What Does it Mean “to Accept Vatican II”?

Those who make this demand are often far from complying with it.

The success of future talks with the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) depends to a great extent on whether the parties can come to an understanding about Vatican II. The questions are not new: even after the Lefèbvrite schism the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei has discussed the disputed points with traditionalist believers. But how are we to understand the requirement that someone should take up unreservedly a position based on the Council? Moreover the demand for complete acknowledgment of all the conciliar documents is made by people who for their part are far from complying with this demand. The following essay sheds light on this dilemma.

Members of the SSPX who are serious about seeking reconciliation will have two problems. The first concerns the liturgy. Archbishop Lefèbvre was unwilling to celebrate Mass according to the liturgical books of Paul VI. The claim that the New Mass is the “Mass of the Council” does not become any more accurate through frequent repetition. The Cardinal Secretary of State at that time presented the 1965 Missal as the Mass of the Council, as the realization of the conciliar decisions, but a few years later it vanished from the face of the earth and was replaced in 1970 by the “Novus Ordo Missae.” This new ritual for Mass—and, even more, the way in which Mass is actually celebrated nowadays—notoriously contradicts several requirements of the Constitution on the Liturgy of Vatican II, which, incidentally, even Archbishop Lefèbvre endorsed.

Yet the rite of Paul VI was introduced by the legitimate law-giver, and there can be no doubt as to its legality and validity. John Paul II, however, revoked the suppression of the old Mass (which Benedict XVI says was never really prohibited) and urgently asked the bishops to make concessions “generously” for the faithful who felt attached to the old rite.

Since generosity unfortunately would not come to pass, Benedict XVI responded to the petition presented years earlier by 70,000 Catholics not affiliated with the SSPX, and gave to all the faithful who request it a legal claim to Masses celebrated in the now officially authorized “Extraordinary Form” of the Roman Rite, and to every Catholic priest the right to celebrate Holy Mass in the old form without any further permission.

He himself, as Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had celebrated Mass in the old rite at least twice, once a High Mass on Easter Sunday with the community of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter in Wigratzbad, and again at an annual meeting of the lay association Pro Missa Tridentina. He made his recent decision on his own initiative—motu proprio—but thereby fulfilled at the same time one of the two conditions stipulated by the SSPX for further dialogue with the Vatican.

The problem that members of the Society of St. Pius X have, now as before, is acknowledging the validity and legitimacy of the “new Mass.” What they will no doubt have to admit, contrary to their present practice, is that any Catholic fulfills his “Sunday duty” if he attends Mass in the new rite, provided that it is in fact celebrated according to the liturgical books of the Church. Further acts of acknowledgment may be demanded, for instance the use of consecrated hosts in the tabernacle that came from a Mass celebrated in the Novus Ordo or receiving Communion at a Mass of the local bishop. It is absurd to think that someone could belong to the Catholic Church and yet refuse to attend the Pope’s Mass or to receive Communion from his hand. The SSPX has to be clear about that. Concelebration cannot be required, as the Council explicitly emphasizes (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 57.2.2).

The demand for “complete acceptance of all the conciliar documents” does sound strange coming from priests who openly express their disdain for the Extraordinary Form, i.e., the old Mass. To mention only one example, a monsignor who serves as the dean of the clergy in a city and as cathedral rector, when asked whether he couldn’t just once use the First Eucharistic Prayer, the Roman Canon, replied, “I wouldn’t handle that even with tongs.” He should know in this regard that the Council of Trent imposed excommunication on everyone who claims that this Eucharistic Prayer is in any way deficient.

The Pope fulfilled the second condition of the SSPX—the lifting of the excommunication of their bishops—only when it was presented not in the form of a condition but rather as a humble request. Then, too, the Pope did not declare that the former excommunication had been invalid from the beginning but only that it was henceforth terminated.

In future talks one condition that the Church sets for the SSPX will be “acceptance of the Second Vatican Council.” That is how Pope Benedict XVI put it in his letter to the bishops of the world dated March 10. The Conference of German Bishops, which has no competence whatsoever to permit or forbid anything in this matter, thought that it should tighten up the requirements for a dialogue by talking about “complete acceptance” of the Council.

But what does “acceptance” mean? Therein lies the second problem of the SSPX, which is problematic for most of the group’s opponents as well. Acceptance can mean not treating the Council like a Robber Synod and not indicting it (as Lefèbvre did), but rather recognizing it as a legitimate council, convoked and presided over by the Pope, and thus respecting its declarations, constitutions, and decrees as legitimate acts of the supreme ecclesiastical authority. “To accept completely,” however, can also mean to agree unconditionally with the entire substance of all the decisions of the Council. That’s what it sounds like in the demand made of the SSPX by the Conference of German Bishops, and that’s how many people understand it. But that understanding is wrong. If it were right, then the majority of Catholic theology professors today, and bishops too, would have to be excommunicated, or at least suspended. After all, they do not even think of accepting the Council as completely as they are asking others to do. Someone from the glass house is throwing stones. Even the little compendium of the Council [from the 1960s] by Karl Rahner and Herbert Vorgrimler cheerfully graded those documents of the Council which were not in keeping with their own theological notions. In the following paragraphs I will mention a few examples of open dissent and disobedience which to this day have never been sanctioned.

1. First there is the denial of dogmas which were repeated by Vatican II but had already been defined by earlier councils and belong to the Catholic Church’s permanent deposit of faith: the doctrine of the Trinity, the doctrine of the divinity of Jesus Christ and of his virginal conception, the sacrificial character of Jesus’ crucifixion for the forgiveness of sins, which was formulated beforehand by Jesus in the words of institution at the Last Supper and is central to the preaching of all the Apostles.

The Council uses the expression “sacrifice of the Mass” more than 20 times. The application of the “Servant Song” of the Prophet Isaiah to Jesus is a traditional theme of Christian preaching going back to the Acts of the Apostles. With the denial of this interpretation by Catholic theology professors (among them a Guardini Prize winner) and even by bishops, the interpretation of the Mass as a representation of Christ’s sacrifice and consequently the concept of “the sacrifice of the Mass” becomes obsolete. But the Council of Trent elevated the sacrificial character of the Mass to the status of dogma.

2. Vatican II speaks about the necessity of the Church for salvation and the unique mediation of Jesus Christ, and puts it this way: “Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it” [LG, 14]. The fact that Christ, in order to keep the path of salvation open forever, endowed the supreme authority of the Church with the gift of infallibility in matters of faith and morality is also emphasized by Vatican II. All this notwithstanding, a significant number of theologians today advocate a relativism and a skeptical pluralism. One could continue in this vein.

3. Then there is priestly celibacy, which the Council describes as a precious gift, for the preservation of which the priests and lay faithful should pray fervently [PO, 16]. Is it an unfortunate accident that in the last 40 years I have never heard of a call to such fervent prayer, much less an instance of collective prayer in the Church for this intention?

4. Daily celebration of Holy Mass is no longer taken for granted by priests. In many places individual celebration is made impossible, whereas the Council writes that “the daily celebration of [the work of our redemption] is earnestly recommended. This celebration is an act of Christ and the Church even if it is impossible for the faithful to be present” [PO, 13]. Of those who demand the “complete acceptance” of all conciliar documents, which ones ever “accepted” the documents mentioned here?

5. And when the Decree on the Training of Priests says that young theologians “should learn to examine more deeply, with the help of speculation and with St. Thomas as teacher, all aspects of these mysteries [of salvation]” (OT, 16), then this, too, has obviously remained a pious wish.

6. One’s position with regard to the document on the Church in the modern world, Gaudium et Spes, is often singled out as a touchstone of one’s acknowledgment of Vatican II. One sentence from this constitution reads: “In questions of birth regulation the sons of the Church, faithful to these principles, are forbidden to use methods disapproved by the teaching authority of the Church in its interpretation of the divine law” (GS, 51). Many years ago, in the Königstein Declaration, the Conference of German Bishops declared the opposite. The Austrian bishops issued a similar declaration at another time in Maria Trost. So far only a few shepherds have publicly criticized the “the fall of the bishops” (Cardinal Schönborn). Many priests and teachers of theology categorically reject the conciliar statement just cited.

7. The Council forbade the introduction of any liturgical innovations “unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them” (SC, 23). It confirmed Latin as the language of the Roman Rite and allowed the use of the vernacular only for parts of the Mass—the Fathers had the Liturgy of the Word in mind. It described Gregorian chant as being “specially suited” to the Church’s liturgy and accordingly demanded that the faithful be allowed to sing the Latin texts assigned to them.

It spoke about “the prayers addressed to God by the priest” at the head and “in the name of the entire holy people” of God (SC, 33), and not about him reversing the direction of prayer and facing the people. The fact that the priest does not host a meal but rather is the first recipient of Communion, who then gives to others the Precious Gifts that he has received, is noted in the short provision that the Communion of the faithful takes place after that of the priest (SC, 55).

Furthermore it would not even have occurred to any of the Council Fathers to suppress the Nicene Creed—which unites us with all Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican Churches and which Lutheran confirmandi learn by heart to this day— and to replace it with the Apostles’ Creed. But that has happened [in Germany], when previously every Catholic who went to Mass knew the great Credo by heart. “Complete acceptance of the Council”?

The SSPX seems to have the greatest difficulty with the Declaration on Religious Liberty, the core of which appears to them to contradict the Church’s traditional doctrine. The SSPX and passionate defenders of the new Catholic doctrine about religious freedom, like Ernst Wolfgang Böckenförde, agree that it is a break with the past. For the former this rupture is an argument for the illegitimacy of the new thesis, for the latter it is an argument against the binding character of Tradition.

Actually the Council Fathers neglected to explain how the teaching in this declaration is related to Tradition. It merely states in the introduction that the doctrine of religious liberty “leaves intact the traditional Catholic teaching on the moral duty of individuals and societies towards the true religion and the one Church of Christ.” That means, however, that any interpretation of this new teaching that is incompatible with this sentence contradicts the Council’s intention, if one may speak here at all about a single intention. In that case, therefore, all efforts at harmonization would have to be supported; this has been attempted successfully above all in France (especially in the Roman dissertation of Basil Valuet, a monk of the Abbey of Le Barroux, which is entitled “Le droit À la liberté religieuse dans la tradition de l’église?”). At any rate, disputing the traditional doctrine about “the duties of society towards the one true Church” seems incompatible with what the conciliar document goes on to say.

Only a “hermeneutic of the Council” (Benedict XVI) can help us along here and lead to a consensus. The dialogue that is starting now will be difficult. In the best-case scenario it will lead to a deeper understanding of Church teaching about the civil freedom to practice religion publicly. Yet we are dealing here with a disagreement without any practical significance.

The religiously uniform state has long since lost its status as the “societas perfecta.” We live in a multi-religious global society, as Gorbachev clearly saw when he declared to the Communist Party that uniformity of world view was no longer possible. For such a society the principle of tolerance formulated by Pius XII holds. The situation is analogous to the repeal by the Church of her 1,500-year-old prohibition against charging interest, [a change in policy] which was passionately opposed at the time by the Dominicans, for example. The only issue was this: interest in a modern monetary society is no longer the same thing as interest taken on a loan to a brother in need.

The disagreement with the SSPX can no longer hinge on whether there should be religious liberty but only on why—based on personalistic reasons or on the requirements of the common good. The result is the same. Thus it is an inconsequential debate over principles. But to this debate Wittgenstein’s remark applies: “A revolving wheel with which nothing turns is not part of the machine.”

The success of the talks with the Society of St. Pius X is by no means certain. To describe it in advance as “improbable” is not appropriate. When it is a question of the Holy Spirit working through an act of reconciliation, Christians should not make pessimistic or optimistic calculations of probability but rather should pray and beg for a miracle. The Christian faith is a faith in miracles. It trusts in the word of the Lord: “If you, then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”

This essay was originally published in Die Tagespost (Würzburg) and posted online by KATH.NET on April 28, 2009. It was translated by Michael J. Miller for CWR.

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