24th General Congregation
November 21, 1962
Pope John XXIII has stepped in to settle what threatened to be a long and difficult debate in the ecumenical council on a proposal regarding the sources of Revelation.
The Pope’s action came during the council’s 24th general session, the sixth devoted to the question.
At the beginning of the session the council’s general secretary, Archbishop Pericle Felici, announced that the previous day’s vote on a motion to continue discussion of the proposal had not produced the majority required by council regulations.
He then stated that by an order of Amleto Cardinal Cicognani, president of the council’s Secretariat for Extraordinary Affairs, and according to the Pope’s wishes, a special commission would be set up to put the proposal into a more acceptable form before continuing discussions.
Later eight cardinals were named to the commission, with Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani, of the council’s Theology Commission, and Augustin Cardinal Bea, S.J., of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, acting as joint presidents.
The other cardinal members are Achille Cardinal Lienart, Bishop of Lille, France; Joseph Cardinal Frings, Archbishop of Cologne, Germany; Ernesto Cardinal Ruffini, Archbishop of Palermo, Italy; Albert Cardinal Meyer, Archbishop of Chicago; Joseph Cardinal Lefebvre, Archbishop of Bourges, France; and Michael Cardinal Browne, O.P., of the Vatican administrative staff. They will be joined on the special commission by all the members of the Theology Commission and the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity.
In announcing the decision to form the special commission, Archbishop Felici said it reflected the beliefs expressed in council speeches that “there would be a laborious and prolonged discussion of the project.”
The instruction handed down by the Pope indicated that it will be the task of the new commission to rework the proposal on the sources of Revelation by “making it shorter and placing greater emphasis on the general principles of Catholic doctrine already treated by the Council of Trent and the First Vatican Council.”
While the special commission is redrafting the proposal, Archbishop Felici said, the council will go on to examine the next proposal which has to do with communications media.
Debate on the general merits of the proposal on the sources of Revelation had dragged on for five days without any sign that it would be possible to begin a study of its various parts. The “debate” took the form of declarations of bishops to the council rather than spontaneous verbal exchanges since council rules do not allow impromptu remarks by the council Fathers.
During the five days, various objections to and defenses of the proposal were made.
Those objecting said that the proposal was too professorial in tone, too rigid in its declaration of truth, lengthy and repetitious. It was said that its ambiguity of expression might possibly create confusion and misunderstanding and that its severe tone could be offensive, thus setting back efforts to find a way toward reunion with separated Christians.
Those defending the proposal replied that it had been prepared by theologians of recognized outstanding ability and had been passed in its final form by the council’s Central Preparatory Commission, many of whose members were cardinals. It was said that truth should offend no one, including the separated Christians who are also seeking truth.
The objection was raised that the proposal set forth teachings which are still being debated among various schools of theology. Defenders answered that the debates among the theological schools would be helped by guiding principles.
The debate continued in this fashion until the council presidency called on Nov. 20 for a vote on whether or not the proposal should be shelved. In spite of the fact that the motion was repeated in five languages and several times in Latin, there was confusion as to its exact meaning.
The vote on the motion indicated that the proposal should not be shelved and that the council should move on to discussion of the proposal’s five chapters. But since the five chapters contain the questions on which a great difference of opinion had been expressed in the general discussions, it became evident that the same differences would be expressed again as each chapter was taken up.
It was for this reason that Archbishop Felici in announcing the Pope’s wishes said that “opinions expressed in the speeches of the past few days indicated that there would be a laborious and prolonged discussion” in the days to come.
The Pope had already once intervened to discourage prolonged council debate. On Nov. 6, while the council was discussing the proposal on the liturgy, he empowered the council presidency to propose termination of discussion by a standing vote of the council Fathers.
In his intervention of Nov. 6 and in the action taken on Nov. 21 the Pope was dispensing from regulations he had himself created to keep the council from bogging down.
Commenting on this, an expert of the U.S. bishops’ press panel stated: “A council is no parliament, for there is no legal tradition for running a council.”
Msgr. James I. Tucek
NC Rome bureau chief