In Search for Conciliar Clarity


As a writer and speaker who frequently addresses topics related to the Second Vatican Council, I read with great interest Archbishop Gerhard Muller’s recent interview with Catholic News Agency (CNA) in which he was asked about the “doctrinal discussions” between the Holy See and the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX).

While declaring his optimism about the prospect of reconciliation, the newly appointed Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said that the dogmatic content of Vatican II will never be up for re-negotiation.

“The purpose of dialogue is to overcome difficulties in the interpretation of the Second Vatican Council,” Archbishop Muller told CNA, “but we cannot negotiate on revealed faith, that is impossible. An Ecumenical Council, according to the Catholic faith, is always the supreme teaching authority of the Church.”

“The assertion that the authentic teachings of Vatican II formally contradict the tradition of the Church is false,” Archbishop Muller continued.

I had hoped to glean some new insights from the interview, but I must admit; this raises more questions than answers.

For example; what makes a teaching of the Council “authentic?” Does the Archbishop mean to imply that there are propositions emanating from the Council that don’t rise to that standard, or does he really mean to speak of teachings that are “authentically” interpreted?

Furthermore, by “formally contradict” is he referring to explicit contradiction? If so, does this imply that “informal” or implicit contradiction may indeed be discernible in the text?

I ponder these questions in all sincerity and you should too; there’s a great deal at stake.

In truth, the phrase “conciliar clarity” is a redundancy. At least it should be. Ecumenical councils by their very nature are intended to serve as beacons of truth that very clearly express the Catholic faith that comes to us from the Apostles, with neither ambiguity nor confusion. Even so, the Second Vatican Council opened nearly half-a-century ago and the children of the Church still await the clarity it promised.

Moving closer to the heart of the matter, Archbishop Mueller went on to acknowledge that there are “gradations” of teaching authority between the various texts of the council. To illustrate the point, he drew a comparison between the Decree on the Media of Social Communications (Inter Mirifica) and the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), saying that the former carries “less weight” than the latter.

This is a very important point, however, we must also be clear that simply bearing the name “Dogmatic” in the title does not mean that every statement in said document pertains to “dogma,” nor are we safe to assume that those documents of lesser weight are entirely devoid of dogmatic utterances.

In all cases it is important to realize that every dogmatic statement that is offered in the documents of Vatican II (and there are many) is simply a reiteration of that which has been previously defined.

“Whatever is dogmatic can never be negotiated,” Archbishop Mueller said, expressing hope that the members of the SSPX “can overcome their difficulties, their ideological restrictions so that we can work together to proclaim Christ as the Light of the World.”

The Society can speak for itself far better than I, but in my research on this topic I have never uncovered even a hint that the SSPX considers dogma “negotiable” in the least; on the contrary, they seem determined to embrace every single properly doctrinal statement the Church has ever made.

To be clear about what this means, we must revisit the Opening Address that Pope John XXIII delivered to the Council Fathers in which he spoke very clearly about the aim of this council.

“We are not here primarily to discuss certain fundamentals of Catholic doctrine, or to restate in greater detail the traditional teaching of the Fathers and of early and more recent theologians. We presume that these things are sufficiently well known and familiar to all,” the Holy Father said.

“There was no need to call a council merely to hold discussions of that nature,” he continued. “What is needed at the present time is a new enthusiasm, a new joy and serenity of mind in the unreserved acceptance by all of the entire Christian faith, without forfeiting that accuracy and precision in its presentation which characterized the proceedings of the Council of Trent and the First Vatican Council.”

This being the case, if one adheres to “the entire Christian faith” as expressed in the doctrinal pronouncements that preceded the Council; then clearly one must be walking on solidly Catholic ground. This, according to my understanding, is precisely where the SSPX stakes its claim.

If this be true, then it’s reasonable for us to wonder what the nature of the discord truly is.

Look, no one disputes the fact that confusion surrounds certain aspects of the conciliar text. As the communique from the Vatican Information Service (VIS) stated at the outset of the discussions “[the Holy See]leaves open to legitimate discussion the examination and theological explanation of individual expressions and formulations contained in the documents of Vatican Council II and later Magisterium.”

Pay close attention to what is being said here: The Holy See is essentially conceding a point that many so-called “traditionalists” (not just the SSPX) have been making for decades; not only are certain of the “expressions and formulations” contained in the Council documents in need of clarification, so too is the “later magisterium” which presumably sought to explain them.

According to CNA, the Vatican believes that the issue simply boils down to making “a distinction between what the Second Vatican Council actually said and the sometimes problematic interpretations and applications of its teaching.”

The VIS communique seems to imply otherwise, but if indeed “what the Council actually said” is beyond reproach and all that is truly necessary in order to establish clarity is an authoritative interpretation that leaves no room for confusion, why, after so many decades of turmoil, are we still waiting?

The challenge, frankly speaking, doesn’t appear to be all that daunting.

If nothing else, the doctrinal discussions between the SSPX and Rome have identified for all involved the limited number of conciliar expressions that remain a source of discord, not just for the Society, but for many in the Church. Surely the Holy Father could exercise his sovereign authority to clearly set forth a definitive interpretation for each and every one. Or, as Bishop Athanasius Schneider has suggested, he could issue a new syllabus of errors condemning the “problematic interpretations and applications” of the Council.

In the absence of either of these or some other remedy that would provide the clarity that one reasonably expects of an ecumenical council, can anyone blame a weary Catholic for seeking refuge in the magisterium of Pontiff’s past, the traditional liturgy, and what Pope John XXIII called the “accuracy and precision which characterized the proceedings of the Council of Trent and the First Vatican Council?”

“Our aim and our task is clear,” Archbishop Muller said, “to promote the unity of all the disciples of Christ in the one Church under the leadership of Jesus Christ and in communion with his vicar, the successor of St. Peter.”

Let us implore the intercession of the Queen of Heaven, the Blessed Virgin Mary, that the task at hand may soon be accomplished unto the glory of the Lord, for our good and the good of all His Holy Church.


About Author

Catholic News Agency columnist, author and speaker w/ particular focus on applying the hermeneutic of continuity to Vatican Council II.