Archbishop Viganò’s comments on Vatican II

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 06, 2020

A number of readers have asked me to explain whether Phil Lawler and I agree with the assessment of Vatican II which Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò provided in response to questions raised by Phil, who introduced this response on our website on June 26th.

The first thing to be noted is that neither Phil Lawler nor I agree with everything Archbishop Viganò has said on this subject. Again, Phil had asked the Archbishop for clarifications of his position on Vatican II, which the latter had been discussing in the media. Since Viganò kindly offered a reply with permission to publish, we in fact decided to publish it both as a courtesy and because it is of interest to many.

Since that time, LifeSite News (which has published quite a bit of even more volatile material from the Archbishop) asked for further clarifications, which Viganò provided and LifeSite published on July 3rd. These latest clarifications make clear that Archbishop Viganò accepts the validity of the Second Vatican Council. Such clarity dramatically reduces the need for me to explain the extent to which I agree or disagree with him on other aspects of the case, because every Catholic: (a) Must accept the validity of an ecumenical council, including everything it teaches explicitly on faith or morals; but (b) Can still have his or her own opinion about the wisdom of particular pastoral initiatives and about the results of the efforts to implement them (which, in any case, are well beyond the ability of a council to control).

In case there is any doubt about the object of our assent, let me first remind readers that what makes a council “ecumenical” is the promulgation of its acts (decrees, etc.) by the Pope. It is the Pope who attaches to the conciliar acts the universal magisterial authority of the Church. In addition, it must be understood that the truth of matters of faith and morals expressly taught to the whole Church by virtue of the pope’s supreme authority (whether alone or in council) is guaranteed by the Holy Spirit. But the wisdom and effectiveness of pastoral initiatives—ideas, programs and recommendations concerning the best way to spread and inculcate Catholic faith and morals—are not guaranteed, and are always subject to change by the proper ecclesiastical authority.

Viganò’s Moving Target

One thing that we have learned from this experience is that, whereas Phil Lawler and I began grappling with the issues surrounding Vatican II in the late 1960s, Archbishop Viganò has apparently only begun to do so very recently. Consider that the difficulties with the implementation of the Council, which ended in 1965, were apparent in the Church from the first. I went off to college in 1966 and became immediately aware of the crisis of faith among Catholics in the United States. Phil is about three years younger, but I believe it is fair to say that he was at least aware of the problem by the end of the decade. In other words, we both had plenty of time to come to a coherent assessment of its causes before we became well-known enough for anybody to care what we might think or write.

It is important to understand that this was not the case for Archbishop Viganò. He is seven years older than I am, but still far too young to have been involved in the Council, which was convened when he was twenty-one. His ecclesiastical career was such that he became the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States under both Pope Benedict and Pope Francis (2011-2016). Clearly, then, he was a churchman well-suited to the task of framing the Council and its aftermath as positively as possible, while attempting to maintain good relations with all parties. In his recent discussions of the Council, he has admitted that he himself was for an extended period of time too sanguine about the turmoil in the Church and the interpretation of the Council. My point here is that it has only been well into his retirement that Archbishop Viganò has given great attention to where he himself may have been at fault, and has been struggling to put into words how he has begun to view the Council and its aftermath in recent years.

The Archbishop’s repeated emphasis on starting with repentance in our assessment of our current situation is therefore not only excellent advice for everyone but a very personal statement for himself. It is also, without question, an insight for which he is to be strongly—very strongly—commended.

However, I would also argue that one of Archbishop Viganò’s difficulties is that he now tends to be very vocal and assertive on various issues before he really has everything carefully worked out. He has a tendency toward sweeping judgments. He is not known, in his “interventions” over the past few years, for dispassionate, calm analysis. This “new” Viganò burst upon the scene with his startling (and valuable and courageous) denunciations of the Church’s complicity in covering up sexual abuse. But a pattern has emerged since then of rapid-fire (and, I would argue, sometimes ill-judged) comments on many problems, including even the presidency of Donald Trump!

So this is what we are dealing with: A courageous and very outspoken Churchman who, in his retirement, has become something of a celebrity—has become, in effect, a figure who some disaffected lay people cling to as a kind of proof that We Were Right All Along. This is a volatile mix for a volatile man, and we have clearly gotten to the point at which we must recognize two things: Archbishop Viganò does not always think out his positions carefully before he speaks (as his repeated clarifications of his thinking about Vatican II amply demonstrate); and, in consequence, it is prudent to take his highly rhetorical interventions with a healthy dose of salt.

Which does not make him always wrong. But with respect to this question of the Second Vatican Council, it is necessary to notice that his assertions are a work in progress. Two different news organizations had asked for successive clarifications, and in each response his position evolved. Even the latest (as of this writing) LifeSite News clarifications, in which he rightly upholds the validity of Vatican II, have undergone change. Originally he had stated that a single statement contradicting earlier teaching was sufficient to invalidate an ecumenical council, but that judgment has now been withdrawn in favor of language which is far harder to interpret. [Note: As I posted this, I found yet another hasty clarification, complete with fresh problems of its own, in response to (perhaps unfair) criticism by the Italian journalist Sandro Magister.]

I was happy to see this change, but it reveals to us an ongoing effort, in full public view, to more rationally frame his opinions over time, an effort that in its haste sometimes includes clear errors. After all, if an ecumenical council teaches something on faith or morals that seems different from a previous statement, it is for the faithful to adjust their understanding in such a way that everything the Church has taught on this subject (along with everything expressed in Scripture on the subject) can be affirmed as true. It is not for the faithful to conclude that an ecumenical council has made a mistake and is therefore invalid. That would be an obvious exercise of the Protestant principle—private judgment, every man his own pope—which too often plagues both the Modernists and the Traditionalists in contemporary debates.

Traduttore, Traditore?

Note that one extenuating circumstance might have been problems with the English translations. (My section title immediately above alludes to this by quoting the famous Italian pun: “Translator, Traitor!”) In the case of Archbishop Viganò’s email-based interview with Phil Lawler, the Archbishop provided us with an authorized translation by Giuseppe Pellegrino (whose name is duly noted at the bottom). There are many strong opinions in Viganò’s answers, with some of which I disagree, but there is no great need to clarify my own position in response to every contrary opinion that may be legitimately held. It is primarily when we get to the seventh paragraph of our interview that we run into opinions that (a) cannot be held by a Catholic; and (b) are apparently not held by Archbishop Viganò, for if he held them, he would not have been able to clarify for LifeSite News that he regarded the Second Vatican Council to be perfectly valid, despite the maneuvering of the various parties in the debates (which, indeed, is nothing new at councils).

Consider the text of this paragraph which we published, a text that must be offensive to the ears of any sound Catholic, for it asserts that the errors of the alleged “spirit” of the Council must be seen to be the Council itself. In its entirety, then:

On the other hand, when we commonly speak of the spirit of an event, we mean precisely that it constitutes the soul, the essence of that event. We can thus affirm that the spirit of the Council is the Council itself, that the errors of the post-conciliar period were contained in nuce [in a hidden way, in embryonic form, in a nutshell] in the Conciliar Acts, just as it is rightly said that the Novus Ordo is the Mass of the Council, even if in the presence of the Council Fathers the Mass was celebrated that the progressives significantly call pre-conciliar. And again: if Vatican II truly did not represent a point of rupture, what is the reason for speaking of a pre-conciliar Church and a post-conciliar church, as if these were two different entities, defined in their essence by the Council itself? And if the Council was truly in line with the uninterrupted infallible Magisterium of the Church, why is it the only Council that poses grave and serious problems of interpretation, demonstrating its ontological heterogeneity with respect to other Councils?

Before Archbishop Viganò made his latest clarifications, I had already begun to wonder whether there was a translation problem here, for this is a position—given the grave errors the author had already ascribed to the “spirit” of Vatican II after the Council—which no Catholic can take with regard to the acts of an ecumenical council, which are all that matters for orthodoxy. I realized that this paragraph would represent an acceptable opinion if the present and past tenses were changed to what in English is called the “subjunctive mood”—usually expressing a condition contrary to fact, e.g., “If I were a fireman, I would respond to the alarm.” But the subjunctive mood is little understood by many non-English speakers (and, let us be honest, by too many English speakers as well). Is it possible that the translator simply did not know how to use the subjunctive?

What follows is my own modification of the translation with just a few other changes to accommodate the subjunctive shift in meaning. Note, however, that I do not have access to the text in the original language, so I cannot claim this modification is in the least justified. [In fact, after this commentary was published, the translator wrote to me with ample evidence that it had not been mistranslated.] Here I wish simply to demonstrate how easily a mistranslation could cause grave problems [and, more to the point now, how careful all of us must be in choosing the words we use to discuss matters of Catholic faith and morals, which are bounded on every side by fatal errors, so that it never does any good to let oneself be carried away into overstating the case]:

On the other hand, when we commonly speak of the spirit of an event, we mean precisely that it constitutes the soul, the essence of that event. In this sense, we can see why many have received this alleged “spirit” as if it were the essence of the Council itself, as if the errors of the post-conciliar period were contained in nuce in the Conciliar Acts, just as it is said that the Novus Ordo is the Mass of the Council, even if in the presence of the Council Fathers the Mass was celebrated that the progressives significantly call pre-conciliar. Similarly, if Vatican II itself truly did not represent a point of rupture, what is the reason for speaking of a pre-conciliar Church and a post-conciliar church, as if these were two different entities, defined in their essence by the Council itself? In contrast, if the Council was truly in line with the uninterrupted infallible Magisterium of the Church, must we not root out this “spirit” which poses grave and serious problems of interpretation, demonstrating an ontological heterogeneity with respect to other Councils?

Here we have the difference between a Catholic and a non-Catholic position on an ecumenical council.

Conclusion

Please note that the most important point here is that Archbishop Viganò’s assessment, of both the Second Vatican Council and the problems in the contemporary Church, is a work in progress. Again, CatholicCulture.org published one stage of his clarifications as a courtesy to Archbishop Viganò and because many readers are interested in his opinions. Again, there is no need here for me to belabor the various point at which I personally disagree with opinions that are not errors in faith, though I expect to write more about my own understanding of this complex issue in the very near future. The Catholic reception of the Second Vatican Council is clearly an important topic—a rocky topic, in truth, which has frightened many incautious mariners into abandoning the barque of Peter only to sink and drown.

But I will conclude with this: It is not the job of bishops, whether retired or not, apart from the current Bishop of Rome, to put out constant statements on difficult Catholic subjects for the instruction of the whole Church. This is, in fact, an abuse of the episcopal office and of the episcopal title.

I like to joke among friends that this is the task of the writers at CatholicCulture.org! But my attempt at humor at least includes an important truth instinctively recognized by all readers: We at CatholicCulture.org cannot, and do not claim to, speak in the name of the Church. We claim to be faithful Catholics with strong opinions, which must stand or fall not on our authority, but on their own merit. Too often, we do not apply that same test to bishops who pronounce on Church problems outside the scope of their own dioceses. Too often there is a desire to claim ultimate authority for one’s favorite episcopal pundit.

No sane person claims ultimate authority for Phil Lawler or Jeff Mirus, and that means we do not risk doing anything like the same level of damage to the Church, if (or when) we are wrong.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 6 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: khouri2014 - Jul. 09, 2020 12:10 AM ET USA

    I think the sad reality is the Archbishop has gone off the rails. He was sent to America under a cloud, made it clear he didn't want to be here, then is pulled back to Rome. I think he is personally angry and is using the attention he received in his more temperate days to make claims about the Council that are specious. Yes, the Church is in a disarray. Yes, the hierarchs are generally a sad, craven lot. It wasn't the Novus Ordo that did this or the Documents but bishops and "theologians."

  • Posted by: billG - Jul. 08, 2020 3:29 PM ET USA

    "Traduttore, traditore!" A case for Latin rather than the vernacular in the Novus Ordo. Too few of the successors of the Apostles are courageous enough to exercise their teaching function. Bravo to Vigano for exercising his. Vigano's views on the liturgical changes are not far removed from BXVI. I would also note that the BXVI's views have taken years to arrive where they are now. Does that make him slow? Dr. Mirus, you spent too much ink on ad hominem verbiage rather than Vigano's substance

  • Posted by: jalsardl5053 - Jul. 08, 2020 3:19 AM ET USA

    Magister's charge is not supported by any Abp. Vigano statement and is either an exaggeration, misinterpretation or journalistic sensationalism. Somewhat lost in this fray is https://www.lifesitenews.com/opinion/bishop-schneider-we-shouldnt-reject-vatican-ii-but-save-what-is-truly-good wherein there is considerable overlap with Abp. Vigano's conclusions which space here prevents detailing: an exercise for the reader.(Yes, VII is WORDY Bishop Schneider!)

  • Posted by: dianekortan5972 - Jul. 07, 2020 9:31 PM ET USA

    Your sincere and sustained attention to this issue is greatly appreciated! Thank you.

  • Posted by: matthew.tsakanikas1114 - Jul. 07, 2020 6:04 PM ET USA

    Thank you for such a thoughtful response! Well said.

  • Posted by: steve.grist2587 - Jul. 07, 2020 6:22 AM ET USA

    "Too often there is a desire to claim ultimate authority for one’s favorite episcopal pundit." I disagree. MOST OFTEN, the faithful are desperate for a shepherd who will demonstrate great love for his sheep. The culture is crushing us and our families while our greatest potential allies either remain comfortably on the sideline or worse take sides with the culture. The bishops have the power and authority of Christ but refuse to exercise that authority to protect the sheep. Made God Forgive Them