I recently had an interesting, and cordial, exchange on Facebook with a theologian who is presently one of the English-speaking world’s most popular Catholic commentators.
Though our conversation was public, naming him isn’t necessary; it is his opinion to which I’d like to draw your attention inasmuch as it appears to be shared by the overwhelming majority of self-identified “traditionalists,” including many readers of this space. Here, I will refer to, and expand upon, certain of the points raised in our exchange in the hope that doing so may in some way help readers sort through the conciliar carnage for themselves.
My interlocutor had expressed admiration for Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, OP, (d. February 15, 1964) and so I asked him to comment on his apparent disagreement with the Dominican’s ecclesiology.
Specifically, I had in mind Garrigou-Lagrange’s observations concerning the interrelationship between Christ and His Church, in particular as it concerns the infallibility of each. For example:
Thus, as man, He is presented to us as the master of truth, whom we must hear. ‘Neither be ye called masters, for one is your master, Christ,’ and as the leader, following whom we never walk in darkness; who, in establishing His Church, made her infallible in her teaching, saying: ‘Thou art Peter, and upon this rock l will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.’ But if it had been possible for Christ to err, a fortiori the Church He established could err in her teaching. (Garrigou-Lagrange, Christ The Savior, 1949)
One notes that Garrigou-Lagrange does not suggest that the Church’s inability to err in her teaching is limited to a very narrowly defined set of special circumstances. On the contrary, he directly connects the impossibility of the Church to err in her teaching to Christ’s inability to err, the latter, of course, being a permanent condition rather than an occasional one.
According to Garrigou-Lagrange’s reasoning, one may confidently conclude that by following the teachings of the Church – she who was established by, and is led by, the Light of the world – one never walks in darkness. In the words of Cardinal Franzelin writing in the previous century, even the Church’s non-infallible teachings are “safe for all to embrace.” (De divina Traditione et Scriptura, 1875)
If this particular understanding of Holy Mother Church strikes you as utterly non-controversial and, in fact, fundamental to the Faith, that’s because it is. It is so fundamental, in fact, that Garrigou-Lagrange even went so far as to point to the infallibility of the Church (a given in the minds of pre-conciliar theologians and Holy Roman Pontiffs) as a sort of proof for Our Lord’s infallibility:
For error would reflect on the very person of the Word in accordance with the adage: actions are attributed to the supposita. Hence error and sin cannot be attributed to the Word of God, who is essentially truth and holiness. Thus it is commonly said to be de fide that Christ, as man, the founder of the infallible Church, was infallible. (ibid.)
Garrigou-Lagrange is essentially saying, Surely, He who founded an infallible Church was Himself infallible!
NB: Once again, he offers no hint whatsoever that either Christ, or His Church, are free from error and therefore safe to follow only on rare occasion.
The logic is very simple: As error and sin cannot be attributed to Christ who is Truth and Holiness, nor can such be attributed to His Mystical Body, the Church, who is both Holy Mother and bulwark of truth.
It is an objective fact that Garrigou-Lagrange’s ecclesiology, like that of his predecessors and peers, leaves no room whatsoever for the scandalous notion that an authoritative exercise of the Supreme Magisterium of the Holy Roman Catholic Church – even in its non-infallible teaching – could err in such a way that those who innocently follow its teaching may find themselves walking in darkness.
And yet, the great majority of self-identified traditionalists (more appropriately known as tradservatives) insist that Vatican II, despite having so erred, is a valid (albeit unusual) ecumenical council of the Catholic Church!
On this note, my theologian-interlocutor suggested that it’s not so much the case that Vatican II “taught flagrant and undeniable error,” rather, he believes that it was merely ambiguous and misleading thanks in part to its use of “untraditional, sloppy language” that, admittedly, is “suggestive of error in the most natural reading.”
The faithful could be misled by the conciliar text, he concedes, but he insists that this is not enough to undermine the Council’s claim as a valid ecumenical council.
I am of the opinion that Vatican II did indeed teach flagrant error. If we allow for the sake of argument, however, that it merely taught in such a way as to invite erroneous interpretations – which my friend identified as the intent of the Council’s architects – its claim as a valid exercise of the Supreme Magisterium (see Appendix in Lumen Gentium) is dubious in the extreme.
Pope St. Pius X made plain the Church’s view of texts that are open to unorthodox interpretations when he wrote, “It may happen that a book harmless in one way, on account of different circumstances, be hurtful in another … We impose as a duty upon the Bishop to condemn it.” (cf Pascendi, 51)
Even the 1983 Wojtylan Code of Canon Law imposes the same duty upon bishops “to condemn writings which harm true faith or good morals.” (Can. 823 §1)
As a writer who has undergone the process of obtaining an imprimatur, I have familiarity with the way in which written material is evaluated: A censor librorum is not only looking for “flagrant and undeniable error,” he is also charged with flagging anything that may potentially “harm true faith or good morals,” as in the case of a text that is confusing or otherwise open to erroneous interpretations.
It is no exaggeration whatsoever to say that the conciliar text does not qualify for a nihil obstat and imprimatur, not even according to newchurch standards!
And yet we are to believe that the teaching of Vatican II comes to us from the Church?
My theologian-interlocutor suggested that my approach to this matter amounts to “trying to square the circle by means of quoting every pre-Vatican II ultramontane Church authority extremist.”
This is a classic case of what psycho analysts (pun intended) call projection. It is the tradservative crowd that is laboring mightily to force the Council’s poisonous peg into the ever-safe harbor of magisterial teaching, even if it means dismissing Garrigou-Lagrange and numerous other revered manualists of note as ultramontane extremists.
My friend went on to soften that assessment, observing that Garrigou-Lagrange, albeit a great Thomist, “was a man of his age and culture” and, as such, his writing admits of some “real excesses” that need to be “pruned.”
“I find it all quite a mess,” he ultimately concluded, “and I think the black-and-white categories in which you are working fall apart when faced with this uniquely weird council.”
He has a point: When the pre-conciliar ecclesiology so precisely taught by the best and brightest theologians of that age (not to mention popes, saints and catechisms) comes up against the Second Vatican Council, something’s gotta give, one of them must inevitably fall apart.
In other words, either countless learned men like Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange were sadly mistaken, or Vatican II is not what every papal claimant since claims it to be, namely, an exercise of Holy Roman Catholic Church’s teaching office.
And so, dear reader, we have a choice to make when it comes to how we understand and approach the present situation. Indeed, it’s all quite a mess! So, don’t imagine for a moment that we are capable of grasping every single nuance of the present crisis in one fell swoop, i.e., we need not feel pressured to have all the answers.
At the same time, we aren’t doing ourselves or anyone else any favors by denying the answers we do have, even if those answers lead to other questions.
For example, one would only add to the “mess” by denying the basic understanding, established on fundamental ecclesiological principles, that those who follow the teachings of the Church, even the non-infallible ones, never walk in darkness.
There’s a great deal at stake in this discussion, truly, one’s sensus Catholicus – the ability to think and feel with the Church – is on the line.
Those who imagine that certain of the authoritative teachings of the Church cannot be safely trusted have already begun wandering in the darkness of a Protestant mindset, many without even knowing it.