Monday, April 28, 2008

Ways of seeing Vatican II

In some sense, the essence of Traditionalism in the Catholic Church today completely hinges on the position one takes towards the Second Vatican Council. If there had not been a Second Vatican Council, the label "Traditionalist Catholic" would be redundant, because (presumably) we would still be continuing on the course charted by centuries of saints and doctors and simply to be Catholic at all would be to be a Traditionalist. After Vatican II, this heritage disappears, and exactly what role the Council played in this disappearance defines where one falls on the spectrum of traditionalism.

There are several positions Catholics take on the Council; I can think of four, which I will enumerate here:

1) Spirit of the Council: The Council was inspired by the Holy Spirit to usher in a new age of freedom from old contraints, out-moded moralities and dusty scholastic doctrines. The Council allowed us to rethink who we are as Catholics and create our Church anew, unencumbered by the reactionary baggage of past centuries. Everything is open to revision: liturgy, doctrine, morals. After all, man and culture evolve, and so must the Church. Anything is permissible if done in this spirit.

2) True Implementation: The Council was a good idea, and the Church was in dire need of reform in the 1960's. The documents and decisions of Vatican II themselves are sound and good, some of the most profound things ever to come out of ther Magisterium. However, after the Council was over, unscrupulous persons hijacked the implementation of the Council and twisted the documents to their own end, winding up with a reform quite different from the one envisioned by the Council Fathers and one detrimental to the Church. What is needed is a true implementation of the Council, going back to the documents themselves.

3) Bad Idea: The Council, while being a validly convoked ecumenical council, was a bad idea and was unneccesary. The Church was doing fine until the Council came along. Not only were the documents and decrees of the Council hijacked in their implementation after the Council ended, but the Council itself, in its convocation, deliberations, statements and decrees, was run by liberals and heretics through and through. Thus, not just the effects of the Council, but the documents and decisions of the Council itself are flawed, ambiguous or just plain stupid. Therefore, it will not help us to "go back to the documents." What is needed is not a true implementation of the Council, but a return to Catholic Tradition as it stood before the Council, and an interpretation of all Council documents in light of that Tradition.

4) No True Council: The Council was not a true Council. It was convoked illicitly by a pope who was a heretic and who thus could not convene a council. Its decrees are not binding; in fact, they are filled with heresy and contradict the Church's perennial Tradition.

Now, we can easily recognize in position 1 ("Spirit of the Council") the modernist, liberal interpretation of Vatican II that we all despise so much and that for many of us is the actual cause of our Traditionalism.

Position 2 ("True Implementation") is the position taken by our conservative friends in the Church. This position appears strong because it upholds orthodoxy and acknowledges the torrent of abuses that occurred after the Council. However, it puts itself between a rock and a hard place by attempting to divorce these abuses from the Council itself. This position commits the conservative to strike out at abuse but to stalwartly defend the Council which makes those abuses possible. This is the position I held for many years. What are some things that go along with this position?

For one, I committed myself to defending every aspect of every document the Church issued out of the Council. I had to force myself to believe that Gaudium et Spes was a profound and enlightening document, that Dignitatis Humanae was perfectly keeping with the evangelical spirit and that Sacrosanctum Concilium was a great idea. These documents were sacred and inviolable: only their implementation was faulty. But why was the implementation so universally faulty? In the education courses I take at my University, they teach us that if a student gets a question wrong on his test, he may not have understood the material. But if your entire class gets the same question wrong, then there is probably something wrong with the question itself. If it is only a problem of implementation, how is it that everybody gets it wrong? Could it be because the documents themselves are ambiguous and lend themselves to misinterpretation? If so, could it be that they are this way on purpose?

This also commits one to the notion that the Council itself was a good idea or even that it was inspired by the Holy Spirit. Maintaining everything the Church believes about ecumenical councils, nowhere are we constrained to believe that the calling of any given council was prudent, or that God wanted it at that time and in that way. Whether or not the Holy Spirit wanted the Council, we cannot say, but we can say that the Church most emphatically did not need an ecumenical council in 1962. When a conservative says that the Church was in need of reform and you ask, "Why? What was wrong?", they will inevitably say some vague jargon about the pre-V2 Church being too "impersonal"; perhaps they will repeat the same things about old ladies mumbling rosaries and all that. These are not real critiques, just misunderstandings or matters of taste: hardly material that needed a Council to deal with!

I take position 3 ("Bad Idea"), that the Council, while being a true Council whose documents are legitimate decrees of the Church Universal, was nevertheless a bad idea, and that these documents themselves are ambiguous, confusing, often shallow (but not errant or heretical); furthermore, I maintain that they were rendered this way on purpose by theological liberals for the exact purpose of hijacking the Church.

The difference between a conservative and a Traditionalist is simply this: for the former, the hijcaking after the Council is the cause of our current woes; for the Trad, the post-Conciliar hijacking is merely a consequent of the Council itself, which is the source of these troubles.

If the difference between the True Implementation position and the Bad Idea position is the difference between a conservative and a Traditionalist, then the difference between the Bad Idea position and position 4 ("No True Council") is the difference between a Traditionalist and a Sedevecantist or schismatic-Traditionalist.

I once defended the Council and tried hard to persuade my mind that the Church was really better off now than in 1962. I tried to convince myself that the emperor was wearning glorious clothes, that I was basking in the new springtime of the Church and reaping the rich fruits of the Council.

I firmly maintain that Vatican II was a true Council, and that whatever the Council declared must in some way be the truth. But that doesn't mean the truth is spoken clearly, or in the right way, or in the right time, or by the right mouths, or that it is interpreted correctly after the fact, or that it is seen in context of a larger tradition. And this is the source of so much criticism.


Anonymous said...

I'd agree with you. The problem with the conservative position is that it wants to defend the good in the documents but mistakenly thinks it must defend the documents in their entirety.

For instance, I think it is good that the Church has officially commented on the positive aspects of its relationship with the Jews and Judaism, but that does not necessarily make Nostra Aetate a "good" document. It is, in my lowly and non-scholarly opinion, a highly ambiguous document and prone to being interpreted differently by different readers. An orthodox reader will think it an orthodox document until he realizes how it read in other circles.

Instead of clarifying matters and unifying the mind of the Church (the whole point of an ecumenical council, I suppose), such documents cloud and muddy the entire discourse. Just look at how Abraham Foxman got quite upset with the new prayer for the Jews, thinking it was out of line with the Church's "new" position on Judaism. The Pope replied basically saying the Church still affirms Nostra Aetate, and there ends the discussion, since the document means different things to different people.

But just because you don't accept the documents in their entirety, doesn't mean you need to reject them in their entirety. We need accuracy, precision and balance when discussing these issues.

Anonymous said...

I fall somewhere between positions 2 and 3. The Church was in dire need of reform--the hijacking of the council is proof of this--because liberals had already infiltrated the highest echelons of the hierarchy. Vatican II would have been great...if it had been like Vatican I or, even better, Trent. Now I admit that this isn't the reason the council was called, but that doesn't mean that a council wouldn't have been a good idea.

Unfortunately, the way things turned out, it would have been better if it had never happened.

Zach said...

This was a great post! I especially love your analogy of the university question. I'm going to have to remember that for later.

Anonymous said...

I also fall into the "Bad Idea" camp, but I would add a further clarification in regards to the documents of the Council.

Unlike position 4, I hold that it was a true council, but it's also important to hold open the possibility or error in the texts. Just like the pope, valid Ecumenical Councils *can* teach infallibly, and can sometimes (more often in fact) teach fallibly (but still authoritatively). Vatican II most emphatically avoided teaching anything infallibly.

That being said, I don't think there is any strict doctrinal error or heresy in the documents, with the possible exception of Dignitatis Humanae.

The latter seems to teach that one does in fact have a natural right to one's private believe in a false religion, whereas the traditional and oft repeated teaching of the magisterium had been that one has only the right not to be prevented from privately believing in a false religion.

I leave this as an open question, but the logical possibility that DH might just be flat wrong here has to remain open I think.


Boniface said...


Well, I would love Vatican II also, "if it had been like Vatican I or Trent," but I don't know if that is really a valid point. I'd like the Nazis, too, if they were more like the Franciscans or the Benedictines.


Anonymous said...

*sarcasm* It's nice to see such a diversity of opinion on this blog, hehe.

To play the devil's advocate, I do think the documents of V2 have a special bind on our allegiance, that the documents of Trent, say, do not. The core constitutive documents, Gaudium et Spes and Lumen Gentium, of course, do not teach anything new infallibly, but they do provide a foundational "dialect" that one must use and relate to, even if one disagrees with them. Even when wrong, a legitimate and ordinary authority cannot be dismissed. I've noticed that the Popes have been quoting from those documents less and less lately, which probably signals that the allegiance owed to those documents is lessening at this time, but we, at the bottom of the chain of authority, cannot just brush them aside. In other words, a legitimate authority has the right to make mistakes and still expect to be obeyed.

That's not to say one cannot be critical of the authority, especially by demanding continuity with what came before. I think this is best done by position #2, the conservative position. Yes, it hurts to see what is happening to the Church, but we at the bottom will not be held accountable at Judgement Day for that, whereas we will be held accountable for disobedience.

I'm reminded of a line from the Spiritual Exercises: "The same Spirit that gave Moses the Commandments on Mt.Sinai still governs and rules the Church to this day." Amen.

Boniface said...


I do not deny they have a bind on our allegiance, but we must question (1) to what are they binding us? (2) how do we interpret them, and (3) whether or not the ideals of Vatican II are in keeping with the totality of Tradition, in which light they must be intepreted and implemented.

I refer you to this older post from July 26, 2007 called "Orthodoxy is not enough."


ps: thanks for your contributions to this blog.

Anonymous said...

That earlier July post is excellent and reflects my mind, for what it's worth.

This is why Summorum Pontificum is such a helpful and timely document. It frees priests (and lay people) from the issue of obedience surrounding the Novus Ordo (and by corollary, all obedience issues between traditionalists/progressives). It's a smooth move, similar to how Rome nullified the debate between Thomism and Molinism in the 18th century. (NB: Not the debate itself, but issues of obedience surrounding it)

Since the Council and its documents are convoked and promulgated by the ordinary authority of the Church, it is only this authority (namely, the Pope) that can bind or unbind the allegiance of the faithful. The faithful, you and me, cannot loosen the bindings ourselves. Five years ago, I would have said we were quite tightly bound to the documents and even the spirit of V2. Nowadays, that's not quite the case - obedience is no longer an issue: legally, with regards to the rites of the Church, and culturally, with regards to devotions, emphases, liturgy, etc... The spoken and unspoken anathemas against anything 40 years or older were lifted, praise God.