This is another offering from the larger work from which I earlier excerpted “The Three Levels of Magisterial Teaching.” As I said concerning that entry, this is a work in progress, being a section of a larger study on the various levels of magisterial teaching, the assent due to each, and where Vatican II fits into these categories.
Further explanations are needed here. The larger work focuses on ecumenism, specifically, the contents of Vatican II’s Unitatis Redintegratio (UR). Also, at the end of this piece I have put my complete bibliography, for one reason mainly, viz., some of the footnotes may not be entirely useful without the missing parts of the study. Those trying to figure out a reference may find the bibliography helpful. Please keep in mind that this is an academic paper. Many of the books referenced are not works I would recommend. In fact some of them are rubbish worthy of a good, old-fashioned book burning.
I could add to the collection of quotations on the authority of Vatican II the recent statement of Cardinal Biffi: ““John XXIII yearned for a Council that would achieve the renewal of the Church not through condemnations, but using the ‘medicine of mercy.’ By abstaining from reproving error, the Council would by this very means avoid formulating definite teachings that would be binding for all. And in fact, it held consistently to this initial direction.” (See “Before the Last Conclave: What I Told the Future Pope” by Sandro Magister.)
“…the magisterium ordinarium, is liable to be somewhat indefinite in its pronouncements and, as a consequence, practically ineffective as an organ.”
– P.J. Toner, “Infallibility” in the 1910 Catholic Encyclopedia
Our twofold goal of this chapter is to locate the teaching of UR on the gradation we summarized in Chapter II and, in light of this, to see if its teachings are subject to possible error and therefore to a Traditionalist “critique.” Identifying the proper taxonomy of the new teachings in the Decree on Ecumenism will help us to see if there is a place for “collaborative relations” between Traditionalists and the Holy See, or if the formers’ criticisms amount to “dissent.”
We stated in Chapter II that categorizing magisterial teachings is a real science even though its conclusions are not always certain. At the same time, it is not an easy science. Gaillardetz outlines the difficulty of our first task when he points to the utility of pre-Vatican II theology manuals that used the system of theological notes and censures developed by such theologians as Melchior Cano and Francisco Suarez. While Gallardetz thinks we have gotten beyond that kind of theology (which “presupposed a prepositional view of revelation”), he shows admiration for the usefulness of the older system. He expresses the wish that magisterial texts be accompanied by a qualification of some sort, making it clear to the faithful what status a given document has.
The difficult task is something the theologian is invited to do by DV, which says “one must therefore take into account the proper character of every exercise of the Magisterium, considering the extent to which its authority is engaged.”
While Vatican II did not come with theological notes attached to each decree, much less to each doctrinal formulation, there are certainly indicators we can consider, statements from very qualified sources, including popes, council fathers, and theologians of repute. If these indications do not sanction a definitive judgment in the matter – which, of course, only the magisterium can do – they will at least help us to formulate an intelligent approximation.
We will collect these “indicators” and comment on them briefly. Our passages fall into two categories: texts that speak positively of the actual status of Vatican II’s documents, and texts that admit of the possibility of error in, or reform of, those documents. Not every source cited here is addressing the documents of Vatican II, but where they discuss the character of magisterial texts of a certain kind, we believe that they are applicable to Vatican II in general and UR in particular. The statements will be given in the order of most authoritative to least authoritative in each category.
Positive Statements on the Authority of the Documents
In his October 11, 1963 opening address at the Council, Pope John XXIII set the pace of the Council’s work:
The salient point of this council is not, therefore, a discussion of one article or another of the fundamental doctrine of the Church which has repeatedly been taught by the Fathers and by ancient and modern theologians, and which is presumed to be well known and familiar to all. For this a council was not necessary. But from the renewed, serene and tranquil adherence to all the teaching of the Church in its entirety and preciseness, as it still shines forth in the acts of the Council of Trent and First Vatican Council, the Christian, Catholic and apostolic spirit of the whole world expects a step forward toward a doctrinal penetration and a formation of consciences in faithful and perfect conformity to the authentic doctrine which, however, should be studied and expounded 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. And it is the latter that must be taken into great consideration with patience if necessary, everything being measured in the forms and proportions of a magisterium which is predominantly pastoral in character.
According to the pope that began the council, the intention was to present the Church’s constant teaching to the world afresh, in keeping with modern methods and literary forms. This is what makes the work of this council “pastoral” as distinguished from its more “dogmatic” antecedents. Specifying what this “pastoral… character” of the council was, Pope Paul VI explained that:
In view of the pastoral nature of the Council, it avoided any extraordinary statements of dogmas endowed with the note of infallibility, but it still provided its teaching with the authority of the Ordinary Magisterium which must be accepted with docility according to the mind of the Council concerning the nature and aims of each document.
This testimony of the Pope who promulgated the Council is of far greater importance than that of his predecessor, for Pope Paul had full authority to change the aims of the Council. However, he clearly did not. His witness is especially valuable inasmuch as it provides us with criteria to fix the Council’s teachings at one of the levels of magisterial teaching we covered in Chapter II. In claiming that the Council avoided “definitions of an infallible character,” Pope Paul clearly rules out the topmost category. Further, in stating that its teaching has “the authority of the Ordinary Magisterium which must be accepted with docility according to the mind of the Council…” it would appear that he also rules out the second category, as he conditions the adherence to the nature and aims of the documents themselves and not to their doctrines being quod semper, quod ubique, et quod ab omnibus. In short, the Pope’s statement makes no demand of the faithful other that what we know to be true of the authentic magisterium. We conclude from this statement that, excluding what was previously defined or of universal belief, the teachings of Vatican II belong to the third category, the (merely) ordinary magisterium, or authentic magisterium. True enough, much of what the Council taught was already infallible as part of the ordinary and universal magisterium (its teachings on the Petrine office, the office of bishops and of priests, its profession of the Trinity and Incarnation, etc.). However, what is evidently being discussed here is “its teaching,” i.e., the Council’s original contributions to the ecclesial magisterium, and not what was already binding Church teaching.
During the course of the Council, the Theological Commission published a Declaration dated March 6, 1964. The text was subsequently inserted into an official series of Notificationes appended to LG by Archbishop Pericle Felici, Secretery General to the Council. It therefore represents the authority of the Council itself in the matter:
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. The rest of the things which the sacred Council sets forth, inasmuch as they are the teaching of the Church’s supreme magisterium, ought to be accepted and embraced by each and every one of Christ’s faithful according to the mind of the sacred Council. The mind of the Council becomes known either from the matter treated or from its manner of speaking, in accordance with the norms of theological interpretation.
As with the comments of Paul VI, which seem closely to paraphrase this document, we are told here that the Council will make it obvious where it is binding the Church to some matter of faith or morals. This statement makes a sharp distinction, not between what is “defined” and what is not, but between what is “binding” and what “ought to be accepted and embraced.” This “accepted and embraced” certainly appears to be less authoritative than the “definitively held” of the second category; it would correspond, we opine, to the assensus religious of the third category. Furthermore, those teachings that are “new” in the council are in no way presented as necessarily connected either logically or historically to the deposit of faith. That in itself would rule out the second category as being applicable to the Council’s teachings in UR.
We can go further and say that the very “novelty” of the teaching on ecumenism would rule out its being of the second gradation. We have already read Samuel McRea Cavert’s words about the document’s “fresh orientation.” Here is Fr. Abbott on the “newness” of the decree’s teachings:
Many sentences and sections of Vatican II decrees are remarkable for the fact that they are there at all. It can truly be said that the whole Decree on Ecumenism is remarkable for that fact. …
Dr. Oscar Cullmann, a Protestant observer at the Council, has rightly said of the Decree: “This is more than the opening of a door; new ground has been broken. No Catholic document has ever spoken of non-Catholic Christians in this way.” Among other things, too, there is a remarkable admission of guilt; the Council says the divisions among Christians are the result of sin on both… .
In addition, we can cite John Paul II referring to the “new ecumenical orientation” brought on by his immediate predecessors, and “the rich inheritance of the recent pontificates” which “has struck deep roots in the awareness of the Church in an utterly new way, quite unknown previously, thanks to the Second Vatican Council.”
“Remarkable,” “new ground,” “fresh orientation,” “utterly new,” “quite unknown previously”: These are not synonyms with “necessarily connected to the deposit of faith”; they rather describe what Dr. Grisez will call the “leading edge of developing doctrine.”
Before further citing theologians on the matter, we will give the thoughts of prominent members of the hierarchy. The first is Cardinal Ratzinger, speaking as Cardinal Prefect of the CDF in an address to the Bishops of Chile. The Second is Bishop Rudolph Graber, Bishop of Regensburg Germany, Professor of Theology at the University of Eichstätt, and a Council Father.
The Second Vatican Council has not been treated as a part of the entire living Tradition of the Church, but as an end of Tradition, a new start from zero. The truth is that this particular Council defined no dogma at all, and deliberately chose to remain on a modest level, as a merely pastoral council; and yet many treat it as though it had made itself into a sort of superdogma which takes away the importance of all the rest.
But since the Council was aiming primarily at a pastoral orientation and hence refrained from making dogmatically binding statements or disassociating itself, as previous Church assemblies have done, from errors and false doctrines by means of clear anathemas, many questions took on an opalescent ambivalence which provided a certain amount of justification for those who speak of the spirit of the Council.
To this episcopal testimony of the “modest” level of Vatican II, and its absence of “dogmatically binding statements,” we can add the comments of Bishop B.C. Butler, whom Michael Davies calls “one of England’s most active and most Liberal Council Fathers: “[not] all teachings emanating from a pope or an ecumenical council are infallible. There is no single proposition of Vatican II – except where it is citing previous infallible definitions – which is in itself infallible.”
If it lacks infallibility, it cannot be of the first or second category. Therefore, Vatican II’s new corpus of doctrine must be of the third or fourth category. Paul VI ruled out the fourth when he specified that the Council was of the ordinary magisterium, so that limits us to category three.
From popes and bishops, we come now to theologians. Writing in the September 1972 edition of L’Osservatore Romano, Fr. E. Doronzo, OMI, distinguishes between different kinds of “Extraordinary” teachings. While his taxonomy differs from what we have been using, his main point is apt: Even though a certain teaching forum or vehicle is beyond the ordinary, day-to-day exercise of teaching authority, its contents may or may not be infallible:
The Extraordinary Magisterium consists in a formal, explicit, and solemn declaration of doctrine made only by the supreme authority, expressed by the formula or mode of declaration; this Magisterium can be either infallible or non-infallible. Examples of the former are the definitions of the primacy and infallibility of the Pope by the First Vatican Council, of the Immaculate Conception by Pope Pius IX, and of the Assumption by Pope Pius XII. Examples of the non-infallible Extraordinary Magisterium include the various documents of Vatican II and most of the great papal Encyclicals from Leo XIII to Paul VI.
Finally, we cite Gallairdetz, who highlights a criteriological difficulty in dealing with ecumenical councils:
There are no clearly developed criteria for determining when a valid ecumenical council is in fact teaching with the charism of infallibility. This ambiguity has often resulted in an unjustified attribution of infallibility to all conciliar teaching…. Lumen gentium specifies that this charism of infallibility is involved only when the bishops in council act as “teachers and judges of faith and morals for the whole Church” (LG 25). [Gallairdetz here cites the 1964 declaration of the Council’s Theological Commission we have already quoted.] In the future one might hope that any council wishing to exercise its extraordinary magisterium by means of a solemn judgment would use a formula that would make that intention manifestly evident. This would seem to be demanded by canon 749.3 of the new Code of Canon Law: “No doctrine is understood to be infallibly defined unless it is clearly established as such.”
Statements that Indicate the Reformability of the Documents
To say that Vatican II’s new or unique teachings are not infallible is not the same as saying that they are in error. But if the words mean anything, it is to say that they could be in error. A milder way of putting this is to state that they are subject to reform, revision, and later clarification by the Church. Despite the logic of these propositions, to state baldly that “the texts of Vatican II could have errors in them” is somewhat jolting for many and may be looked at askance as the utterance of a subversive. If a Traditionalist “critique” is permitted, it must be established whether there is something open to criticism in the conciliar texts. Here we present the authority of some council fathers and theologians to acknowledge this possibility.
In a Joint Pastoral of German Bishops dated September of 1967, we read this:
Beyond her guardianship of the inner substance of the faith the Church has, even at risk of going sometimes into error, to formulate teachings which have a certain degree of authority, while yet, since they are not definitions of faith, they are sufficiently provisional to admit a possibility of error.
True enough, the German Bishops do not mention Vatican II, but two years after the Council, these bishops, the majority of whom would have been Council Fathers, tell the faithful that teachings with “a certain degree of authority” (authentic magisterium, perhaps?) can also be “sufficiently provisional to admit a possibility of error.”
Archbishop Thomas Morris, Archbishop of Cashel, Ireland and a Council Father, gave the following personal testimony to an Irish Catholic journalist named Kieron Wood:
I was relieved when we were told that this Council was not aiming at defining or giving final statements on doctrine, because a statement on doctrine has to be very carefully formulated and I would have regarded the Council documents as tentative and liable to be reformed.
Archbishop Morris was a professor of dogmatic theology and only two years a bishop at the beginning of the Council. He found himself quite surprised by the conciliar proceedings, including the control exerted by the liberal fathers and periti, as well as the influence of the media. It is in the context of giving this account of the Council that he expressed relief at its refraining from “defining or giving final statements.”
Now we come to the testimony of theologians. A moral theologian who has distinguished himself as an advocate of traditional moral teachings against the progressives is Dr. Germain Grisez, Professor at Mount St. Mary’s in Emmetsburg, Maryland. Known as a defender of Humanae Vitae in the face of the revolutionary zeitgeist, Dr. Grisez has confronted the dogmatic minimalism of those who would reject the magisterium’s insistence upon traditionally-received doctrines simply on the grounds that they lack an infallible definition. Far from advocating an attitude of “dissent” or “reductionism,” Dr. Grisez does, however, logically distinguish the fallible from the infallible in the ordinary magisterium, admitting that the ordinary magisterium “can be mistaken.” In a July, 1984 article in the Homiletic and Pastoral Review, he explains this in such a way that the utility of non-definitive teachings is not utterly dismissed:
Obviously, teachings which are proposed infallibly leave no room for dissent on the part of faithful Catholics. However, other teachings of the Ordinary Magisterium can be mistaken, even though they may require and demand religious submission of mind and will. Such teachings can deserve acceptance inasmuch as they are the Magisterium’s current best judgment of what God’s word requires of Christians. However, that judgment, on the leading edge of developing doctrine and in truly prudential matters, can be mistaken, and faithful Christians can be led by superior claims of faith itself to withhold their submission to it.
Two things are particularly deserving of note in this passage. Where Dr. Grisez contrasts what is “proposed infallibly” with “other teachings of the Ordinary Magisterium” he is not contrasting the ordinary from the extraordinary magisterium. In using the word “other,” it seems that he is distinguishing two species in the genus “ordinary magisterium”: granting the infallibility of the ordinary and universal magisterium, he allows that the authentic magisterium can err. Since this is precisely the gradation our above-referenced authorities would assign to Vatican II, it is to the point. More important to our study is his reference to “the leading edge of developing doctrine.” By a near universal consensus, those matters which are in dispute in the debate over Vatican II are on the “leading edge.” The earlier references to the unique teachings of Vatican II being “remarkable,” “new ground,” etc., should be recalled here. They would connote that we are dealing with the developmental “leading edge.”
For his part, the more liberal Richard Gaillardetz agrees with Grisez’s assessment when he says, speaking of the pope’s own exercise of his authentic magisterium: “This ordinary exercise of the pope’s supreme teaching authority does not involve the charism of infallibility; the remote possibility of error is not excluded in these instances.” If this is true of the pope’s own authority, a fortiori, it pertains to that of a Council.
Dr. William H. Marshner, Professor of Theology at Christendom College and Theological Editor of Faith and Reason, considers Vatican II’s authority in the Fall, 1983 issue of that journal. The issue was dedicated to Dignitatis humanae and whether it represents continuity or rupture with previous teaching. Marshner concludes that the Declaration on Religious Liberty is consonant with perennial doctrine, but he goes on to acknowledge certain other possibilities:
“At the same time, however, I join with all other theologians in saying that the new ground is non-infallible teaching. So when I say that the possibility exists that Vatican II is wrong on one or more crucial points of Dignitatis humanae, I do not simply mean that the Council’s policy may prove unfruitful. I mean to signal a possibility that the Council’s teaching is false.
But may a Catholic theologian admit that such a possibility exists? Of course he may. The decree (sic) Dignitatis humanae is a non-infallible document, and the teaching which it presents is admitted to be a “new development,” hence not something which is already acknowledged dogma ex magisterio ordinario. Therefore the kind of religious assent which Catholics owe to that teaching is the kind of assent which does not exclude the logical possibility that the teaching is wrong; rather our assent excludes any probability that the teaching is wrong.
Dr. Marshner’s honing in on the “new development” of DH complements the equally lucid comments of Dr. Girsez regarding the “leading edge of developing doctrine.” Marshner shows an appreciation of the respect due to authentic magisterium when he insists on the possibility rather than the probability of its erring. At the same time, he clarifies that the assensus religious does not exclude the logical possibility of a given teaching’s being “wrong” or “false.”
One may be tempted to dismiss these theological opinions as contrary to DV, which stipulates that the reception to teachings of the authentic magisterium “cannot be simply exterior or disciplinary but must be understood within the logic of faith and under the impulse of obedience to the faith.” However, this would be a shallow assessment, for the theologian is allowed, as we have already seen, to “raise questions regarding the timeliness, the form, or even the contents of magisterial interventions” of this nature. Too, the logical rigor of the distinction between fallible and infallible would force us to accept the conclusion of Grisez and Gaillardetz and Marshner as the only one acceptable.
Coordinating these two ideas in DV, which at first blush seem contradictory, we are led to conclude that the “logic of faith” and “obedience to the faith,” can themselves lead a theologian to question magisterial interventions at this level, though he must do so with great caution.
This synthesis agrees with that of Mr. Michael Davies, a Traditionalist apologist, where he cites a pre-Vatican II Benedictine theologian to this same effect:
In a profound study intended to enhance the authority of the Ordinary Magisterium, Dom Paul Nau, O.S.B., cites a number of authors who reckon the duty of Catholics when confronted with a document of the Ordinary Magisterium “to be that of inward assent, not as of faith, but as of prudence, the refusal of which could not escape the mark of temerity, unless the doctrine rejected was an actual novelty or involved a manifest discordance between the pontifical affirmation and the doctrine which had hitherto been taught.”
Dom Paul Nau was no “dissenting theologian,” and did much to advance the authority of the ordinary magisterium, while attempting, in the wake of Vatican I, to counter a certain exaggerated notion of papal infallibility which he saw becoming commonplace in the theological manuals of his day.
The final theologian we will cite regarding the possibility of error in Vatican II is Cardinal Avery Dulles. In discussing the four categories of Church teaching we have employed, he labels Vatican II’s teachings exactly as we have:
The third category has long been familiar to Catholics, especially since the popes began to teach regularly through encyclical letters some two centuries ago. The teaching of Vatican II, which abstained from new doctrinal definitions, falls predominantly into this category. In view of the mission given by Christ to the hierarchical magisterium, it is evident that when the magisterium formally teaches something as Catholic doctrine, it is not uttering a mere opinion that Catholics are free to disregard. The teaching has a real, though not unconditional, claim on the assent of the faithful.
Where Dulles qualifies the claim to assent as “not unconditional,” he is leaving a place for the possibility of error in the third category of teaching. He explicitly states this two pages later, while discussing “dissent”: “The problem of dissent arises more commonly with respect to pronouncements of the third and fourth categories. Since no claim of infallibility is here made, such statements could, in principle, be erroneous.” He develops this further in treating how theologians are to respond to this third category if they have difficulty reconciling the doctrine with what they believe to be true:
Some theologians hold that such obsequium necessarily involves actual assent, whereas others interpret obsequium as meaning a reverent inclination of the will that normally, but not inevitably, leads to intellectual assent. Theologians of both groups agree that a person who reveres the authority of the magisterium may, in a given case, be unable to proffer a sincere interior assent. The CDF instruction, apparently describing what it understands by obsequium religiosum, states that “the willingness to submit loyally to the teaching of the magisterium on matters per se not irreformable must be the rule” (24; cf. 29). The implication seems to be that obsequium, while inclining a person to assent, need not in every case result in actual assent.
Making concrete historical reference to “the problem of dissent,” Dulles points to the ecclesial chaos of the late 60s and 70s, “when Vatican II seemed to modify, and even perhaps to reverse, previous papal teaching on several subjects such as biblical inerrancy, the ecumenical movement, religious freedom, and criteria for membership in the Church.”
In a footnote to this passage, the Jesuit theologian cites the work of J. Robert Dionne, who produced “the most exhaustive investigation of the so-called ‘reversals’ of ordinary papal teaching”:
Dionne maintains that reversals occurred in Catholic doctrine regarding non-Christian religions, religious freedom, the ideal of church-state relations, the identity (or non-identity) between the Mystical Body of Christ and the Catholic Church, and the theology of church membership. On these and other issues, he contends, historical scholarship does not support the “maximalist” position that the ordinary magisterium of the pope is equipped with the charism of infallibility. To deny on principle that ordinary papal teaching can be corrected would be, in effect, to assert that all of it is definitive, and that none of it can pertain to the third and fourth categories in the CDF instruction.
For Dulles and Dionne, the argument goes in the direction of proving that the earlier magisterium was subject to correction – indeed, so radically subject that subsequent teachings could be, or appear to be, a “reversal.” But by strictly applying their logic, the argument can be easily turned around: Since, according to Dulles, the teachings of Vatican II belong to the third category, they, too, can be reversed. To deny this would be to advance a “maximalist” position on conciliar ordinary magisterium and “to assert that all of it is definitive, and that none of it can pertain to the third and fourth categories in the CDF instruction.” Dulles would not likely do this as he thinks that “the teaching of Vatican II … falls predominantly into [the third] category.”
A similar turnaround may be applicable to Cardinal Ratzinger’s statements. In his address presenting DV, the CDF Prefect mentioned “magisterial decisions which cannot be and are not intended to be the last word on the matter as such,” which are “an expression of pastoral prudence, a sort of provisional disposition” whose “core remains valid but the individual details influenced by the circumstances at the time may need further rectification.” As examples of these “non-irreformable teachings,” he cited “the statements of the Popes during the last century on religious freedom” and “the anti-modernistic decisions at the beginning of this century, especially the decisions of the Biblical Commission of that time.” Now both of these are areas of doctrine that were touched upon at Vatican II, a council which was “pastoral” in its aim and which responded to “circumstances at that time.” If, in the Cardinal’s mind, the contents of the Syllabus of Pius IX, Lamentabili Sane, and Pascendi where subject to revision based upon these criteria, it seems reasonable to conclude that the same can be said of Vatican II, which the Cardinal himself said “chose to remain on a modest level, as a merely pastoral council.”
We conclude that the doctrine of Vatican II on ecumenism is of the third category. This implies that, stricte dicta, this new body of teaching is subject to error. But that is not the same as saying that it is in error; nor – to the point of our thesis – is it the same as saying that Traditionalists are free to criticize these teachings. What we will look at in our final chapter is whether criticism of UR is strictly allowed, and, if so, how it can be done properly.
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