The Incoherent Council
 Vatican II and Religious Liberty


 by Rudolph Veshtaj


From the January 2003 edition of Britain's international Catholic monthly Christian Order

Some debates tend to generate more heat than light on the matter under discussion. In Catholic circles, the issue of religious liberty fits that description nicely. Some writers are exceptions, of course. Michael Davies, Fr. Brian Harrison, and Thomas Stork have engaged in debate without the flaming rancour which has made this issue infamous.

If I may add my own pint of gasoline to the blaze, I suggest that the reason why there is so much argumentation over this matter is that a single bold accusation has garnered more attention than it deserves, leaving a more obvious and important point neglected. This neglected point is implicit in the writings not only of those who attack Dignitatis Humanae (DH), the Declaration on Religious Liberty promulgated by the Second Vatican Council, but also in the writings of those who defend it. In making explicit this neglected point, I hope that conservative Catholics will understand why, at times, some traditionalists look at the Second Vatican Council (spirit and letter) with a jaundiced eye.

Comprehensible Council?

The accusation which has received such undeserved attention is the charge that DH contradicts previous Church teaching on the duties of the state to promote truth and suppress error. The neglected point, mentioned above, is the question of whether DH is a good presentation of the teaching of the Church at all.

Showing that DH is not a good presentation of Church teaching may seem more difficult than proving that it contradicts previous Magisterial pronouncements. Yet this problem has been obviated by those who defend DH. I say that DH is not a good presentation of Church teaching on religious liberty, and that this can be shown by the arguments of the best defenders of that declaration.

It may be objected that I am merely compiling and comparing statements and arguments from different authorities, and that the argument from authority is the weakest in philosophy. I answer that I am considering this issue from the point of view of a layman who is trying to understand the teaching of the Church on religious liberty. The authorities mentioned in this article (Fr. John Courtney Murray, Bishop Emil de Smedt, Fr. Brian Harrison, and Mr. Thomas Storck) are the principle guides by which most laymen (as well as bishops and theologians) have interpreted the Council. A proof that DH is not a good presentation of Church teaching based solely on the text of the Declaration, itself, would require a separate article.

Perhaps the most prominent defender of DH in the English language has been Fr. Brian W. Harrison, O.S. A compact form of his argument was reprinted in the March-April, 2000 issue of Catholic Dossier. Early in the article, Fr. Harrison notes that many books have been written since the Council claiming to reconcile the teaching of DH with the teaching of earlier popes. He goes on to say, "In this writer's opinion, however, the most influential attempts at harmonisation have been too facile and superficial."

Keeping that quotation in mind, one should remember that one of the reasons that Pope John XXIII convoked the Second Vatican Council was to expound the Faith in a way which would be more understandable to modern man. This means that the texts of Vatican II should be at least as understandable to us as the texts of the Councils of Nicaea and Trent.

Another point just as important is that we are dealing with interpreting the declarations of the Magisterium, not with passages from Holy Writ. The Bible gives narrative, doctrine, and mystery in every word; by its nature it requires an interpreter, which is the Magisterium. Talking about who has the authority to interpret the Magisterium is dangerous because there is nothing upon which to fall back. Hence, one can fall into infinite regress.

It happens like this: Rome issues a certain doctrinal declaration. There is doubt as to how that declaration ought to be interpreted. Therefore, Rome should give an interpretation. But how is that interpretation to be interpreted? And how is the interpretation of that interpretation supposed to be interpreted?

It is vital, then, that those who have the authority to teach make sure that they teach clearly and precisely, avoiding terms and expressions which can be easily misconstrued. So, when Fr. Harrison says that "the most influential attempts at harmonisation have been too facile and superficial," this means that, for more than a quarter of a century and counting, most people could not understand how to interpret a doctrinal declaration made especially for their ears by a General Ecumenical Council of the Church. Obviously, such a declaration is not exactly a masterpiece of clear and compelling expression.

Corroborating Lefebvre

Fr. Harrison goes on to list not one, not two, but three unsuccessful attempts to reconcile the teaching of DH with the perennial teaching of the Church. Writing about one of these attempts, Fr. Harrison states that it "does not stand up well to careful historical criticism." He is speaking, of course, about "the principal argument used to convince the Fathers of Vatican II that the schema on religious liberty was compatible with traditional doctrine." This argument had been presented to the Council Fathers by Bishop Emil de Smedt, the relator (official spokesman) for the committee which drafted the declaration. Another attempt to defend DH is that made by Fr. John Courtney Murray, who authored the schema himself, and whose explanation "has been widely understood as the doctrine of Dignitatis Humanae itself." Fr. Harrison calls this explanation, proffered by the very author of the declaration, "another variety of specious 'concordism'."

Incidentally, Avery Cardinal Dulles, who had just recently been given the red hat by Pope John Paul II, delivered a McGinley Lecture in New York City reprinted in the December, 2001 issue of First Things in which he took for granted that the arguments of Bishop de Smedt and Fr. Murray are valid.

I do not have room to go over Fr Harrison's refutations of those authoritative voices, but I assume that his arguments are sound. However, if Fr. Harrison's arguments are sound, then the following statements are true:

  1. The bishop officially charged with explaining DH did not know what he was talking about.
  2. The Council Fathers who trusted said bishop did not understand what they were voting for.
  3. The priest who authored the document in the first place had no idea what he was writing.
  4. A prestigious theologian just recently made a cardinal who has been studying the sacred sciences for longer than my parents have been alive, can't get it right, either.

Who needs Marcel Lefebvre?

I am not accusing Fr. Harrison of being a closet Lefebvrite, but the fact remains: in refuting Marcel Lefebvre's specific charge (viz., that DH contradicts previous Church teaching), Fr. Harrison confirms Lefebvre's general charge (viz., that there are problems with the texts of the Second Vatican Council).

Endless Interpretations

After reviewing the above-mentioned four points, one might get the impression that I am accusing Fr. Harrison of acting like a know-it-all. On the contrary, I am saying that Fr. Harrison is compelled by the style and content of DH, itself, to make oblique criticisms of it. Even after his careful analysis of the document again, a document made for the ears of modern man he admits that some aspects of DH need official clarification which he cannot give (for instance, what DH means by "public order" and "common good"). Also, at the end of his article in a move which puts to shame all of the dissenting so-called "theologians" at other Catholic universities Fr. Harrison submits his judgment to the Church, saying "Most helpful of all would be a document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith giving an official explanation of the essential continuity in doctrine between DH and traditional teaching."

As edifying as such a statement is, it brings up the issue of infinite regress mentioned before. If a genuine declaration from an authentic General Ecumenical Council isn't enough to settle matters, then what chance is there that a letter from the Holy Office will clear things up? Since no one in Rome is willing to admit that there are any problems with the text of DH, what chance is there that an interpretation (if one were forthcoming) would be any clearer or more precise than the text which is being interpreted? Let us not forget that DH is supposed to be the official interpretation on the part of the Church of her own teaching on religious liberty.

It's no use claiming that private interpretation is the culprit, either. Fr. Harrison, himself, says that "the most influential attempts at harmonisation have been too facile and superficial. And they have been rightly rejected by Archbishop Lefebvre and other traditionalists on the grounds that they gloss over and dilute the severe and uncompromising statements of the anti-liberal encyclicals of earlier popes." This means that most of the people who support both the Second Vatican Council and traditional doctrine have not been able to pull this bull by the horns. This fact puts members of the Society of St. Pius X in an interesting dilemma: In order to avoid the charge of private interpretation, they must trust somebody else's (probably unreliable) private interpretation of DH.

Inexcusable Incoherence

Thomas Storck, a contributing editor of The New Oxford Review, has his own argument for the reconciliation of DH with traditional doctrine. He gives this argument in his book, Foundations of a Catholic Political Order. He disagrees with Fr. Harrison on some points (mostly on the exact extent of Church doctrine with respect to ecclesiastical policy), but, in the main, his thesis is not radically different from that of Fr. Harrison. In particular, his thesis is incompatible with the explanations given by Bishop de Smedt and Fr. Murray; thus the four points which follow from Fr. Harrison's argument also follow from Mr. Stork's argument.

Not only that, but Mr. Stork gives his own backhanded concessions to traditionalist misgivings. Arguing against Michael Davies' criticism of DH, he says that "Davies' main mistake, I think, is that he takes too seriously the repeated claims of John Courtney Murray and others that they succeeded in changing Catholic teaching." In all likelihood, Mr. Storck is right: Michael Davies probably is taking John Courtney Murray too seriously. Then again, can anyone blame him? Fr. Murray actually wrote the declaration; he should know. Pope Paul VI and the rest of the Council Fathers trusted him at least tacitly to do a good job. If Michael Davies is taking Murray too seriously, then he is in good (even formidable) company.

Writing on the passage in article 1 of DH which states that it "leaves intact" previous Church teaching on religious liberty as well as on Michael Davies' attitude towards that passage, Mr. Stork states that "Davies' problem here is both his taking the words of Murray and his friends as the correct interpretation of Dignitatis Humanae and his failure to look past the prima facie meaning of the text to consider how the affirmation in article 1 should affect our understanding of this and other sections of the Declaration." [emphasis added]

I can understand why one should "look past the prima facie meaning of the text" of a General Ecumenical Council in order to get to the wealth of meaning which (one hopes) lies beneath. What I do not understand is why one should "look past the prima facie meaning of the text" of a General Ecumenical Council in order to establish the coherence of that text with the perennial teaching of the Church.

Mr. Stork does make an important distinction between considering DH logically and considering DH rhetorically. Both he and Fr. Harrison make strong cases that considered logically DH does not contradict prior statements of the Magisterium. In fact, I consider their arguments to be more probable than those put forward by Michael Davies. However, Mr. Storck continues, "Considered rhetorically, despite the unequivocal pledge to maintain traditional Catholic doctrine, the Declaration does not seem to do so." [emphasis in the original]

This is getting out of control. Most of the bishops and a good number of the theology experts of the Western Church gathered together for a General Ecumenical Council at Rome, in the Vatican, under the Pope's own nose, and issued a doctrinal statement a defender of which says seems to contradict traditional Church teaching, at least when considered rhetorically. I submit that this is inexcusable.

The fact that DH in some ways does not seem to uphold traditional Catholic doctrine is reason enough to have serious misgivings about it. The reason why we have a Magisterium is so that we won't have to depend on unreliable private interpretation in realms where doing so can lead to sin or chaos. If the Magisterium is confusing or hard to understand, then following the moral law will be that much the harder.

Again, it is worth remembering that Vatican II was supposed to present the faith in such a way that modern man could understand it more easily. It is also worth remembering Hillaire Belloc's observation that modern man is as averse to precision in thought as he is enamoured of precision in measurement.

The fact that this Council issued a doctrinal declaration which cannot be properly interpreted without the logical rigour of a mathematician and the linguistic dexterity of a lawyer (and considering Fr. Harrison's caveats maybe not even then) points to some serious defects in the letter of Vatican II, as well as dereliction of duty on the part of the Council Fathers.

Unwitting Indictment

In conceding the rhetorical front while defending the logical front, Fr. Harrison and Mr. Storck have unwittingly made a greater indictment of DH than anything ever written by Marcel Lefebvre. The arguments of Lefebvre are either true or false. If they are true, then DH contradicts traditional Catholic doctrine and, hence, there is a big problem. If Lefebvre's arguments are false, then one can still posit that everything is fine. On the other hand, if Fr. Harrison and Mr. Stork are wrong, then Lefebvre is right and there is a big problem. But if Fr. Harrison and Mr. Stork are right, then a General Ecumenical Council of the Universal Church has issued a doctrinal declaration which cannot be relied upon by the average layman (or most theologians) truly to express the mind of the Church on the issue of religious liberty.

In conclusion, Dignitatis Humanae is not a good presentation of Catholic doctrine whether or not it contradicts previous acts of the Magisterium. Traditionalists, then, are not being unreasonable when they express serious reservations about it. Since DH is a declaration of a General Ecumenical Council, then the problems inherent in the text of that declaration can be resolved only by the highest authority in the Church. However, in order to avoid the problem of infinite regress, any corrections made to that declaration must be clear, precise, unambiguous, and given with at least as much binding authority as the Second Vatican Council itself.