The speech by Pope John XXIII at the opening of the Second Vatican Council (October 11, 1962),[1 ] the allocution of the same pope to the Sacred College of Cardinals on December 23, 1962,[2 ] and the address of Benedict XVI on December 22, 2005,[3 ] 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.

  • 1“Our duty is not just to guard this precious treasure, as if we were concerned only with antiquity, but to dedicate ourselves with an earnest will and without fear to the work which our era demands of us, pursuing thus the path which the Church has followed for 20 centuries.... Our task, our primary goal, is not a discussion of any particular articles of the fundamental doctrine of the Church, nor that we repeat at greater length what has been repeatedly taught by the Fathers and by ancient and modern theologians, and which we think to be well known and familiar to all. For this a Council was not necessary.... It is necessary that... such certain and immutable doctrine, to which we owe the obedience of faith, be scrutinized and expounded with the method that our times require. One thing is the Deposit of Faith and the truths contained in our venerable doctrine, another thing is the way they are announced, with the same meaning and the same content. Much attention will be paid to this manner and much patience, when needed, in elaborating it; those methods of expounding doctrine will be brought forward, which are more in accord with the magisterium which is principally pastoral in its character.” (“New Pentecost: Excerpts from Pope John XXIII’s Opening Address to the Council, retranslated from the original Latin; L’Osservatore Romano weekly edition in English, June 6, 2001, p. 9; posted at )
  • 2“The essential purpose, we said in that speech at the Solemn Opening of the Council, is therefore not to discuss this or that article of the fundamental doctrine of the Church, a discussion that for the most part would repeat the teaching of the Church Fathers and of ancient and modern theologians; indeed, to do that there was no need for a Council; but rather this doctrine should be studied and presented according to the modalities of investigation and the literary forms of modern thought, being guided, with regard to the formulas and proportions, by the needs of a magisterium that is above all pastoral” (translated from French, DC no. 1391 [January 6, 1963]: col. 101).
  • 3“The steps the Council took towards the modern era which had rather vaguely been presented as ‘openness to the world’, belong in short to the perennial problem of the relationship between faith and reason that is re-emerging in ever new forms.... 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 inmost nature and true identity.” (English translation at the Vatican website:…)

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. [4 ]

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. [5 ]

Unity of definition

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”:

  1. It was necessary to define in a new way the relation between the Faith and modern sciences;
  2. It was necessary to define in a new way the relation between the Church and the modern State;
  3. There was the problem of religious tolerance, which demanded a new definition of the relation between the Christian Faith and world religions, and in particular it was necessary to evaluate and define in a new way the relation between the Church and the faith of Israel.[6 ]

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.”[7 ]

Essential change

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.[8 ] 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 declaration Dignitatis humanae and the constitution Gaudium et spes give a definition of the relation between the Church and the modern State that is different from the one taught by Quanta cura and Quas primas. Instead of condemning, as Pius IX, Leo XIII and Pius XI had done, the principle of religious liberty and State indifferentism, Vatican II adopts it.
  • The constitution Lumen gentium, the decree Unitatis redintegratio and the declaration Nostra aetate give a different definition of the relation between the Christian Faith and other religions than the one taught by the Syllabus, Satis cognitum and Mortalium animos. Instead of condemning, as previous popes had done, the principle that non-Catholic religions had a certain salvific value, Vatican II adopts it.

Relation to civil societies

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.[9 ]

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.

Doctrinal relativism

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”.[10 ]

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.”[11 ] For his part, Archbishop Lefebvre observed that the teachings of Vatican II achieved “the conversion of the Church to the world”[12 ] and sanctioned “the triumph of liberal ideas”.[13 ]

Adoption of modern thought

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.[14 ] 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.

For further reading:

  • Archbishop Lefebvre, Vatican II. “L’autorite d’un concile en question”, Institut Universitaire St. Pie X, Vu de haut no. 13 (2006).
  • Autorite et reception du concile Vatican II: Etudes theologiques: Quatrieme symposium de Paris (6-7-8 octobre 2005), Vu de haut special issue (2006).
  • Society of St. Pius X, Magistere de soufre: Etudes theologiques sur le concile Vatican II (Iris, 2009).
  • Fr. Alvaro Calderon, “Peut-on critiquer Vatican II”, in Le Sel de la Terre, vol. 47, pp. 10-96 ; vol. 55, pp. 124-178 ; vol. 60, pp. 45-86.
  • Fr. Jean-Michel Gleize, “Magisterium or living tradition?”
  • Idem, “Debate about Vatican II: Fr. Gleize responds to Msgr. Ocariz”
  • 4Address of Benedict XVI on December 22, 2005
  • 5Address of Benedict XVI on December 22, 2005
  • 6Address of Benedict XVI on December 22, 2005
  • 7Address of Benedict XVI on December 22, 2005
  • 8We speak about “new” and “old” things (nova et vetera). Another possible perspective would be to contrast “in a new way” and “in an old way”. It is possible and even desirable to give a new, more precise expression to unchanged definitions. This is what the Magisterium does when it explains the Deposit of the Faith. But in order to express itself in a new way, the Magisterium never says anything new: “non nova sed nove” [“Not new things, but in a new way”] says St. Vincent of Lerins in his Commonitorium. Vatican II had another plan: Benedict XVI does not say that this Council intended to express the same definition in a new way; he said that it intended to give a new definition, by defining in a new way the relation of the Church to the modern world.
  • 9Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, presentation of the instruction Donum veritatis, in L’Osservatore romano, weekly English edition, July 2, 1990, p. 5.
  • 10This is the title of the conciliar decree Perfectae caritatis on religious life (“De accommodata renovatione vitae religione”). This expression was repeated and extended to all of Tradition by John Paul II: “The teaching of the Second Vatican Council is the expression and the seal of this Tradition in the sense of an adapted renewal (accommodata renovatio)” (John Paul II, “Letter to Priests on Holy Thursday, March 10, 1991”, translated from French; in DC no. 2026, col. 369).
  • 11Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology: Building Stones for a Fundamental Theology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987), 382.
  • 12Archbishop Lefebvre, They Have Uncrowned Him (Kansas City, MO: Angelus Press, 1988) in the chapter “A Pacifist Council”
  • 13Archbishop Lefebvre, They Have Uncrowned Him (Kansas City, MO: Angelus Press, 1988) in the chapter “A Pacifist Council”
  • 14Archbishop Lefebvre, They Have Uncrowned Him, (preface to the 1986 French edition)