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Archbishop Vigano’s challenge on Vatican II

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 26, 2020

[The following are my reflections on a new statement by Archbishop Vigano, which he made in response to questions that I had raised about his views on the authority of Vatican II.]

Early in June, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano—who had drawn international attention in August 2018, when he charged that Vatican officials including Pope Francis had covered up the predatory sexual misconduct of Theodore McCarrick—earned headlines once again, with an open letter to President Donald Trump. The former apostolic nuncio to the US praised President Trump for his defense of human life, and encouraged him to resist the efforts of the “deep state.”

Predictably, since it touched on a hot political debate, the archbishop’s letter itself became the focus of controversy—particularly when President Trump (again predictably) invoked the archbishop’s support on his Twitter account.

Unfortunately, the flurry of political rhetoric that ensued distracted attention from another statement released by Archbishop Vigano just a few days later. This second statement (actually the latest in what has become a long sequence of public statements from the former nuncio) was far more important, in my view, because it concerned the doctrinal authority of the Catholic Church.

Archbishop Vigano’s second June statement was certainly provocative, if not downright prophetic. In it he directly confronted the vexed question of how the universal Church has become fragmented in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. He made a strong case that both radical Catholics who rejoice in the changes that have been wrought in the Church, and traditionalists who reject those changes, there has arisen an implicit agreement:

… that despite all the efforts of the hermeneutic of continuity which shipwrecked miserably at the first confrontation with the reality of the present crisis, it is undeniable that from Vatican II onwards a parallel church was built, superimposed over and diametrically opposed to the true Church of Christ.

Here was a direct challenge to the conventional understanding of Vatican II and its aftermath. For my own part, I saw the archbishop’s statement as an invitation to broader discussion and debate. So I contacted Archbishop Vigano, and asked him to answer what seemed to me the most critical questions about his stand. He graciously responded with another provocative statement that clarifies and expands on his earlier message. I am grateful to Archbishop Vigano for his reply, and for giving us a new way to reflect on the problems that have arisen in the Church since the Council. Again I strongly encourage readers to read the archbishop’s full statement.

Some Catholics of traditionalist sympathies contend that the problems in the Church today had their origin in Vatican II. That argument is difficult to sustain for two reasons. First, it suggests that the Holy Spirit, whom our Lord promised to guide the teaching Magisterium, was somehow absent from the Council. Second, it fails to explain why, when the leaders of an ostensibly healthy Church gathered to plot their future course, those bishops suddenly took the wrong path.

On the other hand, it is also difficult to sustain the claim that the Council was an unmixed blessing, and the problems that have subsequently arisen must come from some other source. Maybe the teachings of Vatican II did not directly cause our current difficulties, but certainly they did not cure the problems, and at this point only a hopeless optimist can still claim that Vatican II brought new life and vigor into the Church.

Yet today some “progressive” Catholics do see the Council as the source of a new dynamism in the Church—and point with approval to precisely those developments that have caused severe divisions among the faithful. As Archbishop Vigano notes, “they call it ‘the Council’ par excellence, as if it was the one and only council in the entire history of the Church.” They can and do cite the documents of the Council—or, more frequently, an amorphous “spirit of Vatican II”—to justify radical changes.

For many years orthodox Catholic writers—myself included—have insisted that the “spirit of Vatican II” is at odds with the actual teachings of the Council. We have happily accepted the instruction of Pope Benedict XVI that a “hermeneutic of continuity” must be applied to the Council’s statements. But that position, too, has become difficult to sustain, as doctrinal novelties crop up not only in the writings of dissident theologians but in formal Vatican documents. Archbishop Vigano questions how the Abu Dhabi statement can be reconciled with the perennial tradition of Church teaching; I have raised the same question about Amoris Laetitiae.

Did the teachings of the Council cause—or at a minimum allow—a break with tradition? The question can no longer be avoided, because the break is increasingly apparent.

Archbishop Vigano answers that question by observing that Vatican II did not establish any new doctrine. It was convened as a pastoral council. In fact, he reminds us,

… the Roman Pontiff around whom the Council was convened, solemnly and clearly affirmed that he did not want to use the doctrinal authority which he could have exercised if he wanted.

That choice made by Pope John XXIII could itself have been an error of pastoral judgment. Archbishop Vigano writes:

I would like to make the observation that nothing is more pastoral than what is proposed as dogmatic, because the exercise of the munus docendi in its highest form coincides with the order that the Lord gave to Peter to feed his sheep and lambs.

In any case, the archbishop contends, it is a mistake to impute to Vatican II a “presumed doctrinal authority,... an implicit magisterial infallibility, even though these were clearly excluded right from the beginning.”

During this pastoral council, Archbishop Vigano continues, some opponents of the perennial tradition introduced “cleverly disguised errors behind long-winded and deliberately equivocal speeches.”

And what the innovators did not succeed in obtaining in the Conciliar Aula, they achieved in the Commissions and Committees, thanks also to the activism of theologians and periti who were accredited and acclaimed by a powerful media machine.

So today the “spirit of Vatican II”—which may or may not reflect the teaching of the Council, but is certainly not in continuity with perennial Catholic doctrine—is in the ascendant. But this situation could not have arisen if the defenders of Catholic tradition had not failed to insist on authentic Church teaching. Too often, orthodox Catholic prelates have ignored difficulties, papered over emerging divisions, and covered up evidence of corruption—sacrificing the clarity of eternal truths for the sake of temporary peace within the ranks.

Therefore Archbishop Vigano concludes that the first step toward true reform is an honest recognition of our own failures, beginning with our failure to identify the problems and respond with appropriate evangelical zeal.

The solution, in my opinion, lies above all in an act of humility that all of us, beginning with the Hierarchy and the Pope, must carry out: recognizing the infiltration of the enemy into the heart of the Church.

Several months ago I argued that a renewal of the Catholic liturgy must begin with an attitude of repentance for all the abuses we have tolerated over recent decades. Archbishop Vigano makes a similar suggestion, broadening it to encompass the renewal of Catholic doctrine and pastoral guidance. Some Catholics may find these views unsettling; some may label them as extreme. But an honest debate—one that acknowledges the profound divisions that wrack the Church today—is long overdue.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 6 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: khouri2014 - Jun. 27, 2020 1:21 PM ET USA

    His Excellency is very elegant in his arguments but his dichotomy between pastoral and dogmatic is suprious. What is truly pastoral is dogmatic and vice versa. I guess now, along with the rioters and status destructors we too can rewrite history and use emotion not rational reasoning to deconstruct what we do not agree with. His Excellency goes too far.

  • Posted by: matthew.tsakanikas1114 - Jun. 27, 2020 11:09 AM ET USA

    Didn't the co-founder of Catholic Culture, Jeff Mirus, have a critique of Taylor Marshall's recent book Infiltration? How are Vigano's statements different from Marshall (that book Vigano has praised and pointed to in order to justify himself)? Shouldn't Mirus be applying the same response to Vigano and you? John Paul the Great's encyclicals completed interpretation/implementation of the Council. What do you want to debate? Please clean-up the poison you and Vigano are spreading.

  • Posted by: rlloret6216 - Jun. 26, 2020 9:05 PM ET USA

    Thank you for your concise words Phil Lawler and Archbishop Vigano. God bless you both with His protection and peace.

  • Posted by: Jim.K - Jun. 26, 2020 7:10 PM ET USA

    For years following VII, many of us thought VII was valid but the interpretation was faulty. I now think that idea is bogus. How many of us have tried to accept VII but made excuses for it’s documents? Those who attacked it directly (correctly?) were marginalized and/or excommunicated! (Archb Lefebvre) Some of us went to the Eastern Rites or the SSPX or FSSP. Many priests formed “private chapels” until they died or were branded outlaws by the Bishops. VII must be repealed and Orthodoxy confirmed

  • Posted by: jalsardl5053 - Jun. 26, 2020 6:47 PM ET USA

    "We also find the same setting in the interventions of Bergoglio, where he identifies “pastoralism [pastoralità]” as a soft version of rigid Catholic teaching in matters of Faith and Morals, in the name of discernment." Practical application of Abp Vigano. Per Vactican II different religions "often reflect a ray of Truth that enlightens all men" This orientation toward "universal brotherhood" ran the risk of relativism which risk is now a real danger with the rise of relativism.

  • Posted by: feedback - Jun. 26, 2020 1:55 PM ET USA

    Congratulations on the reply from Apb Vigano! You both raised great points. When I read the documents of V.II the first time decades ago, I did mot find in them anything unorthodox. The liturgy is not irreverent per se; for majority of world Catholics it is the only liturgy available. Some statements may require doctrinal clarity against the "spirit of V.II." Crisis of Faith is real, but is it the Council to blame? It's meaningful that St. JP II and B XVI never questioned the orthodoxy of V.II.