At Teresa’s suggestive prodding, I have been following ongoing series of excellent blog posts (here, here, here, and here, so far) on Vatican II at Biltrix with the aim of airing my own views on so broad a topic. Biltrix sets the tone in a very familiar way: “There are two sides to every story”. The story of the Church that he grew up in was the story of a Church divided between the “hippies” on one side – “Kumbaya bands singing ‘Sound of Silence’ and ‘Blowing In the Wind’ (offertory hymns)” who saw Vatican II as an opportunity and excuse to throw out just about everything distinctively Catholic in Catholicism in the name of the “Spirit of Vatican II” – and the reactionaries on the other those who the see Second Vatican Council and everything that has happened to the Church in its wake as one long unmitigated disaster from top to bottom.
Early in the history of this blog I found myself in an email discussion with a writer whose work was, in fact, this blog’s single most important source of inspiration – a writer who had, since producing his inspiring body of work, fallen into the error of sedevacantism. It was a very emotionally gruelling discussion which my Catholic faith almost did not survive. Since that time both Teresa and I have confronted and been challenged by liberal “Spirit-of-Vatican-II” Catholics here and elsewhere. So we know what it is like to be caught between two camps of extremists and not quite feeling at home with either one of them.
Biltrix has it right – it is best to look at Vatican II on its own terms instead of filtering it through the lens of one of these divisions, and that is best done by reading the actual documents of the Council. That’s a large task, enough to keep most of us pretty busy for quite a while. I like to be helpful when I can by offering suggested rules of thumb that help re-size large tasks into something smaller and more manageable (I did so in my Dangerous Naivete post). When trying to get a handle on Vatican II, keep the following in mind.
1. Vatican II did not change any teaching of the Catholic Church. It did not “reform” any doctrines. It did not jettison anything that the Church had, in Her past, defined as infallible. Everything in the creeds, everything that the Church has taught since the time of the Apostles and the Fathers, She still teaches, even embarrassing stuff that directly challenges your modern sensibilities about man’s origin and place in the universe and everyone being equally justified before God and equally saved no matter what religion they happen to have been raised with. Vatican II changed nothing substantial in regard to those things.
2. The vagueness of some of the language of the documents of Vatican II does not justify the rejection of teaching already expressed and taught by the Church very specifically and concretely. It’s the other way around – the concrete statements of Vatican I and Trent and the prior Councils nail down what would otherwise be unacceptably ambiguous language of the Second Vatican Council Fathers. Vatican II is not the light in which you read the rest of Church teaching (which is code for the fashionable liberal modernist excuse for rejecting anything one wishes from prior to Vatican II which Vatican II did not explicitly re-affirm). It is the other way around. All newer formulations are explications which are always read in the way that brings them into conformity with what has already been established in tradition. So if you have trouble with nailing down exactly what the Council Fathers are saying with regard to, say, the inerrancy of scripture, that is not license for you to read the text in a way that minimizes scriptural inerrancy, narrowing it exclusively to content that bears directly on moral or spiritual matters or salvation issues. That exegetical methodology was already condemned infallibly by the Popes and previous Councils. Vatican II does nothing whatsoever to reject or change that. If it did, it would be an outlaw council, and we would have to reject it in toto. Either way, the old teachings still stands.
3. The pre-voting debates are not an interpretive key of the final documents, no matter what some progressive fool tells you. The content of the pre-voting debates of the Council Fathers cannot be used to interpret ambiguous passages in the Vatican II documents as a way to justify the rejection pre-Vatican II Church tradition. The presence of opinions in those debates that would have been condemned without hesitation by the Tridentine Fathers does not entail that the final documents as published should be read as expressing those opinions. If there is ambiguity in a statement that would allow it to be read as either in conformity with previous teaching or as inconsistent with it but in line with material heresy, you are not permitted to understand it as inconsistent with previous teaching. The Church rejects the hermeneutic of rupture. I have corresponded with people who insist that certain passages of the text of the Council documents that can be interpreted in more than one way must be interpreted the way they prefer because of something that was argued during the pre-voting debates but never made it into the final text except as an influence that rendered a strong affirmation of traditional teaching into a weaker one. My position is – there is a reason that such argument never shows up as an affirmations of their own in the final documents: the Holy Spirit prevented it. So if an argument in the debates conflicts with Pre-Vatican II Church teaching, that alone proves that the text of the documents of Vatican II does not support the argument.
4. The Conciliar documents allude everywhere to the rest of the body of Church teaching. Make use of the end notes. Check the sources of the quotes used and read them in context. The internet makes this easy – you can find several versions of the Bible, the documents of the other councils, papal bulls and encyclicals, creeds, the works of the Church Fathers, all available free online. (Have the Catechism handy as well) Checking sources admittedly can slow you down, but don’t worry, you aren’t in a race. This is worth taking your time on and doing it right, even if it takes years, and you will be growing in your faith the whole time. Every passage you contemplate, every quote you chase down and read in the original source, will enrich your spirit and bring you closer to the Lord.
5. I saved the most important for last: Lectio Divina. Read the documents prayerfully. Pray before you sit down to read them. Pray after you close the book/ebook/browser window. Pray throughout the time that you are reading, practicing the presence of God, asking the Holy Spirit to help you to mine this spiritual treasure.