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The Bishop's Egg - Vatican II

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And now for the continuation of my last post, wherein (as you might recall) I laid out the reasons for my reversion to the Church of my youth. To summarize, my main point being that the Catholic Church has been the one most equipped at retaining universality of sanctification and salvation, by which I mean, its appeal to the different subcultures of society, indeed, the world, has not been confined to any one group. I maintained that it has done this through Her one great characteristic: Tradition, the 'handing down' of the Gospel entrusted to Christ and His Apostles, wherein there is no innovation, only (as St. Vincent of Lerins put it) expansion of thought, without alteration [Commonitorium, XXIII].

Yet all of this brings up a topic which would certainly be brought up eventually - Vatican II and its subsequent changes. For those of you with immensely more important things to do with your life, perhaps a brief history might explain why this council is so important.  In 1868, Pope Pius IX called for an Ecumenical Council [that is, consisting of every bishop in the world] at the Vatican in order to address certain issues which were then facing the universal Church. One of the dogmas laid down was that of Papal Infallibility, which means that whenever the Bishop of Rome speaks on matters of faith and morals, and then only by using a certain formula of saying it (known as 'ex cathedra'), he can never err due to the guidance of the Holy Ghost. Unfortunately, the Council was prematurely suspended due to the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War. Many issues were left unresolved. It would be nearly one hundred years before they would be addressed. And if history has taught us anything, it is that the sequel is never as good as the original.

Fast-forward to 1962. John XXIII had called for a new council to deliberate on how the Church was to approach the 'modern' world. Once again all the bishops of Christendom would be summoned to the Vatican Basilica to discuss the state of the Church, and once again, the French and the Germans would wreck havoc. This time, however, it wasn't the external pressures of a Bismarck, but the internal strivings of the Rhineland bishops which were the source (not to mention the French-speaking delegates).* Scrapping the rubrics prepared for the Council and rejecting the voting process originally set forth, the progressive bishops set forth a set of rubrics. These rubrics, adopting a more conciliar tone, seemed to be a drastic change from older statements of the Papacy and the Magisterium, such as the Syllabus of Errors (1864) and "Mediator Dei" (1947). Suddenly the Church which had stood against modernism, spiritual liberalism, and religious indifferentism under Pius X had made a volte-face. Some of the Council Fathers (including Archbp. Lefebvre, who helped draft the first set of rubrics) attempted to reconcile this conciliation by asking that the overtly simplified documents of the progessive's proposal be counter-balanced by sister documents which more thoroughly explained these documents in a more Thomistic approach. This proposal was rejected, and the new documents, ambiguous and potentially misleading as they were, were pushed through and finally approved. In the process of doing so, many of the concerns of the conservative Bishops were ignored, ridiculed, or even silenced. ** The rest, as they say, is history, and only someone with an extreme case of tunnel vision could say that the state of the Church afterwards was not in the very least affected by the decisions of this council.

This of course is a highly simplified history of the Second Vatican Council and has been told much better elsewhere (vide Ralph Wiltgen's The Rhine Flows Into the Tiber). The question remains: what are we to make of this council? Has it effectively changed the lex orandi and the lex credendi of Catholicism?  To be fair, there are arguments for both camps. Even those in the traditionalist camp will admit that most of the documents of this Council are orthodox, or at least could be interpreted so. The emphasis on Latin as the language of the Church and the pride of place Gregorian chant are two examples of orthodox teaching from the document Sacrosanctum Concilium. Yet the problem isn't where the council speaks clearly, but where it is less than straightforward. The distinction between civil and moral freedom of religion is blurred; the promotion of a Catholic state and the Social Kingship of Christ is muddied; the proactive conversion of the Jews, the status of protestant churches in relation to the Catholic Church, the extent to which the laity was to 'actively participate' and how much of the vernacular could be admitted to the Mass - these issues were never fully fleshed out in the Council, as opposed to past Councils, where the focus was always the clarification of doctrine and dogma, not its mystification and equivocation. (If one were to think of the Council Fathers of Nicea, looking into the future and seeing how many theories were being put forward for the correct definition of the phrase 'subsistit in' in Lumen Gentium,  would not a few be discouraged at their efforts of obtaining exactitude?) That the progressive bishops and peritii ('advisers') may have done this intentionally to reinterpret them according to their whim at a later date is not out of the question, even considering that one of the prominent members of the liberal side, Cardinal Suenens, compared the Council to the French Revolution of 1789.

So the Council was a Revolution that led to the Reign of Terror, a terror all the more awful because it led to spiritual death, rather than physical. Are we to blame it on the Robespierres of the Council, or on the Napoleon Bishops that followed it? By which I mean, was the council rotten from the start, or was it only due to the later faulty interpretation (the 'Spirit' of Vatican II) that we are beset with problems now? I will come down in the middle and say that the council is certainly not the most admirable council in the Church's history, yet it is a little more respectable than a Robber Council; shall we say a Capitalist's Council?

Of my own approach to this Council (and those of many of my fellow Catholics) I shall speak of at a future date. As it is Good Friday, I have run out of juice, and my Alexander Pope is calling to me, I shall lay down my electronic pen for now. Good night.

*Considering the track record of the German peoples in the years since the last council, starting with a Kulturkampf and ending with Mein Kampf, we can safely agree with Evelyn Waugh's assertion that "I think it a great cheek of the Germans to try to teach the rest of the world anything about religion." (A Bitter Trial) Our present Pope has in some great degree placated the actions of his countrymen; still it must be remembered that Benedict is Bavarian, and the staunchly Catholic Bavarians have never been gung-ho about being numbered with their Northern neighbors, by any stretch of the imagination.



** Few proponents of the 'collegiate' spirit of Vatican II are likely to mention the incident of Cardinal Ottavianni's microphone being turned off in mid-speech during one of his denunciations:

"On October 30, the day after his seventy-second birthday, Cardinal Ottaviani addressed the council to protest against the drastic changes which were being suggested in the Mass. "Are we seeking to stir up wonder, or perhaps scandal, among the Christian people, by introducing changes in so venerable a rite, that has been approved for so many centuries and is now so familiar? The rite of Holy Mass should not be treated as if it were a piece of cloth to be refashioned according to the whim of each generation." Speaking without a text, because of his partial blindness, he exceeded the ten-minute time limit which all had been requested to observe. Cardinal Tisserant, Dean of the Council Presidents, showed his watch to Cardinal Alfrink, who was presiding that morning. When Cardinal Ottaviani reached fifteen minutes, Cardinal Alfrink rang the warning bell. But the speaker was so engrossed in his topic that he did not notice the bell, or purposely ignored it. At a signal from Cardinal Alfrink, a technician switched off the microphone. After confirming the fact by tapping the instrument, Cardinal Ottaviani stumbled back to his seat in humiliation. The most powerful cardinal in the Roman Curia had been silenced, and the Council Fathers clapped with glee." (Wiltgen, The Rhine Flows Into the Tiber, 28-29)

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