128th General Congregation
September 15, 1965
The first working day of the ecumenical council’s fourth session got off to a fast start with the issuance of a papal document giving details of the new synod of the world’s bishops and a crossfire debate on the new draft of the document on religious liberty.
Pope Paul VI was in the council hall for the reading of the motu proprio — a document issued on a pope’s own initiative — setting forth details of the bishops’ synod, whose creation he had announced the previous day at the opening ceremonies of the session. The synod will be a permanent institution, but its membership can differ from one meeting of the group to another since members hold office in a synod summoned by the Pope only for the length of that particular synod.
Debate on the religious liberty schema found two Americans — Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York and Richard Cardinal Cushing of Boston — championing it resoundingly. Of the eight speakers of the day — all cardinals — only three opposed the document. They were Ernesto Cardinal Ruffini of Palermo, Italy; Giuseppe Cardinal Siri of Genoa, Italy; and Benjamin Cardinal de Arriba y Castro of Tarragona, Spain.
Besides Cardinals Spellman and Cushing, three others expressed general satisfaction with the new draft but recommended certain changes.
The 128th general meeting of the council opened at 9:30 a.m. in St. Peter’s basilica with Pope Paul entering the church from a side door accompanied only by the council’s secretary general, Archbishop Pericle Felici, and his private secretary, Msgr. Pasquale Macchi.
In a slight change of conciliar ceremony the Gospel book was enthroned before Mass began instead of afterward as during past sessions. The idea was to place even more emphasis on the Gospel and to integrate the enthronement ceremony with the entrance procession of the celebrant of the day’s Mass.
Archbishop Felici announced another change. Instead of celebrating a Mass of the Holy Spirit each day, this session will see the Mass of the day celebrated. In the booklet passed out listing each day’s Masses it was noted with significance that the series ends Dec. 8, giving rise to the idea that the council may close then.
Among events of the day was reading a telegram of greetings in French from Greek Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople. The patriarch’s message read:
“On the occasion of the opening of the fourth session of the Second Vatican Council we address to you, our well-beloved and venerable Holiness, our brotherly felicitations and our good wishes for a happy and impressive conclusion of its work, to profit the entire Church of our Lord Jesus Christ. Patriarch Athenagoras.” To this the Pope replied with a telegram in French: “The message which Your Holiness addressed to us and which will be read at the opening of the fourth session of the ecumenical council moves us deeply. We hope with Your Holiness that the conciliar work will be blessed by God and will conclude with fruitful resolves for the good of the entire Church of Christ. Pope Paul VI.”
The first working meeting of the fourth session was occupied with the usual details of getting under way. Eugene Cardinal Tisserant as head of the Council of Presidents welcomed the Fathers, assured them they would have full freedom of speech, but urged them not to repeat what has already been said. He also cautioned them against applauding, but this was quickly ignored when the Fathers applauded Patriarch Athenagoras’ telegram and the reading of the document on the new synod of bishops.
The roster of speakers as announced was composed of 22 cardinals. However, only eight came to the floor at the meeting, with Cardinal Spellman being first to speak.
The New York cardinal declared he approved the schema very warmly. He said that today mankind is united in wanting to give full recognition to the dignity of the human person. The schema, he said, answers the needs of modern times.
Every man, he said, must be free from every form of coercion and the schema will be helpful in the quest for Christian unity and ecumenical relations.
Cardinal Spellman noted that the schema shows the Church is not in conflict with the state and warned that a rejection or radical revision of the document as it stands might give rise to doubts about the Church’s sincerity in this sphere.
Just as favorable was the speech of Boston’s Cardinal Cushing, who began by saying the schema answers the hope of the Church and the world.
He said the schema was based solidly on the teachings of the Church and added, “Although I am not renowned as a philosopher, I know that every right finds its foundation in a truth.” And religious liberty is based on truth and works for the good of society.
Men should not be coerced in the sphere of religion, he said, and an act of conscience is not a subjective right for it comes from grace and natural law. He urged the council to preach the gospel of liberty and said he did not fear the preaching of the Gospel. Lastly he warned that the denial of the right of religious liberty often leads to the denial of many other rights.
On the opposing side of the fence were strong statements of condemnation of the document from the two Italian and the Spanish cardinals.
First to challenge the document was Cardinal Ruffini, a frequent speaker at council meetings. Religious liberty, he said, must not be separated from its moral foundations. The state as a state has an obligation to worship God, he stated.
Citing the teaching of Pope Leo XIII, he noted that religion can help the state even in the temporal order and reminded his hearers that Pope Pius IX condemned cutting the state off from religion in his Syllabus of Errors.
He also cautioned against separating state and Church and pointed to the Italian situation in which the Church has received help and assistance from the government. Lastly, he said, he scorned Scriptural citations in the document, which were intended to prove the biblical foundation for the right of religious liberty. He said they did not apply at all.
Cardinal Ruffini was followed by Cardinal Siri, who said that what God tolerates (presumably diversity of religion) does not need to be defended beyond the limits of the common good. He declared that the schema defends liberty indiscriminately.
He called for a return to the true sources of the teaching of the Catholic Church on the subject and cited them as the teachings of Popes Leo XIII, Pius IX and Pius XII.
By far the strongest statement of the day against the document, however, came from Spain’s Cardinal Arriba, who began by noting that the schema was a most important consideration because it dealt with protecting and safeguarding the faith.
He affirmed that only the Catholic Church has the right to preach the Gospel. Therefore, he said, proselytism in predominantly Catholic countries must be suppressed, even by the state.
He warned the council against the danger of ruining the Catholic countries and asked that no council declaration be issued on religious liberty. Instead, he urged, the matter should be left in the hands of the national conferences of bishops.
In contrast, Joseph Cardinal Frings of Cologne, Germany, said he found the document “breathes the spirit of the Lord and reflects the spirit of the Gospel.” However, he suggested a number of changes to improve the schema.
First, he asked for a change in the style of the document to make it sound more like a declaration of the council than it does at present. Secondly, he asked that a portion of the document which cites natural law in support of the right of religious freedom be deleted.
He asked this deletion, he said, because it is not the council’s task to argue if the validity of the right is to be found in natural law. This, he said, is a task for theologians.
He asked for a correction of a confusion in the ideas of the liberty given to us by Christ and the idea of political liberty as such. Finally, he suggested various historical references to the subject be dropped because they either had no place in the document or were inexact.
Similarly, Giovanni Cardinal Urbani of Venice, speaking in the name of 32 Italian bishops, said he found the text substantially good. He said that the moral rights and duties of all must be recognized.
He pointed out that the document does not concern the freedom involved in the Act of Faith but only the freedom which is involved in the rights of men in a concrete historical circumstance.
He suggested the document be improved by the inclusion of a clarification of the concept of religious liberty as such and of civil liberty in religious matters.
The last speaker of the day was Bernard Cardinal Alfrink of Utrecht, the Netherlands, whose remarks were brief. He praised the document in general but said he wanted a positive definition of religious liberty instead of the negative one now in the schema. He also objected to a section dealing with the privileged status of a religion — a state-recognized religion. He suggested that it should be expressed in conditional terms rather than in absolute ones.
Bishop Emile De Smedt of Bruges, Belgium, had delivered a report on the religious liberty draft before debate began.
Among other announcements made by Archbishop Felici was that as in the past, there will be five general meetings weekly with Saturday and Sunday off. While Archbishop Felici made no reference to it, it is possible that debate on the four schemas to be discussed may conclude before the council’s work is finished and that the number of weekly meetings may be reduced to facilitate the work of council commissions.
James C. O’Neill
NCWC News Rome correspondent