What to make of Vatican II? Pope Paul VI, in his General Audience of Jan. 12, 1966, stated: “There are those who ask what authority, what theological qualification, the Council intended to give to its teachings, knowing that it avoided issuing solemn dogmatic definitions backed by the Church’s infallible teaching authority. The answer is known by those who remember the conciliar declaration of March 6, 1964, repeated on November 16, 1964. In view of the pastoral nature of the Council, it avoided proclaiming in an extraordinary matter any dogmata carrying the mark of infallibility.”
This does not mean, of course, that conciliar documents do not contain references to Catholic doctrine previously defined as dogma and therefore infallibly authoritative, such as the divinity of Christ, the Trinity, the virgin birth of Christ, and so forth. Nor does it mean that conciliar documents do not contain anything new, such as its statements about ecumenism, religious freedom, etc. What it does mean is that nothing new in these documents is defined as infallible dogma.
The “new springtime” in the Church heralded by the post-conciliar popes and others who hoped that the simplified and more-accessible vernacular liturgy would promote the “new evangelization” seems not to have yielded quite the hoped-for results. It was not as if the police had to be summoned to Catholic churches each Sunday “to hold back the hordes of lapsed Catholics whose faith had been rekindled at the prospect of saying the Confiteor in English,” as Michael Davies quipped in his book, Pope Paul’s New Mass.
Can Ecumenical Councils of the Church fail in their objectives? Fr. John Zuhlsdorf writes: “Regarding General or Ecumenical Councils (all 21 of them), it is possible to be a valid council but a failed one. Consider Lateran V. Utter failure. Its legislation on ecclesiastical pawn shops went nowhere, which is a darn shame. I’d really appreciate well-regulated ecclesiastical pawn shops. And – hey! – what ever happened to the “spirit of Lateran V”? Moreover, Lateran I and Lateran II weren’t even classified as General or Ecumenical Councils until after the Council of Trent (500 years later).”
In the same vein, Saint Gregory Nazianzus writes: “If I must speak the truth, I feel disposed to shun every conference of Bishops; because I never saw a Synod brought to a happy issue, not remedying but rather increasing, existing evils. For ever is there rivalry and ambition, and these have the mastery of reason; -- do not think me extravagant for saying so; -- and a mediator is more likely to be attacked himself, than to succeed in his pacification. Accordingly, I have fallen back upon myself and consider quiet the only security of life.”
Again, Joseph Ratzinger, writing in Principles of Catholic Theology, 378, writes: “Not every valid council in the history of the Church has been a fruitful one; in the last analysis, many of them have been a waste of time. Despite all the good to be found in the texts produced, the last word about the historical value of Vatican II has yet to be spoken.”
There are some Catholic scholars and clerics who speak or write as if Vatican II is a sort of “Super Dogma.” The litmus test for the fellowship of kindred spirits or its opposite -- something bordering on excommunication or being tarred and feathered – is whether or not one “accepts” Vatican II. But what does this mean, exactly? A good friend of mine, whom I sometimes refer to as “L’Autre Phil,” says that one can never make sense of the Second Vatican Council by trying to get at it strictly in terms of its textual content. Why? Because either it functions as a wax nose that can be made to “say” whatever one wants it to say or, worse, because almost nobody cares about the text. What everyone cares about, however, is the “event” of Vatican II and what it’s made to symbolize.
Cardinal Ratzinger, in his address to Chilean Bishops (July 13, 1988), said this about the last council: “There are many accounts of it which give the impression that, from Vatican II onward, everything has been changed, and that what preceded it has no value or, at best, has value only in the light of Vatican II. 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 define 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 “super-dogma” which takes away the importance of all the rest.
“This idea is made stronger by things that are now happening," the Cardinal continued. "That which previously was considered most holy – the form in which the liturgy was handed down – suddenly appears as the most forbidden of all things, the one thing that can safely be prohibited. It is intolerable to criticize decisions which have been taken since the Council; on the other hand, if men make question of ancient rules, or even of the great truths of the Faith – for instance, the corporal virginity of Mary, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the immortality of the soul, etc. – nobody complains or only does so with the greatest moderation.”
(Hat tip to a couple of my Catholic colleagues.)