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Marian Controversy at the Second Vatican Council

In light of continued discussion regarding why the treatment of the Blessed Virgin Mary at the Second Vatican Council was not awarded its own chapter, but rather was included as a final chapter in the Council’s document on the Church (Lumen Gentium), we provide the following commentary by the respected journalist Fr. Ralph Wiltgen, S.V.D., on the specific details of the process that led to the placement of the Marian schema in the document on the Church. – Ed.

Throughout the preparatory stages of the Council, the schema on the Blessed Virgin Mary was alternately treated independently and as a chapter of another schema.

In January, 1963, following the close of the first session, the Coordinating Commission ruled at its first meeting that the schema “on the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church, is to be treated independently of the schema on the Church.” Because of this decision, the schema was reprinted and distributed to the Council Fathers, together with eleven others, before the second session. The only difference was in the wording of the title. Originally the title had read, “On the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God and Mother of Men”; now it read, “On the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church.”

An additional note on the title page specified that “the text will be changed only after suggestions are made by the Council Fathers.”

When the German and Austrian Council Fathers received their copies of the schema, they asked Father Rahner to prepare comments on it for presentation at the forthcoming Fulda conference.

According to Father Rahner, whose written comments were distributed to all participants in the conference, the schema as then drafted was “a source of the greatest concern” for himself and for Fathers Grillmeier, Semmelroth and Ratzinger, who had also examined it from a theological point of view. Were the text to be accepted as it stood, he contended, “unimaginable harm would result from an ecumenical point of view, in relation to both Orientals and Protestants.” It could not be too strongly stressed, he said, “that all the success achieved in the field of ecumenism through the Council and in connection with the Council will be rendered worthless by the retention of the schema as it stands.”

It would be too much to expect, continued Father Rahner, that the schema on the Blessed Virgin could be rejected as simply as the schema on the sources of revelation. It should therefore be urged “with all possible insistence” that the schema on the Blessed Virgin be made either a chapter or an epilogue of the schema on the Church.

“This would be the easiest way to delete from the schema statements which, theologically, are not sufficiently developed and which could only do incalculable harm from an ecumenical point of view. It would also prevent bitter discussion.”

Father Rahner contended further that the schema as it stood used “tactics which objectively are not honorable,” since “it declares that there is no intention of defining new dogmas, and at the same time presents certain teachings as though they already belonged to the doctrine of the Church, although they are not as yet dogmas and, from a modern theological standpoint, cannot become dogmas.”

What he attacked especially was the schema’s teaching on the mediation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the title “Mediatrix of all graces,” which it gave the Blessed Virgin. This teaching was not proposed as a dogma of faith, but rather as a doctrine commonly held by Catholics. Although the teaching was supported by many pronouncements of the ordinary teaching authority of the Church, especially by recent papal encyclicals, “this doctrine must nonetheless be carefully pondered anew,” for the schema would have “great influence on Mariology and on the devotion of the faithful to Mary.” If the word “mediation” were to be used at all, it must be most clearly defined.

Father Rahner painstakingly listed for the German and Austrian Council Fathers precisely what he felt should be changed or omitted in the existing schema. The whole substance of the schema, he contended, could be stated “without stirring up these difficulties and dangers.” And he suggested by way of conclusion that “the bishops of Austria, Germany and Switzerland” should consider themselves “forced to declare openly” that they could not accept the schema in its present form.

The Fulda conference adopted his suggestions with one major exception. He had been opposed to leaving the title “Mediatrix” in the text. But the proposals eventually submitted to the General Secretariat of the Council by the Fulda conference read as follows: “By far the greater part of the Council Fathers of Austria, Germany, Switzerland and Scandinavia are not absolutely opposed to retaining the words ‘Mediatrix’ and ‘mediation’ in the schema. However, it seems desirable that the expression, ‘Mediatrix of all graces’ should not be used.” These expressions, the Council Fathers explained, would raise the problem as to how the Virgin could be the Mediatrix of the sacramental graces flowing from the very nature of the sacraments themselves, “a question which might well be avoided.” They added, nevertheless, that the Theological Commission should weigh the reasons given by the minority for excluding the terms “Mediatrix” and “mediation” from the schema altogether.

The proposal officially submitted by the Fulda conference to the General Secretariat of the Council also quoted from Protestant writings. Bishop Dibelius, of the German Evangelical Church, was quoted as saying in 1962 that the Catholic Church’s teaching on Mary was one of the major impediments to union. Other German Protestant authorities, such as Hampe and Künneth, were quoted as saying that the Council Fathers in Rome should remember that they would be erecting a new wall of division by approving a schema on Mary. Therefore, these writers had concluded, the Council should either keep silence on the subject, or reprehend those guilty of excesses. More moderate Protestant writers, such as Professor Meinhold, were quoted as expressing the hope that, if the Council treated of the Blessed Virgin Mary at all, it would do so in the schema on the Church, since then “a new approach could be made to the doctrine on the Blessed Virgin.”

The topic before the thirty-seventh General Congregation, held on September 30, the first working meeting of the second session, was the revised schema on the Church. As the first speaker on this topic, Cardinal Frings of Cologne, stated that it would be most fitting to include in the schema on the Church everything pertaining to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Among other considerations, such action would do much to foster dialogue with the separated Christians. The Cardinal pointed out that his stand was endorsed by sixty-five German-speaking and Scandinavian Council Fathers.

Cardinal Silva Henríquez, of Santiago de Chile, was the first speaker on the following day. Speaking in the name of forty-four Latin American bishops, he said that devotion to the Virgin Mary in those countries at times went beyond the bounds of Christian devotion. If a separate dogmatic constitution were adopted on the Virgin Mary, it would be difficult for the faithful to relate the doctrine contained therein to the doctrine on Christian salvation as a whole. He therefore supported Cardinal Frings’ proposal that Catholic teaching on the Blessed Virgin be included in the schema on the Church. The same morning, Archbishop Gabriel Garrone, of Toulouse, speaking on behalf of “many French bishops,” also supported Cardinal Frings’ proposal. The theological image of the Church, he said, would be completed by the inclusion of all teaching on the Blessed Virgin in the teaching on the Church as a whole. Moreover, this would prove an antidote to devotional excesses, since the Virgin would not appear to be outside the providential plan of salvation, but rather as participating therein.

Two days later, Benjamin Cardinal de Ariba y Castro, of Tarragona, took the floor on behalf of sixty bishops, most of them from Spain. He argued that, contrary to what had been suggested at previous meetings, it would be preferable to adopt a separate schema on the Blessed Virgin, because of the importance of the Mother of God in the economy of redemption. However, if it should be decided to include this text in the schema on the Church, then an entire chapter should be devoted to it, preferably the second.

On October 4, the hierarchy of England and Wales circulated a letter drawing attention to a “draft for a chapter or epilogue on the Blessed Virgin Mary, to be included in the constitution on the Church.” This draft had been prepared as a substitute for the existing schema by Abbot Christopher Butler of Downside, Superior General of the English Benedictines “on the principle that the Council, especially in view of the ecumenical orientation set before it by the Holy Father, should as far as possible base the full modern Catholic understanding of Our Lady, including the dogmas defined in 1854 and 1950, on Holy Scripture and on the traditional evidence preceding the East-West rupture.” If fifty Council Fathers endorsed this substitute schema, according to a new procedural rule, it could be presented to the Cardinal Moderators, who would then be obliged to transmit it to the Coordinating Commission for consideration and a decision.

A booklet dated October 4 was circulated by the Servites (Order of the Servants of Mary) suggesting, among other things, that, if the reference to the “titles” of Mary was to be retained in the schema, then more than one such title should be given; in addition to the title of “Mediatrix” used in the schema, the title “Coredemptrix” would be appropriate.

Another booklet, bearing the same date, was circulated by Father Carolus Balić, a peritus on the Theological Commission, citing many reasons for retaining the schema on the Blessed Virgin Mary as a separate document. Numerous Council Fathers were quoted, including Cardinal Spellman, who had asked in a written intervention whether the schema could pass over in silence titles like Coredemptrix, Reparatrix, and others used by the Supreme Pontiffs, simply “because they would be rather difficult for Protestants to understand.” The Cardinal was opposed to this sort of reasoning, he said, because “the task of the Ecumenical Council is to teach the members of the Church, rather than those outside of it.”

On October 17, Cardinal Silva Henríquez officially submitted his own substitute schema on the Blessed Virgin Mary. He was aware, he said, that the hierarchy of England and Wales had also proposed a text. The one that he was submitting was intended simply as “a help in producing the definitive text.” Four days later, he circulated another draft, explaining that it had been produced by the Chilean bishops by combining their own schema with that of Abbot Butler and also with that of Canon René Laurentin of France, one of the periti.

On October 24, the Cardinal Moderators announced that so many Council Fathers had requested the inclusion of the schema on the Blessed Virgin Mary in the schema on the Church that a debate on the motives for and against such a proposal would be held that morning. Rufino Cardinal Santos, of Manila, Philippines, spoke first, giving reasons why the two schemas should be treated separately. “I humbly beg the Cardinal Moderators not to allow the vote to be taken on this question immediately,” he said, “but to grant a suitable amount of time to the Council Fathers for pondering over the matter and giving it prudent consideration.” Cardinal König of Vienna, a member of the Theological Commission like Cardinal Santos, then stressed the advantages of uniting the two schemas.

On the following day, a letter signed by five Eastern-rite Council Fathers was circulated, pointing out that “among the Orientals united to the Apostolic See, as well as among those separated from it, the Blessed Virgin Mary is very greatly honored,” and urging the Council Fathers to vote in favor of an independent schema on Our Lady.

A rebuttal to all arguments in favor of combining the schemas was circulated on October 27 by Servite Bishop Giocondo Grotti, of Acre e Purús, Brazil. As for the argument that a special schema should not be devoted to Mary because she was a member of the Church, the Bishop pointed out that she was not like other members; “because of her singular mission and singular privileges, she should receive singular treatment.” Turning to the argument that a separate schema on Mary would be taken as defining something new on Mary, the Bishop pointed out that the Council Fathers had many schemas before them, and no one claimed that those schemas were defining anything new. Another objection, he recalled, was that more honor would be given to Mary than to Christ. But from the text of the schema it was clear that Mary was “neither above nor against Christ.” He added that abuses in the devotion to Mary were not an argument against a separate schema, but rather in favor of it, since in a separate schema the truth could be more clearly presented. Bishop Grotti then asked:

“Does ecumenism consist in confessing or in hiding the truth? Ought the Council to explain Catholic doctrine, or the doctrine of our separated brethren?… Hiding the truth hurts both us and those separated from us. It hurts us, because we appear as hypocrites. It hurts those who are separated from us because it makes them appear weak and capable of being offended by the truth.” Bishop Grotti concluded his rebuttal with the plea, “Let the schemas be separated. Let us profess our faith openly. Let us be the teachers we are in the Church by teaching with clarity, and not hiding what is true.”

On October 29, a vote was taken on the following statement: “Does it please the Council Fathers that the schema on the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church, should be so arranged that it may become Chapter 6 of the schema on the Church?”

When the votes were counted, there were 1114 in favor of combining the two schemas; the required majority was only 1097. Father Rahner—and the European alliance—had won by a margin of seventeen votes.

This article was excerpted from The Rhine Flows into the Tiber: A History of Vatican II, Tan, 1985.

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