Yves Congar and Vatican II Print
Word on Fire
Thursday, Feb. 05, 2015 -- 12:00 AM

One of the most theologically fascinating and entertaining books I’ve read in a long time is Yves Congar’s My Journal of the Council.

Most Catholics under age 50 might be unaware of the massive contribution made by Congar, a Dominican priest and one of the most important Catholic theologians of the 20th century.

After a tumultuous intellectual career, Congar found himself, at age 58, a peritus or theological expert at the Second Vatican Council. By most accounts, he proved the most influential theologian at that epic gathering, contributing to the documents on the Church, on ecumenism, on revelation, and on the Church’s relation to the modern world.

Kept meticulous journal

During the entire course of the council, from October 1962 to December 1965, Congar kept a meticulous journal of the proceedings, which includes commentaries on the personalities and theological currents of the council.

But what most comes through is -- if I can risk employing an overused and ambiguous phrase -- “the spirit of the council,” those ideas and attitudes that found expression in the discussions, debates, and texts of Vatican II.

In Congar’s journal, we hear of a Church that should be more evangelical and open to the Word of God, of the dangers of clerical triumphalism, of the universal call to holiness, of a liturgy that awakens the active participation of the faithful, of the need for the Church to engage the modern world.

Opponents and allies

As Congar led this charge, his chief opponents were Archbishop Pericle Felice and Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, keepers of the traditional form of Catholicism.

His principal allies were “progressive” council fathers Cardinal Frings of Cologne and Archbishop Wojtyla of Krakow, as well as fellow periti Karl Rahner, Edward Schillebeeckx, Henri de Lubac, Hans Kung, and a young German theologian, Joseph Ratzinger.

As I read the pages of Congar’s journal, these figures and that heady time came to life. But I couldn’t help but think of the divisions that would later beset that victorious group.

Archbishop Wojtyla later became Pope John Paul II, and he would appoint Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) as his chief doctrinal officer. John Paul would create de Lubac and Congar as cardinals, but would preside over an investigation of the works of both Kung and Schillebeeckx.

Divisions arose

Why did these divisions arise in the post-conciliar period? One way to get a perspective is to look to the beginnings of the theological journal Communio.

In the wake of the council, the triumphant progressive party formed an international journal called Concilium. On the board were Rahner, Kung, Schillebeeckx, de Lubac, Congar, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Ratzinger, and others.

After only a few years, three figures -- Balthasar, de Lubac, and Ratzinger -- decided to break with Concilium and found their own journal, and the reasons they gave to justify this decision are extremely illuminating.

First, they said, the board of Concilium was claiming to act as a secondary magisterium, or official teaching authority, alongside the bishops. Theologians have a key role to play in the understanding and development of doctrine, but they cannot supplant the bishops’ responsibility of holding and teaching the apostolic faith.

Secondly, the Concilium board wanted to launch Vatican III when the ink on the documents of Vatican II was barely dry. They wanted to ride the progressive momentum of Vatican II toward a series of reforms -- women’s ordination, suspension of priestly celibacy, radical reform of the Church’s sexual ethic, etc. -- that were by no means justified by the texts of the council.

Thirdly, Balthasar, Ratzinger, and de Lubac decried the Concilium board’s resolve to perpetuate the spirit of the council. Councils, they stated, are sometimes necessary in the life of the Church, but they also represent moments when the Church throws itself into question and pauses to decide an issue or controversy.

Councils are good and necessary, but the Church also, they contended, turns from them with a certain relief in order to get back to its essential work. The perpetuation of the spirit of the council would be tantamount to a Church in a permanent state of suspense and indecision.

Kung, Schillebeeckx, Rahner, Ratzinger, Congar, de Lubac, and Wojtyla were all proud “men of the council.” They fought for the ideals I mentioned earlier. But they went separate ways -- and thereupon hangs a tale still worth pondering.


Fr. Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and is the rector/president of Mundelein Seminary near Chicago. Learn more at www.WordOnFire.org