Analysis: Discussions on Nature of the Church Represent Council Turning Point

“Pope John has guided us from heaven and Pope Paul has upheld his inspiration,” a bishop said here in commenting on developments in the ecumenical council.

His words express the sentiment prevailing among a great majority of his fellow council Fathers following the crucial test votes on the schema on the nature of the Church which marked (Oct. 30) a decisive turning point in council history.

The council’s refusal last Nov. 20 to approve a draft proposal, or schema, on the sources of Revelation determined the trend of the council. The Oct. 30 acceptance in principle of the concept of the collegiality of the bishops has established unmistakably that the council wants “aggiornamento” (updating) as it was visualized by Pope John and confirmed by Pope Paul. That is, an all-level rejuvenation, renewal and inner reform of the Church.

As the council reconvened on Nov. 5 after a four-day recess to discuss the schema on bishops and diocesan government, the council found it had gained momentum in regard to both subject matter and procedure.

For the Oct. 30 vote also considerably strengthened the four cardinal moderators. They emerged from the debates aware that they are the men fully responsible for conducting the council’s business under the direct authority of the Pope.

From now on the debates, which were lagging because of too much oratory, will be effectively streamlined. This does not mean that all stalemates and delays can be avoided.

But, according to reliable information, Pope Paul has let it be known that from now on he wants the Theological Commission to meet daily rather than once a week so that a revised schema on the nature of the Church — which now includes a special chapter on Our Lady — can soon reach the council floor.

A large number of suggested amendments must be considered. But the commission’s task is now much less burdensome because the test votes clearly expressed the preference of the majority of the bishops.

The principle that the bishops are successors of the Apostles’ “college,” and therefore share with the pope in governing the Universal Church, will now fill a gap which remained after the First Vatican Council (1869-70) and will provide a clearly defined doctrine on the Church.

In accordance with the Pontiff’s own desire, its adoption will have far-reaching consequences, especially in regard to decentralization of the Roman curia’s administration.

In this connection many council Fathers have recommended that membership in the council commissions be changed to reflect better the wishes of the council majority.

When commission members were originally chosen at the beginning of the council, the Fathers were not so well acquainted with one another as they are now. Also, Pope John had to appoint more officials of the curia than seemed opportune to make sure of their cooperation.

A petition addressed to Pope Paul, which already bears the signatures of many bishops, shows that an attempt is now being made for a fresh start. The petition urges that instead of having curia officials as commission presidents, others be named, especially young men who can expedite procedures and translate into action the will of the council majority.

Criticism is frequently heard in council lobbies regarding the unnecessary delays of commission meetings. In addition, missionary bishops have expressed disappointment over the fact that a schema on the missions, which might suitably be combined with the Church, has still not been distributed. They have also expressed fears that it might not be discussed at all.

It appears doubtful under the circumstances that debate on the schema on the Church can be finished before the council’s second session adjourns Dec. 4. Even with overhauling its machinery, the council may need considerably more time than originally anticipated to finish its business.

This gives some credibility to a rumor reported by Auxiliary Bishop Josef Zimmermann of Augsburg, Germany, in his diocesan paper, Ulrichsblatt, that the Pope may close the council after the present session and call a new council at some indefinite time in the future. This would give the bishops time to study more carefully the many issues on the present council agenda without being absent from their Sees too long.

Should this happen, the council would appoint various post-council commissions to carry on its work during the prolonged interval. But it is agreed among council officials that the schema on the Church must be disposed of in any case.

With its adoption the council would have achieved its principal aim of a “horizontal” reform of the Church’s basic structure. The new supreme governing body directly responsible to the pope, which is expected to emerge within its scope, would see to it that reform is carried out.

Father Placid Jordan, OSB
NCWC News Rome correspondent

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