Cardinal Ottaviani and the Council
Msgr. Joseph Clifford Fenton
(The following, which appeared in the January 1963 American Ecclesiastical Review. It is of historical importance as it was written just after the close of Vatican II’s first session. The eminent theologian Msgr. Joseph Clifford Fenton, the magazine’s editor, wrote a defense of Cardinal Ottaviani after the Cardinal had been continually vilified by the press. Msgr. Fenton explains that it was Cardinal Ottaviani’s twenty-eight year success in preserving the purity of Catholic doctrine that earned him the scorn of the liberals. Tragically, Cardinal Ottaviani’s work to preserve the purity of Catholic doctrine at Vatican II was foiled by the progressivist forces at the Council, a calamity that even Msgr. Fenton, at the time of writing this article, did not believe would happen.)
During the first thirty-eight meetings of the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, there was certainly no individual who received anything like the amount of publicity given to the erudite, brilliant and urbane Secretary of the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office, His Eminence Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani. It goes without saying that by far the greater part of that publicity was vehemently, even hysterically, unfavorable.
During the time that elapsed from the opening of the Council with the solemn session of October 11 until its adjournment at the Cappella Papale of December 8, the Communist papers of Italy never halted their drum-fire of journalistic attacks against the Cardinal: These papers were joined by the professional anti-clerical press, particularly by Rome’s L’Espresso, which, on December 2, announced in three-and-a-quarter inch headlines that it carried an article explaining “La Sconfitta di Ottaviani.” The article, perhaps the most important and meaningful of all those directed against the Cardinal, was written by a former Catholic. And, as might have been expected, our own Time and Newsweek joined in the shrill chorus of disapproval. In articles remarkably alike for inaccuracy of observation and for pure malevolence, each did what it could to persuade the more gullible section of the American reading public that Cardinal Ottaviani was, or at least ought to be, a discredited member of the College of Cardinals.
Any fair-minded observer might well wonder about the cause of this phenomenon. Of course, it is to be expected that Communist papers like Unità and II Paese would do what they could to counter the influence of any loyal and effective spokesman for the Catholic Church. L’Espresso makes a habit of trying to discredit priests. Time has a long and singularly less than honorable record of hostility to Cardinal Ottaviani.
Yet not one of these attitudes can even begin to explain the number and the vehemence of the journalistic attacks against the Cardinal during the days immediately preceding the opening of the Council, during the course of the meetings themselves, and during the days immediately after the adjournment of the Council. If we are to find the reason behind this movement of opposition, we shall have to look to some source other than the habitual attitudes of the papers that have gone out of their way to try to arouse antagonism against Cardinal Ottaviani. In the first place, of course, there is nothing in the character or in the qualifications of the Cardinal which would in any way explain the frightfully bad press he has received on the occasion of the Council. Fortunately for the Catholic Church, there are many intellectually outstanding members of the hierarchy. Yet it is doubtful if any of the conciliar Fathers could be called better equipped intellectually than the Cardinal Secretary of the Holy Office. He is an old and brilliant professor, whose work on public ecclesiastical law is a standard text or reference work in every university of the world in which this subject is treated. He was one of the most brilliant Substitute Secretaries of State in the 20th Century. His erudition in the field of sacred theology, particularly within the area of fundamental dogmatic theology, is unsurpassed.
The most gracious of men, Cardinal Ottaviani has at least as many friends among American priests and members of the American Catholic hierarchy as any other Cardinal of the Roman Curia. He is always affable, always approachable.
Furthermore, quietly and without fanfare, Cardinal Ottaviani has given much of his time and of his means for the betterment of the poor boys and girls of the Borgo. With his old friend, the late Cardinal Bor-gongini-Duca, Cardinal Ottaviani kept up the premises next to the Holy Office Building as an institution dedicated to the recreation and the spiritual and material betterment of these children. A home for needy girls, the Oasis of St. Rita, in Frascati, is supported by the Cardinal.
Definitely, then, the chorus of attacks in the Communist and other anti-Catholic papers against Cardinal Ottaviani was not in any way based on any lack of charity on the part of the Cardinal or on any lack of intellectual or cultural fitness for the position he holds.
In point of fact, however, the opposition shown to Cardinal Ottaviani by papers like L’Espresso, Paese and Time stems from the fact that he has carried out, with conspicuous success, the obligations imposed upon him by two positions to which he has been appointed by Pope John XXIII. The Cardinal is the Secretary of the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office. Furthermore, he was the Cardinal President of the Preparatory Theological Commission for the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council.
It was Pope John XXIII who appointed Cardinal Ottaviani to the position of Secretary of the Holy Office. It is important to remember, however, that the Cardinal has been the effective head of this most influential of the Roman Congregations since 1935, when he was appointed Assessor of the Holy Office, after having served with great distinction as the Substitute Secretary of State. The 1935 appointment was made by Pius XI. In 1953, when he was created a Cardinal, his position was changed from that of Assessor to that of Pro-Secretary. Cardinal Pizzardo then served as Secretary.
Thus since 1935, during a period of twenty-eight of the most turbulent years in the history of the Catholic Church, the Cardinal’s name has been associated with that of the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office. During that time there have been several books issued which deserved, and which received, some sort of disapproval from the Holy Office. Some of these books were placed on the Index. Others were ordered withdrawn from circulation. In some cases there were Monita published against teachings which ran counter to the doctrine of the Catholic Church. At other times directions or warnings were issued privately. And, in many cases, it must be noted that feelings were hurt, and hurt badly.
Thus the fact that the Cardinal was a leading figure in the Holy Office during all this time would account for the fact that some disgruntled Catholic writers and teachers are somewhat opposed to him. It also accounts for the torrent of opposition which has been directed against him by the Communist and the Liberal press.
Ottaviani: Enemy of the “New Theology”
It would be idle to deny that there exists in the world today a vigorous anti-Catholic press which, while not being bigoted in the sense in which the old Menace or the Fellowship Forum were bigoted, would still like to see the Catholic Church change its basic teaching and its fundamental attitude toward other religious organizations. Such papers are delighted at the thought that in some way or another the Catholic Church might be said to be on the way towards a repudiation of the stand set forth in the Lamentabili sane exitu, in the Pascendi dominici gregis, or in the Oath against the Errors of Modernism. Journals of this sort are always quite ready to applaud the men within the Church whom they believe to share their sentiments. And, of course, they are always ready to turn the engines of publicity against a man whom they consider as standing in the way of the attainment of their objectives.
Quite obviously Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani is a natural target for journals of this sort. In the words of the Code of Canon Law: “Congregatio Sancti 0ficii, cui ipse Summus Pontifex praeest, tutatur doctrinam fidei et morum.” The man who, as Assessor, as Pro-Secretary, and as Secretary of this Congregation, has worked for three Sovereign Pontiffs to preserve the purity and the integrity of the Catholic faith for the past twenty-eight years would naturally be unpopular with those who would like to see a change in Catholic doctrine. The attacks against the Cardinal are, in the final analysis, a proof that, over the course of these last twenty-eight years, he has done his work very well indeed.
If Cardinal Ottaviani has drawn the opposition of such as L’Espresso and Newsweek by reason of the fact that he has served the Catholic Church well in the Congregation of the Holy Office, he has certainly also drawn their fire by reason of the fact that he did very well indeed in his position as the Cardinal President of the Preparatory Theo-logical Commission for this Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican. The Theological Commission, like all the other Preparatory Commissions and Secretariates, was brought into being in the summer of 1960, after the Ante-Preparatory Commission had completed its work. Cardinal Ottaviani brought his group together in October of that same year, a month ahead of the other Preparatory Commissions. After a careful and detailed examination of the postulata of the various Bishops and Universities, as well as of the various Congregations, Offices, and Tribunals of the Roman Curia, the Theological Commission set about its task of drawing up tentative schemata to be submitted, first to the Central Commission, then to the Holy Father, and finally to the Council. The final meeting of the entire Theological Commission was held in March of 1961.
Neither the Cardinal President nor the members and consultors of the Theological Commission were naive enough to imagine that they were doing the work of an ecumenical council. They were quite well aware of the fact that they were offering to the council a body of statements which would be amended and recast radically before they were issued by the council as a definitive statement of Catholic doctrine.
The torrent of opposition and abuse that has been directed against Cardinal Ottaviani is an indication of the fact that the work of the Theological Commission was basically successful. If the Commission, under the Cardinal’s direction, had come up with the teachings of the “new theology” which was repudiated in Pope Pius XII’s encyclical letter Humani generis, the Cardinal and his Commission would have been the toast of the Communist and the Liberal press. But, if the “new theology” had entered into the statements of the Pontifical Theological Commission, then that Commission and its head would have been guilty of a most serious offense against the purity and the integrity of Catholic doctrine.
A very short time before the closing of the first portion of the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council, Pope John XXIII appointed a new commission which is to be charged with the over-all direction of the Council’s work between the time of the closing of the first portion, on December 8, 1962, and the opening of the second portion on September 8, 1963. Remarking on the creation of this new commission, a very prominent and able American priest said, according to the NCWC News Service, “that the Pope’s act in setting up a special committee to coordinate revisional work during the Council’s long recess ‘means that a counter-reformation theology won’t be able to exert influence on the schemata.’ ”
The man who made that statement is one of the most distinguished and competent priests in the United States. Yet I believe that here his thinking has been influenced to a certain extent by the forces which have been attacking Cardinal Ottaviani. He sees the creation of the commission which the Holy Father announced on December 6 last as something destined to prevent any influence on the schemata by what he calls counter-reformation theology. And it would seem that the name of Cardinal Ottaviani has been linked in some way, and correctly, with the cause of what Father Sheerin called counter-reformation theology. In the final analysis, Cardinal Ottaviani has been at-tacked so viciously in recent months precisely because he will not permit the sabotaging of the theology designated as belonging to the counter-reformation.
Now what precisely is counter-reformation theology? Obviously the first answer to that question will be that it is the doctrine set forth by the great Catholic theologians who proposed Catholic doctrine and defended it against the attacks of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation. In this way it would be the teaching found in the works of writers like Eck, Cochlaeus, Pighius, Tapper, Driedo, and Latomus. But, in a more special way, it is the teaching organized in the writings of the masters of the counter-reformation period, men like Melchoir Cano, St. Peter Canisius, St. Robert Bellarmine, Thomas Stapleton, William Estius, John Wiggers, Francis Sylvius, John Lens, Francis Suarez, Gregory of Valentia, and Adam Tanner.
These men were unanimous in their assertions that there are some truths which the Church proposes to us to be received with the assent of Divine and Catholic faith, and which are not contained in any way, implicitly or explicitly, obscurely or clearly, within the books of Holy Scripture. They insist that the Catholic Church is the one and only true Church of Jesus Christ, and that outside of this one and only true Church man cannot attain to his eternal salvation. They proclaim the basic fact that the one and only true Church of Jesus Christ, according to the dispensation of the New Testament, is truly visible, a society composed of parts or members who can be recognized as such by men in this world.
These are some of the fundamental theses of counter-reformation theology which are displeasing to one element among those who have watched the Second Vatican Council so closely. And these are some of the theses which a certain number of men definitely do not want to find in the constitutions and decrees finally issued by the Council.
Opposition to these characteristic theses of counter-reformation theology comes from three directions. In the first place there are those who are not Catholics, and who wish to have the Church change its teachings. These people do not believe that the teachings of the counter-reformation theology are true in any way. Then, of course, there are those Catholics who are convinced that the theses to which we have referred are perfectly and completely true, but who believe that a solemn enunciation of these theses by an ecumenical council would serve no good ecumenical purpose at the present time. Finally there are Catholics who seem convinced that, while these theses are tenable in a general sort of way, it would be unwise to set them forth at the present time because much more study and investigation are needed before the Church would be in a position to state them firmly and with assurance.
There can be no doubt whatsoever about the fact that, today, the name of Cardinal Ottaviani is intimately connected with those assertions which might be taken as characteristic of counter-reformation theology, but which are also obvious statements of the ordinary magisterium of the Catholic Church. He is considered to be one of those, and in some ways the leader of those, who maintain that, if the Council is to speak out in these areas of doctrine at all, it must enunciate these theses clearly and effectively. He is rightly looked upon as one who believes that the pastoral teaching office of the Catholic Church demands the accurate and open statement of these revealed truths, even if a good portion of the non-Catholic religious world refuses to accept them, and even if further study within this section of theology is possible, and profitable.
No one, least of all the Cardinal and those who share his views, can really be said to imagine that study on any question is supposed to stop once the authority of the ecclesiastical magisterium, particularly an utterance of the solemn judgment of an ecumenical council, has spoken out on that question. There can be, and there very definitely should be, further study of the dogma of Our Lady’s Assumption into Heaven. Such study, however, will always be an examination of the dogma, which holds that, at the close of Her life in this world, the Mother of God was assumed, body and soul, into heavenly glory. There have been and there certainly should continue to be studies of papal infallibility. Such studies, if they are to be scientifically objective, must be more detailed examinations of the revealed truth that the Sovereign Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra, is provided with that infallibility with which Our Lord willed that His Church should be equipped in defining doctrine about faith and morals. It must be an inquiry into the fact that the ex cathedra definitions of the Roman Pontiff are irreformable of themselves, and not by reason of the consent of the Church.
In exactly the same way, the Cardinal knows very well that there will be, until the end of time, need for further research into questions that will be decided by this Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican. But the fact that there can be, and indeed should be, further study along this line in no way contradicts the fact that the Church has taught and will continue to teach that there are truths which are proposed to Catholics as revealed and which are not contained in Scripture, to take only one example of a thesis characteristic of “counter-reformation theology.” And the bitterness manifested toward Cardinal Ottaviani by these non-Catholic journals can, in the last analysis, be best explained by the fact that the Cardinal, in the midst of all this talk about ecumenical spirit and about pastoral style, never has forgotten that this “counter-reformation” teaching is an integral part of the doctrine of the Catholic Church.
Basic in the pastoral office of the Catholic Church is the duty of enunciating this body of truth. Any instructed Catholic knows very well that the Church could not deny any portion of its dogma, even though, as a result of that denial, uncounted millions of non-Catholics should promise to enter its fold. If all of the persecutions against the Church and its loyal members could be brought to a halt by the Church’s repudiation of one of these dogmas which are characteristic of counter-reformation theology, that repudiation could and would never be given. Until the end of time the Church must go on and will go on obeying the Divine mandate to teach all things that Our Lord commanded it to teach. And part of that deposit of truth is the doctrine denied or called into question by the Protestant Reformers, that portion of Catholic teaching which has been presented in the documents of the ecclesiastical magisterium during and since the Council of Trent. It is to the eternal credit of Cardinal Ottaviani that his name is linked with the open and clear statement of this body of revealed truth. The attacks against him in the more or less openly anti-Catholic sections of the secular press have been motivated by his insistence that no part of Our Lord’s revealed message be passed over in the name or under the pretext of a higher or more perfect understanding.
“He Has Not Been Hoodwinked”
During the time that passes between the ending of the first portion of the Council and its reopening next September, it is to be expected that the press will try to influence its readers to believe that the cause of the men who are depicted as opposing Cardinal Ottaviani is the cause that will triumph and which deserves to triumph. It is interesting to see that, in the editorial section of the Washington Post for Dec. 16, a Mr. Leo Wollemborg wrote that “Even the long recess before the council reassembles next September is expected to help the reformers rather than the traditionalists.” His reason for that statement is the fact that the men whom he regards as “the reformers” (most of them would not be particularly pleased by this designation) will have a chance to correspond with one another during the nine months. Mr. Wollemborg seems to forget that the mails are open to the “traditionalists” also. But his article (in which he speaks of Cardinal Ottaviani as the man “considered the leading spokesman for the ‘old frontier’”) offers one more reminder that one class of secular newspaper will never miss a chance to praise the men it believes to be ready to change Catholic doctrine or to abandon some portion of it, and will never miss a chance to place the defenders of the purity and the integrity of the Catholic faith in what they consider and hope to be an unfavorable light.
Actually the journalistic attacks on Cardinal Ottaviani have pointed out the fact that he has been, by all means, the most important figure in the first portion of this Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican. The unfriendly publicity accorded Cardinal Manning during and since the First Ecumenical Council of the Vatican merely indicated that he was one of the most prominent and most important members of that august gathering. The other men who were most responsible for the definition of papal infallibility as a dogma of the Church, men like Cardinals Pie and Cullen, and Bishop Senestrey, were also generally attacked by the press at the time.
In the light of true history it will be seen that the mission of the Cardinal Secretary of the Holy Office at this latest Ecumenical Council of the Catholic Church has been truly providential. At the cost of his own popularity, and in defiance of the wishes of the anti-Catholic press, this man has stood fast for the purity and the integrity of the Catholic faith. He has not been hoodwinked into imagining that any good is going to come to the Church of God if it passes over some of its dogmas in silence so as to please those who dislike the unchanging continuity of Christ’s teaching within His Church. He has insisted on the need for stating Catholic doctrine, even when that doctrine is opposed to the tenets of the Reformers and the Modernists.
The cultured Catholic of today owes it to himself to see that he is not misled by the tirades and innuendoes against Cardinal Ottaviani which have been common and which will probably continue in a certain type of secular journal. It would be tragic if the people of God, for whom this amiable, cultured and brilliant servant of the Church labors so well, should be turned against one who, like St. Athanasius of old, has been found working for the truth of Christ within a general Council of the true Church.
-Taken from The American Ecclesiastical Review, January 1963. Subtitles added by CFN.
Postscript: The battle fought by Cardinal Ottaviani was lost when progressivists gained control of the Council due to the direct intervention of Pope John XXIII and later Paul VI, a fact unknown to Msgr. Fenton at the time. Contrary to Msgr. Fenton’s hopes, the “reformers” successfully “changed the direction” of the Council. Msgr. Fenton, who was a peritus at the Council, eventually left Vatican II and resigned as Editor of American Ecclesiastical Review when he learned that John Courtney Murray’s progressivist “Religious Liberty”, which Fenton had opposed throughout the 1950s, would win the day at Vatican II.
The adherents of the modernist “new theology” (which was the “toast of the communist and liberal press,” to use Msgr. Fenton’s words), progressivists such as Father Henri de Lubac, Father Hans urs von Balthasar, Father Karl Rahner, Father Joseph Ratzinger, and Archbishop Karol Wojtyla, gained control of the Church since the Council and have been promoting their liberal program ever since. The disastrous state of the post-Conciliar Church is the result of their Conciliar aggiornamento. Let us honor the memory of Cardinal Ottaviani and Msgr. Fenton by our steadfast resistance to this “new theology” even though it has, for the moment, gained control of the citadel.
1. The writer of the L’Espresso article was Carlo Falconi, one of the regular contributors to that journal.
2. Canon 247, § 1. The Code enumerates five tasks assigned to the Holy Office. The guardianship of the doctrine of the faith and morals is the first and most important of all of them.
3. The story is found on p. 13 of the foreign news bulletin of the NCWC News Service for December 10.
4. Mr. Wollemborg’s article is found on p. E4 of the Washington Post for December 16, 1962. The headline above it reads: “Recess an Aid to Catholic Liberals”. It is quite obvious from the context that Mr. Wollemborg and his employers would have found it equally advantageous to the Catholic liberals if the Council had been reconvened during this month of January.
Reprint: Catholic Family News October 2006