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Dei Verbum at the Heart of Vatican II By Msgr. Paul McPartlan, S.T.L., D.Phil. Though the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) ultimately produced a well-ordered corpus of sixteen documents, it began in a state of considerable documentary disorder. In March 1962, seven months before the council opened on 11 October, Pope John XXIII asked Cardinal LéonJosef Suenens of Malines, Belgium, one of the leading European bishops, who was looking after an overall plan for the council. He replied that no-one was. He described the situation as “[un] désordre total,” with no fewer than seventy-two disparate draft texts or schemas of various kinds.1 Writing at the time, the young Joseph Ratzinger commented that “[t]he preparatory commissions had undoubtedly worked hard, but their diligence was somewhat distressing.” The two thousand pages of draft texts amounted to more than twice what all previous councils put together had produced.2 Pope John asked Suenens to draw up a plan, which he duly did in April 1962. Suenens recalls that the pope put the plan in the drawer of his desk to await the right moment. Pope John wanted the council “to work out its first steps on its own.” “The Pope’s first duty,” said John XXIII, “is to listen and keep silent to allow the Holy Spirit free play.”3 That Summer, the world’s bishops began to receive the draft texts, largely written in the style of scholasticism, identifying errors and correcting them, and they were not happy. Cardinal Ottaviani, the head of the Holy Office, later admitted that he had received lots of negative comments about the doctrinal schemas, complaining in particular that they lacked “a pastoral character.”4 Pope John’s opening address to the council on 11 October 1962 captured the bishops’ unease and pointed a better way forward. He dismissed the “prophets of gloom” and famously said that “the substance of the ancient doctrine of the faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another.” What was needed, he said, was “a magisterium which is predominantly pastoral in character,” and he put the person of Christ firmly at the center: “Christ is ever resplendent as the center of history and of life.” He is “the glorious and immortal King of ages and of peoples,” and the Church, which takes “its name, its grace, and its meaning” from him exists to spread everywhere “the fulness of Christian charity, than which nothing is more efficacious in promoting concord, just peace, and the brotherly unity of all.”5 Renewed from the center which is Christ, he wanted the Church to look outwards to the whole world, and to be renewed in its mission of bringing unity and peace. One month earlier, in his radio message on 11 September, looking towards the opening of the council, he said succinctly: “The world has need of Christ: and it is the Church which must take Christ to the world.”6 A lot of drafts were duly discussed and found wanting in the first session of the council that Fall, and many were simply rejected, including one entitled, “The Sources of Revelation,” on 20 November 1962. Soon afterwards, Ratzinger explained why. The text, he said, was “utterly a product of the ‘anti-Modernist’ mentality that had taken shape about the turn of the century.” It was written in “a spirit of condemnation and negation,” whereas Pope John in his opening address had insisted “that the Church was no longer to condemn but rather to dispense the medicine of compassion, that the Council was not to speak negatively but to present the faith in a new and positive way, and finally that the Council must refrain from pronouncing anathemas,”7 a significant change in style from all previous ecumenical councils.8 It was on 4 December that, after weeks of growing concern about the initial drafts and where everything was going, Cardinal Suenens finally unveiled his plan, to applause from the

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Chicago Studies Winter 2017  
Chicago Studies Winter 2017  

Volume 56:2