'Black week' left no lasting marks on Vatican council

February 17, 2014

No account of the Second Vatican Council would be complete without a reflection on "the black week" – the week of Nov. 16, 1964 in which four papal interventions stunned the majority of council fathers, creating an emotional rift between them and Pope Paul VI.

With the hindsight of 50 years, the black week appears to have been a tempest in a teapot, a surface wound that left no lasting scars. At the time, however, it was most serious business.

"No matter how well meant Paul's actions were," writes Church historian John O'Malley, "they caused deep distress to the great majority of the bishops and, most harmful, fueled suspicion that a small number of council fathers were using him as their tool to attain what they could not obtain through the deliberations in St. Peter's."

The first and least significant action was to postpone voting on a revised text of the document on religious liberty. The council fathers had debated the document in September and sent it back for revisions.

Pope Paul VI's interventions during the final week of Vatican II's 1964 session left many bishops feeling they had been undermined.


Pope Paul VI's interventions during the final week of Vatican II's 1964 session left many bishops feeling they had been undermined.

The document that came back to the council was drastically revised, and bishops in the minority who opposed the document jumped on that fact and said it could not be voted on without further debate. The presidents of the council agreed with them, leading some bishops to appeal to the pope to overturn the ruling of the presidents. The pope refused.

The decree went back for further rewriting and the document presented to and approved by the council in the fall of 1965 was considered to be a much stronger document, one more acceptable not only to the progressive bishops, but also to those sitting on or near the fence on the issue.

The second issue was more serious. The Decree on Ecumenism had already been approved by the council fathers. Pope Paul, however, made 19 changes to the document and sent it back, giving the bishops no time for further discussion before the document went to a final vote.

Unknown at the time was the fact that the Vatican's Council on Ecumenism had neglected to send the pope a copy of the document until nearly the last moment. The pope, of course, had the right to make suggestions or changes.

While this was largely a foul-up in communication, the council fathers perceived it as the pope arbitrarily over-ruling their approval of an important document.

The changes made by the pope, however, did not alter the thrust and content of the decree. They have been largely forgotten. As well, they did not prove to be a barrier to the Church's extensive ecumenical efforts that followed Vatican II.

Third was the pope's addition of a "Preliminary Explanatory Note" to the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) that used technical theological language to further explain the doctrine of episcopal collegiality in the constitution.

Was the pope attempting to limit the exercise of collegiality with the explanatory note? Theologians have parsed this note for 50 years. Most, it seems, maintain the note made no substantive change to the doctrine. In any event, if the note was an attempt to limit the way Lumen Gentium is interpreted, it failed. The note has been the subject of at least as many interpretations as the document itself.


As well, some theologians, such as Edward Schillibeeckx, noted that the concept of collegiality in the constitution had already been watered down from what progressive theologians had desired. Conversely, no bishop at the council wanted to overrule the declaration of papal primacy approved 90 years earlier at Vatican One.

Fr. Francis Xavier Murphy, who wrote under the pseudonym Xavier Rynne, caused a sensation with his reports on Vatican II.


Fr. Francis Xavier Murphy, who wrote under the pseudonym Xavier Rynne, caused a sensation with his reports on Vatican II.

Luis Antonio Tagle, now the cardinal-archbishop of Manila, maintained in a detailed analysis published in 2003 that Pope Paul supported

Lumen Gentium and did not want to give concessions to the small minority who opposed collegiality.

In Tagle's view, the pope used the note to temper the overly enthusiastic interpretations of collegiality emerging in some circles outside the council as well as to "ease the minds of many council fathers and make possible a broader and more inwardly convinced adherence in the council hall." (The quote comes from a letter that the pope wrote to Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani.)

A fourth event in the black week was Pope Paul's declaration of Mary as Mother of the Church. The council fathers were opposed to giving any more titles to the Virgin Mary, several times explicitly rejecting the title Mother of the Church. Again, the council fathers felt snubbed.

Giving Mary the new title turned out to be something of a non-event. While it did not fulfill the pope's hope of spurring deeper Marian devotion, neither did it raise the hackles of Protestants who do not venerate Mary to the same extent as Catholics. For them, the title of Mother of the Church was far less offensive than others such as mediatrix of all graces or co-redemptrix would have been.


Although we can view the black week with the benefit of hindsight, the reaction of council fathers was not so sanguine. Journalist Xavier Rynne said that as the grim-faced pope was carried out of St. Peter's Basilica at the end of the 1964 session on Nov. 21, the council fathers applauded perfunctorily if at all.

Sometimes, perceptions are as important as reality. While the pope had not undermined the council, that is not what many council fathers thought. Several papal surprises coming in such a short period had left them deeply unhappy.

(Tagle's lengthy analysis of the black week can be found in volume four of History of Vatican II, edited by Giuseppe Alberigo and Joseph Komonchak.)