Chapter 12 (pp. 99-111) of my book, Reflections on Radical Catholic Reactionaries (December 2002; revised second edition: 17 August 2013; slightly revised again in November 2023 for the purpose of the free online version). Anyone who reads this book should first read the following three introductory articles, in order to fully understand the definitions and sociological categories I am employing:
Introduction (on the book page)
If you’re still confused and unclear as to my meanings and intent after that, read one or more of these articles:
This book is modeled after the method and structure of the French mathematician and Catholic apologist Blaise Pascal’s classic, Pensées (“thoughts”). Catholic apologist and philosopher Peter Kreeft described this masterpiece as “raw pearls” and “more like ‘sayings’ than a book . . . ‘Sayings’ reflect and approximate the higher, the mode of Christ and Socrates and Buddha. That’s why Socrates is the greatest philosopher, according to St. Thomas (S.T. III, 42, 4).”
- Radical Catholic reactionaries believe that Vatican II was deliberately and perniciously ambiguous in its conscious teachings. Actual examples of the assumed devious and diabolical modus operandi are rarely given, so that the charge has little objective meaning. The proponent merely assumes what he is trying to prove, and tries to authoritatively and magisterially assert it, while not providing any “meat” or evidence to back up the ubiquitous charge. One tends to get comfortable and lax within one’s own self-contained worldview . . .
- Reactionaries think that Vatican II was merely a “pastoral” and not infallible ecumenical council; hence it can be selectively obeyed. But the Catholic Encyclopedia (1913), states, in its article on “General Councils” (italics added):
All the arguments which go to prove the infallibility of the Church apply with their fullest force to the infallible authority of general councils in union with the pope. For conciliary decisions are the ripe fruit of the total life-energy of the teaching Church actuated and directed by the Holy Ghost. Such was the mind of the Apostles when, at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts, xv, 28), they put the seal of supreme authority on their decisions in attributing them to the joint action of the Spirit of God and of themselves: Visum est Spiritui sancto et nobis (It hath seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us). This formula and the dogma it enshrines stand out brightly in the deposit of faith and have been carefully guarded throughout the many storms raised in councils by the play of the human element.
From the earliest times they who rejected the decisions of councils were themselves rejected by the Church. Emperor Constantine saw in the decrees of Nicaea “a Divine commandment” and Athanasius wrote to the bishops of Africa: “What God has spoken through the Council of Nicaea endureth for ever.” St. Ambrose (Ep. xxi) pronounces himself ready to die by the sword rather than give up the Nicene decrees, and Pope Leo the Great expressly declares that “whoso resists the Councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon cannot be numbered among Catholics” (Ep. lxxviii, ad Leonem Augustum). In the same epistle he says that the decrees of Chalcedon were framed instruente Spiritu Sancto, i.e. under the guidance of the Holy Ghost.
How the same doctrine was embodied in many professions of faith may be seen in Denzinger’s (ed. Stahl) “Enchiridion symbolorum et definitionum”, under the heading (index) “Concilium generale representat ecclesiam universalem, eique absolute obediendum” (General councils represent the universal Church and demand absolute obedience). The Scripture texts on which this unshaken belief is based are, among others: “But when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will teach you all truth . . .” John xvi, 13) “Behold I am with you [teaching] all days even to the consummation of the world” (Matt., xxviii, 20), “The gates of hell shall not prevail against it [i.e. the Church]” (Matt., xvi, 18).
Papal and conciliar infallibility are correlated but not identical. A council’s decrees approved by the pope are infallible by reason of that approbation, because the pope is infallible also extra concilium, without the support of a council. The infallibility proper to the pope is not, however, the only formal adequate ground of the council’s infallibility. The Divine constitution of the Church and the promises of Divine assistance made by her Founder, guarantee her inerrancy, in matters pertaining to faith and morals, independently of the pope’s infallibility: a fallible pope supporting, and supported by, a council, would still pronounce infallible decisions.
This accounts for the fact that, before the Vatican decree concerning the supreme pontiff’s ex-cathedra judgments, Ecumenical councils were generally held to be infallible even by those who denied the papal infallibility; it also explains the concessions largely made to the opponents of the papal privilege that it is not necessarily implied in the infallibility of councils, and the claims that it can be proved separately and independently on its proper merits. The infallibility of the council is intrinsic, i.e. springs from its nature. Christ promised to be in the midst of two or three of His disciples gathered together in His name; now an Ecumenical council is, in fact or in law, a gathering of all Christ’s co-workers for the salvation of man through true faith and holy conduct; He is therefore in their midst, fulfilling His promises and leading them into the truth for which they are striving. . . .
Some important consequences flow from these principles. Conciliar decrees approved by the pope have a double guarantee of infallibility: their own and that of the infallible pope. The council’s dignity is, therefore, not diminished, but increased, by the definition of papal infallibility, . . .
An opinion too absurd to require refutation pretends that only these latter canons (with the attached anathemas) contain the peremptory judgment of the council demanding unquestioned submission. Equally absurd is the opinion, sometimes recklessly advanced, that the Tridentine capita are no more than explanations of the canones, not proper definitions; the council itself, at the beginning and end of each chapter, declares them to contain the rule of faith.
Obedient Catholics (per the above pre-conciliar explanations) obey ecumenical councils and give them their inner assent and submission.
- 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? Whatever happened to Christ’s maxim that “a house divided against itself cannot stand”? The whole scenario is completely absurd.
- 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. We need to get a pope to declare ex cathedra that the New Testament didn’t depart from previous Jewish Old Testament tradition, so as to alleviate the problem.
- As for Vatican II’s supposed “ambiguity,” it is ultimately irrelevant what theological commissions declare. The legitimate authority in these matters is the Holy Father, the pope. And Pope St. Paul VI, while vetoing certain things, did not veto the entire council or declare it “ambiguous.” “Rome has spoken . . . ” So what do reactionaries do now? Deny St. Paul VI’s divinely ordained authority as the head of an ecumenical council? Or deny that he was a valid pope?
- Christians and Bible scholars are still arguing about various biblical “difficulties.” That doesn’t mean that we adopt biblical errancy, merely because there are “problems” of interpretation and harmonization with other parts of Scripture. Likewise with Catholic ecumenical councils and prior Church tradition.
- 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 – and bishops and theologians are not 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.
- 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. But the only reasonable way to determine orthodoxy is to simply look at the conciliar words (and those of previous councils) themselves (and strangely enough, these vocal critics rarely take the time to do). Actual words are objective tools, just as one engages in exegesis and cross-referencing when interpreting sacred Scripture.
- The reactionary often adopts a fortress mentality whereby any challenger to the self-proclaimed “orthodoxy” is automatically written off as a modernist, or modernist dupe or “useful idiot,” 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.
- Nowhere does anyone show that the council was invalid; therefore, we are all bound to it. There is no middle, “ambiguous” position.
- Reactionaries will give heed to a mere theologian, when he contradicts what popes say about the authority of an ecumenical council. This is pure modernist methodology (inherited from Protestant notions of “authority”).
- The office of the papacy exists for a reason, and in God’s providence, Pope St. Paul VI presided over the ending of the council. Here is what he declared about its authority:
Apostolic Brief In Spiritu Sancto for the Closing of the Council; read at the closing ceremonies of 8 December by Archbishop Pericle Felici, general secretary of the council:
The Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, assembled in the Holy Spirit and under the protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary, whom we have declared Mother of the Church, and of St. Joseph, her glorious spouse, and of the Apostles SS. Peter and Paul, must be numbered without doubt among the greatest events of the Church . . .
At last all which regards the holy ecumenical council has, with the help of God, been accomplished and all the constitutions, decrees, declarations and votes have been approved by the deliberation of the synod and promulgated by us . . .
We decided 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 and for the tranquillity and peace of all men. 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, and so that they may be fully convalidated by those whom they concern or may concern now and in the future; and so that, as it be judged and described, all efforts contrary to these things by whomever or whatever authority, knowingly or in ignorance be invalid and worthless from now on.
Given in Rome at St. Peter’s, under the [seal of the] ring of the fisherman, Dec. 8, on the feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the year 1965, the third year of our pontificate.
- Reactionaries will blithely judge the pope; in this instance they say that he messed up, that the charism of infallibility exercised in ratifying an ecumenical council was only half-effective. And they will claim, furthermore, that this is not private judgment, and expect us to calmly accept their pontifications declaring that the real pope was wrong in his authoritative judgments of an authoritative council.
- Rather than simply pronounce the more consistent (though utterly false) view that the hated council was invalid, instead we hear of “ambiguity,” which then becomes a convenient “club” to bash the council with impunity, not allowing (like all conspiratorial theories) of any rational disproof.
- 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.
- 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.
- According to Vatican II: Lumen Gentium 25 (as reiterated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, #884, 891 and the Code of Canon Law, can. 337 § 1; and 1322-23), ecumenical councils are binding and infallible.
- Confusion and rebellion occurred after every single council. After Vatican I there was the crisis with the Old Catholics, and those who couldn’t accept the ex cathedra doctrine of papal infallibility. Catholic liberalism and hyper-rationalism really began to pick up steam in that period (which is precisely why Pope St. Pius X dealt with it). The Arian crisis continued in full force after Nicaea had settled it, etc. Reactionaries have an excessively short-sighted view of history.
- The point of the teaching of Vatican II isn’t for the Catholic message to “sell itself,” as if this were a Madison Avenue ad campaign or TV commercial (reactionaries again show, it seems to me, the influence of modern American cultural mentality). The point is to “be all things to all people that [we] may by all means save some,” a very biblical (and Pauline) approach and evangelistic outlook.
- While not every jot and tittle of the Vatican II documents are infallible in the extraordinary sense, nevertheless the council is entirely binding on the Catholic faithful. If a reactionary doubts that, he needs to declare which portions of the Councils of Trent, Nicæa, Chalcedon, or Vatican I he rejects, on the basis of private judgment.
- 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.
- The council was either double-minded or it wasn’t. Jesus said that it was impossible to serve two masters (Matthew 6:24). If a man can’t serve two masters, then how can an ecumenical council do so: which has a special charism from the Holy Spirit, and is ratified by a pope, who also has a special charism from the Holy Spirit, as the Supreme Head of the Church? The council speaks for the whole Church. As the council goes, so goes the Church. So if it is “double-minded,” then the Church is also.
- 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.
- 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.
Where is the difference in principle between the two scenarios? Christians can readily see the folly and insufficiently compelling nature of the first argument. Countless so-called contradictions or “impossibilities” in Holy Scripture have been resolved by textual advances, archaeological discoveries, scholarly exegesis, linguistic analysis, documented fulfilled prophecy, the exposing of unnecessarily and unfairly hostile academic theories, etc. Many “paradoxes” on their face have been clearly shown to be in fact logically complementary. The supposed “contradiction” is almost always merely an outgrowth of a prior prejudice and preconceived notions (oftentimes a flat-out anti-supernaturalism of radical philosophical or textual skepticism).
The point is that the committed, devout Christian of any stripe, grants to the Bible its inspired status. He has faith that it is indeed God’s Revelation, God-breathed, preserved in its text in almost miraculous fashion, canonized by Catholic councils under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, maker of western civilization and breaker of cycles of immorality and decadence, and of tyrannies and tin pot dictators throughout history. The supposed “errors” are believed to have a solution. The benefit of the doubt is granted to Holy Scripture, while scholars wrestle with the “difficulties” of text and exegesis. One has faith, based on what they have seen by way of positive proofs and indications — a cumulative case which rings true, which is not contrary to reason, but which transcends it; harmonizes with it. This is Catholic, and general Christian belief.
So why is it different when it comes to the Church and the papacy? Catholicism is a three-legged stool: Holy Scripture, Holy Tradition, and Holy Mother Church, led by the Holy Father, the pope. How is it that self-professed Catholics can deign to summarily dismiss decrees of an ecumenical council, assuming (with a deluded air of “certainty”) from the outset that they contradict earlier pronouncements of popes and councils? Why is not the benefit of the doubt and suspension of skepticism allowed in this instance?
How can people who claim to believe in the indefectibility of the Church, and supernatural protection against any error that would bind the faithful, believe such things? What becomes of faith in God’s promises? Does such a person actually believe for a moment that God would allow mere modernists, who — by doubting and disbelieving — have lost the supernatural virtue of faith altogether, to subvert an ecumenical council, and by implication, the Church itself?
The very notion is preposterous! It is unthinkable within the orthodox Catholic framework of faith. It is un-Catholic. It has never happened, and will never happen. And it is the triumph of private judgment and modernist skepticism within the Church (i.e., among the crowd who accept these ludicrous propositions). One must persevere! One must keep the faith! One must take the long view of history, if there remains any doubt that God has supernaturally protected His Church. What becomes of one’s Christian assurance and trust in the Lord, existing side-by-side with this incessant Protestantized doubt about magisterial pronouncements?
- I believe in the Church, because I believe in the God Who established it. I don’t believe it can defect, because Jesus said so, and because history itself more than amply bears this out. I don’t believe that the modernists will ever subvert it. Even most critics of Vatican II — wanting to hang on to indefectibility — seek to maintain a schizophrenic approach: that it was “ambiguous,” that it did not espouse heresy, yet its language encouraged it, etc., along with a host of other ludicrous equivocations and rationalizing word games, which – foolish as they are – at least bear witness to the fact that the reactionaries who think in this fashion feel the internal tension and contradiction of their position.
Summary: Chapter 12 of my book, Reflections on Radical Catholic Reactionaries (December 2002; revised in November 2023 for the purpose of the free online version).