Commentary: Constitution on the Church ‘Memorable Achievement’

The forthcoming Constitution on the Church will become the most memorable achievement of the Second Vatican Council and will launch a totally new era in Catholic thought.

The constitution has already received the basic approval of the council Fathers through an affirmative vote on the first six chapters, although it will not become official until its promulgation by Pope Paul VI.

The modifications still to be made on the text as a result of the suggestions of the council Fathers will not be substantial and will be designed to perfect the present text rather than change its basic content.

While the new constitution cannot be expected to have an immediate sensational effect in theology, its ultimate result will be revolutionary.

It will mark a new stage in theological reflection, in pastoral initiative and in the development of spiritual life. Since the 16th century, ecclesiology, or reflection on the Church, has gone in the one-sided direction of self-defense against the real or imaginary assaults of Protestants, deists, rationalists, modernists, materialists and atheists. This did strengthen the Church’s interior discipline and coherence, but it also hastened her loss of contact with the masses of many countries and with the intellectual concerns of the educated.

The institution of the Church and its hierarchy came out of this immeasurably more powerful than before in their narrow confines, yet considerably weakened in their impact on society and on the shape of modern thought.

As a result, the Church became increasingly irrelevant to the concrete problems of men. It is this fatal trend that Pope John XXIII wanted to stop by calling a council for a profound renovation of the Church.

The Constitution on the Church, especially once it is completed by a decree on “The Church in the World,” should be the main factor in making the tide turn by changing Catholics’ view of their Church.

The faith will not change. But the practical conception of what the Church is and does and of how to be a Christian in today’s world will grow, perhaps out of recognition.

The constitution, which is solid ground for this growth, can be summed up in the following points:

1) It brings Catholics back to a more Biblical understanding of the Church as a community of love in which God communicates to man the mystery of his own life. Thus the Church is essentially turned outward in service rather than inward in complacency.

2) It restores the concept of the Church as the people to whom God has passed His covenant. This is the principle of the laity’s awakening to the spiritual responsibility which is theirs as a result of Baptism.

3) The hierarchy is no longer presented as a mainly administrative body, but rather as the repository of the Apostles’ function of preaching the Gospel and of their spiritual authority. This will make the bishops, in the long run, better pastors and leaders, more respectful of the responsibility of both laity and clergy. Above all, it will give them a stronger desire to serve, not only their small territory, but also the whole Church.

This should enable Catholics everywhere to share their problems and to reach solutions in common. By associating the bishops to the Pope’s solicitude for the entire world, it will considerably extend and deepen the Church’s catholicity, and give all her members a deeper awareness of the need to enlarge their soul to the scope of the universe, above all barriers of nationality, citizenship, race, color or religion.

4) The chapters on the call to holiness and on Religious orders should start a renewal of the life of prayer and give shape to a modern type of sanctity adapted to our world. Religious orders themselves should reflect on their calling in the light of the constitution, and thereby make their way of life more relevant to our times and more meaningful to our contemporaries — without which their survival is questionable.

5) The last two chapters, by focusing attention on the eschatological dimension of Christian life and on the meaning of Mary as the image of the Church should restore among Catholics a sense of commitment to the spiritual realities and to the invisible world which familiarity with a materialist civilization tends to overshadow.

The Constitution on the Church will be the longest document of the council. It has been the work of more teams of theologians and bishops than any other. When one compares its present form with what was presented at the start of the first session of the council, one can also see that a considerable distance has been covered, and that a stupendous task of theological updating has been achieved.

The constitution contains eight chapters, including that on the Virgin Mary, which concludes it. The votes that have recently been made cover the first six chapters, the last two being under revision by the Doctrinal Commission.

On account of the difficulties felt by many bishops on matters treated in the third chapter (on the Church’s hierarchy), the voting on this was much more detailed than on the other sections of the draft. Thus, there were one vote for chapter 1, four for chapter 2, 39 for chapter 3, one for chapter 4 and one for chapter 5.

This variance reflects differences in the numbers of difficulties that the debates had revealed. To respect the bishops’ freedom to accept one section of a chapter and to reject another, the text of chapter 3 was divided into 39 articles, each with a separate vote.

The votes on a chapter in general need not be absolute. One may vote for or against it; but one may also approve it with a proviso, which has to be explained in writing so that the competent commission may, if advisable, alter the text in the sense indicated. The votes on parts of a chapter, on the contrary, do not allow for a qualified approval.

The negative votes on chapters one and two were negligible, but the votes on chapter three were much more complicated.

For the 39 successive votes of chapter 3, the negative vote varied between 11 and 1,364. Apart from the texts on the diaconate (where the highest negative vote was cast), the passages that raised an opposition of more than 100 votes all contain some allusion to the episcopal college or to the powers conferred by episcopal consecration. The highest negative vote about the episcopacy (328) was cast against the idea that episcopal consecration confers the powers of sanctifying, teaching and ruling.

The reason for these minorities of 100 to 300 votes lies in the fact that the notion of an episcopal college was new to many bishops. Contrary to reports, these nays do not come from any special nation, although there seems to be a rather high concentration of them in Italy and Spain. This is understandable: the Italian episcopate has always had close ties with the papacy; and, since the reconquest of Spain from the Moslems, the Spanish episcopate has enjoyed privileges which are held to come graciously from the pope rather than to belong to the Spanish bishops by right as members of the episcopal college.

The meaning of these negative votes is therefore that the concept of collegiality has not yet been fully grasped by a minority of bishops. These have therefore felt it their duty to defend the pope’s supremacy by voting against texts which, as they read them, detract somewhat from what they consider to be the authority of the bishop of Rome. The majority, on the contrary, felt that to assert collegial episcopal authority does not take away anything from the primatial authority of the bishop of Rome.

The five votes on the restoration of a permanent diaconate are in a category of their own. The question was not one of doctrine, but of discipline: Should a permanent diaconate be restored? If so, who will have authority to do it? And may these permanent deacons be married?

A text describing the diaconate and its functions was accepted by 2,055 votes against 94. The wisdom of its restoration as a permanent degree of the hierarchy was recognized by 1,903 against 242. By 1,553 votes against 702, it was decided that episcopal conferences, with the approval of the pope, are competent to do so in their territory. That the diaconate may be given to “mature married men” was carried by 1,598 ayes against 629 nays. That it could be given to younger men, who would not be bound to celibacy, was rejected: 839 voting yes, and 1,364 no.

These votes indicate that 242 bishops were definitely opposed to the principle of the permanent diaconate. The second vote shows that, besides these, approximately 450 objected to the power given, in this matter, to episcopal conferences. Many of these votes must have been cast by the 328 bishops who had previously opposed the very principle of collegiality. The last two votes, on the question of a married diaconate, are more puzzling. Clearly, only 629 did not want married deacons at all. To reject the ordination of younger men who would be allowed to marry (as opposed to mature and already married men), they must have been joined by others, who may have been motivated by any of the following reasons:

Some did not want to depart from the traditional practice of the Eastern Churches, where a married man may be ordained, but a celibate or widowed priest or deacon may not marry. Others could not see the practicality of introducing this new kind of deacon into the structure of their dioceses. Finally, a number of council Fathers feared that lifting the law of celibacy in favor of younger men would cause a slump in the vocations to the celibate priesthood, and this slowly would make it necessary to suspend, at least in part, the law of celibacy for the priesthood of the Latin Rite.

We must evidently wait several years before we can see if the limited kind of married diaconate that has been approved is sufficient to fulfill one of its primary purposes, namely, to counterbalance the lack of vocations to the priesthood in Latin America.

Chapters 4, 5 and 6 of the draft were adopted with very few negative votes. However, there was a substantial number of qualified approving votes for chapters 5 (302) and 6 (438). These qualifications affect the sections on the universal call to sanctity and on the relationship between the religious orders and the bishops.

The Doctrinal Commission which will examine all these qualifications need pay attention only to those which tend to better the text. Those still aimed at changing the text are ruled out by the fact that it now has been accepted by the required majority. The purpose of the revision is to accept the best suggestions of those who are in favor of the ideas expressed in the text.

Thus few changes can be expected in the text at this stage. The vocabulary will be improved and the thought clarified and completed in some points. But the text as it finally will be promulgated will be essentially the same as that accepted in the chapter-by-chapter vote by the Fathers.

Father George H. Tavard

Father Tavard is the author of a number of theological works, chairman of the theology department of Mount Mercy College, Pittsburgh, an official consultor for the Second Vatican Council and a member of the U.S. bishops’ press panel in Rome.

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