Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Tidbit from Vatican II: Reflecting on the "Hierarchy"

I am a student of the Second Vatican Council.  I was actually in high school seminary during the last three sessions of the Council, and then in college seminary during the first years of its implementation.  The Council was so formative for all of us at that time!  In my studies since that time, Vatican II has always been the foundation for what I've been involved in, and it has been this study that led me to the diaconate.

This semester I am blessed to be teaching a course on the Council to a group of upperclassmen.  We are focusing on the major documents of the Council.  One of the classic bits of history concerning the Council concerns the re-crafting of the foundational document The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen gentium).  It went through several drafts, with the world's bishops rejecting the first draft as completely inadequate to the task.  Many bishops spoke against the first draft, and still more submitted written objections to it.

Perhaps no one was more clear and concise in his concerns than the 53-year old bishop of Bruges, Belgium, Emiel-Jozef De Smedt.  He was ordained a bishop at the age of 40, and served as bishop of Bruges from 1960 until 1984, and didn't pass into eternal life until 1995.  In his speech to the Council about his concerns with the first draft of Lumen gentium, the bishop spoke of three areas of concern: 1) the draft's triumphalism in tone and content; 2) the draft's clericalism; and 3) the draft's juridicism.  His concerns were overwhelmingly affirmed by the Council Fathers and the draft was sent back to Committee for a complete overhaul.

While there is much to consider in Bishop De Smedt's intervention (speech), I was struck once again by his comments on clericalism, and thought I would post a brief quotation here so that it might serve as a point of reflection by all who are, by definition, part of the hierarchy.  Officially, the "hierarchy" of the Catholic Church includes all of the three orders of ordained ministry: bishops, deacons and presbyters.  So the following quote applies to all of them:

In the first chapters of the Draft the traditional picture of the Church predominates. You know the pyramid: the pope, the bishops, the priests, who preside and, when they receive the powers, who teach, sanctify, and govern; then, at the bottom, the Christian people who instead receive and somehow seem to occupy second place in the Church.
We should note that hierarchical power is only something transitory. It belongs to our status on the way. In the next life, in the final state, it will no longer have a purpose, because the elect will have reached perfection, perfect unity in Christ. What remains is the People of God; what passes is the ministry of the hierarchy.
In the People of God we are all joined to others and have the same basic rights and duties. We all share in the royal priesthood of the People of God. The pope is one of the faithful; bishops, priests, lay people, religious: we are all the faithful. We go to the same sacraments; we all need the forgiveness of sins, the eucharistic bread, and the Word of God; we are all heading towards the same homeland, by God's mercy and by the power of the Holy Spirit.
But as long as the People of God is on the way, Christ brings it to perfection by means of the sacred ministry of the hierarchy. All power in the Church is for ministering, for serving: a ministry of the Word, a ministry of grace, a ministry of governance. We did not come to be served but to serve.
We must be careful lest in speaking about the Church we fall into a kind of hierarchism, clericalism, episcopolatry, or papolatry. What is most important is the People of God; to this People of God, to this Bride of the Word, to this living Temple of the Holy Spirit, the hierarchy must supply its humble services so that it may grow and reach perfect manhood, the fullness of Christ. Of this growing life the hierarchical Church is the good mother: Mother Church.

A great reminder to all of us yet today!


  1. Hi Deacon,

    is there a text book that you use for this class that you teach on Vatican II?
    If so, what is the title?

    Dan S

  2. Dear Dan,

    I use my own materials for most of the class. I have various handouts that I use, such as s summary of the votes on each document, a listing of prior councils and a thumbnail description of the the major issues at each council; and so on. Among them are certain interventions (such as this one by De Smedt) which were particularly influential.

    For undergraduates, I will often use Ed Hahnenberg's small book introducing the documents. He gives a good outline of each document and a good summary of each document's genesis and content.

    But the major work is done on the 16 documents themselves, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels. For example, in this particular class, we're spending the whole course (following a few classes of general introduction) on the four Constitutions of the Council.

    There are a lot of good books out there, and I steer the students to them for their research: the 5 volume History of the Council edited (in English) by Joe Komonchak, for example. The 5 volume Commentary on the documents by Vorgrimler (which appeared shortly after the Council) is still an indispensible resource. But these things are just too expensive to ask students to purchase.

    Does that help?


  3. Dan

    I've never done a formal class over an academic term on Vatican II but I have done a number of "one-time" adult faith formation programs at the parish level.

    I learned about Vatican II during Vatican II (I was an undergrad at a Catholic University from 1961-65). The articles entitled "Letters from Vatican City" which appeared in The New Yorker Magazine were required reading. All of them were then compiled into separate books for each of the four sessions of the Council. Finally, before he died, the author of that series -- unknown to that point -- came forward and he compiled a one volume edition.

    Fr. Francis Xavier Murphy CSSR. Vatican II. Orbis Books.

    His pen name for those New Yorker articles was "Xavier Rynne." Fr, Murphy was a "peritus" at the Council -- much like Fr. Josef Ratzinger -- the future Benedict XVI.

    Only the best of Blessings

    Deacon Norb in Ohio

  4. Our diaconate formation program for many years has included a course on the documents of Vatican II. In a recent revision of our curriculum, however, the course was dropped in favor of expanded studies in Church history. If the V2 documents themselves are studied at all in the future, they will have to be covered piecemeal in various courses. The reasoning was that the Vatican II class was not required by current Vatican norms for formation of permanent deacons. I would very much appreciate your reaction to this decision.

  5. Dear Ron,

    Sorry it's taken me so long to get back to your comment. As you will see shortly, I'm in Rome and then Boston (over "Spring Break"!) and haven't had much discretionary time for the internet!

    Obviously, the comment that says the Vatican (or the USCCB) doesn't require "a course" on Vatican II is simply disengenuous. Everything about both the Vatican norms and US National Directory demands a solid knowledge of the Council and its history, theology and the documents. To suggest otherwise is ludicrous and, in my opinion, reveals an attitude that says people really won't go and actually READ what is expected of a candidate for ordination.

    Furthermore, not only do these requirements demand an academic competence in the Council, they even more importantly demand that a candidate internalize the meaning and significance of the Council.

    Have 'em call me; we'll talk!

    God bless,


  6. Message passed along - thanks very much!

  7. Speaking of such things, has anyone read/used/reviewed Colleen McDannell's new book, "The Spirit of Vatican II: A History of Catholic Reform in America"?

    Only the very best of blessings!

    Deacon Norb in Ohio