The Debate on Divine Revelation Was a Pivotal Moment of Vatican II

COMMENTARY: A glimpse at the development of the constitution ‘Dei Verbum’ makes clear the role of Scripture and Tradition as the supreme rule of faith.

Pope John XXIII celebrates the opening Mass of the Second Vatican Council Oct. 11, 1962 at St. Peter's Basilica. A little over a month later, the Council Fathers concluded their debate on the Sacred Liturgy. Then they would tackle the issue of divine Revelation.
Pope John XXIII celebrates the opening Mass of the Second Vatican Council Oct. 11, 1962 at St. Peter's Basilica. A little over a month later, the Council Fathers concluded their debate on the Sacred Liturgy. Then they would tackle the issue of divine Revelation. (photo: AFP via Getty )

The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council finished their debate on the Sacred Liturgy on Nov. 13, 1962, at the end of the 18th general session. Despite various areas of disagreement, the assembly was generally happy with the proposed draft for a constitution on the liturgy. The next day, in a preliminary vote, the Council Fathers voted overwhelmingly to express their approval of the text.

However, such broad consensus would not last long. The next topic of discussion for the Council was a draft text on “Sources of Revelation” which would eventually result in the dogmatic constitution on divine Revelation, Dei Verbum. The proposed document sought to respond to the need, widely recognized during the preparation of the Council, for a presentation of the Catholic teaching regarding sacred Scripture.

From the preparatory phase onward, many commission members and theologians expressed their dissatisfaction with the draft on Revelation prepared by the Theological Commission. Before the text was even discussed on the Council floor, various alternatives were already circulating among the Council Fathers.

So when Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani presented the draft to open the Council’s discussion on Nov. 14, 1962, he was already on the defensive. The Italian cardinal criticized the circulation of the alternative drafts as being contrary to canon law. He went on to address some of the criticisms that had been made against the draft: that it was not pastoral enough and that it did not incorporate more recent theology.

Cardinal Ottaviani asserted that the Council should speak clearly and concisely, following the centuries-old praxis of councils. Against the latter criticism of not including enough newer theology, he asserted that the speech of the Council should be the “inspiration of the ages, not of a particular school, which is here today and perhaps tomorrow is thrown into the oven.”

Cardinal Ottaviani was followed by the Italian priest and biblical scholar Salvatore Garofalo, who read a brief explanation, or relatio, of the draft, as was customary to begin debate on a document. Father Garofalo described the extensive process by which the document had been prepared according to the wishes of bishops and prelates, and had then passed through extensive revision before being sent to the Council. He then briefly outlined the subject of the document.

An initial chapter dealt with the “double font of Revelation” (that is, Scripture and Tradition). A second chapter focused on divine inspiration, inerrancy, and literary composition of sacred Scripture. There were separate chapters on the Old Testament and the New Testament, and a final chapter that reviewed the role of sacred Scripture in the Church. For all the criticisms and later changes that the draft would undergo, these same elements would end up being reflected in the final version of Dei Verbum.

After Father Garofalo gave a passionate defense of what he termed the “pastoral” tone of the document, the Council debate began. Immediately, strong criticisms appeared, starting with French Cardinal Achille Liénart. He adamantly asserted that the draft non placet (“does not please”) because “in its whole tenor it seems to be wholly inadequate to the matter which it intends to deal with.”

Taking up a theological debate of the time, he objected that, in speaking of the “two sources” of Revelation, sacred Scripture and Tradition, the draft omitted to mention the single source — the word of God — from which Scripture and Tradition come. Furthermore, he stated that the proposed text dealt with its theme in a manner that was “cold” and “excessively scholastic,” inappropriate for expressing the reality of God’s loving speech to mankind.

While the Council as a whole showed great respect for the Church’s scholastic tradition of thought, the Council Fathers would sometimes invoke “scholastic” in this way to manifest the need for a language that was less academic and more resonant with contemporary man. Cardinal Liénart urged the Council to look beyond “reasonings” and “arguments” and to put more emphasis on faith in God’s word.

Some Council Fathers defended the proposed text. Italian Cardinal Ernesto Ruffini expressed his pleasure with it and questioned the prudence of wholly rejecting it, as some were proposing. Still, the greater part of the conciliar assembly felt that the draft needed a profound change in tone.

Perhaps the most powerful of the critiques was the one offered by a Belgian theologian, Bishop Émile-Joseph De Smedt. He spoke in the name of the Secretariat for Christian Unity, a special body created by Pope John XXIII during the preparation of the Council. Recognizing the various opinions present among the Council Fathers, Bishop De Smedt asked aloud: “What is required in a doctrine or in the style of a draft so that it might really be useful to obtain a better dialogue between Catholics and non-Catholics?”

The Belgian bishop proceeded to review centuries of divisions among Christians. For many centuries, he noted, Catholics had thought it enough to make a clear and complete exposition of doctrine; non-Catholics had opined similarly. However, Bishop De Smedt asserted that such an approach had been counterproductive: that which was said by Catholics was misunderstood by non-Catholics, and vice versa. Instead of progress, he noted, the result of this method had been the growth of “prejudices, suspicions and quarrels.”

In the face of this impasse, Bishop De Smedt went on to make mention of a “new method” that had developed in the past decades: “ecumenical dialogue.” The characteristic of this method, he stated, was not just the concern for truth, but also for how doctrine would be explained so that it might be understood by others correctly and exactly.

This ecumenical approach, as the Belgian bishop stated, did not involve any kind of indifference to the truth — rather, Bishop De Smedt firmly avowed that an ecumenical approach must faithfully illustrate the complete and integral Catholic teaching on a given topic.

At the same time, he continued, the Council was called to carry out this task with an accurate knowledge of the outlook of Orthodox and Protestants, with special attention to ways of expression that might be difficult for non-Catholics to understand. In particular, he claimed that a way of speaking inspired by the Bible and the Fathers of the Church, rather than a scholastic or abstract approach, would be more effective for dialogue with Christians from the East.

Bishop De Smedt stated that the current text lacked this ecumenical character, and he offered an explanation for why this was the case. He recalled how Pope John XXIII had brought together experts in ecumenism in the Secretariat for Christian Unity. These experts had the mission of helping the preparatory commissions, in particular the Theological Commission, to write the drafts for the Council documents in a truly ecumenical way. However, Bishop De Smedt continued, the doctrinal commission had repeatedly refused this help.

Having offered this context, the Belgian bishop closed his speech with an impassioned plea: “The time is providential, but the time is grave.” If the Theological Commission did not write in another way, the Council Fathers would be annihilating the great, immense hope of many that the Council would take a significant step toward unity among Christians.

Upon finishing these words, the Council assembly broke out in applause. Bishop De Smedt had clearly articulated a sentiment that was deeply felt among the Council Fathers. He had given voice to a new way of expressing the truth that would be vital for the Council and for the Church in the modern world.

However, the emergence of this new attitude would not come as simply the victory of one side over another. In fact, when the matter was put up for a vote on Nov. 20, 1962, a majority of Council Fathers voted to stop the debate, but not enough to reach the two-thirds majority that would be needed to interrupt discussion of the official draft.

The next day, however, the Council’s meeting opened with the announcement that the Holy Father had decided to create a special commission that would be entrusted with the task of revising the draft. This body would be “mixed,” composed of members of the Theological Commission as well as the Secretariat for Christian Unity. The mission of this commission would be not to make a completely new text, but rather to improve the existing draft, shortening and completing it in a more “apt way,” with a focus on more general principles.

In other words, the revised text on Revelation — the document we now know as Dei Verbum — would take on a new style, more understandable to non-Catholics, but it would preserve continuity with the earlier draft. Along with this more ecumenical style, the final text would take into account the wishes of other Council Fathers who had a different type of concern.

Shortly after the decision to send the draft for revisions, 19 cardinals wrote a five-page letter to Pope John XXIII, asking that the Council might affirm a set of key doctrinal principles in the face of the “errors and deviations of our time.” The constitution Dei Verbum would in fact respond to these desires, for example, through its strong affirmation of the historical character of the Gospels and its assertion that Tradition, along with Scripture, forms part of the “supreme rule of faith.”

While holding to these and other key elements of the Church’s doctrine, Dei Verbum would take a new step forward in the Church’s presentation of her teaching. Going beyond the more theoretical approach of the initial draft, the final document on divine Revelation describes in all vividness the reality of God’s desire to enter into living contact with man:

“Through this revelation, therefore, the invisible God out of the abundance of His love speaks to men as friends and lives among them, so that He may invite and take them into fellowship with Himself.”

The various theological categories present in the initial draft — Scripture, Tradition and the Church; Old and New Testament, divine inspiration and human authorship — appear more clearly within the bigger framework of God’s loving dialogue with mankind.

The concern to denounce error present in the initial draft (with phrases such as “The Church completely rejects …”) is replaced by a positive, yet no less firm, profession of faith regarding God’s revelation to mankind. Among the key truths affirmed in the text, Dei Verbum forcefully states that “the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation.”

In these and other ways, this landmark constitution manifests a Church seeking to remain ever faithful to the deposit of faith that she has received from Christ, and ever aware that the word of God is “living and active” (Hebrews 4:12) and capable of speaking to mankind in new and compelling ways.