Saturday, December 12, 2009

CDF-SSPX talks spark new interest in import of Vatican II

If anything, one positive result of the talks currently underway between the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Society of Saint Pius X may be a renewed public interest in the historical significance of the Second Vatican Council. Back in November, we noted that George Weigel's account of the talks has been treated already as a peremptory attempt to "speak for Peter" (cf. Rorate Caeli, 11/23/09).

I have just come across a quite substantial point-counterpoint by Christopher A. Ferrara that may be worth a read alongside Weigel's statement. Ferrara is a traditionalist lawyer whose reasoning is usually cool, even when he gets hot under the collar, as here. He writes:
... Weigel hastens to tell us “what’s going on here, and what isn’t.” The discussions the Pope has ordered are “not a negotiation,” Weigel declares with the suave assurance of one who knows, addressing those who do not know. Rather, says Weigel, “the purpose of these conversations is to make clear what the Second Vatican Council taught (especially about the nature of the Church), to listen politely to what the SSPX has to say, and to invite the SSPX back into the full communion of the Catholic Church.”

Make clear what the Second Vatican Council taught? But what needs to be clarified nearly fifty years after the Council ended? What is there to discuss? Why not simply deliver a copy of the conciliar documents in the official Latin to Ecône and demand a blanket assent to every proposition contained therein—an act the Society would readily perform as to any other ecumenical council in the history of the Church? Moreover, what exactly did Vatican II teach about “the nature of the Church” that was not known before Vatican II? Indeed, what did Vatican II teach anywhere in its sixteen documents that would involve an assent to some previously unexpressed doctrine now deemed essential for “full communion” with the people who know?
Ferrara says that Weigel comes closest to clarifying what he means "in his note that the dialogue between the Society and the Vatican cannot involve 'mutual enrichment,' for 'it is not easy to see how the Catholic Church is to be theologically enriched by the ideas of those who, whatever the depth of their traditional liturgical piety, reject the mid-20th century reform of Catholic thought of which Joseph Ratzinger was a leader.'” What the substance of that "mid-20th century reform" is most clearly revealed (then again, maybe not) in a list of questions Weigel poses for the SSPX, which he believes it simply rejects. The Devil is in the details, however, and the difficulty of Weigel's sort of account lies in the fact that the details, which are anything but simple, could yield quite unexpected results. What are Weigel's questions, and what does Ferrara say about them? I do not have space to offer more than the barest highlights:
First: “Does the SSPX accept the teaching of the Second Vatican Council on religious freedom as a fundamental human right that can be known by both reason and revelation?” One can hardly deny that religious freedom is a fundamental right, if by that freedom is meant the right to “worship the Father in spirit and in truth,” as Our Lord said, or, negatively, the right not to be forced to profess the faith against one’s will. All the Popes before Vatican II taught as much. But did Vatican II announce something new in this regard ... as Weigel ... declares?

Second: “Does the SSPX accept that the age of altar-and-throne alliances, confessional states, and legally established Catholicism is over, and that the Catholic Church rejects the use of coercive state power on behalf of its truth claims?” But where did Vatican II teach this curious compound proposition, a mixture of historical opinion and prudential judgment about the exercise of civil authority? Even [Dignitatis Humanae] insists that it “leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.”

Third: “Does the SSPX accept the Council’s teaching on Jews and Judaism as laid down in Vatican II’s “Declaration on Non-Christian Religions” (“Nostra Aetate”), and does the SSPX repudiate all anti-Semitism?” What exactly did the Council teach on Jews and Judaism that the Society is accused of rejecting—even though Archbishop Lefebvre voted for Nostra Aetate! ...

And finally: “Does the SSPX accept the Council’s teaching on the imperative of pursuing Christian unity in truth and the Council’s teaching that elements of truth and sanctity exist in other Christian communities, and indeed in other religious communities?” I doubt the Society rejects “pursuing Christian unity in truth.” I rather think the Society would insist upon it. Which leaves only “the Council’s teaching that elements of truth and sanctity [sic] exist in other Christian communities, and indeed in other religious communities.” Well, the Council’s verbatim teaching (in Lumen Gentium) is as follows:
This Church constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him, although many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure. These elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward catholic unity.
I am quite certain the Society would not deny there are “elements of sanctification and truth” outside the visible structure of the Catholic Church, such as the valid baptisms and marriages performed by non-Catholic ministers and the truths to be found in Protestant versions of the Bible, or that these elements can confer a grace that leads one toward the Church, as many converts have attested. But what is the meaning of this affirmation when it comes to the eternal salvation of non-Catholics? Do they need the Church or not in order to be saved?
Ferrara's chief complaint seems to center on Weigel's purported assumption that whatever Vatican II's means on these teachings, it is not what the Church meant before Vatican II.

A provocative discussion indeed!


Fr Alvin Kimel said...

Hmmm ... it appears to me that Mr. Ferarra is guilty of precisely the same sins of which Ferrara accuses George Weigel. Both believe they have a good understanding of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. Both believe they have a good understanding of the doctrinal teachings of the Catholic Church, both before and subsequent to the Council. Does that make them Catholic illuminati? Of course not. It simply means that they disagree.

Identifying the authoritative teaching of the Catholic Church subsequent to Vatican II is not always an easy matter. Simply look at the theological discussions over the past four decades on the meaning of "subsistit in" in Lumen gentium. What does that phrase really mean? What did the Council Fathers intend? Faithful, knowledgeable Catholics disagree.

On the basis of Ferrara's one article, one might be excused of jumping to the conclusion that Weigel is a theological liberal of some sort; but of course, that is not the case at all. Weigel clearly stands within the magisterial mainstream as articulated by the teachings of Pope John Paul II. If Weigel is wrong, then he is in good company.

Perhaps the present Vatican/SSPX discussions will contribute to the clarification of the authoritative teaching of the Catholic Church; but surely the SSPX cannot insist that its interpretation of this teaching is infallibly correct. I think that is Peter's role.
Fr Alvin Kimel | 12.13.09 - 11:29 am

Chris Garton-Zavesky said...


I propose a simple test, both for Weigel and for Ferrara. I'm guessing that one would pass with flying colors, while the other would fail -- all the while claiming to have passed. The test is this:

Do you accept that the essentials of Christian doctrine can not change?

Do you accept that greater insights over time can lead to clarification of previously implicit ideas, while leaving untouched the deposit of faith?

Can you name any infallible pronouncement of Vatican Council II which is NOT part of tradition?

Can you take, without mental reservation, the Oath against Modernism?

Problem solved.

Now, as to the "discussions", at the very least, they will lead to a sharpening of the understanding of the language of Vatican II. Since greater clarity must be a good thing, the talks can't be a bad thing.
Chris Garton-Zavesky | 12.13.09 - 6:06 pm

Joe said...

In his "Letters to a Young Catholic," Weigel without blinking wrote, "Next time you are in Florence..." Ever since then I have had a harder time taking his voice with the same seriousness, his good efforts notwithstanding.
Joe | 12.16.09 - 1:13 am

Joe said...

Fr. Kimel references "the magisterial mainstream as articulated by the teachings of Pope John Paul II." If that includes the Assisi Prayer gatherings and the accompanying sentiment that pagans are routinely saved via the practice of their own erroneous faith traditions, then I'd argue that John Paul II was not in that instance in the magisterial mainstream whatsoever, all the courtyard mourners and all the pundits on all the platforms in Rome and the blogosphere to the contrary. So the SSPX conversations could not be more needed. When earlier papal pronouncements are abandoned or turned inside out, the concept of development comes precipitously close to that of the Mormon's continuing revelation. The LDS 1978 Revelation on ending the ban on Blacks seems too similar for comfort here. And at the risk of sounding simplistic, identifying the authoritative teaching of the church, and what the fathers intendedm should be an 'easy' matter 40 years after a Council, or what are council definitions good for? The farther we get from them, the more impossible it would be to determine the fathers' original intent. If we don't know now, this close to the event, do we want to pretend we have the foggiest about stuff a millenia or so earlier?
Joe | 12.16.09 - 1:29 am

Ralph Roter-Doister said...

This is a troublesome exchange. Much of it is colored by Ferrara’s animus against Weigel. It is hard for me not to share this animus. Smugness and presumption are ultra-dominant genes of the Neo-Cath beast , and Weigel ‘s writings fairly drip with them. He is a JP2 guy: JP2 is his hero, his inspiration, and, one might point out, his meal ticket of many years. That’s Weigel: oracle-plenipotentiary of Neo-Cath journalists -- just don’t be caught in the seat next to him on a transcontinental flight.

Ferrara is clearly aware of all this, so I don’t understand why he reacts so strongly to it: he ought to just let go, but he doesn’t. He calls Weigel “insufferable” no fewer than six times. His bile threatens to obscure some very interesting points that he attempts to make. I would like to make a few observations on those points, without exactly agreeing with all of them.

(1) On the question of whether the Vatican-SSPX dialogue is “negotiation” or merely “conversation”: elements of both are probably at play. Pope Ratzinger is as crafty as he is wise: he and Fellay will be taking each other’s measure, however they choose to view their dialogue. I imagine Benedict is curious as to how far Fellay might be drawn away from the more strident voices of the SSPX. And I would guess Fellay is curious as to what really animates this former firebrand of the aggiornamento, who has tossed teasing verbal bouquets to traditionalists over the years – to what purpose? Weigel and Ferrara are both decidedly pissy on this relatively unimportant point.

(2) Ferrara does much better when he addresses Weigel’s assertion that ‘the purpose of these conversations is to make clear what the Second Vatican Council taught (especially about the nature of the Church) . . .'” Ferrara asks the question – to paraphrase him – what, after fifty years, still remains to be clarified about the teachings of V2? Indeed, “what did Vatican II teach about ‘the nature of the Church’ [Weigel’s phrase] that was not known before Vatican II ?” And that is exactly the right question. I’m not sure, however, that I agree totally with his answer to it.

(3) Ferrara seems to think that the reason V2’s teachings remain unclear is that the posturing of both progressive and Neo-Cath “lay oracles” have rendered them so. This seems to me a heavy burden to place on journalistic popinjays like Weigel, George Sim Johnson, Andrew Greeley, and the like. You can’t build a fire without a spark, and the spark which seems to have led to the blazingly punchdrunk aggiornamento of the past fifty years is the ambiguity of many key passages of the documents themselves. The same ambiguity testified to by the likes of Congar and Shillebeeckx, as having been placed there deliberately, so as to get the things approved. Max Baucus and Harry Reid have nothing on the V2 fathers.

(4) The lesson of literary interpretation is that, given a sufficiently ambiguous document – my favorite example is Moby Dick – anyone can make anything out of it. A cursory review of Moby Dick scholarship reveals the oftentimes side-splitting results. Ambiguity sires uncertainty, diversity of opinion, dissent and wrangling. That is what we have had in the Church for the past fifty years. In a document such as Moby Dick, ambiguity makes for a diverting parlor game that the past few generations of literary scholars have turned into careers of questionable value but considerable compensation for the energy expended. In council documents, however, ambiguity is deadly.

grega said...

To mix Moby Dick in with Vatican II must be a first. RRD never fails to come up with opinionated, funky and amusing comparisons. Very lovely as most often - must be otherwise a generational thing to always find creative ways to back project the sorrows of the world to Vatican II - time to move on.

Confitebor said...

In his "Letters to a Young Catholic," Weigel without blinking wrote, "Next time you are in Florence..."

Got something against Florence, Joe?