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Vatican II not sole controversial council, Catholic theologian says

By JD Flynn for CNA

Pope John XXIII leads the opening session of the Second Vatican Council in St. Peter's Basilica Oct. 11, 1962. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano)

Denver Newsroom, Aug 5, 2020 / 03:35 pm (CNA).-  Amid recent controversy over Vatican II, a theologian said that ecumenical councils have a history of provoking conflict, but their expression and explanation of the Catholic faith is protected by the Holy Spirit.

“The Holy Spirit can’t be inconsistent with Himself,” Notre Dame theologian John Cavadini told CNA, but “wrongly interpreted, the statements of an ecumenical council may be inconsistent with previous teaching.”

The theologian was appointed in 2009 by Pope Benedict XVI to serve on the Church’s International Theological Commission, and specializes in the intellectual history of Christianity.

Cavadini said it is important to acknowledge when Church documents need clarification, but doing so is not the same as claiming, as some recent critics have, that an ecumenical council might teach or contain errors about the Catholic faith.

The Second Vatican Council was an authoritative meeting of the Catholic Church’s bishops, called an ecumenical council, held in Rome from 1962 to 1965. There have been 21 ecumenical councils in the Church’s history, at which, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “the college of bishops exercises power over the universal Church in a solemn manner.”

Vatican II has been the subject of disagreement since it began.

The council was convened to articulate teachings of the Catholic faith in a matter that might be understood in modernity, to grapple with the Church’s relationship to the secular world, and to address some theological and pastoral questions that had arisen in the decades before it.

Since the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, it has become a decades-long theological project of the Church’s bishops to interpret and understand the fullness of its vision, in a manner consistent with the doctrinal teachings of the Church. That project has led to numerous theological and pastoral initiatives, and also to division.

Some Catholics, including some bishops who attended the Council, felt that attempts to “modernize” the Church’s language or catechesis could lead to equivocation on important issues, or a less precise and direct expression of Catholic doctrine and worship.

Some critics of Vatican II have said that documents produced by the council contain errors, others say they need clarification, while many others have criticized the application of the council in the decades following it, while defending the documents themselves. In some cases, those debates have led to official ruptures in the Church.

In recent months debate over the council itself has become more public, and more acute.

In a June interview, and in other recent letters, Archbishop Carlo Viganò, a former papal representative to the United States, offered a set of criticisms against the Second Vatican Council that attracted considerable attention among some scholars and Catholics, especially because of their source: a former high-ranking Vatican official who had been appointed to positions by Pope St. John Paul and Pope Benedict XVI, both supporters of the Second Vatican Council.

Viganò claimed 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.

Viganò has suggested that the Second Vatican Council catalyzed a massive, but unseen, schism in the Church, ushering in a false Church alongside the true Church.

Last month, some Catholics, including priests, media personalities, and some scholars, signed a letter praising Vigano’s engagement on the topic, and claiming that “Whether or not Vatican II can be reconciled with Tradition is the question to be debated, not a posited premise blindly to be followed even if it turns out to be contrary to reason. The continuity of Vatican II with Tradition is a hypothesis to be tested and debated, not an incontrovertible fact.”

In response to Viganò, Cavadini wrote in July that he sympathizes with Catholic frustrations “regarding the evident confusion in the Church today, the attenuation of Eucharistic faith, the banality of much of what claims to be the Council’s inheritance liturgically, etc.”

“Yet, is it fair to blame the Council, rejecting it as riddled with error? But would this not mean the Holy Spirit allowed the Church to lapse into prodigious error and further allowed five Popes to teach it enthusiastically for over 50 years?” Cavadini asked.

“Further, did the Second Vatican Council really produce no good worth mentioning? Viganò mentions none. True, its liturgical reforms were commandeered by banality in the United States. For example, there is the introduction of hymns with no aesthetic merit but containing doctrinal errors especially regarding the Eucharist, hymns that de-catechized the very Catholics who faithfully attend Sunday Mass,” he wrote, while noting that he had experienced beautiful liturgies in African nations that were the fruit of the Second Vatican Council.

Speaking of one such Mass in Nigeria, Cavadini wrote, that “when, after Communion, the whole assembly recited in unison three times, ‘O Sacrament Most Holy, O Sacrament Divine, all praise and all thanksgiving be every moment Thine,’ it seemed that the Holy Spirit was making the deepest possible appeal to our hearts, reaching into our souls, helping us to ‘pray as we ought.’”

The theologian also praised the universal call to holiness contained in Lumen gentium, Vatican II’s document on the Church. The council emphasized that sanctity, or closeness to God, is not only the domain of priests and religious, but of all people.

“It is something which seemed so sublime to me when I first read it at age 19 that the desire to live up to it has never worn off even now,” he wrote.

Cavadini catalogued other aspects of Vatican II he said were important theological or pastoral pronouncements. He said claims that documents of Vatican II planted the “seeds” of theological error do not stand up to scrutiny.

“Is Vatican II a bad seed? Or, is the seed in question rather the lopsided choice of theologians to develop one strand of conciliar teaching at the expense of others? Not to mention pastors who have so prioritized the true good of making Christian teaching accessible and intelligible to modern people that they downplay its uniqueness as embarrassingly outmoded?” he asked.

In comments to CNA, Cavadini emphasized that other councils have been misinterpreted and controversial. His essay noted that some controversies continued for centuries.

“That a statement would need further interpretation is not a unique feature of this council,” Cavadini said.

The theologian raised an example from the Council of Nicea, which took place in the summer of 325. The council, in a discussion about the Trinity, declared that the Son is consubstantial, or homoousios, with the Father.

“There was a widespread reaction against the word,” Cavadini told CNA, by bishops and theologians who equated it with the third-century heresy of Sabellianism, which had been condemned by the Church’s magisterium.

“It was only when the use of the word hupostasis or persona was clarified and distinguished from ousia or ‘substance’ that the ambiguity was clarified. But — to emphasize — this was not an error in the teaching itself, far from it! Yet the very act of making a statement sets up a new situation, which often does require further interpretation.”

When Nicea used the word homoousios, “it was taking up a tainted word,” the theologian said.

“Wouldn’t our critics of Vatican II have cried foul? And error? They just don’t remember that even this most famous of councils was bold enough to risk using a tainted word in a new sense with new intent.”

He added that amid efforts to interpret a document, official clarification of unclear language is sometimes important.

On matters of faith “an ecumencial council is preserved from error” he added, “but this does not mean that everything was expressed as well as it could have been or could be, for the Holy Spirit doesn’t guarantee that, but simply that the Church, in her authoritative teaching, is preserved from outright statements of error.”

Cavadini urged that Catholics, and especially Church leaders, read seriously the documents of Vatican II, and work to incorporate them in their understanding of the Church.

The recent controversy, he wrote, and Viganò’s letter, have “at least had the virtue of forcing me to emerge from complacency in accepting half-measures in the reception of the Council. Perhaps others will find themselves with me in the same boat as well.”

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  1. The commentary is from 10,000 feet. Adding compatible ground-level detail…Instead of making deletions to drafts, the Council Fathers (as a collegial whole) often placed potentially misleading wording in context by simply adding wording. (Manipulative misquotes—-out of context—-have followed.) As examples, here are some nuanced but strategic interventions (in BOLD) made by Pope Paul VI himself:

    Lumen Gentium:

    The clarifying three-page Prefatory/Explanatory Note added to Chapter Three on “collegiality” (clearly affirming a “hierarchical communion”).


    (n. 1) Instead of “In truth, all are disciples of the Lord” with “In truth, ALL AFFIRM THAT THEY ARE disciples of the Lord.”
    (n. 4) Replace “Recognizing…the presence of the gifts of the Spirit in the lives of others” with “…recognizing the VIRTUOUS WORKS in the lives of others.”
    (n. 14) “not a few of these have apostolic origins” with “not a few of these GLORY IN HAVING BEEN FOUNDED BY the Apostles themselves.”
    (n. 16) “…the Sacred Council… declares that the Churches of the East have the right and the duty to govern themselves according to their discipline” with “they have THE FACULTY to govern themselves according to their discipline.”
    (n. 21) “…moved by the Holy Spirit they find God in the same Holy Scripture” with CALLING UPON the Holy Spirit, they SEEK GOD in the same Holy Scripture.”

    Dei Verbum:

    This document was modified to re-assert the value of Tradition as well as Scripture: “the result is that the Church draws its certainty on all things revealed NOT FROM SCRIPTURE ALONE, (n. 9). It also asserts the historical nature of the Gospels: WHOSE HISTORICAL NATURE IT [the Council] AFFIRMS WITHOUT HESITATION (n. 19).

    (Source: selected from “Dossier: ‘The Council’s Helmsman,’ 30 Days, VII, 1992, pp. 50-60.)

    This reader is not an authority on these matters, but has taken an interest and kept notes over the years.

  2. That is well and good.

    But what does the esteemed theologian propose as the correct interpretation of subsistit, if indeed the word can be given a meaning consistent with the perennial teaching of the Church?

    • Regarding the meaning of “subsistit”, this wording in Lumen Gentium:

      “This Church, constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in union with that successor, although many elements of sanctification and of truth can be found outside of her visible structure. These elements, however, as gifts properly belonging to the Church of Christ, possess an inner dynamism toward Catholic unity” (n. 8).

      Elaboration is provided in the document on Ecumenism (as clarified in part in my previous comment). Ecumenism remarks in part on the shared validity of the sacrament of Baptism, but also distinguishes between the Eastern Churches which share in apostolic succession (and therefore other sacramental validity), and the Protestant “ecclesial communities.”

      Of increasing relevance today is the Declaration “Dominus Iesus” (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, August 6 [!], 2000) which includes this, bearing on religious “pluralism”:

      “The Church’s constant missionary proclamation is endangered today by relativistic theories which seek to justify religious PLURALISM, not only de facto bu di iure (or in principle). As a consequence, it is held that certain truths have been superseded; for example, the definitive and complete character of the revelation of Jesus Christ, the nature of Christian faith as compared with that of belief in other religions, the inspired nature of the books of Sacred Scripture, the personal unity between the Eternal Word and the Holy Spirit, the unicity and salvific universality of the mystery of Jesus Christ, the universal salvific mediation of the Church, the inseparability—while recognizing the distinction—of the kingdom of God, the kingdom of Christ, and the Church, and the SUBSISTENCE of the one Church of Christ in the Catholic Church” (n. 4, CAPS added).

  3. PARAGRAPH SEVEN: “The council was convened to articulate teachings of the Catholic faith in a matter that might be understood in modernity, to grapple with the Church’s relationship to the secular world, and to address some theological and pastoral questions that had arisen in the decades before it.”
    RE: Paragraph seven, would not “manner” be a more sensible, and understandable, word choice than “matter?”

    PARAGRAPH ELEVEN: “In a June interview, and in other recent letters, Archbishop Carlo Viganò, a former papal representative to the United States, offered a set of criticisms against the Second Vatican Council that attracted considerable attention among some scholars and Catholics, especially because of their source: a former high-ranking Vatican official who had been appointed to positions by Pope St. John Paul and Pope Benedict XVI, both supporters of the Second Vatican Council”.
    RE: paragraph eleven, are “scholars,” and “catholics,” two seperate species or are some scholars catholics and some catholics scholars?

  4. Dr. Cavadini’s position is in harmony with what was taught by St. Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621). In De conciliis, Liber II, chapter II, Bellarmine affirms the protection of general councils (also called ecumenical councils) from error by saying: “A general Council represents the universal Church, and hence has the consensus of the universal Church; wherefore if the Church cannot err, neither can a legitimate and approved ecumenical Council err.” (Concilium generale repraesentat Ecclesiam universam, et proinde consensus habet Ecclesiam universalis; quare si Ecclesia non potest errare, neque Concilium oecumenicam legitimum, et approbatum potest errare).

    St. Robert Bellarmine, at the end of De conciliis, Liber II, chapter IX says “we hold by Catholic faith that legitimate councils confirmed by the Supreme Pontiff cannot err” (ex fide Catholica habeamus concilia legitima a Summo Pontifice confirmata non posse errare).
    Bellarmine here is speaking of matters of faith and morals. Some teachings of ecumenical councils, especially on matters of discipline, have been superseded, let go, or revised. Rather than speak of such teachings as errors, I believe it’s more accurate to say these were teachings that were not per se irreformable. Some theologians believe that if teachings are not per se infallible, they are, therefore, liable to error. I would rather speak of them as non-irreformable, which is the way the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith speaks of them in numbers 24 and 28 of its 1990 instruction, Donum Veritatis.

    St. Paul VI died 42 years ago today (August 6, 1978). He approved, decreed, and established all 16 documents of Vatican II “by the apostolic power” given to him by Christ and “in the Holy Spirit.” To claim there are doctinal errors in Vatican II runs into all kinds of serious theological and ecclesiological problems. We do well to follow the understanding of Vatican II as articulated by Dr.Cavadini and all the popes since Vatican II.

  5. Archbishop Viganò is correct, as I too believe that there were advocates for radical discontiguous change. Although they did not succinctly succeed in the actual documents. JD Flynn in apparent agreement with Cavadini then is more correct, that it’s the misrepresentation of those documents that’s the issue known as the infamous Spirit of Vat II. Similar to John Cavadini I perceive our faith as protected by the Holy Spirit especially in a Council invoked by the supreme Roman pontiff. Like Cavadini I experienced 1964 as lay phi lecturer at Kachebere Major Seminary Mchinji Malawi, the growing, intense faith both at the seminary and at the White Fathers’ Vubwe, Zambia mission during village Novus Ordo Masses with a missionary father. What I have found are not error in the documents, rather requirements for expansion and clarification. In Dignitatis Humanae the expressed need to cite Church coercive authority for baptized Catholics. Collegiality is not heresy since the documents include the bishop of Rome. It’s the false concept of collegiality that has morphed into Synodality by design especially during the present pontificate. An idea for implementing radical change implanted in Pope Francis’ mind by former mentor Cardinal Carlo Martini SJ Archbishop Milan. Neither do I agree with the extreme ideas of Archbishop Viganò and perhaps including Bishop A Schneider that only a return to pre Vatican II Liturgy will save the Church. Modernization does not equate Modernity, condemned by Pius X if modernization means what the Council intended, which is to design a liturgy and pastoral approach better suited to the modern world. Certainly the stretch toward secularization, adaptation to Amazonian native ritual, listening to Mother Earth initiated by Pope Francis is certainly the major issue. Internecine warfare over Vat II is a distraction from where the focus must be. Pachamamma and all it entails must be wrenched from the Vatican Sanctuary and thrown into the flames where it belongs.

    • Correction. It was 1974 not 64 when I volunteered as a layman lecturer at Kachebere Major Seminary in Malawi.

  6. Having read other comments since I posted mine I find two arguments with which I agree and which support my opinion on not only the validity but the positive effect of the Council. Prof Fastiggi quoting Bellarmine is consistent with my positive view. Peter Beaulieu, besides a positive view, raises an important issue found in Lumen Gentium on the definition of the Church and the theological affinity found in some Protestant bodies. Perceived as an extension of Catholicity. Liberals take that and run with it beyond the intended scope, some traditionalists call it heresy. As if one must be Catholic to be saved, a controversial position historically modified. That belief that no one outside the Catholic Church is saved as some traditionalists hold is like saying GK Chesterton, Cardinal Newman, or any of our converts now editors of Catholic websites would have been condemned if they died prior to conversion. Now the cause of the great exodus that followed Vat II cannot be found in the Council documents or change in liturgy. Many remained, many who loved Latin and things as they were. Those who left were already nominal in their beliefs. Those who went far beyond the actual documents were already on the verge of schism, even Apostasy. Had the Council not occurred the real possibility of a second breakaway reformation may have occurred. The calling for the Council by John XXIII perhaps providentially provided the means to manage and secure the integrity of the Church, containing the anticipated revolt. As it happened many of the rebellious realized during the pontificate of John Paul II their error and changed. As did the eminent Cardinal Avery Dulles SJ who initially mitigated the Real Resurrection from the dead of Christ, and eventually became among the finest of its defenders.

    • Cardinal Dulles authored the influential Models of the Church (1974) which in the original edition concludes in passing that the “model” less likely to be intact in the future is the hierarchical institutional structure (surely contrary to Lumen Gentium). He later remarked in an interview with America (2001) that the book was too much influenced by the turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s (the six models were Mystical Communion, Sacrament, Servant, Herald, Discipleship and Institutional). My recollection is that the dismissive paragraph re the hierarchical communion was removed from later editions.

      In 2006 Cardinal Dulles was awarded the first and prestigious St. Ignatius Medal by the short-lived (the original) Faith and the Great Ideas Program within (Jesuit) Seattle University. He spoke eloquently and unambiguously on the Catholic Faith (and great ideas) in the modern world, in front of a packed auditorium, but I recall seeing only one or maybe two other brother Jesuits in attendance.

      In subsequent years the Medal has been awarded by the university as a whole, and Cardinal Dulles is not listed anywhere as the first recipient…. Does his removal from the roll call serve as a commentary on modern Jesuit Spirituality?

  7. Was Vatican II controversial? Yes. Were other Councils controversial? Yes. Was Vatican II valid? Yes.
    I do not see those questions as important, though. Did Vatican II accomplish what it was suppose to accomplish? Did it advance membership? Did it increase member holiness? Do people have a better understanding of fundamental Church teachings (truths, really) on contraception/abortion, family, marriage? and an increased desire to live them?
    Hmm, I think we all know the answer to that one–No, not at all. We are in a state of rapid decline. Vatican II was a failure. Valid perhaps, but a failure.

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