Erasmus and the Second Vatican Council

John Courtney Murray referred to the development of doctrine as the “issue under the issues” at Vatican II.[1] Whether the Council Fathers considered changing the practice of liturgy, the teaching on religious freedom, or the teaching on revelation, they confronted the challenge of expressing the unchanging Truth to a changing world. Of course, this was not the first time the Church had found itself in this position. Most notably, over 400 years earlier, Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli and others broke with Rome to found new Christian communities that they felt better expressed the Truth and witness of Christ. Prior to and during the early stages of the Protestant Reformation, Erasmus of Rotterdam emerged as an influential voice of reform who advocated change without breaking the unity of the Church. At the beginning of the Reformation, Luther and Erasmus were cautious allies, but “by 1521 it was clear to Erasmus that Luther did not intend a gradual reform within the old faith, but a fundamental recasting of traditional doctrines and practices.”[2]

Erasmus’ vision of gradual reform without breaking the unity of the Church almost triumphed at the papal election of 1549. During that conclave, Reginald Pole, a very pious cardinal from England, received 24 of the 28 necessary votes.[3] Born in 1500 and a nephew of Henry VIII, Reginald Pole received his education from scholars and teachers under the influence of Thomas More and John Colet, the great English humanists who were close friends and colleagues of Erasmus of Rotterdam. Reginald Pole, in a word, was an Erasmian.[4] Like Erasmus, he argued for Church reform along humanist lines. Had he been elected pope, it is possible that the Council of Trent would have advanced Roman Catholic Church reform with a greater focus on Scripture, pastoral practice, and piety, and with more emphasis on the unity of the Church. Instead, the status of the Council languished through two ineffectual papacies until Pius IV finally called for the final session in 1562. By this point in history, unification was impossible.

Because over 400 years elapsed between Erasmus and Vatican II, it would be foolish to claim that the reform agendas were identical. However, we might claim that Vatican II in some ways validated Erasmus and his ideas of reform. The comparisons are illuminating and in this essay, I hope to show the clear and surprising parallels between Erasmus’ vision of Church reform and the vision of Church reform that triumphed at the Second Vatican Council.

Erasmus lived a peripatetic life from the time he left his monastery at Steyn in 1493 until his death in Basel at Jerome Froben’s house on July 12, 1536.[5] Among the most prolific authors of his day, Erasmus fit the description of the first “best selling” author, moving around Europe, living in England, Italy, Paris, Louvain, Freiburg, and Basel. Connected to the most influential people of his time, Erasmus offered advice and consultation to kings, popes, and the emperor. Erasmus’ publications (and there were many!) mattered. Read closely by all, Erasmus held a position of influence from which he advocated an agenda of reform that moved first along educational lines and then along Church lines.

Erasmus aimed to change the focus of education from philosophy and de-contextualized truth claims (a primary occupation of Scholastics) to literature, particularly classical literature, Scripture, and the writings of the early Church. With this change, Erasmus and other humanists “proposed that one could be authentically human by being a Christian, and be a Christian by being human.”[6] Erasmus saw a literary education as more suitable to the human person and more fitting to the authentic Christian life. What was true and orthodox was important. The Christian life, however, was more about emulating Christ in one’s own life. For example, transubstantiation was and is true, but did the Apostles know about it? Perhaps they did, but only as the implicit truth in their practice of Eucharist.

Prior to the Reformation, Erasmus translated the works of the early Church into Latin, translated and provided commentaries on many books of the Bible, and wrote many works (including several hilarious satires) criticizing the Church and many of the ecclesial customs of the day. These works, especially the Enchiridion militis christiani (Handbook of a Christian Soldier), offered themes of personal piety, practices, and attitudes of an authentic Christian life that contrasted with contemporary ways. Erasmus often advocated scripturally-based ideas intended to invoke an interior conversion expressed in a peaceful moral life that imitated the life of Christ.[7] In letters and other short works, Erasmus often broadly identified all of these ideas and practices as philosophia Christi, the philosophy of Christ.[8] For Erasmus, the philosophy of Christ described an interior disposition not specifically connected to any particular practice or way of life, such as monasticism.[9]

In contrast, many religious practices of Erasmus’ time derived from an exterior understanding of the economy of God’s grace managed by the Church. Widespread monasticism and episcopal authority enforced an operative theological environment out of which grew numerous activities designed to credit one’s account or one’s family’s in order to balance or outweigh any debits with God. In this environment, Church leaders played a critical role as accountants and arbiters of these graces. This position opened the door for widespread abuse of indulgences, such as the indulgence sale that prompted Martin Luther to write his Ninety-Five Theses.[10]

From the early 1500s through the early stages of the Protestant Reformation, Erasmus and a large network of humanist scholars emphasized:

  • a return to the sources of Christianity, both Scripture (sacrae litterae) and the early Church Fathers;
  • a focus on classical Greek and Latin literature (bonae litterae); and
  • a focus on languages—especially Greek, Latin, and Hebrew—as critical to a complete education.

These educational foci turned the reader and interpreter of Scripture away from a predominantly allegorical understanding of Scripture toward a more literary and literal understanding of Scripture. Medieval scholastics had become so enamored of allegorical interpretations that they often found symbolic and spiritual meanings with little justification from the literal sense or the literary genre of the text. Hence, for Erasmus and his fellow humanists, biblical stories—particularly those found in the Gospels interpreted as stories worthy of emulation in one’s own life—seemed an adequate task for biblical scholarship. Further, the advancement of this type of biblical scholarship needed good translations from the original Greek into Erasmus’ contemporary Latin.

Erasmus’ 1516 translation of the New Testament, dedicated to Pope Leo X, presents a good example of how his concern for language had a strong impact on the life of believers and changed the Church. Erasmus’ translation was the first in nearly 1,000 years (!) and lessened many scholars’ slavish dependence upon the Vulgate. This dependence had become problematic because of the many errors due to repeated hand-copied versions and also because many scholars operated as if the Vulgate was not a translation. The importance of Erasmus’ work cannot be overstated. Luther immediately went to work on his German New Testament based upon his translation.[11] Other vernacular translations followed, and Erasmus’ work became the seed of a fruit tree that fed many with scriptural passages in their native languages.

Unlike the humanists, the scholastic theologians of Erasmus’ day occupied themselves with philosophical questions of a highly abstract nature. While Erasmus found little to criticize in St. Thomas Aquinas’ writing, he was very troubled by Thomas’ scholastic descendants, who often devoted a tremendous amount of time investigating and debating questions that had little bearing on everyday life and on the lives of the Christian faithful. The proverbial example, “How many angels could fit on the head of a pin?” fueled academic debates as much as did questions such as “Could God have entered the world as a pebble or a donkey?” Erasmus’ satires, particularly his Praise of Folly, excoriated theologians of his day.[12]

For Erasmus, the times called for more relevant theology tied to the stories of Scripture and connected to the lives of the faithful. ‘Back to the sources’ was his motto (and that of all humanists), and he wanted theologians to focus on Scripture. Erasmus wanted theologians to view Scripture as the privileged authority in theology but also in dialogue with the Tradition, particularly the early Church Fathers.[13] The purpose of their work was to translate and interpret the original Christian message and the Word of God found in Scripture into a language relevant to the lives of sixteenth-century people. Or, as Erasmus himself said, “This indeed is true theology, to define that only which is clearly contained in sacred Scripture.”[14]

Because Erasmus viewed the task of a theologian as translation and interpretation of Scripture for the contemporary believer, he considered Church dogma, canon law, and ecclesiastical practice subject “to criticism from the standpoint of the biblical text.”[15] Many theologians of Erasmus’ day would have viewed this as highly controversial and perhaps heretical. The focus on scholastic commentary and the authority of the Church itself had become so strong that to suggest Sacred Scripture played an equally central and authoritative role in their work drove many theologians to plot intrigues against Erasmus.

The challenge Erasmus faced was the same fundamental challenge faced at Vatican II: the development of doctrine. From the Council of Constance (1414–1418) through the invention of the printing press (c. 1445) up to the beginnings of the Reformation, European society changed dramatically, becoming more urban, monetized, and literate. As the modern, European-centered world of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries became even more urban, wealthy, and literate, it also became more scientific, technologically focused, and automated. How does a Church that proclaims the Truth adjust to the reality that society changes over time in a manner that requires a new expression of the Truth? The answer lies in an understanding of the development of doctrine and appreciating the proper relationship between Sacred Scripture and Tradition.[16]

Erasmus did not find Tradition at odds with Sacred Scripture. Rather, he found Tradition, particularly that of the early Church Fathers, as explanatory of Scripture and not separated from it.[17] He “recognized in ecclesial consensus the sure sign of authentic interpretation of the Scriptures.”[18] He saw Tradition as the expression of a consensus interpretation of the Truth revealed in Scripture “to be evidenced by a constant agreement across the centuries in ecclesial records.”[19] For Erasmus, the Creed primarily, though not exclusively, met this standard. Hence, Erasmus considered wide areas of Church practice and teaching open to reform.

After the Reformation began, Erasmus wrote a number of works that examined specific aspects of Church doctrine and practice. In his “Diatribe Concerning Free Will,” Erasmus used Scripture and the Tradition to argue for the free will of humanity in relationship with God’s will for salvation, as opposed to Luther’s claims that free will was a fiction.[20] Erasmus made these arguments because events of the day required them. In his work on free will and other issues, Erasmus often focused on the centrality of the Creed, the peacefulness of Christ, and the importance of maintaining Christian unity. In such a vein he often minimized the differences between the protestors and Rome.

These consistent themes rode the middle ground of the Protestant Reformation and destined his reform movement for failure. By 1530, Protestant reform had coalesced into ecclesial and political communities. Martin Luther and other Protestant leaders criticized Erasmus as weak for not having the courage to leave Rome. The leaders of Roman Catholicism, on the other hand, blamed Erasmus for starting the Reformation and for not denouncing Martin Luther sooner, more often, and with more force.[21] During the 1530s and 1540s after Erasmus’ death, several more attempts to unify the protestors and Rome failed. When the election of Reginald Pole to the papacy also failed, followed by the election of the scandalous Julius III, the short-lived Marcellus II (22 days as Pope), and the rigid Paul IV, any hope of reunification ended.

Because Erasmus devoted much of his time to the translation and publication of patristic writings, and because he also wrote in response to events and challenges of his time, he never wrote a formal theological or ecclesiological work. Culled from Erasmus’ early works about piety and reform, however, and distilled from his later works concerned with the crisis of the Reformation, is a clear vision of the Christian community. For Erasmus, the hallmarks of both Church reform and the hallmarks of a true Christian community were:

  • an educational program that emphasizes a return to the sources of Christianity, specifically Sacred Scripture and the early Church Fathers;
  • a focus on Sacred Scripture as the privileged voice of the Word of God whose stories need to be emulated and whose authority arbitrates other expressions of Truth, for example the Creed, Church doctrine, and canon law; and
  • a focus on an interior piety and pastoral practice that relates to the real lives of the faithful, facilitating a peaceful Christian community.[22]

Each of these hallmarks matches a primary theme of Vatican II. The ressourcement of the “New Theology” movement provided the theological strength in arguments for many of the debates and documents produced by the Council. The emphasis on Sacred Scripture and biblical scholarship’s central role in the life of the Church found its expression in many of the Constitutions, Decrees, and Declarations of Vatican II. Further, the aggiornamento called for by Pope St. John XXIII found expression in (among many other expressions) the idea of the Church as first and foremost a “divine mystery” and the “People of God” who have a “universal call to holiness,” before the Church is also understood as a hierarchical institution.[23] These themes match Erasmus’ emphasis on the interior faith lives of believers and not the external pietistic practices of the Church. Finally, Vatican II’s emphasis on Christian unity and the advancement of an ecumenical agenda grew from the ressourcement of theologians like Henri de Lubac, who clearly showed in writings such as Catholicism that the early Church Fathers held Christian unity as a paramount concern, which is the same reason Erasmus held unity as a paramount concern.[24]

Of course, as previously stated, each of these Vatican II themes points to the more fundamental challenge Vatican II shared with the Reformation: the development of doctrine. How does an institution that holds the deposit of faith and whose mission is to pass this Truth onward change? The very notion of Truth implies an unchanging idea and conservative forces during both Erasmus’ time and the time of Vatican II resisted change because the proposed changes appeared as an assault upon what was true.

As historical events, both the Reformation and Vatican II present examples of Church authority negotiating the relationship between the truth revealed in Scripture and the Tradition that expresses that truth for the contemporary faithful. For the Reformation, Erasmus advocated ideas about theological reform that incited book burnings and claims of heresy. In Erasmus’ day, one did not challenge the authority of the Church lightly. In the Church’s defense, she had to uphold the Truth because it was her primary mission. In fact, Luther himself claimed that he fought so hard against the Pope and Rome precisely because the Truth was at stake. Likewise during the mid-twentieth century, the Roman-centric theology—advocated by what became the minority position at Vatican II and primarily embodied in the leadership of Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani—strongly emphasized Church authority in order to defend the Truth against the dangers of the modern age. The Roman theology of the time came to see Tradition and the Magisterium as another source of revelation equal to that of Scripture. In fact, the first schema on revelation, debated publicly in St. Peter’s during the first session of the Council, contained this notion of two sources of revelation. Such a misinterpretation of the Council of Trent, Vatican I, and the long history of the Church alarmed many bishops and theologians during the pre-conciliar period.

Because any discussion of revelation involves foundational theological ideas, the debate on revelation, which followed the first and rather smooth debate on Sacrosanctum Concilium, became contentious quickly and took on symbolic importance defining the future movement of the Second Vatican Council and Catholicism. Viewed both at that time and in hindsight as the pivotal week of Vatican II, the debates during the week of November 14–21, 1962 concerned both the sources of revelation and the relationship between Sacred Scripture and Tradition in what became known as the third schema of Dei Verbum according to Alois Grillmeier’s summary, though at the time the schema was entitled De Fontibus.[25] The Pope wanted the Council to take a sensitive and pastoral stance: to look forward.

The common judgment that the evolution of this document and, in particular, the pivotal week of November 14–21, 1962 represented a turning point for the Council and for the entire Catholic Church is not an understatement.[26] The debate represented a turning point because during that week the “behind-the-scenes” work of almost exclusively European bishops and theologians, which had begun during the preparatory period, began to turn the Council Fathers away from the dogmatic orientation of the schema toward “the papal emphasis on the pastoral nature” of what the Council could be.[27]

Theological resistance to the schema prepared by Ottaviani and his Theological Commission grew almost as soon as the documents were released in the summer of 1962. European theologians (e.g., Karl Rahner, Edward Schillibeeckx, and Yves Congar) worked closely with their bishops to fashion new schemata that emphasized the pastoral intentions of John XXIII and contained the theological insights and developments of both the “New Theology” movement and Catholic biblical scholarship of the previous decades.[28]

The political energy to resist the anti-modernist and doctrinally focused efforts of the Roman School of theology gained momentum among the world’s bishops only after John XXIII’s opening address, Gaudet Mater Ecclesia. The Pope emphasized a positive approach. He did not want the Church to remain in a negative stance toward the world as a “prophet of doom always forecasting disaster.” Rather, he wanted the Council to take a sensitive and pastoral stance: to look forward, not be afraid to change when needed, not be constrained by the methods and forms of the nineteenth century, and to look toward ecclesial and human unity as its goal.[29]

De Fontibus began as a simple outline of thirteen points prepared by the Theological Commission in October of 1960. A special sub-commission then wrote a six-chapter document from the original thirteen points and presented it to the Papal Commission on February 13, 1961. “A typical product of the scholastic mind,” the document “reflected the classical positions taken in Catholic controversial literature.”[30] Of note, the first chapter explained the “two fold source of revelation.” In addition to applying the word “source” to both Sacred Scripture and Tradition, the draft claimed that Tradition alone was the source of some truths. Further revisions trimmed the document to five chapters and the Theological Commission submitted the document to the Central Commission on October 4, 1961. Some, including the Secretariat for Christian Unity, made suggestions for improvement, but the special sub-commission remained largely autonomous. It appears that the sub-commission members employed the suggestions as they saw fit. The Theological Commission sent the final schema, entitled De Fontibus Revelationis, to all Council Fathers during the summer of 1962.

Many Council Fathers immediately recognized the content and style of De Fontibus because the document proved a perfect reflection of the many seminary textbooks that they had read during their younger days. Joseph Ratzinger described the document as “frigid” in tone and “a canonization of Roman School theology.”[31] In particular, the schema contained none of the ideas expressed in Pius XII’s 1943 encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu. Nor did it reflect the advancements of the Pontifical Biblical Institute’s work of the past 30 years. Instead, the document expressed the anti-modernist, defensive theology that placed the Magisterium as the authoritative interpreter of Sacred Scripture and turned Sacred Scripture into a distant inspiration of Truth. From this intellectual stance, the Magisterium becomes the authoritative dispenser of truth propositions. Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani’s Theological Commission wanted to perpetuate the understanding of faith as a propositional assent to truth instead of a biblically inspired lived faith that engages a person not merely intellectually but in their totality.[32] The document exemplified the attitude of the “prophets of doom.”

Furthermore, had this document and its theological viewpoint prevailed, ecumenical efforts with Protestant denominations would have ended, thus violating one of the primary purposes of the Council, to be pastoral and ecumenical in spirit. “The Bible is the natural point of dialogue” between Catholics and Protestants. If Vatican II was committed to advancing the cause of unity, then “it seems inconceivable that it (the Council and its members) would set forth on so anti-ecumenical a course” so early in the Council.[33] The goal of the Council as a step toward Christian unity—a unity that Erasmus tried to preserve over 400 years earlier—became the highest priority for many, most especially Augustin Cardinal Bea, Head of the Vatican’s Secretariat for Christian Unity.

As theological and emerging political resistance to the schema organized around the bishops of several European countries, the two alternate schema written by Karl Rahner and Edward Schillebeeckx garnered much attention.[34] Both Rahner and Schillebeeckx provided significant critique of the text. Rahner’s alternate text, though, unlike Schillebeeckx’s, made the strong suggestion that the present schema be put aside.

In any case, the observations of both men provided precise and specific tools for those who were dissatisfied with the preparatory schema, nearly all of the arguments found in their texts would be used during the discussions in the hall.[35]

In addition to European bishops and theologians, Cardinal Bea provided strong resistance. During the preparatory period his Secretariat for Christian Unity developed a votum summary that called for some basic absolutes or minimum requirements for the document. Among a list of eight statements, these ideas included:

  • that Sacred Scripture and Tradition are not two sources but closely united expressions of the revelation of God,
  • that all truths expressed in the Tradition are contained in Sacred Scripture, and
  • that the Magisterium with the help of the Holy Spirit is an authority that safeguards the Truth contained in the Word of God but is ultimately subordinate to the Word of God.[36]

The votum was a part of a report titled On Tradition and Scripture that was forwarded to the Theological Commission, which evidently ignored it.[37] On November 9, 1962, the Secretariat for Christian Unity under the leadership of Cardinal Bea met at the Hotel Columbus to prepare for the coming debate. The Secretariat, which was soon to become a Commission, devised an oppositional strategy that addressed many particular concerns, such as De Fontibus’ claim of two sources of revelation. It also addressed the broader concern that the document needed a more pastoral tone in order to satisfy the Pope’s desire that the Council adopt an overall pastoral and ecumenical agenda. The ultimate success of the public strategy rested as much on the theological ideas as it did on the political significance that a curial cardinal and the head of a Vatican commission opposed the schema.

While the alternate schema and the report on Sacred Scripture and Tradition along with its votum captured a theological consensus in opposition to De Fontibus, Cardinal Bea himself provided the political space for a large oppositional episcopal consensus. The publicly known consensus up to the beginning of the debate held large numbers of German, French, Dutch, Belgian, and Austrian bishops. The Italians, along with some Spanish bishops, seemed squarely in the Roman camp that supported adoption of the schema. But where would the English and North Americans go? What about the Central and South Americans or Asian and African bishops? Many of these bishops met with their national conferences and an oppositional awareness grew, though not strong enough to predict the outcome. With both sides set as the debate approached, it became increasingly clear that this debate would become the defining moment of the Council. There was no room in between. The difference between the theological viewpoint of the schema and the theological viewpoint of its opposition was stark and many could see this. Fr. Otto Semmelroth, an official peritus at the Council, wrote in his journal on November 13, 1962, “Tomorrow the discussion of the schema De Fontibus Revelationis begins. The battles will be bitter.”[38]

Though formal debate opened on November 14, 1962 (the nineteenth General Congregation), clearly the debate had already begun. Aware that momentum continued to grow against his schema, Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani, the head of the pre-conciliar Theological Commission and the newly elected president of the Conciliar Doctrinal Commission, defended the document against anticipated objection rather than introducing the document for debate. His remarks included a procedural objection to suggesting new schema, claiming that it was beyond the authority of the Council Fathers to reject the schema. In addition, so as not to offend the Pope whose opening address had emphasized a pastoral approach, he indirectly suggested that writing in a pastoral tone was not the role of an ecumenical council. The role of the ecumenical council was to assert what is true. Ottaviani emphasized that pastoral action found its effectiveness in clear doctrine and he further implied that parish priests and others could take what is true and make it pastoral.[39] Msgr. Salvatore Garofalo, official reporter of the schema, spoke next and briefly outlined the document for the Council. Then the dam broke.

Achille Cardinal Lienart (Cardinal-Archbishop of Lille, president of the French Episcopal Conference, member of the Central Preparatory Commission, and a member of the Council of Presidents) rose at once:

This schema does not please me. It is not adequate to the matter it purports to deal with, namely Scripture and Tradition. There are not and never have been two sources of revelation. There is only one fount of revelation—the Word of God, the good news announced by the prophets and revealed by Christ. The Word of God is the unique source of revelation. This schema is a cold and scholastic formulation, while revelation is a supreme gift of God—God speaking directly to us. We should be thinking more along the lines of our separated brothers who have such a love and veneration for the Word of God. Our duty now is to cultivate the faith of our people and cease to condemn. Hence I propose this schema be entirely refashioned.[40]

Cardinal Frings of Cologne followed, “Non placet.” He then added his objections to the pastoral tone of the document and his concerns to the ecumenical problems the document could create. To sharply define the choice before the Council, Cardinal Ruffini of Sicily followed the German Cardinal, stating that the choice before them “is at the heart of and matter of the Council.” He expressed his pleasure with the document and, while he had some suggestions for improvement, felt that they could not reject the document. Cardinal Siri (Archbishop of Genoa) followed and supported Cardinal Ruffini’s comments reemphasizing the importance of true doctrine. Then, a strong succession of cardinals (Montreal, Vienna, Utrect, and Brussels-Malines) demolished the “Ottaviani thesis” that held the formulaic expression of doctrine over the pastoral concerns of the Pope. As the momentum against the schema grew, Cardinal Ritter, Archbishop of St. Louis, joined the fray calling for outright rejection, “adding that the schema was calculated to inspire not love for the Bible but rather servile fear.”[41]

The problem of the two sources of revelation expressed in the schema peppered and sparked the remarks of many oppositional speakers. In addition, many speakers mentioned the relationship between Scripture and Tradition, biblical inerrancy, and the historical accuracy of some sections of the Bible. But the biggest, broadest, and most significant issue was “the very purpose of the Council.”[42] Cardinal Bea expressed this central issue in the clearest terms when he spoke during the first day of the debate; his comments captured the broad implications. He stated:

(a) The Pope has given the Council a pastoral purpose;

(b) the Council has already made this purpose its own in its opening ‘message’; and

(c) the need now is consciously to ratify this purpose by rejecting a schema that runs counter to it.[43]

Debate progressed for several days as speeches adopted a sharper tone. Of note, one member of the Theological Commission strongly disagreed with Cardinal Ottaviani’s defense that members of the Pontifical Biblical Institute were on the commission and approved of the schema. According to the chronicle of Xavier Rynne, this unnamed member even publicly claimed that Cardinal Ottaviani had lied because the Cardinal in fact maneuvered to remove from the commission members of the Pontifical Biblical Institute.[44] Further, on November 19, 1962, Bishop de Smedt of Bruges spoke on behalf of the Secretariat for Christian Unity regarding the poor ecumenical quality of the document.[45] Bishop de Smedt voiced a clear argument against Scholasticism and for a biblical and patristic based teaching that would aid ecumenism. He also indicted Cardinal Ottaviani and the Theological Commission for refusing to accept any reports or suggestions from the Secretariat for Christian Unity during the pre-conciliar period. Tensions were clearly rising. [46]

Throughout the week, the debates seesawed between opposition against and support for the schema. Ottaviani knew things were changing because many theologians were sponsoring talks and lectures all over Rome to help bishops understand the issues. In this fluid and frenetic environment leaders of both camps knew that many wanted the schema rejected but also understood that many were hesitant to vote against it. Many bishops were learning on the fly and no one could predict where they would land.

Finally, on November 20 at 10:30am during the twenty-third General Congregation, Secretary General Felici halted debate stating that a proposal by the Council Presidents would be put to a vote. Many considered what followed as a dramatic moment of trickery implemented by the minority as the last desperate attempt to stop the majority.[47] The actual voting ballot “asked not, as would have been logical, whether they wanted to reject the schema but—and this was more subtle—whether they wanted to interrupt discussion of it.”[48] The tendentious wording confused many bishops. The confusion developed because based upon the wording of the ballot a “yes” vote meant “no” to the schema and a “no” vote meant “yes” to the schema. As the confusion became more pronounced and vocal, the Council Presidents felt the need to pronounce additional instructions for voting.

The additional instructions might have helped, but it appeared the minority had won because the final vote fell 92 votes shy of the two-thirds majority needed to reject the schema. The vote showed a strong majority wanted to end debate and send the schema to committee for complete revision, but without the two-thirds majority the Council Fathers were held in suspense. Because the minority seemed to have won, the majority prepared that very night to secure their goals through other means, such as amendments and edits.

On November 21, 1962, however, after the bishops gathered in the great hall prepared to continue the debate, Secretary of State Cicognani handed Cardinal Ruffini, President for that day, a note from John XXIII. The Pope had decided to end the debate in order to send the schema back to a new joint commission comprised of members of both the Secretariat for Christian Unity and the Doctrinal Commission. By order of the Pope, both Ottaviani and Bea would chair the new commission. The bishops were stunned, and many left their seats, heading into the aisles and open spaces to discuss what just happened. All immediately appreciated the significance of the event. The outcome not only dictated the course of the Council but has also influenced the Catholic Church ever since. The Council would become a pastoral council with an ecumenical spirit. Scripture and biblical scholarship would hold a prominent place within Catholicism and the Church would provide more pastoral attention to the faithful. The consequences of the intervention by the Pope were so clear to all that R. Rouqutte could later record in Etudes, “The era of the Counter-Reformation has come to an end.”[49]

The bishops were stunned, and many left their seats, heading into the aisles and open spaces to discuss what just happened. The schema returned to committee, emerged slightly in 1963 but did not return for a vote until the final session in 1965. However, its progress into Dei Verbum was publicly known and shared with all the Council Fathers through the new joint commission’s work. The evolution of the document from a “frigid” list of truth propositions to a thoughtful, pastorally sensitive document about God’s love and gift to humanity both modeled and mirrored the overall movement of the Second Vatican Council.

A full review of the documentary change from De Fontibus to Dei Verbum goes beyond the scope of this work; however, a brief review of Dei Verbum’s second article may suffice.

It pleased God, in his goodness and wisdom to reveal himself and to make known the mystery of his will (cf. Eph 1:9). His will was that men should have access to the Father, through Christ, the Word made flesh, in the Holy Spirit and thus become sharers in the divine nature (cf. Eph 2:18; 2 Pet 1:4). By this revelation, then, the invisible God (cf. Col 1:15; 1 Tim 1:17), from the fullness of his love, addresses men as his friends (cf. Ex 33:11; Jn 15:14–15), and moves among them (cf. Bar 3:38), in order to invite and receive them into his own company. This economy of revelation is realized by deeds and words, which are intrinsically bound up with each other. As a result, the works performed by God in the history of salvation show forth and bear out the doctrine and realities signified by the words; the words, for their part, proclaim the works, and bring to light the mystery they contain. The most intimate truth which this revelation gives us about God and the salvation of man shines forth in Christ, who is himself both mediator and the sum total of Revelation. (DV §2)

Unlike the cold formalities of De Fontibus, Dei Verbum describes a God of love who wants a relationship with his creation and calls all of humanity into relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Rather than instill fear, the text explains that God wants humanity to share in the divine nature and become friends with God. Finally, this opening paragraph of the section entitled “Divine Revelation Itself” does not discount doctrine but rather places doctrine in proper relationship to the actual works of salvation expressed by the words of Scripture, explaining that Christ is both the “mediator and sum total of Revelation.” Overall, the paragraph expresses Truth as a revelation from God calling all people into a relationship with God that involves a believer’s love and fullness as a human being, rather than a mere intellectual assent to propositional truth.

For Roman Catholicism, the ratification and publication of Dei Verbum, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, capped a decades-long process of change in Catholic biblical scholarship and theology, which brought the Catholic Church’s official teaching on Sacred Scripture and Tradition in tune with a viewpoint advocated by Erasmus over 400 years earlier. Theologically, this viewpoint places Tradition subject to the critique of Scripture; pastorally, it places Scripture at the center of people’s lives. Erasmus had hoped to bring effective translations to the faithful so that they could know the Bible’s stories and bring them into their lives. For Vatican II, the debate of November 14–21, 1962 shifted the emphasis of the Council and the subsequent work of the Church to a pastoral and ecumenical focus. Each reform effort had a different practical aim because of the different moments in history; however, both Erasmus and the majority leadership at Vatican II found guidance from the early Church during changing times.

The evolution of the document from a “frigid” list of truth propositions to a thoughtful, pastorally sensitive document about God’s love and gift to humanity both modeled and mirrored the overall movement of the Second Vatican Council. For the century prior to the Reformation, Europe roiled with change. For two centuries prior to Vatican II, Europe roiled with change. In both cases, society and culture changed at a pace that challenged the Church’s ability and authority to express what is true. In both cases, the solution called for a proper understanding of the relationship between Scripture and Tradition in order to capture the Truth of the Gospel in a new way for the people of that day. The parallels exist between Erasmian reform and the reforms of Vatican II because they faced different yet similar historical moments.

Had Reginald Pole been elected Pope, he might have pushed the Roman Catholic Church closer to a biblically focused Church tending to the faithful and promoting Christian unity. In that case, the need for Vatican I and II may not have existed. Nevertheless, future ages will surely need their own Erasmus, Reginald Pole, or Augustin Cardinal Bea to guide the Church through the seesaw of Tradition and Scripture as she proclaims the Truth and maintains the mission of Jesus Christ in the world.

[1] John W. O’Malley, What Happened at Vatican II (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008), 9.

[2] Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform 1250–1550 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1980), 292.

[3] Hans Küng, Theology for the Third Millennium: An Ecumenical View (New York: Doubleday, 1988), 15.

[4] Küng, Theology for the Third Millennium, 15

[5] John C. Olin, Christian Humanism and the Reformation: Selected Writings of Erasmus with His Life by Beatus Rhenanus and a Biographical Sketch by the Editor (New York: Fordham University Press, 1987), 3, 35.

[6] Küng, Theology for the Third Millennium, 20.

[7] Roland Herbert Bainton, Erasmus of Christendom (New York: Scribner, 1969), 65–71.

[8] Erika Rummel, Erasmus (London, New York: Continuum, 2004), 44. See also Hilmar M. Pabel, ed., Erasmus’ Vision of the Church (Kirksville, MO: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1995), 57.

[9] Rummel, Erasmus, 41.

[10] Roland Herbert Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York: New American Library, 1950), 68–83.

[11] Bainton, Here I Stand, 125.

[12] Erasmus of Rotterdam, The Praise of Folly, tr. Leonard Dean (Hendricks House: New York, 1983), 95–101.

[13] Küng, Theology for the Third Millennium, 23.

[14] Brian Cogan, “The Ecclesiology of Erasmus of Rotterdam: A Genetic Account” in The Heythrop Journal 21, no. 4 (1980), 398.

[15] Küng, Theology for the Third Millennium, 23.

[16] The word “Tradition” will appear frequently in the remainder of this essay. I want to avoid heavy and distracting questions about what is and is not a Tradition or a tradition or traditions. I will use an upper-case “T” in order to identify not only the development of doctrine, teachings, and practices since the writing of the New Testament but also somewhat broadly the kind of Truths that have stood the test of time.

[17] Cogan, “The Ecclesiology of Erasmus of Rotterdam: A Genetic Account,” 398.

[18] Ibid., 399.

[19] Ibid., 398.

[20] Ernst F. Winter, ed. and tr., Discourse on Free Will (New York: The Continuum Publishing Co., 2002), 4. Specifically, Luther made this claim in Assertio omnium articulorum, which was Luther’s response to one of Pope Leo X’s admonitions against him.

[21] Charles Nauert, “Desiderius Erasmus” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta, ed. (Winter 2012 Edition).

[22] Pabel, Erasmus’ Vision of the Church, 41–115. This is my summation of the second, third, and fourth essays in this edited volume.

[23] Walter M. Abbott, The Documents of Vatican II (Chicago: Association Press/Follett Publishing Company, 1966), 14, 25, 65.

[24] Henri de Lubac , Catholicism: A Study of Dogma in Relation to the Corporate Destiny of Mankind (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1958), 3–4. See also Abbott, The Documents of Vatican II, 3–7. Both The Documents of Vatican II and almost every commentary include these themes so frequently I think they are virtually self-evident. However, the “Message to Humanity” by the bishops during the first session provides succinct evidence for the centrality of these themes. In addition, while Gaudet Mater Ecclesia and the “Message to Humanity” laid the groundwork for these themes, it was the majority’s victory during the debate on revelation that ensured they permeated everything the Council produced.

[25] Ronald D. Witherup, Scripture: Dei Verbum (New York: Paulist Press, 2006), 28.

[26] Giuseppe Alberigo and Joseph A. Komonchak, eds. History of Vatican II, Vol. 2 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2006), 233.

[27] Alberigo and Komonchak, History of Vatican II, 84.

[28] Ibid., 72–73.

[29] O’Malley, What Happened at Vatican II, 96.

[30] Alberigo and Komonchak, History of Vatican II, 235.

[31] Herbert Vorgrimler, ed., Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, Vol. 3 (London: Burns & Oates; New York: Herder & Herder, 1967), 159. See also Pope Benedict XVI, Theological Highlights of Vatican II (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2009), 40.

[32] Richard R. Gaillardetz and Catherine E. Clifford, Keys to the Council: Unlocking the Teaching of Vatican II (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2012), 32–34.

[33] Henri Fesquet, The Drama of Vatican II: The Ecumenical Council, June, 1962–December, 1965 (New York, Random House, 1967), 67.

[34] Xavier Rynne, Letters from Vatican City; Vatican Council II (First Session): Background and Debates (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1963), 76.

[35] Alberigo and Komonchak, History of Vatican II, 240.

[36] Ibid., 241.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid., 245.

[39] Rynne, Letters from Vatican City, 77.

[40] Ibid., 77.

[41] Ibid., 78–79.

[42] Alberigo and Komonchak, History of Vatican II, 252.

[43] Ibid., 253.

[44] Rynne, Letters from Vatican City (First Session), 86.

[45] Ibid., 88.

[46] Alberigo and Komonchak, History of Vatican II, 258–259.

[47] Fesquet, The Drama of Vatican II, 75-76.

[48] Ibid., 75.

[49] Alberigo and Komonchak, History of Vatican II, 255–256.

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Thomas Cummings

Thomas Cummings is the Director of East Region at the University of Notre Dame Office of Development.

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