Vatican Council—Third Session (1)

One of the intents of this rubric is to review the continuing sessions of the Second Vatican Council being held in Rome. The reader may recall that about one and a half years ago the present writer presented six articles on the first two sessions of this Council. A re-reading of those articles may be helpful for a better understanding of what has been going on at the Council. The third session is already ancient history: it met from September 14 through November 21 of last year. Fact is, when this article appears in print, the fourth and probably last session will be in progress—it begins meeting on September 14. In this, and subsequent articles, I hope to review the third session, and then, hopefully, continue with events of the fourth session. 

Many Protestants have envied the Roman church for its ability to publicize the actions of its Council over the whole world. Hardly a day goes by, during the sessions, that press releases do not appear in every local paper. Every religious magazine both Protestant, Roman Catholic, and others contain detailed reports of the Council. One editor wrote:

The Vatican Council takes first prize as the most universally publicized religious event since the flood. No religious occasion in recent centuries has been so widely, completely and quickly reported as have been the first two sessions of the Roman Catholic Church’s 23rd Ecumenical Council. The coverage which the council has received from every medium of communication, the daily blow-by-blow accounts of council proceedings, the secular press’s publishing of long extracts from the council’s deliberations and decisions, the plethora of human-interest stories—all of these have been the envy of Protestant communications experts.¹

These articles, though in a very limited way, will further publicize this event taking place in the Romish Church.

On September 14, 1964, over 2,000 Roman Catholic prelates, mostly bishops, gathered for the third time in St. Peter’s basilica in Rome. Many schemata remained on the agendum of the council. Many hopes and fears were expressed by both Roman Catholic and Protestant. There were especially questions asked concerning the possibility of bringing closer together Protestant and Roman Catholic. 


At the opening meeting of the third session, according to custom, Pope Paul VI gave the opening speech. Because of his position and power, the speech serves somewhat as a guide for the Council. It sets the pace, as it were, for the whole of- the Romish church. There are therefore several points which are noteworthy in this speech. First, the Roman pontiff made plain that he considered the decisions on the relationship between pope and bishops to be of extremely great importance. The first Vatican Council (1869-1870) had established the dogma of papal infallibility in matters of morals and doctrine. That council was hastily adjourned because of the threats of war then raging. It was unable to define further the relationship of the bishops to this “infallible” pope. One goal for the second Vatican Council was to remedy this deficiency. Now the present pope gave his views:

The Council has many other important subjects to treat of, but this one (bishop-pope relationship) seems to us to be the weightiest and most delicate. The Council’s deliberations on this subject will certainly be what distinguishes this solemn and historic synod in the memory of future ages. 

It must undertake a number of difficult theological discussions, it must determine the nature and mission of the pastors of the church, it must discuss, and with the favor of the Holy Spirit, decide the constitutional prerogatives of the episcopate, it must delineate the relations between the episcopate and the Holy See. . . .²

The pope made plain, though, that the Council could in no way rescind the decision of the first Vatican Council on papal infallibility:

The present ecumenical council is certainly going to confirm the doctrine of the previous one regarding the prerogatives of the Roman Pontiff. But it will also have as its principal objective the task of describing and honoring the prerogatives of the episcopate . . . . 

As successors of Peter and, therefore, possessors of full power over the entire church, we have the duty of heading the body of the episcopate, although we are surely unworthy of this dignity. Nevertheless, our position is in no way among the first to respect that sacred authority. If our apostolic duty obliges us to impose restrictions, to define terminology, to prescribe modes of action, to regulate the methods which concern the exercise of Episcopal authority, you realize that this is done for the good of the entire church . . . . 

No one should regard as a device formulated by pride such centralization which will surely be always tempered and balanced by an alert and timely delegation both of authority and of facilities for local pastors . . . . 

Oh, how deeply we admire, how staunchly we support the rights and duties proper to the sacred hierarchy, which is the very instrument, born of the charity of Christ, and fashioned by Him to complete, to communicate, and to safeguard the integral and fruitful transmission of the treasures of faith . . . . 

The hierarchy is the mother of the community of the faithful . . . . 

Placed at the head of this sacred institution, how could we fail to devote to it our solicitude, our trust, our support? How could we fail to defend it?²

But also a second significant element was noted in the pontiff’s speech. He showed great “ecumenical” concern. He made it a point not to antagonize Protestants. Not only did he refrain from calling them “schismatics” as had been done by earlier popes, he went beyond calling them “separated brethren.” He speaks of them as “Christian communities” and even as “churches.”

We shall therefore strive, in loyalty to the unity of Christ’s church, to understand better and to welcome all that is genuine and admissible in the different Christian denominations that are distinct from us, and at the same time we beg of them to try to understand the Catholic faith and life better and, when we invite them to enter into the fullness of truth and charity which, as an unmerited blessing but a formidable responsibility, Christ has charged us to preserve, we beg of them not to take it in bad part, but as being prompted by respect and brotherly love . . . . 

Oh, churches that are so far and yet so close to us. Churches for whom our heart is filled with longing. Churches, the nostalgia of our sleepless nights. Churches of our tears and of our desire to do you honor by our embrace in the sincere love of Christ, oh may you hear, sounding from this keystone of unity, the tomb of Peter, apostle and martyr, and from this Ecumenical Council of brotherhood and peace, the loving cry we send you . . .²


There were many strange things which took place on the third session. There was again a marked division between what might be called the “liberals” and “conservatives” in the church. The “liberals” by far outnumbered the “conservatives,” yet these latter managed often to frustrate the desire of the majority. I hope to call your attention to this in subsequent articles. 

One schema was not yet finally voted upon—despite the will of the majority to do so. It dealt with the matter of religious liberty—the “right” of man to worship according to the convictions of his conscience. This is a rather touchy subject—particularly for bishops from predominantly Roman Catholic countries. For historically the Romish church appears willing to agree to a “religious liberty” only in such lands where it is in the minority. And when it appeared that a final vote was ready to be taken, the “conservatives” managed to postpone the final vote until the next session of the Council. 

Three decrees were promulgated, that is, approved by majority vote of the council and officially endorsed by the Pope. I expect, D.V., to examine these in greater detail later. The first decree is the “Constitution on the Church.” It is this decree which appears to modify the relationship between pope and bishops. It also is concerned with the greatly debated stand over against the Jew. And it treats in one of its chapters the subject of Mary. The second decree is on “Ecumenism.” The third discusses the “Eastern Churches.” 

As this third session was drawing to its close, many observers were convinced that great and favorable changes were about to take place in the Romish church. Then the Pope, suddenly and apparently unexpectedly, autocratically intervened in the actions of the Council—in opposition to the will of the great majority. His action deeply disturbed both Protestant observer as well as Roman Catholic participants.Time reported it thus:

Paul VI last week coldly and dramatically reaffirmed that it is the Pope, and not the bishops of the Vatican Council, who really runs the Roman Catholic Church. Just as the third session of the council was ending, Pope Paul siding with conservative cardinals of the Roman Curia—took a major decision out of the hands of the progressive majority of prelates. Thereby, he raised doubts whether he essentially favors the aggiornamento begun by John XXIII and whether he intends to give anything more than lip service to collegiality—the doctrine, approved by the bishops, that they, as descendants of the Apostles, share ruling authority over the church with the Pope. 

The bishops’ sudden awakening to realities came two days before the session’s end, when they were scheduled to vote on a revised declaration on religious liberty that strongly defended the right of all men to worship God as conscience dictates. Just before the balloting, Eugene Cardinal Tisserant, chairman of the twelve council presidents, announced that “many fathers have objected that there has not been sufficient time to consider the declaration. It seems proper therefore to the presidency that this question should not be decided now. We will not proceed to a vote.”³

A petition was presented to the pope, signed by a majority of bishops, but was turned down by the pope. At the same time, on his own authority, he made 19 changes in the final draft of a schema on Christian unity, and also announced that he would proclaim Mary as “mother of the, Church”—a title that the bishops had deliberately avoided. So the third session ended with grave doubts expressed by many.

¹ Christian Century, February 19, 1964, page 227

² Vital Speeches, October 1, 1964, page 739ff. 

³ Time: November 27, 1964, page 66