Fr. John W. O’Malley, an eminent historian who has penned monographs on the early Jesuits, the Council of Trent, the First Vatican Council, and Vatican II, has now come forth with a “synthesis” of sorts on his conciliar writings, When Bishops Meet. Styled as an elongated essay, this work pulls together O’Malley’s insights on Trent, Vatican I, and Vatican II. As such, it is less of an academic analysis and more a reflection on the three councils which have shaped post-Reformation Catholicism, for better or worse. Although O’Malley presents scholarly disinterest throughout, it is difficult not to read him as a sympathizer with Vatican II, a council which he recognizes as a break from both Trent and Vatican I, not to mention every other ecumenical council which preceded it.
With that in mind, a traditional Catholic may take pause. Why read such a book? Why digest another in a long line of books which both seek to vindicate Vatican II and explain away its obvious “problem areas”? Moreover, given the near-to-heart place Trent and Vatican I hold in the hearts of many traditionalists, why trust O’Malley’s commentary? Will he not castigate these historic gatherings as retrograde, outmoded, and obsolete? Certainly it is hard to escape the sense that O’Malley may, with qualifications, cast all three aspersions upon these crucial events of 16th and 19th-century Catholicism. Yet any fair-minded reader of When Bishops Meet must concede that O’Malley handles his subject matter with remarkable skill, all the while demonstrating a depth of learning that could not allow even the most partisan churchman from intentionally distorting the history of the Church he professes publicly to serve.
O’Malley is remarkably blunt: Vatican II represents a break with its conciliar predecessors. In fact, it is fair to say, based on O’Malley’s testimony alone, that Vatican II constitutes a radical break with its predecessors. How this is so has been chronicled by many a Catholic, traditional and non-traditional alike. Instead of tackling a concrete doctrinal issue (or issues), Vatican II sought to rethink—or in the mind of its defenders “refresh”—the whole of Church teaching, not for the express purpose of modifying or “developing” doctrine, but placing it in a self-consciously modern context. Vatican II had no anathemas to hand out, only positive declarations of how the Church and the modern world can come together. But to what end? O’Malley is never clear on that point, though neither are many of Vatican II’s defenders.
But Vatican II was about more than reconciling the Church with modernity. It was, perhaps at its most controversial, about reconciling Catholicism with non-Catholic Christians and non-Christian religions. There is nothing intrinsically modern about either Judaism or Islam, and yet Vatican II articulated “common ground” between Catholicism and these two religious traditions, just as it articulated “common ground” between Catholicism and other Christian communions. As to the latter endeavor, some see this as an innovation no less heart-stopping than the positive overtures made outside of Christianity. But as O’Malley highlights, this is not precisely the case.
For instance, one of the aims of Trent—at least initially—was to bring wayward Christians, that is, Protestants, back into the Catholic fold. To accomplish this lofty task, it was thought that Protestants should have some role at that council, though the exact contours were never shaped. While Trent did experience a brief appearance by Lutheran representatives, it did nothing to bring Lutherans back to the Catholic Church nor address in a satisfactory way their lopsided grievances with the Church of Rome. Similarly, as the idea for calling Vatican I took form, overtures were made to the non-Catholic apostolic communions, specifically the Eastern Orthodox churches. While the situation of Orthodoxy at the time made it impossible for its hierarchy to participate, O’Malley points to the glimmer of the spark of a hope that the East might have its say at this gathering, presumably in the service of reconciliation.
Vatican II, as most are aware, featured widespread, though indirect, participation from non-Catholics. It was, in O’Malley’s estimation, another example of where Vatican II broke from its predecessors in sustenance, even if it had thin antecedents. While this council did not go so far as to give non-Catholics explicit rights of participation such as staging interventions or voting, O’Malley notes the influence these non-Catholics had on the thinking of certain factions within the Church at the time, particularly those who thought Vatican II represented an “opening” to those who had historically castigated the Catholic Church.
Intended or not, a question that lurks throughout O’Malley’s book is, “Will the Church ever have another council?” Again, it is hard to shake the sense that O’Malley favors a “conciliar church,” that is, one less caught up with explicitly papal prerogatives and more in tune with the sense of the worldwide hierarchy. Interrogated further, it even appears at points that O’Malley favors, without saying so explicitly, a “synodal church,” not unlike what recent pontiffs have paid lip service to. The contemporary Church has unprecedented size and geographic scope; its cultural influences are shifting from the “north” (Europe) to the “south” (Africa and, perhaps, Latin America and East Asia). At the same time, a new, and arguably distorted, wave of “ultramontanism” has hit the Church, leaving some today with the same impression many held after Vatican I: Why call an ecumenical council when the pope can decide everything?
But, truth be told, the post-Vatican II popes have not wanted to “decide” in the sense of invoking their extraordinary authority to pronounce infallibly on matters which are de fide. Instead, they have preferred to steer “popular opinion” within the Church toward accepting doctrinal (or quasi-doctrinal) formulations that are “pastoral,” that is, calibrated to “the times.” The “synodal model,” where only a handful of hierarchs steer ecclesiastical policy under the pope’s direct or indirect guidance, has shown itself opportune for doing an end run around teachings that earlier generations of Catholics thought sacrosanct. Such selective gatherings, the sort which O’Malley only mentions rather than assessing, appear to be the way of things in the current Church, at least for the time being.
Should there be another ecumenical council, O’Malley discusses at the end of his book that it would represent a logistical nightmare. If Vatican II’s criteria for participation eligibility were applied today, a new council would boast double the number of bishops gathering than what was seen in 1962. This all but rules out St. Peter’s Basilica as the site for a future council. O’Malley also suggests that given the demographic shifts in global Catholicism, perhaps Rome is no longer the obvious site for such an event. (The Council of Trent, it goes without saying, was not held in Rome.)
And should another council come together, what would be the purpose? If Vatican II represents the “new way” of doing things in the Church rather than a grotesque aberration, then it stands to reason that the next council would be called for similar purposes, namely to “open up” the Church to the modern world. Of course, the “modern world” as witnessed today is a different creature than the “modern world” imagined in 1962. Today’s world is not “merely” unmoored from its Christian roots; it is hostile toward them. In fact, it has almost lost all memory of where it came from. Amnesia has yielded animosity, and nothing will soothe the ill feelings of “the times” toward the Church of Christ, no matter how frequently its bishops capitulate.
And that is where O’Malley leaves things. It would be wrong to read When Bishops Meet as a vindication of Vatican II, but for readers of a certain prejudice, it will likely come across that way. Traditional Catholics approaching the book are more likely than not already aware of the prejudices they will encounter. That is good. It would also be good, as noted in passing, if traditionalists read O’Malley’s essay with clear eyes, pulling from it the comparative lessons the author teaches while refusing to follow him toward his muted conclusions. The fact that O’Malley is remarkably open concerning the degree to which Vatican II deviates from its predecessors only reinforces what traditional Catholics have been saying for decades. Perhaps the time has arrived when Vatican II’s defenders will drop all pretenses of being aligned with tradition and admit that the years 1962 through 1965 housed a violent revolution within the Universal Church, one which it has yet to recover from.