Skeletons in the Conciliar Closet

Fr. Brian W. Harrison, O.S.

Like Christopher Ferrara, I saw George Sim Johnston’s article, “Why Vatican II Was Necessary” in the March 2004 issue of Crisis magazine, and I must confess I reacted in much the same way as Mr. Ferrara (Remnant, March 15, 2004). Johnston’s attempt to convince us why the Council was so necessary, valuable and important, in spite of its generally chaotic aftermath, struck me as consisting mainly of hollow, shopworn and unsubstantiated generalizations. I give my assent to Vatican II’s doctrinal teachings (interpreted, in the case of obscurities and ambiguities, in the light of Tradition). But I am inclined to agree that a strong case can be made out, with the benefit of nearly forty years of historical hindsight, for its overall lack of opportuneness.

I am afraid that Mr. Ferrara’s less-than-enthusiastic view of the Council tends to be supported by certain other skeletons in the conciliar closet that I have personally discovered in the last few weeks. They are ‘buried’ in the dozens of huge (and largely inaccessible) Latin tomes containing the complete record of everything officially done and said at the Council (the Acta Synodalia), and I doubt whether they have been made known to the general public so far.

One of the many difficulties in interpreting the Council’s Declaration on Religious Liberty, and reconciling it with traditional doctrine, lies in the fact that while the key article 2 of this document, Dignitatis Humanae (DH), begins by affirming that the right to religious liberty has to do with conscientiously held religious beliefs, it ends by affirming that the same right is enjoyed even by those who are not in good conscience (that is, those who “do not fulfill their obligation of seeking and adhering to the truth”). Curious as to whether this confusing, and at first sight contradictory, treatment of conscience in DH #2 was officially explained to the Council Fathers before they voted on it, I started fishing around in the Acta Synodalia (AS) in our university library. And what I dredged up struck me as a choice example of how that famous ‘Rhine’ flowed into the ‘Tiber’ during Vatican II: manipulation of the more conservative, but rather complacent and unsuspecting, majority by the powerful and ‘progressive’ Northern European bishops and their periti.

The above passage recognizing immunity from coercion for those whose religious propaganda is not in good conscience was absent from the first three drafts of DH. It finally appeared in the fourth (second-last) draft, presented on October 25, 1965, only a few weeks before the end of the Council (cf. AS IV, V, p. 79). Bishop Emil De Smedt, the Dutch relator (official spokesman for the drafting Commission), then gave his relatio (speech) to the assembled Fathers officially explaining this fourth draft and its changes to the previous draft. However, in doing so he did not even mention this important addition to the text! On the contrary, in commenting on the new version of article 2, De Smedt repeatedly stressed the importance of conscience, citing the (unchanged) words in the first paragraph of #2 which assert that the human person must not be forced to act against (or be prevented from acting in accordance with) “his conscience” (“suam conscientiam” – see ibid., pp. 101-102). True, the Fathers all had on their desks printed copies of the old and new drafts in parallel columns, but it looks as if De Smedt was hoping that if he didn’t draw their attention to this change, many would either overlook it or not attach much importance to it.

In another lengthy hand-out, which was not read on the floor of the Council, we find in the fine print that this change had been requested “in the name of more than one hundred” Fathers (ibid.,p. 116, #25). But the reader is not told who these hundred-plus Fathers were; and there is still not the slightest explanation from De Smedt as to how the role of conscience in religious liberty was now to be understood in the light of these contrasting statements within the same article of the document.

Did Bishop De Smedt perhaps honestly think this textual addition wasn’t important enough to warrant an official explanation? That excuse looks lame on the face of it, and looks even lamer in the light of what finally transpired. For during the next few weeks, when the fifth and final draft of DH was being worked on, three Fathers submitted a request to the Commission that this confusing addition favoring persons in bad conscience be simply omitted. A number of others asked that it be significantly amended. But in his final relatio, De Smedt acknowledged these requests only to dismiss them summarily, stating that the addition was too important and substantial to be omitted, and, moreover, it had already been approved by a large majority in the vote on the fourth draft taken back in October! But did the Dutch prelate finally give the Fathers at least some explanation of this “substantial” change which he now declared was immutable? No way. Still not a word. The unexplained amendment had been quickly, quietly, and misleadingly, pushed through without any debate and without public attention being drawn to it. But afterwards, when some more conservative Fathers finally expressed their disagreement with the amendment, they were told abruptly that it was now set in stone.

Another discovery I have made in the Acta Synodalia is relevant to the scandal provoked nearly two years ago when Cardinal William Keeler announced that, as far as he and an important committee of American theologians were concerned, the Catholic Church no longer believes it necessary, or even legitimate, to try and convert Jews to Christianity. Cardinal Keeler was soon backed up (with perhaps a minor nuance or two) by the top Vatican official entrusted with ecumenism and dialogue with Jews, the German Cardinal Walter Kasper.

Well, what, if anything, did the Council itself say in this point? In researching the textual history of the Vatican II Declaration on Non-Christian Religions, Nostra Aetate (NA), I have found that the original draft of article 4 in that document was actually quite up-front and positive about Catholic hopes for Jewish conversions to the true faith. It included this passage: “It is important to recall that the integration of the Jewish people into the Church is part of Christian hope. For, according to the Apostle’s teaching (cf. Rom. 11: 25), the Church awaits with unshakable faith and deep longing the entry of this people into the fullness of the People of God, which has been restored by Christ” (AS III, VIII, p. 640, my translation). In the biblical verse cited here, the Holy Spirit, through Saint Paul, speaks of the “blindness” of the unbelieving Jews as being temporary, and prophesies in the next verse the salvation of Israel as a nation, after the “fullness of the Gentiles” has come into the Church.

Now, readers will probably agree that this original draft of NA #4, together with its biblical citation, doesn’t sound exactly in the ‘spirit’ of Their Eminences Keeler and Kasper. Come to think of it, have you ever heard any post-conciliar Pope or Vatican official declare that he is awaiting with “unshakable faith and deep longing” (fide inconcussa ac desiderio magno) the massive entry of Jews into the Catholic Church? And as for their present “blindness”, why, any official mention of that would now be out of the question! For it would of course be immediately drowned in worldwide howls of indignant media protest at such a recrudescence of top-level Catholic “anti-Semitism”.

In fairness, it should be added here that the new Catechism of the Catholic Church does present us with St. Peter at Pentecost preaching to the Jews their need for conversion, and continues to teach the revealed truth that Israel, after her present “hardening”, will eventually recognize Christ as her Messiah (see #674). Also, the Church in her post-conciliar Liturgy of the Hours, or Divine Office, still prays for the conversion of the Jews several times during the year (at least in the original Latin edition that I use – I can’t vouch for the generally more liberal English version). But, of course, we never hear any modern Church leaders publicly draw attention to these little-known official texts supporting the traditional doctrine. Nor do we hear any Vatican praise and encouragement for those few remaining Catholic individuals and small groups who actually make some concrete effort to evangelize Jews.

Let us return to Nostra Aetate. I have discovered that the near-silence and inactivity of the post-conciliar Church establishment regarding the Jews’ need for conversion can probably be traced to a conscious decision of the Council itself during the preparation of this Declaration. When the revised draft of NA was circulated, with the original draft in parallel columns, the Fathers found that the aforesaid section in article 4 about the conversion of the Jews, with its specific citation of Romans 11: 25, had now been totally omitted. And (unlike Bishop De Smedt) the relator for this document, the German Jesuit Cardinal Augustin Bea, was quite open about the reason why the original version was now considered unacceptable: “Very many Fathers,” Bea announced in his relatio, “have requested that in talking about this ‘hope’, since it has to do with a mystery, we should avoid every appearance of proselytism. Others have asked that the same Christian hope, applying to all peoples, should also be expressed somehow. In the present version of this paragraph we have sought to satisfy all these requests” (ibid., p. 648, emphasis added). The tactic of His Eminence and all those “very many” (but unnamed) Fathers was thus to tarnish the previous draft with the pejorative label “proselytism”, and to ‘elevate’ the future conversion of the Jews to the ethereal status of a “mystery”, thereby insinuating that it will somehow ‘just happen’ spontaneously one day without the necessity of any human missionary activity on the part of Catholics.

The tactic, combined with the great personal prestige of Cardinal Bea, worked perfectly. The vast majority of the Fathers duly voted in favor of the new draft, thereby relegating to the finest of fine print this particular point of our “unshakable faith” regarding the Jews. It proved to be literally unmentionable in a modern conciliar document, and so has been ‘buried’ in the middle of a much longer passage of the Epistle to the Romans which is indicated (but not cited) among various other biblical references to NA #4. What now appears in that passage is a much blander statement referring to Christian hopes for mankind in general. And in accord with the non-threatening spirit of this ‘pastoral’ Declaration, all explicit mention of anyone actually joining, entering or returning to the Catholic Church has been carefully excised. We read that “the Church awaits the day, known to God alone, when all peoples will call on God with one voice and ‘serve him shoulder to shoulder’ (Soph. 3:9; cf. Is. 66:23; Ps. 65: 4; Rom. 11: 11-32)”.

Doesn’t that sound a whole lot more . . . friendly than the original draft? At any rate, the history of this textual change perhaps helps explain why the top-level talk disparaging any further evangelization of the Jews has still, after nearly two years, not elicited any rebuttal from either the Supreme Pontiff or Cardinal Ratzinger (both of whom, of course, were active at Vatican II). For if he were challenged on this issue, Kasper the Friendly Dialogue-Partner could point straight back to the Friendly Kouncil. After all, how much difference is there between its officially endorsed admonition to “avoid every appearance of proselytizing” Jews and the Keeler/Kasper doctrine that Catholics should not “target the Jews for conversion”? It is not that Vatican II actually taught this falsehood now being propagated with impunity even by Princes of the Church; but we can see now that the Council paved the way for the diffusion of that error by consciously declining to teach – or even to suggest – the opposing, but ‘politically incorrect’, truth.