‘When Bishops Meet’

by Alan Fimister

How important was Vatican II? On the one hand it seems a ridiculous question. The Council has clearly, for good or ill, been revolutionary in its impact upon the Church in the sixty years since it was summoned by John XXIII. Fr John O’Malley S.J. veteran Church Historian of Georgetown University and author of weighty histories of Trent, Vatican I and Vatican II, has no doubt as to the importance of the twenty-first Ecumenical Council and seeks to shed light upon it by contrasting its teaching and style with that of its two immediate predecessors in his book-length essay ‘When Bishops Meet’.[1] And yet, while admitting the undoubted contrasts between the Second Council of the Vatican and all its predecessors perhaps we should not take its importance as so much a first principle as Fr O’Malley elects to do, but rather subject it to examination.

Fr O’Malley defines ecumenical councils as “meetings [of bishops] that make decisions binding on the church.”[2] Perhaps this is not a perfect but it is certainly an adequate definition. How far then did Vatican II actually make decisions binding on the Church? As Fr O’Malley himself concedes, not very much. No canons dogmatic or disciplinary were issued by the twenty first council. Paul VI himself observed at the end of the council that “it avoided issuing solemn dogmatic definitions engaging the infallibility of the ecclesiastical Magisterium”[3] and during its course the Theological Commission reassured the fathers that “the sacred Council defines as binding on the Church only those things in matters of faith and morals which it shall openly declare to be binding.”[4] With admirable lucidity Lumen Gentium, Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church distinguished between the various levels of ecclesiastical teaching and – applying its own rules to itself – it is clear that the Council’s documents overwhelmingly fall into the lowest category of ‘authentic’ i.e. non-infallible teaching.[5]

Not all of Vatican II’s teaching is merely authentic however. There are passages which certainly employ declaratory language which would seem to indicate a definitive judgement on the part of the Council Fathers. If we are to respect Paul VI’s assertion that he intended to promulgate no new dogmas in the council we must assume that these assertions are infallible definitions belonging to the secondary object of the Church’s magisterium: that is, not revealed directly but connected with revelation by logical or historical necessity. They are, accordingly, not dogmas but infallible doctrines the contrary of which is not heresy but error.[6]

There are other Ecumenical Councils which have made no disciplinary canons (notoriously the fifth and sixth)[7] and others which have issued no dogmatic or even merely doctrinal definitions (e.g. the ninth, tenth and eleventh).[8] If we are to rate the importance of Vatican II by objective standards therefore and in accordance with Fr O’Malley’s own definition of a council we ought to place it above those with no definitions at all and below those which elected to define dogmas. By the present writer’s reckoning that puts it seventeenth in importance among the twenty-one ecumenical councils, uniquely occupying the category of councils which have issued Doctrinal Definitions only with no Dogmas or disciplinary canons.

Certainly, the Council expressed its view on many points as to what ought to be done on a disciplinary level after its conclusion by the Supreme Pontiff but it left the actual implementation to him and, as scholars of the post-conciliar liturgical reform have had occasion to observe, the implementation did not always resemble the Council’s instructions very closely.[9]

The objective theological significance of the twenty-first council must therefore rest upon its doctrinal definitions. Very few of these definitions could seriously be considered novel and where they do decide a hitherto vigorously disputed question their choices taken in isolation would scarcely have made a great impact upon the faithful. But of course, from an historical perspective, which perspective naturally weighs most heavily upon Fr O’Malley, they cannot be taken in isolation and it is in the context of the nineteen sixties and of the merely authentic teaching in which they are imbedded that these definitions made the impact that they did. It must be confessed that, with the exception of its definition concerning religious liberty, it was not, in the end, the definitions which had the impact but the much lower ranking authentic teaching which by its sheer, indeed unprecedented, volume obscured the handful of definitive acts performed by the council but by association acquired a rhetorical force that it lacked theologically. For Fr O’Malley is undoubtedly correct that Vatican II’s greatest innovation relates (not to substance but) to style. However, decisions of style are not binding upon the Church and insofar as any future Council may consider whether to follow the twenty-first in its stylistic choices it may surely be excused if it pause for a moment to contemplate their fruits.[10]

But if by Fr O’Malley’s own definition of a council Vatican II, without prejudice to its undoubtedly revolutionary impact as an historical event, is really not that important as a council, is it not incumbent upon the faithful both lay and clerical to seek to rein in the impact of the conciliar event until it is reduced in its influence to its objective theological proportions? One doubts very much that Fr O’Malley would take this view. For whatever the implications of his definition of a council it is clear that he takes the non-binding teaching of the Council and its stylistic choices as somehow normative all the same.[11] And, although he seems unaware of this paradox at the heart of his analysis, Fr O’Malley’s paradox and his obliviousness (and others’) to it constitutes the heart of the destructive impact that the conciliar ‘event’ has inflicted upon the Church as a visible reality in history. As Joseph Ratzinger, whose attitude to the Council Fr O’Malley has elsewhere[12] described as an ‘Augustinian vision’ arising ‘out of fear’, observed:

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 so many treat it as though it made itself into a sort of super-dogma which takes away the importance of all the rest.[13]

Surely the Council itself is not wholly inculpable for this impression which was undoubtedly generated by the verbosity of its authentic teaching which constitutes vastly more than the mere five percent of the total of all conciliar teaching that one might expect.[14] In this respect though, the Council was only imitating the popes themselves who, since the invention of the encyclical as a genre in the mid-eighteenth century, have increasingly deployed it and with an ever-rising word count to express their sentiments to the universal church. It is not clear what the justification is for this tidal wave of fallible papal teaching. There already exists a divinely instituted mechanism endowed with a rebuttable presumption of reliability for the instruction of the universal church. It is called the episcopate. Yes, as Lumen Gentium observes, the papacy enjoys this rebuttable presumption in a ‘special way’[15] but it is rebuttable none the less and it is undoubtedly true that, as with Vatican II, the definitions of recent popes (one thinks of those issued by John Paul II) in Evangelium Vitae and Ordinatio Sacredotalis have been obscured by the volume of merely authentic teaching directed by the popes at the universal church. Like the ‘conciliar event’ this material, some of it such as ITC and PBC reports or the ‘Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church’ not even magisterial, has seriously hindered the proper task of the Holy See – to strengthen the brethren.

It is sometimes observed that the Second Vatican Council has become the Council of the laity in a way wholly unanticipated by the council. That is, by precipitating an unprecedented crisis in the clergy and in the confidence in which the lay faithful hold them, the twenty-first council has undone the long process by which the priesthood and the episcopate had risen to an unchallengeable prestige from the cynicism that characterised many Catholics immediately prior to the Reformation.[16] In the same way it may be that by problematising the authentic magisterium Vatican II may eventually liberate the episcopate from the de facto usurpation of their teaching function by the Holy See. But before that new dawn is visible their lordships will have to hack their way through the dense undergrowth of episcopal conferences and jerrymandered synods.[17] For it is not any episcopal conference or synod that will answer to Christ for the teaching handed down to the lay faithful of any given particular church but its own proper bishop.

Fr O’Malley observes that at Vatican II the influence of the laity was at best indirect while at previous Councils it had been significant due to the presence, even presidency, of lay rulers.[18] The first eight councils were after all summoned by the Roman Emperor (in the case of Nicaea II, Empress) and until Vatican I the envoys of the Catholic Princes played a significant role in the western councils which often involved themselves in the summoning of crusades, imperial elections and the confiscation of territory from heretical rulers. What Fr O’Malley does not observe is that Vatican II might be claimed as a uniquely clericalist council. Its concern with the role of the laity in fact reflects a complacent assumption that the function of the clergy even perhaps their identity with the church herself is unproblematic while the task assigned the laity is mysterious and requires discernment. If this is so, surely the Council’s own Declaration on Religious Liberty Dignitatis Humane by obscuring the doctrine of the Social Kingship of Christ, albeit insisting all the while that it remains ‘untouched’, bears the lion’s share of the blame for making the proximate objective of the lay mission in the world functionally impossible. Even if a council summoned today were to condescend to receive the envoys of the Catholic Princes it would find that the President of the Dominican Republic was the only potentate entitled to appear.[19] If it is true that a number of scholars in recent years, most notably Thomas Pink have, by disentangling the Maritainian logic behind the Declaration, demonstrated that in its substance if not its rhetoric it does leave “untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ” it is also true that the curia following the rhetoric and not the logic of the Declaration busied itself in the succeeding years encouraging various Catholic polities to renounce the fulfilment of that duty.[20] Once again, the binding teaching of the Council was swallowed up by the ‘event’.

Perhaps Fr O’Malley for whom the event of Vatican II is so important would protest that the very form and function of the Council itself is one of those elements of the conciliar phenomenon that has ‘developed’ over the course of its history so that the event itself has become the binding norm rather than the non-existent canons and the elusive doctrinal definitions of Vatican II.[21] But if Councils really are binding on the church then surely, they are binding on their successors at least in dogma and doctrine. If some future council could dispense with the divinity of Christ, the Filioque or the ex opere operato efficacy of the sacraments, then the councils themselves are reduced to a sort of ecclesiastical politburo circa late June 1941 frantically explaining why in the light of the signs of the times we have always been at war with Eastasia. And this is significant because, despite Fr O’Malley’s claim that the question of doctrinal development was confronted for the first time at Vatican II, Vatican I in its definitive teaching makes very clear what the Church’s understanding of authentic development is in the final paragraph of the first of its two Dogmatic Constitutions Dei Filius.

May understanding, knowledge and wisdom increase as ages and centuries roll along, and greatly and vigorously flourish, in each and all, in the individual and the whole Church: but this only in its own proper kind, that is to say, in the same doctrine, the same sense, and the same understanding.[22]

If therefore councils really do make decisions binding on the Church, then the transmutation of the conciliar institution itself from a binding decision making body into a normative stylistic ‘event’ is excluded in principle as a divergence from its own proper kind. The idea that the preceding twenty councils were innocent of the concept of doctrinal development is of course indefensible. Indeed, the very first Council Nicaea I very self-consciously adopted the novel and unscriptural term ὁμοούσιος precisely because it was necessary to pin down and exclude the Arians whose slippery Pickwickian ways were not susceptible to the use of censures constructed out of biblical language. This reflects the same conception of doctrinal development avant la lettre as was expressed by St Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century when he remarked of the Council of Ephesus’s prohibition on the alteration of the Creed of Nicaea that “this decision of the general council did not take away from a subsequent council the power of drawing up a new edition of the symbol, containing not indeed a new faith, but the same faith with greater explicitness. For every council has taken into account that a subsequent council would expound matters more fully than the preceding council, if this became necessary through some heresy arising.”[23] Of course, both Nicaea and Ephesus were distinguished by the fact that for all the imperishable glory of their acts they precipitated crises in the Church which in the end could only be resolved by the convening of another council some decades later to confirm and clarify their teaching. If this was true of synods armed with anathematizing dogmatic canons and the soul of wit how much more will it surely prove necessary to deal with the limbs and outward flourishes of the irrepressibly loquacious twenty-first ecumenical council?

[1] John O’Malley S.J., When Bishops Meet: An Essay Comparing Trent, Vatican I, and Vatican II (Belknap Press : Harvard, 2019).

[2] O’Malley, 55.

[3] Paul VI, General Audience of 12th January, 1966.

[4] Notification given by the Secretary General of the Council at the 123rd General Congregation, 16th November, 1964.

[5] Second Vatican Ecumencial Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church: Lumen Gentium (Rome : 1964) §25.

[6] For example: Inter mirifica §6; Lumen gentium §18; Lumen gentium §21; Orientalium Ecclesiarum §5; Unitatis Redintegratio §16; Nostra aetate §4; Dei verbum §18; Dei Verbum §19; Dignitatis Humane §§1-2 & Gaudium et spes §80. These documents employ such formulae as ‘the council decrees’, ‘This holy synod … teaches and declares’, ‘The Sacred Council … solemnly declares’, ‘this holy Council solemnly declares’, ‘the Church has always held and holds’, ‘the church has always and everywhere held and still holds’, ‘Holy Mother Church has firmly and with absolute constancy held, and continues to hold’, ‘the council professes its belief … This Vatican Council declares’, ‘which is to be firmly and unhesitatingly condemned’ which clearly indicate definitive judgment.

[7] Constantinople II (553) and Constantinople III (680-681). The Emperor Justinian II sought to supply for the lack of disciplinary canons at these councils by holding a purely disciplinary (perhaps even ‘pastoral’) council, the so-called ‘Council in Tullo’ or Quinisext Council, in 692 which precipitated a crisis in relations with the Latin West due to its canonisation of distinctively Eastern practices incompatible with ancient Western discipline.

[8] Lateran I (1123), Lateran II (1139) and Lateran III (1197).

[9] Exemplified by the work of Msgr. Klaus Gamber so admired by Benedict XVI. Klaus Gamber, The Reform of the Roman Liturgy: Its Problems and Background (Una Voce Press : San Juan Capistrano, 1993).

[10] Stephen Bullivant, Mass Exodus: Catholic Disaffiliation in Britain and America since Vatican II (OUP : Oxford, 2019).

[11] As he says of John XXIII, “He gave the council freedom to do something new. He gave the council freedom to be something new” [emphasis in the original]. O’Malley, 25.

[12] Fr John O’Malley S.J., “What Happened at Vatican II” Address at Vanderbilt University 22nd October 2010.

[13] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, “Address to the Bishops of Chile”, 13th July 1988.

[14] Norman Tanner. S.J. ed., Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils (Georgetown University Press : Washington D.C., 1990). The first eighteen councils occupy one volume of this edition while Vatican II occupies more than half of the second and concluding volume.

[15] Lumen Gentium §25.

[16] Scarisbrick, J. J. (1955). The conservative Episcopate in England, 1529-1535 (Doctoral thesis) 40-41.

[17] Edward Pentin, The Rigging of a Vatican Synod: An Investigation into Alleged Manipulation at the Extraordinary Synod on the Family (Ignatius Press : San Francisco, 2015).

[18] O’Malley 126-7.

[19] The Dominican Republic’s 1954 concordat with the Holy See recognizes that the “the Catholic Church is a perfct society” and that the “Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Religion is the Religion of the Dominican Republic, and shall enjoy the rights and prerogatives due to it under Divine and Canon Law.”

[20] See: T. Crean and A. Fimister (ed.), Dignitatis Humanae Colloquium: Dialogos Institute Collection, vol. 1 (Dialogos Institute: 2017).

[21] O’Malley 200ff.

[22] First Vatican Ecumenical Council, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation: Dei Filius (Rome : 1870).

[23] IaIIae, 1, 10 ad 2.

Header Image: Collection of Contemporary Art, Vatican Museums.