According to the 1917 Catholic Encyclopedia entry on General (or Ecumenical) Councils:
“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. A council, Ecumenical in its convocation, may fail to secure the approbation of the whole Church or of the pope, and thus not rank in authority with Ecumenical councils.”
Let’s now consider the same volume’s entry on Infallibility:
“That an ecumenical council which satisfies the conditions above stated is an organ of infallibility will not be denied by anyone who admits that the Church is endowed with infallible doctrinal authority.”
What we see taking shape in these texts is an image of the Ecumenical Councils that strongly suggests that they necessarily teach with the intent to bind, and as such, enjoy the protection of the Holy Ghost from all error in matters of faith and morals. Such, it would seem, is part and parcel of the General Council’s very nature.
For more insight, let’s take a look at the 1917 Code of Canon Law; the same in force during the Second Vatican Council.
(The citations provided are taken from The New Code of Canon Law: A Commentary and Summary of the New Code of Canon Law – Rev. Stanislaus Woywod, O.F.M., Imprimatur – John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York, 1918)
Can. 227 The decrees of the Council have no definite binding force, unless they shall have been confirmed by the Roman Pontiff and promulgated by his orders.
The implication here is simple enough: Once confirmed by the pope, the decrees of the General Council have “definite binding force.”
Can. 228 The General Council has supreme jurisdiction in the whole Church. From the judgment of the Roman Pontiff, there is no appeal to the General Council.
Furthermore, the “binding force” of the General Council’s teaching is universal and of the first order in authority.
Based upon these citations, it appears evident that in the preparatory years leading up to Vatican Council II it was the reasonable expectation of every Catholic to imagine that it, like all of the Ecumenical Councils of the Church, necessarily intended to teach with binding force, and to do so under the protection of the Holy Ghost such that it would be free from all error.
It is good and proper that one with sensus Catholicus should have harbored such an expectation as the opening of the Council approached, for anything less than this would arguably amount to a violation of the General Council’s very essence.
With all of this said, we know very well (or at least we should) that the Second Vatican Council did not, in fact, meet this expectation as it neither taught with the intent to bind, nor did it teach under the protection of the Holy Ghost unto infallibility.
Prior to, during, and in the aftermath of Vatican II, the popes have seen fit to reiterate the non-definitive nature of the Council; their words presumably so widely familiar by now that there is no need to repeat them here.
No part of the religious teaching is to be understood as dogmatically declared and defined, unless such declaration or definition is clearly known to have been made. (cf Can. 1323 Code of Canon Law, 1917)
This canon served to inform the “Explanatory Note” that is recorded in the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium:
“In view of the conciliar practice and the pastoral purpose of the present Council, this sacred Synod defines matters of faith or morals as binding on the Church only when the Synod itself openly declares so.”
For the record, the Second Vatican Council made such an open declaration precisely zero times.
In spite of all that has been said about the non-binding nature of the Council and its lack of infallibility, the sensus Catholicus resists (and understandably so) the very notion that the text of this, or any, Ecumenical Council could possibly contain error.
So much is this the case that Pope Benedict XVI made the establishment of “continuity” (between the text of Vatican II and the faith of the Church as traditionally taught) the priority of his pontificate. This continuity, in the mind of the pope, simply must exist because the alternative (discontinuity) is utterly incompatible with the very nature of the General Council.
Based on our examination thus far, he seems to have had a point, and yet, even after a seven year reign on the Throne of St. Peter, the continuity that Benedict sought still eludes us.
How can this be?
In the aftermath of the Council, it seems to me, we have wasted far too much time asking all the wrong questions:
Does Vatican II bind all Christians? Did it teach infallibly? Does ‘continuity’ exist?
When the question we need to ask is far more basic:
Does Vatican Council II truly merit, based on its nature and intent, to be designated an “Ecumenical Council” of the Catholic Church?
I would speculate that a day may very well come when a future pope will answer this question by ruling in the negative, citing the Second Vatican Council’s deliberate lack of intent to bind with the mark of infallibility as the disposition that effectively rendered it more properly a glorified, historic, and ultimately embarrassing Synod of Bishops.
Relieving this event of the title “Ecumenical Council” and all of the expectations that come with it will, in truth, change nothing. And yet, in a certain sense, doing so may cause the scales to fall from the eyes of those who currently find themselves at war with their own sensus Catholcus, allowing them to see the deficiencies in the conciliar text for what they truly are and to set things aright at long last.