Some reflections on the Second Vatican Council
and the current crisis in the Church
by Bishop Athanasius Schneider
ROME, June 24, 2020 — Bishop Athanasius Schneider has today issued a text titled “Some reflections on the Second Vatican Council and the current crisis in the Church,” in order to clarify his stance on the Council, and to dispel any confusion among the faithful.
In recent decades, not only declared modernists, but also theologians and faithful who love the Church, have displayed an attitude that resembles a kind of blind defense of everything said by the Second Vatican Council. Such an attitude seemed sometimes to require real mental acrobatics and a “squaring of the circle.” Even now, the general mentality of good Catholics corresponds with a de facto total infallibilization of everything that the Second Vatican Council said, or that the current Pontiff says or does. This kind of unhealthy papal-centralism had already been present for several generations in Catholics over the last two centuries. And yet respectful criticism and serene theological debate have always been present and allowed within the Church’s great tradition, since it is truth and faithfulness to divine revelation and to the constant tradition of the Church that we should seek, which in itself implies the use of reason and rationality, and avoiding mental acrobatics. Some explanations of certain obviously ambiguous and misleading expressions contained in the Council’s texts seem artificial and unconvincing, especially when one reflects upon them in a more intellectually honest manner, in the light of the unbroken and constant doctrine of the Church.
Instinctively, every reasonable argument has been repressed which could, even in the slightest, call into question any expression or word in the Council texts. However, such an attitude is not healthy and contradicts the great tradition of the Church, as we observe in the Fathers, the Doctors, and great theologians of the Church over the course of two thousand years. An opinion different from what the Council of Florence taught on the matter of the Sacrament of Orders, i.e. the traditio instrumentorum, was allowed in the centuries following this Council, and led to Pope Pius XII’s pronouncement in the 1947 Apostolic Constitution Sacramentum Ordinis, whereby he corrected the non-infallible teaching of the Council of Florence, by stating that the only matter strictly necessary for the validity of the Sacrament of Orders is the imposition of hands by the bishop. By this act, Pius XII did not implement a hermeneutic of continuity but, indeed, a correction, because the Council of Florence’s doctrine in this matter did not reflect the constant liturgical doctrine and practice of the universal Church. Already in the year 1914, Cardinal W.M. van Rossum wrote concerning the Council of Florence’s affirmation on the matter of the Sacrament of Orders, that this doctrine of the Council is reformable and must even be abandoned (cf. De essentia sacramenti ordinis, Freiburg 1914, p. 186). And so, there was no room for a hermeneutic of continuity in this concrete case.
When the papal magisterium or an ecumenical Council has corrected non-infallible doctrines of previous ecumenical Councils (this has rarely happened), they did not undermine the foundations of the Catholic faith by this act, nor did they set the magisterium of tomorrow against that of today, as history has proven. With a Bull in 1425, Martin V approved the decrees of the Council of Constance and even the decree “Frequens” — from the 39th session of the Council (in 1417). This decree affirmed the error of conciliarism, i.e., the error that a Council is superior to a Pope. However, in 1446, his successor, Pope Eugene IV, declared that he accepted the decrees of the Ecumenical Council of Constance, except those (of sessions 3 - 5 and 39) which “prejudice the rights and primacy of the Apostolic See” (absque tamen praeiudicio iuris, dignitatis et praeeminentiae Sedis Apostolicae). Vatican I’s dogma on papal primacy then definitively rejected the conciliarist error of the Ecumenical Council of Constance. As already mentioned, Pope Pius XII corrected the error of the Ecumenical Council of Florence regarding the matter of the Sacrament of Orders. The foundations of the faith were not undermined by these rare acts to correct previous affirmations of the non-infallible Magisterium, precisely because these concrete affirmations (e.g. of the Councils of Constance and Florence) were not infallible.
Several expressions in the texts of the Second Vatican Council cannot be so easily reconciled with the Church’s constant doctrinal tradition. Examples include certain expressions of the Council on the topic of religious freedom (understood as a natural right, and therefore positively willed by God, to practice and spread a false religion, which may also include idolatry or even worse); its distinction between the Church of Christ and the Catholic Church (the problem of “subsistit in” gives the impression that two realities exist: on the one side, the Church of Christ, and on the other, the Catholic Church); and its stance towards non-Christian religions and the contemporary world. Although the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in its Responses to some questions regarding certain aspects of the doctrine on the Church (29 June 2007), offered an explanation of the expression “subsistit in,” it unfortunately avoided saying clearly that the Church of Christ is truly the Catholic Church. That is, it avoided explicitly declaring the identity between the Church of Christ and the Catholic Church. Indeed, there remains a nuance of vagueness.
There is also an attitude that rejects a priori all possible objections to the aforementioned questionable statements in the Council texts. Instead, the only solution presented is the method called “hermeneutic of continuity.” Unfortunately, doubts about the theological problems inherent in these Council statements are not taken seriously. We have to always bear in mind the fact that the chief end of the Council was pastoral in character, and that the Council did not intend to propose its own definitive teachings.
The pronouncements of the popes before the Council, even those of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, faithfully reflect their predecessors and the constant tradition of the Church in an unbroken manner. The popes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, that is, after the French Revolution, do not represent an “exotic” period compared to the two-thousand-year tradition of the Church. One could not claim any rupture in the teachings of those popes regarding the previous Magisterium. For example, concerning the theme of the social kingship of Christ and of the objective falsehood of non-Christian religions, one cannot find a perceivable rupture between the teachings of the Popes Gregory XVI and Pius XII on the one side, and the teaching of Pope Gregory the Great (sixth century) and his predecessors and successors on the other. One can really see a continuous line without any rupture from the time of the Church Fathers to Pius XII, especially on such topics as the social kingship of Christ, religious liberty, and ecumenism in the sense that there is a natural right, positively willed by God, to practice only the one true religion which is the Catholic faith.
Before the Second Vatican Council there was no need to make a colossal effort to present voluminous studies showing the perfect continuity of doctrine between one Council and another, between a pope and his predecessors, because the continuity was evident. For example, the very fact that a “nota explicativa previa” to the document Lumen Gentium was needed shows that the text of Lumen Gentium, in n. 22, is ambiguous with regard to the topic of the relationship between papal primacy and episcopal collegiality. Documents clarifying the Magisterium in post-conciliar times, such as the encyclicals Mysterium Fidei, Humanae Vitae, and Pope Paul VI’s Creed of the People of God, were of great value and help, but they did not clarify the aforementioned ambiguous statements of the Second Vatican Council.
Perhaps today’s crisis with Amoris Laetitia and the Abu Dhabi document forces us to deepen this consideration on the need to clarify or correct some of the aforementioned Council statements. In the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas always presented objections (“videtur quod”) and counterarguments (“sed contra”). St. Thomas was intellectually very honest; you have to allow for objections and take them seriously. We should use his method on some of the controversial points of the Council texts that have been under discussion for almost sixty years. Most of the Council texts are in organic continuity with the previous Magisterium. Ultimately, the papal magisterium has to clarify in a convincing manner the controversial points of some of the expressions in the Council texts. Until now, this has not always been done in an intellectually honest and convincing way. Were it necessary, a pope or future ecumenical Council would have to add explanations (a kind of “notae explicativae posteriors”) or even amendments and corrections of those controversial expressions, since they were not presented by the Council as an infallible and definitive teaching. As Paul VI stated, the Council “avoided giving solemn dogmatic definitions, engaging the infallibility of the ecclesiastical Magisterium” (General Audience, January 12, 1966).
History will tell us this from a distance. We are only fifty years out from the Council. Maybe we will see this more clearly in another fifty years. However, from the point of view of the facts, of the evidence, from a global perspective, Vatican II did not bring a real spiritual flowering in the life of the Church. And even if there were already problems in the clergy before the Council, for the sake of honesty and justice, we have to acknowledge that the moral, spiritual and doctrinal problems of the clergy prior to the Council were not as widespread, or so vast in scale and present with such intensity, as they have been in post-conciliar times until today. Bearing in mind that there were already problems before the Council, the first aim of the Second Vatican Council should have been precisely to issue the clearest possible, even demanding, norms and doctrines that were free of any ambiguity, as all the reform Councils did in the past. The plan and intentions of the Second Vatican Council were primarily pastoral, yet, despite its pastoral aim, there followed disastrous consequences that we still see today. Of course, the Council had many beautiful and valuable texts. But the negative consequences and the abuses committed in the name of the Council were so strong that they overshadowed the positive elements which are there.
There were positive elements in Vatican II: it was the first time that an ecumenical Council made a solemn appeal to the laity to take seriously their baptismal vows to strive for holiness. The chapter in Lumen Gentium about the laity is beautiful and profound. The faithful are called to live out their baptism and confirmation as courageous witnesses of the faith in secular society. This appeal was prophetic. However, since the Council, this appeal to the laity was often abused by the progressive establishment in the Church, and also by many functionaries and bureaucrats who worked in Church offices and chanceries. Oftentimes the new lay bureaucrats (in certain European countries) were not themselves witnesses but helped to destroy the faith in parish and diocesan councils and in other official committees. Unfortunately, these lay bureaucrats were oftentimes misled by clergy and bishops.
The time after the Council left one with the impression that one of the main fruits of the Council was bureaucratization. This worldly bureaucratization in the decades since the Council paralyzed spiritual and supernatural fervor to a considerable extent, and instead of the announced springtime, there came a spiritual winter. Well known and unforgettable remain the words with which Paul VI honestly diagnosed the Church’s state of spiritual health after the Council: “We thought that after the Council there would come a day of sunshine for the history of the Church. Instead, there has come a day of clouds, of storms, of darkness, of searching and of uncertainty. We preach ecumenism and we distance ourselves more and more from others. We seek to dig abysses instead of filling them” (Sermon on June 29, 1972).
Within this context, it was Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in particular (although he was not the only one to do so) who began, on a larger scale and with a frankness similar to that of some of the great Church Fathers, to protest the watering down and dilution of the Catholic faith, especially regarding the sacrificial and sublime character of the rite of Holy Mass, that was occurring in the Church, and being supported or at least tolerated, even by the high-ranking authorities in the Holy See. In a letter addressed to Pope John Paul II at the beginning of his pontificate, Archbishop Lefebvre realistically and aptly described in a brief synopsis the true extent of the crisis in the Church. I am continually impressed by the clear-sightedness and prophetic character of the following affirmations:
The flood of novelties in the Church, accepted and encouraged by the Episcopate, a flood that ravages everything on its path — faith, morals, the Church’s institutions — could not tolerate the presence of an obstacle, a resistance. We then had the choice of letting ourselves be carried away by the devastating current and adding to the disaster, or of resisting wind and wave to safeguard our Catholic faith and the Catholic priesthood. We could not hesitate. The ruins of the Church are mounting: atheism, immorality, the abandonment of churches, the disappearance of religious and priestly vocations are such that the bishops are beginning to be roused” (Letter from December 24, 1978).
We are now witnessing the climax of the spiritual disaster in the life of the Church to which Archbishop Lefebvre pointed so vigorously already forty years ago.
In approaching matters related to the Second Vatican Council and its documents, one has to avoid forced interpretations and the method of “squaring the circle,” while of course keeping all due respect and the ecclesiastical sense (sentire cum ecclesia). The application of the principle of the “hermeneutic of continuity” cannot be used blindly in order to eliminate unquestioningly any evidently existing problems, or to create an image of harmony, while there remain shadows of vagueness in the hermeneutic of continuity. Indeed, such an approach would transmit artificially and unconvincingly the message that every word of the Second Vatican Council is inspired by God, infallible and in perfect doctrinal continuity with the previous magisterium. Such a method would violate reason, evidence, and honesty, and would not do honor to the Church, for sooner or later (maybe after a hundred years) the truth will be stated as it really is. There are books with documented and reproducible sources, which provide historically more realistic and true insights into the facts and consequences regarding the event of Vatican II itself, the editing of its documents, and the process of the interpretation and application of its reforms in the last five decades. I recommend, for instance, the following books which could be read with profit: Romano Amerio, Iota Unum: A Study of Changes in the Catholic Church in the 20th century (1996); Roberto de Mattei, The Second Vatican Council: An Unwritten Story (2010); Alfonso Gálvez, Ecclesiastical Winter (2011).
These points — the universal call to holiness, the role of the laity in defending and witnessing to the faith, the family as a domestic church and the teaching about Our Lady — are what can be considered the truly positive and lasting contributions of the Second Vatican Council.
The Magisterium has been so overloaded in the last 150 years with an insane papolatry that there emerged an atmosphere in which a central role is attributed to the men of the Church instead of Christ and His Mystical Body, which in turn is a hidden anthropocentrism. According to the vision of the Church Fathers, the Church is only the moon (mysterium lunae), and Christ is the sun. The Council was unfortunately a demonstration of a very rare “Magisteriocentrism,” since by the sheer volume of its long-winded documents it far surpassed all other Councils. However, the Council gave a beautiful description of what the Magisterium is, which had never before been given in the history of the Church. It is found in Dei Verbum, n. 10, where it is written: “The Magisterium is not above the Word of God, but serves it.”
By “Magisteriocentrism,” I mean the human and administrative elements — especially the excessive and continuous production of documents and frequent discussion forums (under the motto of “synodality”) — were put at the center of the life of the Church. Although the Shepherds of the Church must always zealously exercise the munus docendi, the inflation of documents, and oftentimes of long-winded documents, has proved suffocating. Less numerous, shorter and more concise documents would have had a better effect.
A striking example of the unhealthy “Magisteriocentrism,” where representatives from the Magisterium behave not as servants but as masters of tradition, is the liturgical reform of Pope Paul VI. In some ways, Paul VI put himself above Tradition — not the dogmatic Tradition (lex credendi), but the great liturgical Tradition (lex orandi). Paul VI dared to begin a true revolution in the lex orandi. And to some extent, he acted contrary to the affirmation of the Second Vatican Council in Dei Verbum, n. 10, which states that the Magisterium is only the servant of Tradition. We have to put Christ at the center, He is the sun: the supernatural, the constancy of doctrine and of the liturgy, and all the truths of the Gospel which Christ taught us.
Through the Second Vatican Council, and already with Pope John XXIII, the Church began to present herself to the world, to flirt with the world, and to manifest an inferiority complex towards the world. Yet clerics, especially the bishops and the Holy See, are tasked with showing Christ to the world — not themselves. Vatican II gave the impression that the Catholic Church has started begging sympathy from the world. This continued in the postconciliar pontificates. The Church is begging for the sympathy and recognition of the world; this is unworthy of her and will not earn the respect of those who truly seek God. We have to beg sympathy from Christ, from God, from heaven.
Some who criticize the Second Vatican Council say that, although there are good aspects to it, it’s somewhat like a cake with a bit of poison in it, and so the whole cake needs to be thrown out. I do not think we can follow this method, nor the method of “throwing the baby out with the bath water.” With regard to a legitimate ecumenical Council, even if there were negative points, we have to maintain an overall attitude of respect. We have to evaluate and esteem all that is really and truly good in the Council texts, without irrationally and dishonestly closing the eyes of reason to what is objectively and evidently ambiguous and even erroneous in some of the texts. One has always to remember that the texts of the Second Vatican Council are not the inspired Word of God, nor are they definitive dogmatic judgments or infallible pronouncements of the Magisterium, because the Council itself did not have this intention.
Another example is Amoris Laetitia. There are certainly many points we need to criticize objectively and doctrinally. But there are some sections which are very helpful, really good for family life, e.g., about elderly people in the family: in se they are very good. One should not reject the entire document but receive from it what is good. The same with the Council texts.
Even though, before the Council, they all had to take the Anti-Modernist Oath issued by Pope Pius X, some theologians, priests, bishops and even cardinals did it with mental reservations, as subsequent historical events have proven. With the pontificate of Benedict XV, there began a slow and careful infiltration of ecclesiastics with a worldly and somewhat Modernist spirit into high positions in the Church. This infiltration grew particularly among theologians, so that later Pope Pius XII had to intervene by condemning well-known theologians of the so-called “nouvelle théologie” (Chenu, Congar, De Lubac, etc.), and by publishing in 1950 the encyclical Humani generis. Nonetheless, from the pontificate of Benedict XV onwards, the Modernist movement was latent and continually growing. And so, on the eve of the Second Vatican Council, a considerable part of the episcopacy and professors in the theological faculties and seminaries were imbued with a Modernist mentality, which is essentially doctrinal and moral relativism and worldliness, love for the world. On the eve of the Council, these cardinals, bishops and theologians loved the “form” — the thought pattern — of the world (cf. Rom 12:2) and wanted to please the world (cf. Gal 1:10). They showed a clear inferiority complex towards the world.
Pope John XXIII also demonstrated a kind of inferiority complex towards the world. He was not a modernist in his mind, but he did have a political way of looking at the world and strangely begged sympathy from the world. He surely had good intentions. He convoked the Council, which then opened the floodgate for the Modernist, Protestantizing and worldly-minded movement inside the Church. Very significant is the following acute observation, made by Charles de Gaulle, President of France from 1959 to 1969, regarding Pope John XXIII and the process of reforms started with the Second Vatican Council: “John XXIII opened the floodgates and could not close them again. It was as if a dam collapsed. John XXIII was overcome by what he triggered” (see Alain Peyrefitte, C’était de Gaulle, Paris 1997, 2, 19).
The talk of “opening the windows” before and during the Council was a misleading illusion and a cause of confusion. From these words, people got the impression that the spirit of an unbelieving and materialistic world, which was plainly evident in those times, could transmit some positive values for the Christian life. Instead, the authorities of the Church in those times should have expressly declared the true meaning of the words “opening the windows,” which consists in opening the life of the Church to the fresh air of the beauty of divine truth, to the treasures of ever-youthful holiness, to the supernatural lights of the Holy Spirit and the saints, to a liturgy celebrated and lived with an ever more supernatural, sacred and reverent sense. Over time, during the postconciliar era, the partly opened floodgate gave way to a disastrous flood which caused enormous damage in doctrine, morals, and liturgy. Today, the flood waters that entered are reaching dangerous levels. We are now experiencing the peak of the flood disaster.
Today the veil has been lifted and Modernism has revealed its true face, which consists in the betrayal of Christ and becoming a friend of the world by adopting its way of thinking. Once the crisis in the Church is over, the Magisterium of the Church will have the task of rejecting all the negative phenomena which have been present in the life of the Church in recent decades. And the Church will do this, because she is divine. She will do it precisely and will correct all of the errors which have accumulated, beginning with several ambiguous expressions in the Council texts.
Modernism is like a hidden virus, hidden in part in several affirmations of the Council, but that has now manifested itself. After the crisis, after the serious spiritual viral infection, the clarity and preciseness of doctrine, the sacredness of the liturgy, and the holiness of priestly life, will shine more brightly.
The Church will do this in an unambiguous manner, as she did in times of serious doctrinal and moral crises over the past two thousand years. To teach clearly the truths of the divine deposit of faith, to defend the faithful from the poison of error, and to lead them in a sure way to eternal life belongs to the very essence of the divinely appointed task of the pope and bishops.
The Constitution of the Second Vatican Council, Sacrosanctum Concilium, reminds us of the real nature of the true Church, which is “in such wise that in her, the human is directed and subordinated to the divine, the visible to the invisible, action to contemplation and this present world to that city yet to come, which we seek” (n. 2).