The Status of the Documents

The first point to make in discussing the status of the officially promulgated documents of Vatican II is that a distinction must be made between the documents themselves and the background to their promulgation. The Second Vatican Council was convoked regularly and was at all times recognized by the reigning Pontiff. Its documents were passed by a majority of the Council Fathers and were validly promulgated by the Pope. As such they represent official Church teaching no matter how much we may deplore the manner in which their sometimes unsatisfactory final format was arrived at. But not all official teaching has the same status - it is not necessary to be a theologian to appreciate that there is a great difference between an infallible dogmatic definition of Trent, accompanied by an anathema upon those who refuse to accept it, and the admonition of the Fathers of Vatican II that we should patronize cinemas "managed by upright Catholics and others." [Abbott, p. 327] The banality of the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) has been referred to several times in this book. "Some of it," commented Dr. Moorman, head of the Anglican delegation to the Council, "is to the experienced reader a bit pedestrian and banal. It hardly needed an assembly of 2,300 prelates from all over the world to tell us that 'the industrial type of society is gradually being spread,' or that 'new and more efficient media of social communication are contributing to the knowledge of events'; and most people are already aware of the fact that 'growing numbers of people are abandoning religion in practice.' " [Vatican Observed, J. Moorman, London, 1967, p. 171]

In actual fact, the Council did not intend any of its teaching to be infallible. In an explanatory note attached to the Constitution on the Church, the Theological Commission expressed itself as follows:

In view of conciliar practice and the pastoral purpose of the present Council, this sacred Synod defines matters of faith and morals as binding on the Church only when the Synod itself openly declares so.

Other matters which the sacred Synod proposes as the doctrine of the supreme teaching authority of the Church, each and every member of the faithful is obliged to accept and embrace according to the mind of the sacred Synod itself, which becomes known either from the subject matter or from the language employed, according to the norms of theological interpretation. [Abbott, p. 98]
Bishop B. C. Butler, certainly England's most progressive Council Father, has explained that 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." [The Tablet, November 25, 1967, p. 1220] This alone makes Vatican II, as Mgr. Lefebvre has pointed out, unlike its predecessors. [Un Eveque Parle, Mgr. M. Lefebvre, Paris, 1974, p. l96.
An English version of Mgr. Lefebvre's book is available.] Cardinal Manning points out that: General Councils had always been "convened to extinguish the chief heresy, or to correct the chief evil of the time." [Petri Privilegium, Three Pastoral Letters to the Clergy of the Diocese III, Cardinal H. Manning, London, 1871, p. 35] Bishop Butler makes the same point:

Such councils normally define doctrines and promulgate laws. The first of them all, the first Council of Nicea, did both these things. It defined that the Son of God is of one substance with His Father, and it issued practical instructions which are today regarded as the first elements of Canon Law ... Vatican II gave us no new dogmatic definitions, and on the whole it preferred to leave legislation to other organs of the Church. [The Tablet, March 2, 1968, p. 199]

Vatican II was not simply different, it was, to quote Cardinal Heenan, "unique" because: "It deliberately limited its own objectives. There were to be no specific definitions. Its I purpose from the first was pastoral renewal within the Church and a fresh approach to those outside." [Council and Clergy, Cardinal J. Heenan, London, 1966, p. 7] Pope Paul VI himself stated during the course of his weekly General Audience on 6 August 1975 that: "differing from other Councils, this one was not directly dogmatic but doctrinal and pastoral." However, in what purported to be a handwritten letter from the Pope delivered to Mgr. Lefebvre on 10 September 1975, he claimed that in certain respects Vatican II is of greater status than the Council of Nicea. [Approaches, February 1976, Econe Supplement, p. 9] The only appropriate comment on this astonishing statement is that, if genuine, the Pope was clearly giving his personal view as a "private doctor" and not speaking as the head of the Church.

The "pastoral" nature of Vatican II had become clear even before the Council began. In July 1959, Cardinal Tardini explained: "From what we can foresee today, it is more than probable that the Council will have a character that is practical, rather than dogmatic; pastoral, rather than ideological; and that it will provide norms, rather than definitions."
[The Rhine Flows into the Tiber, R. Wiltgen, New York, 1967, p. 20] This was precisely what happened. It was the theme of Pope John's opening speech - a fact stressed by Pope Paul when he invoked his predecessor during his own opening address to the Second Session. He reminded the assembled Fathers of Pope John's desire that "the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously" and then continued: "But to the principal aim of the Council you added another which is more urgent and at this time more salutary - the pastoral aim - when you declared: 'Nor is the primary purpose of our work to discuss one article or another of the fundamental doctrine of the Church,' but rather, 'to consider how to expound Church teaching in a manner demanded by the times.' " [The Second Session, X. Rynne, London, 1964, p. 350] If any times demanded clear teaching our own certainly did - but this is just what the Council did not always provide. When precise definitions of ambiguous phrases were asked for the reply which invariably came from the Chairmen and secretaries of Commissions was, according to Mgr. Lefebvre, "But this is not a dogmatic Council; we are not making philosophical definitions. We are a pastoral Council, addressing the entire world."
[Un Eveque Parle, Mgr. M. Lefebvre, Paris, 1974, p. l56]

An orthodox Catholic cannot, of course, refuse to accept officially promulgated conciliar teaching simply because the documents containing it do not possess infallible status. This would be to follow the example of those who rejected Humanae Vitae on the grounds that it was not an infallible statement. Infallible or not, Humanae Vitae represents the official teaching of the Church, as do the conciliar documents. However, as was stated at the beginning of this chapter, not all official documents have the same status. The degree of assent we are bound to give to papal or conciliar pronouncements is governed by a number of factors. What is the subject of the pronouncement? Matters of faith and morals obviously take precedence - Humanae Vitae comes into this category. Does the pronouncement contain some new teaching or is it a restatement of previous authoritative papal or conciliar teaching? Humanae Vitae clearly comes into the latter category. While on this topic, it is worth noting that a document which is not in itself infallible can contain infallible teaching. The fine exposition of papal authority in the Vatican II Constitution on the Church is infallible (even though the Constitution itself does not possess infallible status) because its teaching on this particular point is a restatement of teaching already proclaimed as infallible by Vatican I. In a similar manner, as regards the intrinsic sinfulness of contraception, the key doctrine of Humanae Vitae, this is also infallible in virtue of the ordinary teaching Magisterium of the Church for:

Although individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they can nevertheless proclaim Christ's doctrine infallibly. This is so, even when they are dispersed around the world, providing that while maintaining the bond of unity among themselves and with Peter's successor, and while teaching authentically on a matter of faith or morals, they concur in a single viewpoint as the one which must be held conclusively. [Abbott, p. 48]

There can be no doubt that the intrinsic sinfulness of contraception is a doctrine concerning morals which has been taught by all the bishops in communion with the Pope. This is a fact which cannot be changed even though there are no many bishops who dissent from the teaching themselves.

Another factor which is important in assessing the documents of Vatican II, which can also be illustrated by reference to Humanae Vitae, is that a distinction can be made between specific and binding doctrinal or moral teaching which a document contains and the arguments adduced in its favor. While Catholics are bound to accept that contraception is intrinsically sinful they are not bound to accept that the arguments which Pope Paul puts forward to prove this are the best available, or even that they are convincing. Similarly, the major part of the documents of Vatican II consists not of specific doctrinal or moral teaching but of vague generalizations, observations, exhortations, and speculation on the likely outcome of a recommended course of action. As Cardinal Tardini prophesied, it provided norms rather than definitions and norms do not come within the scope of doctrine. Where doctrinal and moral teaching is contained in the documents we are bound, as the note of the theological commission states, "to accept it and embrace it according to the mind of the Synod itself ..." In most cases this presents no problem as the doctrinal and moral teaching is, as Bishop Graber wrote, usually stated orthodoxly and even classically. [Athanasius and the Church of our Times, Mgr. R. Graber, London, 1974, p. 66] Where the teaching is unsatisfactory it is more often through what is not said than what is actually contained in the text; for example, there is no explicit condemnation of contraception.

While we have an obligation to accept the doctrinal and moral teaching which the documents contain we have no such obligation to accept that this teaching is phrased in the best possible manner or that it necessarily represents the last word on the subject. The late Fr. Gustave Weigel, S.J., remarked with regard to a document that did not meet with his approval that while it is the "official and authentic doctrine of the Church" it will not become the "irreformable and once-for-all-times doctrine of the Church."
[Abbott, p. 334] The Decree on Ecumenism states that: "Therefore, if the influence of events or of the times has led to deficiencies in conduct, in Church discipline, or even in the formulation of doctrine (which must be carefully distinguished from the deposit itself of faith), these should be appropriately rectified at the appropriate moment." [Ibid., p. 350] This, of course, is one of the most obvious of the "time-bombs" referred to by Mgr. Lefebvre and has been used by progressive Catholics as an excuse for changing the deposit of faith itself, under the guise of changing its formulation, especially in the fields of ecumenism and catechetics. The statement itself echoes a similar one made by Pope John in his opening speech and it is impossible not to note that the most obvious place to find deficient definitions of doctrine is in the documents of Vatican II! In discussing the status of these documents it is as well to point out that they do not all possess the same authority - a Dogmatic Constitution is more weighty than a Declaration, for example. But, as Dr. McAfee Brown makes clear, no one seems quite sure as to the exact status conferred upon any particular document by its title.

In those early days of the Council there was much discussion about the relative degree of binding authority between, say, a 'constitution' and a 'decree.' It seemed fairly clear that a 'constitution' was of higher authority, and it would be a wise rule of interpretation to say that the 'constitution' On the Church, for example, was the context in which to understand the 'decree' On Ecumenism, rather than vice versa. As it actually worked out, however, there seemed little reason by the end of the Council why, The Church in the World Today should be a 'constitution' (albeit a
'pastoral constitution') while the document on Missionary Activity should be a 'decree' or the statement on Religious Freedom a 'declaration.' "

For those who can read and understand, this very perceptive comment is an admirable evocation of the ethos of Vatican II.

What is quite certain is that no one, whatever his rank, can compel us to accept an interpretation of moral or doctrinal teaching in a conciliar document which conflicts with the previous teaching of the Church. There can be a development of doctrine, but, as Newman pointed out, where a new formulation is not faithful to the idea from which it started it is an unfaithful development "more properly called a corruption." [The Development of Christian Doctrine, J.H. Newman, London, 1878, Ch. 1, Sec. 2, n. 1] Quoting Bellarmine, Cardinal Newman also reminds us that: "All Catholics and heretics agree in two things: first that it is possible for a Pope, even as Pope, and with his own assembly of councilors, or with a General Council, to err in particular controversies of fact, which chiefly depend on human information and testimony ..." [Ibid., Ch. 2, Sec. 2, n. 20]

In a case where a conciliar statement is used to justify a breach with authentic Catholic doctrine or tradition then such an interpretation must be refused even if the document itself seems to favor such an interpretation. As has been pointed out, one weakness of these documents is that they do not always say all that they ought to say and leave the way open for a modernistic interpretation. Such an interpretation must always be refuted by reference to a previous councilor authoritative papal statement. In his opening speech Pope John insisted on the adherence of the Second Vatican Council to the teaching of the Church in its serenity and precision, as it still shines forth in the Acts of Trent and Vatican I, which makes it clear that every Catholic has not simply the right but the duty to refute any interpretation which conflicts with the teaching of these councils. Archbishop Lefebvre advises us to take our stand on the pre-Vatican II position, without fear of appearing to disobey the Church by holding to a tradition which is two thousand years old.

What is the criterion to judge whether the ordinary Magisterium is infallible or not? It is fidelity to the whole of tradition.
In the event of its not conforming to tradition we are not even bound to submit to the decrees of the Holy Father himself. The same applies to the Council. When it adheres to tradition it must be obeyed since it represents the ordinary Magisterium. But in the event of its introducing measures which are not in accord with tradition there is a far greater freedom of choice, we should therefore have no fear of assessing facts today he cause we cannot allow ourselves to be swept along on the wave of Modernism which would put our faith at risk and turn us unwittingly into Protestants.
[Un Eveque Parle, Mgr. M. Lefebvre, Paris, 1974, p. l70]

Once again, Mgr. Lefebvre's words are echoed from the opposite end of the theological spectrum. Bishop Butler writes:

It remains true that, as conscience may in a particular case oblige us to disobey our bishop, so it may be our duty in particular circumstances to dissent from our bishop's teaching. ... There has even been a Pope, Honorius, proclaimed as a heretic by an Ecumenical Council.

However, it will be found that more often than not the abuses committed in the name of Vatican II have no specific justification in an official document. There is not one word in the Liturgy Constitution to indicate that by 1973 it would be possible, in some countries, for standing communicants to receive the host in their hands from a girl in a mini skirt - not as an aberration but in accordance with regulations laid down by the Vatican. But the Council cannot be exonerated from responsibility for such abuses (and the fact that they have the approval of the Vatican does not in any way affect the fact that they are abuses) as both the atmosphere it generated and the documents it promulgated set in motion the process which has inevitably involved the Church in a process of self-destruction.

In many respects, the documents were a dead letter from the day they were promulgated and there is no longer a great deal to gain from insisting that they mean one thing rather than another. What is needed is a clear restatement of authentic doctrine, and a reinstatement of traditional practices (particularly the Mass of St. Pius V), which could bring an end to the present chaos even if it meant the departure of large numbers of those whose adherence to the Church is no more than nominal.

The bishops themselves have given the lead in the manner in which they expect the norms laid down by the Council to be followed - those which suit them they implement and those which do not they ignore. They were, for example, ordered by the Council to ensure that the faithful can say and sing in Latin those parts of the Mass which belong to them and to make Gregorian Chant the norm for sung Mass. There is not a single western country in which this order has not been blatantly disobeyed.

What, then, must our attitude be to the documents of Vatican II? It must, above all, be a Catholic attitude and as such must exclude such simplistic responses as a "rejection" or "refusal" of the Council - whatever such terms may mean. Do those who use them mean that the Council was not convoked regularly, that its documents were not passed by the necessary majority, that they were not validly promulgated by the Pope, that they contain formal heresy? I have yet to see one word of solid evidence produced to substantiate such allegations
. It has been a characteristic of Protestant sects to decide which General Councils they will or will not accent and it is a cause for very deep regret to find some Catholics who claim to be traditionalists adopting a similar position.

The liturgical reform which has followed the Council is one which traditionalists rightly resist, and the Constitution on the Liturgy is one of the least satisfactory conciliar documents, a fact which will be made clear in Chapter XVI.
But to talk of rejecting this Constitution - such an expression is really quite meaningless within the context of Catholic orthodoxy. The Constitution is an authentic act of the Church's Magisterium and was voted for by the Council Fathers almost unanimously - although few of them understood the interpretations which would be made of some of its vaguely worded phrases. The Constitution contains much sound doctrine, some important doctrinal points which could have received much clearer emphasis (why was the word 'transubstantiation' not used?), and some guidelines for reform which, in certain respects, have proved a blueprint for revolution. What traditionalists can and must reject is any interpretation of these ambiguous guidelines which conflicts with the traditional faith, even where such an interpretation seems to follow from the logic of the Constitution. We must make it clear that we will not allow any interpretation of the Council to be used to browbeat us into changing a single article of our traditional Catholic faith and that, far from regarding it as some sort of super-Council, we regard it as the least of all the Councils and that when seeking clear and definite guidance we will look back to its predecessors. On the other hand, where we can refer to the documents of Vatican II in order to defend the authentic faith, or refute abuses committed in the name of the Council, We would be foolish not to do so. "It is still too soon to pass a final judgment on the Council," writes Bishop Graber. "But the fateful thing about it is that such great events as these affect various levels, indeed take place on various levels. Certainly the texts were formulated orthodoxly, in places nothing short of classically, and it will be our task for a long time to come to arm ourselves with the words of the Council to fight against its being undermined, above all to combat the famous 'spirit' of the Council. But since the Council was aiming primarily at a pastoral orientation and hence refrained from making dogmatically bindings statements or dissociating itself, as previous Church assemblies had 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. Furthermore, as we have already seen, a series of concepts came to the fore - e.g. fellowship between clerics, ecumenism, religious freedom - which it was no doubt possible to justify but which, to varying degrees, also had a boomerang effect." [Athanasius and the Church of our Times, Mgr. R. Graber, London 1974, p. 66] The quotation from the Decree on Ecumenism, cited earlier in this chapter, is a typical example of a conciliar text with a boomerang effect. It is no doubt possible, as Bishop Graber writes, "to justify" its contention that there can be deficient formulations of doctrine which should be rectified - but the boomerang effect is that this text is being used to justify giving an unsatisfactory and unorthodox formulation to doctrines which had previously been formulated in a perfectly orthodox and perfectly satisfactory manner. "Therefore this Council is not a Council like the others," writes Mgr. Lefebvre, "and this is why we have no right to say that the crisis we are undergoing has nothing to do with the Council, that it is simply a bad interpretation of the Council." 
[Un Eveque Parle, Mgr. M. Lefebvre, Paris, 1974, p. l96] We should, then, accept the conciliar documents as official, though not always well formulated, Church teaching which must be studied with prudence and reserve and measured against, and interpreted in accordance with, the traditional teaching of the Church - particularly the Councils of Trent and Vatican I. Pope John himself provided us with a mandate for this in his opening speech when he insisted that his own Council concurs "with 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 the First Vatican Council." [Abbott, p. 715] To repeat a comment made by Cardinal Heenan, cited earlier in this book: "I often wonder what Pope John would have thought had he been able to foresee that his council would provide an excuse for rejecting so much of the Catholic doctrine which he so whole-heartedly accepted." [The Tablet, May 18, 1968, p. 489]

To sum up, in contrast with previous General Councils no document of Vatican II carries the authority of the Church's extraordinary Magisterium. This was stated specifically by Pope Paul VI during his General Audience of 12 January 1966:

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.

The comment by Dr. McAfee Brown on p. 212 makes clear just how difficult it is to discover the relative nature, status, and authority of the different documents. Dom Paul Nau, G.S.B., has written a study entitled The Ordinary Magistenum of the Church Theologically Considered. * In it he cites a theological opinion which maintains that when confronted with a document of the ordinary Magisterium the duty of a Catholic is "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."

It is precisely because he maintains that certain statements in the Declaration on Religious Liberty constitute novelties which cannot be reconciled with a consistently reiterated corpus of papal teaching that Mgr. Lefebvre refused to sign the document. In a very shallow and inaccurate attack upon the Archbishop, Fr. Yves Congar conceded that some of these statements do constitute "almost the opposite" of previous teaching. He condemns the Archbishop because his views made it appear that "it was Pius X or Pius XI who was speaking. ** Support for Mgr. Lefebvre's critique of the Declaration is increasing steadily.

* Published in English as an Approaches supplement, is now unobtainable.
** Challenge to the Church (London, 1977), pp. 44 & 46.


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