In his speech concluding the third session of Vatican II, His Holiness Paul VI proclaimed the Blessed Virgin Mary to be the Mother of the Church. He said: “In order to promote the glory of the Blessed Virgin and to increase our own consolation we declare Mary to be the Most Holy Mother of the Church, which is to say of the entire Christian people, both faithful and pastors, who call her most beloved mother.” Upon hearing this pronouncement, Fr. Henri de Lubac exclaimed to a fellow theologian by the name of Fr. Henri Denis: “[T]he Council is over. The is no more John XXIII, no more aggorniamento.”
His reaction was by no means unique. This title for Our Lady, which had been used as early as Benedict XIV in the mid-1700s, was poorly received by a number of the progressive theologians who had come to wield a large influence on the Council’s proceedings. Furthermore, this episode mirrored the attitude towards Our Lady of many progressives throughout the Council. This treatment of the Mother of God can help us to understand more clearly the true spirit of the Council.
The major conflicts about Our Lady which arose at the Council centered principally around the document which was dedicated to her. Initially, the coordinating commission—which was responsible for determining the order of business at the Council—decided to dedicate a separate schema titled De Beata Maria Virgine, Matre Ecclesiae exclusively to the Mother of God. Although the text was pleasing to the majority of the Council fathers, the progressives found it unacceptable. Meeting at Fulda, Germany, in the summer of 1963, bishops and theologians from predominantly German speaking regions—a group Fr. Ralph Wiltgen designated the “European Alliance”—discussed their strategy for the upcoming session of the Council. They determined to try to have the Council incorporate the text on Our Lady into the constitution of the Church (what became Lumen Gentium).
In accordance with this strategy, Cardinal Frings of Cologne took the floor in one of the first general conventions of the second session of the Council in order to propose to the gathered conciliar fathers that the schema on Our Lady be inserted into the schema on the Church. This led to several days of passionate debate, at the end of which the Council fathers narrowly approved (on October 29, 1963) the plan of the “European Alliance,” 1,114 to 1,097.
This plan had been devised in part by Fr. Karl Rahner, who believed that this would “be the easiest way to delete from the schema certain theological points which are not sufficiently developed.” Among these points which Fr. Rahner believed “insufficiently developed” was Mary’s role in the distribution of the graces which she had merited in union with her Son on the Cross. Despite the fact that numerous popes had referred to Our Lady as the Mediatrix of all graces1 and that renowned theologians such as Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange had argued that such a belief could be solemnly defined as a dogma of the Faith,2 Fr. Rahner claimed the doctrine should be “pondered anew” and the title Mediatrix dropped entirely from the schema.
Although the German-speaking bishops did not entirely agree with his recommendation to drop the title of Mediatrix, they nonetheless requested that the title “Mediatrix of all graces” be removed on account of the confusion they argued it would cause. This course of action was generally pleasing to French progressives such as Cardinal Liénart, as well as Fr. Yves Congar, O.P., and Fr. René Laurentin, the former of whom had written in 1961: “I need to fight, in the name of the gospel and apostolic faith, against a development, a Mediterranean & Irish proliferation, of a Mariology which does not come from revelation, but which is backed up by pontifical texts” (emphasis added).
In other words, Fr. Congar—and to a greater or lesser extent those who shared his vision—wished to overturn the teaching of the Church’s magisterium in the name of a return to the “apostolic Faith,” a tendency which had been denounced by Pope Pius XII as “archaeologism.” In doing such, he and others forgot that is was not for theologians to determine what is or is not definitively part of revelation, but for the magisterium of the Church under the aegis of the Sovereign Pontiff.
What was the motive of the progressives desire to diminish the role of Our Lady? Above all else, they believed that any special treatment of Our Lady would impede “ecumenical dialogue with our separated brethren,” to use the language of Cardinal Frings of Cologne. In other words, the central concern was not one of theological certainty, but rather of diplomacy in the service of ecumenism. Fr. Karl Rahner, whose opinion—according to Fr. Ralph Wiltgen—was immensely influential on the German-speaking bishops, stated upon reading the draft approved by the coordinating commission in 1963 that “ [it would produce] unimaginable harm from an ecumenical point of view, in relation to both Orientals and Protestants.” Cardinal Frings, Fr. Rahner, and others of like mind were primarily more concerned with the opinions of such men as “Bishop” Dibelius—a German evangelical who had said that the Church’s doctrine on Our Lady was one of the major impediments to union—than in presenting to the world all the beautiful truths concerning the Mother of God.
Furthermore, in the document which the German bishops sent to the Roman commissions in charge of directing the course of the Council and in which they expressed their reservations about the document treating Our Lady, they saw fit to quote several prominent Protestant scholars as saying that any new declarations on the Blessed Virgin at the Council would serve only “to erect a new wall of division” between Protestants and Catholics. They wished to avoid giving honor to the Mother of God in order not to offend the sensibilities of men who did not have the true Faith.
As soon as we formulate the issue in this manner, we begin to recognize the grave danger entailed in the “ecumenical” approach. As is painfully evident, it leads Catholics to obfuscate the truths of the Faith. Now, the Faith makes known to us the real nature of the universe, and if some truths which it contains are hidden for fear that some men may not wish to hear them, then it becomes impossible to have a just and accurate understanding of the good God and the world which He has created. In the case of the Blessed Virgin Mary, refusing to proclaim openly the glories of her prerogatives obscures the infinite wisdom and power of God in creating her as well as the immense dignity conferred on the human race; namely, that—as St. Louis de Montfort persuasively argues in the True Devotion—one from among its ranks was given the ineffable privilege to be associated in the most intimate manner with each Person of the Most Holy Trinity. This willingness to downplay the privileges of Our Lady also caused numerous attacks—amply documented by Romano Amerio in his book Iota Unum—on popular devotion to her in the wake of the Council. This attempt to appease Protestants led to a diminution of true devotion to Mary among Catholics.
On another level, this desire to hide Our Lady from Protestants and other religions is insulting to her Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ. When Mary presented her newborn Son in the temple in Jerusalem, the holy man Simeon took Him into his arms and declared: “Behold, this one is set for the rise and fall of many in Israel, and a sign which shall be contradicted.” Thus, Our Lord by His very existence will necessarily divide men into two camps: one which receives Him versus one which says to Him, “Non serviamus.” St. Ignatius of Loyola portrays this universal division with great clarity in his Spiritual Exercises and exhorts men of good will to join the ranks of Our Lord with their whole hearts. Now, Simeon did not stop there. After noticing the astonishment of St. Joseph and the Blessed Virgin, he goes on to say to the Mother of God: “And thy own soul a sword shall pierce, that the thoughts of many hearts may be made manifest.”
In other words, Almighty God, who spoke that day through the holy old man, intended to associate the mother with the Son as a sign of contradiction. It is for this reason that traditional theologians have seen true devotion to Our Lady as a sign of predestination. What possible good is there then to hide Our Lady and to be silent about her prerogatives? Would this truly bring men back to God? It is as though we were inviting someone to become the friend of a young man by hiding his mother in a closet. What would that young man think? Our Lord Jesus Christ declared that: “Those who are ashamed of me before men, I shall be ashamed of them before my Father in heaven.”3 What are we to think His judgment shall be of those who are ashamed of His Mother?
As a whole, the progressive theologians who dominated Vatican Council II did what was in their power to downplay and to minimize the role of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the work of redemption so as to avoid offending Protestants. They successfully sought to deny her the honor of her own schema and to mitigate the importance of titles which had been long assigned to her by numerous popes. In this, we see the true spirit of the Council. For, since the Mother is inextricably linked with her Son, it ought to come as no surprise to us that in the wake of the Council, these theologians and their disciples who were so ready to be quiet about Our Lady in the presence of Protestants should not fail to be quiet about Our Lord Himself in the presence of those who disbelieve in Him.
In this light, it is wholly in keeping with the spirit of Vatican II that the reigning pope began his pontificate by sending the following message to Riccardo di Segni, the Chief Rabbi in Rome: “I very much hope to be able to contribute to the progress that relations between Jews and Catholics have experienced since the Second Vatican Council, in a spirit of renewed collaboration and at the service of a world that can be ever more harmonious with the will of the Creator.” This attitude stands in marked contrast to that of the first pope, whose first official greeting to the leaders of the “Jewish community” had a slightly different “flavor”:
“Let it be known to you and to the whole house of Israel that in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, whom you crucified and whom God raised from the dead, this man stands before you whole. This is the stone which was rejected by you builders and which has become the chief corner stone; and there is salvation in none other. For there is no other name given to men under heaven by which we may be saved.”4
Who are we to follow? What ought to be our attitude? We must make our own the spirit of St. Paul: “I am not ashamed of the Faith.”5 In this light, part of our work to undo the incalculable devastation that has been wrought by the Second Vatican Council is to preach the truths of faith concerning Our Lady without fear or shame. By defending the prerogatives of the Mother of God, we certainly defend the royal and divine dignity of her Son. Furthermore, by proclaiming to men her glories, we help the Holy Ghost draw souls through her to the Church, thus filling up the ranks of the family of which Our Lady was justly declared to be the mother.
1 For example, Pope Leo XIII, in his Encyclical Octobri Mense (September 22, 1891) wrote: “Nothing is given to us except through Mary, God thus willing it.”
2 Indeed, Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, who taught at the Angelicum for half a century, writing in the 1940s argued that the universal mediation of the Blessed Virgin Mary was a truth more easily defined than her glorious Assumption. See Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., The Mother of the Saviour and Our Interior Life (1948; reprint TAN Books, 1993).
3 Mark 8:38; Luke 9:26.
4 Acts 4:10-12.
4 Romans 1:16.