VATICAN II - "Differing from Other Councils..."
   by Peter W. Miller


"Indeed, it would be most unfortunate if, for lack of sufficient information, or for lack of discretion and objectivity, a religious event of this importance [Vatican II] should be presented so inexactly as to distort its character and the very goals which it has set for itself." 1

- Pope John XXIII

As the Catholic Church finds itself forty years removed from the commencement of the Second Vatican Council, there still today exists a significant degree of confusion as to exactly what the famous Council was, both in its intention and result.

While there has always existed a certain element, marching under the now infamous banner known as the "Spirit of Vatican II" and seeking to facilitate a revolution free from authority or Tradition, there has for some time also existed among orthodox Catholics a self-contradictory thesis that (a) Vatican II brought about no changes in Church doctrine, but at the same time (b) certain pre-Vatican II teachings are outdated and no longer apply. Furthermore, Catholics who cite a pre-Conciliar teaching which is apparently contrary to the popular interpretation of a particular Vatican II document, are subject to accusations of dissent or maltreatment as somehow "less than Catholic."

This confusion primarily stems from some of the more unique attributes of the Second Vatican Council. Putting aside for a moment the debate over its culpability in modern Church problems, it's useful to offer an analysis of some specific aspects of this Council, particularly through the words of its attendants. Simply put: at Vatican II, the Church leaders specifically limited the Council's scope and purpose, giving assurances that the prior Catholic doctrine would remain faithfully intact. While many Churchmen have discussed the formulation of certain Conciliar documents which lend themselves to differing (even competing) interpretations, faithful Catholics must view the teachings of Vatican II in light of previous Church Councils and doctrine. For to use the texts of this Council to contradict prior teachings, either explicitly with open rejection of defined beliefs, or implicitly by ignoring or minimalizing earlier pronouncements, is to warp the reality of Vatican II.

Intentions of the Council Fathers

The main aspect of the Council which would set it apart from its predecessors was its unique purpose and intent. Prior Ecumenical Councils had been more reactive than proactive, only convened when there was an immediate need to discuss and clarify certain dogmatic controversies. Vatican II was not called amidst a specific doctrinal crisis and its necessity was not apparent to all. Some of the early critics of Pope John XXIII's decision would repeat the warnings of Cardinal Manning that:

" convoke a General Council, except when absolutely demanded by necessity, is to tempt God" 2

It was partially toward such individuals that the Pope directed the famous admonition in his opening address:

"We feel we must disagree with those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world was at hand." 3

Regarding the specific intentions of this Council and why it was to be convened, John XXIII continued on in the address to explain that doctrinal matters were "presumed to be well known and familiar to all" but a new way of presenting that doctrine was "necessary":

"The salient point of this council is not, therefore, a discussion of one article or another of the fundamental doctrine of the Church which has repeatedly been taught by the Fathers and by ancient and modern theologians, and which is presumed to be well known and familiar to all. For this a council was not necessary. But from the renewed, serene and tranquil adherence to all the teaching of the Church in its entirety and preciseness, as it still shines forth in the acts of the Council of Trent and First Vatican Council, the Christian, Catholic and apostolic spirit of the whole world expects a step forward toward a doctrinal penetration and a formation of consciences in faithful and perfect conformity to the authentic doctrine which, however, should be studied and expounded through the methods of research and through the literary forms of modern thought. The substance of the ancient doctrine of the Deposit of Faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another. And it is the latter that must be taken into great consideration with patience if necessary, everything being measured in the forms and proportions of a magisterium which is predominantly pastoral in character." 4 (emphasis mine)

This notion of a "pastoral" (rather than dogmatic) character is the most common formulation used to describe the unique nature of Vatican II. It was not a minor footnote or random afterthought, but a significant theme emphasized repeatedly throughout and immediately after the Council. The Pope responsible for Vatican II's promulgation and initial implementation, Paul VI, echoed the words of his predecessor on its "pastoral" intent:

"...differing from other Councils, this one was not directly dogmatic but doctrinal and pastoral" 5

Explaining the connection between a Council "differing from other Councils" and infallible teachings, previously regarded by many as an inherent characteristic of Ecumenical Councils, the Theological Commission clarified in a footnote to Lumen Gentium that the Extraordinary Magisterium was not exercised unless specifically stated:

"In view of the conciliar practice and the pastoral purpose of the present Council, this sacred Synod defines matters of faith and morals as binding on the Church only when the Synod itself openly declares so." 6

This same interpretation was repeated by Pope Paul VI:

"There are those who ask what authority, what theological qualification, the Council intended to give to its teachings, knowing that it avoided issuing solemn dogmatic definitions backed by the Church's infallible teaching authority. The answer is known by those who remember the conciliar declaration of March 6, 1964, repeated on November 16, 1964. In view of the pastoral nature of the Council, it avoided proclaiming in an extraordinary manner any dogmas carrying the mark of infallibility." 7

Less authoritative but nonetheless useful statements were also provided by Bishop B.C. Butler of England, who noted on two separate occasions:

"...not all teachings emanating from a pope or Ecumenical Council are infallible. There is no single proposition of Vatican II - except where it is citing previous infallible definitions which is in itself infallible." 8

"Vatican II gave us no new dogmatic definitions..." 9

John Cardinal Heenan of Westminster called the council "unique" because:

"It deliberately limited its own objectives. There were to be no specific definitions. Its purpose from the first was pastoral renewal within the Church and a fresh approach to the outside." 10

Bishop Rudolf Graber wrote in his book Athanasius and the Church of Our Times:

"...since the Council was aiming primarily at a pastoral orientation and hence refrained from making dogmatically binding statements or disassociating itself, as previous Church assemblies have done, from errors and false doctrines by means of clear anathemas, many questions took on an opalescent ambivalence which provided a certain amount of justification for those who speak of the spirit of the Council." 11

And Cardinal Ratzinger more recently:

"Certainly there is a mentality of narrow views that isolates Vatican II and which provoked this opposition. There are many accounts of it, which give the impression that from Vatican II onward, everything has been changed, and what preceded it has no value or, at best, has value only in the light of Vatican II... The truth is that this particular Council defined no dogma at all, and deliberately chose to remain on a modest level, as a merely pastoral council." 12

Council participants raising objections to the phrasing and ambiguous (or equivocal) character of certain passages were given the dismissive assurance that the documents were "only pastoral" in nature and did not change Church teaching. This tactic served to end certain debates and avoid revisions called for by some of the more conservative attendants. Based on such assurances, one Council Father, Bishop Thomas Morris, later would express his great relief that the documents of Vatican II were not definitive doctrinal pronouncements:

"I was relieved when we were told that this Council was not aiming at defining or giving final statements on doctrine, because a statement of doctrine has to be very carefully formulated and I would have regarded the Council documents as tentative and likely to be reformed." 13

Such techniques were repeatedly used to quash legitimate debate upon and objection to the formulation of the documents. The audacity of some of the tactics and political maneuvers employed during the Council (for the most part detailed in Fr. Wiltgen's work, "The Rhine Flows Into the Tiber" - a book even Warren Carroll has said to be the "best history of Vatican II available," 14) should give sufficient pause to those treating Vatican II as the new basis for Catholic doctrine, or even a comprehensive reformulation of previous pronouncements.

In one instance, Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani was shocked to discover that a statement proposing that married couples may determine the number of their children was summarily added to the text of "The Sanctity of Marriage and the Family" without so much as a discussion as to its consistency with prior Catholic teaching:

"...yesterday in the Council it should have been said that there was doubt whether a correct stand had been taken hitherto on the principles governing marriage. Does this not mean that the inerrancy of the Church will be called into question? Or was not the Holy Spirit with His Church in past centuries to illuminate minds on this point of doctrine?" 15

In another instance, when Bishop Emile de Smedt, the Relator for the Secretariat for Christian Unity, was unable to explain certain apparent contradictions in the document Dignitatis Humanae, he offered the somehow acceptable excuse:

"Some Fathers affirm that the Declaration does not sufficiently show how our doctrine is not opposed to ecclesiastical documents up till the time of the Supreme Pontiff Leo XIII. As we said in the last relatio, this is a matter for future theological and historical studies to bring to light more fully." 16

It is clear that the confusion caused by convening an Ecumenical Council, then distinguishing it from its predecessors and limiting its scope, had started even before its own completion.

Maintaining a Proper Perspective

"The Church, therefore, with the long labor of centuries, and, not without the help of the Holy Spirit, has established a rule of language and confirmed it with the authority of the councils. This rule, which has more than once been the watchword and banner of Orthodox faith, must be religiously preserved, and let no one presume to change it at his own pleasure or under the pretext of new science. Who would ever tolerate that the dogmatic formulas used by ecumenical councils for the mysteries of the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation be judged as no longer appropriate for men of our times and therefore that others be rashly substituted for them? In the same way it cannot be tolerated that any individual should on his own authority modify the formulas which were used by the Council of Trent to express belief in the Eucharistic Mystery. For these formulas, like the others which the Church uses to propose the dogmas of faith, express concepts which are not tied to a certain form of human culture, nor to a specific phase of human culture, nor to one or other theological school." 17

- Pope Paul VI (1965)

The Second Vatican Council was unlike any other Council. This is not an insult launched by certain Catholics in hindsight, but a historical fact. Nevertheless, some individuals overly defensive of Vatican II act as if the aforementioned facts are inventions used to malign the Council. Even though John XXIII clearly intended it to be a Council distinct from its predecessors and limited in its scope, pointing this out is now somehow considered to be a sign of subversion. Although "pastoral" was the term used by John XXIII, Paul VI and numerous other Council Fathers and attendants to describe its character, use of that term is now somehow considered to be an exercise in "dissent."

Pointing toward the unique and pastoral nature of the Council is not the same as claiming the Council was "unofficial" or "didn't count," or that the "Holy Spirit was not invited." Such tactics to characterize discussions amount to little more than fencing with strawmen, as it is clear that Vatican II was a legitimate Ecumenical Council:

"The Second Vatican Council was convoked regularly and was at all times recognized by the reigning Pontiff. Its documents were passed by a majority of the Council Fathers and were validly promulgated by the Pope. As such they represent official Church teaching..." 18

Furthermore, as taught at Vatican I (and reaffirmed by Pius XII and Vatican II's Lumen Gentium 25), just because an official teaching does not have infallible status does not mean we are free to reject it or pick and choose which teachings to accept.

"While the assent of faith is not required, a religious submission of intellect and will is to be given to any doctrine which either the Supreme Pontiff or the College of Bishops, exercising their authentic Magisterium, declare upon a matter of faith or morals, even though they do not intend to proclaim that doctrine by definitive act. Christ's faithful are therefore to ensure that they avoid whatever does not accord with that doctrine" 19

"When the Roman Pontiffs go out of their way to pronounce on some subject which has hitherto been controverted, it must be clear to everybody that, in the mind and intention of the Pontiffs concerned, this subject can no longer be regarded as a matter of free debate among theologians." 20

Summarily rejecting non-infallible pronouncements would be to fall into the error of those who dissented from Church teaching on contraception around the time of Humanae Vitae. But maintaining the defined doctrines of the Church as they existed before Vatican II and interpreting "ambivalent" statements in light of those already defined doctrines is not the same thing as treating a new pronouncement as "optional". In fact, failing to do so or assuming that some prior teaching was perhaps supplanted by Vatican II, is much closer to dissent as it shows a disturbing disregard for less recent but nonetheless solemn pronouncements.

While it is certainly the case that non-infallible teachings are not optional, they can also not be interpreted in such a way which rejects or renders meaningless prior definitive pronouncements. If faced with apparent contradictions between the solemn definitions of previous Councils and a given interpretation of a Vatican II document, the proper Catholic response is to interpret the latter in light of the former, even if the new document itself suggests otherwise. As John XXIII said, previous teaching from Trent and Vatican I would be left intact, so any interpretation of Vatican II teaching which is used to contradict a prior teaching must be rejected. As Professor Dietrich von Hildebrand noted in Charitable Anathema:

"The Second Vatican Council solemnly declared in its Constitution on the Church that all the teachings of the Council are in full continuity with the teachings of former councils. Moreover, let us not forget that the canons of the Council of Trent and of Vatican I are de fide, whereas none of the decrees of Vatican II are de fide; The Second Vatican Council was pastoral in nature. Cardinal Felici rightly stated that the Credo solemnly proclaimed by Pope Paul VI at the end of the Year of Faith is from a dogmatic point of view much more important than the entire Second Vatican Council. Thus, those who want to interpret certain passages in the documents of Vatican II as if they implicitly contradicted definitions of Vatican I or the Council of Trent should realize that even if their interpretation were right, the canons of the former councils would overrule these allegedly contradictory passages of Vatican II, because the former are de fide, the latter not." 21

So, returning to a previous observation, how is it that orthodox Catholics can subject pre-Conciliar statements which were never rejected or contradicted (and those who maintain them) to, at best, laughter and derision; and at worst, accusations of dissent? It's already been shown that Pope John XXIII saw such issues as not only settled but "well-known." How can a Council that was said to not contradict past teaching be used as a basis to disregard that same teaching? Essentially, how can a Council that purposely avoided matters of doctrinal "substance" be used as a new doctrinal foundation?

The usual explanation given by those who realize that pre-Vatican II teaching cannot be so easily dismissed in light of more recent pastoral suggestions is that some teachings have been subject to "development" or "reformulation". Although both occurrences are legitimate phenomena and have no doubt occurred throughout the history of the Church, their existence does not allow for automatic application on demand, providing the means for anyone to dispense with embarrassing or inconvenient Church doctrine.

As Catholicism is based upon certain immutable truths, the legitimacy of any claimed "development" or "reformulation" must be subject to serious scrutiny. But more importantly, any teaching given a new "positive formula" must retain the original underlying substance and truth. Any doctrine "developed" to such a degree that it is no longer faithful to the original teaching is, according to Cardinal Newman in his work The Development of Christian Doctrine, "more properly called a corruption." 22 This raises problems for Catholics who violently reject or dismiss those "formulations" used prior to the council (e.g. Quantum Cura, Pascendi Dominici Gregis, Mortalium Animos), as the same underlying truth must still remain for any claimed "development" or "reformulation" to have been legitimate.

Still others go so far as to claim that teaching has not undergone development, but was previously misunderstood. They equate encyclicals of a century ago as if they were Sacred Scripture, claiming the true meaning of past pronouncements must be mediated by the current hierarchy, and that those who claim last generation's Pontiffs actually meant what their words said, are akin to Protestants guilty of "private interpretation." It's more than a little ironic that documents of Vatican II decried by even participating bishops as "ambiguous" are now considered perfectly clear, but the simple, direct and solemn papal pronouncements of the previous generation are in need of "further interpretation". Under any interpretation, paragraph 6 of Quanta Cura, the Encyclical issued along with the Blessed Pius IX's Syllabus of Errors leaves little doubt as to its authority or definitive nature:

"Therefore, by our Apostolic authority, we reprobate, proscribe, and condemn all the singular and evil opinions and doctrines severally mentioned in this letter, and will and command that they be thoroughly held by all children of the Catholic Church as reprobated, proscribed and condemned." 23

No Catholic is bound to accept the most recent interpretations of even official teachings to the detriment of those solemn pronouncements which came before. The assent required toward Vatican II is also required (even more so) to previous Councils. Although no Pope can bind his successors in disciplinary matters, the assent required towards the teachings of the present Pontiff is also required toward those of his predecessors; and solemn declarations and definitions have always held authoritative status over non-dogmatic statements or observations made during an Ecumenical Council or by the person of the Pope.


In the past forty years, Vatican II has been used as a justification to release a wave of confusion and novelty unprecedented in Church history. While most orthodox Catholics are able to recognize some of the more egregious errors of the revolutionaries who seek to reinterpret Church doctrine according to their own preferences, the proper Catholic response is not to counter such tactics with a projection of an improper authority upon this Council. The documents of the Second Vatican Council need to recognized for what they are: official, pastoral Church teachings that did not define any new or significantly alter any existing doctrine. As such, they cannot be used to contradict or render meaningless that which came before, nor can they be used as cudgels to intimidate Catholics into abandoning past teachings for novel interpretations.

On 1 September 1910, Pope St. Pius X presented his Oath Against Modernism to the Church. All clergy, pastors, confessors, preachers, religious superiors, and seminary professors swore for the next fifty-plus years that:

"...I sincerely hold that the doctrine of faith was handed down to us from the apostles through the orthodox Fathers in exactly the same meaning and always in the same purport. Therefore, I entirely reject the heretical' misrepresentation that dogmas evolve and change from one meaning to another different from the one which the Church held previously. ... I promise that I shall keep all these articles faithfully, entirely, and sincerely, and guard them inviolate, in no way deviating from them in teaching or in any way in word or in writing. Thus I promise, this I swear, so help me God, and these holy Gospels of God which I touch with my hand." 24 (emphasis mine)

Even though this oath is now (unfortunately) part of history, all Catholics would do well to remember the words sworn by so many entrusted with the earthly care of Christ's Church.


1 John XXIII's address to journalists (1961) - Fr. R. M. Wiltgen, "The Rhine Flows Into the Tiber" TAN Books and Publishers (1967)
2 Henry Cardinal Manning, "The Temporal Mission of the Holy Ghost" Burns, Oates: London, (1909)
3 John XXIII "The Second Vatican Council - Opening Address" (October 11, 1963)
4 Ibid.
5 Paul VI, "Weekly General Audience" (8/6/1975)
6 W. Abbot, "The Documents of Vatican II" (1966)
7 Paul VI, "Weekly General Audience" (1/12/1966)
8 "The Tablet" (11/26/1967)
9 "The Tablet" (3/2/1968)
10 J. Cardinal Heenan, "Counciland Clergy" (1966)
11 R. Graber, "Athanasius and the Church of Our Times" (1974)
12 J. Cardinal Ratzinger, "Address to Chilean Bishops -Santiago, Chile" (July 13, 1988)
13 Catholic World News (1/22/1997)
14 Q&A
15 Fr. R. M. Wiltgen, "The Rhine Flows Into the Tiber" TAN Books and Publishers (1967)
16 M. Davies "Pope John's Council", Angelus (1987)
17 Paul VI, "Mysterium Fidei" (September 3, 1965)
18 M. Davies "Pope John's Council", Angelus (1987)
19 Canon 752
20 Pius XII, "Humani Generis" (August 12, 1950)
21 D. von Hildebrand, "Charitable Anathema" Roman Catholic Books (1993)
22 J.H. Newman, "The Development of Christian Doctrine" Ch.1, Sec II, 1. (1878)
23 Pius IX, "Quanta Cura" (12/8/1864)
24 Pius X, "Oath Against Modernism" (September 1, 1910) Latin: "...fidei doctrinam ab Apostolis per orthodoxos Patres eodem sensu eademque semper sententia ad nos usque transmissam, sincero recipio; ideoque prorsus reicio haereticum commentum evolutionis dogmatum, ab uno in alium sensum transeuntium, diversum ab eo, quem prius habuit Ecclesia; ... Haec omnia spondeo me fideliter, integre sincereque servaturum et inviolabiliter custoditurum, nusquam ab iis sive in docendo sive quomodolibet verbis scriptisque deflectendo. Sic spondeo, sic iuro, sic me Deus adiuvet et haec sancta Dei Evangelia."