The Unquestionable Council

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There exists in many Catholic circles a general obsession with the Second Vatican Council, one that pervades every single aspect of Catholic life. Whether liberal or conservative, progressive or traditionalist—all must somehow reckon with Vatican II. How we worship, what we believe, how to view the world—all of these things are, for the average practicing Catholic, mediated through Vatican II, influenced by Vatican II (if not by the documents, then in its “spirit”), and dictated by Vatican II. To a degree, this makes sense, given the council’s proximity to our current moment in history. 

But for a 2,000-year-old Church, the period between 1962 and 2021 is not even quite 3% of the Church’s existence. And yet, Vatican II remains untouchable, its documents not open to critical questioning, the motives of the council fathers not given sufficient probing. To even call into question the perfection and inspiration of Vatican II appears as blasphemous as questioning the inspiration of Sacred Scripture. Time and time again we are told that “Vatican II was a pastoral council”, and yet the prevailing attitude among Catholic leaders is “Solo Vaticano Secundo”—Vatican II alone, and nothing else.

Of course, all Catholics should have a docility and obedience to ecumenical councils, as they are an exercise of the Magisterium. But, contrary to certain corners of Catholic apologists, this is not to be understood as an absolute canonization of any and all words, phrases, or even paragraphs in council documents. To suggest that Vatican II’s analysis of then-modern technological advances in “The Church in the Modern World” (Gaudium et Spes) requires the “assent of faith” is a form of council-fundamentalism that has never held a place in orthodox Catholic thought. Vatican II was indeed a legitimate and authoritative council, but it does not follow that it was a perfect council, nor one that may even be relevant in all of its declarations 60 years later.

If Pope John Paul II’s papacy attempted to rein in some of the post-conciliar madness across the world, and Benedict XVI’s papacy was an attempt to view Vatican II with the “hermeneutic of continuity,” Pope Francis’ pontificate highlights the ways in which the council tried to do something new. And, while both John Paul II and Benedict XVI affirmed the importance of the council, it is Francis who pushes for a “maximalist” approach to Vatican II. In his letter accompanying Traditionis Custodes, Pope Francis writes:

To doubt the Council is to doubt the intentions of those very Fathers who exercised their collegial power in a solemn manner cum Petro et sub Petro in an ecumenical council, and, in the final analysis, to doubt the Holy Spirit himself who guides the Church.

Aside from the need to distinguish Vatican II and the liturgical reforms following (many of which do not reflect the council’s teachings), it is curious how Francis has removed Vatican II as an object of further study and inquiry. Francis—who himself has emphasized the need to “leave room” for doubt and uncertainty in our life of faith (going as far to call the person with all the answers “a false prophet using religion for himself”)—does not extend such space to those who question Vatican II and its attempt at reform.

A few years ago, when speaking about the post-conciliar liturgy, Pope Francis also insisted that “the liturgical reform is irreversible,” a stunning claim in itself, given that it presumes that no future council or pope will do to the Novus Ordo Missae what Paul VI did to the traditional Roman Rite. If the liturgical reform is irreversible (“the” referring to this specific instance of it), then Francis’ authority on the liturgy is greater than that of Pope St. Pius V, who codified the already-existing Roman liturgy and sought to end novel aberrations. The pope of parrhesia has no tolerance for those who speak freely on Vatican II, despite there being room in the Church for those who question fundamentals of faith, including the very existence of Satan!

Truthfully, Vatican II is a chameleon council, for it blends in with anyone. Liturgical traditionalists can cite Sacrosanctum Concilium on the “pride of place” of Gregorian chant (§116) and how “there must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them.” (§23) Within the same document, defenders of the Novus Ordo can point to sections that call for the removal of “useless repetitions” (§34) and for the rites “to be simplified” (§50). In a single passage from Dignitatis Humanae (§2), the Council affirms the Church’s traditional teaching against the State coercing the individual’s conscience in religious matters, before introducing a novel concept of the individual’s “natural right” to choose his or her religion. 

Lumen Gentium affirms the necessity of the Church for salvation (§14), while simultaneously obscuring the relationship between the papacy and the college of bishops, a controversy so obvious that a nota explicativa praevia was required and placed as an appendix to the document. Gaudium et Spes asserts that “love for God and neighbor is the first and greatest commandment,” whereas Our Lord distinguishes (but does not dichotomize) the two, putting them in their proper order without conflation: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment.” (cf. Mt 22:35-39). And these are simply four out of sixteen council documents!

Oftentimes, when questions about Vatican II are brought forward, there is a collective awkward silence. “Is this person a Lefebvrite?” some wonder. When asking how council statements, such as Lumen Gentium stating that “the Church of Christ… subsists in the Catholic Church,” (§8) conform to past Magisterial teaching, we are given answers that solely cite the Second Vatican Council—an exercise in tautology, if ever I have seen one. If certain formulations in Vatican II’s documents raise concerns about its continuity with past Church teaching, certainly the Magisterium can do better than to point back to Vatican II itself. After all, many things were done, said, and taught in the name of the council—beautiful churches were wrecked, altar rails ripped out, the distinction between priest and laity blurred. 

Today, in the name of the same council, Catholics are forbidden from evangelizing the Jews (Nostra Aetate), bishops delegate to the laity the defense of the Faith in the public square (Gaudium et Spes), a Jesuit priest questions Scriptural condemnations of sodomy (Dei Verbum). It is not enough to wave a hand to conjure a “hermeneutic of continuity”, nor can we assume “doctrinal development” when what developed appears unrecognizable to past doctrine. The fact remains that, nearly 60 years after the council began, there is still not a single and definitive interpretation of its teachings. 

The need for further analysis should not worry us. Even the dogmatic Ecumenical Council of Nicaea (325) needed to later clarify what was meant by the term homoousios, because of its prior misuse by the heretic Paul of Samosata. Simply repeating that Nicaea taught homoousios was not enough—a later council (First Constantinople in 381) was required to combat Paul of Samosata’s modalism, which along with Arianism, remained threats to Christian orthodoxy. 

Let us pose some rhetorical questions, in addition to the questions posed by others. Why does Vatican II have such a major (if not exclusive) influence on how we Catholics understand and come to know the apostolic Faith? If a Catholic from 1921 was transported to 2021 with no knowledge of the council, would there be anything of substance lacking in his knowledge of the Faith? Is it possible to live the Faith as taught pre-Vatican II in a post-Vatican II world? Is Vatican II a “super-council” which absorbed all of the pristine teachings of councils prior and disseminated them once-and-for-all in a perfect, unchanging way? Is there no need for a future council, because Vatican II has the last word? 

Of course, any right-believing Catholic would shudder at these thoughts. Just as the Church does not sustain its existence from council to council, neither does one council—and a “pastoral” one, at that—hold preeminence above the deposit of faith. Insofar as an ecumenical council professes and teaches the Faith, it is to be respected as a vehicle for the Church’s transmission of the apostolic faith—not as its end

The Church does not exist for Vatican II, but rather Vatican II was held for the Church, and if the council did not achieve the ends for which it was convened, then perhaps it can follow Constance (1414-1418) and Lateran V (1512-1517) in needing further correction or clarification. A future Syllabus or definitive hermeneutic to interpreting the Second Vatican Council would be helpful—but to do so, we need the freedom to question this seemingly unquestionable council.

[Image Credit: Shutterstock]

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John A. Monaco is a doctoral student in theology at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA, and a Visiting Scholar with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville.

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