THE COUNCIL IN QUESTION: a Dialogue with Catholic Traditionalism

THE COUNCIL IN QUESTION: a Dialogue with Catholic Traditionalism

Fr Glen Tattersall

Vatican II's theological status debated in a new book

a Dialogue with Catholic Traditionalism
Moyra Doorly & Aidan Nichols OP
Foreword by Cardinal George Pell

(Freedom Publishing and Gracewing, 2011, 97pp, $19.95, ISBN: 978-0-85244-765-9. Available from Freedom Publishing)

In his first Christmas address to the Roman curia on 22 December 2005, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of the turbulence that had arisen in the life of the Church in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, as the result of an ongoing contest over the correct interpretation of the Council itself: broadly, between a "hermeneutic of rupture and discontinuity" on the one hand, and on the other, a "hermeneutic of reform, of renewal in the continuity of the one subject - Church, which the Lord has given to us".

The series of letters exchanged between Catholic journalist Moyra Doorly and well-known English Dominican theologian Fr Aidan Nichols highlights the principal points of contention in this debate, which is far from concluded: the Sacred Liturgy and the reform of the Roman Rite, the nature of Tradition, the relationship between the Catholic Church and non-Catholic Christians (ecumenism), and between the Church and non-Christian religions; and finally, religious liberty, with particular reference to its impact on the nature of Church-State relations in Catholic countries.

Theological status

Underlying all of these issues is the fundamental and ongoing debate regarding the theological status of the documents promulgated by Vatican II, and their proper interpretation.

It is clear enough to most observers of contemporary Catholic life that those of 'liberal' theological disposition regard the hermeneutic of rupture and discontinuity as the valid interpretation of the Council. However, what it less readily recognised is that this hermeneutic forms the basis of the critique of Vatican II by the Society of St Pius X (SSPX), and, to some extent at least, by other "traditionalist" commentators.

Where "liberals" and "traditionalists" part company is that while the former applaud such rupture, the latter deplore it. Both schools, however, are in essential agreement that it is the Council itself that is the "point of departure".

Moyra Doorly articulates the essentials of the "traditionalist" critique of the Council in this book. Fr Aidan Nichols, on the other hand, argues for the "conservative" view of a hermeneutic of reform in continuity as the valid interpretation of the Council, seeing undoubted abuses and deviations (about which he and Doorly are in substantial agreement, except as to causation) as essentially extrinsic to Conciliar teachings and principles. In doing so, Nichols consistently defends the view proposed by Benedict XVI himself (and, for that matter, explicated over some decades by the present Pope as Cardinal Ratzinger). 

The backdrop of the correspondence that forms this book is the (still) secret discussions occurring between the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), and representatives of the SSPX, which began in October 2009. However, it would be a mistake to regard the debate over the doctrinal meaning of Vatican II as one that is solely between the SSPX and the Holy See.

To the extent that the format of The Council in Question gives this impression, it is a weakness of the book. It is not necessary for one to adhere to the SSPX, or to become embroiled in specific aspects of the SSPX 'question' (e.g., their assertion of supplied jurisdiction on the basis of an "emergency" in the Church constituting "necessity"), to raise the issues of meaning and interpretation of the Council that Moyra Doorly articulates.

The issues specific to the status of the SSPX are not unimportant, but it is vital that they not obscure the magisterial questions to be considered. Yet Doorly's frequent reference to the words and actions of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, and the history of the SSPX, tend to give the impression that one cannot (or perhaps should not) separate the two questions. Despite this caveat, I believe Doorly presents the central arguments of the doctrinal debate well, despite not having Nichols' advantage of formal theological training.

Liturgical reform

The exchange between Doorly and Nichols commences on the issue of the post-Conciliar liturgical reform, with specific reference to the Missal of Pope Paul VI. While Nichols is able to defend the adequacy of the new liturgical texts in respect of sacramental efficacy and orthodoxy (with particular concern for the propitiatory character of the reformed rites), it seems to me that he fails to grapple with the central thrust of Doorly's argument that the liturgical reform in practice is an example of a "big idea gone wrong" (p.12).

Doorly asks: "Since a rationalised, stripped down, community-oriented liturgy is bound to become desacralised, rather than tinker with the appearances, surely the question has to be addressed - what was the mindset that allowed this vision of liturgical renewal to take hold in the first place?" (p.17).

After demonstrating the essential validity and doctrinal rectitude of the new forms in response, Fr Nichols effectively concedes the broader criticism: "This or that version of the Church's official worship may have, compared with some other, ritual deficiencies which should be rectified as soon as the competent authority is convinced of the case" (p. 34). 

The discussion regarding the liturgy readily leads on to a more general consideration of the topic of 'Tradition', as part of the Deposit of Faith. In order to be living, Tradition, argues Doorly, must be accurately transmitted; development of doctrine does not admit of contradictions or inconsistency with earlier teaching, but rather makes explicit what was implicit. None of this is controversial. However, Doorly then goes on to allege that the new (liberal) theology adopted by Vatican II has "falsified, adulterated and disarmed Tradition" (p. 37).

Cultural modernism

Interestingly, though he defends the continuity of Vatican II with Tradition, Nichols concedes that a spirit of what he calls "cultural (as distinct from 'doctrinal') modernism" permeates some of the Conciliar documents. By this he means "an optimistic expectation that distinctively modern trends in culture will turn out to be compatible ... with the truths about humanity held by the Church" (p.51).

This facile optimism, he argues, militated against rigour in the definition of equivocal terms (e.g., "freedom" and "dignity"), and so enabled what was largely a mere "coincidence in rhetoric between the Western world of the 1950s and 60s and the moral discourse of the Church" (p. 53) to pass for substantial agreement. According to Nichols, this could occur not only because the Fathers did not give sufficient consideration to the classic Scholastic method of distinguo, but also (ironically, and contra Doorly) because they had insufficient respect for aspects of the "New Theology".

De Lubac asserted that rationalist strains of Neo-Scholasticism had obscured the nature-grace relationship: in seeking to defend the gratuity of the supernatural order (as a free gift of God), some Neo-Scholastics had (unintentionally) provided the basis for an autonomous natural order, that is, one divorced from the actual historical order of man's supernatural destiny.

It was indeed a heavy irony, according to this view, that the Scholastic defence of the supernatural order opened the way for secularism! This had implications not only for Gaudium et Spes (the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World), but also Dignitatis Humanae (The Declaration on Religious Liberty).

The Conciliar Decree on Ecumenism, and the Declarations on the Church's Relation to Non-Christian Religions and on Religious Liberty, all express various aspects of the Church's self-understanding. Broadly, Doorly sees inconsistency with previous teaching in these areas, whereas Nichols finds nuanced development that is consistent with the Depositum Fidei as received, being careful to distinguish between unchanging principles, and its contingent applications in ecclesiastical policy.

Religious liberty

It is admitted by both authors (and generally by those engaged in the field) that the most complex arguments centre on the meaning of the Declaration on Religious Liberty: specifically, how to reconcile the Church's unique claims which (in a Catholic society at least) command social and political recognition, with the innate right of individuals to a "religious liberty" that seems to go well beyond the limits of the traditional doctrine of the "tolerance" of the public expression of religious errors (to the extent that the common good requires this). 

Commenting on the debate among Italian and French theologians - but it is equally applicable to the terms of the Doorly/Nichols conversation - Fr Giovanni Cavalcoli OP identified a methodological division over the authority of the Vatican II texts: "The heart of the debate is here. We all agree, in fact, that the doctrines already defined [by the dogmatic magisterium of the former Church] present in the Conciliar texts are infallible. What is in discussion is if the doctrinal developments, the innovations of the Council, are also infallible."

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