Article: Two Experiences, and One Overriding Concern about Vatican II


By Father George McLean OMI

Fr. George McLean, OMI

I attended the fourth session of the Council as the peritus of a bishop from the Midwest who was a graduate of our Catholic University of American philosophy program.  His name escapes me, but I am searching my records for it.  My first experience was being with John Courtney Murray, SJ during the very hours when it was being decided by the Council Committee whether his document on religious liberty would be presented for action by the closing session of the Council.  He recognized that there did not exist an adequate theology on the issue and said that for that reason the French and Spanish bishops were reluctant to take up the issue.  Courtney Murray’s own position, however, was that there was adequate experience to show that peace and religion required that the conscience of peoples be recognized and freedom of religion affirmed.  This indeed was the position approved by the Council.

On another point however the experience was less positive; indeed it appears to grow daily more tragic.  While I served as a peritus for the American bishop, my work at the Council was principally as the Secretary General of the World Union of Catholic Philosophical Societies.  This took me to the heart of the key shift in the Council from a more conservative to a more liberal attitude.  While this was a broad movement, it came to a head in the Declaration on Christian Education, especially in its passage on the philosophical and theological tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas: #10.

As originally drafted the wording was considered too weak in its affirmation of the importance of this tradition.  This  brought 400 “modi” (or

suggestions) that the wording in support of the thought of St. Thomas be strengthened.  One meeting of the drafting committee I attended gave close attention to suggestions on various points by two or even one bishop.  Paulo Dezza, SJ worked out a compromise wording in most of these cases in order to respond carefully to the stated concerns.

As World Union Secretary I submitted a recommendation on how this could be worded in a progressive manner that would reaffirm the tradition while moving ahead with the times.  This reflected the approach of the annual two week workshops for the aggiornamento or updating of philosophy professors which I had been directing at the Catholic University of America and the approach I was promoting in the Catholic Philosophical Association of which I was then secretary.

You can imagine the shock then when the Council decided to simply ignore the

400 modi and to leave the weak wording–a damnation through faint praise.

It was a victory for change, but was not worked out in a balanced manner.

In retrospect the crucial importance of this failure to address the rift between progress and conservation becomes daily more important.  For what has emerged is not sane progress but a continual effort to turn the clock back, to recoup the past at the cost of the new.  The result has been to leave the Church unable to understand or respond to the cultural change of the times.  This has had the effect of generating responses to the times which have veered from the inept, to the scandalous, even to the criminal.

Not attending to the process of change and its implications for the theology of Church was not an oversight:  Archbishop Hurley OMI was staying at the General House and was on that commission.  I had the opportunity to talk about this with him and found that the decision had already been made by the commission not to treat that set of 400 modi.

Not surprisingly, this has been accompanied by a massive departure of Catholics from Church practice.  At present I am coordinating 15 research teams of philosophers, theologians and sociologists to develop a response to the progressive disjunctions between Church and people.  In a real sense it is the same project as at the Council, but now with much to heal in the process.  For that reason I see this project as essentially kenotic in nature.

What strikes me especially with the passage of time is that the travails of the Church as it attempts to respond to the process of change is that this was the basic issue that was at stake in the days of Vatican II.  Attention was given to particular issues but the mega-issue, the perduring  issue, was and remains the very identity of the Church if it is to serve in these new times, ie our “cultural heritage and contemporary change.”  This is the title of the publication series of The Council for Research in Values and Philosophy now approaching 300 volumes which has been the focus of my efforts over the 50 years since the Council (see<> under “publications” for the compete texts as well as a description of the present project on the growing disjunctions between Church and people.) It is also the real issue for the Province and the RPM today.

For a longer (344 page) treatment of the issue one may look at John Staak OMI’s dissertation from the Gregorian University which is just about to be

published: “Freedom for Faith, Theological Hermeneutics of Conversion based on George McLean’s Philosophy of Culture.”



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