Alberigo and Komonchak’s History of Vatican II

Alberigo and Komonchak’s History of Vatican II – A methodological review

Collective (Guiseppe Alberigo, editor; Joseph A. Komonchak English edition editor), History of Vatican II, Peeters – Leuven, Orbis – Maryknoll, 1995 – 2006, 5 volumes.

Not the history, not a history but “History of Vatican II” – the title of this 5 volume, 3000 page master work is significant. Editors Guiseppe Alberigo and Joseph Komanchak clearly recognise the difficulty, not to say impossibility, of writing a “definitive” history of an event that lasted for nearly seven years from its announcement by Pope John XXIII on 25 January 1959 until its closure by his successor Pope Paul VI on 8 December 1965. Moreover, the Council involved nearly 3000 bishops, almost as many theologians, experts and auditors without even counting those who took part in surveys, meetings and other activities that sought to influence the course of the Council.

On the other hand, Alberigo and Komonchak’s work, which was written by an international team of historians and sponsored by the Istituto per le Scienze Religiose in Bologna, Italy, is evidently much more ambitious than so many other one volume, one author accounts that have been written on this epoch-making event in the life of the Catholic Church.

The Alberigo-Komonchak team evidently recognised many of the methodological challenges of producing such a history of an event that in 1988, when the project was launched, was not yet 25 years in the past1. Nevertheless, Alberigo and colleagues concluded that it was possible to produce “a reliable historical reconstruction…. at such an early date,”:

“While the closeness of the event calls for special methodological precautions, it is no less true that it is possible today to avoid the consequences of the fact that the documentation is still scattered and at the same time to profit from the valuable testimonies of those who took part in the Council.”2

Unfortunately, Alberigo does not explain these “methodological precautions”. In any event, whatever the limitations, the Bologna team can hardly be criticised for beginning the project while many of Council participants were still living.

On the other hand, it is striking to note that the “international team” which directed the project is made up on 10 Europeans, two North Americans (US) and one South American (Brazil). Moreover, of the 28 chapters that comprise the five volumes, only five chapters are written by non-Europeans (USA, Canada, Brazil and Philippines). This is surprising given the role of many Latin Americans (Larrain, MacGrath, Camara…) and some North Americans (John Courtney Murray) in the Council, not to mention the need for a perspective from other continents such as Africa and Asia. In addition, not one chapter is written by a woman, which is particularly surprising given the fact that the emergence of women onto the Church scene was a major event at the Council itself.

Clearly, the editorial team was pre-occupied with the issue of gaining access to various sources. Alberigo noted that “even an approximate count of the number of written texts generated by the event is impossible; and this is to say nothing of the personal contacts or of the (media) communications”3. Nevertheless, an enormous effort was made during the project to develop archives and classify documents. Regardless of its other merits or flaws of the History, this archival work is truly an outstanding contribution that will undoubtedly provide the basis for many future studies to complete the inevitable lacunae and errors as well as offering new perspectives.

With respect to the project’s historiographical approach, Alberigo notes4 that, except for Volume I, this was based on “giv(ing) priority to the real course of the conciliar experiment, even in its undeniable twists and turnings, rather than to a thematic reconstruction that would certainly follow a clearer line but would also be less respectful of the concrete reality of the event”5.

Moreover, as Alberigo also notes, the editors judged that “the historical critical method ought to be followed faithfully… even when the object of historical reconstruction is an event that by its nature claims to have a meta-rational dimension: the inspiration of the Holy Spirit”6. Indeed, as Fr Komonchak has pointed out, the Bologna method did give rise to controversy, notably in its alleged over-emphasis on the “mechanics and politics” of the Council; its reliance on private sources; its alleged interpretation in terms of a hermeneutic of rupture rather than continuity, and a claimed emphasis on the “spirit of the Council” over the texts themselves7.

Nevertheless, from the perspective of my own work in studying one aspect of the Council, namely the role of Joseph Cardijn, initially an expert on the preparatory and conciliar commissions dealing with the lay faithful and later a Council Father, the issues cited by Komonchak are not the main concern.

With respect to the lay apostolate issues that were Cardijn’s area of concern, one of the methodological problems of the History that has struck me is the relative absence of a longer term perspective by the authors. This is particularly important since the “big picture” issues that determined developments in the field of the laity largely took place in the 19th century. Figures such as Ozanam and Félicité de Lamennais are mentioned only once in the whole five volumes, not to mention others such as Marc Sangnier or Alphonse Gratry, who are never mentioned. Even John Henry Newman is cited only six times. This, I believe, is one of the key reasons that the Alberigo-Komonchak history appears to be bogged down in “mechanics and politics” but without any adequate explanation of the trends involved.

A second methodological problem, and it is quite surprising given that the Bologna team describe themselves as an “international team”, is the absence of a genuinely trans-national perspective in the writings of the various chapter authors. As Prof. Mathijs Lamberigts has written, “Cardijn “did not really belong” to the Squadra Belga, the famed group of influential bishops and theologians at the Council8. On the other hand, as Prof. Lamberigts also noted, Cardijn had contacts with people all over the world. But since Cardijn’s involvement fell outside of the Belgian framework, it has been largely ignored by historians, even in Belgium9. For example, the volume The Belgian contribution to the Second Vatican Council mentions Cardijn only six times. On the other hand, Alberigo himself receives 52 footnotes. This also highlights the methodological risk whereby historians simply reference each other’s work and thus fail to go beyond an existing historiographical paradigm.

In any case, I believe that the lack of international perspective in the History is also linked to a lack of awareness of the role of movements at the Council. This is extremely surprising given the prominence of many lay movements in the first half of the 20th century. As my own research has shown, at least some of the existing lay apostolate movements, notably the specialised Catholic Action movements, which had all created international secretariats in the post-war period and which were also highly active in UN organisations, were very well organised during the Council. Yet the Alberigo-Komonchak history evidences a rather vague awareness of this. Thus, lay auditors at the Council appear in the History (to the extent that they appear) more as exceptional individuals than as representatives of worldwide trends.

In this context, an analysis of index references is also revealing. Significant lay figures are mentioned very few times, e.g. Rosemary Goldie (COPECIAL, the pre-conciliar Pontifical Council for the Lay Apostolate, Australia) 6, Louise Monnet (Movement, of catholic professionals, MIAMSI, France) 3, Patrick Keegan (YCW and International Movement of Christian Workers) 7, Ramon Sugranyes de Franch (International Movement of Catholic Intellectuals Pax Romana ICMICA) 10, Vittorino Veronese (Italian, president of COPECIAL) 8. Moreover, Cardijn himself who was involved on a daily basis in the work of the Council is mentioned only eight times.

This compares with 37 references to the World Council of Churches leader Visser t’Hooft. To be sure, Visser t’Hooft played a significant role on the ecumenical front, but the lack of references to leading figures of the lay apostolate movements, I believe, illustrates a major error of perspective by the Alberigo team. This is all the more astounding in that the Bologna team and the authors of the various chapters were mostly lay!

This lack of perspective also reflects in the choice of author(s) who wrote the various chapters concerning the lay apostolate. For example, Hanjo Sauer, who wrote an important chapter on the laity in Volume 4, is Austrian, whereas the major developments in lay apostolate and Catholic Action prior to the Council came in France, Belgium as well as Italy. Thus, for example, the only four references to Cardijn in this volume do not appear in Sauer’s chapter, even though one of his sub-chapters is entitled “The irreplaceable task proper to the laity”, which is the very wording Cardijn had been fighting for four years to have included in the Council texts10! Further, it is not as if there was a lack of historians specialised in this area of the lay movements, e.g. the Uruguayan Ana Maria Bidegain11, who has done extensive work on the lay movements and on women religious, particularly in Latin America, and which is also relevant to the issue of how liberation theology emerged from the Council.

In conclusion, while the Alberigo-Komonchak History is a major achievement and with its various language editions will remain the work of reference for many years, it has severe methodological limitations in its chapters dealing with the lay apostolate. This also raises further questions that also require investigation, e.g. the role of religious congregations. How were the Dominicans organised, for example, given the roles of figures such as Congar, Chenu, Hamer, and many others? Similarly for other groups.

In any event, it is clear that much work on understanding the Council remains for future generations of historians to tackle.

Stefan Gigacz

September 2012


1It was 30 years when the first volume appeared and 41 by the time the last volume appeared in 2006.

2History,         1: xiii.

3History,         5: 645.

4History,         2: xi.

5History,         2: xi.

6History,         2: xii.

7JA         Komonchak, Benedict XVI and the interpretation of Vatican II, Cr St 28 (2007) 323-337         (Accessed 17/9/2012)

8Email communication to me 28 February 2012.

9See,         for example, D. Donnelly, J.Famerée, M. Lamberigts, K.Schelkens, The Belgian contribution to the Second Vatican Council,         Peeters, Leuven, 2008, 716p.         

10Cf.         My paper, Lay         people transforming their lives and the world: Cardijn’s vision of the lay apostolate at Vatican II, unpublished, Vatican II: Teaching and Understanding the Council         After 50 Years, September 20-22, 2012, University of St. Thomas, St. Paul Minnesota.

11Ana         Maria Bidegain.          (Accessed 17/09/2012)