This article appears in the latest issue of The Angelus.
by Fr. Dominique Bourmaud, SSPX
Alfredo Ottaviani (1890-1979) was born in Rome in a humble family, as his father was a baker. He studied with the Brothers of the Christian Schools across the Tiber, at the Pontifical Roman Seminary and the Athenaeum S. Apollinare, from which he received his doctorates in philosophy, theology, and canon law. He was ordained to the priesthood in March 1916.
He was soon nominated Professor of Scholastic Philosophy and of Ecclesiastical Public Law (his preferred discipline) at the Urbanian University and, later, at the Juridical Atheneum of San Apollinare. He became successively a substitute at the Secretary of State and advisor to the Supreme Congregation of the Holy Office. After 17 years of labor, in 1959, he became its Pro-Prefect—the Pope holding the title of Prefect. That is when he was consecrated a bishop by Pope John XXIII, taking the Episcopal motto Semper Idem—Always the same—which reflected his conservative theology.
Already as a seminarian, Alfredo was formed by the struggle against the Church’s fierce enemies, “Freemasonry and Hebraism reign by means of the Minister Sidnei Sonnino.” In 1937, Pius XI used his services in the writing of Divini Redemptoris against communism, which he called “intrinsically perverse.” His political studies, which led to the publication of the Institutiones Juris Publici Ecclesiastici, made him the herald of Christ the King against the trends of John Courtney Murray and the liberals. Here are some of his most salient teachings on this matter:
“I have said, first of all, that the State has the duty of professing its religion socially. Men united socially are no less subject to God than when they are taken as individuals, and the civil society, no less than individual men, is in God’s debt, under Whom, as Author, it is gathered together, by whose power it is preserved, by whose goodness it has received the great treasure of good things which it enjoys. Thus, as it is not licit for any individual to fail in his duty to God and to the religion by which God wills to be honored, in the same way, states cannot, without serious moral offense, conduct themselves as if God were non-existent or cast off the care of religion as something foreign to themselves or of little moment.”
Pius XII quickly became preoccupied by the advances which some Western Church leaders were making toward the Communists, and also by the inroads Neo-Modernists were making within the Church. The Pope secretly convoked Ottaviani for the formation of a preparatory commission for a future ecumenical council for the “redefinition of various points of the Catholic doctrine threatened by errors, not only theological, but also moral and philosophical, and even sociological.” But, seeing that division reigned within the commission itself, Pius XII blocked everything. The only outcome was to be the forceful encyclical Humani Generis of 1950, with Ottaviani’s contribution, which condemns the Nouvelle Théologie launched by Fr. Henri de Lubac in the spirit of Teilhard de Chardin.
Cardinal Ottaviani participated in the 1963 papal conclave, which selected Giovanni Battista Montini as Pope Paul VI. He was also the Dean of Cardinals during the conclave, and as such, he had the honor of crowning with the tiara, on 30 June, the very pope who would give it away. That was to be the only conclave he attended since, in 1976, the age restriction of 80 was already in effect.
No sooner was Pius XII buried than changes were in the wind. At the beginning of 1962, Cardinal Ottaviani had notified the Jesuit superiors that the theologian Karl Rahner had been placed under Roman pre-censorship and could not lecture or write without permission. Only months later, Pope John XXIII appointed Rahner to be peritus to the Second Vatican Council. Virtually the same strategy was adopted with Henri de Lubac and Yves Congar who, though suspected of Neo-Modernism, were subsequently granted the title of Council periti nominated by the Pope.
The pre-Conciliar battles which were taking place were inaugurating a new type of Council, a triangular power (Pope—Curia—Council), given that the Pope was secretly adverse to the Curial position and open to the novelties of the avant-garde theologians. Ottaviani, the power behind the Curia, would soon become isolated and ill-tolerated. In season and out of season, he felt that his duty was to uphold doctrinal purity and integrity, whatever the cost. Cardinal Siri rendered this testimony: “In him [Ottaviani], the firmness of the decisions was expressed in the strongest accents: he was afraid of no one. In the defense of the Faith, his temperament rendered him very combative.”
One of the heated discussions which took place during the pre-Vatican II sessions dealt with the salvation of the infidels and the dogma Extra Ecclesiam: outside the Church there is no salvation. To this sub-commission belonged Monsignor Fenton, a close friend of Ottaviani. Several cardinals—Leger, Dopfner, Konig, and Bea—had made substantial modifications. Ottaviani reacted rather fiercely against Bea’s “very dangerous” idea that people could be members of the Mystical Body without being members of the Church, which would put into jeopardy the infallibility of the Church’s Magisterium. He reminded him that, “The Catholic Church and the Mystical Body are identical. There is no salvation outside the Church. The meaning of this traditional phrase is well explained in the Letter of the Holy Office sent to the Cardinal of Boston, when it treated the Feeney question, who exaggerated the force of this phrase. The phrase should not now be reduced to meaninglessness, however, so that it can serve to tranquilize...those who are outside the Church.”
During the last of the Council’s preparatory sessions, two cardinals butted heads over the subject of religious liberty, Ottaviani and Bea. Ottaviani, while opposed to the separation of Church and State and granting equal rights to all religions, supported religious tolerance. Archbishop Lefebvre, an eyewitness of the confrontation, explained that Ottaviani arose and said to Bea: “Eminence, you have no right to make this schema, because this is a theological schema and, thus, it belongs to the Theological Commission.” And Bea, rising, said: “Excuse me. I have the right to produce this schema as President of the Commission for Unity. If something regards unity, it is the question of religious liberty.” And, facing Ottaviani, he added: “I am radically opposed to whatever you affirm in your schema De Tolerantia Religiosa.” The debate became so intense that Cardinal Ruffini had to intervene, noting how disappointed he was to have witnessed such a “serious discussion.” They would only increase throughout the long debates over the issue of religious liberty until the adoption of the schema Dignitatis Humana.
Ottaviani was the leader of the curial conservatives during the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), despite being nearly blind. Besides the issue of religious liberty, his powerful voice was heard during the debates on the liturgy and on the sources of Divine Revelation.
The most striking case of the change of guard and the dismissal of the Curia occurred in October 30, 1962 when Cardinal Ottaviani made a stirring appeal in defense of the ancient Roman Rite: “Are we seeking to stir up wonder, or perhaps scandal, among the Christian people, by introducing changes in so venerable a rite, that has been approved for so many centuries and is now so familiar? The rite of Holy Mass should not be treated as if it were a piece of cloth to be refashioned according to the whim of each generation.” As he had long passed the 10 minute limit, his microphone was shut down. After tapping the microphone to check that it was off, the half-blind Ottaviani stumbled back to his seat in humiliation while applause broke out in the council hall.
During the Council the news media often went to Ottaviani for colorful reactions to stormy working sessions. In one such incident, reacting to constant cries for “collegiality” among the more liberal bishops, Ottaviani pointed out that the Bible only records one example of the Apostles acting collegially—at the Garden of Gethsemane when…”They all fled.” On this very issue, another historical encounter took place with Cardinal Frings on November 8, 1963. Ottaviani defended the papacy against the mere honorific Papal Primacy proposed by the liberal Rhine Alliance. “Whoever wishes to be a sheep of Christ must be led to the pasture by Peter the Shepherd. It is not the sheep [the bishops] who must lead Peter, but Peter who needs to lead the sheep [the bishops] and the lambs [the faithful].”
Vatican II had not yet closed its doors when a Papal motu proprio, Regimini Ecclesiae Universale, did away with the title of “Supreme” for the Congregation of the Holy Office, which was supplanted by the Secretary of State. From then on, politics would prevail over the purity of Faith.
Ottaviani commented thus on the change: “Remember, this is a black day for the history of the Church, because this change does not affect only the title but the substance. In fact, until now, the supreme principle of government in the Church was the revealed doctrine, the preservation and right interpretation of which has been entrusted firstly to the Pope, who used the Supreme Congregation of the Holy Office for this. Now, I fear that, the leading criterion of government of the Church which will prevail will be diplomatic and contingent. I foresee that the Church will suffer much damage.”
Blind as he might have been, he had a keen insight of future events. In 1967, he offered his resignation, not willing to contribute to the dismantling of the Holy Office.
On September 25, 1969, Ottaviani, along with Cardinal Bacci, wrote a poignant letter to Paul VI in support of a study by a group of theologians who, under the direction of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, criticized the Novus Ordo Missae, which was to see the light of day months later. Ottaviani wrote the following:
“The attached brief critical study is the work of a select group of theologians, liturgists, and pastors of souls, and however brief it may be, it examines the novel elements implicit in the Novus Ordo Mass, which may be given different interpretations. In doing so, this study demonstrates sufficiently that the Novus Ordo Missae represents, overall and in its details, a striking departure from the Catholic theology of the Mass as it was elaborated in Session XXII of the Council of Trent, which, by permanently fixing the “canons” of the rite, erected an insurmountable barrier against any heresy which could undermine the integrity of the Mystery.”
“Recent reforms have amply demonstrated that new changes in the liturgy cannot be made without scandalizing the faithful, who are already showing that these changes are unbearable and will undoubtedly diminish their faith. In consequence, the greater part of the clergy is now undergoing an agonizing crisis of conscience, which we see daily and in countless numbers. We are certain that these considerations which are directly inspired by the vibrant voice of both the pastors and the flock will find their echo in the paternal heart of Your Holiness, who is always so deeply attentive to the spiritual needs of the sons of the Church. Nevertheless, those for whom laws are made have the right and even the duty to ask the legislator to abrogate such laws when they prove to be harmful.”
Cardinal Palazzini, in his presentation of Il Balluarto, explained that the key to reading the person and work of Cardinal Ottaviani was that truth makes us free. “He knows how to perceive with exceptional acumen and impressive vision the intimate disorder and the bitter developments of the novelty which began to creep in during the 1940’s and which exploded during Vatican II.” In the course of the year 1965, Ottaviani had written in his diary: “I pray God to allow me to die before the end of this Council. Thus, at least I shall die a Catholic.”
The Ottaviani Intervention is available from Angelus Press
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