John XXIII sent document back to drawing board

January 28, 2013

Most of the more than 2,000 fathers of the Second Vatican Council who arrived in Rome in early October 1962 for the start of the council had no personal agenda. They had not travelled extensively and had had little, if any, exposure to new theological trains of thought.

In the first few weeks of the council, the bishops had begun to change. They had heard Pope John XXIII’s opening address in which the pope had counselled them “to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity.”

Then they rejected a pre-determined list of bishops that Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani had wanted elected to the various decision-making bodies of the council, and instead found and elected men of their own choosing.

Cardinal Paul-Emile Leger of Montreal met privately with Pope John XXIII prior to the pope's decision to reverse a decision of the Second Vatican Council regarding its proposed document on divine revelation.

Cardinal Paul-Emile Leger of Montreal met privately with Pope John XXIII prior to the pope's decision to reverse a decision of the Second Vatican Council regarding its proposed document on divine revelation.

Next, there was the liturgy debate in which they came to understand that the form of the Mass which the Church had been celebrating for 300 years was due for reform and renewal.

Now their attention was turned to De Fontibus, the proposed document on the Sources of Revelation. The council fathers had read and heard the harsh criticism of De Fontibus from leading theologians.

Moreover, the bishops were back in the classroom, listening to talks from those theologians and also learning from their cohorts from around the world. They were getting a new vision of the Church and its life and they liked what they heard.

In short, the views of the bishops were changing, the council itself was in flux and the future was unpredictable.

When De Fontibus went to the floor of the council on Nov. 14, it met with what journalist Father Ralph Wiltgen called a “swift and deadly reaction.”

Once Ottaviani and a cohort had presented the document – defending it more from criticisms that were already circulating than presenting its positive points – the first speaker on his feet was Cardinal Achille Lienart who blasted the document and said it must be completely revised.

Next up was Cardinal Jozef Frings – his theological adviser was Father Joseph Ratzinger – who also said the document was unacceptable.

Back and forth all week went the debate, some supporting De Fontibus, others criticizing it. No one knew what the majority opinion was.

Finally, on Nov. 20, it was time for a vote. The original plan was to ask, “Should the discussion on the schema be continued?” A two-thirds majority would indicate that the schema was basically acceptable but that it could still be revised.


Somehow, the question got turned around and the council fathers were asked, “Should the discussion be interrupted?” In that case, it would take two-thirds of the council fathers to vote in favour of halting the debate on De Fontibus for the document to be sent back for major changes.

The majority of the council fathers rejected De Fontibus – the vote was 1,368 to 822. However, it was not a two-thirds majority. Thus debate would continue on a schema that the majority of the bishops opposed. There was great consternation, and the council was in a state of crisis.


That evening, the Canadian bishops met with Pope John in a previously-scheduled audience. After the audience, Montreal’s Cardinal Paul-Emile Leger took the pope aside, “spoke frankly about the situation” and handed him a letter.

Leger had the impression that the pope had decided not to intervene in the situation, even though the vote to reject the schema reflected his own views. Meanwhile, the pope also received a letter from Cardinal Augustin Bea, a noted Scripture scholar, president of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity and a trusted advisor to the pope.

No one knows for sure what caused Pope John to change his mind, but the next day, he issued a stunning decision – he referred De Fontibus to a new commission made up of members of both the Doctrinal Commission and the Christian Unity Secretariat. He asked that the new commission shorten the document and make it more suitable.


The decision was a blow to the seemingly all-important Doctrinal Commission. Moreover, it showed that the pope would listen to the will of the council, rather than be bound by its rules.

Pope John’s decision set the tone for the council. The old way of writing Church documents – the way of condemnation – would no longer be acceptable. As well, the new style of Church pronouncements would rely less heavily on the 16th-century Council of Trent. We were into a new era.

(Some of the information for this article was taken from Giuseppe Ruggieri’s article “The First Doctrinal Clash” in History of Vatican II, volume II, edited by Giuseppe Alberigo and Joseph Komonchak, as well as from What Happened at Vatican II by John O’Malley.)