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Two Levels of Ambiguity

Fr. Brian W. Harrison, O.S.

Book-review on In the Murky Waters of Vatican II by Atila Sinke Guimarães


In the Murky Waters of Vatican II

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It has become a commonplace of official episcopal and Vatican responses over the last thirty years that the widespread abandonment of the Catholic Church’s sound traditions, the sorry scenario of doctrinal dissent, disciplinary disorder, clerical defections and other scandals - has been in no way due to Vatican Council II itself, but only to abusive and selective readings and applications of the Council documents.

But this only raises the further question: Why has it been so easy for these abusive and selective interpretations of the Council to flourish and to diffuse and even impose themselves, so widely?

After all, this phenomenon has been practically unique in the history of ecumenical councils. While many of them were also followed by periods of great division and tension those conflicts were markedly different in their sociological contours, from that which has riven Catholicism asunder since Vatican II. In the past, conciliar teachings were frequently ‘signs of contradiction,’ being subsequently rejected with vehemence by certain groups claiming to be Christian and Catholic. But in each of these controversies, both sides to the dispute were at least in agreement as to whose side the Council was on, so that the dissident party had no alternative other than to reject openly the conciliar teaching in question. The fourth and fifth-century Arians could make no attempt to claim that Nicea and Constantinople were really ‘opening new doors’ to their own anti-trinitarian heresy; the Greek Orthodox after Florence could not maintain that that Council was really ‘moving in their direction’ as regards the Petrine primacy; and the sixteenth-century Protestants protested just as vehemently and openly against Trent as did Döllinger and his faction against Vatican I. After Vatican II, in contrast, practically every heterodox notion that has sullied the Church’s countenance or infected her immune system has brazenly presented itself as being the ‘real’ teaching, or at least the real implication, of the Council itself.

Contemplating this continuing plight of Holy Mother Church, the Brazilian author of this book - which is the first (and first translated) of an eleven-volume series on the post-conciliar Church already published in Portuguese - has no hesitation in grasping the nettle. While avoiding the extreme position of those Lefebvrists and Sedevacantists who assert that Vatican II was heretical, Guimarães bluntly answers the question I have formulated above: Why has it been easy for liberal dissidents to claim the support of the Council for their views? Simply because the conciliar documents themselves are frequently ambiguous. The buck, Guimarães asserts, stops there.

It would be easy (and much more in accord with prevailing canons of ecclesio-political correctness) to disparage this finger-pointing at the Council itself as basically a “traditionalist” or “integrist” position; but as the author points out, plenty of middle-of-the-road and liberal churchmen have admitted the same thing. Indeed, the title of this book - as the author is at pains to point out - is taken from the words of no less a pillar of the post-conciliar establishment than Msgr. Philippe Delhaye, secretary general of the International Theological Commission from 1973 till 1988, quoted in no less a publication than L’Osservatore Romano, January 5, 1984. (Delhaye affirmed that Vatican II was an “apex” from which “will continue to flow torrents of living water;” but he added immediately, “At the moment these waters are at times murky.”)

One could add that even the Church’s leading pastors have at times implicitly admitted this murkiness. In the face of post-Vatican-II polarizations and divisions, the 1985 Extraordinary Synod of Bishops, as well as Pope John Paul II’s 1988 Apostolic Letter Ecclesia Dei, exhorted the Church’s scholars to give deeper study to the Council documents, so as to understand them better and show more clearly their harmony with Tradition. But why should the documents even require this “deeper study” for that kind of purpose, unless their conformity with Tradition - that is, their orthodoxy - did not always emerge with great clarity from the texts. Such tacit admissions of conciliar obscurity or opacity seem especially ironical in view of the avowedly “pastoral” aims of Vatican II, whose principal raison d’etre, according to Pope John, was to present the traditional and unchanging Catholic doctrine (not some “new” doctrine) in a way that ordinary men and women of our time would find more readily comprehensible and persuasive.

Atila S. Guimarães’ book is therefore a welcome challenge to the prevailing complacency about Vatican Council II. He puts his finger squarely on that central sore point in the contemporary Mystical Body which most other Catholic commentators - apart from extreme traditionalists who by their exaggerations destroy their own credibility - have cautiously avoided or skirted around. His analysis of the conflicting interpretations and confusions of recent decades, resulting from plausible (if often inaccurate) interpretations of the Council, makes sorry, but salutary reading.

Admittedly, the book is flawed, or at least inadequate, in some ways. The author devotes only one short and superficial chapter to the attempt to establish - or rather, merely illustrate - his main premise, namely, that the Vatican II documents are in fact doctrinally ambiguous at certain key points. And even here, he never refers to the textual history or official relators' explanations of the passages in question. Rather, he tends to assume as already obvious the ambiguity of these conciliar texts, and spends most of the book documenting liberal, dissident post-conciliar readings thereof, and the decadence and confusion this has caused.

In my opinion, it is helpful to distinguish between two levels of ambiguity: real and apparent, and Guimarães does not do this. I would maintain that generally, when one takes into account what we might call the Council’s ‘fine print’ - the footnote references, historical and literary context, and official explanations given to the Council Fathers as to why various amendments to the text were made by the Theological Commission - then the only reasonable, scholarly way to interpret the passage in question is the traditional orthodox way. In other words, it is not really, or strictly speaking, ambiguous.

However, only a minuscule proportion of those “men and women of our time” who are supposed to be the Council’s chief beneficiaries have access to all that fine print; and so the apparent ambiguity of many parts of the main text (deriving either from what it says or from what it conspicuously fails to say) is quite sufficient to have constituted a ‘public relations’ victory, all too often, for the foes of orthodoxy and tradition. And that is all they needed in order to achieve their de facto takeover of Catholic academies and bureaucracies throughout so much of the world. For that reason, In The Murky Waters of Vatican II, which concentrates precisely on the dissident, liberal ‘PR’ about Vatican II rather than on scholarly analysis of its texts, remains a bold and timely contribution to the Church’s contemporary self-reflection. For, just as it is important that justice not only be done, but be seen to be done, so Catholic orthodoxy - above all in avowedly ‘pastoral’ documents of the magisterium addressed to the general public rather than just to bishops or trained theologians - should not only be taught; but be seen to be taught.


Fr. Brian W. Harrison, O.S., is a professor in
the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico.
This book review was first published in the weekly The Wanderer, April 23, 1998

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In the Murky Waters of Vatican II



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