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Debating How to Debate Vatican II

Abp. Viganò’s latest open letter continues the vital conversation about the nature of Vatican II and the extreme necessity to properly respond to this “pastoral event.” This conversation must happen openly among the bishops who are courageous enough to face the difficult questions honestly. Instead of a spirit of “dialogue” among the bishops, there has instead reigned a spirit of fear and silence, as any who do not share the “party line” are immediately pilloried by mainstream Catholic media and ostracized by their brethren in the episcopate. Instead, Viganò shows in his disagreement with Schneider the true charity of pastoral zeal that is loving one another with the charity of brotherhood, with honour preventing one another (Rom. 12:10). This is seen when Viganò, who is calumniated everywhere as a crazed, pharisaical maniac, says this about a disagreement with his brother bishop:

It seems to me that from this fruitful exchange with my brother, Bishop Athanasius, what emerges is how much both of us have solely at heart the re-establishment of the Catholic Faith as the essential foundation for union in Charity. There is no conflict, no opposition: our zeal springs from and grows in the Eucharistic Heart of Our Lord and returns to it so as to be consumed in love for Him.

This is the type of charity lacking among the whole Catholic faithful. But for men such as this, their zeal is in whatever gives God greater glory for the salvation of souls. In this we may truly “compete” with one another in zeal for the Lord. The Apostle exhorts us to compete: Know you not that they that run in the race, all run indeed, but one receiveth the prize? So run that you may obtain (I Cor. 9:24). Yet, in the competition of zeal for the Lord, the saints have the greater glory of God for their goal, not wicked self-aggrandizement. As the Apostle says in another place: Let nothing be done through contention, neither by vain glory: but in humility, let each esteem others better than themselves (Philip. 2:3).

Therefore, to the saints, if one man proposes one thing for the glory of God, but another man does something that gives greater glory to God, then the former rejoices to “lose” to the latter, since it gives God greater glory. For men such as Abp. Viganò and Bp. Schneider, all that matters is the glory of God and the salvation of souls. Whether their particular opinion ends up being wrong or right is entirely secondary to this goal. In such a fellowship, there is no room for selfish intransigence — no one is concerned with honor for himself but solely with the honor of God. This exchange clearly shows for the faithful what kind of men these shepherds are, and the faithful would do well to imitate this zeal, charity, and humility.

Questioning Vatican II without Pride or Doubt

If any man is afraid to open the dark door of Vatican II difficulties, we must remember two statements from His Majesty the King: do not be afraid (Jn. 6:20) and the truth will set you free (Jn. 8:32). I think many a Catholic has been raised to simply obey and suppress any rational inclination otherwise as being pride. Obedience is among the highest virtues, being the swiftest route to humility, but grace also builds on nature. Our nature includes reason, and unless one is a religious under obedience, irrational commands should be able to be questioned without pride.

Many believe that disobedience to authority is never allowed in any case. If this is questioned, one’s own faith is thrown into doubt. But this kind of faith is a faith without history. Did the Roman citizens lose their faith when John XII was toasting Satan? No, they appealed to the emperor to depose the pope, which he did.

Did our fathers lose their faith when there were three popes? No, St. Vincent Ferrer told the faithful to disobey the pope he himself believed in, and the crisis was resolved.

When the wicked Cardinal Richelieu led France to ally with heretics against the Catholics with the support of Urban VIII, did our fathers lose their faith? Or when Clement XIV betrayed the Gospel by suppressing the Jesuits?

Our fathers endured in their faith because of what the King had said: In the world you shall have distress: but have confidence, I have overcome the world (Jn. 16:33). His promise that the gates will not prevail over the Church was made before He was tortured, crucified, and buried in the tomb. Therefore, let us not be afraid to question Vatican II if we can do so without pride and without doubting our faith in the Roman Church. Our fathers faced bloodshed and papal schism. Let us stand manfully on their heritage of faith.

Catholic Assent to a Pastoral Council

Let us close this short essay with a consideration of the dogmatic foundation of this debate about Vatican II. It is indubitably clear: if a man were to say we should debate whether the Immaculate Conception is true, or whether Nicene Orthodoxy is true, such a man would be rightly labeled a heretic and a Protestant. But the debate about Vatican II asserts as its fundamental premise that Vatican II is not a dogmatically binding council. This is the assertion not of the traditionalists, but of the popes and the Council itself, as Schneider observes:

The first basic thing to consider is the fact that both Popes of the Council — John XXIII and Paul VI — and Vatican II itself, clearly stated that, unlike all previous Councils, it had neither the aim nor the intention to propose its own doctrine in a definitive and infallible way. Thus, in his address at the solemn opening of the Council, Pope John XXIII said: “The main purpose of this Council is not, therefore, the discussion of one or another theme of the fundamental doctrine of the Church.” He added that the character of the Council’s magisterium would be “predominantly pastoral” (October 11, 1962). For his part, Pope Paul VI said in his address at the last public session of the Council, that Vatican II “made its program” from “the pastoral character” (7 December 1965). Furthermore, in a note made by the Council’s Secretary-General, on November 16, 1964, one reads: “Taking conciliar custom into consideration and also the pastoral purpose of the present Council, the sacred Council defines as binding on the Church only those things in matters of faith and morals which it shall openly declare to be binding.”

The last statement was incorporated in the document Lumen Gentium as an appendix. This accords with what Ratzinger said in 1988 in the context of the Lefebvre consecration controversy:

The Second Vatican Council has not been treated as a part of the entire living Tradition of the Church, but as an end of Tradition, a new start from zero. The truth is that this particular Council defined no dogma at all, and deliberately chose to remain on a modest level, as a merely pastoral council; and yet many treat it as though it had made itself into a sort of superdogma which takes away the importance of all the rest. [1]

But Ratzinger also says in the same address that “it is a necessary task to defend the Second Vatican Council against Msgr. Lefebvre, as valid, and as binding upon the Church.” But even Ratzinger here is speaking of something binding according to not dogma, but “a merely pastoral council.” Here we must distinguish between the binding character of dogma and the binding character of pastoral decisions. The former is absolutely binding with the assent of divine faith. This is something infallible. It cannot be questioned. The later, however, can be questioned, but only with grave cause on the authority of Tradition. The Lumen Gentium appendix places the comment about the binding character in this context:

Taking conciliar custom into consideration and also the pastoral purpose of the present Council, the sacred Council defines as binding on the Church only those things in matters of faith and morals which it shall openly declare to be binding. The rest of the things which the sacred Council sets forth, inasmuch as they are the teaching of the Church’s supreme magisterium, ought to be accepted and embraced by each and every one of Christ’s faithful according to the mind of the sacred Council. The mind of the Council becomes known either from the matter treated or from its manner of speaking, in accordance with the norms of theological interpretation.

A binding dogmatic proposition is accepted by faith, but an act of the “supreme magisterium” is accepted by piety (the virtue of giving to elders what is their due). It must be accepted and received with piety, and it cannot be rejected outright. If a Catholic can question such pastoral decisions at all, he can do so only with grave cause and not on his own authority. Ott puts it this way:

The ordinary and usual form of Papal teaching activity is not infallible[.] … Nevertheless they are normally to be accepted with an inner assent which is based on the high supernatural authority of the Holy See (assensus religiosus). The so-called silentium obsequiosum, i.e. reverent silence, does not generally suffice. By way of exception, the obligation of inner assent may cease if a competent expert, after a renewed scientific investigation of all grounds, arrives at the positive conviction that the decision rests on an error. [2]

Traditionalists must not become guilty of what their critics accuse them of: Protestant-like dissent based on private judgement. As Ott here notes, there is room for removing assent but only on two conditions: the thing from which assent is removed is not dogmatically binding (not infallible), and second, a competent expert removes his assent on the solid ground of a “scientific investigation,” meaning something principled on Tradition and not a man’s own private opinion. Schneider and Viganò are both competent experts as bishops and are objecting on solid grounds of Tradition, not merely their private opinion.

William Marshner — hardly a “rad trad pharisee” — puts it another way, saying Vatican II is a change of policy, not a change of doctrine.[3] Policies are not like doctrines. We do not assent to them as true or false. Policies are simply effective or ineffective. When the universal Magisterium calls on a Catholic to change policy, Marshner says it is the duty of the Catholic to “give them a chance.” But now, as Marshner says, “[t]here has been a curiously stubborn persistence of our hierarchy in policies which have demonstrably failed.” This has been the cry of the sheep to their shepherds for decades, and very few shepherds will listen to their sheep in this matter. That is why we must thank God for men like Viganò and Schneider, who are willing to face the uncomfortable realities the sheep are facing. Let us pray for their protection and speak with charity to our brethren who vilify them.

Until we all meet into the unity of faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the age of the fulness of Christ; That henceforth we be no more children tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine by the wickedness of men, by cunning craftiness, by which they lie in wait to deceive. But doing the truth in charity, we may in all things grow up in him who is the head, even Christ: From whom the whole body, being compacted and fitly joined together, by what every joint supplieth, according to the operation in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body, unto the edifying of itself in charity (Eph. 4:13–16).

[1] Cardinal Ratzinger, Address to the Chilean Bishops, July 13, 1988

[2] Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (Baronius, 2018), 10

[3] William Marshner, “Contemporary Catholicism,” (March 30, 2017)

Image: Ethan Lofton via Flickr.

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