Thursday, August 22, 2013

Book Review: Second Vatican Council: An Unwritten Story

For the past two weeks, I have been immersed in what I am convinced is the definitive biography of the Vatican II, The Second Vatican Council: An Unwritten Story, by Italian author Roberto de Mattei. Dr. Mattei is no meager polemicist, and though his book supports many of the ideas proposed by Catholic traditionalists, his book is by no means a traddy diatribe. Mattei's curriculum vitae is impressive; he is Professor of Modern History at the Faculty of Arts of the University of Cassino and is currently Professor of Modern History and History of Christianity at the European University in Rome. This scholarly background shows through in his work, which is probably the most academic and dispassionate treatment of the Second Vatican Council ever written.

Even so, The Second Vatican Council: An Unwritten Story is a total vindication of the traditionalist critique of the Council and its relation to the current state of the Church. Using only documentary evidence - including records of Council proceedings, texts of interventions by the Council Fathers, personal correspondences of John XXIII and Paul VI, and personal diaries of the periti - Dr. Mattei reconstructs the tumultuous days leading up the Council and thoroughly documents the thoughts and aspirations of the Council Fathers as the event that was Vatican II exploded on the world stage.

This is where Mattei's book has its greatest value: in revealing the intentions, thoughts and opinions of the participants in the Council. Reading the words of the actual Fathers on this subject demolishes a lot of canards about the Council. For example, it is often asserted that the ambiguity of the Council documents is an accusation made by Traditionalists who seek to blame the Council itself for the Church's problems; however, the comments of the Council Fathers themselves reveal that even while the Council was in session, ambiguity and vagueness were serious concerns for many of the participants in the Council (see here).

Another example: it is commonly asserted that the Council itself was carried out in perfect continuity with previous ecumenical councils and the problems came only with a hijacking of its implementation. However, Mattei's book reveals that the participants in the Council viewed it even then as something revolutionary, from the first meetings of the first session when the Fathers revolted to throw out the documents prepared by the Theological Commission, to their replacement of the heads of all the commissions with liberals, to their setting up of a permanent body of four Cardinals that effectively served as a meta-commission to organize all the other commissions and push them towards liberal ends. We learn that it was not a liberal who first proposed interpreting the Council in light of its "spirit", but Paul VI himself who first referred to the "spirit of Vatican II" in his opening address of the Fourth Session in September of 1965; it was not dissenting bishops who did away with Latin, but Paul VI who first celebrated Masses in the Italian vernacular in 1965 and urged his bishops to imitate him. It was a dominant clique of the Council Fathers themselves who asked for vernacular, versus populum Masses, cultural Masses, and many other deviations. Yes, this book demolishes the argument that the problems did not come until implementation; the problems were present at the outset.

Also of note is the manner in which several theologians come off as not just questionable but as total heretics. Sure, we already knew about Kung and Rahner, but even some of the more "respectable" theologians are outed for the heretics they were. For example, Yves Congar, whom Scott Hahn has praised many times and often cites as a source, comes off as a radical heretic in his desire to undermine papal primacy and redefine the nature of the Church, even invoking Martin Luther at the tomb of St. Paul, "who had wanted to reaffirm the Gospel for which Paul had struggled" (pg.487). I was appalled at some of the statements from Congar's diary quoted in the book. Jean Danielou and Henri de Lubac also are revealed as hypocrites, dissenters and heretics - and this not by any insinuations of slander by the author, but by the words of these theologians themselves. Mattei as an author does not need to make any argument; he allows these periti to hang themselves by simply citing their own words.

We also see that the controversial issues today were not necessarily the controversial issues then. While post-Conciliar critiques have focused on the liturgy, there was really not that much debate at the Council about liturgical matters. The most controversial subject was undoubtedly the Council's teaching on "collegiality", which many conservative bishops believed was in flat contradiction of Vatican I and was plainly invented in 1962. More debate was held on this question than any other, with the concept of religious liberty as expounded in Dignitatis Humanae coming in second (a tidbit I found awesome was that Karol Wojtyla found grave problems with the religious liberty schema and thought the concept of truth found therein was too disassociated with Christ, who is truth). Communism also looms large in the debates, with the vast majority of the Council Fathers asking for a condemnation of communism and Paul VI categorically refusing it.

One of the fundamental themes of Mattei's work is the teachings of the Second Vatican Council as theology versus the Second Vatican Council interpreted as an event. Mattei argues that the failure of the conservative/traditional bishops to halt the liberal onslaught was due to the fundamental inability of the conservative bishops to understand that Vatican II as an historical event, a defining occurrence in the history of the Church that was widely viewed as the beginning of a new epoch. The conservative Council Fathers, naturally interpreting Vatican II in continuity with previous Councils, focused excessively on the strict theological meaning of the wording of various documents, ultimately making noble and profound objections to the ambiguities of the texts, but never fully grasping the nature of the revolution that the Council unleashed. They did not understand the manner in which the liberals wanted to use the Council, at least not until it was too late. And why would they? No Council in the Church's history had ever been used in such a way - what Benedict XVI referred to as a "meta-council." Paradoxically, the conservative bishop's view of the Council in continuity with tradition rendered them incapable of perceiving the vastness of the looming threat.

What we have is ultimately the fact that, while Vatican II may not be a total doctrinal rupture, it certainly was a historical rupture, and many of the liberal Council Fathers were content to maintain the semblance of doctrinal continuity if they could have historical discontinuity; discontinuity of fact was always the end game, even if we do not have a total discontinuity of teaching. Discontinuity de facto has been the golden apple, the liberal wet-dream, the "promised land of the Council", as Congar referred to Gaudium et Spes; conservatives can reconcile the documents and claim continuity of teaching till the cows come home - continuity de jure is an on paper reality, while the monstrous discontinuity de facto continues unabated.

Thus, the modern movement towards continuity cannot be content with merely proving it on paper or getting it authenticated in some document; there is no purely legal solution to the problem. The horses are out, and shutting the proverbial barn door now will do little good. To restore the Church, we must not only restore continuity on paper, but restore it in fact, in practice, in our lives. We must understand the Council as an historical event as well, and seek to reconcile not only documents, but lives and praxis.

This is why the book is both enlightening and depressing; it will make you mad as hell to see how things really went down, how Cardinal Ottaviani was blacklisted by the liberal elite, how the four Cardinals who dominated the Council (Frings, Konig, Dopfner and Suenens, the arch-villain) intentionally tried to dismantle the whole Catholic edifice, how the Council Fathers got us to exchange our heroes for ghosts and hot ashes for trees, in the words of Roger Waters. But it is enlightening as well, because it helps to bring into focus, glaringly, where the exact problems lie, and in doing so make the path to restoration seem more clear.

We all know there is a liberal narrative of the Council, what Benedict called the "Council of the Media"; but there is also a conservative narrative, one which tries to absolve the Council itself of all possible wrongdoing and place the blame squarely on post-Conciliar innovations. That narrative is no longer plausible after reading this book. I highly recommend it for any student of the Council, and I want to emphasize again that this book is not a polemic, not some Traditionalist attack - everything I said above is deduced simply from the speeches and writings of the Council Fathers, which this book reproduces en masse and hence becomes an indispensable resource for this important period in ecclesiastical history. It is not inexpensive, but it is certainly worth the money. When I finished the book, I was sorry it was over.  It was that good.

I also want to thank the blogger "I am not Spartacus" who brought the book to my attention and graciously sent a hard copy of it in the mail to me for my perusal. Blessings, my friend.

Click here to purchase Roberto de Mattei's The Second Vatican Council: An Unwritten Story


I am not Spartacus said...

Dear Brother Boniface. I knew you were on who could write an excellent review of this book.

Don't hold your breath waiting for it to be reviewed by the conservative catholic collective.

All thanks go to you, Boniface, and I hope you didn't make any marks in my book.

Blessings back at ya from a huge fan.

BONIFACE said...

Actually I did make a few marks in pencil, but compared to yours, I do not think you will notice at all.

Mark of the Vineyard said...

Boniface, have you ever read Geoffrey Hull's "The Banished Heart"? It is also a very eye-openning book, though I'm sure many traditionalists may not like what the author (who is a traditionalist himself) has to say.

Jamey said...

I Am Not Spartacus said: "Don't hold your breath waiting for it to be reviewed by the conservative catholic collective."

Dynamic silence?

Cardinal Suenens: "Vatican II is the French revolution in the Church."

We know the suppressed portion of the Fatima Third Secret refers to "troubling apostasies within the bosom of the Faith". Several cardinals who were privy to the Third Secret talked about a great apostasy being the essence of the message. It was to be released in 1960, did it really refer to an "evil council" as per Fr Dollinger's words, a German theologian and apparent friend of B16 according to Fr Paul Kramer. Cardinal Oddi said in 1990 he thinks the Third Secret had to do with convening VII. Malcolm Muggeridge's daughter wrote about how John XXIII realised he lost control of the Council. Sr Lucia herself struggled for months to write the Third Secret because there was no precedent what was to happen to the Faith. The first two secrets there were precedents for, including the annihilation of nations. But something orchestrated that would result in the Faith being almost wiped out was unique (See Kenneth C Jones Catholic indicators pre and post VII). As one priest and Fatima commentator mentioned a country losing its faith is far worse than the annihilation of a nation.

Interestingly I came across an article of the New York Times which praised the Second Vatican Council as the greatest religious event of the Twentieth Century and one where the Church finally gave up its siege mentality. Well it had a siege mentality previously because previous pontiffs didn't underestimate the degree to which Satan was trying to infiltrate her. Indeed many key contributors to the Council had been censured during Pius XII's reign.

Alexander said...

I am hoping for the day when the so-called "neo-conservatives" will read materials like this and just accept what happened instead defending every breathe and eye blink that comes from Rome as if it were Divinity itself.

Beefy Levinson said...

The Holy Spirit was definitely present at Vatican II: he was there to prevent serious compromises with doctrine, despite the best efforts of some prominent bishops and theologians.

Jamey said...

Beefy, I think the damage was limited by some of the orthodox theologians so yes I agree the Holy Ghost worked through those men. However the lack of precision in wording (which was intentional) has led to the hijacking of doctrine as referred to by Boniface in his post. Then there are a few words in the documents that are seriously problematic (eg the Church of God "subsists" in the Catholic Church). Many prominent churchmen throughout the following decades simply said there was no rupture (ie hermeneutic of continuity). A couple of the more prominent liberals (such as Suenens and Congar) had the honesty to say there was actually a revolution. Bob Sungenis put together an interesting essay about how the confusion resulting from the Council was a spiritual chastisement from God. Sr Lucia herself said in 1958 a huge chastisement was imminent, we normally see chastisements in physical terms however they can be of a metaphysical nature.

I am not Spartucus relating to the neo-cons you refer to who refuse to discuss any of the deep seated issues in the Church, Voris recently put out a Vortex about how they protect their pay packets before the truth, and names names. Some have probably seen it since it has done the rounds on trad forums but for those who haven't here goes: