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The Assent Owed to Vatican II

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Dec 02, 2011

What is finally emerging as the sticking point between the Vatican and the Society of Saint Pius X is the question of the assent owed to the Second Vatican Council. This is now the subject of an important essay in L’Osservatore Romano by one of the key negotiators for the Vatican, the vicar general of Opus Dei, Msgr. Fernando Ocariz. Note that we also have a news story which includes substantial quotations.

I hate to say I told you so, but Msgr. Ocariz says exactly the same thing I have been saying for years here on CatholicCulture.org. But of course this is no surprise because it is something that all faithful theologians have known from the first. Since it was an ecumenical council, meeting and promulgating its acts to the whole Church under the authority of the Pope, the Second Vatican Council’s doctrinal sentences demand assent in the following ways:

  1. Whenever the Council teaches something about faith and morals, what it teaches is certainly true, either through the specific note of infallibility or from the religious submission of mind and will owed to the ordinary magisterium.
  2. If such a teaching on faith or morals appears to anyone to conflict with earlier teachings, the problem is not with the truth of the Council’s statement but with our understanding of the Church’s full teaching, of which the Council’s statement is inescapably a part.
  3. Proper method demands that an understanding of the matter in question be found that accepts the truth of all relevant statements. Later statements can be illuminated by earlier ones and earlier statements can be illuminated by later ones, until a more complete and precise understanding is formed.
  4. Where the Council was not teaching on matters of faith and morals, such as where it was describing contemporary conditions or offering recommendations for renewal, its statements are to be received with respect and gratitude but are not necessarily flawless in either their factual accuracy or their prudential judgment.
  5. It follows that any arguments which undermine this understanding, whether based upon the pastoral interests of the Council or any other factor, are specious.

The Council itself explained this in a doctrinal comment added to the Acta in both March and November of 1964, which I took note of in the introduction to my commentary on Lumen Gentium (The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church) in my series on Vatican II (now available as an ebook). In addition, I have talked about this until my face has turned the proverbial blue—with respect to the Council itself, the Magisterium in general, and proper theological method. See, for example:

Now I grant that Msgr. Ocariz is not the only person involved in the discussions, but it obviously no coincidence that his article was published in L’Osservatore Romano immediately following the SSPX’s request for clarifications to the Doctrinal Preamble (the basis for negotiations) on this precise point.

In any case, Msgr. Ocariz has stated with admirable clarity exactly what the Church herself said at the time of the Council, exactly what the Church has understood to be the case since the Council, and in fact exactly what the Church has always believed about what constitutes a magisterial teaching and how magisterial teachings are to be received.

I am among those who devoutly hope that the SSPX can be reconciled on this point and can therefore be brought back into full communion with the Church. But make no mistake about it: This is the key question and what Msgr. Ocariz outlines is the correct answer. This is so true that how each of us answers this question of the assent due to Vatican II is one of those things—whether we consider ourselves Modernists or Traditionalists or something in between, and whether we feel ourselves beset by Church authority or feel we are allowed to go on as if nothing is wrong—it is one of those things that really does determine whether we are Catholic in name only or are (as I would hope) actually Catholic in fact.

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: koinonia - Dec. 03, 2011 10:08 AM ET USA

    AB Lefebvre went from being a prelate with an impeccably sound theological background and a remarkable Catholic evangelist to an outcast. Yet he changed nothing; he was entirely faithful to the doctrine he had received and had always taught. How could this be? I believe it's inaccurate to make individualism the culprit. It's an anomalous situation. We've heard heretics cite the Second Vatican Council in making their arguments. Clarity is not a bad thing to seek. Neither are increased prayers.

  • Posted by: loumiamo7154 - Dec. 03, 2011 9:00 AM ET USA

    Dr. Jeff, as all things in life, there's the good and the bad. I'm convinced we would NOT have the new new translation of the liturgy were it not for the initial a d continuing work of the SSPX. But their difficulty with V2 shows a huge block of pride that they may not be able to get over. We all need to pray for them to do so, and we all should thank God for them, and for the somewhat restored language of the liturgy.

  • Posted by: Contrary1995 - Dec. 02, 2011 7:21 PM ET USA

    The great irony is that the so called Traditionalists and the Modernists suffer from the same disease: an atomistic individualism. They both set themselves up as the final arbiter in matters of faith and morals. They are both consumerist in their approach to the faith and they both inhabit worlds of their own making: which is St. Augustine's very definition of the state of sin. Please Lord, never let us be parted from you.

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