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In the Murky Waters of Vatican II

Mark Ellis

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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Catholics are not only living in the aftermath of the Council, but with an inheritance from it that affects their daily lives. Therefore we need to understand it as well as we possibly can. This book, and those that are promised to follow, will help to give us this understanding and for that we owe Atila Guimarães and his team of researchers a real debt of gratitude.

The great value of this work is that, instead of giving us mere opinions, The Murky Waters of Vatican II gives the facts unearthed by meticulous research and carefully substantiated with detailed documentation. We see exactly what happened, why it happened and who worked with who to bring it about.

Because every statement is supported by so much documentation, it is irrefutable. On some pages the footnotes take up more space than the text, but this is no drawback as they are fascinating in themselves. To have succeeded in making such a scholarly book so readable for 415 pages (not including the bibliography), is in itself no mean feat.

Diabolic ambiguity

For many years the “official line” on the Council was that it was the best thing that could have happened in the Church, so any hint of criticism was seen as disloyalty to the Church. At the same time there was understandable disquiet about some of the ‘fruits’ of the Council. Now we can see it brought into the light of day and freed from any preconceived ideas, we can learn to live with the Council as it is really is and make sense of our lives as Catholics once more. I found this a great relief.

Right from the start Señor Guimarães shows us why dissension arose. For the first time in the long history of the Church, Council documents were deliberately compiled with ambiguity built in. Previous Councils may have produced dissenters, but the dissent was about clear Church ruling, not about what the documents meant, and resulted in them [the dissenters] leaving the Church. Now, we have documents that can be interpreted in different ways, and that in itself hampers obedience and makes Church discipline very difficult. There is no need to list examples of this ambiguity as we have all come up against it only too often.

Typically, in such a comprehensive book, we are shown why this ambiguity occurred. It appears that the Schemata drawn up by the Preparatory Commission of the projects to be presented to the Council Fathers was condemned by the progressive element right at the beginning of the Council. So, on November 22nd, 1962 (thirty days after the Council opened on October 22nd), Pope John XXIII rejected the schema De fontibus revelationis, and with it nearly all the schemata of the pre-conciliar Theological Commission. He realized that it would not receive the necessary two-thirds majority, so in the interests of unanimity it had to go. This led Henri Fesquet to comment that the first Conciliar session was the “demolition session” (Le Journal du Concile, p. 1031). I include that detail just to give an example of the precise documentation of this book.

From that time on, Pope John XXIII and later Pope Paul VI made unity their priority; and to preserve that unity, ambiguity had to replace clear teaching. If everyone could interpret the documents their way, everyone could sign them with a clear conscience. Ironically, as ambiguity must, this has inevitably led to decades of disunity in the Church at large. Most people would deprecate ambiguity on any serious matter, particularly on anything as important as Church doctrine or practice, but in this book we see several important Church figures praising it. For instance, Karl Rahner is quoted as saying: “Ambiguity is a mark of modern philosophy.” Others are found admitting that it served their purpose very well. Father Yves Congar said: “We are only halfway there. We could not go further without causing ruptures.” While Father Schillebeeckx admits: “After the Council we will draw the implicit conclusions.

Revelation, collegiality, and the ‘pastoral’ council

The ambiguity in Council Documents is explored in great depth, as is so much more in this book. And all the time you find yourself thinking, yes, I had noticed that but I hadn’t thought it through. And of course, without the documentation, much of it would have been surmise anyway.

As well as being a tireless researcher, Señor Guimarães shows himself to have keen perception. He never fails to recognize which issues are of importance. For instance, in his exploration of the attempt to adapt the Church to the World, he points out how this is based on a new concept of Revelation. Once that is realized, it explains so much in post-conciliar writing and teaching, particularly in modern catechetics where children are taught that ‘Revelation is God talking to you in your heart’ instead of it being the Deposit of Faith entrusted by Christ to His Church. This fundamental error needs to be corrected, so it was good to see Pope John Paul II stressing the importance of the Deposit of Faith in the recent Ad tuendam fidem.

Another important area Señor Guimarães elucidates is the question of Collegiality, raised by the “progressive” element at the Council and not immediately recognized by the traditional Council Fathers as crucial. They were fighting on so many fronts to defend so many basic and essential Doctrines that it was allowed to slip by. Señor Guimarães shows, however, that this issue attracted a record number of opposing votes in all the 2,247 ballots taken. Even so, the 408 who opposed it in 1963 had dwindled to only 322 in 1964. As the group in opposition was shrinking, a text was approved, loaded with subordinate clauses to protect Papal Authority. These were later deemed to make the text so unwieldy they were put into brackets. This pacified many who had hesitated and who had had their legitimate concerns denigrated as ‘a lack of trust’ in their fellow bishops.

However, as Señor Guimarães points out, Collegiality now allows the Council to continue directing the Church throughout the World with disastrous consequences. In order to try and rectify this, in July 1998, Pope John Paul II issued the Apostolic Letter Apostolos suos in which he stresses no less than twelve times that Episcopal Conferences must always act in union with their Head, the Roman Pontiff. He also felt it necessary to emphasize that Diocesan Bishops must not abdicate full responsibility for their own dioceses in favor of Episcopal Conferences or the Commissions set up by them. As H. E. Cardinal Ratzinger commented: “Truth cannot be determined by a majority vote.”

One of the ploys we see being used at the Council is confusion as to its character. When the Council opened, it was described as merely a “Pastoral Council.” This succeeded in allaying the worries of more traditional Council Fathers. Only when important steps had been taken did it become clear that it was, in fact, a “Dogmatic Council” and going to affect the lives of every Catholic. Even in Pope John XXIII’s opening speech, which is analyzed in detail (pages 137 to 142) we find the term “predominantly pastoral” which means not entirely Pastoral.

Meticulous research and documentation

The book lists many “tendentious Omissions” some of which are quite startling. It also gives a list of concessions to false religions and to the World. Lists like this help to make information accessible, and the whole layout of the book leads to ready understanding because it has been well planned. We are given an outline of the entire eleven volumes now in preparation, and a very detailed Table of Contents of this present volume, which enables you to pinpoint exactly what you wish to refer to. Señor Guimarães obviously has the gift of making complicated issues easily understood.

This detailed coverage of the movements in the Council and the motives behind them is necessary if we are to understand our true situation and rectify it, as we must. This book could not have been written much sooner because the dust of the Council had to settle first, but neither could it have been delayed much longer if those who took part in the Council were to be available for comment. Señor Guimarães traveled to interview as many participants as he could still reach, and we have the benefit of their present day views on the Council.

Again, careful research into the books written and the talks given by Council Fathers and their advisors after the Council has produced quotations which give ground for concern. One example is the open rebellion against Papal Authority. Hans Küng wrote in 1976 that there is not spiritual leadership from Rome, meaning there was none that he could agree with. Msgr. Cabral Duarte, Archbishop of Aracaju, writing about the Synod of 1983, claims that the bishops no longer contest the Pope but listen to him in silence and then continue acting as before. He calls it “respectful indifference.”

Read this book!

Señor Guimarães has shown us a situation which is not favorable to the Church and the Salvation of Souls, and neither is it one which is going to be easy to correct. The first step is to understand our predicament and this is where In the Murky Waters of Vatican II is invaluable. Once understood, we will accept the need for prayer and action. Action will have to come from the top, which is why the documents produced from Rome last year are so welcome. These firm directives must be followed by stern discipline for the sake of all the faithful, and this discipline must be given the loyal support it deserves from these faithful Catholics. The time has come to accept that Pope John XXIII’s speech at the opening of the Council – where he claimed that the Church now prefers to defend Truth with mercy not severity – was, as the distinguished theologian Father G. H. Duggan, pointed out in the December 1998 Catholic World Report, “unduly optimistic.”

I would urge as many Catholics as possible to read In the Murky Waters of Vatican II, as once we are well informed we can speak out openly, confident that the Truth can never harm our beloved Church, but can only help restore Her to her erstwhile Glory.


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Mark Ellis is a guest columnist of Christian Order magazine, England.
This book review was first published in that periodical, March, 1999

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