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Documenting the 'experts' of Vatican II

Sharon Kabel is a librarian, an independent researcher, and a Catholic.

Last summer, Kabel embarked on an ambitious project: attempting to catalog the 500 periti, or theological assistants, who took part in the Second Vatican Council.

In January of this year, Kabel released an open-source database and research library on The Periti of Vatican II.

The opening session of the Second Vatican Council, Oct 11, 1962, in St. Peter’s Basilica. public domain.

Kabel said the project was challenging, as it required sifting through an internet ocean of dead links, poor attribution, garbled anecdotes, and missing archival records to reconstruct a crowd of some 500 men who gathered in Rome 50 years ago.

The goal, she said, was to show who the periti were, and what contributions they may have made at the Second Vatican Council.

Kabel offered The Pillar her reflections on the process, and her findings:

Pope St. Paul VI presides over an ingress of the Second Vatican Council. Credit: Lothar Wolleh/wikimedia. CC BY SA 3.0

Kabel: The heart of this project is a list of names, and figuring out the influence and reach of those names. 

What made this simple task so difficult is that the Vatican’s list of periti was in Latin, with no commas to demarcate name order. 

Ratzinger Ioseph is obviously Josef Ratzinger, but would you know, without some searching, that da Mediolano Hilarinus was Ilarino da Milano? Or that Ciappi Aloisius was Mario Luigi Ciappi? Or that van Leeuwen B was Peter Antonius van Leeuwen? 

Given their prominence and influence in media, the typos in the Vatican’s list, and naming conventions for religious orders and non-Western countries, the periti make an excellent case study in research methods.

I started this project in August 2022, and “went live” in January 2023. By December, I had already found link rot (dead URLs). In my hunt for archival collections, I discovered that some periti did not keep any of their notes from the Second Vatican Council. Some of my references had disappeared from the internet, and I continue to find new research each week by and about the periti

To illustrate both my method and findings, I want to list 10 periti, each of whom showcases a research difficulty or council phenomenon. 

Names & Saints 

Blessed Álvaro del Portillo y Diez de Sollano (Spain) succeeded Saint Josemaria Escriva as head of Opus Dei. In the Vatican’s list he was del Portillo Alvarus

Determining the name and correct religious order was the most difficult part of this project. Villelmus could be William, Bill, Guilherme, Wilhelm, or Guglielmo. Ioannes could be John, Jean, Johannes, Hans, Jan, Giovanni, Ivan, or Youannes. Theodoricus, to my chagrin, is Derek. 

Some of the Johns, Jeans, Johanneses, Hanses, Jans, Giovannis, Ivans, and Youanneses at Vatican II.

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Ite ad! Iosephs of Vatican II.

Periti with more than one first or middle name, like Bl. del Portillo, many times found themselves truncated or misspelled on the Vatican’s list. One imagines an impatient monsignore scribbling on a clipboard. 

I found at least 24 typos among the Vatican’s list of Council periti. Austria, Brazil, France, Germany, India all have one typo each; the Netherlands and Switzerland have two each, the United States has three, Italy has five, and Spain takes the lead with seven! 

The first page of the Vatican’s official Index Peritorum

To my delight, I found more (almost) saints than I expected. The periti can boast of eight men on the path to sainthood: Bl. del Portillo, Bl. Luigi Novarese, Venerable Eduardo Pironio (Argentina), Servant of God Joseph Cardijn (Belgium), SOG Jenaro Fernandez, ORSA (Spain), SOG Pier Carlo Landucci (Italy), SOG Pablo Munoz Vega, SJ (Ecuador), and SOG Carlo Braga, SBD (Italy, private peritus).

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Research sources

The Belgian participants of the Second Vatican Council were perhaps the most notorious. They even had a nickname: the Squadra Belga

Father Felix Morlion, OP (Belgium) is the only peritus with a detailed, inflammatory Reddit post about his career and alleged ties to the intelligence community. 

Fr. Morlion is a good example of the diversity of sources from which I pulled. Typically I look for the most credible sources for my research, but this project is different. I was not compiling a dossier of the most high-quality research; I was trying to prove that these men existed, that they were at the Council, and that they did something - published a book, gave a speech, ran a school, had a golf tournament named after them. 

I drew from books and newspapers, but also from dissertations, parish bulletins, press releases, film reviews, blogs, posters, and forum posts.


‘Humanae vitae’ & heterodoxy

Throughout this project, I was particularly interested in the peritial position on Humanae vitae. Eventually I expanded this into three data points: position on Humanae vitae, other dissenting stances, and whether they left the priesthood. Few periti are more colorful in this regard than Leo Alting von Geusau (Netherlands), who during the Council ran the Information and Documentation on the Council (IDOC) office from several rooms overlooking the Piazza Navona. 

The Irish Times gave this description of the IDOC

“IDOC was, in a sense, the Catholic Church's government in exile, or at the very least its loyal opposition. The harder the Vatican bureaucracy tried to stamp out or neutralise new ideas - on ecumenism, on liturgy, on the missions, on the Church/world relationship - the more they bubbled up on the edge of the Piazza Navona. Once a week at least, the rooms were crowded with journalists and many others (visiting churchmen from other denominations, the odd bishop, theologians, historians, controversialists) to listen to papers from people such as Hans Küng, Edward Schillebeeckx, Bernard Haring, and Yves Congar, all of them pushing the frontiers of what was possible, or even thinkable, at the time. Leo was at the epicentre of all this frenetic activity…”

Allegedly, von Geusau leaked the documents from the papal commission on birth control to the National Catholic Reporter. He would go on to leave the priesthood and marry. 

File:Grave of Leo George Marie Alting Von Geusau1.jpg
The grave of Leo Alting von Geusau, who became an anthropologist after leaving priestly ministry.

Regarding Humanae vitae, I found at least eight periti who eventually went ‘on the record’ for their faithful support, and at least 10 who opposed.

Practically within moments of Humanae vitae’s publication, Father Charles E. Curran (not a peritus) had a dissenting statement with 87 theologians’ signatures in The New York Times. Periti Bernard Haring and Francis X. Murphy, CSsR (pseudonymously known as Xavier Rynne) would be among those 87 dissenters. 

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The abuse crisis

Vincent Yzermans (USA, 37) was one of the most prominent American periti, author of the landmark work “American Participation in the Second Vatican Council” (1967), and — surprisingly — he lacks a Wikipedia page. 

Yzermans was the biographer for Luigi Ligutti, another important American peritus. He took over as editor-in-chief of the popular Our Sunday Visitor newspaper in 1967.

Shortly after, two editors of The Priest, a magazine printed by OSV, quit over editorial disagreements with Yzermans. 

All three - Fr. Yzermans, and editors Frs.Richard Ginder and G.J. Gustafson - are credibly accused of child sexual abuse. 

Other than the USA, almost no other country has conducted as thorough a review of credibly accused priests, and made the names of accused priests publicly available.

Therefore, I looked for credible accusations of child sexual abuse among the American periti only. For the Americans, I checked Pro Publica’s “Credibly Accused” website and Bishop Accountability. Some periti are mentioned in connection to cover-ups; I did not make note of these, as “complicity” is too tricky to establish and quantify. 

In terms of periti with direct allegations of child sexual abuse, I found only three: Yzermans, James P. Finucan, and the Belgian Francois Houtart. 

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The long shadow of history 

Fernand Boulard (France) was a leader in religious sociology, and was most famous for a series of maps detailing the dechristianization of France. 

While France’s dechristianization can be pinned on any number of twentieth century events, Fr. Boulard’s maps are a reminder that France’s revolutions and their effects were still recent memory. Fr. Boulard was four years old when the Carthusians were expelled from the Grande Chartreuse. Some periti served in World War I. Spain had only just suffered a civil war. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was still fresh in the European mind. 

Another of the periti, Pavol Hnilica, SJ, lived through the Slovakian Barbarian Night of April 1950. (Hnilica was one of very few periti involved in non-abuse-related legal proceedings; he was convicted of money laundering, then his convictionsannulled on a technicality.)

The Americans may have had a louder voice at the Council, but the French remind us of the Church’s rich, sometimes tragic, history. 

Communists and alphabets 

 Julijans Vaivods (Latvia) is my favorite representative from a Soviet republic. Fr. Vaivods was a political prisoner of the Soviet Union from 1958-1960, then attended the Council’s Sessions III and IV.

He has been described as a KGB agent, but one wonders about the pressure periti from Soviet republics may have been under. For periti from Latvia, Lithuania, the Ukraine, Romania, etc., what promises and pacts may they have been forced to make?  

The Eastern Europeans represented an enormous research challenge for me. One cannot imagine the agonies that finally led me to the Wikipedia page for Михаї́л Гринчи́шин (Michel Hryhchyshyn). If the Latin first name was Paulus, it did not occur to me that the first name might not be Paul, as in that case. 

Where are you from? 

Luigi Ligutti (USA) was one of several periti who forced me to confront an inconsistency with my data.

I had been collecting country of origin, which became an issue when:

a) the country did not exist (such as Artur Schwarcz-Eggenhofer, Konrad Kernweiss, and John M. Osterreicher, who hailed from Austro-Hungary) or,
b) the peritus did not represent their country of origin. 

A handful of American periti were not American-born. So the “country of origin” data point became (to my shame) two different things: periti representing America were labeled USA, and everyone else was labeled by their proper country of origin. (One kind reader pointed out that I risked some controversy by labeling a Spanish peritus as Catalan.)

The peritus’ burial site, if I could find it in FindAGrave, also gave me crucial clues. While I still had to wrestle with name issues, I was able to confirm not only resting place, but place of birth, birth and death year, photographs, religious order, and even biographical sketches.

Peritus Patrick Gillespie, for example, has no author identifiers, but I found a Fr. Patrick Gillespie, vicar general, writing a column for the Louisiana newspaper The Catholic Commentator. In FindAGrave, we find Rev. Patrick Gillespie buried in Louisiana, but whose tombstone reveals he was born in Ireland! 

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The conciliar push for ecumenism brought with it a deeply regrettable anti-Mary sentiment. This must have been a trial for Fr. Gabriel Roschini, OSM (Italy), one of the greatest Mariologists of the last century. He published more than 900 works, argued for Mary as “coredemptrix,” and earned the ire of fellow peritus Fr. Yves Congar, whose epithet for Roschini I would not repeat in polite company. 

Le Père G. M. Roschini
Fr. Gabriel Roschini, OSM. public domain.

The anti-Marian sentiment would not end with the Council. As late as 1976, we find this from Father Andrew Greeley, in his book “Everything you wanted to know about the Catholic Church but were too pious to ask”:

“Rosary: A form of marian devotion which flourished for hundreds of years and was finally killed off by the hypersaccharin [sic] piety of the professional mariologists and compulsiveness of many grammar school teachers. Given a quarter of a century, maybe less, lots of folk will argue that the rosary is an attractive objet d’art and a prayer form comparable with many of the most honored eastern prayer practices. You never know what’s in fashion and what’s out.”

Devotion to the cause 

While there is no typical peritus, Fr. Wilfrid Henry Paradis (USA) comes close. An expert in topics both within and beyond theology, he was plugged into media and the contemporary world. Born and raised in New Hampshire, he was a combat medic in World War II, and a liaison to the White House. Of great interest to me, after such large personalities and cosmic battles, is the fact that he wrote a landmark book on New Hampshire history. 

The National Catholic Reporter said that Paradis ran a “small forum” with fellow periti John Courtney Murray and Hans Kung. Once back home, he led the charge on Council reforms, and “was a tireless speaker on Vatican II, addressing hundreds of national and local audiences of all denominations.”

Paradis was involved in a dizzying number of post-conciliar projects and jobs. His enthusiasm for Vatican II is undeniable, and arguably refreshing after so much patented conciliar ambiguity. 

Collaboration with other periti 

Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, OP (France) needs no introduction for students of theology. For our purposes, he showcases the relationships among the periti themselves. Garrigou-Lagrange mentored one of the greatest of the conciliar periti, Joseph Clifford Fenton, and he clashed with private peritus Marie-Dominique Chenu, one of several nouvelle-theologie adherents who was censured, then got a job drafting Council documents.  

Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange O.P. public domain

Peruse the complete archive of conciliar periti here.

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