterlands.

Nevertheless, in Canada there were a few people who understood what the council could achieve. And those people were relatively unique among the thousands who gave input to the process preparing the way for Vatican II.