In this review of Yves Congar's increasingly lauded "My Journal of the Council" Paul Collins writes: "Congar is without doubt one of the twentieth century's most important theologians and his influence on the Second Vatican Council's vision of the nature of the church is definitive." This is a book that will be of much interest to readers of Catholica both from the point of view of understanding where things ended up going off the rails with the Second Vatican Council and in helping discern the shape of the Phoenix that eventually arises out of the present catastrophe.
Yves Congar at Vatican II
It's rare that one of the century's most important Catholic theologians has you laughing out loud. But that is precisely what Dominican Yves Congar often achieves in his massive My Journal of the Council, newly translated into English. Congar is without doubt one of the twentieth century's most important theologians and his influence on the Second Vatican Council's [1962-5] vision of the nature of the church is definitive.
The Journal is his personal record of Vatican II. It's about the people he met and the contributions he made to all of the most important documents of the Council. Few people had his level of access to the inner workings of this immense international assembly and his knowledge of the personalities involved. Many of his characterizations of people are very funny and deliciously critical.
Born in 1904 in Sedan in northern France, he joined the Dominicans, was ordained in 1930, served a medical orderly in World War Two, was a prisoner of war in Germany from 1940-5 and after the war became one of the most creative minds in French theology. From early in his career he was deeply interested in the history of the church and its government and was profoundly shaped by his study of past models of how the church conceived of itself and interacted with culture. Congar's theology looked outward to society and to the communication of the Gospel.
Why ecumenism was so important to him...
That is why ecumenism was so important to him. Throughout the 1930s he was deeply involved with both Orthodox and Protestant churches and theologians and was the author of Chrétiens Désunis (Divided Christians) . After the war he published True and False Reform in the Church  which was censured by Rome and he was ordered to withdraw the book. In 1953 he published his definitive study Lay People in the Church. He argued that the true tradition of the church was often buried under recent accretions that were 'less profound and of lesser value.'
In the mid-1950s he lived under threat from the inquisitorial Holy Office and was removed from lecturing, publishing and teaching. He was exiled to Jerusalem and Cambridge. But in January 1959 Pope John XXIII [1958-63] announced the Second Vatican Council.
Given his previous experiences with Rome, Congar had little time for Vatican and papalist theology. Speaking of Pius XII and the curia he says they 'produced a bottomless paternalism and stupidity'. Nevertheless he was eventually appointed peritus (expert) on the Doctrinal Commission preparing for the Council presided-over by Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani. Despite his appointment Congar said that 'I am still not free of the fears attached to a man who is suspect, sanctioned, judged, discriminated against'.
But as the Council got underway he became increasingly influential working on formulating three of the major documents and six other documents issued by the Council. The Journal details his extensive formulation work and the many people with whom he worked. Underpinning his attitude was that the church was being challenged 'by the world to rejoin it in order to speak validly of Jesus Christ'. From his perspective the key issues 'are being addressed to the church [from] ... the world and ... Others' — 'Others' here referring to other non-Catholic Christians.
The Council came 20 years too early...
He felt that historically the Council came twenty-five years 'too early'; that is only the youngest bishops had imbibed the renewed theology and historical and scriptural studies that underpinned the Council's documents. From today's perspective it is significant that he thought that the Council 'had stopped half-way on many questions. It began a task that is not completed'.
Congar was rather reserved and often in poor health. At the beginning in 1962-3 he was 'enormously depressed' that John XXIII had kept all Pius XII's Vatican 'old guard' in place. 'The Council', he said, 'was to be mastered, dominated, emasculated [by them] as soon as it had been born and before it had ever lived'.
The Journal is full of fascinating personal details like his constant travel back and forth from Paris to Rome by train and increasingly by plane. Much of the time, despite trouble with his legs, he had to walk around Rome or cadge a lift in a car (only groups seemed to go in taxis). His work was often interrupted by bishops and others trying to see him, including 'a young French couple on their honeymoon who didn't know where to stay'. Congar could be very impatient and often found the Council's procedures very slow and frustrating.
Among his visitors was Archbishop Guilford Young from Hobart whom he describes as 'young [and a] mixture of straight-talking and solemnity ... He told me how terribly disappointed he was in the schemata [presented by the Curia] and in the [opening] ceremony in St Peters, indeed almost to the point of being scandalized'. He also occasionally mentions other Australians like Cardinal Norman Gilroy and speeches by Bishop Thomas Muldoon and Archbishop James Carroll who he says had 'a nasal tone, slow, a bit soporific'.
He couldn't stand the Dominican Master-General and later Cardinal Michael Browne. 'Browne is a mule', he says. He describes the Jesuit historian (also later cardinal) Jean Daniélou as 'very superficial and banal', and the theologian René Laurentin, who specialised in Mariology, 'seemed to me to have become impossible, buzzing about like a bee in a bottle, pouncing on everything that he could make use of, everything that he can turn to his own advantage. If I did not know him I would say: a schemer.' Of Hans Küng he says he is 'full of intelligence, health, youth and insistent demands. He is extremely critical ... He charges at things; he goes straight ahead like an arrow.' There are many references to bishops leaving the aula (council hall) for the coffee bar when bishops were boring or spoke for too long.
He pulls no punches describing Cardinal Giuseppe Pizzardo, head of the Roman Congregation of Seminaries and Universities. 'That an imbecile, a sub-human like Pizzardo should be in charge of the department for universities and seminaries is scandalous and extremely serious'. He was shocked that 'this wretched freak, this sub-mediocrity with no culture, no horizon, no humanity ... This Pizzardo, who has red pyjamas and underpants, ... who haggles over the purchase of a newspaper ... This man in charge of the curial department for studies and research'! And Congar accuses Küng of being 'extremely critical'!
The Journal's great strength is the clear explanation that it often gives of the core theological issues facing the Council. Running through all four sessions is the ecclesiological tension between what Congar calls the 'PAPA pole' and the 'ECCLESIA pole', that is the people of God pole. He defines the 'Papa pole' as 'a simplistic and false ecclesiology according to which everything is derived from the pope' and the church is 'a vast centralised administration'. During the first session he commented that 'this tension is latent in the council and it is more than likely that one day it will come into the open'. It certainly did on several occasions at Vatican II and it remains a problem that has yet to be resolved in the government of the Church. In fact it is possibly even worse now than it was before the council because modern means of communication have made papal centralization much easier. With the kind of papal travel we had the likes of John Paul II we now have a kind of 'omnipresent' papacy.
The Journal is well translated into excellent idiomatic English with informative and helpful footnotes. Several excellent introductory essays help to contextualise Congar both theologically and historically. This book will be an indispensible adjunct for anyone seriously studying Vatican II. We are very much in the debt of ATF Theology who got this very large book translated and published in English.
Congar lived for another thirty years after Vatican II. He died in 1995 after having been made a cardinal the year before by John Paul II. No doubt he would have found such an appointment ironic.
Here are the details of the book: Yves Congar: My Journal of the Council, Adelaide: ATF Theology, 2012. lxi and 979 pp. ISBN: 978-192181744-1 (Australian Edition available in the Catholica Spiritual Marketplace from Garratt Publishing). RRP: AU$69.95. Other editions available in the Catholica Spiritual Marketplace from Amazon and Fishpond [LINK].
This review was originally published on the Catholics for Ministry website at www.catholicsforministry.com.au and is republished on Catholica with permission.
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©2012Dr Paul Collins