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Is the Catholic Crisis Really Explained?

Atila Sinke Guimarães

Book review of What Went Wrong with Vatican II? The Catholic Crisis Explained
by Ralph McInerny, Ph.D. (Manchester: Sophia Press, 1998), 170 pp.


Book cover of What Went Wrong with Vatical II

McInerny's work skirts around the authority of the Council
Another book about the Second Vatican Council and its consequences has just been published. The title is suggestive: What Went Wrong with Vatican II – The Catholic Crisis Explained. Its author is Dr. Ralph McInerny, a professor at Notre Dame University.

McInerny’s background as novelist helps to make the work easy to read. The cover attracts the attention and it has been nicely published by Sophia Institute Press in Manchester, New Hampshire.

The method chosen by the author to present the subject deserves comment. He does not pretend to use scholastic rigor. At times, he adopts the method of proof ad absurdo: he prefers to take for granted that it is impossible that anything could have happened except what he wants. At other times, he presents ecclesiastical authorities supporting his thesis, but then he circles around them to avoid facing their corroborating consequences. These characteristics make it difficult to attribute clear and definite affirmations to him. For this reason his exposition seen more to skirt around the problem of the authority of Vatican II than to demonstrate a thesis in a Thomistic fashion. One could, nevertheless, presuppose the thesis and summarize it in three arguments.

The first argument deals with the authority the Council would have. In McInerny’s opinion:
A. Major premise – It is an error of simplification to reduce Vatican II to the confrontation of two currents (that is, traditional statements and liberal statements coexisting in the same Vatican documents). This is to have a human and limited vision of the Church. . Actually, the fact that a majority of Bishops approved the documents and unanimously promulgated them reveals the action of the Holy Ghost (pp. 27-30, 66, 150-151).
B. Minor premise – Paul VI solemnly promulgated the sixteen documents of the Council (pp. 14-15, 30-31).
C. Conclusion – Therefore, Vatican II was an infallible Council (pp. 31-32, 93, 114, 149) and its documents are an authentic expression of the Magisterium (pp. 18-19, 31-33, 36-37, 68, 147-148, 151).
The second argument, drawn from the conclusion of the first, seeks to explain the crisis of interpreting the conciliar documents and the consequent crisis of authority that occurred after Vatican II. In the thinking of the author:
A. Major premise – Based on the documents of the Council, various dissident theologians affirm that it is not necessary for the faithful to accept certain pontifical teachings (pp 60-64, 66, 73, 139, 154-155). Furthermore, these theologians should be censured for trying to equate their teaching mission with that of the Magisterium (pp. 64-65, 74, 77-78, 93, 113, 136, 140).
B. Minor premise – Unfortunately, this dissidence has had free rein in the Church, causing a crisis of authority and arousing a lack of confidence among the faithful (pp. 67-69, 103, 125, 139).
C. Conclusion – Therefore, in order to solve this crisis, it is imperative that these theologians be silenced (p. 97) or leave the Church (pp. 67-68, 80-81).
Given, then, the crisis and the causes he presents would be indisputable, his third argument deals with the manner in which the excesses should be suppressed. According to McInerny:
A. Major premise – One should no longer argue about the Council, but accept it as the expression of the Supreme Magisterium. In other words, obedience should be imposed upon the dissidents (pp. 97, 146, 148, 155, 158).
B. Minor premise – Through its official bodies, the Holy See has issued norms curbing the action of the dissidents (pp. 129-134, 136-142).
C. Conclusion – Therefore, it will not take long for such dissidents to either submit (pp. 137, 157) or to leave the Church (p. 142). Thus is the crisis explained, and one just hopes it will not be too long before it is resolved (p. 142).
This is a brief summary of the explanation the author proposes for the conciliar crisis.

I admire McInerny for having the courage to deal with such a controversial subject and for expressing his opinion frankly. His loyalty to the Papacy and to the teachings of ecclesiastical Magisterium is noteworthy. I commend him for fighting against the dissident theologians he mentions. Above all, I commend him for choosing to publicly deal with the subject and thus help to open a wholesome debate about Vatican II. What could be better than an elevated discussion to remove the doubts and confusion of so many Catholics about the Council?

Notwithstanding these positive notes, it seems to me that there are problems with certain points of McInerny’s thesis. These are problems that bear mention. I hope the author will not refuse an honest critique and is open to a cordial intellectual discussion on the subject. I ask that he accept my analysis as a collegial attempt to gain a more objective understanding of reality.

My observations will follow the same order as the arguments set out above.

Two currents at Vatican II?

With regard to the first argument, it would seem that the author’s major premise does not correspond to what is known of the chronicles of the Council. In fact, from Cardinal Achille Liénart’s first intervention in the first conciliar session (October 13, 1962), when he objected to the composition of the commissions presented by the leaders of the Council and demanded an election whereby the Assembly should choose its representatives, until the vote on the two documents Dignitatis humanae and Gaudium et spes in the last session (December 6, 1965), the participants and chroniclers record the fierce contention between the current of Prelates inspired by Nouvelle Théologie (New Theology) and the current that wanted to maintain the traditional doctrine of the Magisterium.

This can be readily demonstrated by drawing on the chronicles of Vatican II. I suggest that on this point McInerny read the objective and well-documented accounts of Giovanni Caprile, René Laurentin, Antoine Wenger, Henri Fesquet, and Boaventura Kloppenburg, as well as the Bloc des notes of Yves Congar, published during the Council in Informations Catholiques Internationales. This is the very Congar that McInerny considers, along with de Lubac, one of the “stars” that shine in the Catholic intellectual firmament (p. 8, note 6).

More modestly, I propose that the author read a recent work – In the Murky Waters of Vatican II – in which he can find a considerable number of trustworthy statements attesting to the existence of two opposing currents in the Council (op. cit. Chaps. IV, VI et passim). It can be easily shown that the conflict between these two currents was a determinant factor in the preparation of the final documents. Ipso facto, one cannot hold that there was unanimity among the Bishops during the preparation of the documents, nor during their approval. Such unanimity can only be found at the final signing of Vatican II.

The assertion that the approval of a document by the majority or unanimity of the Bishops implies the guarantee of the Holy Ghost will be dealt with further detail when speaking of the authority of the Pope and the Bishops in union with him.

Thus the fundamental affirmation of the major premise that it is an error of simplification to consider the Council as a fight between two currents has no base.

For this reason, it is surprising to see the contemptuous treatment the author gives to Fr. Ralph Wiltgen’s excellent book The Rhine Flows into the Tiber, a work he dismisses as appropriate for those who consider the Council a “kind of ideological dogfight” (p. 28).

Are the teachings of Vatican II infallible?

Regarding McInerny’s minor premise, Paul VI did solemnly approve all the documents using expressions that were practically the same. These closing statements can be found at the end of each one of the sixteen documents. No doubt, this approval indicates the desire to give weight to the documents and makes one lean toward the idea that the Pontiff wanted to make use of his prerogative of infallibility. The question is: Did this fact happen? My response is the following:

* If employing practically the same formula in all the documents indicates the desire to use infallibility, then that infallibility should extend to the whole. However, there are subjects to which infallibility does not apply, such as, for example, those in the decree Inter mirifica, which deals with means of social communication, a matter outside of Faith and Morals. Obviously, it was not Paul VI’s intention to impose upon the Church as infallible these considerations regarding the media. Therefore, employing the same formula in all the documents should not be understood as revealing an intention of using infallibility. It expresses a vague manifestation of authority, imprecise regarding what it actually obliges.

* Furthermore, the Announcement written by the Secretary General of the Council, Cardinal Pericle Felici, that precedes the Preliminary Explanatory Note to Lumen gentium says:

“Taking into account conciliar practice and the pastoral purpose of the present Council, the sacred synod has defined as binding on the Church only those matters of Faith and Morals which it has expressly put forward as such (1).”

If we hold this passage to be valid for the sixteen documents of Vatican II, this would only oblige obedience in matters of Faith and Morals. Furthermore, this is the only statement on this matter that emanates from Vatican II. Therefore, it did not wish to be taken as infallible.

* Above and beyond this, Paul VI himself, author of the aforementioned formulas, declared after the close of the Council:

There are those who ask what authority, what theological qualification the Council intended to give to its teachings, knowing that it avoid issuing solemn dogmatic definitions engaging the infallibility of the ecclesiastical Magisterium. The answer is known by whoever remembers the conciliar declaration of March 6, 1964, repeated on November 16, 1964: given the Council’s pastoral character, it avoided pronouncing, in an extraordinary manner, dogmas endowed with the note of infallibility(2).”

Therefore, Paul VI’s solemn approval of the conciliar documents cannot be used as a conclusive argument in favor of the infallibility of Vatican II. Thus it can be stated that McInerny’s minor premise is true – Paul VI approved the conciliar documents – but it is inconsequential, because it doesn’t lead to his desired conclusion. That approval does not imply infallibility.

Further, it can be affirmed that the approval by the majority or unanimity of the Bishops does not add the note of infallibility to the documents. This corroborates the analysis above about the weakness of the major premise.

Since the two premises of the first argument are not as solid as the author would have hoped, the first conclusion – that the Council is infallible – is without foundation and must be relegated to the field of opinion.

Is the Council an expression of the perennial Magisterium of the Church?

The second conclusion – that the Council is an authentic expression of the Magisterium – must be addressed.

McInerny argues that Vatican II should be followed in as much as it is an expression of the ordinary papal Magisterium, which calls for attitudes of respect and obedience (pp. 36-38, 88, 108). This affirmation is deserving of analysis.

Holy Mother Church in matters of Faith and Morals has very precise and defined norms regarding progress. Progress is acceptable when it follows the same sense and meaning of the earlier Magisterium (in eodem sensu eademque sententia). The Church promulgated these prudential norms in order to avoid grave errors, at times taught even by Popes (Marcellinus, Liberius, Zozimus, Vigilius, etc) and Councils (Milan 355, Constantinole 360, Constance, Basle etc). Therefore, it cannot be categorically stated that Vatican II, nor any other Council, is the expression of the unchangeable Magisterium of the Church – except in the measure that it is coherent with prior teaching.

In Vatican II many times it is very difficult to harmonize the present with the past. I will cite just one example among many.

The conciliar decree Unitatis redintegratio teaches that the salvation can be found outside of the Church:
“Large communities became separated from the full communion with the Catholic Church …. However, one cannot charge with the sin of separation those who at present are born into these communities and in them are brought up in the faith of Christ, and the Catholic Church accepts them with respect and affection as brothers ….

"Moreover, some, even very many of the most significant elements and endowments which go together to build up and give life to the Church itself, can exist outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church: the written Word of God; the life of grace; Faith, hope and charity with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as visible elements …. The brethren divided from us also carry out many liturgical actions of the Christian religion …. These …. can aptly give access to the communion of salvation” (UR 3a, b, c).
This teaching is basis for ecumenism, which constitutes one of the greatest innovations of Vatican II.

Comparing this thesis with the perennial Magisterium, we find the contrary affirmed. Pius IX, along with other Popes, firmly fought what we label today ecumenism:
“And it tends to the same end as this horrible system of religious indifferentism tends in matters of religion, a system that is even repugnant to the simple light of natural reason. It is through this system, in fact, that these subtle artisans of the lie seek to destroy all distinction between vice and virtue, truth and error, honor and shameful torpidity, criminally thinking men of all cults and every religion can be led to the hope of eternal salvation. As if there could be a participation of justice with iniquity, and alliance of light with darkness, some sort of relationship between Jesus Christ and Belial (3).”

How can this doctrine be harmonized with that of Vatican II? It is really very difficult.

There are other conciliar novelties that clash with traditional teaching. Among these would be the notion of the “Church as mystery;” its affinity with modernist pneumatology and its opposition to the teaching of St. Pius X; the notion of “sinning Church,” which contradicts the divine nature of the Spouse of Christ; the adaptation of the Church to the modern world in contradiction to the anathemas of Pius IX; the acceptance of the so-oft-condemned motto “Liberty-Equality-Fraternity” in the ecclesiastical and civil spheres; and the acceptance of the principles of modern historicism and its application to the dogma resulting in a grave damage to the unity of the Catholic Faith. This is not to mention the questions that alter traditional teaching regarding the militant, missionary and Roman characters of the Holy Church.

Thus, until the Council’s novelties can be shown to be congruent with the prior Magisterium, the former obviously cannot be taken as an expression of the latter.

One sees, then, that the author’s second conclusion is hasty. Vatican II has still not been sufficiently shown to be an authentic expression of the Magisterium. The Council will or will not be found to express the perennial Magisterium until these many doubts are cleared up.

McInerny avoids making this clarification and hides behind formalism: Since the Council’s documents were approved by the majority or unanimity of the Bishops and endorsed by the Pontiff, then they must be the indisputable expression of the Supreme Magisterium (pp. 18-19, 31-32, 68, 147-148, 151). If the substance of matters dealt with in a Council were more important than the form observed to promulgate it, then the condemned statements at the Councils of Constance and Basel should be taken as an expression of the Magisterium, because they apparently followed the canonical formalities.

Furthermore, intellectual honesty demands that a person be allowed to use any legitimate means to safeguard the integrity of the Catholic Faith from the introduction of justifiably suspect doctrines. Even should such doctrines come from three Popes and a Council. Should Prof. McInerny be interested, I can show him citations of Saints and Doctors of the Church who defend the right and obligation of Catholics to resist Prelates – even Popes – who endanger the Faith (In the Murky Waters of Vatican II, “General Introduction,” note 3).

Would the cause of the crisis only be the progressivist theologians?

The major premise of McInerny’s second argument is true: he affirms that certain theologians advocate a revolutionary defiance of the principle of authority. It is also true that these theologians claim a position of equality, and even superiority, in relation to the traditional Magisterium.

In the minor premise it is necessary to make a distinction. Doubtless, the dissent of “progressivist” theologians is an important factor in the cause of the crisis of authority. From this angle, the premise is unassailable. However, although it is an important factor for the loss of authority, it is neither the sole or principal cause, even when considered from a broader perspective, which would include “trendy catechists, creative liturgists, and antinomian moral theologians” (p. 118).

* In fact, the germ of the crisis of authority was inoculated in the very documents of the Council. For example, in the discussion on the schema of Lumen gentium regarding the actual makeup of the Church, the conciliar fathers resolved to invert the accepted order and put the “people of God” before the Hierarchy. A greater emphasis was given to the faithful as the foundation of the Church than to the Hierarchy, which was relegated to a secondary position. Renowned Prelates, commenting upon this inversion that was included in the promulgated text, have called it a “Copernican revolution” in ecclesiology. Sooner or later this inversion was bound to foster a certain arrogance among some of the faithful, as in the case of the aforementioned theologians. Therefore, such theologians are neither the sole nor principal cause of the crisis.

* Besides this, the abettors of the conciliar reforms were the Council, Popes and Bishops. For example, the demolition of venerable traditions effected by the liturgical reforms was initiated by the conciliar Constitution Sacrosanctum concilium, confirmed by Paul VI ‘s Apostolic Constitution Missale romanum, and put into effect by Bishops around the world. The decisive blow against a liturgy spanning centuries did not come from “progressivist” theologians, but from the official ranks of the Church. How can one not see in this “iconoclast period” an example for other traditions to be broken? Couldn’t the contesting of authority made by the learned be invoked as a precedent to change other institutional aspects of the Church, such as submission to authority? It seems undeniable. Once again, it is obvious that the “learned” dissenters were neither the sole nor principal cause of the crisis.

* Another cogent example of this was the reform of the Holy Office and the abolition of the Index, which forbade the reading of books harmful to Faith and Morals. Paul VI effected this reform in his Motu proprio Integrae servanda (December 5, 1965). His stated objective was to mitigate theological punishments. Who doesn’t see that this lowering of the guard served to stimulate the audacity of the “liberals”? Again, the dissent of learned theologians was neither the sole nor principal cause of the crisis.

* Furthermore, there are theologians who heretofore were considered suspect of heresy by the Holy Office. Yet after the Council, even though they did not change their thinking, they were promoted and are now considered representatives of official theology. These include Cardinal Yves Congar, Cardinal Henri de Lubac, Cardinal Hans Urs von Balthasar, Fr. Karl Rahner, Fr. Marie-Dominique Chenu and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

Why does McInerny only condemn today’s liberals? McInerny does not mention the relationship of those who are now mistakenly taken for moderates with the liberals of yesterday. The principles that a Fr. Charles Curran defends are based on those preached by today’s “accepted” scholars that I listed. If McInerny wanted to point accurately to the causes of the present day crisis, he would need to point to both groups. Not doing this, he shields the most dangerous wing of theology. And these theologians were the ones who exercised a decisive influence at Vatican II. Ignoring these theologians and assuming the Council to be infallible, McInerny takes an incomplete position that can hardly be called impartial.

* With regard to the minor premise, another observation can be made about the example chosen by the author to prove the evil of the dissenting theologians: the case of Humanae vitae. McInerny avoids dealing with the opposition to the encyclical that came from official ecclesiastical circles. He lightly dismisses such opposition as rare (p. 47). Unfortunately, this does not correspond to what actually happened. Not only did many Bishops contest the papal teaching, but entire Episcopates did so (in Belgium, Brazil, Holland, France and Germany, for example). McInerny can find proof of this in the book In the Murky Waters of Vatican II (Chap. X, note 24). Once again, it is obvious that the dissenting theologians are neither the sole nor principal cause of the crisis of authority.

These are considerations that seem to me indispensable to make an objective analysis of the minor premise of the author’s second argument.

Finally, McInerny’s conclusion is valid: the theologians he names should be silenced. But I will go a step further. If the disciples are to be condemned, why not also their masters? And if the masters are condemned, how can one avoid considering the influence of their thinking in Vatican II? This brings us back to the need for an open and objective debate on this subject.

Punishment with or without explanations

The third argument supposes the preceding ones. However, while the former two arguments are not indisputable, this one lacks solid foundation. The author advocates authoritarian disciplinary measures, which might be just if his argument had been solid. Since it was not, Prof. McInerny appears to have taken an arbitrary position.

The major premise posits that one should not longer argue about the Council, but instead acknowledge in it the Supreme Magisterium and demand obedience from the dissidents. No more polemics. If McInerny had proved his thesis, perhaps the measures he asks for would be sufficient. But since he did not, without cause there is no effect.

For argument’s sake, it seems that his suggestion to punish the guilty without due explanation would go against the normal practice of the Church. Since she is the Mistress of Truth, she can easily prove the truth or error of doctrine. To offer proof would reflect her sovereignty in teaching truth and guarding Revelation. On the contrary, railing to do so would be to hid behind papal infallibility, which would give the impression of an institution uncertain about what she asserts.

Therefore, regarding the major premise of the third argument, it would seem to me both illogical and imprudent. Notwithstanding, I agree with McInerny that these theologians should be silenced. However, I believe that this should be done with a full explanation. Then, should they remain recalcitrant, a detailed investigation following due process should be carried out, a just sentence issued, and the punishment meted out.

McInerny’s conclusion seems debatable: that punishing dissenting theologians would resolve the crisis. As I have demonstrated, these theologians are neither the sole nor principal cause of the crisis. It is not only because of the dissent of “learned” theologians that we are witnessing the sorrowful passion of the Catholic Church, but because of more profound and important factors. And among those factors is the apparent or real contradiction of many of the teachings of Vatican II with the earlier ecclesiastical Magisterium. For this reason, I do not believe that simply punishing theologians will solve the crisis.

The need for an elevated and elucidating debate

In order to find such a solution, the courage to debate the topic of the Council is necessary.

We know that the Catholic Church is immortal and that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against her (Matt. 16:18). Why not begin a wide-ranging discussion comparing Vatican II and the perennial Magisterium? That is my suggestion. This would be a frank and humble way to determine if there were deviations, to correct them should they exist, and to truly help to end the ecclesiastical crisis. On the contrary, isn’t it incongruent today to be continually asking pardon for the Church’s past when we lack the courage to investigate and correct the present?

1. Pericle Felici, “Notificações,” November 16, 1964, in V.A. Atas do Concílio Ecumênico Vaticano II, (Petrópolis: Vozes, 1966), pp. 108-109.
2. Paul VI, General Audience of January 12, 1966 in Insegnamenti di Paolo VI, vol.4, p. 700.
3. Pius IX, Encyclical Qui pluribus of November 9, 1846, in Recueil des allocutions consistoriales, Encycliques et autres lettres apostoliques (Paris: Adrien le Clerc, 1865), p. 181.


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