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Are Catholics Bound to Assent to Vatican II?

Mr. Dave Armstrong has been a successful Catholic author and blogger for some two decades. To his great credit, he is one of the few Catholics who provides a substantial critique of the traditionalist movement.[1] Without a doubt he has brought many to the Faith (particularly Protestant heretics) and strengthened the Faith of numerous Catholics. Most importantly, Mr. Armstrong is willing to do the basic acts of Christian charity online while so many other Catholics of every persuasion act contrary to charity and thereby endanger their souls (cf. Mt. 5:22, 12:36).

However, having said this, I must say some critical remarks about Mr. Armstrong’s point of view. This regards the causality argument about Vatican II. It is thought by traditionalists that the Council is in large part the cause of the crisis, while conservatives argue that since the Council is ecumenical, it cannot be said to be a cause. Armstrong:

[W]e mustn’t fall into the informal logical fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc (Latin: “after this, therefore because of this”). Whether Vatican II caused the problems we see remains to be proven; not merely assumed. Traditionalists and reactionaries usually casually (and increasingly) assume that Vatican II is the big bad boogeyman. I just as vehemently disagree…[.] It’s an ecumenical council, under the protection and guidance of the Holy Spirit (just as the Jerusalem Council was, as described in Acts 15), and is, as such, a manifestation of the extraordinary magisterium of Holy Mother Church.

First, we may concede that the logical fallacy aforementioned is simplistic and not convincing. On the other hand, we must not fall into the skepticism of Hume, whose ideas led to the most irrational denial of causality altogether. As Ripperger observes:

Hume’s critique of causation effectively cuts one off from reality. According to Hume there is no cause of one thing to another but only a constant conjunction of one event with another. [He asserted that] we may not conclude, when 1) one billiard ball strikes another and 2) makes the second one move, that a necessary connection exists between the two occurrences, but simply that the two occurrences have merely been correlated consistently with each other. this view isolates one intellectually from reality since there is no causal connection between the knowledge in one’s intellect and what one senses in reality[.] [2]

In this sense, the opposite extreme must be avoided when discussing Vatican II, that because it is an ecumenical council, we cannot ascribe any sort of causality to it in any way, even if a great deal evidence points to this conclusion. Nevertheless, the question is pertinent to the theology of the Magisterium and the confidence of the Catholic in this divine institution.

Let us distinguish the question from two aspects: historical and philosophical. From the historical analysis we may identify multiple causes for the present crisis — doctrinal, social, political, moral, economic, and more. These are the actual historical results of the Council that in real life draw upon may different things, not just the Council itself. Here we may bring up the testimony of Ratzinger:

Certainly, the results [of Vatican II] seem cruelly opposed to the expectations of everyone, beginning with those of Pope John XXIII and then of Paul VI: expected was a new Catholic unity and instead we have been exposed to dissension which — to use the words of Paul VI — seems to have gone from self-criticism to self-destruction. Expected was a new enthusiasm, and many wound up discouraged and bored. Expected was a great step forward, and instead we find ourselves faced with a progressive process of decadence which has developed for the most part precisely under the sign of a calling back to the Council, and has therefore contributed to discrediting for many. The net result therefore seems negative. I am repeating here what I said ten years after the conclusion of the work: it is incontrovertible that this period has definitely been unfavorable for the Catholic Church. [3]

Ratzinger seems to be speaking of the Council from a historical perspective. I read him as saying (here in 1984) that the historical effect of the Council has been negative. Thus, a historical assertion takes into account the machinations of human sin that failed to bring about what the Council intended. Here we may see a parallel with Lateran V, which addressed in 1517 the question of indulgences and corruption that spring, but not enough to prevent the Protestant revolt that autumn, necessitating a whole new council. From the historical perspective, we can confidently say Lateran V was a failure. This is because its decrees were not sufficient to address the heretical explosion of Protestant fervor, and its bishops lacked the courage to implement the good decrees it did contain.

It could be reasonably asserted that Lateran V could not have predicted the chaos that would ensure. To a degree, this is true, but on the other hand, a storm was indeed seen on the horizon and was publicly warned about at the council. The old Catholic Encyclopedia relates the following:

Towards the close of the council (1517) the noble and highly cultured layman, Gianfrancesco Pico della Mirandola, delivered a remarkable speech on the necessity of a reform of morals; his account of the moral condition of the clergy is saddening, and reveals the many and great difficulties that stood in the way of a genuine reform. He concluded with the warning that if [Pope] Leo X left such offences longer unpunished and refused to apply healing remedies to these wounds of the Church, it was to be feared that God Himself would cut off the rotten limbs and destroy them with fire and sword. That very year this prophetic warning was verified. The salutary reforms of the Lateran Council found no practical acceptance[.] … Leo himself did not scruple to set aside repeatedly the decrees of the council. The Roman Curia, then much despised and against which so many inveighed with violence, remained as worldly as ever. The pope was either unwilling or not in a position to regulate the unworthy and immoral conduct of many of the Roman courtiers. The political situation absorbed his attention and was largely responsible for the premature close of the council.

Thus, considered from a historical perspective, we can say that Lateran V was a failure for various reasons (from the “premature” end of the Council itself to the enacting of its “salutary decrees”) to the extent that no one remembers Lateran V, and everyone remembers the successful council instead, Trent. We may observe as well that just like at Lateran V, multiple voices were raised in warning about the effects of Vatican II and the gravity of the storm of sexual revolution, most of all Our Lady herself at Fatima, but these warnings were ignored or literally silenced and mocked by the majority faction at Vatican II (led in part by Ratzinger). Therefore, it is not unreasonable to assert on the historical level that, similar to Lateran V, the Second Vatican Council failed to “read the signs of the times” and thought the world was on the dawn of a new age of Christianity, instead of the reality of a new darkness of pornographic filth, mass murder of unborn children, and a worldwide clerical revolt in favor of contraception.

But if Ratzinger could concede in the ’80s that the “net result” of Vatican II was negative, he would hasten to assert (as he would in 2005) that this is not due to the Council ontologically. Here we distinguish the historical result from the philosophical result. If we assert that a council is ecumenical, we assert that, as Mr. Armstrong says, it is “under the protection and guidance of the Holy Spirit” and thus “a manifestation of the extraordinary magisterium of Holy Mother Church.” God thus prevents an ecumenical council from formally pronouncing error which binds the whole Church. We may state further that a council is an act of God’s Providence which in itself is thus a good and perfect gift from on high (Ja. 1:17). But we must further distinguish between the infallible binding pronouncements of a Council on the one hand and its decrees, teachings, and policies on the other. This distinction is given by the appendix of Lumen Gentium:

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

As is clearly stated here, we may note that just because something is not binding, this does not give one the freedom to simply dismiss it on the authority of private judgment. Marshner aptly sums up the nature of Vatican II when he says it was not a change of doctrine, but a change of policy.[4] A Catholic cannot dismiss a policy on his own authority, but he can respectfully assert in certain circumstances (as Marshner himself does) that these policies are effective or ineffective. Lateran V made certain doctrinal pronouncements, but it also made certain policies about the issues of the day. Vatican II primarily changed policies about the issues in the 1960s. One policy was to issue ambiguous teachings on doctrine, and another policy was to act and speak optimistically about the modern world. Both of these policies can be reasonably argued to be ineffective at best and disastrous at worst. To do so is not a schismatic act, but a plea of charity from the sons of the Church.

Like Lateran V, Vatican II has proved ineffective in combatting what Mr. Armstrong himself agrees is “the greatest crisis in the history of the Church,” namely Modernism. Therefore, in a similar way to how churchmen after 1517 called for a new council like Trent to properly deal with the situation after Lateran V failed, the traditionalists of today advocate that Vatican II has proved ineffective and must be set aside in order to deal with the new situation.

Armstrong asserts that “[a]n ecumenical council cannot be dismissed by any Catholic who believes in indefectibility.” But the assertion that Lateran V was insufficient for the new Protestant revolution was not challenging the nature of the Church on the philosophical level. Rather, it was an appeal to the history of the moment to realize that a different policy was necessary. Vatican II as a historical event failed to bring about its best intentions — quite the contrary. The documents of Vatican II envisioned the world of 1965 as a world of new optimism and possibilities about the neutral, secular state; evangelism; ecumenism; and “modern man.” It was believed that “modern man” would embrace Catholicism with its new fresh look. Now a few generations removed, we must have the humility to admit that this policy was not effective. Notwithstanding the achievements of John Paul II against communism, the march of Modernism, sexual perversion, and Marxist destruction of the family has continued unabated.

[1] The other two to my knowledge are Likoudis and Whitehead and Madrid and Vere. Lamentably, both of these works do not match the academic rigor of the traditionalist scholars such as De Mattei, Romano, and Ferrara.

[2] Fr. Chad Ripperger, Topics on Tradition (Sensus Traditionis Press, 2013), 55 n65

[3] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, L’Osservatore Romano (English edition), December 24, 1984

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

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