While regular readers of this space are well-versed in matters concerning Vatican II, the Council it remains a source of confusion for many if not most in the Church, and that includes any number of those in Catholic media.
With this in mind, I’d like to take the opportunity to provide some basic but critically important information, in an easy-to-read Q&A format, for the benefit of those who are struggling to come to grips with the reality of the Council’s place in the life of the Catholic Church.
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What is an Ecumenical Council?
Church Councils have been held in many different forms throughout Church history dating all the way back to Biblical times (e.g., see Acts 15).
Over the centuries, there have been regional councils, national councils, plenary councils, patriarchal councils, etc. The primary difference between these different types of councils concerns the authoritative and geographic scope of their teaching.
For instance, a provincial council will typically address matters relevant to a particular province within the Church, and the decrees issued by such a council might only be binding upon that particular group of the faithful.
Ecumenical Councils (aka General Councils) on the other hand, are universal in their scope – both doctrinally and geographically; they are the most solemn and far-reaching gatherings of the Church’s Magisterium.
From the 1917 Catholic Encyclopedia:
Ecumenical Councils are those to which the bishops, and others entitled to vote, are convoked from the whole world (oikoumene) under the presidency of the pope or his legates, and the decrees of which, having received papal confirmation, bind all Christians.
Unlike their smaller counterparts, Ecumenical Councils include the bishops of the entire Church – both the East and the West – and their decrees, once they receive papal confirmation, serve to bind all Christians throughout the entire world.
What is the purpose or intent of Ecumenical Councils; i.e., why are they typically called?
Ecumenical Councils were often convened at times of trouble in the Church, at a time when one or more heresies were beginning to spread to the endangerment of the faithful; creating a substantial challenge to Christian unity.
For example, the Council of Trent, which met from 1545 to 1563, was called in the face of the Protestant Revolt.
Its main object was the definitive determination of the doctrines of the Church in answer to the heresies of the Protestants; a further object was the execution of a thorough reform of the inner life of the Church by removing the numerous abuses that had developed in it. (1917 Catholic Encyclopedia)
The intent of the Ecumenical Councils is very simple, even though the work carried out therein is not; namely, to define the doctrine of the Faith and to bind the faithful to said definitions. This often meant condemning, not just the specific errors being addressed, but also those who were propagating them.
This understanding of an Ecumenical Council’s intent is so fundamental to its definition, in fact, that some theologians have argued that Vatican II cannot truly be counted as one; i.e., it was more akin to a pastoral Synod of Bishops.
How many Ecumenical Councils have there been in the history of the Church?
Vatican II is the twenty-first Ecumenical Council in the history of the Church, and even though this averages out to one every hundred years or so, they are far less common than one might assume.
The 12th and the 13th centuries had three Ecumenical Councils each, while four other centuries each had two. That’s fourteen, or two-thirds of the total number of Ecumenical Councils in a period of just six hundred years.
The point is simply this: Living as we do in the shadow of Vatican II, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that Ecumenical Councils are very rare, and they are never called apart from a gravely serious doctrinal challenge besetting the Church. (We’ll have more to say on this momentarily.)
Following the Council of Trent (see above), the First Vatican Council took place more than three hundred years later, from its opening in December 8, 1869 until October 20, 1870 when it was interrupted by the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War.
The First Vatican Council was convoked to address the errors of rationalism, liberalism, and materialism; producing just two constitutions – the Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith and the First Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ – the latter of which is best known for defining the primacy and infallibility of the pope.
For what purpose was Vatican Council II called?
Unlike the previous twenty Ecumenical Councils, Vatican II met at a time of relative peace and calm in the Church. In other words, there were no gravely important matters of Christian doctrine in need of defining in the face of a specific error or challenge.
In his Opening Address to the Council, Pope John XXIII made this clear when he said:
The salient point of this Council is not a discussion of one article or another of the fundamental doctrine of the Church. The sacred deposit of faith has repeatedly been taught by the Fathers and by ancient and modern theologians, and is presumed to be well known and familiar to all. For this a Council was not necessary.
So what exactly did John XXIII expect from this Council?
In brief, to re-articulate the doctrine of the Faith…
…through the methods of research and through the literary forms of modern thought. The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another.
As for how the bishops convened at Vatican II were to go about their work, Pope John XXIII held up “the Acts of the Council of Trent and First Vatican Council” as examples of precision and faithfulness to follow.
Even so, he also went on to say:
Often errors vanish as quickly as they arise, like fog before the sun. The Church has always opposed these errors. Frequently she has condemned them with the greatest severity. Nowadays however, the Spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity. She consider that she meets the needs of the present day by demonstrating the validity of her teaching rather than by condemnations.
This charge to avoid condemnations factors heavily in Catholic life today, as we will see.
What makes the Second Vatican Council unique among the Ecumenical Councils of the Church?
As the above makes obvious, Vatican Council II is entirely unique among the Ecumenical Councils of the Church in a number of critically important ways:
– There was no doctrinal crisis besetting the Church as the Council met.
– It was directed by the pope not to issue condemnations of error.
– It was further made clear by the pope that the Council had no intent whatsoever to define the Faith.
– Most importantly, its teachings are not binding on the faithful.
On this latter point, to be very clear, there are many teachings to be found in the text of Vatican II that merely repeat defined doctrine. These were, of course, binding upon the faithful prior to the Council and they remain so today.
In the case of novelties or deviations from that which was taught prior to the Council, or what some might call “developments,” these are not binding.
How do we know that the novelties found in the conciliar text are not binding?
For one, there is a “Notification” found in the Appendix of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, which reads:
Taking conciliar custom into consideration and also the pastoral purpose of the present Council, the sacred Council defines as binding on the Church only those things in matters of faith and morals which it shall openly declare to be binding.
Throughout the conciliar text, contained in sixteen separate documents, the Council openly declared as binding a sum total of ZERO things.
Secondly, in a recent interview, Archbishop Guido Pozzo, Secretary of the Pontifical Ecclesia Dei Commission, referred to this same Notification while underscoring the nonbinding nature of some of the most controversial novelties of the Council; saying:
[Concerning] difficulties with several aspects of Nostra Aetate, regarding interreligious dialogue, the Unitatis Redintegratio decree regarding Ecumenism, and the Dignitatis Humanae Declaration on Religious Freedom, or with questions regarding the relationship of Christianity to modernity … these are not doctrines regarding belief, nor are they definitive statements. Rather, they are suggestions, instructions, or orientational guidelines for pastoral practice.”
Why, after all these years, is the Church still struggling to implement Vatican II?
Prior to being made a bishop, Fr. Robert Barron attempted to address this very question in 2014:
That’s typical after a Council. Especially a Council as big as Vatican II – I mean, big in terms of the bishops who were there, but also the size of the documents. Compare Vatican II, for example, to Trent or Vatican I or Chalcedon or Nicea. The documentation is far more extensive.
It is not uncommon to hear it said that it always takes generations to implement an Ecumenical Council, as in the examples given by Fr. Barron.
However, recall that Vatican Council II is entirely unique. The other Councils mentioned defined the Faith during a time of crisis. Add to this the fact that the means of communication were not nearly as efficient even one century ago, and it is clear that this comparison is a study in apples and oranges.
Vatican II was charged with simply re-presenting the immutable truths of the faith as defined by Councils and Pontiffs past, while taking into consideration the circumstances of “modern” life such as it was when the council met.
Setting aside the relative wisdom, or lack thereof, of using a solemn instrument such as this for strictly “pastoral” purposes, the primary reason the Church is still wrestling to come to terms with the content of Vatican II lies in the fact that it failed to teach the immutable faith with precision and clarity.
Isn’t the supposed lack of precision and clarity at Vatican II just a “traditionalist” claim?
Hardly. In a speech given in 2012, Cardinal Godfried Danneels (by no means a “traditionalist”) spoke very plainly about the Council’s deliberate lack of precision, saying:
The difference between Vatican II and previous councils is also reflected in the literary genre of the documents. The previous councils were mainly a type of court that decided and eliminated some things but also legitimized other things and expressed itself in legal terms. Right from the start, this model was not adopted by the council fathers of Vatican II. Vatican II chose a different literary genre and a different language. There were no short position papers or judgments, no sharp formulations of belief and discipline, and very little normative language.
In a 2013 article published in L’Osservatore Romano, Cardinal Walter Kasper is quoted as saying:
In many places, [the Council Fathers] had to find compromise formulas, in which, often, the positions of the majority are located immediately next to those of the minority, designed to delimit them. Thus, the conciliar texts themselves have a huge potential for conflict, open the door to a selective reception in either direction. (Cardinal Walter Kasper, L’Osservatore Romano, April 12, 2013)
Think about what you just read: The purpose of every Ecumenical Council is to teach the Faith as clearly as possible, so that those who wish to know the truth can discover it with relative ease. Not only did Vatican II fail to condemn errors; thus making it far more likely that innocent souls would be enticed by them, it used “compromise formulas” that can be interpreted in multiple ways, some of which are clearly untrue.
Ambiguities, which must be read “in continuity” with tradition are one thing, error is another. Aren’t the Ecumenical Councils infallible?
The short answer is no. In order for the protection of the Holy Ghost to render the acts of a Council infallible, the Church must have the intent of defining infallibly and thus binding the faithful, something that Vatican II – as confirmed by John XXIII and every pope to follow – did not have.
So, does Vatican II contain actual error?
Yes, it does. For example, the Decree on Ecumenism states in reference to the Protestant communities:
For the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Church. (UR 3)
This is a grave error. Our Lord Jesus Christ established one Church as the solitary means of salvation for all of humankind; namely, that perfect society known as the Holy Catholic Church.
The Council’s caveat, “which derive their efficacy…” does nothing to mitigate the offense as the Protestant communities have no efficacy as communities.
There are other more complex examples referenced throughout the pages of this blog.
What are we who wish to know and to live the Catholic faith in its fullness to do?
While it will take tremendous effort and the aid of God’s grace, the answer is rather simple:
We must submerse ourselves in the teachings of the popes and the Councils that predate Vatican II; it is there alone where one can be assured of clarity and precision.
This is only common sense!
Vatican II has no binding authority. It was not charged with making any new definitions, but only to pass on what had already been taught and defined. Therefore, looking to the doctrines of the Faith as taught before the advent of the conciliar confusion must be safe ground; indeed, the only safe ground.
Lastly, we must pray and fast for those who lead us – especially the pope – that he will cease glorifying the Council as a gift of the Holy Spirit (God is not the Author of confusion) and will exercise his solemn authority to teach the Catholic faith with the same precision and clarity for which his pre-conciliar predecessors are known.
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