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(LifeSiteNews) — There lies in Rome a story that has not yet been told but that deserves our attention. In 2006, Msgr. Florian Kolfhaus, a member of the Vatican’s diplomatic service, wrote his doctoral dissertation in doctrinal theology on the Second Vatican Council and its magisterial weight. LifeSiteNews has learned that this dissertation was timely and had a positive influence upon the Vatican’s decision to remove the excommunications of the four bishops of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), who were consecrated in 1988, in January of 2009. The reason is that Kolfhaus came to the conclusion that most of the conciliar texts were of a pastoral and not doctrinal nature. Based on this conclusion, the Vatican saw it possible that one could be a Catholic in good standing while at the same time criticizing some of the statements of the Council, since they were not binding on the conscience of a Catholic.

Archbishop Guido Pozzo, the former secretary of the pontifical commission Ecclesia Dei, who was involved in the negotiations with the SSPX, came exactly to that same conclusion. He stated in a 2016 interview that conciliar documents such as Nostra Aetate on interreligious dialogue; the decree Unitatis Redintegratio on ecumenism; and the declaration Dignitatis Humanae on religious liberty are not doctrinal texts and thus may be criticized: “They are not about doctrines or definitive statements, but, rather, about instructions and orienting guides for pastoral practice. One can continue to discuss these pastoral aspects after the canonical approval [of the SSPX], in order to lead us to further clarifications.” Only those texts where the Council explicitly states that it teaches in a binding manner on faith and morals are doctrinal, as the archbishop explained.

These three conciliar documents had been especially examined by Msgr. Kolfhaus in his doctoral dissertation, and it is logical that certain members of the Vatican commission dealing with the SSPX would take advantage of his work. Vatican officials dealing with the question of finding a way to recognize the SSPX as a fully Catholic institute, without asking them to change their position on the Council, found in Kolfhaus’ studies clear proof in various declarations made by members of the drafting committees when presenting their texts to the Council Fathers. For example, they used modern language and presented the exclusively pastoral goal and a positive approach to secular societies and religious non-Catholic communities. Kolfhaus quotes the acts and protocols of the Council, where official statements are made, that no document changes the truth of Divine Faith as always taught and that there was no binding canon commanding certain disciplines on these issues. A Catholic is not obliged to be part of ecumenical activities as he is to participate in the Holy Mass on Sundays. Not accepting what is said in the three conciliar documents (Nostra Aetate, Unitatis Redintegratio, and Dignitatis Humanae) is not a reason to be considered disobedient or even heretical. Therefore, there is nothing to be asked of the SSPX because of the Second Vatican Council.

Before we go into Kolfhaus’ work more in detail, it is important for us to note that Archbishop Pozzo and Msgr. Kolfhaus both had the same advisor for their doctoral dissertations at the Gregorian University in Rome, the now-deceased Cardinal Karl J. Becker, SJ, who himself, together with Pozzo, was directly involved in the negotiations with the SSPX. That is to say, it is obvious that the work of one of his students, Kolfhaus, would have been taken into account by Becker when talking with the SSPX. The same applies to Archbishop Pozzo.[1] Cardinal Becker, who died in 2015, had been a consultor for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith since 1977, and he worked closely with Cardinal Ratzinger with regard to the SSPX. He tried to interpret the teachings of the Council in conservative ways — so, too, for example, with regard to the “subsistit in” discussion — and he encouraged some of his students to do the same.

Let us now return to the work of Msgr. Kolfhaus.

The title of his dissertation is Pastorale Lehrverkündigung — Grundmotiv des Zweiten Vatikanischen Konzils: Untersuchungen zu Unitatis Redintegratio, Dignitatis Humanae und Nostra Aetate[2] (A Pastoral Magisterium — the Basic Intention of the Second Vatican Council: Examination of Unitatis Redintegratio, Dignitatis Humanae, and Nostra Aetate).

As Kolfhaus describes in an essay[3] on this topic, the assembly of the world’s episcopacy explicitly did not wish to issue dogmatic documents: “The special ‘pastoral character’ of Vatican II developed only during the Council and represented a novelty even for the Council Fathers,” Kolfhaus writes, adding that “this new ‘style’ is first evident in the desire to write texts in easily understandable language and to argue biblically. First, one did not want school theology and a little later no magisterial definitions.”[4]

As can be said, when one speaks “biblically,” one is in need of authoritative guidance as to how that “biblical” language needs to be applied or interpreted. Otherwise, we would not have so many different Protestant denominations that, based on the principle sola scriptura, come to very different conclusions as to what teachings are to be held.

Kolfhaus continues: “It cannot be denied that various documents of Vatican II did not formulate doctrines of faith, nor canonical provisions, but practical guidelines for the life of the Church. To this end, one must ask what it means when a council does so, that is, when it does not teach (in the strict sense) or does not make decisions with a view to establishing truth.”[5]

Here, Msgr. Kolfhaus actually lays a finger into the wound of the Council; that is to say, he points out its weakness — namely, its ambiguity and openness to misinterpretations. This sense of confusion is increased by the fact that the Second Vatican Council issued three different kinds of documents — decrees, constitutions, and declarations — unlike previous councils that issued merely one of these kinds. The Council of Trent, as Kolfhaus points out, merely issued decrees.

Kolfhaus also quotes Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as an authoritative voice. Ratzinger, in a speech to the bishops of Chile, said on July 13, 1988, that “the Council itself did not define a dogma and consciously wanted to express itself in a lower rank as a pure pastoral council.” However, this very “pastoral council” — according to Ratzinger — is interpreted “as if it were almost the superdogma that takes away the meaning of all the others.”

As Kolfhaus discovered, this important speech has not been included in Ratzinger’s Opera Omnia with regard to the Council,[6] and he recommends that readers “rediscover” this text from the former head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

In line with what Ratzinger said in 1988, Kolfhaus states:

Indeed, the Council itself, in the announcement of its Secretary General at the 123rd General Congregation of November 16, 1964, stated that the definition (“tenenda definit”) of revealed doctrine (“de rebus fidei et morum”) is only present when it is expressly stated. This was never done in the Council texts. Thus the Council did not want to proclaim any new dogma or any infallible doctrines, unless in the recourse to the preceding Magisterium of the Church.[7]

Further explaining his position, the author expounds that one does injustice to a Council that intentionally wanted to speak to the people of its time addressing problems of the time, while treating it as if it had meant to teach infallible doctrines that are applicable at all times.

However, Msgr. Kolfhaus does show that the Council at times did speak authoritatively, without stating it explicitly: “The Council, as shown, did not want to define dogmatically, but at times very well made statements about the res fidei et morum (e.g., sacramental character of the consecration of bishops).” He adds that there are to be found in the conciliar texts teaching elements — not for their own sake but for the sake of explaining some pastoral guidance or statements.

It is this unique character that Kolfhaus tries to assess when he continues:

To indicate the basis of a particular practice is a pastoral teaching — not a dogmatic one intended to settle doctrinal disputes. In the past, “teaching” has always been understood as “teaching to decide a doctrinal dispute.” For Vatican II, this is not true in many of its texts — namely, the decrees and declarations. Here a new form of “doctrinal proclamation” is being used that theology has not yet conceptualized.[8]

Msgr. Kolfhaus quotes, as an example, the declaration on religious dialogue (Nostra Aetate), about which the speaker of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity stated on November 18, 1964: “As far as the goal of the declaration is concerned, the Secretariat does not intend to make a dogmatic declaration about non-Christian religions, but rather to present practical and pastoral norms.” When it comes to the decree on ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio), Kolfhaus explains that “the Council Fathers, therefore, did not want to proclaim a definition of ecumenical dialogue, because they were aware that this pastoral practice can and, if it is to be successful, must take very different forms.”[9]

With regard to the third council document especially discussed by Kolfhaus in his dissertation — the declaration on religious liberty (Dignitatis Humanae) — the author reminds his readers that this document “does not want to answer these [doctrinal] questions, but leaves them, as De Smedt explicitly states on September 21, 1965, ‘to the ordinary Magisterium of the Church.’”

As becomes clear from the quotes presented by Kolfhaus from the special relator of the Council, Bishop Emile-Joseph De Smedt, many Council Fathers did not intend in any way to change the Church’s teachings. In this context, he himself proposes to develop a new term to describe such a peculiar kind of Church teaching, that is to say, to call it munus praedicandi, a teaching activity of the Church that had pastoral aims as distinct from a munus determinandi that aims at settling doctrinal disputes and presenting binding truths.

Msgr. Kolfhaus does not omit pointing out, however, that a pastoral practice can also become a danger to the doctrine of the faith, and even undermine it. He states that “with ‘a new pastoral reality’ a ‘new’ doctrine will also develop. This is exactly what we experience today in many parishes and ecclesial communities.”[10]

Next to the danger of the pastoral practice effectively turning against doctrine, Kolfhaus also expounds on the fact that, since the Council in its essence dwelt on pastoral aspects of the Church’s life, parts of it also by now have become obsolete, because they no longer seem adaptable to our time.

He writes:

In my opinion, it is fair to say with [Heinrich] Pesch, even if he formulates it provocatively and exaggeratedly, that some statements of the Council are “provisional, outdated.” Practical answers to pressing problems of the time can, indeed must, always be provisional, in order to do justice to the changing religious, social, and cultural situation.”[11]

What can also be said about Msgr. Kolfhaus’ observations is that he urges the experts to return to study the Council discussions themselves and the statements of those bishops who took part in this event. It is astonishing to read some of the quotes he presents. For example, the Council Fathers insisted upon the dogma extra ecclesiam nulla salus: Bishop De Smedt, one of the relators of the Council, explained that the declaration on religious liberty in no way undermines the need for every human being to seek and find the Catholic Church as the ark of salvation.

Kolfhaus quotes De Smedt as saying:

It is certain that in the moral order all people, all societies, and every civil authority are objectively and subjectively obliged to seek the truth and are not allowed to defend what is false. There exists the moral obligation of all people toward the Church to recognize her teachings and precepts. No human authority possesses an objective moral freedom of choice in recognizing or rejecting the Gospel and the true Church.[12]

These words are to be found in the acts of the Council. Kolfhaus urges us to read and study the original statements, in order to determine the mens synodalis, that it to say, the mind of the majority of the Council Fathers who themselves were intending to remain loyal to the Magisterium.

The author also helps us to understand another important aspect of the Council. As he shows, the intent was merely to speak in pastoral and not in doctrinal terms developed during the Council. While the preparatory schemata had been written with the traditional intent of a Council — that is, to teach doctrine — the conciliar discussions more and more turned the Council into a pastoral event aimed at helping modern man to respond to the challenges of the time.[13]

The Council Fathers, most of whom had come to the Council with orthodox intentions, might have then relaxed when seeing that the debate was to be merely on the pastoral level, without even getting close to the responsibility of teaching hard doctrines. That is to say, the change of tone at the Council might have let many Council Fathers to be less attentive to doctrine and to possible doctrinal aberrations since they thought they merely spoke in pastoral terms. (A historical overview about the actions of the more progressivist camp during the Council can be read here.)

As can be seen in these calm and well-founded words and lucid lines of arguments, Msgr. Kolfhaus made a great contribution to the discussions in the Catholic Church and her discernments about the nature of the Council and its effects. Not only was he able to support orthodox men within the Roman Curia who worked for a reconciliation with the SSPX and a more relaxed assessment of the doctrinal weight of the Council, but also he can now help a larger Catholic audience to discern the character of this Council and its aftermath.


1 It is interesting to note that Cardinal Becker also had one of his students, Alexandra von Teuffenbach, study the discussion of the “Subsistit in” (that is, that the Church of Christ subsides in the Catholic Church), showing that the inventor of this term, Fr. Sebastian Tromp, SJ, had orthodox intentions with it, actually trying to strengthen the concept that the Catholic Church is the Church of Christ. Alexandra von Teuffenbach, Die Bedeutung des subsistit in (LG8). Zum Selbstverständnis der katholischen Kirche (Munich: Herbert Utz Verlag, 2002). A discussion in the English language can be read here: Karim Schelkens, “Lumen Gentium’s ‘Subsistit in’ revisited: the Catholic Church and Christian Unity after Vatican II,” Theological Studies 69 (2008): 875–893, Though the author does not agree with von Teuffenbach’s — and Cardinal Becker’s — more conservative interpretation of this debate.
2 Lit Verlag, 2011. This dissertation is now available, but it is telling that the Gregorian University did not itself even publish or promote it. As Monsignor Kolfhaus relates in a talk in 2010 in Rome (, he encountered difficulties with his doctoral thesis at the Gregorian University, which at some point tried to dismiss it altogether. But then, in light of Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy and his promotion of the concept of the “hermeneutic of continuity,” they could not anymore dismiss his work. There are several presentations to be found on YouTube, in Italian, which Monsignor Kolfhaus delivered at conferences of the Franciscans of the Immaculate under the guidance of Fr. Serafino M. Lanzetta. It is also noteworthy that Bishop Athanasius Schneider can be seen among the listeners to Kolfhaus’ 2010 talk in Rome.
3 Monsignor Florian Kolfhaus, “Reform in Kontinuität [“Reform in Continuity”], Anmerkungen zum Konzilsjubiläum,” Neue Ordnung, 2013, 4–12. I quote from this essay because it is an excellent condensation of Kolfhaus’ research for his doctoral dissertation.
4 Ibid, 4–5.
5 Ibid, 6.
6 Joseph Ratzinger, Zur Lehre des Zweiten Vatikanischen Konzils. Formulierung — Vermittlung — Deutung in Joseph Ratzinger, Gesammelte Schriften (Freiburg: Herder), Band 7/1 and 7/2.
7 Kolfhaus, “Reform in Kontinuität,” 6.
8 Kolfhaus, 7.
9, 12 Ibid., 8.
10 Ibid., 10.
11 Ibid.
13 Ibid., 9. We leave out here the discussion of the fact that there had been preliminary secret negotiations with some Jewish and Communist delegates, after which it was decided not to deal with questions regarding the political and cultural actions of the Jewish or Communist people. This topic is discussed in Robert Hickson’s essay “Hilaire Belloc’s ‘The Barbarians’ (1912) and the Analogy of a Self-Sabotaging Cultural Immune System.”
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Dr. Maike Hickson was born and raised in Germany. She holds a PhD from the University of Hannover, Germany, after having written in Switzerland her doctoral dissertation on the history of Swiss intellectuals before and during World War II. She now lives in the U.S. and is married to Dr. Robert Hickson, and they have been blessed with two beautiful children. She is a happy housewife who likes to write articles when time permits.

Dr. Hickson published in 2014 a Festschrift, a collection of some thirty essays written by thoughtful authors in honor of her husband upon his 70th birthday, which is entitled A Catholic Witness in Our Time.

Hickson has closely followed the papacy of Pope Francis and the developments in the Catholic Church in Germany, and she has been writing articles on religion and politics for U.S. and European publications and websites such as LifeSiteNews, OnePeterFive, The Wanderer, Rorate Caeli,, Catholic Family News, Christian Order, Notizie Pro-Vita, Corrispondenza Romana,, Der Dreizehnte,  Zeit-Fragen, and Westfalen-Blatt.