This is an English translation of the speech by Archbishop John C. Heenan of Westminster, England, at the general session of the ecumenical council on Oct. 22 on the schema of the Church in the modern world.
It would be most ungracious if we were not to praise the efforts of the commission which has produced the document we are now considering. There can be no doubt that the council Fathers concerned and their advisers have worked hard and have done their best. It is nevertheless quite obvious that the document they have presented to us is unworthy of a general council of the Church.
If we are to speak at all about the Church in the world of today we must do so in clear, unmistakable and down-to-earth terms. For some years not only the faithful but non-Catholics and even unbelievers have been awaiting from this council wise advice on many grave problems. The Holy See itself has suggested that the Second Vatican Council will make some attempt to solve the complex social problems of our day. The document now before us will therefore be studied with eager hope.
What sort of judgment, venerable brothers, do you think the world will pass on this treatise? On some questions, as we know, it is better to say too little than too much. On the subject of world problems, however, it would have been much better to say nothing than produce a set of platitudes. I would like you to call to mind the number of sittings we had when the question of the sources of Revelation was so fiercely debated. The theologians, of course, rightly regarded this as a highly important topic. But to the citizens of the wide world, whether Catholic or non-Catholic, a debate of this kind seems like wasting time and beating the air. Having spent such a long time on theological niceties this council will become a laughing-stock in the eyes of the world if it now rushes breathlessly through a debate on world hunger, nuclear war and family life. People will ask ironically and with good reason what do we really mean when we call this a pastoral council?
I must speak plainly. This document is going to dash the hopes of everyone who has been awaiting it. Its authors do not seem to realize even to whom the message should be directed. Here is an example of their way of writing: “Christians,” they say, “are ready to engage in a dialogue with all men of good will.” But surely this is a pointless thing to say. Christians should be ready to conduct a dialogue with anyone whether or not he is a man of good will. The whole treatise reads more like a sermon than a document of a council.
We have been given the schema itself together with certain supplements. The fact is that the schema, even read with the supplements, remains obscure and misleading; read on its own it is dangerous and could prove harmful. I would like the Fathers of the council to consider this question very seriously. We have been told to debate the schema and to pass over the rest without comment. But if we fail to scrutinize both documents with great care, the mind of the council will have to be interpreted to the world by the specialists who helped the Fathers of the commission to draw up the documents. God forbid that this should happen! I fear specialists when they are left to explain what the bishops meant.
Between sessions of this council, the Church of God has suffered a great deal from the writings and speeches of some of the specialists. They are few in number but their sound has gone forth to the ends of the earth. These few specialists care nothing for the ordinary teaching authority of the bishops — nor, I regret to say, for that of the pope. It is idle to show them a papal encyclical in which a point of Catholic doctrine is clearly laid down. They will immediately reply that a pope is not infallible when writing an encyclical. It really does not seem worthwhile for the pope to write any more encyclical letters since they can apparently no longer be quoted in support of the Faith.
We must protect the authority of the teaching Church. It is of no avail to talk about a college of bishops if specialists in articles, books and speeches contradict and pour scorn on what a body of bishops teaches. Until now it has not been a doctrine of the Church that the theologians admitted to the council are infallible. The theories of one or two must not be mistaken for a general agreement among theologians which has, of course, special authority.
Perhaps the commission (members) responsible for this document had no chance of success from the outset. They were, in fact, denied the help of experts who really knew their subjects. When you are dealing with the problems of social life you need to consult those who know and live in the world. Now let me ask how many parish priests, how many of the faithful, how many husbands and wives, how many doctors, economists, scientists (especially experts in biochemistry and nuclear physics) were at work on this commission? It is useless in these matters to seek advice only from those who since their youth have spent their lives in monasteries, seminaries or universities. These eminent men may hardly know the world as it really is. The world can be unpleasant and cruel. These scholars often have a childlike trust in the opinions of men in the world. Certainly they are simple as doves but they are not always wise as serpents.
If you are looking for examples of all this you need only study the section on matrimony. Everyone knows that doctors all over the world are busily trying to produce a satisfactory contraceptive pill. This special kind of pill is to be a panacea to solve all sexual problems between husbands and wives. Neither the treatise itself nor the supplements hesitate to prophesy that such a pill is just around the corner. Meanwhile, it is said, married couples and they alone must decide what is right and wrong. Everyone must be his own judge. But, the document adds, the couple must act according to the teaching of the Church. But this is precisely what married people want to be told — what is now the teaching of the Church? To this question our document gives no reply. For that very reason it could provide an argument from our silence to theologians after the council who wish to attack sound doctrine.
The document thus blandly addresses husbands and wives: “Some practical solutions have made their appearance and there are more to come.” This is no way for a document of the Church to be composed. When our children ask us for bread we should not give them a stone.
I strongly appeal for this document to be given to a new commission. The treatise itself says that learned men and married couples must work out with theologians ways of understanding more thoroughly the mysteries of nature. But this should be done before and not after a conciliar document is drawn up.
I therefore propose that without delay a new commission be set up composed of specialists from the laity and priests with long pastoral experience. Then after three or four years let the fourth and final session of the council be convened to discuss all these social problems. It is true that some of us in this episcopal college will have gone to our reward. But perhaps we shall then be able to help the council more by our prayers than we do now by our speeches. One thing is quite certain. It would be a scandal to rush this debate now that we have at last come to really pastoral problems.