Dialogue on Vatican II: Interpretation and Application

Dialogue on Vatican II: Interpretation and Application September 15, 2013
(with Patti Sheffield vs. traditionalist David Palm)
Opening of the Second Vatican Council, 11 October 1962 [Flickr / CC BY 2.0 license]




This is taken from a Facebook discussion on my page; later continued on another page. David Palm is a self-described “reluctant traditionalist” and a longtime friend of mine. His words will be in blue. Patti Sheffield’s words will be in green.

* * * * *

It’s when he [Michael Voris] attacks the Novus Ordo or implies that Vatican II is a bad thing, that I have a problem.

I don’t see how it would be contrary to the Catholic faith for an individual to conclude that, say, the introduction of the new Mass or Vatican II itself may have caused more harm than good. Is it really an article of faith that, “Vatican II was a good thing”? But perhaps that’s not what you’re saying.

Yes, I think it is the Catholic faith to accept that ecumenical councils are good things and that such councils are guided by the Holy Spirit in an extraordinary fashion.

As for the OF Mass, Pope Benedict XVI has made it clear that it is normative and on an equal level with the EF. Thus, that is the magisterium speaking.

“Traditionalists” continue to pick and choose and place their own judgment too high in the scheme of things. That’s most obvious in how they approach BXVI himself. When he says something they like, then he’s great (and that includes pre-papal utterances). When they disagree with what he says, he gets ditched along with other magisterial authorities (JPII, VCII). So it goes back to the individual, which is the same method (considered in and of itself) as Protestant private judgment.

Aside from solemn definitions of infallible dogma, where we would all agree that this is true, do you have any magisterial support to extend this view to any and every action of an ecumenical council?

I wasn’t arguing about every particular, but a general espousal. Since the discussion has been general up to that point, I see no good reason to now enter into particulars and “legal” elements. I was merely contending:

1) Ecumenical councils are good things.

2) Vatican II is an ecumenical council.

3) Therefore, Vatican II is a good thing.

You want to argue that Catholics can believe it caused more harm than good. At that point I have to say that this is not traditional Catholic belief: to take such a jaundiced view of an ecumenical council. But it sounds an awful lot like the way Luther argued.

I would disagree that Vatican II caused any harm. I would actually say that it was never found tried and wanting because it was not really tried—it was highjacked and its authority misused by modernists to run roughshod over the Church for a space of about forty years. To put it bluntly, to blame the council for what was done in its name would be like blaming a woman for being raped.

Sorry for the harsh and indelicate image, but an ecumenical council is generally followed by at least four to five decades of storms and upheavals. To suddenly notice this with Vatican II and blame it is to ignore the storms that followed Vatican I, Trent, and Nicea, to name a few. VCII is right on schedule, and is finally being implemented as it was meant to be—in line with Sacred Tradition and not opposed to or superseding it.

The tensions that developed after the Council (Vatican II) are not surprising to those who know the whole history of the Church. It is a historical fact that whenever there is an outpouring of the Holy Spirit as in a general council of the Church, there is always an extra show of force by the anti-Spirit or the demonic. Even at the beginning, immediately after Pentecost and the descent of the Spirit upon the apostles, there began a persecution and the murder of Stephen. If a general council did not provoke the spirit of turbulence, one might almost doubt the operation of the third Person of the Trinity over the assembly.

— Ven. Archbishop Fulton Sheen

We both know that the guidance by the Holy Spirit in an “extraordinary fashion” (your phrase) only pertains when an ecumenical council is defining dogma, just as this is true for the extraordinary exercise of the papal office. We also know, as we tell our Protestant friends all the time, that this is a negative protection, not guaranteeing that the right thing will be said but only that error will not be taught. But none of this pertains to Vatican II, which defined nothing. I think it is well within the bounds of orthodoxy to say that a council such as, say, Constantinople II, while not teaching error, was extremely confusing, greatly exacerbated the very problem that it was seeking to address, and therefore would have been best not convoked at all. I guess I would just suggest that unless you can cite actual magisterial support for an unqualified view that “ecumenical councils are [always] good things”, it would be better not to publicly challenge a fellow Catholic for holding a different one.

First of all, again you are speaking “legally” or “canonically” (as is the strong tendency of “traditionalists”), but I wasn’t. I wasn’t using “extraordinary” in the technical sense that you refer to; only in the ordinary sense (pun intended).

But very well; since you want to take this view, please give us quotations from saints and Doctors and (universally acknowledged) great theologians, or popes, to the effect that an ecumenical council can do more harm than good. Thanks! If you can find those, I’ll grant the point. I’ve never seen such a thing, myself, but of course, theology is such a vast endeavor that I could easily have missed it.

Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman wrote:

Of course what the General Council speaks is the word of God – but still we may well feel indignant at the intrigue, trickery, and imperiousness which is the human side of its history – and it seems a dereliction of duty not to do one’s part to meet them. (Letter to Canon William Walker, 10 November 1867)

Of course there is a sense of the word “inspiration” in which it is common to all members of the Church, and therefore especially to its Bishops, and still more directly to those rulers, when solemnly called together in Council, after much prayer throughout Christendom, and in a frame of mind especially serious and earnest by reason of the work they have in hand. The Paraclete certainly is ever with them, and more effectively in a Council, as being “in Spiritu Sancto congregata;” but I speak of the special and promised aid necessary for their fidelity to Apostolic teaching; and, in order to secure this fidelity, no inward gift of infallibility is needed, such as the Apostles had, no direct suggestion of divine truth, but simply an external guardianship, keeping them off from error (as a man’s good Angel, without at all enabling him to walk, might, on a night journey, keep him from pitfalls in his way), a guardianship, saving them, as far as their ultimate decisions are concerned, from the effects of their inherent infirmities, from any chance of extravagance, of confusion of thought, of collision with former decisions or with Scripture, which in seasons of excitement might reasonably be feared. (Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, ch. 9, 1875)

Nice try Dave, but you know that’s not how it works. You’re the one insisting that something is so contrary to the faith that you’re going to take a fellow Catholic publicly to task for it. So it’s your burden to show magisterial support (which you didn’t, in the sources you cited.)

Yes, I do insist that this view that an ecumenical council does more harm than good is contrary to Catholicism, historically understood, and I believe this to be self-evident. I don’t believe I could find a magisterial statement that states, “ecumenical council X [i.e., in its actual teachings] did more harm than good” (what you seem to claim for Vatican II) because I don’t think it ever crossed anyone’s mind, except for folks like Luther and Calvin, who had already denounced the sublime authority of ecumenical councils.

Thus, it remains your burden to find such a thing if you want to adhere to it; or else it is only so much hooey, with no precedent in legitimate sacred tradition. You would claim it has that (being a “traditionalist”) so by all means, produce it for us. I deny that I could find a statement condemning it, because it’s understood that ecumenical councils have sublime authority, are guided by the Holy Spirit, and thus are, at the very least, more good than bad. For example:

The Second General Council of Constantinople (553) : Profession of Faith

We profess that we hold and preach the faith which from the beginning was given to the apostles by our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ, and was proclaimed by them to the whole world. The holy Fathers professed, explained and handed on this faith to the holy Church, particularly those Fathers who took part in the four holy Councils which we follow and accept entirely for everything . . .

The Council of Lateran (649): Canon 17

Whosoever does not confess, in accordance with the holy Fathers, by word and from heart, really and in truth, to the last word, all that has been handed down and proclaimed to the holy, catholic and apostolic Church by the holy Fathers and by the five venerable General Councils, condemnatus sit. (Denzinger 517)

Profession of Faith of Pius IV (Bull Iniunctum Nobis: 1564)

I unhesitatingly accept and profess also all other things transmitted, defined and declared by the sacred canons and the ecumenical Councils, especially by the most Holy Council of Trent . . . (Denzinger 1869)

I would argue that we have freedom to differ on matters not explicitly addressed by the Magisterium.
This is obvious, but the initial claim (i.e., your position staked out against mine to the contrary) was that an ecumenical council can cause more harm than good. I’m only holding you to that view. You may wish to concede that you have no reason whatsoever (in tradition or otherwise) to believe this. In the meantime, trying to shift the burden of proof to me doesn’t provide any traditional substantiation of your own opinion.

I have never heard any pope claim that Vatican II could be disregarded as somehow being a “mistake” or “more bad than good for the Church”. The quote by Pope Paul VI that is circulated about how the council avoided making any infallible dogmatic pronunciations came from one of his general audiences. It has no doctrinal or binding weight because it is not a magisterial statement, unlike his statement that closed each of the documents he ratified:

Each and every one of the things set forth in this [insert name of document] has won the consent of the fathers. We too, by the Apostolic Authority conferred on us by Christ, join with the venerable Fathers in approving, decreeing, and establishing these things in the Holy Spirit, and we direct that what has thus been enacted in Synod be published to God’s glory…I, Paul, Bishop of the Catholic Church.

And his statement at the closing of the council:

We decide moreover that all that has been established synodally is to be religiously observed by all the faithful, for the glory of God and the dignity of the Church… we have approved and established these things, decreeing that the present letters are and remain stable and valid, and are to have legal effectiveness, so that they be disseminated and obtain full and complete effect… [December 8, 1965]

[Here] is an article by someone [Dr. Jeff Mirus] whose opinion of Vatican II is that it was a very good council, guided by the Holy Spirit, and that it must be followed just like any other ecumenical council of the Catholic Church.

As for Vatican II supposedly defining nothing, that is false. Vatican II further developed the definition of infallibility, reaffirming papal infallibility while expanding on it, and defining the infallibility of the ordinary magisterium. This is an overlooked and ignored teaching, but it is in there.

This is an article [by Dr. Michael Liccione] that expounds well on the infallibility of the ordinary magisterium as defined by Vatican II.

* * *

Should there be a terminological difference between Catholics who, for example, believe that Tradition is to be interpreted in light of Vatican II, versus those who believe that Vatican II is to be interpreted in light of Tradition? That difference of approach, simply stated in one sentence, ends up in wide divergences of opinion on various issues. At times this can actually amount to a divergence of doctrine, as seen for example in the dust up many years ago in Catholic World Report concerning biblical inerrancy between Fr. Fessio and Cardinal Pell on the one hand and Fr. Brian Harrison and to a much lesser extent me on the other.

Primarily the latter (Vatican II is to be interpreted in light of Tradition”), I think all would agree. But it is also true that Vatican II is the most highly developed theology of the Church (and recent encyclicals develop it even further). Unless one rejects development of doctrine and the ongoing Mind of the Church, I don’t see how that could be denied. Once development is accepted, there is a strong sense in which doctrine is “better” and more honed and understood as time goes on; therefore, Vatican II has a certain “edge” (in this one limited sense) compared to councils before it.

That itself is not something that comes from Vatican II, but it’s development of doctrine, that has been around (explicitly) since St. Vincent of Lerins, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Cardinal Newman 170 years ago.

Yes, but it is also true that there are parts of the V2 documents that are interpreted even by the [otherwise] faithful in ways that are contrary to the prior teaching of the Magisterium. It would seem to be unique in the history of the Church that even 50 years later the faithful are still discussing how certain passages can even be harmonized with the Church’s Tradition, let alone what these statements might contribute to a development of doctrine. Constantinople II seems to have caused similar confusion, but I’m not sure there’s another example on this scale. Hence, in part, ongoing traditionalist concerns with Vatican II.

I agree that there are many places where its relevance has become limited due to the pastoral nature of the documents. I agree that there are places where it presents a given issue in a particularly good way and I gladly use those for learning and in discussion. And there are places where it is difficult to see how to harmonize the text with the prior Tradition–there I select the best proposed harmonization and insist that the mind of the Church is a “hermeneutic of continuity”, even if certain Catholic faithful have unfortunately taken views that are contrary to the prior Magisterium. 

Since the most contested/criticized documents had a pastoral aim, they should not be treated as unmalleable. The Church has changed its mode of presenting the Gospel over the centuries to help reach more people.

One example: The use of the term “freedom” in Dignitatis Humanae is often criticized as a problem, since popes had vehemently rejected the concept of “liberty” prior to Vatican II. The two terms are not precisely identical, and what DH was discussing was not what was being condemned, which was the exaltation of human reason to seek anything at all, even error, over the duty for humanity to seek the truth found only in God. This type of “liberty” is illusory, and rightly termed as “insane”. DH was treating on the matter of being free to convert without coercion, and the rights of the Church to be free to preach the Gospel anywhere at anytime.

However, even if the two words are treated as precisely equal, that is not the first time that the Church apparently reversed prior Magisterial teaching. The term homoousios, rejected by the early Church for its use by the heretical sect of the Sabellians, was “baptized” by its use in the first Council at Nicea to define the Divinity of the Son of God. This is clearly a precedent for the shift in the Church’s use of the term “freedom” from that which is unacceptable in a secular use to that which is acceptable and harmonious with Tradition in the council’s use.

So, difficult in spots, useful in spots, but increasingly irrelevant due to its pastoral nature. Is that acceptable to non-traditionalists?

That is not acceptable to the recent popes who spent significant times in office since VCII closed. It is not acceptable because it is not how ecumenical councils get treated in the Tradition of the Church. It is also not acceptable because we have not until recently seen an orthodox application and teaching from those documents, which were abused by modernists to try to refashion the Church into their merely human ideas of what she should be. We are to grant Vatican II as the Church understands it the status it deserves, neither exalting it above the preceding councils as penultimate and somehow supplanting them, nor denigrating it as superfluous, or worse, a mistake, but accepting it in its rightful place as a continuation of Tradition, not a rupture from it.

No, because of what I wrote about development. That is the thing that can’t be gotten over in this analysis. You can’t say it is a corruption, which would be the only way to overcome these factors of development and the Mind of the Church. That can’t be said, granting orthodox Catholic ecclesiology, because Vatican II was clearly an ecumenical council (BXVI in The Ratzinger Report said that VCII had to be accepted on the same grounds that Trent was).

So if we take away the “out” of it being a corruption rather than a legitimate development, then I don’t see how we can’t conclude that it is the highest development, being the latest, as all councils develop what came prior to them.

If some folks find things hard to understand; what else is new? That’s how it has always been, too. Dollinger was a brilliant man, but couldn’t get his mind around papal infallibility. He was convinced that this contradicted prior Catholic history. But it didn’t. And the even more brilliant mind of Newman explained how it did not. Now we have brilliant men like Fr. Brian Harrison who explain how the council is harmonious with the history of doctrine and teaching.

The most vexed issues with regard to Vatican II are not dogmatic ones. Religious freedom and ecumenism are not dogmas; they are ways of relating to non-Catholics. Those can develop and even change to an extent, since (as far as I know) they aren’t dogmas. The Church used to exercise capital punishment in cases of heresy. Now it doesn’t. Is that an improvement? I think it is, because it is going back to the early Church. I don’t want to kill the heretic, but rather, try to reason with him and persuade him to become a Catholic. It’s not an absolute (capital punishment is not intrinsically evil), but there is room for debate on how to approach the heretic.

Likewise, with ecumenism and religious freedom . . .

Patti and Dave say no. I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree. I don’t think that this discussion boils down to a stark contrast between an inevitably beneficial “doctrinal development” on the one hand and flat out “corruption” on the other. Kevin [Tierney] asks a great question in his piece “Closing the Door (Finally) on Vatican II”: “Okay, now for everyone else, can you tell me how the Second Lateran and First Council of Lyons revolutionized Church life? Is there anything we remember concretely from the Fifth Lateran Council?”

Ecumenical councils are authoritative and binding, to be sure, but there’s no guarantee that they will, a) achieve that which they set out to achieve and b) remain highly relevant throughout the history of the Church. But I think that’s precisely what we’re being asked to hold with regard to Vatican II. And to be clear, I’m somewhat agnostic on the matter. I just don’t think it’s appropriate to be held to a particular view that isn’t itself magisterial. I think there’s a greater degree of freedom here than Dave and Patti are allowing.

It’s very helpful too to note, as Dave points out, that matters such as ecumenism and religious freedom, which he says are “the most vexed” today, aren’t dogmas at all but are “ways of relating to non-Catholics.” I would argue that “ways of relating” aren’t properly evaluated as true and false. You can’t attach an anathema to a “way of relating”. Rather, they’re more or less helpful and useful. And this utility can and does change under various historical circumstances. And precisely for that reason, there’s no intrinsic reason to suppose that the “ways” that are being applied now are the absolute best for now and for all time. I don’t think it’s a given that the “best” for another day might not be an approach already taken in the past, as Dave argues regarding capital punishment and heretics. But then traditionalists can hardly be censured for holding that, in certain of these non-dogmatic practices and approaches, the current practice may not be the best.

“there is room for debate….” Amen brother :-)

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