We've all heard the commonplace canard that the collapse of the faith that occurred in the wake of Vatican II was the result of a poor implementation of an otherwise unimpeachable, infallible ecumenical council. The documents, we are constantly assured, are crystal clear and in no manner deficient.
Likewise, we've all heard (unless we've forgotten or repressed the news) individuals protesting ambiguities in Vatican II documents. Michael Davies famously referred to "time bombs
" in the Vatican II constitution on sacred liturgy; Bishop Athanasius Schneider has called for a "New Syllabus
" for a correct reading of Vatican II; and others more recently, like Cardinal Kasper himself, have admitted that many of the documents contain intentional ambiguities
that were introduced by dissenting factions at the Council:
"In many places, [the Council Fathers] had to find compromise formulas, in which, often, the positions of the majority are located immediately next to those of the minority, designed to delimit them. Thus, the conciliar texts themselves have a huge potential for conflict, open the door to a selective reception in either direction." (Cardinal Walter Kasper, L'Osservatore Romano, April 12, 2013 - emphasis added)
Well, which is it? Either the documents are clear or they're not. They can't be both. It's not enough to say that the documents can be
interpreted in light of tradition. A lot of things can -- even propositions clear as mud, if you squint. The question is whether they are clear and unambiguous (and, going beyond the subject of this post, whether they have been interpreted with consistent, unambiguous clarity in the half-century since the Council).
Lately I have been reviewing a number of posts on this topic by Boniface over at Unam Sanctam Catholicam
, including his excellent review
of Roberto de Mattei's magisterial study, The Second Vatican Council: An Unwritten Story
and some other articles. But what was especially interesting was to re-read his study of what the Council Fathers themselves had to say about ambiguity
in the Council documents. The statements are all taken from the public acts of the Council -- statements put forth, not by obscure fathers, but heads of religious orders, like the Irish Dominican Michael Browne; archbishops of major sees like Cardinal Siri of Genoa; Cardinal Ottaviani, head of the Holy Office; even the Karol Wojtyla, who criticizes two documents for ambiguity; and none other than Paul VI himself, who admits "fundamental contradictions" in the final text of Lumen Gentium
, contradictions that will eventually lead him to publishing an explanatory note to the document. Boniface writes:
(1) That the critique of ambiguity in the documents of Vatican II is not some canard invented and bandied about by traditionalist Catholic bloggers, but was in fact a substantial charge made against many conciliar documents by the Council Fathers themselves. It was, and remains, a legitimate criticism of the documents of the Second Vatican Council that must be taken seriously since the Council Fathers themselves took it so seriously.
(2) That to offer this critique does not imply any "denial of the Council", heterodoxy, or poor taste - if it does, then similar accusations must be leveled against Cardinal Ottaviani, Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, Cardinal Kasper, Bishop Athanasius Schneider, and the hundreds and hundreds of bishops who all voted non placet on many conciliar documents and did not thereby become heretics by doing so. What we are dealing with when looking at the question of ambiguity is a simple acknowledgement of fact - the documents have inherent ambiguities, and as much was admitted by scores of Council Fathers.
Nor was it the case that these ambiguities were all eventually clarified to the satisfaction of the Council Fathers before the Vatican II documents reached their final form for publication. Indeed, many were published with their resident ambiguities and even contradictions in them far from unresolved, and in one case overriding 249 negative votes, including objections posed by none other than Archbishop Karol Wojtyla of Cracow!
The documents selected as examples by Boniface include Lumen Gentium, Dignitatis Humanae (to which Wojtyla had objections), Dei Verbum, Gaudium et spes, Unitatis Redintegratio, and Nostra Aetate. Sacrosanctum Concilium is omitted from discussion, not because it doesn't contain loopholes through which one could drive a truck, as one observer put it
, but because of its ample treatment by others, most notably Michael Davies.
There are dozens of examples of specific criticisms Boniface examines -- far too many to quote here. Let a couple from his first example (Lumen Gentium
) suffice (without the footnotes):
In September 1964, during the opening of the third session, a group of conservative bishops presented a document ("Note Addressed to the Holy Father on the Schema Constitutio De Ecclesia") to Paul VI which expressed "serious reservations" about the chapter on Chapter 3, saying that the teaching contained therein was "uncertain" and contained "doctrines and opinions that are often vague or insufficiently clear in their terms, their true meanings, or in their aims." The document also called the teaching of collegiality "a new doctrine, which, until 1958 or rather 1962, represented only the opinions of a few theologians." The document was signed by twenty-five cardinals and thirteen superiors of religious orders, including the Dominicans and the Jesuits.
... Amazingly, Paul VI himself noted in a letter back to Cardinal Larraona, dated October 18, 1964, that Chapter 3 of what would become Lumen Gentium did in fact contain "fundamentally contradictory statements", and said that these "objections [are] supported in Our personal opinion." These concerns would later cause Paul VI, not to amend Lumen Gentium, but to add an explanatory note to the document. (emphasis added)
By way of conclusion, Boniface writes:
As anyone can see, the documents of the Second Vatican Council were problematic from their inception, and this much was admitted by the Council Fathers. While they all had their own concerns, questions and difficulties, the theme that connected them all was ambiguity, expressed in such terms as "lack of clarity", "greater precision needed", "insufficiently clear", "lacking distinction", "perplexing", and so on. This was the opinion of a great many of the Council Fathers, even some of the liberals and (in the case of Lumen Gentium), Paul VI himself.
Given this straightforward evidence, this obvious matter of fact, it is no longer tenable for anyone to assert that the charges of ambiguity in conciliar documents is a recent invention by Traditionalists, nor that it is without merit or unsubstantiated. On the contrary, the documents of the Second Vatican Council do contain problematic ambiguities that need to be addressed and remedied. It does not detract from the validity or authority of the Council to simply admit this; many Council Fathers admitted it, and they did not consider it disobedient or schismatic to do so. Rather, they saw it as their duty as bishops to ensure that the faith was expounded in the most clear, precise, and easy to understand manner as possible. In posting these citations from these same fathers, we do so hoping the problems that went unheeded in 1962-65 will one day be satisfactorily addressed.
Finally, Boniface also has a post on why a purely legal (administrative) solution to these problems won't work
, apart from spiritual reawakening from the ground up. Pray for Mother Church, our shepherds and our fellow Catholics. We desperately need God's help.