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Beware the Vagueness of Vatican II

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 22, 2013

Having spent considerable time and energy detailing the program of renewal outlined at the Second Vatican Council (OK, so what sort of renewal did Vatican II prescribe?), I am naturally a little taken aback by those who have responded essentialy as follows: “Whatever. The documents were so vague and wordy, that at a minimum the Council left the Church open to all the horrors that followed.” Of course, vagueness and wordiness are relative terms; for any given person, I suppose these charges are unanswerable. Still, they do not make any sense to me.

I do not find the documents vague at all. But then this depends upon expectations, doesn’t it? If I come to hear Our Lord condemn the Pharisees, then “whited sepulchers” will seem satisfyingly precise. But on the same expectation, I fear I am going to find the Sermon on the Mount very vague indeed, not to mention intolerably wordy for the purpose. In the same way, if I come to hear Our Lord define the Real Presence in the Eucharist, having just read the relevant decree of the Council of Trent, I am going to find chapter six of John’s gospel just a trifle vague, including its strange expression “before Abraham was, I am.” But knowing the doctrine of the Eucharist, there is no question which text I will find more inspiring—no question which is more likely to make me a better Catholic.

So too in the present case. Somewhere along the line, somebody claimed that ecumenical councils must always speak in definitions and condemnations. Presumably whenever a council does not use those forms, it will be considered vague, or wordy, or both. This, I fear, is a holdover from an era of living the faith prescriptively. A council that wants to inspire and renew will always be considered vague and wordy by those who want a list of definitions, condemnations and rules.

I’ve made the point before that condemnations actually tell us very little, because their great weakness is a lack of positive content. When the Church condemns something, she does a wonderful job of telling us what we must not believe, but a terrible job of getting us to enter more deeply into what we should believe. So while condemnations have an important place in the teaching office of the Church, and they certainly have a satisfying ring to them (provided, of course, it is some idea we disagree with that gets condemned), they are far too precisely restricted to form the basis of a positive program. They exclude one particular item from belief, and they otherwise leave us pretty much in the dark.

Definitions do a little better, because they fix in our mind a particular positive understanding. These are wonderful tools for clarifying doctrine. But as a general rule they do not inspire, nor are they designed to do so. In fact, inspiring language is completely out of place in a definition. And so definitions do not move people to greater zeal. They aid understanding but do little to encourage an interior penetration of the Christian message. They do not foster a deep commitment to acting like a Christian in every aspect of our lives, in every corner of our culture.

Think for a moment of the old Baltimore Catechism and its equivalent “penny catechisms” around the world. Today’s official Catholic Catechism, by comparison, is incredibly wordy, and in some respects less conveniently precise, that is, less “handy”. But that is because the official Catechism tries to provide a deeper understanding of the Faith, not merely points to memorize; it draws out its meaning from Scripture and the Fathers, and even explains it “around the edges” to some degree, precisely so that the reader might, in addition to learning the truth, find the reality at once rich and beautiful, mysterious and inspiring.

A Different Style for a Different Purpose

Now the Second Vatican Council set out to accomplish a pastoral objective. Occasionally it developed doctrine in a clear and precise way, but its primary purpose was threefold: First, to inculcate a more complete understanding of the reality of the Church; second, to enjoin and inspire a deeper participation by all her members in the Church’s essential mission; and third, to set forth in each topic area certain specific changes that ought to be made to facilitate this mission. Not every topic, and not every mandated change, is relevant to everyone.

It is important to recognize that by its very nature this pastoral task requires more words than definitions and condemnations do. Insofar as this task calls for inculcating a deeper understanding and a renewed approach to the Church, it may certainly seem “vague” to all those who come to the documents looking for what the Fathers of the Council had no intention of providing. The Council only seldom condemns or defines; mostly it explains and exhorts. If we are looking for a millstone to hang around a sinner’s neck, and we find instead a guide to understanding the Church better, living a deeper life of faith, and bearing a more luminous and attractive witness, are we right to complain that the solution lacks weight?

I want to emphasize that there are certainly questions that can be raised about this or that conciliar text. The full meaning may not be immediately clear, or we may have new questions which were not addressed at all. But this is also true of every condemnation and every definition ever issued by the Church. We grasp things piecemeal, not whole. Over time, new angles, new interests, new questions and new distinctions emerge. The Magisterium frequently rounds out in later statements what she has asserted in earlier ones. The Council of Nicaea defined that Jesus Christ was true God, of the same substance with the Father; a century and a quarter later, at Chalcedon, erroneous applications of that teaching were balanced by the definition of Our Lord’s two natures in one Divine person.

So there is always the possibility of confusion and the opportunity for fresh questions. But it is also important that we be spiritually honest with ourselves. If we are determined to blame the Council for the faults of the post-conciliar Church, we will doubtless first claim the Council taught error. Seeing over time that such a claim is utterly vacuous, we might argue that at least the Council was imprudent for challenging the Church to do something that contemporary conditions made difficult. And then seeing over time that even this claim is utterly vacuous, we might seek finally to wash our hands of the whole thing. “In any case,” we might announce with a loud harrumph, “the text was too vague and too wordy for any sensible person to make anything of it!” But wait: Doesn’t this sound exactly like sour grapes? Perhaps it should.

The reality is that Catholics have always believed ecumenical councils to be the highest exercise of the Church’s authority, signaling a deep and abiding action of the Holy Spirit. We absolutely must recognize what this implies. Dismissing an ecumenical council as “wordy” or “vague” comes perilously close to a sin against the Holy Spirit. It is rather like an ad hominem argument: I will not attend to you, because I don’t like how you look; I don’t like how you talk. Might this indicate a rather stubborn refusal to open ourselves to the gifts the Holy Spirit has intended the Church to receive? Should we not rather invest considerable effort in grasping and applying what the Council worked so hard and so carefully to accomplish?

I suggest there is need for repentance and healing here. I understand how this came about, how many sins on the part of others have precipitated this attitude. But in all charity, I cannot just let it go. It is not only liberals and Modernists who are stiff-necked and stubborn. Let those who have questions about the meaning of this or that passage raise them in good faith. But let us beware of acting as if it is the Holy Spirit who does not understand.

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 See full bio.

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  • Posted by: gshanley8181 - Apr. 29, 2013 5:13 PM ET USA

    "living the faith prescriptively"- what I remember being raised Roman Catholic in NYC prior immediately to VII: Police, Firemen and construction workers faithfully attending Mass,going to Confession on Saturday,praying the rosary and raising large families with a clear understanding of and living the moral law - thus witnessing to The Faith. I believe the premise of "prescriptive" catholicism as a problem that needed to be addressed a false one. Neo-Ghetto Catholicism is the now the cure.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Apr. 27, 2013 8:35 AM ET USA

    When speaking of past, it is of the wisdom of the Catholic sensibilities and traditions of the past. We have the writings of the saints, the Doctors of the Church, the Councils, pontiffs etc. We have the "Deposit." Many of us feel that we have transcended these exhortations or that they no longer apply. Pope Benedict forced us to glance back; some, even within the Vatican, became angry- not their agenda. We see disorder everywhere. Ultimately, it is always about souls, love for souls.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Apr. 24, 2013 4:25 PM ET USA

    To jimgrum697380, I express the hope that no such disdain for the Catholic past is evident in my own exposition. The Catholic past, in general, has been as rocky as the Catholic present! The key point is that it is a falsification of Tradition to assume that because the Holy Spirit has inspired one kind of council in the past, He must always inspire the same kind in the future. To bd555552276, let me affirm that “regular Catholics” do not, as a general rule, read any conciliar or papal decrees in any period. However, it seems certain that the documents of Vatican II have been far more widely read among committed laity than those of any previous council.

  • Posted by: Jason C. - Apr. 24, 2013 12:10 PM ET USA

    Indeed, the Council's eschewal of the via negativa can be a positive development in magisterial expressions of our faith. But we hear frequently about the faith's being oftentimes a "both/and" institution. In light of Dr. Mirus's admission that "there are certainly questions that can be raised about this or that conciliar text," isn't there currently a need for anathemas or a syllabus of errors so that those in error can no longer in good faith wrap themselves in "the Council" or its "spirit"?

  • Posted by: samuel.doucette1787 - Apr. 24, 2013 8:05 AM ET USA

    Jeff, thanks! This should be required reading for the subset of traditionalists who at best begrudgingly accept Vatican II's authority but secretly long for a return back to prescriptive councils or at worst reject the council itself and/or think the Popes since Pius XII are heretical anti-Popes.

  • Posted by: bd555552276 - Apr. 24, 2013 12:08 AM ET USA

    The first "issue" with the wordiness of VII's documents is that regular Catholics won't read them. There are all kinds of places to inspire,--the liturgy, homilies, beautiful art, etc. but a Council's documents should be precise so that we don't see what happen what has happened--Catholics using the Council as an excuse to act as if the Church's previous teachings can just be ignored.

  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - Apr. 23, 2013 10:53 PM ET USA

    While I don't disagree with what you have said; I think that your position would be much stronger if you documented the source of the three primary purposes of the council.

  • Posted by: bnewman - Apr. 23, 2013 10:53 PM ET USA

    Thank you Jeff. for another excellent essay: this time to communicate an important concept more of the Spirit than the Law.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Apr. 23, 2013 5:47 PM ET USA

    Since Vatican II there has been a deeply inculcated disdain for the traditional. Despite the truths contained in the essay, there is a strand of this disdain for the past mixed with the defense of the Council. The history of the Council is interesting. It is a test of faith, and sadly, tests of faith involve casualties. Look to Europe: Darkness. Recent eye-witness accounts of visting European religious confirm as much. What will be said of the Council in 2113? Tough times, tough questions.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Apr. 23, 2013 10:41 AM ET USA

    St.John Neumann is right, but does not address my claim. The idea that a COUNCIL is the highest authority is conciliarism, an error. The idea that an ECUMENICAL council is the supreme expression of the Church's authority, which is what Catholics believe, is a very different theory. Why? Because an "ecumenical" council is, by definition, a council whose decrees have been approved by the pope. It is precisely the pope's approval which makes the council ecumenical.

  • Posted by: spledant7672 - Apr. 22, 2013 9:52 PM ET USA

    Don't let it go, Jeff. As long as there is the attrition of dissenting voices we will be thankful for your persistent charity.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Apr. 22, 2013 6:27 PM ET USA

    Patience is a good thing, to be sure...; but Vatican II with its core pronouncements has been around since the sixties. And as I have considered before, we are an "educated people;" and not the illiterate serfs of the Middle Ages. We devote the grace of intellect to any number of diversions and carnal pursuits, but for the most part so far as our Faith goes, we much prefer to remain infantile, flirting with "co-dependency" with the priest.

  • Posted by: lovison4584 - Apr. 22, 2013 6:10 PM ET USA

    I think Vatican II has more self-proclaimed experts who never really studied the documents & quite a few self-proclaimed experts who never even read the documents. Reminds me of a Frank Sheed quote from his 1968 book "Is it the Same Church:" "I get the feeling the Pope isn't infallible and the Council isn't, but half the Catholics I meet are." How many have studied the VII docs "with loving care" as Bl Pope John Paul II urged? Anyone who read the Decree on the Laity will run to Confession.

  • Posted by: St.John Neumann - Apr. 22, 2013 6:07 PM ET USA

    I think idea that the council is the highest excercise of the Church's authority is a mistake unless qualified by the truth "approved by the pope" The pope is superior in authority in matters of faith and morals to any council; he cannot err, but councils can.