The drive to have the ecumenical council go on record in favor of the principle of religious liberty — long spearheaded by American bishops — has met with a first overwhelming success.
A test vote (Sept. 21) on whether the schema now under consideration should be accepted “as the basis of an ultimate text” resulted in 1,997 “yes” votes against 224 “no” votes, with only one null vote.
On the strength of this ballot, taken following the personal intervention of Pope Paul VI, the schema will now be returned to its sponsor, the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, which will give consideration to the recommendations advanced during the debate. The schema will then come up on the floor again, but there is no longer the slightest doubt that the final vote will be equally favorable.
“It is a great victory,” said Father John Courtney Murray, S.J., the U.S. priest who has long masterminded this crucial draft proposal.
The vote came after the council Fathers, upon the recommendation of the moderators, decided by a standing vote to cut short the debate. This followed some anxious hours the previous day. Jointly with the council presidency, the council coordinating committee had decided to leave the whole issue in suspense. This would have meant pigeonholing the schema, which the opposing minority had wanted all along.
Late the day before (Sept. 20), however, Pope Paul personally overruled the coordinating committee. As a result the moderators were able (Sept. 21) to announce a test vote through the council secretary general, Archbishop Pericle Felici, in these terms:
“Whether the newly revised text on religious liberty pleases the Fathers as a basis of the definitive decree, which is to be further improved upon in accordance with true Catholic doctrine and in the light of the amendments proposed by the Fathers in the course of the debate, which are to be approved on the strength of the council regulations.”
Thunderous applause greeted the announcement, which left no doubt whatsoever about the true sentiments of the great majority of the council Fathers. They thus gratefully acknowledged that this gratifying result was mainly due to Pope Paul, who all along had strongly favored acceptance of this schema but had not wanted to interfere with the debate until all had had their say. The Pontiff resolutely stepped in only after the course of events in the past few days had shown that the same arguments pro and con were constantly being repeated.
The Pope now will be able to undertake his peace mission to the United Nations against the background of this historic decision of the world’s bishops who strongly upheld the liberal Catholic position of the freedom of conscience and worship.
Father Placid Jordan, O.S.B.
NCWC News Rome Correspondent