Tradition In Action
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Two Sides at the Same Table
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Marian Therese Horvat, Ph.D.

Published in The Remnant August 15, 2000

In a recent column, Fr. Richard P. McBrien, professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame, takes to task those Catholics "who follow a 'party line' out there that the Vatican Council II is responsible for just about every major problem in the Catholic Church today" (The Tidings, Los Angeles, June 16). He admits that the Church has many pressing problems and lists these: a shortage of vocations to the priesthood and the religious life, the decline of Mass attendance, the instability of marriage, the erosion of Catholic identity, doctrinal deviations and even the culture of death. But Fr. McBrien considers it unfair for traditionalists to attribute them to Vatican II.

"According to this [traditionalist] view," he reports "the solution lies in the effective repeal of the Council by indirect attacks, which assert that the conservative party (the ‘defeated minority’) actually won." He then laments the most woeful fact, in his opinion, that some seminarians and newly ordained hidebound priests are rejecting the liturgical reforms of Vatican II "and would prefer the good old days when Masses were in Latin, the priest had his back to the people, and the laity were left in quiet peace to say their own prayers, recite the Rosary, or follow along in their Missals."

Then, Fr. McBrien goes on to defend guitar and beach Masses as a liturgical consequence of a correct interpretation of the texts of Vatican II. To support such innovations, he makes citations from the conciliar Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy: "It is, therefore, of capital importance, that the faithful easily understand the sacramental signs" (n. 59). It is only "through a proper appreciation of the rite and prayers" that the laity can "participate knowingly, devoutly and actively" (n. 48, n. 21). And since the cultures and spiritual needs of people differ, he triumphantly concludes, the Council allowed for adaptations in the celebration of the liturgy: "Even in the liturgy, the Church has no wish to impose uniformity in matters which do not involve the faith or the good of the whole community" (n. 37). Therefore, the guitar and beach Masses would be legitimate.

The openly progressivist Fr. McBrien, who indoctrinates Catholic youth with his brand of thinking at one of the most famous Catholic universities in the country, becomes indignant to think that some young priests and laymen would make "an attempted hijacking of Vatican II." To feel deprived of the reverence and sacrality of the Mass of the past, he notes, would be as ridiculous as feeling bad about being deprived of "Model-T Fords, static-filled radios, party-line phones and stifling summer heat without air conditioning." I will not even discuss the inappropriate and irreverent comparisons that defy all common sense. Instead, let me make several observations about Fr. McBrien’s sarcastic and indignant response to the traditional position:

Fr. McBrien’s Lamentations Represent A Sign of Hope

The first and most impressive fact is that Fr. McBrien’s diatribe against this traditionalist "network" of supposedly misguided Catholics who question the Council and long for the Latin Mass and traditional devotions is proof that our movement has more momentum that some might believe. We are a small group compared to the whole, true. But we are deeply committed to the Faith, making an active apostolate, and increasingly demanding our voice be heard. If we were not having an effect, Fr. McBrien and those of his persuasion would simply ignore the traditionalist movement and continue to aggressively pursue their plan of destruction. It seems they can no longer do this.

Second, there could be no better news than to hear of the growing traditionalism and burgeoning courage of some seminarians and newly ordained priests who are "more attracted ... to the liturgical tradition and to some of the devotions of the Church, rosaries, novenas and Eucharistic adoration," a situation bemoaned by Fr. McBrien. This healthy exertion of the influence proper to the priestly dignity swells the ranks and lifts the spirits of our counter-revolutionary columns. That this attitude of longing for the pre-Conciliar liturgy and traditions is being taken up by young priests and seminarians, the very generation who have no concrete memory of the pre-Conciliar Church, is a sign of great hope for a future restoration of the Church. So much, then, for the lamentations of Rev. Richard P. McBrien and the progressivsts who are disturbed to find their revolution off course.

The "Conservative" Side of the Table: A Defense of Vatican II

The conciliar revolution is one that breeds contradictions and ambiguities. For example, there are parties of different ideological persuasions who nonetheless adopt the same argument: each party demands that the documents of the Council be interpreted in "the correct way" for the proper reform to be carried out. The reader has just finished sampling some of the interpretations of Fr. McBrien.

Now, we can go to other side of the table and find Mr. Al Matt, Jr., editor of The Wanderer, making essentially the same defense of Vatican Council II and its documents as that of Fr. McBrien, albeit with different interpretations of the texts. And, like Fr. McBrien, the ones Al Matt recently took to task are those Catholics who question Vatican Council II, regardless of the problems of the conciliar Church, which I doubt he would deny. Let me repeat the list that Fr. McBrien outlined above: a shortage of vocations to the priesthood and the religious life, the decline of Mass attendance, the instability of marriage, the erosion of Catholic identity, doctrinal deviations and even the culture of death. Apparently Mr. Matt, like Fr. McBrien, would consider it unfair to attribute such problems to Vatican II.

In a recent introduction to a series of articles entitled "'Traditionalists,' Tradition and Private Judgement," Mr. Al Matt, defending the Council, asserted that it "was not a rejection or an abandonment of Tradition, but a development of that Tradition." And similar to Fr. McBrien, he considers that the ones to be admonished are those "traditionalists" who "blame the Council's teaching itself." Thus, according to both Fr. McBrien and Mr. Matt, the problems in today's Church could be resolved by simply interpreting the documents of Vatican II correctly.

Ambiguity in the Language and Documents of Vatican I

In fact, this whole problem of "the correct interpretation of documents" in itself is showing that something is wrong in the documents. They lack clarity. Prior to Vatican II, the language of the Church was Thomistic: rigorous, precise, and categorical in its definitions, non-ambiguous in its meaning. Thus, as Atila Sinke Guimaraes states in In the Murky Waters of Vatican II (his work that examines the ambiguity of the documents of Vatican II): "Scholastic Theology and Philosophy gradually built over the centuries an invulnerable wall protecting Revelation and the Magisterium from the insidious attacks of adversaries." [1]

[1] In the Murky Waters of Vatican II (Maeta, 1997), Chap. III, § 2.

Opening a new and dangerous way, the language employed by Vatican II was different. It rejected that "tight and perfect cohesion between cause and effect," those "luminous definitions and distinctions," that "solidity in argumentation typical of Scholastic language." [2] Instead, it adopted texts that were "patched up," "worked over," "incoherent," "promiscuous," "more appropriate to a 'Babel' and its confusion of languages," to quote just a few expressions used by renowned theologians themselves. [3] In a word: ambiguous. With the documents of Vatican II, ambiguity in the expression of theological thinking entered the teachings of the Church.

[2] Sixtus V, Bull Triumphantis, 1588, in ibid.
[3] Guimarães, In the Murky Waters, § 3.

Thus, the conciliar revolution has progressed, with the help of the protagonists for progressivism like Fr. McBrien, and, on the other side of the table, "traditionalists" or "conservatives" like Mr. Al Matt. Both sides at this same table always demand a proper interpretation of the texts of Vatican II. Is it no wonder then, and totally legitimate, that the counter-revolution should question the validity of the texts themselves instead of merely calling for more counter-interpretations?


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