Back to the Four Marks: One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic after Vatican II

4marksThe four marks of the Church are One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic.  With so many changes having happened within the Church during the past century, many are left wondering: what vestiges remain of the Apostolic deposit of faith?  In the era following Vatican II, the two most important evaluations of the four marks of the church are probably going to be the following.

1) Evangelization of the modern world is the main thrust of the actual documents of Vatican II.  Have the missions improved since 1965?

2) Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI speaks of the “hermeneutic of continuity.”  This means that any council, especially Vatican II, must be interpreted in light of the previous councils.  Has this happened since 1965?

More specifically, the hermeneutic of continuity is the teaching of Benedict that the tradition of the Catholic Church before Vatican II can be lived with the new expressions of the faith that were supposed to follow the Council.  “Hermeneutic” basically means philosophy or tool of interpretation, and “continuity” signifies the idea that Catholic doctrine, worship, and life after the Council should be the same as the previous generations, but renewed.

While this is theoretically possible, it may not be practically possible (barring a worldwide miracle). Miracle or not, the following seven aspects need to be accepted by faithful Catholics before we experience any possible “hermeneutic of continuity”:

1. Things (good and bad) were already in motion before Vatican II. Some say liberal humanism entered the Church in the Renaissance era (16th century).  Some say it entered the Church because of Vatican II (1962 to 1965).  Most well-read traditionalists recognize that heresy successfully infiltrated seminaries just before World War I (1905-1915).

The heresy of Modernism (“the synthesis of all heresies,” according to Pope St. Pius X) actually began as an attack on the Bible: Fr. Loisy was a Scripture scholar at a French seminary and made waves in doubting the inerrancy of Sacred Scripture.  St. Pius X excommunicated him after numerous attempts at rehabilitation.  Of course it starts with this, since Satan’s first words to man and woman were, “Did God really say…?” (Genesis 3:1).  In any case, it was probably because Sacred Scripture was questioned in the first half of the 20th century that clerics in the second half of the century had the hubris to question the Church’s prohibition of contraception within marriage.

The cancer we now experience in the Church may have little to do with Vatican II.  Even Archbishop Lefebvre said in a 1978 interview: “I would not say that Vatican II would have prevented what is happening in the Church today.  Modernist ideas have penetrated everywhere for a long time.”  But the good may not be due to Vatican II, either: while many Catholics now rightly recognize that they need a personal relationship with Jesus Christ to keep His commandments, so did St. Ignatius of Loyola in writing the Spiritual Exercises in the 16th century.  Jesus Himself said: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). So this timeless understanding of relationship was not introduced at the Council.  At least we can say that both extremes in the Church need to stop using Vatican II as an excuse for presumption or despair.

2. No council will ever be able to change Divine Revelation.  But it can be deepened.  Jesus Christ gave the Deposit of the Faith once and for all to the Apostles.  A council should grow the understanding of the deposit of the Faith.  For example, the Council of Chalcedon gave new depth to the already revealed truths of Christology, now buttressed by new parameters on the wording of Christ’s hypostatic union.  Councils should offer organic additions to or extrapolations upon the Sacred Scriptures to meet new social needs or tackle new heresies.  But a true Council cannot offer a mutilating subtraction from the deposit of the faith.

I’m not saying that Vatican II does this, but “the spirit of Vatican II” surely does.  For example, people say ridiculous things like “Vatican II prohibits Holy Communion on the tongue” or “Vatican II allows contraception.”  This would be less of the Catholic faith, which a true Council cannot effect.

Vatican II is difficult to evaluate on this front, since none of the documents were issued with the weight of infallibility.  Thus, Vatican II must be weighed against the other 20 ecumenical councils.  Had we done that honestly as Catholics, our worship and lifestyle would have experienced only subtle and beautiful changes.

3. The new Mass wasn’t necessary to go Ad Gentes.  Ad Gentes is the missionary chapter of Vatican II, meaning “Towards the Nations” as a missionary call.  Vatican II was completed in 1965.  Then, from 1965 to 1969, the Mass was radically changed.

Did the new Mass help the missionaries go “to the nations”?  Well, first we must recognize that Western missionaries  to Africa and Asia were abundant before the council, especially from 1800 to 1960.  After 1965, almost all mission work to foreign countries was replaced with social justice workers.

Native evangelization seems to have continued after the council.  For example, we have the astonishing examples of Chinese Christians evangelizing their countrymen at the constant price of torture and martyrdom.  But how about the West?  Did the new Mass succeed in the U.S. and Europe?

The architects of the new Mass (like Msgr. Bugnini) told us that the new Mass would be attractive to Protestants.  However, decades after these changes, we see that more Americans have left the new Mass for what Protestants do best (praise and worship and exciting preaching) than probably ever before since the days of Luther.  I can’t prove causality, but at least the liturgical changes were concurrent with sunken vocations, plummeted Mass attendance, unitarian-sounding catechesis, and the closing of beautiful old parishes along the entire Eastern seaboard.  Not far from a chunk of such parishes in Boston, Dr. Peter Kreeft reminds us that this was nothing short of a “liturgical holocaust.”  I cannot recall any such experimentation plaguing the Traditional Latin Mass in 1,500 years, even during the doctrinal crises within the Church.

4. The revamping of the sacraments after the Council is not necessarily a part of the hermeneutic of continuity. Following Vatican II, a small group of elitist bishops (admittedly influenced by their progressive Protestant “doctors”) convinced the rest of the bishops in the world to accept a new set of gutted blessings, a gutted exorcism rite, a gutted calendar, a gutted Divine Office, a gutted anointing, and a gutted Mass.  Strangely, this became the norm for the Catholic Church, with cruel brainwashing for anyone who holds to the so-called “hermeneutic of continuity.”

Thankfully, God in His great mercy kept all the newly gutted sacraments valid.  But there is more than “just valid” for the priest to aim for.  For example, there were minor exorcisms to be prayed over the dying man or woman in ancient extreme unction.  Why would any “liturgical experts” take exorcisms away from the dying?

5. We can accept the fullness of tradition and still live for the missions. According to Benedict’s Summorum Pontificum document of 2007 (and numerous 16th-century documents), I, as a priest, don’t have to reject the traditional sacramentals or sacraments of the Catholic Church.   I am permitted to hold fast to the Traditional Latin Mass and sacraments in my worship and evangelization.  All of my study of it has proven that it is not a Mass 500 years old but somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 years old.  Most of the Mass I offer daily is the same as the 5th-century Mass, but the “old Mass” may go even earlier.  The Council of Trent calls the so-called “extraordinary form” of the Mass one of “apostolic” origin.

While I prioritize the celebration of the Traditional Latin Mass and the institution of traditional sacraments, I also want to bring Christ to the nations, as St. Paul and St. Francis Xavier did.  Yet the thinking today seems to be that the new Mass is best for the missions and that the Traditional Latin Mass is best for the neurotic and psychotic who simply wish to “pull up the drawbridge” for a cultish lifestyle.

We need to stop thinking this way – after all, who were better missionaries than the Apostles?  The nations were all successfully evangelized by priests using the Traditional Latin Mass.

6. Lex orandi, lex credendi. We believe as we worship. Bad liturgy will inevitably lead to bad learning, even without bad catechesis.  For example, Vatican II was not a dogmatic council, and still American Catholics have all but lost the Faith.

Following the Council, Catholics came to a consistent conclusion: experiment in liturgy warrants experiment in doctrine.  Can you blame them?  It is only natural for fear of God to be lost in doctrine if first lost in liturgy.  The Mass is to bring peace and comfort, yes, but worship is also to reveal an awesome sense of the transcendent.  That forgotten union with God – a God infinitely powerful and holy – is nearly impossible to believe in when you walk into Mass amid drab communist marching songs like “Gather Us In.”  How could replacing the transcendent grandeur of the Solemn High Mass with Marty Haugen possibly lead more souls to God?

I used to think that this “liturgical holocaust” was a problem exclusive to the United States, but I have found worse music and sacrilege elsewhere in the world (like ants eating the Holy Eucharist in a tabernacle I saw in Brazil).  How can anyone fear God if we treat Him this way?

I can say in good conscience that Protestant mega-churches treat God with more holy fear than the average Catholic parish does, at least externally.  And I make this statement after travels to parishes on five continents since my ordination.

7. Collateral circulation.  There have been some extremely beautiful and powerful movements in the Church since Vatican II.  These lay movements are analogous to collateral circulation.  Collateral circulation is when blood finds new routes through smaller arteries to perfuse the tissue with oxygen – despite the fact that there are still occluded larger arteries, originally intended for the bulk of the work.  The smaller arteries in my analogy could be things like FOCUS, the Augustine Institute, Theology on Tap, and even the charismatic movement (outside the Mass), where I have seen the hand of God work miracles.

The Holy Priesthood in this analogy is the large but occluded artery.  It is charged with Apostolic greatness, but currently it is blocked by fear and politics.

Hasn’t this always been the case?  No, for this occlusion is due to a lot of new things like the child abuse scandals along with less recognized deterrents to young men.  For example, the relativism plaguing our doctrine is so ubiquitous that recently a holy and gentle bishop said that even the Pope’s theology is “objectively erroneous.”  What young man would want to follow this confusion into celibacy?

Where do we go from here?  Well, I don’t want us to return to the 1950s, as some angry people do.  My proposal is simple: let the Church move forward with all of her great lay movements, but have all bishops and priests offer the timeless 1962 sacraments.  We can keep “the New Evangelization,” but let’s be careful against modernist doctrine.  Then we will see a new wave of inspiring priests come from believing families.  In fact, the Mother of God promised a nun in the 16th century that the 20th century (after experiencing a great loss of the Catholic Faith) would be followed by God “sending to His Church the Prelate who shall restore the spirit of her priests.”  I believe that this renewal and this “Prelate” are coming in our lifetime, even if the triumph has to follow a few more global and ecclesiastical catastrophes.

Fr. Nix can be followed on blog, video, and podcast at

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