This is one of the absolutely classic, textbook marks of the radical Catholic reactionary mindset and mentality. I have observed and commented upon it for over 20 years. It’s mostly used to characterize the Vatican II documents, but also applied to things like the Catechism and utterances of Pope Francis (particularly Amoris Laetitia). Recently (on 11-2-19), Bishop Athanasius Schneider trotted it out, in his criticisms of Vatican II (which I documented):
Here, Schneider points to the contradictions in the conciliar texts. At one place, in its document Dignitatis Humanae, the Council teaches “every person has the obligation to seek the truth, and this is the Catholic Church,” Schneider says, “but then further down it says that you have freedom of religion rooted in your nature.” This teaching is “not clear,” it is “ambiguous,” as the prelate explains, and the consequences after the Council were “that almost all Catholic seminaries and theological faculties, and the episcopate and even the Holy See” promoted “a right of every person to choose his own religion.” . . .
“This is already rooted here [in the Vatican Council],” Bishop Schneider states. “If you have a right by God given to you, by nature, also to be able to choose acts of idolatry – like the Pachamama – when it is rooted in your dignity of man even to choose a Pachamama religion: this is the last consequence of this expression of the Council text,” he explains. The expression of the text was “ambiguous” and needed to be “formulated in a different way” to “avoid these applications in the life of the Church, which we also had in the Assisi meeting of Pope John Paul II in 1986 and the other meetings, where even idolatrous religions were invited to pray in their own manner – that is to say in their idolatrous manner – for peace.” . . .
The Council, for all its vexing ambiguity, excessive irenicism, and wholly unwarranted optimism about “the modern world,” imposed no new doctrine or dogma on the Church and thus could not have proposed any doctrines contrary to prior Church teaching. Ambiguity, optimism and irenicism do not a single doctrine make. . . . the Council’s ambiguity-laden Sacrosanctum Concilium.. . .
Filial Correction signatory Joseph Shaw, in a debate with Dr. Robert Fastiggi and Dr. Dawn Eden Goldstein (October 2017), stated:
The contention of the Correctio Filialis is that the statements of Amoris which concern us are ambiguous: they can be read in accordance with the Ordinary Magisterium, which we would obviously accept, or they can be read as contradicting the Ordinary Magisterium.
Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, in his article, “RIP, Vatican II Catholicism (1962-2018)”: scandalously and outrageously published at One Peter Five (10-9-18), opined:
I was tired of living in the newly built, supposedly more energy-efficient and environmentally sound but in reality flimsy, drafty, fluorescent, insect-infested, falling-apart building produced by the only ecumenical council that made no solemn definitions and issued no solemn condemnations. I came to see, . . . that the hijackers were not the ones after the Council, but the ones inside the Council who cleverly steered it toward the progressivism and modernism they secretly longed for, deliberately planting “time bombs” throughout the documents – ambiguous phrases that could be turned this way or that, and which were turned this way and that in the neverending turf war between liberals and “conservatives” of every stripe, at every level. . . .
I’d like to collect a few of my observations through the years (in no particular order) about how reactionaries use this accusation to tear down the teachings of an ecumenical council:
We are informed that God did not prevent Vatican II from falling into the hands of evil schemers and heterodox conspirators, though only in the sense of ambiguity, not formal heresy. [Reactionaries] apparently believe that all previous councils were authoritative and binding, whereas Vatican II is a mess. What did God do, forget His promise, or go to sleep? We are to believe that all the other ecumenical councils somehow managed to escape this fate? (Reflections on Radical Catholic Reactionaries [Dec. 2002], p. 102, #229)
I guess Holy Scripture also suffers from these same manifest deficiencies of “ambiguity.” How many falsehoods it has spawned! Look at Protestantism, the “Bible Only” version of Christianity, with all its rival schools of thought. Away with the Bible, then! After all, so many heretical cults have derived false doctrines from various “ambiguous” interpretations of the biblical texts. If it weren’t for the Bible, surely they wouldn’t even exist. Therefore, the Bible must have caused them. (Ibid., p. 102, #230)
The “ambiguity” argument is exceedingly nebulous and subjective by its very nature. If one points out that such-and-such a doctrine can be shown to have an orthodox pedigree and consistent development, the [reactionary] replies that the conciliar conspirators placed ambiguous language in it, in order for it to be subverted later. In other words, their cynical interpretation is always the “winner” because they have the simplistic, sloganistic, and easy sleight-of-hand of “ambiguity” always ready and at their disposal. (Ibid., p. 103, #234)
I deny this concept of quasi-defectibility, since ecumenical councils cannot depart from the faith in this fashion, if indeed they are ecumenical councils. Thus, the only rational recourse for reactionaries who despise Vatican II is to prove that it is not a valid ecumenical council in the first place — surely an impossible task. Knowing that this is impossible (so I would hypothesize), they resort to the empty charge of “ambiguity” and “compromise,” so as to denigrate the council whose teachings they so detest, for erroneous reasons. It’s valid, yet somehow simultaneously reprehensible and a departure from previous Catholicism — precisely as they believe about recent popes, and the New Mass. It is a foolish game, a dangerous and unnecessary one, and spiritually dangerous to souls. (Ibid., p. 92, #204)
It remains obviously true that the council and it’s so-called “spirit” or (heterodox) interpretation are not identical. Reactionaries want to attribute every stupid, modernist teaching of the last fifty years to the council itself. If it can’t be traced to actual teaching, then the subterfuge of deliberate “ambiguity” is utilized for the Cause. Reactionaries have created their own little box no one can penetrate. No one can disagree without themselves being stamped with the “scarlet letter” of “modernism” or the ubiquitous charge of denial of reality (the hallmark of mental illness). (Ibid., p. 94-95, #210)
I don’t find Vatican II particularly “ambiguous.” I find it nuanced and complex, and I don’t think those are bad things; I fully expect them from spiritually mature persons and churches. (Ibid., p. 105, #241)
Subtlety and complexity are distinct from a deliberate ambiguity inherently lending itself to a heterodox interpretation. The book of Revelation might be said to be “ambiguous.” St. Paul’s writings are “ambiguous” in many places. But we don’t deny their inspiration because of it. Likewise, we don’t change our view of the nature of ecumenical councils because we have to exercise our brains a bit in order to understand one of them. An exhaustive study of the works of St. Augustine alone would offer more than enough challenge for anyone to synthesize it all. Difficulty of interpretation or application does not equal essential flaw. (Ibid., p. 105, #242)
How is it that the Holy Spirit could prevent all the ecumenical councils from the 4th to the 19th century from error, yet when it comes to another indisputably ecumenical council, Vatican II, it is a free-for-all and a successful modernist “conspiracy of ambiguity“? Was the Holy Spirit on leave from 1962-1965? I don’t buy it. One must exercise faith. The modernists have not succeeded in perverting a single doctrine of the Catholic faith. Nor will they ever do so. If history teaches us anything, it is that. If Reactionaries can’t see that with the eyes of faith, they have no business remaining Catholic. If they do see it, on the other hand, they have no business trashing Vatican II with impunity, the way they do. It’s scandalous and contemptible. (Ibid., pp. 106-107, #247)
The entire reactionary argument concerning the alleged “ambiguity” of Vatican II rests on an obvious and glaring fallacy: viz.,
P1 The Council says x (in its actual words).
P2 The “conservatives” (i.e., orthodox Catholics) interpret the words in a Catholic sense, consistent with sacred tradition.
P3 The liberals (or, modernists) interpret the words in a heterodox, un-Catholic, revolutionary sense.
C1 The words of the council must therefore lend themselves — in their essence, intrinsically, and objectively — to either interpretation.
C2 Since both readings occur in fact, therefore the council is deliberately ambiguous, and “compromises the faith.”
The fallacy lies in C1, leading to further false assertion C2. It is not established by logic; nor is it proven that the council is the sole (or even primary) cause of what comes after it. One can see how fallacious this is, using the analogy of the Bible:
PP1 The Bible says x (in its actual words).
PP2 Catholics interpret the words in a Catholic sense, consistent with sacred tradition.
PP3 Protestants, and heretics such as Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons interpret (many of) the words in a heterodox, un-Catholic sense.
CC1 The words of the Bible must therefore lend themselves — in their essence, intrinsically, and objectively — to either the Catholic or the heretical interpretation.
CC2 Since both readings occur in fact, therefore the Bible is deliberately ambiguous, and “compromises the faith.”
The reasoning is precisely the same in both cases. All Christian sects and heresies appeal to the Bible (and here we encounter the doctrinal and hermeneutical relativism of sola Scriptura). Likewise, liberals appeal to Vatican II. We would expect no less, since they also appeal to Scripture (even homosexual activists try to find support for their abominable viewpoints in Scripture, with some of the worst, twisted exegesis known to man). Pro-abortionists find abortion in the U.S. Constitution, under a supposed “right to privacy” — rather like the ersatz liberal alleged “spirit” of Vatican II. Just as the Bible in no wise teaches what they claim it does, so it is the case that Vatican II does not teach their damnable heresies, either.
One must look at the objective words of the council, interpreted through cross-reference within its own documents, and the historical precedent of Catholic orthodoxy, just as one does with the Bible: through exegesis, hermeneutics, and the appeal to the apostolic tradition as a norm of authentic interpretation. Reactionaries have it exactly backwards — they locate the meaning of the conciliar documents in the liberal distortions and “co-opting” of them, which makes no sense at all; in fact, it is scandalous, coming from those who claim to be upholding tradition. It is as unseemly as taking a Mormon interpretation of Scripture as the criterion for proper biblical hermeneutics, then condemning the Bible because of the heretical and false nature of Mormon teaching. (Ibid., pp. 107-109, #249)
Biblical vs. conciliar “ambiguity” — another analogy:
1) The Bible is said (by agnostics, atheists, stuffed-shirt professors, and modernists) to be full of many irreconcilable contradictions, which are considered to be evidence of its untrustworthiness and lack of divine inspiration and infallibility.
2) Likewise, infallible councils and papal pronouncements (especially since “1958” — which seems to be the “magic” year of transformation) are said (by modernists, reactionaries, Orthodox, and Protestants) to be full of many irreconcilable contradictions, which are considered to be evidence of their untrustworthiness and lack of divine guidance and infallibility. (Ibid., p. 109, #250 [partial] )
This is exactly what Luther did with Catholic tradition as a whole (admittedly to a much greater degree, but the principle of authority is very similar), when he defected and started up a new movement. I see little difference in principle at all. He claims that he was the “reformer”; bringing things back to the good old days; restoring the gospel that had supposedly been lost or at least deeply hidden, and getting rid of the crusty barnacles of mere traditions of men.
Reactionaries and some “traditionalists” think they are the bearers of the authentic tradition, and if popes and councils disagree with you, so much the worse for them; they’re wrong (just as Luther freely, breezily said that various councils were). That is Luther, through and through, my friend, and I know something about that because I have been researching and writing about the man for seventeen years, and just published a book about him. (Ibid., pp. 34-35)
The fact of the matter is that those who question Vatican II and talk claptrap about its supposedly “ambiguous” nature and so forth, tend to go further and further right into schism or awful close to same. It’s been that way all through history. The ones who denied Nicaea (325) were the Arian heretics. Those who opposed Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451) went off into Nestorianism and Monophysitism. Later dissenters from councils were iconoclasts or Monothelites. Dollinger and his rationalistic allies didn’t like papal infallibility at Vatican I in 1870 so they split and formed the Old Catholics, who subsequently became liberal.So why should our time be different? Now the ones who don’t like Vatican II adopt a curious mixture of modernism and Protestantism. Meanwhile, the ordinary faithful Catholic accepts in faith that God knows what He is doing in the latest conciliar and papal developments. (Ibid., p. 68)
Could these anathemas take effect, all who are not versed in the sophistical art would pay dearly for their simplicity. They formerly asserted in their decrees that the righteousness of God was the only formal cause of Justification; now they anathematize those who say that we are formally righteous by the obedience of Christ. But it is in another sense. I see it or scent it. But how few are there who will not be misled by the ambiguity?
This observation fixes in me a determination (let others do as they please) not to believe Erasmus, even if he should openly confess in plain words, — that Christ is God. But I would address to him that sophistical saying of Chrysippus, ‘If you lie, you lie even when you speak the truth.’ . . . Our king of ambiguity, however, sits upon his ambiguous throne in security, and destroys us stupid Christians with a double destruction. First, it is his will, and it is a great pleasure to him, to offend us by his ambiguous words: and indeed he would not like it, if we stupid blocks were not offended. And next, when he sees that we are offended, and have run against his insidious figures of speech, and begin to exclaim against him, he then begins to triumph and rejoice that the desired prey has been caught in his snares. (Letter to Nikolaus von Amsdorf, 11 March? 1534)
The main thing to me is your denial that the Council was heretical. You say the same about Vatican II. This is God’s protection (all the more noteworthy given the modernist presence at Vatican II). To me that is the bottom line. The “ambiguity” is in miscomprehension and/or misapplication (or wholesale distortion and twisting) of the actual conciliar teaching. Something is either “orthodox” or it is not. “Ambiguity” is extremely subjective and not particularly relevant, in my opinion, once one concedes that a Council is orthodox in the first place.
That is the absurdity and equivocation of the reactionary position, as I repeatedly argued. The sedevacantists are at least consistent, not having to engage in special pleading of the most objectionable sort. Not having the guts to simply pronounce the hated Council invalid, instead we receive from you guys this balderdash of “ambiguity,” which then becomes a convenient “club” to bash the Council with impunity, not allowing (like all conspiratorial theories) of any rational disproof. Thus the very methods of the enemy are adopted: the ambiguities of the reactionaries ironically far surpass those of the modernists. [24 January 2000]
This is a classic tactic of the reactionary mindset: to posit a deliberate “ambiguity” in the Council, according to conspiratorial scenarios and the devious designs of the liberals. No informed, orthodox Catholic I know will deny that the modernists had insidious designs, or at least dangerously false beliefs sincerely-held (heresy is always with us – bishops and theologians not being immune to it). What we assert is that heresy can never subvert an Ecumenical Council, ratified by a pope. God simply won’t let that happen. This is a tenet of faith, and is part and parcel of Catholic ecclesiology. Reactionaries don’t talk in this fashion about any other Ecumenical Council. They single this one out, even though its validity and legitimacy is based on precisely the same criteria as all the others (in fact, I believe it had the greatest number of bishops present, by far). Knowing this, they adopt the equivocating, hair-splitting scenario of “ambiguous but not technically heterodox.”
Nice try . . . This is clearly rationalization and special pleading which allows no rational response, as it is so nebulous and subjective by its very nature. If one points out that such-and-such a doctrine can be shown to have an orthodox pedigree and consistent development, the reactionary simply replies that the Council conspirators placed ambiguous language in it, in order for it to be subverted later. In other words, their cynical interpretation is always the “winner” because they have this simplistic and easy sleight-of-hand of “ambiguity” always ready and at their disposal. But the only reasonable way to determine orthodoxy is to simply look at the conciliar words (and those of previous Councils) themselves (which – strangely enough – these scathing critiques rarely take the time to do). Actual words are objective tools, just as one engages in exegesis and cross-referencing when interpreting Sacred Scripture.
As always, the reactionary wants to have it both ways, and adopts a fortress mentality whereby any challenger to the self-proclaimed “orthodoxy” is automatically written off as a modernist, or modernist dupe, and patronized as a “conservative,” simply because we don’t play the game in this irrational, Alice in Wonderland fashion, where words – like a wax nose – can always be shaped according to the skeptical whims of the anti-conciliar party line. And that is one of the more striking instances of irony in this whole debate: criticizing alleged all-encompassing “ambiguity” in the Council, they hypocritically become far more truly ambiguous in the logic-torturing and circular theories they invent in order to bolster their own preconceived notions. I have noted this on many occasions in my Internet debates. 
Critics of Pope Francis are now saying exactly the same thing about him: he’s sneaky, “jesuitical’; won’t say what he really means; if he expresses something orthodox, it’s a mere fooler to keep the people hoodwinked, etc., etc. [3-26-18]
[Phil] Lawler is much more motivated to crank out the lie that Pope Francis is a lying equivocator, speaking out of both sides of his mouth. This is the clear insinuation of much of his rhetoric. It was present in his book and is in subsequent articles. The lightly veiled implication is that when Pope Francis states orthodox notions, he doesn’t really mean it (wink wink nod nod). That’s just to fool people, you see.
Someone like Chris Ferrara (an extreme reactionary, not far from sedevacantism) says this quite brazenly and openly. Lawler (of much less bombastic temperament) prefers to play games and mostly insinuate it — which assuredly he does — with nuance and subtlety: which I think is even more contemptible than what Ferrara does.
At times, Lawler comes right out and says that he believes the pope is deliberately speaking out of both sides of his mouth (which amounts to deception and lying, and an evil motivation: pure and simple). Here is a typical example, from his article, “Confusion—now about hell—is the hallmark of this pontificate” (3-29-18):
In Lost Shepherd I wrote: “The confusion in Amoris Laetitia is not a bug; it is a feature.” Pope Francis realized that he cannot directly contradict the perennial teaching of the Church, put forth so clearly by St. John Paul II. But he could and did create confusion about that teaching, and thereby provided new maneuvering room for those who are unhappy with the Church’s stand.
By the same logic, Pope Francis cannot deny the existence of hell without directly contradicting the teaching of the Church. But he can create confusion, and he has done so once again. Did he deny, or at least question, the existence of hell? We don’t know.
Now I ask you directly, dear reader: is this what you wish to / choose to believe: that the Holy Father is a deliberate liar and deceiver: purposely seeking to overthrow Catholic tradition and to be a dissident “radical” modernist (yes, Phil used that word, too, in his book)? We know that this is what Phil Lawler believes, since in the Introduction to his book, Lost Shepherd, he wrote that Pope Francis:
. . . [is] leading the Church away from the ancient sources of the Faith. . . . a source of division. . . . encouraged beliefs and practices that are incompatible with the prior teachings of the Church. . . . he has violated the sacred trust that is given to Peter’s successors. . . . a Roman pontiff who disregarded so easily what the Church has always taught and believed and practiced on such bedrock issues as the nature of marriage and of the Eucharist . . . a danger to the Faith . . .
I continue to maintain that Lawler has not proven his extraordinary accusations. He loves to repeat them. That’s what all mere propagandists and gossip-column type journalists do, because they know it works. But repetition itself is neither argument, nor does it strengthen a real and substantive, serious argument. Lawler simply hasn’t proven his case (which is one reason why he’s totally unwilling to defend it over against someone like me, who has substantively criticized it). [4-28-18]
In my opinion, he [Phil Lawler] has absolutely failed to demonstrate that Pope Francis is deliberately trying to subvert or overthrow Catholic tradition. That hasn’t been even remotely proven in this book [Lost Shepherd].
There were insinuations here and there that the pope is talking out of both sides of his mouth and being two-faced: not saying what he “really” means. But anyone can say that about any person at any time and attempt to “prove” any theory whatever. That would be like saying, “Armstrong really loves Lawler’s book. He’s just saying the opposite to fool all of us.” Personally, I prefer hard facts, not “jesuitical” conspiracy theories. [2-26-18]