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  • The Periti of the United States and the Second Vatican Council:Prosopography of a Group of Theologians
  • François Weiser


The study of a small group of periti at the Second Vatican Council might raise some questions, or at least some form of surprise, especially when one is accustomed to reading about the Council's heroes. In terms of self-representation, many periti from the United States themselves expressed that they were more or less experts "in nomine," not "in re."1 Some historians seem to agree. Most stories about the Council focus on its "stars." From an American point of view, John Courtney Murray, S.J., would be the legitimate subject of a true peritus story. Other examples of prominent experts include Pope Benedict XVI, the peritus Joseph Ratzinger during the Council, Yves Congar, O.P., and Henri de Lubac, S.J. The latter two became cardinals before their lives ended. However, beyond due consideration of those with such curricula, the risk remains of falling into the trap of the historians' greatest enemies: teleology.

Because certain churchmen became prominent figures in the years after the Council, we tend to believe, perhaps uncritically, that they played a significant role at Vatican II. But it was not only the most prominent participants who decided the Council's agenda, and voted on, promulgated, and implemented its documents. Often others made contributions, either individually or as part of a collective influence. More radically, the possibility for them to voice their ideas is based on their sharing most of their features with the group they belong to: the role they played was made possible because they were part of a collective, social construction of reality.2 This study examines the American periti, or official experts, appointed to the Second Vatican Council, to uncover the sociological and cultural features of this group of theologians and biblical scholars, attempting to measure the cultural, epistemological, [End Page 65] and institutional dimensions of the Conciliar debates in light of their interpersonal relationships.3 This study seeks to answer the following questions about the American periti: Who were they? What qualified them to take part in the Council? Why was there such a group at all? What was the effect of their presence? How did they impact the process of "making" a Council? And, what impact did they have on the reception of the Council in the United States?

Who Were They?

Who were the periti, or "official" experts, or the experts of the Council, as opposed to the experts at the Council, or "private" experts? The Holy See or more precisely the Secretary of State Cardinal Amleto Cigognani4 appointed the periti between 1962 and 1965, the four years of the Council. Each year the list of periti was made public5 along with that of members of the Conciliar Commissions (consisting entirely of bishops). At year's end in the annual edition of the Annuario Pontificio, the directory of all institutions and individuals within the Catholic hierarchy and published by the Vatican Press6, a section, "Concilio Ecumenico Vaticano II," was added during the Council and included a sub-section listing the "periti."7 The list is also available in the archives of the Council, as published in the Acta Synodalia Sacrosancti Concilii Oecumenici Vaticani II between 1970 and 1996.8

1962 1963 1964 1965

Number of periti during each session of the Council

307 391 429 452

Number of U.S. periti for each session of the Council

61 78 82 86

Each year during the Council, additional experts were appointed, others were removed, some because they became bishops, others because they died. Altogether, 480 priests were appointed periti—no one was dropped from the list by resignation [End Page 66] or removal, but eight priests died and twenty were elected bishops. Two Americans died during the Council: Joseph Kelly of the Diocese of Albany, New York, and Edward Wuenschel, C.Ss.R. None of the eighty-seven Americans was elected a bishop during the sessions.

What Did It Take to Become a peritus?

The Curia arranged the appointments of periti. A bishop could request the appointment of a particular priest, and some bishops managed...


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