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Cardinal Zen: In Vatican II, Catholics hear ‘real voice of the Holy Spirit’ 

By Ed Condon for CNA

Joseph Cardinal Zen (Photo courtesy of the Salesions, Hong Kong)

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Jul 27, 2020 / 11:15 am (CNA).- Cardinal Joseph Zen, the emeritus Bishop of Hong Kong, has made an impassioned defense of the Second Vatican Council, criticizing both “extreme conservatives” and “extreme progressives” for rejecting the authority and authenticity of the conciliar documents.

In both an interview with CNA and an essay published on his own website, Cardinal Zen said that, for decades, Vatican Council II had been misused to advance “subjective” and “narrow” agendas within the Church.

The cardinal called for a new appreciation of the council documents themselves, and a renewed understanding of what the Church teaches an ecumenical council to be.

“Vatican II happened 50 years ago, but it surely doesn’t belong to the past, its light still leads the Church through the darkness of her journey today,” Zen said in the July 17 essay, in which the cardinal warned against the “danger” of polemical interpretations.

Zen warned against interpretations of Vatican II not “faithful to the documents of the Council, but rather a subjective understanding of it.”

Both “progressive” and “traditionalist” factions within the Church have advanced in recent criticisms the idea that the Second Vatican Council, which took place from 1962 to 1965, represents a definitive break with previous Church teaching and authority. This interpretation of the Vatican II is often called a “hermeneutic of rupture.”

Zen wrote that such interpretations are foreign to the nature of an ecumenical council.

“The extreme conservatives say: The Church after the Vatican II is no more the Catholic Church I received baptism in. But you were baptized in a Church which believes in one apostolic Church, led by the Pope and the Bishops as authentic teachers of faith,” Zen wrote in his essay.

“The extreme progressives say: Before the Council nothing was allowed to change, now with Vatican II many changes have been made, so, many things should be allowed to change also in the future.”

Rejecting both characterizations, Zen cited St. John Henry Newman.

“The Church is a living body; it certainly grows and changes, but, as Cardinal John Henry Newman puts it, the development is ‘homogeneous,’ i.e. with the substantial identity not altered. A boy grows into maturity and he is still the same person.”

The authentic work of Church reform comes “only by a decision of the legitimate authority, not by an arbitrary choice of anybody, and surely not by undoing the past,” Zen added.

“The Holy Spirit of today doesn’t contradict the Holy Spirit of yesterday.”

In his post, prompted by a series of articles on Vatican Council II by a priest in Hong Kong, Zen argued that many debates about Vatican II misunderstand the Church’s theological understanding of ecumenical councils.

“Let us start from the fundamentals: What are the Ecumenical Councils for? They are not for the creation of a new Church, but for a new self-understanding. The Church was founded by Jesus Christ on the Apostles.”

CNA asked Zen about the position of Catholics who question the legitimacy of the council while claiming to stand within the tradition of the faith.

“The Church’s ‘tradition’ is the living Church, founded on the Apostles,” Zen answered. “The ecumenical councils are the milestones on this journey of the Church through centuries. The first ‘Ecumenical Council’ of Jerusalem declared: ‘The Holy Spirit and we (the Apostles) have decided…”, it’s not only a question of canon law. Each Ecumenical Council is a ‘Sacrosanctum Concilium’!”

In recent weeks, some Catholic voices have argued that the documents of Vatican II are the cause of erroneous theological positions advanced after the council. They have suggested that Vatican Council II should be in some way repudiated, either by Pope Francis or one of his eventual successors.

Former Vatican ambassador Archbishop Carlo Viganò said in an interview last month that at the Second Vatican Council “hostile forces” caused “the abdication of the Catholic Church” through a “sensational deception.”

“The errors of the post-conciliar period were contained in nuce in the Conciliar Acts,” the archbishop added, accusing the council, and not just its aftermath, of overt error.

Speaking to CNA, Zen rejected the idea that authentic acts of an ecumenical council could contain errors of faith.

“The post-conciliar errors do not belong to the Council, just as heresies do not belong to the Bible,” the cardinal told CNA.

Citing ongoing debates about liturgical reform after the council, Zen said that “when Pope Benedict talked about a ‘Reform of the Reform in liturgy,’ he is not repudiating the conciliar liturgical constitution but the abuses that originated from a distorted interpretation or even the repudiation of that constitution.”

In his July 17 essay, Zen called for a rediscovery of the texts of council, which he called the true fruits of Vatican II. “Through those documents you hear the real voice of the Holy Spirit,” he said.

At the same time, the cardinal acknowledged the human politicking which played out around the council, and recalled being a young priest studying in Rome at the time.

“I enjoyed, like other young priests and seminarians in Rome, all the daily hot news and gossips about the Council; the fierce battles along the stereotype of divide between conservatives and progressives; Council Fathers accusing each other with leaflets flying over Saint Peter’s square…The jokes!” he recalled in his essay.

But Zen stressed that the human participants in the council, and even malevolent spiritual attacks, could not overcome or exclude the agency of the Holy Spirit.

“There is a saying, not far from the truth: an Ecumenical Council starts from human efforts, then comes the devil to make trouble, but at the end the Holy Spirit brings everything to a happy ending.”

The cardinal told CNA that Catholics at all levels need to rediscover and re-appreciate the documents of the council to understand what the Church in the post-conciliar period is called to be.

“The Ecumenical Council concluded with documents,” he said, “then it’s the duty of popes and bishops to make those documents living realities.”

CNA asked Zen if he believes there has been a failure to transmit the teachings of the conciliar documents to ordinary Catholics, and how they could be better brought to the faithful.

Zen said that “the main channel [for transmitting the council’s authentic teaching] is the seminarian formation of the clergy.”

“Unfortunately there are theologians who put themselves above the Council documents, [but] vice versa there are outstanding lay people, docile to the Holy Spirit, who draw out from the documents all the wisdom contained therein.”

Zen said that his recommendation is that all Catholics better familiarize themselves with the context of the council itself, and why it was called.

“I believe it would be very fruitful to read the opening sermon of Vatican II by Pope John XXIII, where he explained the true meaning of ‘aggiornamento’: facing all the threats of modern civilization the Church must not be afraid, but find the ways apt to show to the world the true face of Jesus, the Redeemer of Man.”

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  1. This assessment and declaration of Cardinal Zen is very refreshing and reassuring. He rightly notes the extremist camps of polar opposites among Catholics in interpreting and applying the teachings of Vatican II which should be overcome with the needed fidelity to its correct implementation. These opposing parties forget that the Holy Spirit has spoken together with the council fathers just like in the first and all the previous councils of the church. “The Holy Spirit and us (apostles) have decided….” (Acts 15:28). The battles among conservatives and progressives in its application, like that the most recent one by Archbishop Vigano can best be explained by a sort of blindness and even an atheism to the Holy Spirit similar to that what St. Paul found among the Ephesians (Acts 19:2).

      • You all seem so knowledgeable but I have some education and personal experiences looking at this division. I think as in the US as a government the Church is operating outside the doctrine of the Church and the methods of control by the authorities are not based on.the “Law” of our Christ God…deviant law in control and yet they are “authority:” exclusion from the church and the group and force without any admission there might be error of procedure etc on their part. I’m cast out even from family and I think am pretty well grounded…i.e. forced to conform without reason or truth to the declarations…thank you…

  2. A better made realpolitik resolution on Vat II unsurprisingly comes from a layman. “There are a large number of factors and combinations of factors that might account for the changes that took place after 1964. For all we know, things might have turned out worse had Vatican II not implemented the liturgical reforms it did. Not even a rigorously designed ANOVA test could determine the cause [of decline] with any sort of logical necessity. History is just too complicated. And I’d like to know who it was who ‘solemnly assured’ us that liturgical reforms were exactly what was needed to answer the challenge of secularism. It is about as foolish as those who today maintain that bringing back the Latin Mass, large golden altar candles, incense and elaborate vestments are all that is needed to bring people back to the faith” (D McManaman in CWR). Insofar as Liturgy that constitution was not dogmatic [Lumen Gentium Dei verbum alone are dogmatic] not binding subject to revision and correction. If in which case as argued previously Archbishop Lefebvre should have remained reconciled. And bishops as defenders of the faith since they were not bound had the right even obligation to resist liturgical error or changes they were convinced were detrimental to the faith. Although rebellion was hot in the air including bishops Vat II kept that largely within the Church and manageable. Benedict XVI finally made necessary corrections. That doesn’t mean limiting further adaptation of the Novus Ordo to traditional liturgy as Benedict foresaw [Zen said that when Pope Benedict talked about a Reform of the Reform in liturgy he is not repudiating the conciliar liturgical constitution but the abuses that originated from a distorted interpretation or even the repudiation of that constitution]. Cardinal Zen is thankfully outspoken and correct in his understanding of guidance by the Holy Spirit. Both extremes conservative and liberal would best serve the Church if they followed that counsel.

    • Hello Fr. Peter.. Kindly read Prof. Roberts book The Second Vatican Council: An Unwritten Story. You will very well understand how you are very wrong.

      Blessed day

      • You are referring to the notorious Roberto De Mattei, who is one of those who basically advocates for many strange things, imagines himself the real magisterium, and basically supports the crankcases of the SSPX. No thanks, I will get real information from real sources.

        • Notorious? Rather one of Europe’s most highly regarded historians, held in universal esteem within the academy whether he is agreed with or not. Get a bibliography and cease ingesting your own confection.

  3. Not only Vatican Council II had been misused to advance “subjective” and “narrow” agendas. Vatican Council II also allows these things. This Council is just one of the many failed attempts to cope with crisis. But there is also big difference between the past attempts and our days: Spiritual crisis of our late times is way deeper than everything known from Church history (like the Arian Heresy) and it is still unclear if Church survive or if She will be transformed into one of bureaus of our gnostic civilisation.

  4. Oh, stop with the knee-jerk moral equivalence theories about liberals and conservatives. Conservatives are trying to be faithful, and liberals are not. End of story. Liberals are guilty of uncountable enormities; conservatives are guilty of exactly nothing. Cut it out. It’s dishonest. Vatican 2 was an act of ecclesial suicide. The Holy Spirit never showed up. Stop trying to defend the indefensible, for God’s sake.

    • Nonsense. Assuming that by “conservatives” you mean by that the odd crowd who now pretends they are “traditional Catholics” but who, in fact reject much Catholic teaching) – Well, they reject Councils of the Church that were guided by the Holy Spirit. They think they can bad mouth pretty much every pope we have had, they lie constantly about the facts in order to pretend they are upholding Catholicism when in fact they are rebelling against it. We are currently in a crazy time when these fake goofball “traditionalists” are more like Martin Luther than anything else.

      So Zen is correct – there are evil fringes represented on the left side of the church, and an equally evil fringe on the right side of the church. They are both the same thing – they are dissenters from true catholic teaching, they are both ego driven maniacs who imagine they are the one true church.

  5. While I have not done a rigourous ANOVA test to determine the cause of decline of the Church since Vat II, somethings are obvious. To start with the most egregious sacremental abuse, the lack of respect for the Eucharist, people marching and down the church isles getting communion having no idea, not going to confession and priest unable to confront the issue. The initial decline even dismissal after Vatican II of prayerful practices, the decline in Eucharast devotion, rosary etc. Then the destruction of catholic culture, abetted by the decline in the prayerful life, by the dismassal of common practices such as meatless fridays and fasting before communion. Then there is the in the US the Roe Vs Wade debackle resulting in 62,000,000 deaths of babies alone in the US and still counting. Beyond a few March for Life type events, while certainly well intentioned, the whole Church response has been dismal. Commenters like to reference the horrendous deaths occurred in WW1 and WW2, well the forgotten news is that through abortion, etc the horrendous deaths have continued since Vatican II. However now these horrendous death numbers are conveniently shoved under the rug. Then there is the push by the German bishops, following in the footsteps of Luther, in there attempts to recast the Church in their image.

    This is not to say that some of the documents of Vat II were not needed and were certainly appropriate. But one has to have their head deeply buried in the sand to not see the disaster of the post Vatican II Church. In light of Vatican II, the Church needs a return to basics maybe starting with Rosary and beceeching the Blessed Mother to bring us to her Son and the Church Jesus wants, and not the Church imagined by elements using Vat II as there marketing device for plans.

    The great thing about the Praying the Rosary, one does not need high educational or high Church street credentials, just a humble and prayerful heart.

    • This is the same argument that the SSPX makes. Make no mistake, most of those running around these days making this argument have been listening to the fake SSPX arguments. Even if they dare not tell you that is where they got them.
      It is entirely illogical to pretend that the documents of Vatican II are to blame. It makes NO SENSE AT ALL to say that. You are making a simple mistake in thinking “Post Hoc, ergo Propter Hoc”. It happened after Vatican II, therefore it is because of Vatican II.
      There are some basic facts you must recognize to realize that your depressing view of the church is overwrought and wrong. First, there are twice as many Catholics in the world since Vatican II. If you are correct, why is that? Second, the places the church is growing the most are places where the Novus Ordo and Vatican II are most thoroughly entrenched – Africa and Asia are growing by leaps and bounds. Third, EVERY RELIGION has had enormous troubles, starting in the sixties. Why have Jews, Hindus, Protestants and others had EXACTLY the same problems as the American and European Catholic churches? Surely Vatican II did nothing at all to them, so why would they decline? The answer, of course is that secularism in general grew enormously. The answer of course, is that schools and government all combined to downplay or eliminate religion. Kids today grew up in a world where many TV shows indoctrinated them to believe that religion is an evil thing.
      Lack of reverence toward the Eucharist? Did Vatican II affect that at all? No, not really. What happened is that the church took in a great number of priests, and many did not even believe in the Catholic religion. The downfall was not due to Vatican II at all. It had to do with seminaries being taken over by people who wanted the church to be something entirely different. JP II and Benedict reversed this trend, and things were moving up again, then Francis came along and squelched all that. So now we are in a downward trend again. All those fake strident voices out there screaming Vatican II is the problem are in fact helping the enemy. There are very real problems, such as McCarrick, homosexuals in the priesthood, etc etc, but are they talking about that? No, they are changing the discussion to a different subject – Vatican II – so that the evil can continue. Now they try to get everyone worked up about communion rails, communion in the hand, etc to divert attention away from the real problems. All this is, is that the SSPX goofy version of reality is now being spread via the internet. For the first time, the SSPX anti Vatican II nonsense is allowed to be spread with no constraints. It will fool some people for a short period of time. But soon people will find that all the falsehoods being spread by the SSPX and their admirers on youtube is a bag of rubbish – fairly anti Catholic rubbish when you really examine it.

      • Appreciate your long diatribe, not sure what SPXX is about, don’t pay attention to them, but do have experience with ANOVA testing. Curious what’s your issue with the Rosary?

  6. Christopher thanks for the reference. You’re referring to Prof Roberto De Mattei’s book The Unwritten Story. I’m familiar with professor De Mattei’s excellent ecclesial, world historiography although I don’t agree with some of his assertions, which seem opinionated specifically regarding conspiracy theories. I’ve also studied the documents of Vatican II and have been critical of Dignitatis Humanae written by liberal Jesuit John Courtney Murray. That work on religious liberty is fine regarding freedom of religion v State authority, however it omits the need to clarify the coercive authority of the Church regarding baptized Catholics. That omission led to misunderstanding regarding contraception and other doctrine. Otherwise I’ve found no heresy in any of the documents. If you’re assuming that and I assume you’ve studied the documents, or if others posting here can cite a passage from any of the documents that you find in error, heretical please cite them. Perhaps there’s something I’ve overlooked and you would be doing me a service. Asante Sana.


    – Changed Calendar
    – Changed Music
    – Changed Breviary
    – Changed Rosary
    – Changed Prayers
    – Changed Orientation of Priests
    – Changed Catechesis
    – Changed Artwork
    – Changed Indulgences
    – Changed Ordination Rite
    – Changed Baptisms
    – Changed Rites for Other Sacraments
    – Changed Readings at Mass
    – Changed Cycle of Readings For Mass
    – Changed Mass Prayers.
    – Changed Altars
    – Changed Sacramentals
    – Changed Religious Profession / Renewal of Vows
    – Changed Marriage Rite
    – Changed Funeral Rite
    – Changed Blessings
    – Changed Fasting/ Abstinence Regulations
    – Changed Architecture
    – Changed Vocabulary / Terminology (Often Ambiguous, Less Precise)
    – Changed Exorcisms
    – Changed Blessing of Holy Water
    – New Canon Law
    – New Catechism
    – New Educational System
    – New Bible Translations
    – New Canonization Procedures
    – New Orientation (Horizontal Vs. Vertical)
    – New Practices Favored at the Expense of Traditional Doctrine
    – New Martyrology
    – Abandonment of the Ancient Mass
    – Lay Ministers
    — Female Altar Servers
    – Near Loss of the Latin Language
    – Communion in the Hand
    – Reduced Eucharistic Fast
    – Elimination of the Altar Rail
    – “Impoverished” Liturgical Vestments
    – Abolition of Black Vestments
    – Altered Devotions to the Blessed Virgin Mary & the Saints
    – Dropped Liturgical Seasons (e.g. Septuagesima)
    – Elimination of Ember Days
    – Elimination of Rogation Days
    – Reduction / Elimination of Octaves and Vigils
    – Elimination of Preparatory Period Before Lent
    – Relaxation of Penance in Lent
    – Reduced Fast Days
    – Reduced Emphasis on Penance & Mortification / Near Elimination of Penitential Days
    – Introduction of Audible Liturgy
    – “Demotion” of the Altar
    – “Demotion” of the Tabernacle
    – Communion Under Both Species
    – Introduction of Vernacular Language
    – Possible Elimination of Relics in Altars
    – Reduction in Altar Cloths
    – Replacement of Sacred Chant By Secular Music
    – Elimination of Side Altars
    – Many Dropped Feast Days
    – Drastic Changes in Prayers for Remaining Feasts
    – Candles in Church – Reduced or eliminated
    – Dropped: “Feast of the Most Precious Blood”
    – Revolutionary New, Protestantized Liturgies
    – Elimination of Explicitly Sacrificial Prayers in Mass
    – Altered College of Cardinals
    – Religious Order Changes
    – Roman Curia Reorganized
    – Loss of Minor Orders
    – Overthrow of Rules in Religious Life
    – Abolition of the Index of Forbidden Books (Index Librorum Prohibitorum)
    – Discarding of Symbols (papal chair, tiara, etc.)
    – Removal & Destruction of Existing Priceless Works of Art
    – Increased reliance on Lay ‘Experts’
    – Cutting off From the Past / Great Break With Tradition
    – Adoption of Collegiality
    – Increased Democracy in the Church
    – Clear Unity Replaced by “Search for Unity”
    – Reduction in Demands Made of Catholics
    – Relaxation of Rules
    – “Reduced Safeguards for the Faith and Faithful”
    – Withholding of Anathemas
    – Increased Toleration of ‘Mixed Marriages’
    – Shifted Focus (Man-Centered vs. God-Centered)


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