CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano

The movers and shakers behind the Second Vatican Council

  • October 7, 2012

The Second Vatican Council was the biggest stage in the history of the Church. There were more bishops present than at any the 20 previous councils stretching from the First Council of Nicaea in 325 to the First Vatican Council of 1870. And the bishops present came from more countries, more cultures, more languages than the Church had ever experienced.

While all the bishops were equal, some were a little more equal. Then there were the theological experts that pre-eminent cardinals and bishops brought with them (peritii in Latin, the official language of the council). They played a significant role.

Here are a few of the names and their roles:

Pope John XXIII: A plump, elderly, smiling Italian of peasant origins, Angelo Roncalli was supposed to be a caretaker after the long papacy of Pius XII. He called the Council and put the word aggiornamento (updating, opening) on every Catholic's lips.
Pope Paul VI: Cardinal Giovanni Montini began the Council as a curial insider in the secretariat of state who had worked closely with Pope Pius XII. He had doubts about Pope John XXIII's decision to call a Council, but, elected pope in June 1963, faithfully carried it to conclusion. During the Council he gave Mary the title Mother of the Church.

Cardinal Paul-Emile Leger: Montreal's archbishop wrote a letter in August 1962 to Pope John XXIII challenging the curial preparatory documents. The letter was eventually signed by a number of cardinals and archbishops, and the preparatory documents were re-worked. He gave one of the council's closing speeches in 1965. During the three sessions of the council he argued for a stronger statement against anti-Semitism, greater Catholic commitment to ecumenism and a re-examination of Church teaching on birth control with more emphasis on love shared between a man and woman as the final purpose of marriage. Once considered papabili, he retired from Montreal in 1968 to become a missionary in Cameroon.

Cardinal Augustin Bea: The Jesuit rector of the Pontifical Biblical Institute who eventually headed up the Secretariat for Christian Unity was in the frontline of defence against attempts by Rome's bureaucracy (the curia) to control the council agenda. He was deputized by Pope John XXIII to ensure the council said something bold on the Catholic relationship with Jews and world religions. The result was one of the most important documents, Nostra Aetate (In Our Era) "Declaration on the Relation of The Church to Non-Christian Religions."

Dom Helder Camara: The archbishop of Recife in Brazil's dry, impoverished northeast spoke for the poor and alerted the world to the idea that the Church was no longer a purely European phenomenon. Speaking for the world's biggest Catholic population in Brazil, he insisted on new priorities.

Cardinal Josef Frings: The archbishop of Cologne was an intellectual, a confidant of Pope John XXIII, who supported a role for theologians that counterbalanced the influence of the curia.

Maxim Hermaniuk: The Ukrainian Catholic bishop of Winnipeg chaired the 15-member delegation of Ukrainian bishops to the Council. He insisted that the Catholic Church was more than the Roman Church, and fought for the principle of collegiality through a permanent synod of bishops. He also insisted that the 11th-century excommunication of the patriarch of Constantinople was not based on any Church teaching.

Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani: A canon lawyer and prefect of the Holy Office (now the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), Ottaviani's view of the council was framed by his anti-communism and opposition to theological modernism. He was the council's leading conservative.

Cardinal Leo Joseph Suenens: The great conciliator, a friend of both Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI, Suenens was once thought likely to be elected pope. It was Suenens who ironed out a program that satisfied the concerns of both Cardinal Leger and Cardinal Ottaviani.

Cardinal Eugene Tisserant: The French cardinal was the key to participation by bishops from behind the Iron Curtain. He negotiated a secret 1960 deal with Russia that would allow bishops to travel in exchange for non-condemnation of atheistic communism. He was viewed as a conservative and a defender of the curia. He was also dean of the College of Cardinals.

The Experts

Yves Congar: The Dominican expert in ecumenism was one of many theologians helping the bishops at the Council who had been forbidden to publish or teach during the pontificate of Pius XII. Congar had one of the biggest ideas at the council — that the Church does not exist outside of history and Church teaching must constantly be restated in new ways to speak to new realities. He survived almost five years as a POW in the Second World War and was a major influence on Karol Wojtyla, who as Pope John Paul II made him a cardinal in 1994.

Henri de Lubac: A Jesuit silenced from 1950 to 1956, he was a prolific scholar associated with the nouvelle theologie school. He pushed the idea of ressourcement at the council. Though often regarded as a dangerous innovation in theology, ressourcement was in fact a kind of hyper-traditional movement that sought to retrieve Catholic teaching from the very earliest Christian communities and the desert fathers.

Joseph Ratzinger: The future Pope Benedict XVI was closely associated with the novelle theologie movement. He was an expert for Cardinal Frings who wrote detailed critiques of the original curial schema for the council.

Karl Rahner: This Jesuit's ideas are everywhere in the Council documents. His conception of the Trinity, the idea of anonymous Christians, the pilgrim Church and his rejection of the counter-reformation practice of developing positions by condemning other positions helped shape the Second Vatican Council. It was Rahner who after Vatican II pointed out that it was the first ecumenical council that was truly global, embracing a Catholic world beyond Europe.

Gregory Baum: The German-born Canadian theologian worked with Cardinal Bea on Nostra Aetate, Dignitatis Humanae and Unitatis Redintegratio — three documents that redefined the Church's relation to non-Christian religions and particularly to Jews, its attitude toward democracy and religious liberty, and its mission for the unity of all Christians.

Bernard Haring: This German Redemptorist taught how freedom of conscience was the necessary precondition for any meaningful morality. He was part of the commission which wrote Gaudium et spes.

Comments (3)

This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

I am read the Vatican Council news is very impressive. This is the people is really very hardworking. This German Redemption taught how freedom of conscience was the necessary precondition for us. keep it up.
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Clark Best
This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

The Second Vatican Council was the biggest stage in the history of the Church. This article is really very amazing and informative for me. Thanks for sharing. keep it up.
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Clark Best
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