Opinion

Catholic prof: Abp Viganò is right in calling for reform, but Church cannot simply repudiate Vatican II

‘All Councils ratified by the Pope become part of the Ordinary Magisterium, and we must take what is good, while clarifying and purifying what is not so’
Fri Jun 26, 2020 - 11:55 am EST
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29th September 1963: Pope Paul VI (Giovanni Battista Montini) opened the second session of the Ecumenical Council, at the Vatican. Archbishops and Cardinals from all parts of the world were present. Keystone/Getty Images

June 26, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) – Is Vatican II – to use an au courant analogy - a virus within the Body of Christ? Archbishop Vigano in his public letter of June 9th, on the memorial of the great poet, mystic and hymnographer, Saint Ephraim, arrived for many as long-delayed Jeremiad, condemning the alleged errors of the ecclesia moderna, the modern Church, even of the Second Vatican Council, or at least its interpretation, and he exhorts us to reflect, repent and reform. We may share his concerns, and be grateful that someone has the courage to point out in no uncertain terms that something must be done about the Augean mess we’re in. We should all act to help purify the Church, but with that purification beginning in each of our own souls. 

Yet, caveat lector – let the reader beware: It is exactly what should be done that is the rub, and it is with this in mind that the letter of Archbishop requires a clarifying response, so that his words might be understood in light of the same truth that prompted him to write in the first place. We don’t want to be precipitous, throwing the baby out with the bathwater, that would make any subsequent errors worse – perhaps far worse and more insidious – than the first. Things are usually not as simple as they may appear – there are mysteries that will last until the end of time. 

Now, it is not implied that the Archbishop holds any of the errors that may be mentioned here – even though he may now have gone so far as to call for a repudiation of the entire Council, which would be tragic – only that the reader should beware that some of what the Archbishop wrote may be propaedeutic to an erroneous view of the Church’s teachings.  

The Archbishop claims that “it is undeniable that from Vatican II onwards a parallel church was built, superimposed over and diametrically opposed to the true Church of Christ.” 

Perhaps, and there is plenty of evidence of such a ‘fifth column’, but we should beware the spectre of a neo-, or even a gnostic-Donatism in an attempt to delineate a ‘pure’ Church within the surrounding morass of an apostate one, superimposed thereon. Donatus, a 4th-century African bishop, against whose errors Saint Augustine did mighty battle, claimed as much, that there were sins that cast one into the outer darkness, and barred one from ever repenting and seeking readmission to the Catholic fold. Furthermore, sacramental grace would only flow through ‘pure’ ministers, and the apostates – adulterers, murderers and those who caved in the face of persecution – were beyond the pale, and could more or less be shunned and ignored. 

His Grace continues: 

for decades we have been led into error, in good faith, by people who, established in authority, have not known how to watch over and guard the flock of Christ: some for the sake of living quietly, some because of having too many commitments, some out of convenience, and finally some in bad faith or even malicious intent. These last ones who have betrayed the Church must be identified, taken aside, invited to amend and, if they do not repent they must be expelled from the sacred enclosure. This is how a true Shepherd acts, who has the well-being of the sheep at heart and who gives his life for them; we have had and still have far too many mercenaries, for whom the consent of the enemies of Christ is more important than fidelity to his Spouse.

The truth of which of the Church’s ministers is in good standing, and by extension who even belongs to the Church, is complex and opaque, yet governed by certain principles and laws. The Church is both an earthly and heavenly reality, historical and transcendent, and we belong, more or less, in both ways: There are the three visible bonds of communion: unity in faith, in ecclesiastical governance and in sacramental worship. Then there are the spiritual bonds of communion, grace and charity. Ultimately, belonging to the Church is the same thing as belonging to the Mystical Body of Christ, but that Church is truly ‘catholic’, universal, in that it is in some sense everywhere, and all in some way either belong or are ordered to the Church. After all, everything true and good is ‘Catholic’, and, this side of eternity, no one is completely outside the Church. 

Union with the Church is, in one sense, a spectrum – we may belong ‘more or less’, for who of us would say that we are united to Christ as much as we might be, either visibly (could not all of us pray more, or immerse ourselves more in the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church?) or, more to the point, spiritually (and woe are we if say we have reached our zenith of charity and grace). 

Yes, there is a Rubicon between being in the state of grace, and not being in this state which, for those old enough to make moral decisions, means being in ‘mortal sin’. Although we have some access to our own interior state, we don’t have access to that of others – being in grace or mortal sin have objective elements, but they are ultimately subjective, determined by the deep decision each of one us makes for truth, for charity and for God, as He speaks to each of us. And even our awareness of our own spiritual condition before God is not infallible. We may achieve some level of moral certainty about ourselves, but we must beware of presumption, answering with Saint Joan of Arc, who replied during her trial whether she was in a state of grace: ‘If I am not, may it please God to put me in it; if I am, may it please God to keep me there’

If there is some uncertainty about ourselves, how much more does this apply to others, and two warnings from the Gospel come to mind. One, where the Apostles ask Christ to send fire from heaven upon the Samaritans (Lk 9:34), who refused to accept them. Christ’s reply was to rebuke His Apostles, a reply which is consistent with Christ’s admonition that the wheat and the tares be allowed to grow together unto harvest time, when God will separate them (Mt 13:24, ff.). For the division between the good and the bad is to some extent external, it is more internal, running through each of our own hearts – even if the state of our souls is expressed to some extent in our actions. At times, the authorities in the Church must act to depose and defrock, but that is not within our own authority. The fact that Christ Himself tolerated Judas, knowing full well the darkness within him, until he hung himself on his own gibbet, so to speak, should be an object lesson.

It is with these distinctions in mind that we should interpret the dogma extra ecclesiam nulla salus – outside the Church there is no salvation. Here again is the Archbishop, quoting from the ancient Athanasian Creed, which cemented Nicene Trinitarian orthodoxy: “Whosoever wishes to be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic faith; For unless a person shall have kept this faith whole and inviolate, without doubt he shall eternally perish.”

We must beware taking an either too liberal or too restrictive interpretation of the doctrine that outside the Church there is no salvation, which is not a statistical event, but a personal one. Universalism, that everyone (eventually, at least) belongs to the Church and all are in the end saved, does not jibe with the warnings of Christ and the traditional teaching of the Church on the reality of hell and the choice of some for that final ‘self-exclusion’ from God and the blessed. Yet we must also not take too restrictive a view, as Father Leonard Feeney (+1978) did, that one must be a baptized, Roman Catholic with all the three visible bonds of unity to be saved. The Church has never taught this, and Father Feeney was condemned for teaching such. This gets us into murky waters here, but we say for now that one must certainly be in a state of grace and charity to enter heaven, and that the Church and her sacraments are the only revealed, as well as the surest, way to be morally certain we are in a state of grace and charity. It is quite a different matter to be moving towards the fullness of truth by what light and grace are given one, and to knowingly and willingly reject salvific truth once we have accepted it as true.

The Archbishop makes a valid point, that there are signs that some, even at the higher level of the hierarchy, have made this tragic choice, but that ultimately is known only to God Himself. And here is the point, which brings us back to Donatism. In condemning this heresy, the Church taught that regardless of the sins, or even the errors, of a bishop or priest – even of the Vicar of Christ – they are still sacramental ministers, until they are censured, deposed or even defrocked by the proper authorities in the Church. Are we to attempt to depose bishops and priests who are deemed ‘apostates’? Who is to make this distinction, and do the deposing? 

And we should clarify that there is no earthly authority, no canonical process, even in the Church, that can judge or remove a validly elected Pope, whose office ceases only by a voluntary resignation, or death. 

Before we turn to the Council itself, what are we to make of the Archbishop’s implicit claim that all – or almost all - of our current woes are a result of its teachings – which has more than a little of post hoc ergo propter hoc? Things were already unraveling well before the Council, and one could also hold that they would have been worse without it. Of course, this too cannot be proved, but there is historical evidence that a Council was needed for the Church to respond to the modern world. 

No Council is perfect, and some more imperfect than others, but all Councils ratified by the Pope become part of the Ordinary Magisterium, and we must take what is good, while clarifying and purifying what is not so. 

Yes, there are omissions, but this is so for all the Church documents, none of which can say everything. The question is whether these omissions were deliberate, and whether there was an attempt at ‘weaponized ambiguity’. Perhaps. But many Councils had post-conciliar wrangling over terms, including the very first, at Nicaea, in 325: One need only skim all the battles fought over the word ‘homoousios’, defining Christ’s relation to the Father. Anyway, to continue to focus on motives and machinations seems to edge close, ironically enough, to the very ‘spirit of the Council’, of which we are all wary. Instead, we should focus on is the text itself, not the mind and motivations of the Council Fathers, before, during or after the Council, which ultimately, in some way, is the work of the Holy Spirit, even if His work is often bent by fallible and sinful human agents. God writes straight with crooked lines.

Pope John XXIII made it clear from the outset that the Council would not be condemnatory, but emphasize rather the positive aspect of the Church’s teachings. After all, Communism and contraception – to take but two of the bete noirs of those opposed to the Council, claiming these should have been anathematized in no uncertain terms – were already condemned in no uncertain terms, respectively, by Pius XI in 1937 (Divini Redemptoris) and 1931 (Casti Connubii). And the Church was in the midst of responding to the invention and use of the ‘Pill’, which required a clarification on what contraception really is. And even Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae (1968) needs John Paul II’s Theology of the Body to fill out its own teachings. Magisterial teaching, two millennia and counting, and must be taken as an integral whole.

We may debate the modus John XXIII set, which is admittedly unlike previous Councils, but we must admit that it does not make much sense to condemn contraceptive sex if we don’t make the case that the non-contraceptive, life-giving kind is far better, even more enjoyable. And that some sort of free business economy, based on the private initiative and energy of individuals, is a more effective and efficient, and more fun, social model, than staid and stale socialism. The Church cannot always condemn what we shouldn’t do – she must also teach what we should do.  

Anon, we could, and probably will, debate this until Christ returns again and wonders what we were doing with our time, but whatever lacunae and privations there may be in the way truths were expressed, there is no explicit heresy in the conciliar decrees,  and much of the language is even highly conservative – from reaffirming priestly celibacy and chastity, religious orders reaffirming their original rules and the spirit of their founders, the requirement that the laity strive for holiness, devotion to Our Lady, and the supreme primacy of the Pope. I will caution that one must read at least some of the original Latin, for, whatever one thinks of the editio typica, the English translations (which is all most have ever read, if they’ve read the conciliar texts at all) are certainly lacking and tendentious in many places – even the footnotes are different. Further, we should also recall that every document at the Council was vetted and passed by almost every bishop in the world by an overwhelming margin, and promulgated with the full authority of the Pope. If we are to re-assess such conciliar decision a half-century on, then what else might be up for grabs? The entire pontificate of Pope John Paul II?

One could write a book about this, and some have, but for now, we will focus on the three aspects from the Council with which the Archbishop takes issue: 

Thus “Ecclesia Christi subsistit in Ecclesia Catholica” does not specify the identity of the two, but the subsistence of one in the other and, for consistency, also in other churches: here is the opening to interconfessional celebrations, ecumenical prayers, and the inevitable end of any need for the Church in the order of salvation, in her unicity, and in her missionary nature. 

First, the teaching that the Church that Christ founded subsists in (subsistit in) the Catholic Church means that the fullness of what it means to be the Church (see the bonds of unity and such) are found in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. The Council does not teach that the Church subsists in other religions, but, rather, that elements of what it means to be the Church – signs, prefigurations and even certain realities - may be found outside of her visible boundaries. Protestants have valid baptism and even marriage; their other ceremonies are an adumbration of the Church’s liturgy; and are not any good works in any path of life – fasting, prayer, almsgiving – already ‘Catholic’, which may impel towards unity and the fullness of truth? 

The analogy may be applied to any person (for the Church is ultimately the ‘Person’ of Christ). There is a bronze bust of Pope Saint John Paul II outside our college. If I were walking with a non-believer and he were to ask me ‘who’s that?’, I would reply ‘Pope John Paul’. Of course, it’s not really Pope John Paul, but it is him, in some sense. The same goes, more so, for his writings, the example and memories he left, his good works that ripple through time and so on. But as far as where Pope John Paul ‘is’ in his fullness – where he ‘subsists’ - well, it would, while he was alive, be where his body is, and he now subsists in heaven, awaiting the return of that body in the resurrection.

So too we find elements of Catholicism everywhere – all that is true, good and beautiful, but the Church – recall her fundamental spiritual reality – is found where the visible bonds are most present, not least in the Eucharist, with the faithful gathered around. The Church is more there – more subsistent – than in my living room, or in the midst of a forest, even if the Church be there in some sense. The point is that the Church is not some strictly enclosed, hermetically sealed ‘thing’ that one can say ‘here it is!’. After all, we may ask, where is the Church not?  

Second, these distinctions apply to the declaration Nostra Aetate, on non-Christian religions, which the Archbishop claims is responsible for current deleterious syncretic trends in the church. But this document, while clarifying our relationship to the Jewish people and their own salvific role, simply expresses the truth that there are truths found in other religions, many of whose members are searching for the truth not yet found, as Saint Paul cried to the Athenians, ‘What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you!’ (Acts 17:23). And, with Saint Paul, those truths form a common ground from upon which to commence dialogue, and evangelization. If we pray ‘with’ them – that is, alongside them, in the same place - we distinguish such from praying ‘as’ they do, with an emphasis upon what we do hold in common.

Finally, there is the Archbishop’s claim that “(i)f the pachamama could be adored in a church, we owe it to Dignitatis Humanae”. Many have made exaggerated claims of this admittedly controversial decree, not found in the text itself, in its discussion of some aspects of religious freedom. This, again, is a complex topic, but the basic teaching of the document is that human beings should be free from coercion by the state in matters that are specifically religious. After all, rights always exist in relation and within concrete circumstances, even if they all ultimately come from and are grounded in, God. What we may have a ‘right’ to do or not do in one context, does not necessarily imply that we have the same right in another context. The document does not teach that people have a right before God to practise a false religion. Its very opening paragraph states that it leaves ‘untouched’ (integram) the ‘moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and the one Church of Christ’. What it does do is reiterate that each one of us must come to the truth, and to the Faith, freely, without external compulsion, especially by the state. Even here, this freedom can only be practised ‘within due limits’, and there is room for the state to intervene in religious matters, as the Church has always taught, to preserve ‘just public order’. One could even apply these principles to maintain the notion of a confessional, Catholic state, which is not expressly proscribed, and which the text implies we still hold as the ideal.

As one who has spent much of his life striving to present the teaching of the Church clearly and precisely, part of me does wish that the conciliar texts were more ‘scholastic’, like, say, those of the Council of Trent. It is ironic, however, that the Vatican Council advocates in the strongest (and clearest) terms the study of Saint Thomas Aquinas, by students, secular and ecclesiastical (one of its many teachings rarely put into effect, more in the breach than in the main). And a scholastic reading of the Council – making clear whatever is ambiguous - would be the one most true to the perennial tradition of the Church. 

And speaking of Thomas, he has a saying that pertains: quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur – ‘everything received is received according to the mode of the receiver’ - and there is much of our own a priori beliefs and thoughts in what we read. Perhaps a good part of our modern world could only ‘receive’ the Church’s teaching in such a ‘mode’, at least initially, in accord with the dictum of Saint Paul that we – the Church – must be all things to all men. And we should also recall the Apostle’s warning that there will always be those with ‘itching ears’ who will read what they want to read, and ignore what they want to ignore, lacking eyes to see and ears to hear, who have misused and distorted the teachings of the Church, regardless of how they might be presented. 

A final, more personal note: I would respectfully suggest that we customarily refer to Pope Francis by the name he has chosen, and not, or at least not consistently, by his last – and previous – name, Bergoglio. Regardless of our thoughts on the current occupant of Peter’s cathedra – and we all have many - we are the Church militant, a phrase not explicitly used, but still implied by the Council, and one we should maintain. And in the military we salute the rank, not the man. Francis is the Pope, and the Pope is Francis, until God clearly decides and/or manifests otherwise.  

All in all, we should be with Archbishop Vigano in his call to spiritual arms and to reform, but we must use those arms and carry out that reform in serenity, charity and truth. At the same time, we don’t want to underestimate the Herculean task before us, possible only with the grace of God. What we must not do is lash out, and in some sort of Hegelian antithetical counter-reaction, go too far the other way, rejecting the good along with the bad. There is no going back to a mythical, utopian, antiquarian, ‘pristine’ time, and what the Church is and has taught must be taken in, and assimilated with her Tradition, as it is expressed according to each age and historical epoch. To return to the viral analogy, the Church has her own auto-immune system, if you will, along with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, through which any apparent deviations, ambiguities or omissions – one cannot help but think of Pope Francis’ statements and even his encyclicals - are eventually corrected and clarified. Or, to use another metaphor from the Fathers, the Church is a ship, the very barque of Peter, and to sail the sea of orthodoxy we must always be plotting as well as correcting our course, a bit more to starboard or port. We are all on a pilgrimage towards that final culmination of all things, and need to keep our wits, and our souls, about us, grounded in the fullness, and the mystery, of the truth.

John Paul Meenan is a Professor of Theology and Natural Science, and a founding member, at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom College in Barry’s Bay, Ontario. He also edits and writes at Catholic Insight


  carlo maria viganò, catholic, hermeneutic of continuity, vatican ii

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