Vatican II turns its attention to nature of the Church

February 4, 2013

After the great crisis over the status of the document on the Sources of Revelation that Pope John XXIII had deftly resolved, it might have been hoped that the first session of the Second Vatican Council would slowly wind down to its conclusion two and a half weeks later.

Several expectations for the council had already been dashed. First, it would not end with only one session. Second, the council fathers were not going to rubber stamp the documents presented to them. Third, the council fathers had developed their own collegial spirit, quite independent of the Vatican Curia.

The proposed document on the Church at Vatican II, De Ecclesia, conceived of the Church as a pyramid with authority flowing down from above.

The proposed document on the Church at Vatican II, De Ecclesia, conceived of the Church as a pyramid with authority flowing down from above.

Finally, the document expected to be the most important of Vatican II – the one on the nature of the Church – had not even been discussed at the council. That document – De Ecclesia – came to the floor on Dec. 1, only a few days after the bishops had received copies of it.

Once again, the beleaguered Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani introduced the schema. Realizing that it was doomed from the start – leading theologians had already circulated scathing critiques – Ottaviani spoke in a manner that was seen as belligerent.

"I expect to hear the usual litany from the fathers of the council – it's academic, it's not pastoral, it's negative and other things like that. Further, I'll tell you what I really think. I believe that I and the speaker for the commission are wasting our words because the outcome has already been decided."

Indeed, De Ecclesia was sharply criticized. It was blasted for its triumphalism, clericalism and pyramidal approach to authority. Even its defenders maintained that obedience to authority was the cure for all the Church's ills.

Cardinal Jozef Frings of Cologne said the schema was not even catholic. It ignored the Greek fathers of the Church as well as most of the Latin tradition prior to the 19th century.

De Ecclesia did little more than reproduce the thinking of the pre-conciliar seminary manuals. The Church was treated as a perfect society and it emphasized authority, not communion, with all authority flowing down from the pope.


The document was taking a severe beating in debate when Cardinal Leo-Jozef Suenens of Belgium took to the floor on Dec. 4 and delivered what was perhaps the most important speech by any bishop at the entire council.

Cardinal Leo-Jozef Suenens

Cardinal Leo-Jozef Suenens

Suenens proposed a method for organizing the work of Vatican II. The entire council, he said, should be focused on the work of the Church – its inner workings (ad intra) and its relations with the outside world (ad extra).

The first part would be dedicated to examining the Church as the mystery of Christ in his Mystical Body. In the light of that understanding, the council could then discuss topics such as its missionary work, Christian education, liturgy and sacraments, and the life of prayer.

The second part of the council's work would focus on the Church's dialogue with the world. In particular, it would promote dialogue with other Christian churches, other religions and the modern world itself. Among the topics examined would be the nature of the human person, social justice, the Church and the poor, and war and peace.

Suenens' proposal was received with great applause from the council fathers. From their perspective, the documents prepared for their consideration were a mass of topics with no coherence or interrelationship. Suenens' proposal made sense.

It also gave them hope. After 12 weeks, the bishops were about to go home to their dioceses with not a single document approved and an uncharted jungle ahead of them. Suenens had showed them how to carve a path through the underbrush.

Moreover, Suenens' vision was positive. It spoke of dialogue, not confrontation, an approach the bishops were now ready to take.


The document De Ecclesia never came to a vote. Two days after Suenens' speech, Pope John established a program of work to be taken in the intersession before Vatican II resumed in September. The work included the revision of documents, including the one on the Church.

Vatican II had many more rivers to cross. But the way forward was now seen as navigable and the wild streams could be bridged.

After Mass on Dec. 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, the first session of the Second Vatican Council concluded. Unfortunately, most of the council fathers would never see Pope John alive again.