Si Si No No Title

May 2002 No. 46

Vatican II An Untypical Council


Until 1962, according to the Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, there had been a total of 19 Ecumenical Councils in the history of the Catholic Church. Denzinger adds the Council of Constance (1414), bringing the total up to 20. Should Vatican II be counted as an Ecumenical Council with these others?

The Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique defines an Ecumenical (or Universal) Council as

the solemn assembly of the bishops of the entire world, summoned by and under the authority and presidency of the Roman Pontiff, to deliberate and legislate together on matters concerning the whole of Christendom.

Preferable, perhaps, is the definition put forward by Rahner's Theological Dictionary, which brings out more clearly the external criteria for regularity:

Councils (or synods) are assemblies composed first and foremost of Bishops [an allusion to Councils in the past, in which Princes and Christian Sovereigns participated-Ed.]; these  assemblies  are  held to  discuss  the Church's affairs, to take decisions and promulgate decrees....An assembly of the representatives of the whole Church, convoked in a regular manner (convoked, directed and confirmed  by  the Pope), is called an Ecumenical Council. According to Catholic doctrine and Canon Law [1977 Code of Canon Law, can. 228] the Bishops who, assembled in an Ecumenical Council, deliberate and take decisions with the Pope and under his direction, exercise supreme power in the Church; further-more, when the Council adopts a solemn definition, they enjoy infallibility in a matter of Faith. This also applies when they exercise the ordinary Magisterium of the Church and make it known on a global scale.

For an Ecumenical Council to exist, therefore, the conditions are as follows: it must be called by the Pope; its work must be directed by the Pope (in person or by persons delegated by him); and its acts must be confirmed by the Pope. Such confirmation may be antecedent (when the Pope imposes his directives in advance) or concomitant (when he participates in the Council's work) or subsequent (when he ratifies the Council's acts by a final, definitive approval). It is the papal confirmation which gives the Council's decisions universal juridical value [7577 Code of Canon Law, can.227]. These are the external criteria for the regularity and existence of a Council. Clearly, we must add to these three external criteria an internal criterion, namely the matter dealt with, which is necessarily limited to affairs of the Church, i.e., to things which concern faith and morals and are intimately connected with them. All other matters which do not fall within the Church's competence must be excluded. (This latter is self-evident, which is why certain theological treatises do not even mention it.)


Regularity Is Not Infallibility

The fact that an Ecumenical Council exhibits the exterior marks of being formally regular does not imply, all the same, that its declarations enjoy the guarantee of infallibility and are to be imposed as such on the faith and acceptance of the Faithful. Ecumenicity must not be confused with infallibility.

This brings us face to face with the complex and sometimes difficult question (even for theologians) of the doctrinal value of a Council's decisions, for it is on this value that the due assent of the faithful depends. Three theological principles should be taken into consideration (cf. Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, vol.V, "Concile," col. 666):

1)  Most importantly, a definition's scope and meaning is measured by the intention of the author; accordingly it is of prime importance to examine this intention.

2)  Furthermore, with regard to a particular truth, the Church can teach it as "of faith," or only as "certain," "common," "probable," etc.; in the same way, an error can be condemned as "heretical," but also as merely "erroneous," "rash," or by using some other, lesser, theological censure. In all these cases, the definitive judgment of the supreme authority is infallible and demands absolute assent on the part of the faithful, but it does not compel them in the same way and tender the same penalties. For example, if a truth is proposed as "of faith," it must be held to have been revealed by God, under pain of heresy; if it is proposed as merely "certain," one must hold it as such under pain of sin. The condemnation of a proposition as "heretical," is equivalent to affirming that the contrary proposition is "of faith," but no other condemnation entails a similar equivalence.

3) A third principle should not be lost sight of: in every definition, it is the substance alone which falls under the guarantee of the privilege of infallibility.


Councils...and The Second Vatican Council

It is not difficult to apply these three principles to the 20 Councils which preceded Vatican II, because all of them, with the exception of the Fourth Ecumenical Council (the Council of Chalcedon in 451) and the Thirteenth (Lyons in 1245), exhibit the classic division into two parts: a doctrinal part, called the "chapter," which sets forth the true Catholic doctrine which is to be defended against attack, and the second, defensive part, called the "canon," which contains in a brief and condensed formula, the condemnation of the opposite errors, accompanied by various sanctions: anathema, condemnation, reprobation, attribution of heresy, well as disciplinary sanctions as the case may require.

As far as the external criteria are concerned, the 20 Councils preceding Vatican II are all "ecumenical" and regular in form; furthermore, they all dealt with disciplinary or administrative questions without going beyond the realm of Church affairs that are proper to Christendom.

By contrast, when one examines the documents of Vatican II in the light of the theological principles here recalled, one is continually amazed at what one finds.

The first reason for amazement is the presence of hundreds of "observers" representing practically all the non-Catholic sects, who participated in the work of rejuvenating the Church. Pope Pius IX, when convoking the First Vatican Council, addressed an appeal to all Protestants and non-Catholics in which he invited them (lam Vos Omnes, Sept. 13, 1868) to ask themselves whether they were following the way prescribed by Our Lord Jesus Christ, exhorting them to return to the Catholic Church to which "their ancestors belonged," and to find there the "good pastures of life." However, when the dissidents asked him if they could present their arguments at the imminent Council, Pius IX (Per Ephemerides Acceptimum, Sept. 4, 1869) replied that "the Church cannot permit the continued discussion of errors that have already been carefully examined, judged and condemned." Then in another brief of October 30, 1869, the Pope granted the opportunity for Protestants and Catholics to put forward their difficulties in a commission of Catholic theologians, but outside the Council.

At Vatican II, by contrast, the so-called "observers" (heretics and schismatics) actively participated in the work of the Council, indirectly or even directly, as one of them, R. McAfee Brown, attests in his book Observer in Rome:1

Although we had no direct "voice" on the Council floor, we did indeed have an indirect voice through the many contacts that were possible with the Fathers and their indispensable strong right arms, the periti.

The same McAfee Brown says that in the case of the schema on Ecumenism, the heretical and schismatic "observers" submitted their points of view in writing and these were incorporated into the written interventions of some Bishops.2 So Vatican II was not an Ecumenical Council but, as one might say, a "super-Ecumenical" Council. But was it still Catholic?

The second reason for amazement: the volume of the Council documents. It is really amazing to see that all the texts (constitutions, decrees, declarations and messages) add up to no less than 1,012 pages in a volume an inch-and-a-half thick. Compare this with Denzinger's, which contains all the definitions and declarations on faith and morals of all the Councils (not merely Ecumenical Councils, but Local Councils, as well as a quantity of declarations of the Holy See from Clement I, the third successor of St. Peter, to 1937, when Denzinger's was first published) has less than 700 pages in a volume one inch thick.

What does this mean? Apparently nothing, but the volume of a discourse often goes together with a lack of rigor of reasoning, and the lack of precision of thought allows it to be interpreted as one wishes. This in turn renders the Conciliar texts unusable as doctrinal reference material, whereas consulting Denzinger's on a doctrinal point always gives one a clear, precise, and definitive answer-and precision and defmitiveness were deliberately excluded at Vatican II. This is particularly evident from Pope John XXIII's address at the opening of the Council on October 11, 1962:

It is not a question of condemnations and of repeating the doctrine which everyone knows, we must pay no attention to the predictions of prophets of doom. The Church must go forward... etc.

A strange suggestion, which could be interpreted that for the Church to go forward it must leave behind the doctrine which everyone knows. The antithesis is clear: before/after; forward/behind. It is easy to foresee objections to this line of interpretation but, quite apart from the verbal dispute, isn't this the reality of the situation? Does it not stare us in the face? Do the "conciliar men" still have "doctrine which everyone knows" ?-Yes, but only in their old theology books which were closed and perhaps sold 30 years ago.

The third reason for amazement is Pope John XXIII's other statement in his inaugural address: "Doctrine is one thing-the formulation of the doctrine is another: it can change." But, since one cannot present the doctrine without its formulation, the formulation protects the orthodoxy of the doctrine. The history of Councils shows us that the champions of Catholic orthodoxy often fought for a single word, and once this definitive formulation was found, it was always held to be unchangeable.

If one takes the route indicated by Pope John XXIII, however, it is easy to arrive at a position that contradicts the irreformable decisions of Vatican I (chap.IV, 31st session), which give as a rule of Faith, that dogmas must be understood "eodem sensu eademque sentential i.e., always in the same sense in which they were held. Pope Pius X recalls this principle in his Encyclical against Modernism, taking up Pope Pius IX's Syllabus and his encyclical Qui Pluribus (1846).3 Pope John XXIII's declaration is one indication, among many others, of a modernist mentality; it signals the willingness to break with Tradition.

The fourth (but not the last) reason for amazement: while all the previous Councils (except two-Chalcedon and Lyons) exhibit the rigorous form of an exposition of the correct doctrine, followed by condemnation of the opposite errors, Vatican II presents itself as a collection of addresses, followed by recommendations, exhortations and orientations, all without much precision. This has allowed the documents to be twisted, at will, this way and that.



Translated by Graham Harrison, from Courrier de Rome, May 1998, pp.5-6.

1. (Methuen, 1964), pp.227-228.

2. Observer in Rome, p. 173

3. Cf. Pascendi Dominid Gregis, Sept. 8, 1907.


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translated from the Italian
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