Pope Paul VI asserted his authority

March 3, 2014

The disharmony and bitterness of the 1964 session of the Second Vatican Council did not end with the so-called "black week" at the end of the session.

Pope Paul VI had felt snubbed by the rejection of the Decree on the Missions that he had gone out of his way to promote and the failure of the Council for Promoting Christian Unity to send him the Decree on Ecumenism until after the council had approved the text. Now, he asserted his authority with greater vigour.

Eleven schemas were in various stages of preparation as the council fathers went home for Christmas 1964. Significant controversies were still unresolved with four of the documents – those on divine revelation, religious liberty, non-Christian religions and the schema that eventually became the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.

The pope was adamant that the fourth session would be the final one, a major reason being the huge cost of running the council. It was, however, unclear when that fourth session would take place.

Bishops from around the world meet in the 2001 world Synod of Bishops at the Vatican, which focused on the ministry of bishops.


Bishops from around the world meet in the 2001 world Synod of Bishops at the Vatican, which focused on the ministry of bishops.

Some wanted it held in the spring of 1965; others were hoping for an extended break so that all the proposed documents could be whipped into something very close to final shape. In the end, Pope Paul stuck with the established pattern – the final session would begin in September 1965.

As the various commissions worked on their documents, the pope became more involved in the drafting than previously. He told the commissions what he wanted to see and didn't want to see in those documents. As well, he wanted a copy of any draft document before it was sent out to the council fathers.

This heightened papal proactivity had an effect on the council fathers as well. More and more of them sent their entreaties and suggestions about the council to the pope rather than to the commissions that were doing the drafting.


If the pope was more involved than ever, so too was one of the council's great theologians. Most theologians were involved in the writing of one, at most two, documents. But Yves Congar was everywhere.

"This was the period of his greatest commitment to the council, the period during which he was able, perhaps not obviously but nonetheless very energetically, to leave an important mark on an impressive number of documents," wrote Church historians Ricardo Burigana and Giovanni Turbanti.

It was a remarkable turnaround for a theologian who, only 10 years earlier, had been silenced and was in a grim exile in England for his dangerously ecumenical activities and for supporting the French worker-priest movement.

Pope Paul, meanwhile, spent the summer of 1965 lacing his speeches with references to a "crisis of authority" and a "crisis of obedience" in the Church.

Pope Paul VI

Pope Paul VI

He was not off the mark, given the turmoil that followed the council, especially after his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae. Nevertheless, the emphasis created further unease among the bishops who had been disturbed by the pope's interventions during the black week.


The pope seemed to allay those concerns when, during his opening speech to the fourth session, he announced, first, that he would go to the United Nations that fall and, second, that he would establish the world Synod of Bishops.

The announcement of the synod was received with joy by the bishops who saw it as an instrument for making collegiality real. This was somewhat ironic. The bishops had reacted negatively to the papal interventions of the black week which, in retrospect, appears to have been much ado about not too much.


The synod, however, was not the instrument of collegiality that the bishops had at first thought. The official document establishing it (Apostolica Sollicitudo) made no reference to collegiality nor to the Constitution on the Church, which had outlined the principle. The synod was totally subject to the pope for its convocation, agenda and the authority of its decisions.

As well, while at the first synod – that on justice in the world in 1971 – the bishops wrote their own document, at later synods, they provided the pope with lists of suggestions which he used as he saw fit in writing post-synodal exhortations.

Jesuit historian John O'Malley strongly criticized the papal document. "Whatever the merits of Apostolica Sollicitudo, it was an expression of papal primacy, not of collegiality, a word never mentioned in the text. It was a preemptive strike by the centre. . . . With one stroke the text cut collegiality off from grounding in the institutional reality of the Church."


Be that as it may, the pope's announcement helped to create a calmer atmosphere at the beginning of the third session. And it was calm and a spirit of trust that were essential for Vatican II to carry out the herculean tasks it accomplished over the following 12 weeks.

(Much information for this article came from History of Vatican II, volumes 4 and 5, edited by Giuseppe Alberigo and Joseph Komonchak, and from What Happened at Vatican II by John O'Malley.)