Pius XI, Pius XII and the council that never took place

Par Philippe Maxence

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It is interesting to note that well before John XXIII decided to engage the Church in an entirely new era, one in rupture in many respects with the Tridentine heritage, the idea of a new council had already been considered. Indeed, the idea was so much in the spirit of the times that Pius XI first, and then Pius XII, both reformer popes, had contemplated the idea.

Nothing very surprising in these projects since the previous council, organized by Pius IX, had had to be interrupted because of the invasion of the Pontifical States and the Taken of Rome. By then, only two dogmatic constitutions had been voted and ratified. But, they were no ordinary constitutions. The first one was the Constitution Dei Fillius, on relations between faith and reason, The second one was the Constitution Pastor Æternus, which should have formed a complete treaty on the Church but, due to the events of the time, was only able to formulate the Solemn Pontifical Infallibility. Thus, much remained to be done and everyone agreed that the First Council of Vatican needed to be completed and even taken further.

Why then did we have to wait till 1962 to gather a new council? Since the Roman situation remained unresolved – it will be resolved with the Lateran Agreements in 1929 – until then the popes considered themselves “prisoner” inside the Vatican. Thus, in this situation it was difficult to invite the whole Episcopate to come to Rome for a council. The First World War, and then the Second, also prevented this project to take place.

The project of Pius XI: a council on the Kingship of Christ

Yet, it is not surprising that Pius XI, the pope of the Lateran Agreements, came up with such an idea. Actually, he did not wait till 1929 to discuss it . The historian Yves Chiron, in his Histoire des conciles[1], note that as soon as his first encyclical, Ubi arcano (1922), pope Ratti expressed the idea of a council though without mentioning the word directly. Taking the example of the Eucharistic Congress which took place in Rome, he wrote: “That brotherly reunion, so solemn, because of the great number and high dignity of the bishops who were present, carried our thoughts to the possibility of another similar meeting of the whole episcopate here in the center of Catholic unity, and of the many effective results which might follow such a meeting toward the re-establishment of the social order after the terrible disorders through which we have just passed. The very proximity of the Holy Year fills Us with the solemn hope that this Our desire may be fully realized.” Yet, he admitted clearly he “dared” not to take on the works left undone of Vatican I: “We scarcely dare to include, in so many words, in the program of Our Pontificate the reassembling of the Ecumenical Council which Pius IX, the Pontiff of Our youth, had called but had failed to see through except to the completion of a part, albeit most important, of its work. We as the leader of the chosen people must wait and pray for an unmistakable sign from the God of mercy and of love of His holy will in this regard. (Judges vi, 17)”

It would maybe be profitable to reflect on this definitely programatic encyclical of Pius XI for, in its own way, it shows what direction these works of the conciliar Fathers, gathered in Rome under the authority of the Roman Pontiff, would have taken.

Elected Pope in the years after the conclusion of the First World War, Pope Ratti recalls the profound reasons which lead to the war: “This cause was even beginning to show its head before the War and the terrible calamities consequent on that cataclysm should have proven a remedy for them if mankind had only taken the trouble to understand the real meaning of those terrible events. In the Holy Scriptures we read: « They that have forsaken the Lord, shall be consumed. » (Isaias i, 28) No less well known are the words of the Divine Teacher, Jesus Christ, Who said: « Without me you can do nothing » (John xv, 5) and again, « He that gathereth not with me, scattereth. » (Luke xi, 23)” The only way to find true peace again, that Christ alone can give through his Church, implied according to Pius XI the acknowledgment of the kingship of Jesus Christ, non only on the part of individuals, but also nations: “When, therefore, governments and nations follow in all their activities, whether they be national or international, the dictates of conscience grounded in the teachings, precepts, and example of Jesus Christ, and which are binding on each and every individual, then only can we have faith in one another’s word and trust in the peaceful solution of the difficulties and controversies which may grow out of differences in point of view or from clash of interests.” If this councill had taken place, most probably the council would have been of Christ the King.

Despite his prudence, as expressed in Ubi arcano, Pius XI created in 1923 a Commission for the Council of the Vatican. The Commission set up an initial program which included a warning against doctrinal errors, a definition of the general principles on the right of people (jus gentium) and relation between Church and State, the definition of Catholic Action and the fate of Eastern Catholic Churches (Chiron, p. 233). Cardinals and Bishops were consulted on the opportunity to take on the works of Vatican I. A majority of them decided it was the way to proceed. Still, and despite the drafting of thirty nine questions to be addressed, the Commission was suspended sine die in May 1924 and the council remained in the drafting stage.

The project of Pius XII: a council against the errors of modern times

After the death of Pius XI in 1939, the idea resurfaced during the time of the interregnum, in the press as well as among members of the Curia. Mgr. Costantini, General Secretary of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, among others, wrote a pro-memoria on the subject. The orientation was definitely towards reforms. It intended notably, according to Chiron, to “spread the use of the vernacular in the liturgy in mission countries, ease the return of Protestants in the Church ‘with concessions of a liturgical and disciplinary character’, internationally diversify the Roman Curia, modify the rules of the conclave, revise the Breviary as well as the Roman Martyrology and the Ceremonial.” (p. 236)

As to Mgr. Ernesto Ruffini, then Secretary of the Congregation of Seminaries and Universities, he addressed the idea of a council directly with Pius XII. Yet, it will take ten years for Pope Pacelli to speak again of a convocation of a council and entrust Mgr. Ottaviani from the Congregation of the Holy Office with the task of working in that direction. In the mind of Pius XII and his collaborators, it was not about taking on the works of Vatican I, where it had stopped. Indeed, for many, it was no longer in phase with the times and there were new challenges to be addressed.

On 15 March 1948, a Commission was set up to address these challenges. In its turn, it set up five specialized commissions which selected fifty topics to be addressed. Even if new topics had appeared in light of the previous projects or thesis, the overall logic associated the treatment of topics that would be qualified as positive (relation between Holy Scripture and Tradition; Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Jurisdiction of the Bishops, etc.) with the necessity of new condemnations (“false philosophies”, errors on the Mystical Body, Communism, Issues related to sexual morality).

But Pius XII decided not to call for a council and chose instead to address some of the selected topics through encyclicals as he did with Humani generis regarding “some false opinions threatening to undermine the foundations of Catholic Doctrine”,or again by engaging the Pontifical Infallibility during the proclamation of the Dogma of the Assumption.

An Italian Jesuit, Father Giovanni Caprile, in the August 1966 issue of La Civiltà Cattolica, gave  important detailed informations on the reasons why Pope Pacelli had decided not to call a council. For one, the length of the council – the options of a few weeks or the option of no limits – was a divisive topic between the members of the preparatory commissions which ended up leaving the decision to the pope. According to Father Caprile, these disagreements went beyond the material side of the organization of a council and more directly asked the question of the opportunity of such a gathering. Then, Pius XII decided not to call for a council and, in January 1951, decided to end all preparatory works.

But, some of this work could be managed through the regular resource of the Roman Pontiff (encyclicals, decrees, etc.). After having consulted with the whole Episcopate, Pius XII did not hesitate to use the Solemn Pontifical Infallibility in the case of the definition of the dogma of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. More importantly or just as important, the Pope did not hesitate to condemn the errors, like communism, through the Decree of the Holy Office of 1 July 1949 or the modern philosophical or theological errors with the Encyclical Humani generis. We could present many examples and see how it equally balances between definition of the truth, condemnation of errors, and encouragement to what is good. And like in the first council of Vatican, taking on and sublimating the teaching of Pius IX, a second council of Vatican could have rested on the Magisterium of Pius XII.

But the good Pope John

It is to John XXIII we owe to finally convoke the council; or rather, an other council. The sort of “rupture” he was about to engage was not proclaimed in the Bulle Humanæ salutis (25 December 1961) which announced the convocation of the Council, nor was it proclaimed in the opening speech of the Council Gaudet Mater Ecclesia, on 11 October 1962, but at the beginning of the new pontificate, that is as soon as 1958. In the speech he gave on the occasion of his Coronation, John XXIII, very cleverly, drew the profile of what a pope should be. “Most of all We expect from a Pontiff, says the new pope, that he be an experienced statesman, a wise diplomat, a man of universal science, with the knowledge of how to organize the life of all in society or, finally, that he be a Pontiff with a mind open to all forms of progress of modern life, without any exception. Yet, venerable brothers and dear sons, all those who actually think this way go astray from the path one is to follow, the true ideal which must be his. In fact, the new pope, over the course of the vicissitudes of his existence, can compare himself to the son of Jacob who, in presence of his brothers afflicted by the most grievous ordeal, let out his tenderness and his tears and says to them: “I am Joseph[2], your brother.” (Gen., 45:4) The new Pontiff, We say, it is again and most of all one who realizes in himself the splendid evangelical image of the Good Shepherd that the Evangelist saint John describes to us[3].”

Behind the accents of humility and the intention of a new pontificate which already presents itself as essentially “pastoral”, just as the Vatican II Council will intend to be, there appears clearly the desire not to do a repeat of Pius XII. The personality of Pope Roncallli certainly made it clear. But it escaped no one that the portrait he had just drawn, or rather the counter-portrait, corresponded point by point to Pius XII. The new pope would thus be of an other sort. So, too, would his council.

Philippe Maxence

[1] Perrin, 2012.
[2] Joseph is Cardinal Guissepe Roncallli’s second baptismal name. Pope under the name of John XXIII, he was canonized on 27 April 2014. In this paragraph, the new pope plays on the identity between his second name and the personage of Joseph, son of Jacob, who after having been sold by his brothers, became intendant to the King of Egypt (Cf. Book of Genesis, 37-50).
[3] La Documentation catholique, n° 1291, 23 November 1958, Tome LV, p. 1474.