Thursday, March 1, 2012

If John XXIII Had Lived

I wonder what the Church would be like today if Pope John XXIII had lived for all four years of the Second Vatican Council.

The Council met over a four year period, 1962-65. Pope John died in 1963 and was succeeded by Pope Paul VI.

It is pure speculation, of course, but I wonder how Pope John would have dealt with the recommendation of the Papal Commission on birth control.

Pope John had established the commission in 1963 at the suggestion of Cardinal Leon-Joseph Suenens. The Vatican II Council fathers were reminded on at least three occasions that this delicate issue was not to be debated on the council floor because the matter was being studied by this special papal commission.

Suenens, however,  caused a major stir when he suggested that it was time to review the old teaching on birth control and perhaps accept that the doctrine was due for "development." He further urged Pope Paul VI to reveal the names of the members of the papal commission. It is said that Paul was a little more than irked by Suenens' speech.

When the majority of the members of the papal commission on birth control recommended a change in the church's position, Pope Paul reserved the matter to himself, and in 1968 published his encyclical letter Humanae Vitae, electing to make no change.

It is pure speculation, of course, but I wonder how Pope John would have dealt with the question of episcopal collegiality, that is, how the bishops as a college relate to the pope.

General editor of the five-volume History of Vatican II Giuseppe Alberigo summarized the issue this way: whether the bishops constituted a single body, a "college," a fraternal union of persons dedicated to a common task, just as the apostles had been "the Twelve."

Alberigo wrote that nearly 130 of the bishops spoke to this matter, many of them stressing "the close association between the 'college' of the apostles and that of their successors, the bishops." Opponents of this "collegiality" feared that such an idea would undermine the authority of the pope.

Further there were bishops who proposed that the Church should be run by a committee of bishops in union with pope, replacing the authority of the Curia, the Vatican Bureaus.

It is said that Pope Paul had misgivings about these proposals, so on his own initiative he announced that he was going to establish "the Synod of Bishops," but it would be an advisory body with no authority beyond what the pope would give it.

Church historian Father John O'Malley assessed the papal document (Apostolica Sollicitudo) as "a preemptive strike." Paul did not even use the word collegiality. He stressed papal primacy.

Synods of bishops continue to meet periodically with the pope in Rome today, but the Vatican sets the agenda. The proposals for a collegial rule of the Church have been ignored.

It is pure speculation, of course, but I wonder how Pope John would have dealt with the question of optional celibacy for priestly ordination in the Roman branch of the Catholic Church.

The issue of clerical celibacy came up in 1962 at a preparatory commission meeting  about what to do about priests who had left the ministry. The question was whether such men should be relieved of the obligation of celibacy. The commission thought the matter too complicated for open discussion and suggested the matter be left to the pope. Pope John XXIII took the matter off the table.

Although priestly celibacy was not an issue in 1962, by 1965 a small minority of bishops  thought the rule should be revised, at least for some regions of the Church. When a number of Brazilian bishops wanted to bring the matter to debate on the council floor, Pope Paul VI intervened and took celibacy off the agenda.

In his book What Happened At Vatican II, Father O'Malley summarized the situation: He (Pope Paul) believed such a discussion highly inappropriate...The bishops, even most of those who talked about possible change in the discipline, agreed that to open the matter on the floor of St. Peter's would probably generate more heat than light, send the media into a frenzy, and result in inadequate treatment because the time left to the council was so short (p.271).

Although it would be pure speculation to wonder about what would have happened in the areas of collegiality, contraception, and celibacy if Pope John XXIII had out-lived the council, there is no doubt that some Catholics think "things" would be different now.

The issue of episcopal collegiality versus Curial rule festers yet today. Contraception remains an area of dispute for many Catholics. Clerical celibacy is still a stumbling block, especially in the light of the Church's practice of welcoming married Episcopalian priests into the Roman fold.

The Second Vatican Council may be 50 years old, but its direction continues, its hopes abide, and its controversies linger.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting speculations, Father. As for me, I am happy our Church did not become a larger facsimile of the Episcopal Church. And, based on what I know of Bl. John XXIII's own writing, I would be willing to bet that he would not have approved that direction either.

    Father, Bless!