Are we ready for the Council of Nairobi?

The Council of Trent: a positive assertion of Catholic belief

When Bishops Meet
By John W O’Malley
Harvard University Press, 223pp, £20/$24.95

How many bishops does it take to change the course of Catholic history? The answer, as John O’Malley’s spirited new book explains, can vary.

Attendance rates during the early sessions of the Council of Trent were pitiful: somewhere in the region of five per cent of the invited delegates turned up. Four hundred years later, the picture was very different. Ninety per cent of the world’s episcopate – that’s 2,400 or so bishops – took their seats at the opening sessions of Vatican II.

What did not alter, however, were the fundamental purposes of a great (or “ecumenical”) Church Council: to tackle issues of doctrine and behaviour and to strike the delicate balance between preserving unchanging Catholic truth and renovating an earthly institution. Quite how these goals were to be achieved was, of course, a matter of dispute and O’Malley offers a rewarding comparison of the mechanics and mandates of the last three great Councils.

The issue of reform could hardly be ignored at Trent. The trick was to present any spring-cleaning as the positive assertion of Catholic belief rather than a defensive response to the Protestant challenge. A good deal of ink was spilled in the process. The first great council, held at Nicaea back in 325, produced 20 canons; Trent came up with more than 250.

Vatican I was a good deal less complicated. In the wake of an era of revolution and faced with the challenges of modernity, the council was obsessed with asserting papal power and influence – a task neatly achieved via the major documents on papal infallibility and the relationship between reason and faith. And yet, critics were quick to suggest that conservatism could, paradoxically, take the form of unwarranted change. What, they asked, were the historical foundations for this bold assertion of infallibility?

Only with Vatican II was the tension between reform and a belief in eternal truths approached without much of a sense of peril. The very phrase “acceptable change” received formal endorsement and ideas about the evolution of doctrine had become relatively uncontroversial. Not that everyone was delighted. Did the idea of returning to an older, more authentic position on this or that issue not suggest that, in the past, the Church had taken the wrong fork in the road?

For many, the consequences of such an interpretation would be hard to swallow.

Through all this, the question of who should be making the decisions was vitally important and O’Malley traces the historical twists and turns with great skill. The pope always fired the starting gun and has always been able to appoint agenda-setting cardinals. He is not expected to play any direct role in working discussions, however, and the bishops quickly become the stars of the show.

This became increasingly problematic because, from Trent on, debates became more technical and the language of council documents grew ever more legalistic. The role of university theologians took on a new importance, though this proved to be an uncomfortable development. At the early meetings at Trent, bishops and theologians worked hand-in-hand but this tended to expose the academic shortcomings of many bishops. The eggheads were therefore allowed to churn out the final texts, but the discussing was left to the bishops. Vatican I was more straightforward and an impressive collection of sympathetic theologians – many of them Jesuits – obediently oiled the legislative wheels.

Vatican II once more represented a level-headed compromise. In theory, only bishops were supposed to engage in formal discussions but, in practice, sophisticated theologians – often drawn, like Joseph Ratzinger and Karl Rahner, from the bishops’ entourages – had a great deal of room for manoeuvre.

This movement towards broader participation came in other forms. At Trent, the lay presence largely consisted of the ambassadors of the great powers attempting to influence – or derail – proceedings. At Vatican I, the laity had no formal role, though someone like Lord Acton was still able to turn his rented digs into a hotspot of opposition. At Vatican II, everything became much more open – lay auditors were invited to sessions and the preparatory drafts and documents for discussions on the lay apostolate were greatly influenced by lay organisations.

A new transparency was easy to spot in other realms. Fourteen observers from the Orthodox Churches and 40 from Protestant congregations were allowed access to all documents. This set a welcome precedent and, while the old issues of balancing the interests of centre and periphery, and of deciding between a hierarchical or collegial model of the Church, will no doubt simmer away at future councils, a much broader constituency will get to see Catholicism tying itself in knots and then unravelling them.

But where, O’Malley asks, could such a council take place? It is not easy to think of a venue in Rome that could accommodate all those likely to attend. Perhaps, he suggests, moving the whole show to a cavernous conference centre in Buenos Aires or Nairobi is not unthinkable.