The speech by Pope John XXIII at the opening of the Second Vatican Council (October 11, 1962), the allocution of the same pope to the Sacred College of Cardinals on December 23, 1962, and the address of Benedict XVI on December 22, 2005, indicate the intention of the Council, which is supposed to correspond to the purpose of a “pastoral magisterium”. Vatican II intended to express the Faith of the Church according to the methods of research and literary expression of modern thought, and to redefine the relation of the Church’s Faith with respect to certain essential elements of that thought.
What exact significance is it appropriate to give to this new pastoral magisterium intended by John XXIII? Benedict XVI wished to give the most authentic interpretation of the proposal of John XXIII, and he did this in what everyone considers the key speech of his pontificate. By following “the methods of research and... the literary forms of modern thought”, he tells us, the Second Vatican Council intended to change the definition of the relation that should exist between the Church’s Faith and certain elements characteristic of modern thought. Therefore it is not a question of expressing the same definition in different terms. It is altogether a matter of changing the definition. Not only does the form of the discourse change, but also its foundation and substance, at the precise point involving the relations of the Catholic Faith to modern thought. The proof of it is that this led the Council to “revisit” or to “correct” some historical decisions, to the point of giving the appearance of a certain discontinuity.
The Second Vatican Council, with its new definition of the relationship between the Faith of the Church and certain essential elements of modern thought, has reviewed or even corrected certain historical decisions, but in this apparent discontinuity it has actually preserved and deepened her [i.e., the Church’s] inmost nature and true identity.”
Above and beyond the apparent discontinuity, the real continuity is said to be that
of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us. She is a subject which increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God.”
Let us simply note that the unity of the Church cannot be defined solely as the unity of one and the same subject over time. For the Church’s unity is not only of a chronological order. More profoundly, it is a matter of unity of Faith, unity of the same meaning of the same divinely revealed truth. And therefore it is a matter of the unity of the same definition of the same principles that must regulate the relations of the Church’s Faith with regard to the world, to the modern era as well as to all the preceding eras. If we change that definition, we call that unity into question. The danger then is that the discontinuity that Benedict XVI speaks about will be not merely apparent.
The novelty implied by this change of definition can be observed at several points, and it is the response expected by the “three circles of questions”:
These three questions are in reality only one: Benedict XVI summarizes it perfectly by saying that on these three points “the Council had to determine in a new way the relationship between the Church and the modern era.”
This novelty (as it appears in the several points that have been mentioned) is precisely what causes a problem. The new is defined in relation to the old. New and old are not simply temporally distinct; in other words, they are also essentially different. When what is new succeeds what is old, the relation between the two is the relation that exists between two definitions, one of which revokes the other and replaces it. The passage from the old to the new marks an essential change, or a change of definition.
And in fact, we see clearly that, at least on two of the three points cited above, Vatican II adopted different definitions from those that had been held previously.
The proposal of John XXIII thus finds its confirmation in light of the proposal of Benedict XVI. What the Council did and what the German pope describes for us proves a posteriori what the Council intended to do. On certain points the Council adopted new teachings, while abandoning the way in which the Church had until then understood its relation to civil societies and other religions and adopting contrary notions. In this sense, as Cardinal Ratzinger already explained, the statements of the popes in the 19th century on religious liberty and the anti-Modernist decisions from the beginning of the 20th century have been superseded, after performing their pastoral duty at a precise moment.
This same assessment is found in the papal address on December 22, 2005, which reasons as if every decision, by the very fact that is belongs to history, could only concern a contingent matter and could express a truth only relative to the circumstances. Whereas, of course, some principles that are applied in contingent matters (such as those that serve as the basis for the whole social doctrine of the Church) are not contingent.
The fact of this doctrinal relativism explains the initial intention described by John XXIII: the fact that the Council intended to propose the doctrine of the Faith according to the modalities of investigation of modern thought means quite clearly that the Council intended to propose the Faith while taking modern thought as the modality of investigation.
Among these modes of investigation, one very particular epistemology has pride of place: the one associated with Cartesian innatism and Kantian idealism. It can be traced back to the primacy of the subject over the object. And it implies the most thoroughgoing relativism in matters of doctrine, first of all with regard to all points concerning the relations of the Church to civil societies and to other religions.
This means for Benedict XVI that the Church is readjusting a relation. It is not a question (at least in the Council’s intention or in the pope’s) of changing the faith or the Church directly. It is a question of situating the Faith and the Church in a renewed relation with regard to modernity, so as to accomplish the adaptation that was necessitated by the changes that have occurred in the modern era, what John Paul II called a “renovatio accommodata”, an “accommodated renewal”.
Cardinal Ratzinger expressed the same point of view when he stated that “The text [Gaudium et spes] serves as a counter-Syllabus and, as such, represents, on the part of the Church, an attempt at an official reconciliation with the new era inaugurated in 1789.” For his part, Archbishop Lefebvre observed that the teachings of Vatican II achieved “the conversion of the Church to the world” and sanctioned “the triumph of liberal ideas”.
The Society of St. Pius X does not claim that this change of definition affects the entire teaching of Vatican II globally. We simply take note of what John XXIII and Benedict XVI say and observe that, on several definite points, the Second Vatican Council adopted the same approach as modern thought and that this led it to produce a new concept of the relation of the Church both to civil societies and to other religions, a concept that is incompatible with the previous Magisterium. Since the Magisterium by definition is constant, the statements that prove to be incompatible with what it already proposed could not possible be vested with magisterial authority, properly speaking.
Consequently we deny that the teachings of Vatican II on religious liberty and ecumenism (as well as those concerning collegiality and the new ecclesiology) could prevail in the name of a true and proper Magisterium. It is true that these four points alone do not make up the whole all-inclusively. Consequently, if the Council implemented debatable modalities of thought, then that must be examined in the text of the documents on a case-by-case basis. And that is what we do, concerning the points mentioned.