The National Catholic Review

Commentators on the Second Vatican Council describe Yves Congar, O.P., as one of the most important theologians at the council. This is no small compliment, for it aligns him with Karl Rahner, S.J., Henri de Lubac, S.J., Joseph Ratzinger and John Courtney Murray, S.J., as well as other luminaries of that remarkable generation. But that assessment is too modest. When account is taken of Congar’s writings before the council and of his influence on so many of the final documents, he must be ranked, in my opinion, as the council’s single most important theologian.

Despite the tremendous workload Congar bore during the council and his persistent health problems, he managed to keep a detailed journal that begins with the announcement of the council in 1959 and continues for almost a year after its conclusion in 1965. The journals of none of the other council participants are as complete, revealing and important as this one.

We are deeply indebted to the publishers for the high physical quality of the volume, to the English-language editor for so ably doing his job and especially to the translators, who have rendered Congar’s French into excellent, idiomatic English. The volume is much enriched by the inclusion of the introduction to the original French edition by éric Mahieu and by the new introductory essay by Paul Philibert, “Congar’s Ecclesiastical Subtext: Intransigent Conservatism.”

But the meat of the book is, of course, Congar’s text. In some high ecclesiastical circles these days, it is fashionable to disdain personal accounts: the only valid source for interpreting the council is the official record. Certainly, the official record must be the foundation on which interpretation is built, but it does not tell the whole story. Without accounts like Congar’s, we would have no clue, for instance, as to why documents took the form they did and what significance participants attached to them.

What comes through clearly in Congar’s journal, moreover, is something of which the official record breathes not a word: the struggle between the majority of the bishops (some 90 percent or more) and an entrenched and unbending minority, which used every means in its power to derail the direction the council took or, when that failed, to weaken the most salient positions advocated by the majority. Events since the council have demonstrated how successful such efforts were. Taking account of this struggle is essential, therefore, for understanding both the council and its aftermath.

In reading the journal now in English, I had the same eerie feeling I had while reading it in French: change the names and the dates, and the story has a familiar ring. “Rome is a court, where favour from on high is decisive.” “The real battle is between the Curia (above all the Holy Office) and the Ecclesia.” In Rome, “The rule of faith is not Scripture but the living Magisterium.” It is the place where “The pope is God on earth.”

My Journal shows how contempoaries of an event, even one as astute and learned as Congar, can miss the significance of certain happenings that others then or later saw as of determining importance. Congar did not find anything particularly notable, for instance, in John XXIII’s address opening the council, an address that many today assess as crucially important in giving the council its direction.

He similarly attached no particular importance to the “Introductory Note” that Paul VI added at the very last minute to the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” for interpreting the doctrine of collegiality, a move that gave heart to the minority. Likewise, he did not see the significance of Paul’s creation of the Synod of Bishops, which looked like an implementation of collegiality but in fact reduced the bishops’ role to, at best, consultation.

Besides its great historical importance and contemporary relevance, My Journal of the Council reveals the author as a warm human being, a humble man devoid of the slightest taint of self-promotion, a man utterly dedicated to the well-being of the church. It also reveals him as severely self-critical: “I’ve been too timid.” Given his great achievements, it is touching and somewhat shocking to read toward the end of the volume, “I feel crushed by the consciousness of the mediocrity of my life and work.”

The text is spiced with frank assessments of personalities. Congar is consistently kind. He for instance described John Courtney Murray, S.J., as “a true gentleman with an astounding command of Latin.” According to Congar, John XXIII introduced into the church “a more humane and more Christian climate” after the “stifling regime of Pius XII.” In Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, head of the Holy Office from 1959 and a leader of the minority in the council, a person therefore whose positions Congar opposed, he recognized “a certain nobility of character.”

But there were people he intensely disliked or disdained. Leading the list was Cardinal Giuseppe Pizzardo, former head of the Holy Office, who was “an idiot” and “an imbecile, a sub-human...a wretched freak.” Congar assessed Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York as a man who “understands nothing.” Of the ultra-conservative American theologian Joseph Clifford Fenton, who was the mortal enemy of Murray, he said, “[He is] out of his senses and beyond all reasonable control.”

This is a long book. It has all the appeal of a personal account of a great happening produced on the spot moment by moment as events unfolded. It has the problem, however, of an account written a half-century ago, filled with names and alluding to events that are now immediately recognizable only to those who were adults at the time of the council and followed it closely. Unless you can transcend that problem, you will, I fear, find the book tedious. But if you are able to transcend it, you will be fascinated by a chronicle that reveals in detail how the council really operated. You will see with newly clear eyes how the impulses at work in the church before and during Vatican II are, for better or worse, with us still.

John W. O’Malley, S.J., is university professor in theology at Georgetown University and author of What Happened at Vatican II.