Council Transitions From Revelation to Lay Apostolate

95th General Congregation
October 6, 1964

The ecumenical council ended debate on the schema on Revelation at its 95th meeting and introduced a new one on the lay apostolate, which emphasizes that laymen are not only in the Church but are the Church.

At the same meeting, the council Fathers passed with great majorities additional changes in the ecumenism schema, including an expression of regret for past faults toward other Churches. The council also pardoned those who have offended the Catholic Church and authorized the holding of some interfaith prayers and services.

During the meeting it was announced that some specially chosen priests will be admitted to the council during the discussion of the council proposition on the priesthood at Pope Paul VI’s request.

Thirteen speakers took the floor to discuss the Revelation schema at the meeting. Following them, Fernando Cardinal Cento of the Roman curia gave a 15-minute introduction to the lay apostolate schema.

Before the votes on the ecumenism schema were taken, Bishop Charles H. Helmsing of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., gave a report on chapter two in which he disclosed that the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity will draw up an ecumenical directory to guide the world’s bishops in ecumenical matters. He urged the bishops to submit their suggestions and advice to the secretary of the secretariat, Bishop Jan Willebrands.

During the meeting five ballots were taken. The first vote was on the ecumenism schema’s introduction and first chapter as a whole. The day before the council Fathers had voted on four separate amendments to the introduction and chapter one, that is, on articles one through four. On Oct. 6 both were approved as a whole by a vote of 1,926 to 30, with 209 Fathers voting favorably but with reservations.

The next four votes were on chapter two of the ecumenism schema, which deals with the practice of ecumenism and indicates how Catholics can participate in it.

The first of these four votes was on articles five and six. (The articles, or amendments, are numbered successively for the whole schema rather than chapter by chapter.) Article five says that the restoration of Christian unity is the concern of the whole Church, of both laymen and pastors. Article six says the Church must be ever more faithful to its calling in order to work best for unity and must be ready to reform itself. The vote was 2,120 yes to 46 no.

The next vote was on article seven, which says that without heartfelt adherence to God’s call there can be little progress in the ecumenical movement. It says this has special meaning for those in authority and that all of us in some way have a responsibility for the sins of disunity.

It states that the Fathers ask pardon of God and of separated Christians and likewise give pardon.

The vote was 2,076 yes to 92 no.

The following vote was on article eight, which stresses the need of prayer for Christian unity. It speaks of Catholics and non-Catholics praying together under certain circumstances, which are to be determined in concrete cases by episcopal authority (which is not further defined as local or regional).

The vote was 1,872 yes to 292 no.

The final vote was on articles 9, 10, 11, and 12.

Article 9 deals with mutual knowledge and the means to it: dialogue, willingness to learn, and meetings between theologians with participants on an equal footing.

Article 10 deals with ecumenical training, especially in the seminary.

Article 11 deals with the way in which the truths of the Faith are to be expressed and warns against false irenicism.

Article 12 deals with cooperation with separated Christians in such things as social action in the emerging regions of the world, work for peace, and attempts to bring a Christian spirit into the arts and sciences.

The vote on articles 9 through 12 was 2,099 yes to 62 no.

During the day’s debate on the Revelation schema, one bishop appealed for the establishment of an international Biblical society by the Holy See similar to the Protestants’ very successful Biblical societies. Another warned the council against an indiscriminate recommendation that Catholics read the Bible when they are not prepared for the problems it can pose.

But as on previous days, comment centered on the relation of the Bible and tradition, the problem of the use of form criticism in Biblical interpretation and the historical accuracy of the Gospels.

Abbot Christopher Butler, O.S.B., president of the Benedictine Confederation of England, summed up the historical accuracy problem as follows:

“Everyone knows that anxieties have been felt in this field from two sides. Some fear that we are in the process of losing the necessary historical foundation of our Faith. Others want our scholars to have all rightful liberty in pursuing their task, which is of such great service to the Church.”

Abbot Butler’s position was solidly in favor of historical research by many Catholic Biblical scholars, for “either there is a worldwide conspiracy of scholars to undermine the bases of Christian faith (and a man who can believe that can believe anything), or the aim of our scholars is to reach the full, objective and real truth of the Gospel tradition.”

Many of the day’s speakers, however, expressed fear that literary and form criticism is greatly threatening the authority of the Gospels and endangering the faith of Catholics.

The meeting opened with Mass celebrated by Archbishop Hector Santos of Tegucigalpa, Honduras. The Gospel was enthroned by Bishop Edmund Nowicki of Gdansk, Poland. Julius Cardinal Doepfner of Munich and Freising, Germany, was the moderator.

Bishop Helmsing’s report on chapter two of the ecumenism schema stressed that the desire for deeper unity among Christians is a part of the renewal of the Church sought by the council.

To achieve success in the field of unity, he said, it is admitted that a conversion of the heart is required of all Catholics, freely regretting past errors and pardoning past offenses. This can be expressed in approving some forms of inter-faith religious activity. But, he noted, the schema gives only general directives which are to be used by either individual bishops or by national conferences according to the circumstances.

Bishop Helmsing noted that chapter two seeks to avoid not only a false irenicism, but also hardness of heart and intellectual pride. He concluded that approval of the amended articles could signify a great step forward for the Church in its ecumenical relations with other Christian bodies.

In his introduction of the lay apostolate schema, Cardinal Cento said that part of its intent has already been realized since the doors of St. Peter’s basilica have swung open to admit laymen and laywomen as council auditors. This is a symbol of the highest esteem in which the hierarchy hold the laity, he said.

He added that it has been one of the council’s efforts to increase the sense of responsibility on the laity’s part for the welfare of the Church in keeping with the desire of Pope John XXIII. The apostolate of the laity and that of the hierarchy are “one thing,” he said. While there is a distinction between the hierarchy and the laity, there is not a distance, he continued.

The laity are not only in the Church but are the Church, he said, and it is increasingly necessary that the laity work effectively in a cooperative spirit with the hierarchy to spread the Church throughout the world.

The day’s first speaker on the Revelation schema was Italian Archbishop Armando Fares of Catanzaro. He said he wanted the text to recognize the work of scholars, but at the same time to safeguard the veracity of the Scriptures from some of the results that could come from the use of various methods which could cast doubt on the historical truth of the Gospels.

He asked for greater collaboration between Scripture scholars and theologians and said that such collaboration should be based on the freedom from error of the Sacred Books. Lastly, he urged that various means of spreading the reading of the Gospels be advocated by the text.

Another Italian prelate, Bishop Luigi Carli of Segni, insisted that the text sound a warning against the perils of form criticism and assure Catholics that the Bible gives them genuine history, especially in reference to Gospel reports on the birth and childhood of Christ. Many Biblical scholars today hold that not all details of this period of Christ’s life are to be taken literally as found in the Gospels, he said.

Bishop Carli also stated that tradition is virtually excluded from the text. He said he wanted this rectified.

A third Italian, Bishop Costantino Caminada of Ferentino, warned that indiscriminate circulation of the Bible among Catholics is not without dangers. Stating that Catholics are not ready to read the Bible without instruction and commentaries, he recommended that Catholic anthologies of the Biblical text be compiled with commentaries explaining the texts. He asked that an obligation for clerics to read the Bible daily be inserted in the new Code of Canon Law.

An exactly opposite view was expressed later by Yugoslavian Bishop Smiljan Cekada of Skoplje, who declared that the Biblical problem today is that of insuring the widest possible distribution of the Bible in cheap and easily readable editions.

Citing the success of Protestant editions of the Bible, he noted that some Catholic missionaries use these editions because no Catholic editions are available.

To remedy this he suggested that the Holy See set up an international Bible society for translations in all languages and for distribution to all parts of the world.

Bishop Cekada, however, expressed doubts about the possibility of producing a common translation of the Bible with non-Catholics. He asked what books of the Bible will be chosen and whether they will be printed with or without commentaries. All these problems have to be answered, he went on. He said some of the ecumenical spirit seems to be infantilism and romanticism. He gave as an example the fact that one of his diocesan priests, after an earthquake had destroyed his cathedral, suggested that in its place there be erected an interdenominational cathedral. One must beware of pan-Christianism and syncretism, Bishop Cekada concluded.

Spanish Bishop Pablo Barrachina Estevan of Orihuela-Alicante objected to the schema as it stands because it is not well organized and fails to put sufficient stress on the pastoral aim.

Bishop Hermann Volk of Mainz, Germany, said he wanted more emphasis on the fact that Scripture is not only the font of truth but is also a personal colloquy between God and man, that faith is not only the intellectual act of believing but also a total dedication of all human faculties to God.

Father Joao Ferreira, O.F.M., apostolic prefect of Portuguese Guinea, criticized the sixth chapter of the schema dealing with Scripture in the world for lacking a pastoral spirit. Asking that direct quotes from the Bible be used, he said he also desired that the practical aspect of faithful reading of the Bible be stressed.

Bishop Pierre Boillon of Verdun, France, said he wanted inserted in the text a statement that definitions of the ordinary teaching authority of the Church must be understood in the light of Sacred Scripture and also that Scripture has a great importance for theologians. He said there is no problem about a dogma’s being based on tradition but not found specifically in Scripture. A specific text is not necessary, he stated. What is sufficient is that it can be related to the general context of the Bible.

Italian Bishop Carlo Maccari of Mondovi asked that the title of the sixth chapter be changed to read “the Word of God in the Life of the Church,” because the word of God is not restricted to the Bible but is the whole content of Revelation, Scripture and tradition. He warned against soft-pedaling the entire content of Revelation.

Dealing with problems posed by the discussion of the historical character of the Gospels, Abbot Butler said that from the point of view of faith “there is no doubt that the Gospels along with the other books of the Bible are inspired. It is, however, certain that the notion of ‘literary types’ is applicable to the Gospels, as it is to the other inspired books.”

Abbot Butler suggested various changes in the wording of the text concerning how the evangelists wrote the Gospels and then stated: “Let us not be afraid of scholarly and historical truth. Let us not be afraid that one truth may tell against another truth. Let us not be afraid that our scholars may be lacking in loyalty to the Church and to traditional doctrine . . .

“Doubtless some will turn liberty into license — but we must risk this for the sake of the greater good. Doubtless mistakes are made and will be made in this field — but it is one where trial and error are the road to truth.”

Spain’s Bishop Eduardo Martinez Gonzalez of Zamora said he found it difficult to distinguish between what is to be regarded as inspired and what errors that exist are due to later copyists.

Colombian Archbishop Anibal Munoz Duque of Nueva Pamplona objected that the text, if taken literally, would mean that Scripture and only Scripture is the work of God, thus excluding tradition. To correct this he suggested that Scripture be described as the word of God in writing.

The day’s last speaker was retired Archbishop Juan Gonzalez Arbelaez of Popayan, Colombia, who also objected to saying that nothing is revealed except what is in Scripture. He said the text should be revised. He also said the text on inspiration is not clear. It cannot be proved that the writer of Scripture always wished to express objective truth, he stated.

Precisely what “episcopal authority” is to decide when, where and how Catholics may worship in common with non-Catholics was left deliberately vague in the schema on ecumenism. This was stated at the U.S. bishops’ press panel after the council meeting by Father Thomas Stransky, C.S.P., American official of the unity secretariat which drafted the schema.

Father Stransky said some bishops feared that different policies on common worship in adjoining dioceses might cause confusion.

Father Robert Trisco of Chicago, professor of Church history at the Catholic University of America, said some bishops feared their authority in this matter might be infringed upon if such decisions were entrusted to a regional conference of bishops.

Bishop Helmsing in his official explanation of the schema to the council Fathers explicitly referred to this episcopal authority as either local bishops or regional conferences of bishops.

However, Father Stransky said, the schema left room for putting really big decisions on common worship into the hands of a future senate of bishops, which the council, acting with the pope, might set up to assist the pope in the central administration of the Church.

Father John Long, S.J., another U.S. priest in the unity secretariat, pointed out that during the 17th and 18th centuries Catholic priests often administered the sacraments in Orthodox churches at the request of Orthodox bishops. He said this was suppressed by the Congregation of the Holy Office in the 18th century.

He said conditions that might indicate common worship or a real sharing in the sacramental life vary widely from region to region. He pointed out that Catholics in some parts of the East must either receive the sacraments from the Orthodox clergy or not at all. Concerning the projected directory on ecumenism, Father Stransky said the unity secretariat has “no idea of what will be in it.” He said it would offer more precise details on ecumenical action and “might be much more difficult to put together than the schema.”

Msgr. George G. Higgins, director of the social action department of the National Catholic Welfare Conference, recalled that the Commission on the Lay Apostolate considered putting together a directory, “but it was voted down, I think rightly.”

James C. O’Neill
NCWC News Rome correspondent

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