Tuesday, 27 January 2009

What is the status of Vatican II? A Guide to the debate, Part I


A reader alerted me to an intriguing reference on Rorate Caeli to claims that the SSPX will not be required to accept Vatican II, since it is 'not a dogma of faith'.

Equally intriguing were the terms of the Institute of Good Shepherd's reconciliation with Rome in 2006 under which they were reportedly required 'to have a positive attitude of study and communication with the Apostolic See, avoiding all controversy, (...) regarding certain points taught by the Second Vatican Council or regarding subsequent reforms of the liturgy and of the law, and which seem to us hardly reconcilable with Tradition.'

One wonders if the FSSP and others are operating under a similar prohibition, perhaps explaining their public silence on many of these issues.

In any case, the SSPX presumably are not going to accept a formulation of this kind, so I thought it might be useful to set out a few points that might help make sense of this debate.

Now this is difficult, hotly contested ground - take a look, for example, at the exchanges that have been going on in AD 2000 over the last year on this subject. Nonetheless, I'll give you my take on the subject, sticking as much as possible to the commonly agreed ground, and see if anyone wants to jump in and correct or debate me!

Canon Law

A useful starting point is the current Code of Canon Law which distinguishes between three levels of Church teaching:


  • the things we must believe (or must reject) (CL 750-1), irreformable propositions defined 'definitively' by the Church and protected by infallibility - rejection of these truths is heresy or apostasy;

  • formal - but potentially reformable - propositions put by the Pope (or bishops) in the course of his normal teaching (CL 752-3) - to which we are required to give 'religious submission'. It is worth noting that there are different levels of importance in the 'ordinary magisterium' (note though that there can be 'Ordinary Solemn' teachings - I'm not talking about them here);

  • pastoral constitutions and decrees which we are obliged to observe (CL 754).
First, a couple of key points to note.

  • Heresy vs doubts about the ordinary magisterium

The first and most obvious point to make is that heresy and apostasy (total rejection of Christianity) are grave offenses with serious consequences (at least in theory), including automatic excommunication (latae sententiae).

Someone who rejects potentially reformable teaching isn't in that category. Nonetheless, where a person teaches a doctrine condemned by the Pope or a Council, or obstinately rejects a non-definitive teaching of the Magisterium they can still be punished after a proper process (CL1371).

  • Propositions not positions
I've talked about 'propositions'. When we talk about infallibility, what is protected is the actual formal proposition relating to faith or morals - truths, facts intrinsically connected to revealed truth, or truths of reason (such as philosophic presuppositions). We have to accept the proposition itself, but we don't necessarily (depending on how connected it is to the truth) have to accept the reasoning or theological arguments that lead up to a particular teaching.

So if a Pope writes an encyclical - or a Council issues a document - we will obviously want to study it carefully and pay due deference to it given its authorship and importance, but we aren't (unless the Pope specifically says so) absolutely bound to accept that reasoning.

So for example, in relation to Council documents, it is perfectly acceptable for a theologian to argue (as the current Pope has in the past) that some paragraphs of Gaudium et Spes for example appear unduly Pelagian in character, seem naive, or are difficult to reconcile with past teaching. What matters in the end (not withstanding the obvious importance of studying the reasoning) is the conclusions that come from the document, not the reasoning used to get there.

So how does this apply to Vatican II?


Despite all the talk about how Vatican II was a pastoral, not dogmatic Council, I think it is pretty clear that it actually engages on all of these levels:

  • it refers to and reiterates propositions that have previously been taught infallibly and which must be accepted - but probably doesn't teach any 'new' dogma, see below;
  • it puts a number of propositions that seem like 'new' but non-infallible teaching;
  • it makes a large number of pastoral decisions.

What is most debatabed is whether the Council made any new infallible definitions, or proposed some new, potentially reformable teachings. I think the traditionalist perspective is no to the first but yes to the second (with a fairly strong view from some that those reformable teachings may be erroneous and need to be reformed!).

Are there any new dogmatic definitions in Vatican II documents?

It is true that Councils (provided their teachings are confirmed by the Pope) can teach 'solemnly' (infallibly).

In the past, Councils that wanted to make solemn, infallible definitions did so extremely clearly, carefully delineating exactly what was covered with the 'anathema sit' formula to show exactly what of the documents Catholics had to accept.

Lumen Gentium itself makes it clear that you have to pretty much spell out that a particular proposition is being made solemnly for it to be taken as such. Canon Law (CL 749, 'No doctrine is understood as defined infallibly unless this is manifestly evident') reinforces that. Vatican II didn't do that for any proposition, and a series of Popes (including the current one before he became Pope) have said that it did not make any solemn pronouncements. That hasn't stopped some people claiming that it has however!

Ordinary magisterium?

The more serious questions, however, I think relate to its non-definitive teachings and some of its pastoral decisions. Some have suggested that a Council can't, by definition, pronounce 'ordinary magisterium'. I think that is overly literalist, and demonstrably incorrect by reference to past Councils.

Others find its propositions, reasoning and arguments hard to reconcile with past solemn or ordinary magisterium - and this is, I think where the real debate with the SSPX lies.

There are certain limited circumstances where debate is permissible in this area. Generally, it is limited in theory at least to theologians behind closed doors, but of course that doesn't match up closely to reality today!

It is in this realm that the Pope has argued that we simply need to apply the 'hermaneutic of continuity' in order to understand the Council correctly. And some traditionalists have done serious work on some doctrines - such as religious liberty - and found ways of reconciling Council teaching with past dogma.

Most traditionalists, however, remain to be convinced on at least some points in relation to the Council.

Pastoral decisions

There are also some big questions on the current status of its various pastoral decisions. One key question of course is the distinction between purely pastoral decisions - on which we can (normally at least, in accordance with CL 212)legitimately make our concerns known - and magisterial teaching.

Take ecumenism for example. I'd argue that the Council's more positive view of our 'separated brethren' is a matter of perspective, a decision that reflects pastoral judgments about the times rather than a fundamental development of doctrine.

I'd also argue that the majority of the pastoral decisions were permissive - allowing but not compelling us for example to attend religious services of ecclesial communities, or use the vernacular in the mass for example - rather than requiring us to do anything. Unfortunately, they've often been treated as dogma by 'spirit of Vatican IIists'.

The biggest problem though is that some of the justifications for many of the decisions look to many traditionalists like utter misreadings of 'the signs of the times', were often based on misinterpretations of history, employ dodgy-looking theology and weak anthropology. Unsurprising then, from a traditionalist perspective, tht they've had a disastrous effect on the health of the Church. The SSPX and traditionalists generally have been reasonably vocal on many of these issues.

While we are bound to obey the decisions, some of them have actually been since overridden (viz Summorum Pontificum for example). Some (take a look at the stuff on decision making structures in the decree on the laity) have been tried, failed, and have been quietly allowed to die.

In other cases, though, we seem to be locked into a debate between those who, notwithstanding the manifest problems they've caused rather than just saying, 'Done, let's move on', want to try again and get the implementation right this time around (for example 'reform of the reform'). And I think this is the biggest potential area for the debate with the SSPX and other traditionalists to engage on.

The bottom line

I think we do have to accept that Vatican II was a legitimately convened Ecumenical Council whose decrees were properly approved.

We do have to obey those of its decrees still in force.

But there is a lot of room for debate in the middle ground of reasoning, rationales and results of the pastoral decisions, and around potentially reformable teaching.

So is it 'dogma'? In general, no.

But do we have to take it seriously and give it appropriate deference and respect? Yes.

3 comments:

Cardinal Pole said...

"And some traditionalists have done serious work on some doctrines - such as religious liberty - and found ways of reconciling Council teaching with past dogma."

Name them please. Regarding so-called religious liberty, I can think of two serious Traditional attempts, one of whose work I have seen refuted directly, and the other addressed indirectly. There have also been a handful of recent, less in-depth, but no less fruitless, attempts by conservatives / neo-conservatives to do so. And then there is the official (Magisterial?) Compendium of Social Doctrine, which is openly humanist and possibly Maritainist and is riddled, almost line by line, with glaring illogic.

But, moreover, do you not see the futility in the notion of straining, however desperately, to find "ways of reconciling Council teaching with past dogma"? (Look at the official Relatio for Dignitatis Humanae--Msgr. de Smedt openly admitted that it would be up to future scholars to demonstrate the continuity with other earlier teachings. Could you imagine what a laughing stock Vatican I would have been to the world if Msgr. Gasser had said something like that about Papal Infallibility? The difference, of course, is that the media during Vatican I were openly hostile, while at Vatican II they were egging the Council Fathers on to modernisation.) If they are that riddled with ambiguity then they are best forgotten, or perhaps even formally repudiated. Heresy is not the only sin against the Faith; to say things that tend to heresy is also sinful. And to produce documents that are wide open to divergent interpretations is an affront to the unity of truth.

Terra said...

Cardinal,

The point is that it was a validly convened Council, and as such the correct attitude towards it is, prima facie, docility not hostility. Even if it does subsequently prove to have included some erroneous propositions, we won't be penalized for following the teaching of the Magisterium rather than exsulting individual judgment.

That said, we all know there are major problems. And Councils can of course make pronouncements that are subsequently overriden, though that is relatively rare.

The big question in this case is to what extent the problems lie in the Council documents themselves, to what extent in modernist interpretations of them.

I think there is a pretty good case that misinterpretations are the bigger problem, notwithstanding that there certainly are serious issues with the documents themselves.

I'd also note that interpretation problems are actually fairly common after Councils - in fact the current Pope pointed out in his Principles of Catholic Theology that turmoil and the rise of heresy after a Council is more the norm than the exception!

The point is that theology and theological propositions are not easy to grasp and do in fact require considerable expertise and contextual knowledge. A person off the street can't expect to pick up a Council document and be able to understand it correctly even if it looks superficially comprehensible.

And in the 1960s and 70s the normal problems were compounded by those with (modernist) agendas to run....

If you can read french, I'd recommend Mgr Rifan's book Tradition et Magitere Vivant on this subject.

In terms of religious liberty, I have to admit I haven't read the literature on this topic myself as yet so I'm keeping an open mind. But the work I was referring to is by Dom Basile OSB (who has written a six volume work on the topic published by Le Barroux in 1998); Louis-Marie de Blignieres and Dominique-Marie de Saint-Laumer, 1988; Bernard Lucien, 2006; Julio Meinville, 1967.

Terra said...

PS Go and read the very measured comments of Bishop Fellay on these topics today over at Rorate or Father Z!