Abu Dhabi and the Jihad against Vatican II
The Abu Dhabi Declaration, A Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, has been making it difficult for Catholics to live together peaceably. The document was co-promulgated last year by Pope Francis and The Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, in the hope that it might “constitute an invitation to reconciliation and fraternity among all believers” and “a witness to the greatness of faith in God that unites divided hearts and elevates the human soul.” In the Church, however, it has succeeded only at reigniting the Dignitatis Humanae and Nostra Aetate wars, and with them the entire conflict over the Second Vatican Council.
The document’s leveling of “the greatness of faith in God” among diverse religions, and its use of the category “all believers” in a manner inclusive of all religions, lend it the feel of something ghost-written by the late Gregory Baum (who had a hand in Nostra Aetate) or by some other advocate of religious relativism. This becomes quite tangible in the paragraph supporting religious freedom:
Freedom is a right of every person: each individual enjoys the freedom of belief, thought, expression and action. The pluralism and the diversity of religions, color, sex, race and language are willed by God in His wisdom, through which He created human beings. This divine wisdom is the source from which the right to freedom of belief and the freedom to be different derives. Therefore, the fact that people are forced to adhere to a certain religion or culture must be rejected, as too the imposition of a cultural way of life that others do not accept.
The second sentence here is the most notorious, since it appears to make diversity of religion a matter of divine goodness and beneficence, like diversity of flora and fauna.
That sentence requires some parsing, however. It may be said in its defense that it works with the fact, stated by Paul on Mars Hill, that God “made from one every nation of men to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their habitation, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel after him and find him.” And while it does not also state, neither does it deny, the further fact that God, having overlooked times of ignorance, now “commands all men everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed” and whom he has raised from the dead. It does not state it, we may suppose, because (unlike Paul’s discourse in Acts 17) it is on its way to a political rather than an evangelical end; namely, that if people are meant by God to feel after him and to find him, then they must be free to do so. They must not be coerced in matters of religion or culture.
Now, surely there is nothing wrong with a document promulgated in a political context being on its way to a political rather than an evangelical end, so long as that end is understood to be proximate rather than ultimate. There’s the rub, however. For the Abu Dhabi Declaration seems to be evangelically deficient in a way no political aim can justify. Its call to “come together in the vast space of spiritual, human and shared social values,” and to do so in such as way as to avoid “unproductive discussions,” might reasonably be taken to rule out the very thing Paul was doing on Mars Hill!
At all events, Abu Dhabi has proved a serious provocation to many Catholics, as we have seen again this past fortnight. So much so that a controversy has broken out that threatens to lead a number of people into schism.
Bishop Schneider’s real objection
The fuse of this controversy was lit a couple of months ago by Bishop Athanasius Schneider, who argued in a LifeSite article that there was a direct causal relation between Dignitatis Humanae and Abu Dhabi, pointing out that Pope Francis himself had said as much.
On Schneider’s view, it was all fine and well for Dignitatis to insist that belief cannot be compelled without a violation of human nature, but a serious error to assert that men should be at liberty to act in religious matters according to their own beliefs and consciences, so long as their actions fall within the limits of a just public order. That is the kind of thinking that leads straight to the relativism of the Abu Dhabi Declaration. “Immunity from external coercion in accepting the only one true Faith is a natural right,” yes. “It is also a natural right not to be forced to carry out evil (sin) or error (false religion).” But there is no natural right not to be prevented from “choosing, carrying out and spreading” evil or error.
Schneider employs here a distinction between the positive and permissive will of God. The former belongs to providence at the level of creative design, the latter at the level of governance, in which both divine and human economies are adapted to historical conditions. Permission is not grounded in natural rights and it need not – generally ought not – extend to what is not right. The bishop begs the question, however, as to whether the natural right to make personal judgments, not least in matters of religion and conscience, extends to corporate practice by virtue of the corporate nature of religion; and whether in the present historical economy permission is granted by God, and ought to be granted by man, to worship freely within the due limits of a just public order, even and especially and order informed by the Catholic faith. There is no direct line from Dignitatis to Abu Dhabi if that is case.
Schneider also employs in problematic fashion the distinction between belief and action. For, by its very nature, belief is not subject to compulsion. Even actions cannot be coerced, though agents can be coerced; that is, pressured through threat of punishment to make, say, a false confession. It is quite meaningless, in political terms, to say that you may believe what you like so long as you do what you are told, especially when doing what you are told means not telling anyone what you believe (in Schneider’s terms, spreading error). It is also quite meaningless to say that man has by nature the right to think wrongly but does not the right to act wrongly. He hasn’t the “right” to do either, but he does have the power so long as God allows him the power, and the liberty, so long as the state permits him the liberty – which in a good many matters it must do.
The objection to Dignitatis that Schneider is looking for, then, is not that it passes from toleration of wrong belief to toleration of wrong action. States do that all the time. Anything can be thought with legal impunity, but only some wrong thoughts can be publicly encouraged with impunity, and only some wrong actions can be publicly undertaken with impunity. Thus it has ever been, and deciding which are which has ever been the lawmaker’s dilemma. There is no warrant at all for his contention that, on the view of the council fathers, a just state must place devil-worship on a par with the Catholic faith. Respect for “due limits” and “just order” (Dignitatis 2) rules that out without ruling out all practice but Catholic practice.
Schneider’s real objection, I suspect, is to the supposition of the fathers that, despite the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, the Catholic Church does not have the legal and political right or duty to rule the world on Christ’s behalf, putting an end to what Paul called “the times of ignorance” by enforcing a public order in which it is not permitted to promote anything contrary to Christ.
His objection, in other words, is eschatological. The fathers should have insisted, not merely on the libertas ecclesiae – the Church’s freedom to live and proclaim the gospel in any and every place – but also on the sovereign right of the Church over all lesser liberties. To put it rather more bluntly than Schneider does, they should have insisted on the right and responsibility of a truly just state to say, in effect, “Be Catholic or be quiet.” They did not do so because they worked with an insufficiently realized eschatology, hence with a deficient understanding both of the Church’s authority and of human responsibility in the face of that authority. They did not do so because they failed to reckon with the full implications of the kingship of Christ, with the earthly implications of his heavenly session.
In fairness to Bishop Schneider, his primary concern is that being Catholic must continue to mean giving faithful witness to Jesus Christ. Moreover, he is quite candid that being Catholic doesn’t mean always being right. Witness to Christ, even by means of an ecumenical council, is sometimes given in ways that later require reform. Which is what he hopes will happen where Dignitatis and other documents of Vatican II are concerned. For that council, advertently or inadvertently, mixed error with truth and false religion with true. It did not demand full obedience to Christ, and so to the Church, in the secular sphere.
Archbishop Viganò forces the issue
Enter Archbishop Viganò, who ensures detonation by insisting that Bishop Schneider himself is suffering from a tendency to attenuate the divine authority of the Church. Viganò sees nothing magisterial as ever having required or received correction. The very possibility of that should be excluded. Which means, of course, that Vatican II, was not magisterial. What ought to be conceded is something worse than an unfortunate admixture of error that had serious knock-on consequences. What ought to be conceded is that the council itself was an act of treason at the highest levels. Or rather, that there was an act of treason in the early going that snuffed out the true council, which got no further than its preparatory documents. After that it became merely a “container council” into which the work of “a ‘devil council’ [conciliabolo]” was inserted by treacherous men, men led by the first in a series of treacherous popes that has now reached its crescendo in the Abu Dhabi pope. Hence all its final documents, which have borne nothing but bad fruit, should be set aside and the preparatory documents reaffirmed.
Viganò’s explosive claims were immediately challenged, of course, by many able people, including Thomas Weinandy and John Cavadini, who wrote responses in the same publication, Inside the Vatican. It was in his rejoinder to Fr. Weinandy that the archbishop triggered his second charge, by talking about a conciliabolo. Weinandy’s reply came in The Catholic World Report, where he raised inter alia the obvious and necessary question of an “unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit.” That is not a question I can or will take up, but I will briefly rehearse the central argument.
Viganò attempts to expropriate and redeploy, in support of his claims about Vatican II, an earlier argument of Weinandy’s regarding Pope Francis. If Weinandy can posit a divided papacy, in which the pontiff is both head of the true Church and head also of a false church, a parallel church, then can he not also recognize in Vatican II both a council of truth and a council of error? This analogy Weinandy rejects. The problem we face with Francis, he says, is not that there is a true pope and a false – something impossible in one man – but that there is, in the one pope, both a headship proper to the true Church and a de facto headship of this false church. The household of God and an alliance of false brethren within that household are being led simultaneously by one and the same man, at least to the extent that this man is deliberately making room for them to do their devilish work. While Viganò attempts – by calumniation, says Weinandy, rather than by evidence – to make the same case against the popes of the council, he mounts no case at all as regards the council itself. For what he says about the council is that there are two, not one: the aborted council that only began to take place and the diabolical council that took its place.
So the analogy fails. Where Weinandy has one pope (Francis) simultaneously serving two churches, Viganò has one pope (Roncalli) serving two churches by means of two successive councils. If there is a mystery to Francis that troubles Weinandy, and a mystery to Roncalli that troubles Viganò, there is no parallel mystery to Vatican II. Bishop Schneider’s council, with its strange admixture of truth and error, is mysterious, but not Archbishop Viganò’s. For the latter posits one council that is true, another that is false and can be rejected altogether. He has cut the Gordian knot, at the risk of that unpardonable sin.
Viganò’s intervention, then, if I may say so, has forced the issue. It is no longer possible to equivocate about the Second Vatican Council. Was it of God, or was it of men only? Indeed, was it of God or was it of the Evil One? Whoever objects to what has been done in the name of “the spirit of Vatican II,” including the Abu Dhabi Declaration and the idolatrous adoration of the Pachamama, yet refuses to answer the question, now finds himself in an untenable position, akin to that of those who would not answer Jesus regarding John the Baptist. We may thank Archbishop Viganò for that, at least.
Conflicting accounts of the post-conciliar disaster
Some time ago I suggested that it is helpful to address the mystery of the current pontificate by bringing to bear the distinction between the man and his office, a distinction too easily passed over or misconstrued when writing or reading journalistic shorthand. We need a similar distinction here. For an ecumenical council, like the pontificate(s) with which it is associated, considered in terms of its magisterial office and function, cannot simultaneously belong to the true Church and the false. A pope or a council father, on the other hand, can be divided in himself and against himself. He can for that matter be a scoundrel, who belongs in one sense to the true Church and in another, more fundamental sense to the false, whose fate he will share. (So it was with Boniface VIII, for example, in Dante’s judgment.) Such a one, even without being a scoundrel, can do great damage in the performance of his office or, even as a scoundrel, do significant good; and the good or the harm in question rebounds in some way upon the office, changing the way it is perceived and performed.
When we keep this in mind, we can see more easily that to give the answer we ought to give, the answer we must give if we do not intend to be schismatic – the answer that Vatican II was indeed an authentic ecumenical council, engaged in the work of God and of the magisterium of the Church under God – is not to commit ourselves to the untenable notion that its fathers were uniformly faithful or that its documents, despite the flaws of their authors, were themselves essentially flawless. Nor is it to deny that a council, like a pontificate, can be abused; that it can be employed, wittingly or unwittingly, in service of the false church as well as the true. Where it is abused, and the abuse takes place during as well as after the council – such is the case with Vatican II – that is likely to show in its documents, which will still not declare error to be truth but may indeed contain some admixture of error with the truth. So much (and no more) we may concede to Bishop Schneider, as long as the hermeneutic of continuity is maintained and, with it, the recognition that Vatican II is not unique in this respect. The texts of any council must be read in the light of scripture and of all the other councils. Ambiguities that are present, or inconsistencies that then appear, must be resolved in favour of the unity of the whole.
Archbishop Viganò, who answers the question by repudiating the council, does not believe that this can be done with Vatican II. He points (much like Schneider, though Schneider stops short of the schismatic answer) first to the fruit of the council, then to its actual teaching. The council seems to have left Catholicism in much the same shape as the tragic warehouse blast has left Beirut. Shall we not condemn its teaching, which modernists had been stockpiling for a generation, and return to what we had beforehand?
But there is another and quite different explanation for what happened in the wake of Vatican II, the explanation offered the archbishop by Weinandy and Cavadini. It is not the council and its teaching we should blame, but rather a widespread failure to receive and implement the teaching properly. In the name of the council or its “spirit,” what was implemented was not what the council actually taught, but a perversion thereof. Everything was read just as the modernists wanted it read, which meant of course that the vast majority of it wasn’t read at all. The council, at which the modernists had managed some successes in the midst of many failures, became an excuse for proceeding with everything they had proposed or intended to propose. The spirit operating in a subterranean fashion during the council, and quite openly since the council, is not at all the same Spirit who (in keeping with our Lord’s promise) was operating in and through the council.
The Holy Spirit himself was at work and remains at work, as Weinandy puts it, through both a “beneficent” and a ”severe” grace. This both/and was necessary because of the many sins that had been heaped up in the warehouse, so to say, and left unattended. Or to change the metaphor, ecclesial and cultural life was already suppurating. A great boil of moral and intellectual corruption was growing that required to be lanced. The council, whatever else it was, was an instrument of God for its lancing and eventually for its healing. “Eventually” rather than immediately, because the council (like so many other councils before it) did not achieve everything it ought to have achieved. Its labors, however sincere and productive, were insufficiently directed to lancing the boil or to repair of the infected ecclesial tissue. The courage for that was lacking at the council, as was the courage to back Humanae Vitae afterwards.
I think we must admit that there was want of courage. Marxism and Communism, which had already made serious inroads in the Church, went unnamed. So, by and large, did the hubris and the lusts that marked Western secularism, which had traveled even further. The impending collapse of the one and of the other alike, through their infelicitous union, was not foreseen or prophetically addressed. The sickness in the Church itself, including sexual sickness, was not addressed. Rather a bright face was put on and the people went out as if to a dance, led by clergy and religious who had already got themselves (un)dressed for it. That was not the work of the council, but work that was going on concurrently with the council, to which the council did not put a stop.
The boil has been lanced anyway. The sickly explosion has taken place. But it has been lanced only in the natural course of things – that is, by severe grace – rather than by humble and obedient cooperation with God. Hence there has been little in place with which to clean up or to speed healing. The corruption continues, even at the top of the hierarchy. It is indeed a severe grace we suffer, though other graces are also operative in the divine providence that includes the council itself. For the council, as Professor Cavadini contends, has left us a great deal to work with, and many healing balms, if only we will receive and apply them rightly. From evangelistic success in Africa to lay-led renewal movements (even in Western academia) to new-generation vocations in the John Paul II era, blessings have also abounded.
Of the two explanations for what has happened, the second is much to be preferred to the first. The first tries to save the appearances of the Church before the council by denying the presence of the Spirit at the council. The second sees the Spirit working in and through the council both to call the Church to renewal (beneficent grace) and to expose the deep need for renewal (severe grace). Just as God gave man in his creation the capacity to obey, without coercing obedience and thus removing its significance, so in the council he has given the Church what is needed for renewal, without compelling her members to take hold of it for life or preventing them from seizing it for death. We have witnessed this seizing by violent men, and we are witnessing it still. On that we all agree. We will witness the renewal, too, but not by grieving the Spirit, even blaspheming the Spirit, through denying the gift of the council and attributing to the enemy what actually belongs to God.
That said, the final documents of Vatican II, like its preparatory documents, remain flawed documents, for they remain human documents. Their flaws provide openings for perverse people to justify themselves using the council’s own language. (Of what council can that not be said, never mind a council so ambitious as Vatican II? Not everything written by councils is as clear and definitive as the homoousion clause, and even that did not settle in quickly!) Some intended exactly that, even while the council proceeded, and their efforts, as already noted, met with some success. This does not mean, however, that the council taught error or elevated error into Church doctrine. What it does mean is that a hermeneutic of continuity must be diligently pursued rather than abandoned. And that the saga of the modern councils is not yet finished. There will, as before, be refinements and course corrections or reversals, precisely to prevent rupture and preserve continuity with the Great Tradition, including some that bear quite directly on the reading and use of Dignitatis Humanae and Nostra Aetate and Gaudium et Spes. For we have all witnessed the parade of lorries (one with the Abu Dhabi logo) lumbering through the gaps those documents left open, and we all know that there is work still to be done.
In Part II we will turn to one aspect of that work, an aspect the present controversy has thrust upon us.
(Editor’s note: This is Part I of a two-part essay. Part II was posted on Sunday, August 30, 2020.)
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