The Ambiguities of the Council

A reader writes:

Hey Mark, have you read anything about the recent comments by Cardinal Kasper that Vatican II was “deliberately ambiguous”? Some traditionalists are making a lot of noise about this.

One, whom I consider a friend, Dr. Phil Blosser, has this article:

Although he cites Sungenis at one point (just to say he reported on the story), he seems to raise some valid questions.

So, I’d like to hear what more mainstream Catholic voices like you and Jimmy Akin have to say about this, and what it would mean if it were true.

Anyway, I’d love to know what you think.

You know Phil too? Small world! A very fine man. We’ve had lunch on a couple of occasions, if memory serves, when he’s made the haj out to Seattle. And we have a mutual friend, a Chestertonian, who spent a happy evening once years ago, wandering around DC with Bob Sungenis, smoking cigars (if I recall the story correctly).

I don’t know how “mainstream” I am nor what my view is worth particularly, but since you ask–and I *am* Irish–here it is: Meh.

From what I gather, Kasper’s remarks about ambiguity signal to folks like Phil that lefties were at work in the Council watering things down and allowing dissent to seep into the Church. That’s one possible read and I can respect their jitters. But I don’t share them. Certainly, there were all sorts of conflicting agendas at the Council as there have been at every council the Church ever held. Councils are moments in the life of the Church where, in the fine phrase of Fr. Robert Barron, the Church “holds herself in suspense” while she makes up her mind about something. While that process goes on, all sorts of things are in play and one of the things that happens is that the Church sometimes puts off for another day certain definite statements or plans. That’s because (particularly at an intensely pastoral council like V2) what the Church is attempting is nothing less than this:

So it has always seemed obvious to me that it is not news that the Council was deliberately ambiguous about certain things. Indeed, I’m kind of puzzled by the notion that this is an admission, much less a shocking one.

For my part, I don’t have many issues with the council itself. Rather, I think the blunder was in the implementation of the Council and, in particular, the mistake notion of “keeping alive the spirit of the Council”. Again, cribbing from Fr. Robert Barron, the problem with this approach to the Council is that it is like Peter suggesting to Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration that we build booth and live there forever. But the point of mountaintop experiences is to come down from the mountain and *do* something. “Keeping alive the spirit of the Council” boiled down to remaining in a permanent state of suspense: “ever learning and never able to come to a knowledge of the truth” (as Paul warns). The papacy, from JPII to Francis, has steadfastly resisted this and with good reason: the faith has to be enfleshed in action, not endlessly debated. There’s plenty to enflesh even *with* the stuff left ambiguous by the Council.

That’s my take anyhow. Say hello to Phil for me if you talk to him.

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  • Brian

    Wow! What a great response! That the medicine you took is having it’s effect is truly evident Mark. As an Evangelical convert, your writing has always been a great blessing to me; but now, as a fellow sinner striving to improve, your personal growth in charity and humility is no less an inspiration.

  • TheRealAaron

    Love the commentary: “The bear could not be reached for comment because he was dead.”

  • vox borealis

    I’m something of a Traditionalist, and the circles that I float in and out of adopt this position about the council, in varying degrees. A lesser charge is that whatever the agendas, the council documents themselves are ambiguous, or at least not as clearly and strongly worded as documents from earlier councils. I haven’t studied the matter closely, though it does seem that the VII docs have a lot of “wiggle room” in them, which allowed for the problematic implementation that Mark Shea talks about.

  • The kitty herders: my favorite Super Bowl commercial of all time.

  • vox borealis

    Rather, I think the blunder was in the implementation of the Council…

    Another common Traditionalist critique is that it is somewhat problematic to separate the council from the implementation of the council, since the very participants in the council were the ones who oversaw its implementation. In this view, one suspects that the seeming ambiguities and “wiggle room” in the documents were put in place precisely for the purpose of allowing for the hermeneutic of rupture to take hold.

    I’m not making that case myself, but that is a common argument that I have seen.

    • vox borealis

      Hm…why did my second paragraph go to italics? The Spirit of Discus?

    • Sometimes things have to be ambiguous, either because you’re trying to say two things at once, or because you’re trying to express a third thing that isn’t either one of the two things but which you don’t possess language for yet.

      Trent was deliberately ambiguous about the relationship of Scripture and Tradition. They had a perfect opportunity to come down on one side or the other of a particular controversy and they chose not to.

    • Sam Schmitt

      the very participants in the council were the ones who oversaw its implementation.

      Well, yes and no. That’s the perplexing irony of the whole situation.

      Those who composed the new order of mass, for example, were not those who voted on the liturgy constitution, but a small group of experts in the Consilium. And though of course they claimed strict adherence to the mandates of the Council (and of course got approval of the pope), many of the changes they made went well beyond what the Council Fathers wanted, as is suggested by the cool reception the bishops gave the new order of mass when it was first unveiled.

      Back in their own dioceses bishops implemented (or failed to implement) things that seem to go against the Council documents they just voted on in Rome – e.g. the use of Latin in the mass.

      So there is a case to be made that in some cases at least there’s a pretty big disconnect between the documents and their implementation. After all, that’s what the “spirit of Vatican II” was all about.

      • vox borealis

        Back in their own dioceses bishops implemented (or failed to implement) things that seem to go against the Council documents they just voted on in Rome – e.g. the use of Latin in the mass.

        Right, but that’s a perfect example of what some traditionalists argue. The documents say to keep Latin, but open the door for fairly wide use of the vernacular. The bishops voted for the documents, ostensibly voting to keep Latin, then get back home and drop Latin in a heartbeat, citing the very wiggle room provided by the documents of the council…that they voted for! For some traditionalists, this is at least strong circumstantial evidence that the bishops had rupture in mind all along; all they needed to do was get enough ambiguity and wiggle room in the documents, so they could sieze on a hapless phrase here or there to do basically what they wanted. Anyway, that’s one traditionalist argument.

    • chezami

      That’s not strange to me at all. The same thing happens with Peter. He promulgates the teaching that Gentiles do not have to keep the law of Moses (Acts 15), and then chickens out on his own teaching (Galatians 2). In Council, the Church is being guided by the Spirit. On their own, bishops are schmucks doing the best they can, including–especially–Peter.

      • vox borealis

        That’s a good point, though perhaps a little too generous to more than a few bishops! ; )

  • Jared Black

    Councils are moments in the life of the Church where…the Church “holds herself in suspense” while she makes up her mind about something.

    And there’s the rub: if Vatican II didn’t make up its mind—and what’s more if it deliberately opted not to make up its mind—well then, all those bishops and theologians could have just stayed home and accomplished as much.

    Reminds me of a remark from one of my kids a few weeks ago:

    “Did you find your other pair of shoes?”

    “No…but I wasn’t really looking for them” she says in her defense.

    So Vatican II was ambiguous, but in its defense, Card. Kasper lets us know that it wasn’t really trying to be clear. Alrighty then.

  • Elmwood

    Here are some good ambiguities: Sancrosanctum Concilum: “36. 1. Particular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites.” and

    “3. These norms being observed, it is for the competent territorial ecclesiastical authority mentioned in Art. 22, 2, to decide whether, and to what extent, the vernacular language is to be used;”

    Basically, Latin is to be preserved unless the territorial ecclesiastical authority says otherwise. There are others like the part about Gregorian chant 116. The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services. But as we know, things are never equal and hence the lousy catholic music we are subjected to.

    Actually, the whole document is one big ambiguity.

    • vox borealis

      Exactly. And pursuant to my point in other comments, the bishops who voted for this document were the same ecclesiastical authorities who threw Latin out the window. So, goes the argument, they must have figured to do this all along.

    • I am getting sick of this back and forth. One side hears only “the Latin language is to be preferred.” The other side hears only “the vernacular language is to be used.” Both sides fail to put things in context and read the document as a whole. What you see then is a well-considered policy not of ambiguity, but of flexibility in regard to the language and music of worship, with latitude given to the local bishop.

      Really, though, are the bishops who voted on this to be blamed for not foreseeing that poor musical taste and other forms of madness were to reign during the later 60’s and the 70’s?

      • TomD

        Lori, as your second paragraph indicates, flexibility without strong guidelines, discipline, and respect for authority, leads to confusion, error, anarchy and chaos. Ask any parent.

        • I certainly don’t disagree. But all that, unfortunately, went out the window in the late sixties as well.

  • contrarian

    “So it has always seemed obvious to me that it is not news that the Council was deliberately ambiguous about certain things. Indeed, I’m kind of puzzled by the notion that this is an admission, much less a shocking one.”

    It’s not shocking from the assumption that it’s a heretical council. However, one can reasonably take shock from the assumption that VII stands in continuity with previous church councils–which issued decrees and documents and bulls that were crystal clear.

    There’s nothing ambiguous or murky about the contents of these documents:

    So I respectfully disagree. It’s shocking as hell. At least if you assume the equally murky concept of the hermeneutic of continuity.

  • TomD

    While the “conservatives” were effectively wasting their time prior to the Council drafting a constitution on divine revelation . . . which was completely scrapped and re-written by the Council . . . the “liberals” had been focused for years on transforming the liturgy, knowing that, lex orandi, lex credendi (the law of prayer is the law of belief), and this resulted in Sancrosanctum Concilium. The Left understood that if you can change how people worship, you can change how and what they believe.

    There are what seem to be ambiguities in SC. To the extent that this is intentional, the best evidence is in the “fruit” that has been produced by SC and by its implementation. A non-ambiguous document would tend to unify, an ambiguous document would tend to divide.

  • Elmwood

    It makes perfect sense that SC was a compromise between liturgical conservatism and reform for lack of better terms considering the liturgical movement had been experimenting for decades before SC and Pius XII reformed the Holy Week liturgies before VII.

    None of this would have happened if there wasn’t felt a need to reform the liturgy. As everyone probably knows, a extraordinary form low mass does not involve much participation by the laity and could be seen as more of a spectator’s liturgy.

    • TomD

      The sense among many Catholics is that the liturgical reforms were carried too far and many of the reforms that were implemented were not even called for in SC . . . such as the replacement of Latin with the vernacular, as just one example. Many of the reforms that were immediately and totally made were not even mandated or called for in SC. In this sense, to many of the laity, the reforms instituted post-Vatican II were not compromise, but a well maneuvered takeover of the liturgy.

      As for participation by the laity, perhaps Pope Benedict XVI said it best in Sacramentum Caritatis when he wrote, “Active participation is not equivalent to the exercise of a specific
      ministry. Fruitful participation in the liturgy requires that one be
      personally conformed to the mystery being celebrated.”

      The Holy Father is speaking about interior disposition, not mere externals alone. In this sense, active participation means with full knowledge, understanding, and personal disposition toward the mystery of the Mass. One is not a “spectator” when one is fully focused on the unfolding mystery that is the Mass, even if not “externally” active during the Mass. One is participating in the Mass . . . actively.

      Understanding this active disposition calls for much better catechesis of the laity regarding the Mass.