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Pope Paul VI on Vatican II

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Nov 04, 2011

From time to time I still see comments to the effect that the authority of the Second Vatican Council is problematic because Pope Paul VI said it did not promulgate any dogmatic definitions. This citation is thought to settle the matter. But it does not settle things in the way those who cite it usually intend. Let me explain.

The quotation generally used is from a general audience given by Paul VI on January 12, 1966. At that time, Paul spoke as follows:

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 engaging the infallibility of the ecclesiastical Magisterium. The answer is known by whoever remembers the conciliar declaration of March 6, 1964, repeated on November 16, 1964: given the Council’s pastoral character, it avoided pronouncing, in an extraordinary manner, dogmas endowed with the note of infallibility.

The first thing to note about this statement is that it was not itself an exercise of the Magisterium. It was said in a general audience, which can by no means be construed as having the intention of teaching by virtue of the Pope’s apostolic authority to the whole Church on a matter of faith and morals. A precise theological handling of this quotation, therefore, demands that we not accord it any decisive weight. It would not, for example, in any way supersede a clear statement by an ecumenical council to the contrary. Nonetheless, I will parse it below as if it is a magisterial statement, so that we can understand precisely what it would require of us if it were.

The second thing to note is that by the very nature of things both an ecumenical council (that is, a council whose decrees are promulgated by the pope) and the pope alone are protected from error whenever they clearly intend to (1) teach (2) by virtue of their apostolic authority (3) to the whole church (4) on a matter of faith or morals.

This freedom from error may be described in two ways. When the teaching is formally and precisely identified as an exercise of the magisterium to settle some matter, it is considered an act of the extraordinary magisterium and it clearly meets the definition for infallibility given at Vatican I. When the teaching is given in a less formal and more generally instructive way, it is considered an act of the ordinary magisterium, and its freedom from error is guaranteed by the fact that every Catholic is bound to accept such teachings, and must do so to remain fully Catholic. Indeed, the entire reason for such protection by the Holy Spirit is that the Magisterium cannot be permitted to bind the whole Church to error, which would render void Christ’s promise to be with the Church.

The third thing to note is that the citation from Paul VI, even if parsed strictly as magisterial statements must always be, does not say what many people think it says. What it says is not that there is a possibility of error in the Council’s decrees (in teaching on faith and morals) but that the Council, because of the particular purpose it had in view, did not propound any dogmas through the extraordinary exercise of its magisterium. To the best of my knowledge, no theologian or commentator has ever claimed that it did.

In other places, the Pope stressed on more than one occasion that the Council must not be understood to have taught anything contrary to what the Church had taught in the past, and that everything it taught must be interpreted in a manner consistent with past teaching properly understood. Here again, some have argued that this means we are free to reject anything in Vatican II that appears to us to be somehow “different”. But all this means is the same thing that is true of any magisterial exercise, that the Magisterium must always be understood in such a way that both the older and the newer formulations are seen to be true. This is exactly what Pope Benedict XVI has been stressing with his hermeneutic of continuity, as opposed to a hermeneutic of rupture.

Now, to finally put our leading quotation from the general audience of January 12, 1966 in perspective, we need first to note the very next sentence: “But it [the Council] has invested its teachings with the authority of the supreme ordinary magisterium, which ordinary magisterium is so obviously authentic that it must be accepted with docility and sincerity by all the faithful, according to the mind of the Council as expressed in the nature and aims of the individual documents.” Taken as a whole, Paul’s comments here summarize the repeated Conciliar declaration which the Pope alluded to in our leading quotation (and which I covered in my 2010 series on the documents of Vatican II, specifically in my Introduction to the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church).

Second, we need to consider all of the other statements Pope Paul VI made on this same topic. Two of these are actually magisterial, included in the acts of the Council itself. Each document ends with this statement:

Each and every one of the things set forth in this [here the type of document is named] has won the consent of the fathers. We too, by the Apostolic Authority conferred on us by Christ, join with the venerable Fathers in approving, decreeing, and establishing these things in the Holy Spirit, and we direct that what has thus been enacted in Synod be published to God’s glory…I, Paul, Bishop of the Catholic Church.

Moreover, the entire body of the Council’s work was promulgated by Paul VI as follows on December 8, 1965:

We decide moreover that all that has been established synodally is to be religiously observed by all the faithful, for the glory of God and the dignity of the Church… we have approved and established these things, decreeing that the present letters are and remain stable and valid, and are to have legal effectiveness, so that they be disseminated and obtain full and complete effect...

Taken together, these two statements are what make the Second Vatican Council ecumenical, that is, approved and promulgated by the successor of Peter, and therefore a universal magisterial exercise of the highest importance.

Next we turn to other non-magisterial statements. I have not been able to find the full text in English of the general audience which we have been discussing, but it is available on the Vatican website in Italian. In it, Pope Paul also said the following (my translation may be imperfect):

The heritage of the Council is constituted by the documents which were promulgated at various conclusive moments in the discussions and deliberations; these documents are of a diverse nature; some are Constitutions (four), some Decrees (nine), and some Declarations (three); but all together they form a body of doctrine and of law which should give to the Church that renewal for which the Council was put in motion. To grasp, to study, to apply these documents is the duty and the happy task of the post-conciliar period.

Finally, about ten years later, in an allocution (also in Italian) to the secret consistory of cardinals on May 24, 1976, Pope Paul VI specifically addressed the distortions and disobedience of Archbishops Lefebvre and his followers with respect to the Second Vatican Council. This too is non-magisterial, but it is proper to round out the thought he expressed non-magisterially in the general audience so commonly cited:

There are those who, under the pretext of a greater fidelity to the Church and the Magisterium, systematically refuse the teaching of the Council itself, its application and the reforms that stem from it, its gradual application by the Apostolic See and the Episcopal Conferences, under Our authority, willed by Christ.

He even exclaimed in utter frustration:

It is even affirmed that the Second Vatican Council is not binding; that the faith would be in danger also because of the post-conciliar reforms and guidelines, which there is a duty to disobey to preserve certain traditions. What traditions? Does it belong to this group, and not the Pope, not the Episcopal College, not an Ecumenical Council, to establish which of the countless traditions must be regarded as the norm of faith!

The purpose of this essay has been to thoroughly examine the thought of Paul VI on this subject. But when we add that most of the “controversial” statements in Vatican II had already been taught by Pope Pius XII, and that all of them have since been repeatedly reaffirmed by both the magisterium and the programs of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, and that all popes since the conciliar documents were promulgated have consistently regarded acceptance of the authority of Vatican II as a pre-requisite to full communion with the Church—it becomes even more clear that it is time to lay another old canard to rest.

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Show 2 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: GymK - Nov. 05, 2011 4:15 PM ET USA

    My "rejection" of VII had little to do with the actual documents but with the English translations available in the 60's & the misinterpretations that were taught from the pulpits. (Spirit of VII) I remember traditionalists saying to our priests "but that's NOT what the documents say." I now accept the authentic documents and teachings of VatII and pray that my old friends in the SSPX will do the same. Praise to BXVI. Note: Authentic VII English translations are available on the Vatican website.

  • Posted by: KL Flannery - Nov. 05, 2011 3:23 AM ET USA

    Thanks for this very helpful essay.

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