Wednesday, July 11, 2007

No Ambiguity in Pre-Vatican II Documents

Catholic Theologian Attempting to Read the Mountains of Post-Conciliar Magisterial Statements

As a Church whose foundations are historical and based on the words and deeds of Christ and the Apostles in history, our faith must continually look backwards towards the life of Jesus; indeed, towards the crucifixion, the pivotal moment in human history. One generation in the Church continually succeeds another, each looking back for the authentic interpretation of contemporary events to the constant teachings and expressions of Tradition. As a historical Church, we ought to (and have for many centuries) interpret the present in light of the past.

However, since Vatican II there has been a shift in the way the Church looks at history, espeically its own. Rather than seek understanding of the chaotic trials of the day in the timeless wisdom of the past, the current trend has been to re-interpret the past in light of the present, as if this present moment was somehow superior to the entire past Tradition of the Church. This is a phenomenon that Fr. Chad Ripperger, F.S.S.P., has called "temporal nationalism"; i.e., the assumption that modern man is so much more enlightened and knowledgeable than his predecessors that he can sit and pass judgement on the past with arrogant abandon.

This view is seen at work in the Church by the sheer volume of magisterial statements put out since Vatican II; since the 1960's, the Church has sought to issue new documents on every aspect of the Christian faith, as if the old documents were unable to stand on their own. Two factors that especially aggravate this is first, that the new documents are infinitely longer than the old statements. The average pre-Vatican II document, like Humani Generis of Piux XII, for example, is about 6 to 10 printed pages long, sometimes shorter, sometimes longer. The average post-Vatican II document is anywhere from 50 to 130 printed pages long. This is partially due to the pastoral and philosophical nature of newer documents - where older documents sought primarily to give declarations and issue decrees, newer documents are geared towards explaining why the Church believes and does this and that. This is not bad, by any means, but it is evidence that the Church has changed the way it views itself and its mission to the world, and that the result has been a post-conciliar corpus that is much more difficult to navigate through.

Second, the theological language of the new documents is sometimes sloppy and prone to ambiguous interpretation. Take the famous example of Dei Verbum 11, which states that the Bible "teaches, without error that truth which God wanted put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation."

Now, it can be interpreted in one of two ways: (1) the Bible is immune from error in everything it says, and everything it says God wanted there for the sake of our salvation, and (2) The Bible is immune from error in so far as it teaches about salvation, but can err when it treats of other topics. Post-Vatican II teaching is ambiguous on the proper resolution, and seeking to be "modern" and "scholarly", many theologians, even well-meaning otherwise orthodox theologians, have accepted the second position. Now, how is the Catholic to solve this dilemma, given the relative silence of the modern Magisterium on the matter? Catholics ignorant of Tradition would simply sit down and wait for another ambiguous Magisterial document to interpret the first ambiguous statement. But remember our principle: we interpret the present in light of the past. Now, let's see what Tradition says on the matter of inspiration. I will let the Popes and Councils speak for themselves.


  • Pope Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus, no. 20f: “It is absolutely wrong and forbidden either to narrow inspiration to certain parts only of Sacred Scripture or to admit that the sacred writer has erred... For all the books which the Church receives as Sacred and Canonical are written wholly and entirely, with all their parts, at the dictation of the Holy Ghost; and so far is it from being possible that any error can coexist with inspiration, that inspiration not only is essentially incompatible with error, but excludes and rejects it as absolutely and necessarily as it is impossible that God Himself, the Supreme Truth, can utter that which is not True. This is the ancient and unchanging Faith of the Church... [T]hose who maintain that an error is possible in any genuine passage of the sacred writings, either pervert the Catholic notion of inspiration, or make God the author of such error.”



  • Pope St. Pius X, Lamentabili Sane, no. 11, condemns the following proposition: “Divine inspiration does not extend to all of Sacred Scriptures so that it renders its parts, each and every one, free from every error.”



  • Pope Benedict XV, Spiritus Paraclitus, no. 13: “[T]he immunity of Scripture from error or deception is necessarily bound up with its Divine inspiration and supreme authority.”



  • Ibid., no. 19, condemns the following proposition: “[T]he effects of inspiration - namely, absolute truth and immunity from error - are to be restricted to that primary or religious element.”



  • Ibid., no. 21: He also teaches that Divine inspiration extends to every part of the Bible without the slightest exception, and that no error can occur in the inspired text.



  • Pope Pius XII, Divino Afflante Spiritu, no. 3: “It is absolutely wrong and forbidden either to narrow inspiration to certain parts only of Sacred Scripture or to admit that the sacred writer has erred.”



  • Pius XII, Humani Generis, no. 22, condemns the following proposition: “[I]mmunity from error extends only to those parts of the Bible that treat of God or of moral and religious matters.”



  • Vatican Council I, Sess. III, cap. ii, DE REV: “The Books of the Old and New Testament, whole and entire, with all their parts, as enumerated in the Decree of the same Council (Trent) and in the ancient Latin Vulgate, are to be received as Sacred and Canonical. And the Church holds them as Sacred and Canonical not because, having been composed by human industry, they were afterwards approved by her Authority; nor only because they contain revelation without errors, but because, having been written under the Inspiration of the Holy Ghost, they have God for their Author.”


So we see how a look at Tradition and pre-Vatican II Magisterial statements (all of them wonderfully concise and precise) we can easily get a proper interpretation of Dei Verbum 11: that the Bible is immune from error in everything it says, and everything it says God wanted there for the sake of our salvation. This is the constant Tradition of the Church. An interpretation other than this would be a radical break with Tradition and constitute a change in the Church's dogma, which is impossible. Finally, if even that is not enough to convince the die-hard fans of modernism, the Council Fathers let it be known how they intended this phrase to be interpreted by referencing in its footnote various writings of St. Augustine, all of which endorse the total inerrancy of Scripture.

Tradition has been and always shall be the most sure norm for interpreting the Church's current teaching. Regarding Tradition, let us remember the famous quote of G.K. Chesterton: "Tradition means giving a vote to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about" (Orthodoxy, 4).

4 comments:

Alexander said...

That picture and the caption... simply hilarious.. but sadly true.

BONIFACE said...

Alexander- regarding "suspecta de haeresi, errore", the Catholic Encyclopedia says: "A still finer shade of meaning attaches to such censures as "sapiens hæresim, errorem" (smacking of heresy or error), "suspecta de hæresi, errore"(suspected of heresy or error). Propositions thus noted may be correct in themselves, but owing to various circumstances of time, place, and persons, are prudently taken to present a signification which is either heretical or erroneous.

There is a special signigication, "ambigua", which the Encyclopedia defines as:A proposition is ambiguous when it is worded so as to present two or more senses, one of which is objectionable; captious when acceptable words are made to express objectionable thoughts; evil-sounding when improper words are used to express otherwise acceptable truths; offensive when verbal expression is such as rightly to shock the Catholic sense and delicacy of faith."

Therefore, I think you could accuse the writers of the Documents of "ambigua."

Alexander said...

Interesting. Thanks for the info.

Anonymous said...

I just run across this particular article so I apologize.
Is it any wonder why catholics are in a daze about the council? The more questions are posed, the more disoriented we are. The two or more possible meanings to words and phrases used in the documents , plus the so called "interpretations" of these documents , leaves one to consider that neither the councilmen , the past and present pope and bishops actually know little of what transpired during the council. It seems the more I read , the more confusing it is .

There are those who claim to understand it all, but the outcome of the council leaves little doubt in my mind there is rampant confusion on the part of Rome. So many claim the council did not break from tradition and yet it appears that it has. It is unrecognizable in my mind from the past. Is the Holy Spirit ambiguous? If vat.ii does not teach infallibly, why follow it? Does that mean for instance, sspx is definitely not part of the church, since in practice, they appear to not follow the popes but only tradition.

So many questions and no real answers.