A Council Father on the Legacy of Vatican II
The late Archbishop Thomas Morris, emeritus of Cashel and Emly, was interviewed in 1992 by RTÉ’s religious affairs correspondent, Kieron Wood. Many thanks to Kieron for allowing me to repost the text of the interview:
I’d been a Bishop for two years at the start of the Council. I’d been teaching dogmatic theology and it depended at that time on consulting the authorities, what former Councils had decided. But I was quite insular in my outlook on the Church and my theology. I didn’t know what sort of issues were likely to come up in Rome. In any case the issues didn’t come up that one would have expected.
It wasn’t until we came to the schema on the Church that the newer thinking became apparent– thinking that we weren’t familiar with. I only vaguely guessed at the combination of the North European bishops. I’d heard of a pastoral issued by the bishops of Holland; the late Archbishop McQuaid of Dublin told me about it; he would have regarded it as too advanced, unorthodox. But I didn’t know about the cleavages within the theology schools.
We got the drafts of the various schemata beforehand. They were labelled sub secreto, so that I didn’t even show them to my secretary. I found of course that drafts had been circulated to an awful lot of people besides!
I was relieved when we were told that this Council was not aimed at defining or giving final statements on doctrine, because a statement of doctrine has to be very carefully formulated and I would have regarded the Council statements as tentative and liable to be reformed.
Early on, the question came up of appointing members to the ten commissions. My commission dealt with two projects: the lay apostolate and the communications media. I found the participation in the commission’s work useful, informative and most interesting — but time-consuming. We were put immediately to work on the instruments of social communications.
The first session in 1962 was on the liturgy. I had heard in discussions that the choice of the liturgy schema as the first one was inspired — or engineered perhaps — by the North Europeans. They’d scored many such points against the Roman Curia who were supposed to be managing things.
While it’s possible that Pope John XXIII was manipulated in some ways, I doubt that’s the case with Paul VI. He took a very personal interest in the Council and used to study documents and would send a message down to the Council Fathers to include such-and-such a reservation. These interventions were resented by some of the Council Fathers and more especially by some of the pereti (or experts) and there were some occasions where dominant periti would have staged a certain thing.
A speech was written, perhaps, for a council Father (he was the only one who could speak), but all the periti were massed in the lobby or on the stairs to hear this statement. They would applaud vigorously and the presiding chairman would say “No applause in church” but that was all stage-managed. But I imagine Paul VI was aware of this to a certain extent. That was why he wanted to correct certain things; he saw them getting out of hand.
The beginning of the liturgy schema created an atmosphere where there was a lot of agreement and a certain amount of advance enthusiasm. One of the things that arose was the use of Latin. The post-Conciliar practices went far beyond what was decided and voted on as part of the decisions of the Council.
Just to take a couple of examples: it was contemplated that the Latin language would continue to be the main language of the liturgy, but there could be limited or occasional use of the vernacular.
In 1964 the Irish Episcopal Conference voted at its meeting at Maynooth on how much vernacular there would be in the Mass. We decided we would have to have English in the readings, and otherwise we were rather limited in the amount of the vernacular we would use, with no intention of departing completely from Latin. I still hold that it was a pity that we went the whole hog in practice with the vernacular.
I and most of my colleagues in Ireland had a very high regard for the Catholicism of our own people. They came to Mass on Sunday in big numbers, believing what the Mass is and wanting to honour God. They brought their children to Mass. They took part in the only way they knew: they possibly said their beads or read the Key of Heaven. But many of the liturgical pundits were writing off that kind of piety. They wanted people to be more authentically liturgical and saying your Rosary during Mass was out. I didn’t like that. I felt a lot of these European countries would have been lucky if they’d had people saying the Rosary during Mass! Popular devotions and religion was something I thought ought to have been appreciated a bit more.
The schema on the liturgy took up most of this period. I would have agreed with a lot of things — like revising ceremonial. For example, on a very practical note for Bishops, their ceremonies and their dress were simplified a good deal. I was Master of Ceremonies to my predecessor and vested him many a time. A procession of students would come up with buskins and sandals and different items and it didn’t seem to create an atmosphere of great worship or anything like that.
But other changes came on after that, such as the pectoral cross being worn outside the chasuble. The Pope wears his pectoral cross inside his chasuble — as we always did — and I felt this was an innovation that might have been OK if some approval had been given by the authority of the Church. But there wasn’t, so I said I’d follow the Pope and I’ve suffered for my convictions in places like Lourdes. One of the Masters of Ceremonies there was horrified that I wasn’t going to conform to what the other Bishops were doing.
But I’ve seen fashions come and go. There was one fashion which came for a little while and then went again of wearing a wooden cross to proclaim humility and poverty. But I didn’t agree with either — if they’re proclaimed too much!
Another matter was altars facing the people. They were only permitted, not obligatory, and I don’t think it was contemplated they would become as common as they have. Immediately after the Council, the fashion developed of tearing out the altars and putting up altars facing the people in just about every Church. Saying Mass with your back to the people was rather reprobated in the Council opinions. Communion in the hand, that was grasped at by the nuns and it spread from them.
At the opening Mass of the Council, I was near the altar and heard Pope John XXIII speak about the serious difficulties and sufferings of earlier Councils because of undue interference of the civil authorities, Kings and Emperors and so on. I put a note in the margin of the sermon: what about interference by the media?
It’s an almost insuperable temptation for the media to influence the events they report, perhaps by an implication of approval or disapproval. I felt that good Pope John wasn’t aware that this would happen, but I saw it happening. I knew the Irish journalists who were reporting and I saw their methods, though they weren’t the most reckless of the reporters there.
There was a confused position about the news of the Council: how much would be released and how much published. The Irish journalists got into the habit of attending the press conferences (of the Dutch Bishops). I think the Dutch Bishops were largely involved in an information office which was set up and issued a regular newsletter, I-DOC. It was nearly always in favour of the liberal position. And that was where several of our Irish reporters received their theological training! They got a good strong diet then of liberal views!
There was a lack of foresight on the part of the people organizing the Council. They should have organized relations with the press and media a bit better.
Our draft on the media was the first one and we weren’t to blame entirely because we were told to cut down drafts and reduce them to a few general principles.
I feel that, at a lot of points, the implementation of the Council decisions has gone beyond the Council. Earlier on there was a phrase going around: ‘the Spirit of Vatican II’. I think the ‘Spirit of Vatican II’ meant the misuse of Vatican II to bolster up some idea of one’s own. I think the implementation of the Council has been very uneven throughout the world. A lot depended on what was there before the Council. You don’t change the practice in a diocese overnight just because there’s been a Council.
There was so much that had been accepted and put into books that, well, we didn’t disagree with, but we didn’t agree with. There was a good deal of continental theology with which we weren’t familiar and it would take some time before we could absorb it — if we are to absorb it.
I would have agreed with Archbishop John Charles McQuaid of Dublin who wanted to reassure the ordinary people that there was to be no change in the doctrine of the Church and they needn’t get worried about that. I wouldn’t always have agreed with Archbishop McQuaid; he was too conservative for my taste. But I would certainly have agreed with him in that. It was a good time to reassure people.
Of course, the strength of Irish Catholicism has been its conservatism. Going back to the beginning of the eighteenth century, it wasn’t the priests that held onto the Faith, it was the people. Ignorant people, faction-fighters, poitin-makers, but people with faith, and from them sprang the priests. But Irish Catholicism is short in a lot of ways. Lack of consistency, for example. We did need to change, but we haven’t changed yet. We need prayer, genuine prayer based on a relationship with God, and then a changed attitude to our neighbour. The valley of the squinting windows is an Irish invention and a lack of charity is all too common among the Irish people.
As to the interpretation of the Council, the theologians are the ones who encourage trends and develop theories and if they don’t defend the essentials, then the essentials are in great danger. After all, it has been the theologians who have led the Church astray in so many cases and so many countries.
But today the theologians have fairly well divided themselves. In America, I wouldn’t rely on some of the big theologians at all. I think some of the theologians over there have sold out on the modern favourite questions of morality and sex, abortion, marriage, and they were teaching in important positions. And some of our own Irish theologians would have done us no great good.
I still think that the lay apostolate is one of the great discoveries of Vatican II. But, on the negative side, I’d say there’s been a change in the generalized attitude to authority which may be attributed to the Council. The old, flat condemnation by bishops and the Church was final– you were condemned, that was the end of you. Now there’s a growing attitude, I think, of “We-e-ell, things might not be the same in five years’ time”. And I think some of that would have come from the general discussion and digestion of Vatican II that’s gone on.
I think Pope John XXIII expected the Council to end by the Christmas of 1962, but once it began, it had to be brought to some sort of conclusion. It would be very hard to say it’s a pity it happened at all.
But the over-influence of the Council isn’t as great now as it was a dozen years ago. We used to all claim the support of Vatican II for our own pet ideas, but I don’t think we do that now as much as we used to. The Council is history now.
The Council was meant to bring the Church up to date — aggiornamento. But it hasn’t percolated down sufficiently to the ordinary folk and it hasn’t been taken up with sufficient enthusiasm by hierarchies. It was a brave attempt but I don’t think it succeeded in doing that.