Monday, April 10, 2006

Is Vatican II infallible? (Part 6 of 6)

A post by Don Paco.

How should we interpret the doctrines contained in the documents of Vatican II that seem to contradict traditional Catholic teaching?

–We should interpret its teachings in light of previous (that is, pre-Vatican II) teaching.

If Vatican II is part of the authentic Magisterium of the Church, then it must be compatible with the venerable teachings of that Magisterium. In theory, we have to adhere to it with “religious assent” (assensus religiosus). But what happens when non-infallible teaching seems to contradict other teachings to which we owe the same kind of assent? Obviously, it would be contradictory and irrational (and hence, contrary to human nature) to give any kind of assent to truly contradictory statements. But when it is a question of apparently contradictory statements, the issue requires much prudence in interpretation. When a non-infallible teaching seems to contradict the previous official teaching of the ordinary Magisterium, one has to determine first whether a true contradiction is at stake. When faced with this difficulty (for there are, in fact, many doctrines in Vatican II that are difficult to reconcile with previous teaching), this is what I do:

1) First, I try to understand both the “new” teaching and the traditional teaching.

2) Second, I try to reconcile the new in light of the old, because the old is always clearer and it is generally the new teaching that needs clarification/explanation. If the new teaching is part of the authentic Magisterium, then it must be very clearly compatible with previous official teaching.

3) Third, if the new teaching, to my mind, cannot be reconciled, I simply suspend judgment on the new teaching and hold firmly to the old. So I don’t deny the new, but simply remain in aporia (state of puzzlement).

We could discuss some of these apparently contradictory teachings later.

I leave you with Cardinal Ratzinger’s address, given on July 13, 1988, to the Chilean Bishops in the city of Santiago de Chile:

There is a glaring contradiction in the fact that it is just the people who have let no occasion slip to allow the world to know of their disobedience to the Pope, and to the magisterial declarations of the last 20 years, who think they have the right to judge that this attitude is too mild and who wish that an absolute obedience to Vatican II had been insisted upon. In a similar way, they would claim that the Vatican has conceded a right to dissent to Lefebvre, which has been obstinately denied to the promoters of a progressive tendency. In reality, the only point, which is affirmed in the agreement, following Lumen gentium 25, is the plain fact that not all documents of the Council have the same authority. For the rest, it was explicitly laid down in the text that was signed that public polemics must be avoided, and that an attitude is required of positive respect for official decisions and declarations… The Second Vatican Council has not been treated as a part of the entire living Tradition of the Church, but as an end of Tradition, a new start from zero. The truth is that this particular Council defined no dogma at all, and deliberately chose to remain on a modest level, as a merely pastoral council; and yet many treat it as though it had made itself into a sort of ‘superdogma’ which takes away the importance of all the rest.


Anonymous said...

This raises a question that I hope you can answer. If a contradiction is found then is it sinful to say the Council erred? Furthermore is this possible?

Anonymous said...

Leaving aside Vatican II, how do we apply this principle to John Paul II's teaching on the death penalty in Evangelium Vitae?

Don Paco said...

I'll reply in reverse, since the second question is more fundamental than the first:

Q. 2: Is it possible that the Council erred?

Answer: Yes. That is exactly the meaning of the proposition "Vatican II was not infallible."

Q. 1: If a contradiction [or any error] is found in the Council, is it sinful to say the Council erred.

Answer: It depends on who declares that there is an error?

a) If the Magisterium says so, then obviously it is not sinful for us to say the Council erred.

b) If anyone else does, then yes.

Explanation: Insofar as we are not the Ecclesia docens we are not qualified to make the judgment that the Council in fact erred. And this includes theologians, who are not the Ecclesia docens, but only private teachers. Only the Magisterium has the authority to make such a judgment. In the meantime, we must give internal assent (though not the assent of faith) to the Council's teaching, at least everything that we understand. I say "at least everything that we understand" because we may find teachings whose only intelligible meaning quoad nos contradicts or appears to contradict traditional teaching (e.g., Dignitatis humanae). In that case, it is impossible to assent. (No one is obliged to assent to something he does not understand; e.g., my three year old daughter is not obliged to assent to Vatican I's teachings.) If that is the case, we must always remind ourselves of our theological incompetence and of the possibility that some brilliant theologian does find (or at least that there exists in the Divine Intellect) an interpretation of the conciliar teaching that is in fact compatible with true doctrine.

Yet in no case may a person positively deny a teaching of the ordinary Magisterium. Doing so would be gravely sinful. (Though not necessarily heretical or non-Catholic, since only denying de fide doctrines makes you a heretic.)

Note: It is essential to distinguish between rejecting a Conciliar teaching simpliciter and rejecting a heterodox interpretations of that teaching. This is a distinguishing mark between regular traditionalists and SSPXers (and the like).

Don Paco said...

I believe this principle can also be applied to the condemnation of the death penalty in Evangelium vitae.

There may be the possibility of interpreting this teaching in some way that is harmonious with the Church's traditional support of the death penalty (cf. Moral manuals); yet, if no such interpretation is found, we may simply end in aporia (i.e., not assent because we do not know how it is compatible). Yet without the Magisterium's declaration that this teaching is erroneous, it is not our place to make such a declaration.

I hope this helps.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for these answers they have been very helpful.

Anonymous said...

Sorry another question popped into my head in the same vein. How would these guidelines correspond to the teaching on unbaptized children contained in the new Catechism?

Don Paco said...

I'm not sure exactly what authority the Catechism has... It obviously is not infallible. JPII declared it was a "sure norm," but whether we owe it any internal assent, I do not know. By comparison, the 24 Thomistic Theses were declared to be "safe norms" (are those equivalent terms?) and yet there are few theologians today who accept them or even care they exist.

Personally, I am inclined to think that that teaching concerning the salvation of infants who die without baptism, is erroneous. It is a theological conclusion that follows necessarily from the following theological argument:

Major: Those who die with original sin go to hell (de fide).

Minor: Without sacramental Baptism an infant cannot be cleansed of original sin (doctrina catholica).

Conclusion: Therefore, an infant who dies without sacramental Baptism cannot be saved.

Thus, the hold the opposite one would have to deny either a dogma of faith or a doctrina catholica. Either way, the doctrine is false: either theologically false (if it implies a denial of b) or heretical (if it implies a denial of a). I do not see how it can possibly be true, so I am in aporia. But I am willing to be taught by Holy Mother Church how this teaching in the Catechism can be true without it involving a denial of those premises.

In any case, let us suppose that it is somehow mysteriously true. Still, nothing prevents us from holding the opinion that this teaching in the Catechism is at the very least imprudent, given the common errors of our age, viz., indifferentism, modernism, (false) ecumenism, etc. In fact, you can hold that any post-conciliar teaching (not just those the Catechism, but everything new that has come out since V2) is imprudent. You can think a teaching is imprudent even though it is in some respect true and, therefore, assent to it internally. And no one can call you a heretic for thinking that, because you are required just to assent to Magisterial teaching, not necessarily to be excited about it or think it is somehow the "fruits" of a new "Springtime" of the Church or of a "New Pentecost."

Perhaps it is even licit to think that a certain teaching is "bad sounding" (male sonans), offensive to pious ears, and maybe scandalous, without it necessarily being technically false. It seems that all this can be held without denying it.

It is time for traditional Catholics to learn more about the different degrees of Catholic truths and their corresponding degrees of theological error (or theological censures). Cf. Doronzo, The Science of Sacred Theology for Teachers, 4 vols., available from ITOPL:

Anonymous said...

You said you were in apriora, so that would mean you would once again recognize a contradiction but not condemn the teaching as erroneous. Correct? Would it be sinful though to condemn the teaching, since the Catechism is not a part of the ordinary Magisterium? For instance when talking to other Catholics about Limbo this is always brought up, so would it be wrong to say the teaching is in error?

I don't have time to read that book now, but I will as soon as I get a chance.

Don Paco said...

The question of whether or not it would be sinful to deny something in the Catechism depends on the question on whether you owe internal assent to it or not. I do not know the answer to the question. (I think we do not owe assent to it, but I am not sure.)

In any case, at least the same kind of assent, if not more, would be owed to the countless other sources (including, in fact, the Catechism of the Council of Trent) say that infants need to be baptized at once, since there is no other way they can be saved. (The Council of Trent actually contrasted this fact with the case of adults, whose baptism should be deferred until they are properly catechized, for in case of dying before baptism, their desire may supply the graces of the Sacrament.) So we know this for sure as a doctrina catholica regardless of what the CCC quote really means.

So there are two options: the CCC either (a) contradicts the traditional doctrine, in which case it would have to be false, or (b) it does not contradict it, in which case it is merely imprudent insofar as it only appears to contradict it, thereby causing scandal. I am not the Magisterium to decide what it means, but, in any case, the traditional teaching is certain: no salvation for infants without baptism.

Here is a discussion on this issue in the CCC:

If you don't have time to read a whole treatise on the notae theologicae (degrees of Catholic truth), here is an outline of them, along with their corresponding censures:

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much, I have very little formal theological training. Hopefully that will be remedied in the next few years.

Alan Aversa said...

Re: Anonymous:

Pope John Paul II's Evangelium Vitæ 56. says:
Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases [of executing criminals "when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society"] are very rare, if not practically non-existent.

I am wondering how some U.S. Catholic groups interpret this as saying that the death penalty should be completely abolished? If it is because the U.S. has better prisons, what about them is better? Is it because they contain and isolate criminals from society better? Didn't the Medieval dungeons, e.g., do that just as well, too?

To interpret Evangelium Vitæ 56. this way definitely seems contrary to tradition. See, e.g., this The Thomist article "EVANGELIUM VITAE, ST. THOMAS AQUINAS, AND THE DEATH PENALTY" for a good reinterpretation of this part of Evangelium vitæ in the light of tradition.

Anonymous said...


Can you give me a source for the statement that as we are not the Ecclesia docens we are not qualified to make the judgment that the Council in fact erred?

I will need it if some semi-sedevacantist say that it is only my opinion that we are not capable of doing this kind of judgement.

God Bless.

Anonymous said...


Can you give me a source for the statement that as we are not the Ecclesia docens we are not qualified to make the judgment that the Council in fact erred?

I will need it if some semi-sedevacantist say that it is only my opinion that we are not capable of doing this judgement.

God Bless. (Sorry if I sent the comment twice.)

Alan Aversa said...

Anonymous: see this excerpt from Pope Leo XIII Sapientiae Christianae

Anonymous said...

I'm grateful for your help, Alan, but I'm not sure you undestood me.

I'm looking for some document that proves that only the Church has the authority to make such a judgment[that the council erred], while we are limited only to the state of aporia as Don Paco said.

Thank You.

Alan Aversa said...