Rorate Caeli

Online Exclusive: Cardinal Siri's 1963 interview on the ongoing Council -- and the shortcomings of its "pastoral" tone

Fr. Walter Abbot, S.J. interviewed Cardinal Siri after the first (1962) session of the Second Vatican Council as part of a larger work of 12 interviews with Council Fathers, that was published in 1963, before the second session. As far as we are aware, this is the first online transcript of the exchange.


   Giuseppe Cardinal Siri, Archbishop of Genoa and president of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, was grave and thoughtful the day I visited him. The day before, he told me, he had been surprised to discover in an Italian newspaper an account of a speech he had delivered during the first session of the Council. “I did not give out that text,” the cardinal said, “but obviously the writer had a copy of it. Someone violated the secrecy of the Council in giving it to him.” In making judgments about the speech, the cardinal added, the writer acted in a singularly improper manner, in view of the fact that the Fathers of the Council themselves do not pass judgments on one another’s speeches.”

   The cardinal looks like one of the nobles in the many paintings that hang on the walls of his palace next to the Cathedral of San Lorenzo in Genoa, and the incident of the pirated speech showed that he had the manner of a noble, although he is actually the son of working-class parents.

   Slim, bespectacled, still dark-haired at the age of fifty-seven, the cardinal gives an impression of vitality, keen intelligence and intense seriousness. I knew that he had become a priest at the unusually early age of twenty-two, and had won a doctorate in theology the following year at the Gregorian University, the only member of the class to do it with full points. He was a theology professor at twenty-four, a bishop at thirty-seven and a cardinal at forty-six. He has written books about social problems, as well as theology textbooks, and I have heard it said that he has settled more labor disputes, as an arbitrator, than any other man in Italy. Cardinal Siri served as a member of the Central Preparatory Commission of the Second Vatican Council.

   lt was good to learn that this brilliant and forceful molder of opinion in the Italian Church had a sense of humor. It came out when he told me how much he relished something that Cardinal Léger, Archbishop of Montreal, whispered to him  as they walked together in procession on December 9 at the beginning of that day’s canonization ceremonies. It was the day after the first session of the Council ended. Many of the bishops had gone home. Those in attendance were up at the front near the altar of St. Peter’s, and the rest of the tiers of Council Father’s seats had been given to seminarians. As they passed the seminarians, Cardinal Léger whispered to Cardinal Siri: “Look – the Third Vatican Council!” Cardinal Siri’s smile grew wider as he recalled how he noticed that the seminarians Cardinal Léger was pointing to were from his own seminary of Geenoa; they were there because one of the day’s three new saints came from Genoa.

The days I visited Cardinal Siri was the seventeenth anniversary of the death of Pietro Cardinal Boetto, his predecessor as Archbishop of Genoa and Cardinal Bea’s predecessor as a Jesuit member of the Sacred College. There was a picture of Cardinal Boetto on the table beside Cardinal Siri. He told me what a great and lovable man the cardinal had been. In this, and in everything else he said, it was obvious that Cardinal Siri was a man of great loyalty and devotion to men he esteems and to causes in which he believes.


In an overall view of the Second Vatican Council’s first session, what does Your Eminence see as its achievements?

Cardinal Siri

   It may take fifty years before the full achievements of the Council are discerned. But certain fruits are evident already, and they are important. First, the Church sees more clearly now the work that is cut out for it for the next hundred years. And, as the Holy Father himself indicated, the approach is a pastoral one. But it is obvious to me that some have misunderstood what is meant by the pastoral approach. They seem to think of it in negative rather than in positive terms. It was a wise and provident thing that we began the work of the Council with attention to the liturgy. It struck a very positive note. It went to the heart of things. After all, the worship of God is our primary and basic function as true members of the Church. It was also providential that we took up the matter of the unity of all Christians and all men. It is another fruit of the Council that the Church was seen to be deeply concerned about thtis matter.

   Another fruit of the Council, as I see it, is that the Church is presented as primarily and basically concerned with the truth. We have a deposit of faith entrusted to us by our Lord Himself. It is this that we must preserve, protect and preach. It is this that we must be concerned about more than anything else. There are some people in the Church wh oapparently would push on into certain areas of activity without sufficient consideration for presevation of the truth entrusted to us. The Fathers of the Church know that this would be rash, and their preoccupation with the truth – the truth first and always – makes it evident to those observing the work of the Council that this is the proper procedure. We know, of course, that the truth should be spoken in a way that will help the pastoral aims of the Council. This awareness of the Church’s dedication to the truth is an important fruit of the Council. No one should have been surprised that difference of opinion were expressed by the Fathers of the Council. Anyone who knows knows anything about the Councils of the Church knows that always happens. But the thing to note is the stress on truth.


   What do you regard as necessary and essential for the success of the next session of the Council?

Cardinal Siri

  First, it is necessary to reduce the number of topics. Otherwise it will take us many years to finish. Secondly, I wish to stress that those who write about the Council should not prejudge it. If the next session is to do its work well and be received well, we should not be hampered by books and articles that talk too much about what the Council should do or say. If expectations are built up by that kind of writing, and then are not fulfilled, people will think that the Council has not succeeded or done its work well.

   In connection with this matter of writings about the Council, I should like to point out that there are a number of books today which present studies on religious topics in a manner quite foreign to sound principles of scholarship. I was a professor of theology for many years, and I must say that some of these modern authors need a course in the correct principles of historical study. I am thinking of some of the current writing about Sacred Scripture, for example. Only those who understand the principles of internal and external criticism, and know their limitations, can write accurately on such subjects. It does not help the work of the Church when some modern authors advance mere hypotheses that are without foundation and proceed to come to a conclusion and present a thesis. These so-called modern authors are actually violating the true principles of modern scientific procedure.

   For the success of the Council, it is very necessary that we have a supernatural view of it. We must go about our work in accordance with what the Holy Spirit gives us. The Holy Spirit is certainly is working in the Council. On a number of occasions I have said to myself: “There is the work of the Holy Spirit.” I cannot tell you what those occassions were, for I am bound by the secret of the Council. But I have written down a full account of the Council as I saw it. It is in the archives of my house, to be kept until after I have passed on. The Holy Father himself asked me to compose such an account.


   Does Your Eminence have some special interests that you would like to see the Council consider?

   Yes. I very much wish to see the Council come to the completion of its work. I am especially interested in seeing a matter brough up at this Council, and I would like to see it made quite clear. I refer to the office and powers of bishops. Why do I want to see this matter treated by the Council? In order that what is true may be clearly see as true: that the bishops are the apostolic college and that the Pope is the head of that college, but that the Pope is the Vicar of Christ on earth and would be so even if there were no college of bishops. It willb e good to do away with all doubts or equivocations about this matter. It should be made quite clear that the bishops bear a certain relationship to the Pope, and thus together with him they make the pronouncements and laws of a council, but the Pope does nothave that relationship with regard to the bishops.

   Also, I wish to see the subject of revelation concluded with a definite statement. It seems to me that much of the discussion these days about “two fonts of revelation,” or insistence that only the term “revelation” be used in order more accurately to express the idea that there are two channels of revelation, Scripture and tradition – all this is, in my opinion, largely a batlle of words, a question of terminology. We should get on to the fact of the divine tradition that has been preserved in the Church.

   I think it is very desirable, too, that the complex mystery of the Church should be proposed in the tract De Ecclesia (“On the Church”).


   What do you think the Council might do about social questions and the social teaching of the Church?

Cardinal Siri

   It seems to me that the Council does not have to make decrees or canons on that subject, because it is so thoroughly treated in the encyclicals of the popes, from Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum to Pope John’s Mater et Magistra. It is all there, and it is expressed so well that, as a bishop, I would say we should urge the study of the encyclicals rather than make a whole presentation of the subject in the Council.

   I think it would be very helpful, however, if the Council were to present some messages or statements on certain social questions. These would not be decrees or canons, but they would make a profound impression on people, as the first message or statement of the Council did. It would be very helpful, for example, if the Fathers of the Council would issue statements on peace, war, consideration of underprivileged classes of people, etc. It would help people who face certain problems if the Council were to come out with a statement stressing their rights in their problemsthe right to a living wage, for example. The work of charity does not proceed properly until the matter of rights is clearly understood and put into practice.

[Interviewer's note:   The interview with Cardinal Siri had begun in Italian, but I soon suggested that my Italian was probably not good enough for an Italian cardinal. Since I could speak Latin much better, I asked if we might continue in that language. Utique, Pater, he replied, and he continued fluently in Latin. In the evening, I stood with the cardinal’s secretary, Monsignor Bartolomeo Pesce (who looks like the pictures one sees of young John Henry Newman), and the two of us translated into Italian as the cardinal read the English text I had typed out. At the end of each page the cardinal said: Placet.

(Walter M. Abbot, S.J., Twelve Council Fathers: Exclusive interviews with twelve of the most important figures guiding the Vatican Council. The Macmillan Company, New York, 1963. Pages 55-60) (Sent by a reader.)