The visible church — by which I mean all organizations in which people unite for the specific purpose of worshiping Christ as their Lord — has a divine mission, but it is also, and unavoidably, a human institution. In Episcopalianism, one is regularly dismayed by the vicious invective of liberal Episcopalians against conservative ones, and vice versa; similar phenomena afflict all groups and denominations. Sometimes, though, it’s good to focus on this aspect of church relationships precisely to be reminded of the fundamental (not just Protestant, but generic-Christian) insight that man is not, finally, saved by his own virtues and exertions but by the grace of God.
The Liturgical Press, of Collegeville, Minn., has just published a blisteringly honest personal document that shows the very human side of the church. My Journal of the Council makes available, in English translation, the diary Father Yves Congar kept at the Vatican II Council, chronicling his immediate impressions day by day, almost minute by minute, of the passionate struggles among ecclesiastics trying to set the course for the Roman Catholic Church in the post-war world. The Vatican is devoted to religion, but it is also, much like our own Pentagon or EPA, a bureaucracy; and so, much space in the book is devoted to minute accounts of committee hagglings over the wordings of proposed documents. That, too, is a very human element; homo bureaucraticus is a legitimate part of the inheritance of our species. But every few pages, something like this leaps out at the reader: “That an imbecile, a sub-human like [Giuseppe Cardinal] Pizzardo should be in charge of the department for universities and seminaries is scandalous and extremely serious. . . . This wretched freak, this sub-mediocrity with no culture, no horizon, no humanity. . . . This Pizzardo, who has red pyjamas and underpants, [this is a joke about the love some senior clerics have for red cardinalatial finery — MP] . . . who haggles over the purchase of a newspaper . . . What a frightful comedy!”
Tell us what you really think, Father Congar! That is what LBJ would have called “history with the bark off.”
Father Congar’s side — for want of a better word, the liberals (the prominent theologian Josef Ratzinger was one of his allies) — generally prevailed at Vatican II, with consequences that are still controversial to this day. He died in 1995 — but not before having been himself named a cardinal by Bl. Pope John Paul II. So the next time you get into a heated argument with someone on church matters, picture to yourself the late Cardinal Pizzardo greeting Cardinal Congar laughingly at the Pearly Gates: “Hey, Congar! What color are your pyjamas?” Think of that as the ecclesiastical equivalent of the old public speaker’s strategy of picturing the audience in its underwear: We all do our best to advance the opinions we’ve developed, but the final disposition is in wiser Hands than ours, and we should prepare ourselves to let go of our personal animosities. Winning votes in a church council, or a secular parliament, is not our ultimate destiny, and our goal and hope is to meet in a different sort of place entirely.
My Journal of the Council is a must-read for anyone with an interest in the nitty-gritty of church history. Many of the details will bore non-specialists, but the personal nuggets — funny, angry, wistful — frequently remind the reader that this is a scorchingly honest book. We’re lucky to have it.