Did the Second Vatican Council teach error?

By John Salza

Our inquiries and assessments are at the service of truth and the supreme end, which is our salvation. Theologians and apologists make these assessments because they love Christ and desire only His truth. Some people get nervous about questioning the Church’s pastoral and non-binding teaching, but the Church herself encourages and even requires us to bring our concerns to her pastors, which we must do in a respectful and humble manner according to our abilities.

I will begin by briefly addressing the premise of Vatican II: aggiornamento! (which, in Italian, means “update”). When Pope John XXIII opened the council, he made it clear that the council’s objective was to update the manner in which the Faith was taught to conform more closely with the thinking of modern man. If you read his opening address on October 11, 1962, the pope mentions several times the council’s desire of “bringing her (the Church) up to date” in light of “modern thought,” the “conditions of modern life,” the “modern world,” in order to achieve a “unity of mankind.”

We note that such a principle was condemned by St. Pius X in Pascendi, No. 11 and Lamentabili, Nos. 63 and 64, and by Pius XII in Humani Generis. Of course, Pope John XXIII knew this, and so we must assume his “updating” methods or objectives were distinguishable from the “updating” condemned by the pre-conciliar popes - but the Church has never explained this distinction. In fact, Pope John Paul II warned us to discern the fruits of Vatican II from those which come from “the prince of this world” – the devil (Dominum et vivificantem, 1986). This is an incredible disclaimer for an ecumenical council, unlike anything we have ever seen from previous popes.

The underlying motive of the council in updating the faith was “ecumenism” (a term the council repeatedly used but never defined). We must presume the good faith of the pope, that is, that he was seeking to convert as many souls to the Catholic faith – the only goal of ecumenism – by making the Church’s teaching, shall we say, more palatable. The pope even said that the Church wished to use “the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity” to accomplish this end.

To prepare the faithful for what was to follow, the pope made a distinction between the “deposit of faith” and “the way in which it is presented” to indicate that the former is unchangeable while the latter may change. That is, the pope was revealing that the council was going to change the way the Catholic faith was presented by previous councils, and this turned out to be very true. As we mentioned, not only did the council fail to define dogma and condemn error like previous councils, but it also introduced many ambiguous statements and terminology, some of which I will address below. We must mention that, never previously, did the Church ever “update” the manner in which she taught the faith to conform to the times. Why has the Church always guarded against “updating” the faith with new expressions and terminology?

Because both the faith and the way it is expressed are timeless. In fact, many of these expressions are considered infallible ecclesiastical traditions that have been inspired by the Holy Ghost and thus cannot be set aside without incurring anathema (Nicea II). The lex orandi necessarily effects the lex credendi, and if you change the former, you will affect the latter. The unprecedented creativity and experimentation in the Catholic liturgy – which has been followed by a loss of faith in the Real Presence – proves the point. The Church has always held that cultures must adapt to the necessities of the Catholic rite, leaving no room for creativity and experimentation (my thoughts on the liturgical revolution is a separate animal and are thus beyond the scope of this answer).

With that background, I will address some of the “updates” in the Church’s teaching that have provoked much consternation. For example, Dei Verbum, No. 8, says, “the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her.” If the “Church” in this statement refers to the individual members of the Body, then this statement is in line with Tradition. As fallible human beings, we are constantly moving toward the fullness of truth as our fallible intellects receive and process the truths given to us by the infallible Magisterium. However, if the “Church” in this statement refers to the Mystical Body of Christ, then it would not be reconcilable with Tradition. As I have said, we need to give the council the benefit of the doubt and attempt to interpret these statements in light of Tradition.

The problem with the statement is that, on its face, it gives the impression that the council is speaking about the Mystical Body, as it refers to the Church as “her” at the end of the statement. This gives the reader the impression that Church does not already possess “the fullness of divine truth,” which would be contrary to Catholic Tradition. Jesus told His apostles that the Spirit of truth “will guide you into all the truth” (Jn 16:12). That means the Church has already received the fullness of the truth from the Holy Spirit as Christ promised. If the Church does not already have “the fullness of divine truth,” but is only “moving forward toward it,” then how can we say she possesses the Deposit of Faith (1Tim 6:20)? Thus, this statement from the council can be read to suggest that either the Church doesn’t have the fullness of divine truth, or, what she has must be modified as she progresses toward its fulfillment. It is a confusing statement, to say the least.

Another example can be found in Lumen Gentium, No. 8, where the council says, “The Church, however, clasping sinners to her bosom, at once holy and always in need of purification, follows constantly the path of penance and renewal.” As in the first example, if the “Church” refers to the individual members of the Body, then this statement is in line with Tradition. The members of the Body are always in need of purification because we are sinners. However, because the text identifies the Church by referring to “her” bosom, it certainly follows that the council could be describing the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ, and not the individual members of the Body. If that were the case, this statement would be problematic, because the Mystical Body of Christ has no need of purification. St. Paul is clear that Christ, by giving himself up for “her” (Eph 5:25), has sanctified and cleansed her so “that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph 5:26-27). Thus, the Church does not to be purified, sinners do, and it is through the holy and spotless Church that this purification of the sinner comes about, through the sacraments.

Another example, Lumen Gentium, No.8 (as well as Dignitatis Humanae 1 and Unitatis Redintegratio 3) says, “the Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church.” (Note that this teaching has been affirmed by the CDF’s Dominus Iesus (2000) and Responses to Questions (2007)). This statement can be interpreted as a change in the Church’s ecclesiology because the perennial teaching of the Magisterium is that the Church of Christ is (not “subsists in”) the Catholic Church. By using “subsists,” the council can be interpreted as saying that the “Church of Christ” is larger than the “Catholic Church,” because the Church of Christ could also presumably “subsist” in non-Catholic communities. This non-traditional interpretation is bolstered by the council’s statement that “elements of sanctification and truth” can be found outside the Catholic Church’s visible structure (the 2007 Response explains that this is precisely the reason why the council used “subsists”).

The Catholic Church has never taught such a thing (which is why Dei Verbum doesn’t cite any precedent for its teaching and which is also why this teaching is not from the ordinary and universal Magisterium). The infallible teaching of the Church is that, outside of her, there is no salvation (Extra ecclesiam nulla salus est). Pius IX taught that those outside of the Catholic Church can be saved only if they are invincibly ignorant of the need to be in the Catholic Church to be saved and live a life of faith, hope and charity. It is true that grace operates in the souls of those “outside” the Catholic Church to draw individual people into the Catholic Church (this grace comes from Christ through the Catholic Church alone). But the Church has never taught that non-Catholic communities are a means of that grace, particularly when these communities teach heretical ideas and live in rebellion against the Catholic Church. That is, the Church has never taught that grace operates in non-Catholic communities as communities, but only in the souls of individual persons. There can be no fellowship between light and darkness (2Cor 6:14).

Thus, the ambiguity of “subsists in” implies that the Catholic Church has only the “fullness” of the means of salvation (not the exclusive means), and that other non-Catholic communities can have “less full” means of salvation. But if the means of these non-Catholic communities are “less full” than the Catholic means, that “means” that the salvation they are offering cannot be the same salvation as the Catholic Church. Yet, salvation is an all or nothing proposition! One cannot be partially saved. It is not possible for deficient means to provide the same salvation. Having some elements of an automobile does mean the automobile is going to work to get you to your destination. Either one is saved only by the Catholic Church, or he is not saved by the Catholic Church at all.

The council of Trent teaches that the sacraments of the Catholic Church are necessary for salvation, not just a means to nourish the soul. If non-Catholic communities do not have the seven sacraments, then how can they possibly be a means of salvation? Or is the council saying that the Catholic Church is subsisting invisibly in non-Catholic communities? If so, where has the Church ever taught such a thing? As we can see, the term “subsists” is ambiguous at best, and raises more questions than answers. The Church did not have to use the word “subsists” to reaffirm the traditional teaching that grace can operate in the souls of non-Catholics who may be saved in spite of (not because of) their false religions. This terminology has blurred the perennial Catholic teaching that non-Catholic religions are not a means of salvation; they are obstacles to salvation.

In Unitatis Redintegratio, No. 6, and Guadiam et Spes, No. 62, the council says that if “there have been deficiencies in moral conduct or in church discipline, or even in the way that church teaching has been formulated – to be carefully distinguished from the deposit of faith itself – these can and should be set right at the opportune moment.” This is another striking statement. Where has the Church ever taught that her formulations of Church teaching (doctrine?) have been insufficient? It seems to me that such a notion would give Protestants – the presumed target of ecumenism - less confidence in the Catholic Church. I don’t believe the Bride of Christ needs to make such humbling statements in reference to her teaching office. This notion seems again to flow from the premise of aggiornamento, where Catholic teaching needs to be updated to conform to the times. Even if the council is attempting to distinguish between doctrine and the way doctrine is lived and expressed, we noted that if you tinker with the lex orandi, you will necessarily effect the lex credendi. And haven’t we seen the fruits of this tinkering in the last 40 years, especially as it relates to the Holy Mass?

One of the more confusing documents is the council’s decree on religious liberty (Dignitatis Humanae). The council says that there are two elements to religious liberty. The first element regards a person’s freedom from coercion: “This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits” (No.2). This teaching, which acknowledges a man’s right to be protected from coercion, is perfectly consistent with the Church’s Tradition, such as the teaching of Pope Leo XIII in Immortale Dei.

The second element, however, regards a person’s alleged freedom to publicly profess error. The council says, “Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious” (No.3). The council further says that “religious communities rightfully claim freedom in order that they may…honor the Supreme Being in public worship” and “have the right not to be hindered in their public teaching and witness to their faith, whether by the spoken or by the written word” (No. 4). In other words, the council says that people have the right to publicly adhere to and profess religious error. Further, the council says that this “right to religious freedom has its foundation not in the subjective disposition of the person, but in his very nature” (No.2).

The council stated that it desired to leave untouched the traditional Catholic doctrine that all men have a moral obligation to be Catholic. In fact, it could not change this teaching because it is part of the ordinary infallible Magisterium. Thus, it appears that the council is only referring to a person’s right to adhere to error in the civil (not moral) sphere. Indeed, the council says that the right to religious liberty should “become a civil right.” Nevertheless, this is the first time that the Church has said that a man should have a civil right to profess error, and not simply acknowledge the State’s right to tolerate his error if for the common good. The “development” here seems to be moving from State toleration to State legitimization. This teaching does not reaffirm the Social Kingship of Our Lord Jesus Christ whose rights take precedent over those of man, and fails to mention that no law can be enacted that is contrary to the will of God. Of course, the document does not deny (only omits) the Traditional teaching on Christ’s reign in societies and governments, but it is very hard to understand why the council would not even mention the doctrine – not one word of it – when talking about the rights of the State, which are always subordinate to the rights of Jesus Christ.

Some traditionalists point out the council’s statement that religious liberty flows from man’s very nature, and this can give one the impression that a man’s right to publicly profess religious error is a natural, God-given right. The council did not say that man has a natural right to profess error, but basing a man’s right to religious liberty on his very nature and dignity does confuse the issue. If the council were saying such a thing (which it does not explicitly do), then the teaching would be irreconcilable with Catholic Tradition, which holds that man does not have a natural right to adhere to error, only the freewill to do so. If the council is saying that a man has only a civil (but not moral) right to publicly profess error, then this probably can, with some difficulty, be reconciled with Tradition, because the State can tolerate error for the greater common good, but again, the council does go beyond previous teaching which never elevated the toleration of error to a civil right. Even so, because this supposed civil right is premised on the “common good,” and the “common good” is a relative, not absolute, condition, the council’ willingness to acknowledge the right to publicly profess error does not regard dogmatic teaching, but only social policy – a policy that is not infallible and subject to reform.

Other ambiguities that come to mind are the council’s repeated use of the phrase “People of God” (not the Mystical Body of Christ) to describe the Church, which gives some the impression that it is more inclusive than just Catholics and those with a desire to be Catholic; referring to the act of redemption as the “Paschal Mystery” which includes also the resurrection and ascension, instead of properly identifying the act of redemption as the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ which appeased God’s wrath against sin (and also implies that redemption has already occurred for man instead of professing that redemption occurs when a man dies in a state of grace); the notion of collegiality whereby the college of bishops seem also to exercise the supreme power of jurisdiction, even though there cannot be two “supreme” powers, the pope and the college of bishops; the notion that the Incarnation has raised human nature “to a dignity beyond compare” (Gaudiam et Spes, No. 7) whereas the Church has always taught that man’s wounded nature is restored to dignity through the sacraments (not the Incarnation). These points, when if read in light of Tradition, may be more easily dismissed, but I raise them to be thorough and to provoke further study.

We also see the statements on ecumenism which often fail to clearly communicate that conversion to the Catholic Church is the one and only goal of ecumenism (we must assume that this was the council’s only objective); while many traditionalists argue that ecumenism cannot be found in the Church’s patrimony, Pope Eugene at the Council of Florence engaged in ecumenical efforts with respect to the Eastern schismatics – that is, he reached out to them to bring them out of their schism and back to the true Church (we must admit that inter-religious prayer meetings, for example, have no precedent in Tradition and were even prohibited by pre-conciliar popes); we should also note that inter-religious dialogue with an evil world, if not for the purpose converting souls to Catholicism, would be at odds with many Scriptural injunctions (Tit 3:10-11; 2 Jn 1:10-11); and we further not that the council even suggests that by dialoging with non-Catholics, Catholics may come to a “deeper realization…of the unfathomable riches of Christ (Unitatis Redintegratio, No. 11), while never explaining how a Catholic who is faithful to the infallible Magisterium could come to a deeper understanding of Christ by associating with objective heretics.

We also see the council referring to heretical and schismatic sects as “churches” even though there is only one Church; we see unprecedented positive appraisals of false religions (Judaism, Islam, even pagan religions) which keep people in the bondage of sin and in opposition to grace, and even stating that we should “promote the spiritual and moral goods found among these men” (Nostra Aetate, No. 2), even though these “spiritual goods” are opposed to revealed truth, and without explaining how such a promotion of these “goods” will save these poor people from damnation (even though we must admit that there are elements of truth in other religions, but that this truth alone will not save these non-believers outside of the grace God gives through the Catholic Church); and we see promoting the Protestant notion that the Old Testament Scriptures explain the New Testament (Dei Verbum, No. 16), rather than stating that the New Testament explains the Old and not vice-versa (I used this Protestant technique in my book The Biblical Basis for the Papacy, noting that it was a Protestant, not a Catholic, technique (p.10)). Again, these are the thoughts of a lay apologist - who has spent years studying the documents and who is trained to analyze the written word - and who will happily welcome (with great relief) any arguments that can bridge the gap between the ambiguities in these statements and the pre-conciliar precision of prior teaching.

It is quite evident to me that the Church took a risk with Vatican II, and this risk has produced a lot of rotten fruit. We need to be honest about the situation. I have tried to be objective in my assessments, looking simply at the language of the texts in light of Tradition, and I always presume the good intentions of the Holy Father. Too many traditionalists are quick to denounce the pope and declare that the Church is apostate. The other extreme is to ignore the problems and pretend that the Church is enjoying a “springtime” (she is not, as mere statistics show). The issues are on the table, and we need to let people of good faith address them. If some of these evident ambiguities can be reconciled with Tradition, then let’s bring forth the evidence. Let’s not call each other names and accuse each other of disobedience. Please. This is a search for truth. While the liturgical revolution has been quite upsetting to me, I don’t get too distraught over Vatican II’s textual ambiguities that we have discussed, because they come from the ordinary Magisterium only, and are thus reformable (for those who disagree, the burden is on you to prove your case). This is a key distinction that Catholics must understand. This should give some peace to those Catholics who have been troubled by council’s teachings. Don’t worry, Christ is still in charge of His Church.