Chapter 11 (pp. 91-98) 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).”
- Vatican II supposedly changed Catholic doctrine, hence that council is thought to be heterodox and heretical (radical Catholic reactionaries almost always express this proposition in equivocal language). This cannot happen in a valid ecumenical council, according to the principle of infallibility, indefectibility, papal authority, and previously assumed Catholic ecclesiology.
- The novelty and irony here is the refusal of reactionaries to accept the expressed magisterium of the Church. This is nothing new: it has plenty of precursors in past heresies and dissenters from councils, such as the Arians, Nestorians, Monophysites, Protestants, and Old Catholics.
- Vatican II operated on the same ecclesiological and theological principles as all former councils, but reactionaries operate on the analogy of the heretics throughout history: all of whom thought they knew better than the solemnly expressed will and mind of the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, and headed by the Holy Father.
- There is no difference in authoritative principle whatsoever, between the Council of Trent and the Second Vatican Council. The question is not one of extraordinary dogmatic definitions, but rather, of routine obedience to a council, which requires obedience by its very nature, according to the Church fathers and unbroken Catholic tradition.
- I agree with reactionaries that some heterodox liberals and modernists were present at the Second Vatican Council; even that they had a nefarious plan to subvert the council. I deny that they succeeded in getting their heresies into the documents. The Holy Spirit saw that that didn’t happen.
- Reactionaries maintain that the Second Vatican Council deliberately and consciously sought a compromise with humanistic modernism, and that the tragic results can be observed in its documents. This is merely more equivocation: the council is not heretical; rather, it is “compromised.” We so-called “conservatives” (orthodox Catholics, in objective terminology) deny this absolutely. The council is orthodox. It did not depart at all from Catholic tradition. The Holy Spirit would not allow such a thing. This is Catholic belief and faith; this is Catholic tradition. How is it that these elementary aspects of the Catholic faith can be flat-out denied by people claiming to uphold (over against alleged “compromisers” — orthodox Catholics like myself) “traditionalism”?! The world (as well as the Church) is again turned upside-down by such insolence and presumption.
- 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.
- As far as I can tell, many reactionaries adopt the logical fallacy (post hoc ergo propter hoc) of thinking that because the council preceded the things they don’t like (some quite justifiably so), that therefore it is the root cause of all these things. “Modernism flourished after the council, therefore the council must be modernist . . .”
- Many reactionaries seem to require an ex cathedra papal pronouncement in order to fully accept the authority and orthodoxy of Vatican II. But there is little reason to believe that the bulk of reactionaries would accept such a proclamation, as it goes against their opinions, and since we observe how cavalierly and “modernistically” they selectively accept papal proclamations as it is. Such a pronouncement would likely make reactionaries want to leave the Church — give up on it as a hopeless case. They have already made up their own mind that the Holy Father is wrong, about this and many other issues. Why should anyone think they would receive this papal statement with assent, rather than dissent? Their modernist-influenced “cafeteria Catholicism” precludes such a mass acceptance, I think. This is not the Catholic spirit; it is the spirit of disobedience, private judgment, and schism.
- There is no such thing as going back to an ecumenical council and “deleting the whole thing from the record,” so to speak. This is impossible, both from the nature of things, and because it would constitute a glaring contradiction between one pope and another. One could, however, adopt Luther’s position of being totally willing to abandon any mere council or papal decree (even an entire Christian tradition), if his conscience so dictated. But of course that is Protestantism, and its principles of sola Scriptura, private judgment, and absolute supremacy of the individual conscience, not Catholicism . . . Once again, reactionaryism betrays its (quite ironic) latent Protestant affinities and sympathies . . .
- The difference in estimations of Vatican II – in large part — lie in how one initially approaches the issue. I assume, as a devout Catholic — in faith and given the evidence of Church history — that the council is consistent with previous Catholic doctrine. This can be demonstrated, as well, by orthodox Catholic theologians and canonists. Now, when a reactionary approaches the council, does he view these so-called “innovations” or “novelties” – in faith — as developments that may be difficult to understand, or corruptions which are difficult to reconcile? It is all in the premise . . . To simply work out difficulties, nuances, and complexities is one thing. The Bible is inerrant; nevertheless, it doesn’t follow for a second that there are not textual and theological and exegetical difficulties to be mulled over and worked through. Likewise with the council; one has to start with either a hostile or an embracing assumption. To take the hostile assumption is to go against what the pope said about the council, and the analogy of earlier councils; therefore involving the utter absurdity (granting Catholic ecclesiology) of placing theologians or private persons over against the pope — precisely as both modernists and Protestants do. Thus reactionaries are to the council what the liberal higher critics are to the Bible. Their initial hostile assumption is fallacious, so that the house of cards they build upon it is fundamentally flawed. Likewise with reactionary presuppositions and the reactionary “house.”
- One reactionary referred, typically, to the “fervor” which “devotees of Vatican II” possessed. This terminology is loaded and absurd. Who talks of “devotees” of Trent or Chalcedon? A council is a council. If indeed it is one, the Catholic accepts it as a matter of course, not due to being a “devotee,” as if it were like following a movie star or a hairstyle. So this brings us back, as always, to the question of whether Vatican II was a valid council. I haven’t seen any reactionary demonstrate with rational argument that it was not. Therefore, the very language they use to describe the council is rash and imprudent, as well as inconsistent.
- 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).
- There is no way for any self-professed Catholic to deny the validity of Vatican II as an ecumenical council. It was called by a sitting pope (how could anyone possibly deny that status to Pope St. John XXIII?), and attended by 2,860 bishops. And of course, nothing it promulgated contradicted the tradition of the Church in the least (including the Decree on Ecumenism and the Declaration on Religious Liberty). Whoever denies its validity, places themselves in the same ilk as the heretical Arians vis-a-vis the Council of Nicaea, the Nestorians in relation to Ephesus, and the Monophysites with regard to Chalcedon, not to mention the “Old Catholics” who refused to accept the dogma of papal infallibility and departed from the visible unity of the Church after the Vatican Council of 1870. The schismatic and heretical spirit has always fought against doctrinal development and the social, intellectual, and evangelistic progress of the Church. It is a shortsighted, tunnel vision spirit that shows itself quite ignorant both of Church history and apostolic tradition.
- How is Martin Luther’s dissent against Catholic conciliar authority different from reactionary undermining of Vatican II, which cannot not be an ecumenical council by any stretch of consistent Catholic reasoning? Reactionaries merely start later in time. The principle remains the same. Their schismatic attitude begins in 1962 or so (1958?), rather than 1054 or 1517. They arbitrarily pick what they don’t care for and/or don’t understand in Church teaching and decide that they know more than a pope or an ecumenical council.
- The view claiming that Vatican II constituted a successful modernist revolution in the Church, is nonsense and unable to be consistently demonstrated within a Catholic framework. One would have to believe that, either:
1) Pope St. John XXIII was not a valid pope, hence couldn’t convoke a council;
2) The council itself is invalid, thus establishing that councils can err, just as Luther held in 1521;
3) That God would allow His Church to be taken in by such pernicious error – thus contradicting our Lord’s promises in Matthew 16:18 and John 16:13.
- Councils have always been abused and misinterpreted — this is no new phenomenon. Dollinger and the Old Catholics split off because they rejected papal infallibility at Vatican I in 1870. The Monophysites left after Chalcedon in 451. And of course Trent solidified the resistance of many Protestants — particularly the Calvinists. There are always people who think they know better than God’s One True Church — set up by Him and protected from doctrinal and moral error by Almighty God, by means of apostolic succession and the charism of infallibility.
- A reactionary stated in a letter to me that “Vatican II was the beginning of a trend pleasing to modernists and liberals who hate the Church,” implying that this brings the council itself into question. But this response overlooked the possibility that the modernists have not understood Vatican II in the first place, or else that indeed they did understand it, and proceeded to unethically and cynically distort it for their own heterodox, schismatic, and ethically immoral ends. Either way, the result of their efforts (conscious and deliberate, well-intentioned or not) to undermine the traditional faith, liturgy, and what not, would be the same. And we see it all around us. I could argue, by this curiously deficient logic, that the Council of Nicaea was “the beginning of a trend pleasing to Arians and apostates who hate the Church.” Or I could argue that Vatican I “was the beginning of a trend pleasing to Old Catholics and conciliarists and Gallicans who hate the infallible papacy.”
- The Second Vatican Council sought to make the faith more relevant and compelling to modern man, without sacrificing orthodoxy and its tradition, or changing any of its essentials. In this it was successful, despite all the nonsense that also occurred. The world is messy. Serious problems aren’t quickly resolved in neat little packages, as in soap operas and fantasy movies. Maybe reactionaries think they are resolved rapidly because they are too immersed in secular western culture and can’t see how they have been harmfully influenced by its false ideas.
- Architectural mediocrity and the loss of the sense of the sacred and reverence are symptoms of the modern era and the larger cultural upheaval of the post-World War II period, and especially of the sexual revolution of the 1960s. This nonsense simply cannot be found in Vatican II. That advocates of secularism cited the council’s “spirit” to justify themselves is no more a case against Vatican II than the “penumbra” of the Constitution — nefariously used to “find” abortion rights in it — is a condemnation of the actual US Constitution.
- It’s always easier to destroy culture than to construct it. The fact that destruction and corruption proceed rapidly, by their very nature doesn’t prove anything one way or the other (in this instance, about the inherent value of Vatican II).
- Many Protestants are now joining the Catholic Church. Yet reactionaries are tempted to leave it because Vatican II is defended as a legitimate ecumenical council?! How strange that is! Outsiders see the Church as full of wonderful (spiritual, biblical, moral, ecclesiological, theological, intellectual, historical) things that Protestant denominations lack. One could reflect for hours upon the tragi-comic irony and sadness of that.
- I would note that the reactionaries of 1870, such as the excommunicate Old Catholic historian Johann Joseph Ignaz von Dollinger, thought the definition of papal infallibility was a “novelty” and contrary to past teaching. On the other end of the spectrum were the ultramontanists. But the Church, as always, guided by the Holy Spirit, came out in 1870 with a reasonable middle position. Likewise, the same thing happened at Vatican II.
- If a reactionary rejects Vatican II, by decapitating it into “orthodox” and “heretical” portions, based on their own private judgment, they will no longer be orthodox Catholics.
- The Holy Spirit didn’t guarantee the successful application or reception of an ecumenical council’s true teaching — that is a function of human free will. What is guaranteed to be free from error are the actual (not imagined, or hoped-for) teachings of ecumenical councils. The so-called “spirit of Vatican II” is, of course, the modernist distortion of authentic conciliar teaching.
- The Council of Nicæa was orthodox in the midst of the Arian heresy. Likewise, Vatican II was orthodox in the midst of the modernist heresy. Do reactionaries think that their alleged charism of “obedient dissent” is superior to that which rests upon the bishops as a corporate body in council, and on the pope?
- If the conciliar documents had been properly applied and followed, everything would have been great. Reactionaries unfairly blame the council; I blame human rebelliousness, pride, and the cultural zeitgeist of the late 60s and 70s. God couldn’t make Adam and Eve remain sinless and obedient (given free will). Neither can Vatican II make liberals obedient.
- One might compare the reactionary mentality to all the errors of anti-Catholic Protestants. They engage in a quixotic, ridiculous crusade against (as Fulton Sheen said) what they erroneously think the Catholic Church is. By the same token, reactionaries engage in a futile, wrong-headed, cynical, faith-damaging endeavor to undercut the authority of, and castigate Vatican II, that they do not fully understand. But it’s part and parcel of obedience to sometimes accept what we don’t understand. This applies to a 2-year-old child and his or her father or mother, and also to all of us and God.
- It is absurd and tragic to have to argue about Vatican II with fellow Catholics, as opposed to Protestants or Anglicans or Orthodox (who at least are consistent in their objection to it).
Summary: Chapter 11 of my book, Reflections on Radical Catholic Reactionaries (December 2002; revised in November 2023 for the purpose of the free online version).