Understanding the Second Vatican Council
Controversy and Contradiction
If we are going to take the Church seriously as an authority (and if we are not, then we are certainly wasting our time), then we must take the whole Church and not pick and choose certain parts as it pleases us. Now this seems easy in principle—but what happens when we come up against an apparent contradiction in the tradition itself? What happens if the Church seems to “change its mind” or becomes “a house divided against itself?” Does this not force us to choose between one part of the church against another, whether we have in mind sects or historical periods? Such a situation is difficult, but throughout this guide we will take the position that no such contradictions exist in actuality, allowing the reader to rest knowing that he is not faced with a conundrum of this magnitude.
Controversy has arisen in the history of the Church—we should not be surprised at this, for it is said that scandal must come—and these controversies demand explanation, especially since certain groups have used these moments of discord to divide the flock. The most recent controversy of this type is the debate surrounding the Second Vatican Council (“Vatican II”). Because of this controversy, any study of CST that tries to ignore the disagreements which followed Vatican II will doom its readers to confusion and frustration. We would not wish this trouble upon our readers, and so we will reconcile this debate without pausing on it any longer than is necessary. We will show that the division in question is only apparent, that the Tradition of the Church remains intact, and that the reader need not choose between the Church of Yesterday and the Church of Tomorrow, but can be at peace within the Church Eternal.
Admittedly the debates surrounding the Second Vatican Council have been the greatest threat to Catholic unity in the last century. Those who participate in the battle tend to take one of two positions which are, in our opinion, equally superficial: either Vatican II was an illegitimate compromise with the modernist heresy, and therefore all post-conciliar popes are “pretenders” and heretics themselves; or else the Council represents a “coming around” of the Church to modern ways, which it had until then been obstinately and wrongly opposed.
Both of these views share one thing, and that is a pessimistic attitude toward the Church as a competent authority. Both believe that Vatican II represents a departure from and a rejection of the previous teachings of the Church. They only differ on whether or not the change was good or bad.
Moreover, both positions foster division. The first view requires the believer to stand against the Church as he finds it today, while the second requires the believer to stand against the Church as it was for a thousand years prior. This is why, although we may find respectable persons on either side of this debate, we ought to have no respect at all for the debate itself. In what follows, we will attempt to guide the reader around this tangled mess so that he can avoid such an unnecessary snare.
The example of Dignitatis Humanae
When it comes to such convoluted disputes, it is helpful to isolate a single element in the controversy which epitomizes it; and then, by dissecting this error, we are able to reach an understanding of the nature of the problem in its entirety.
In my experience, the most debated item from the council is its Declaration on religious freedom, Dignitatis Humanae (Latin: “Of the Dignity of the Human Person”). Compared to the controversy it has sparked, it is a remarkably short document, as well as very limited in its scope (which should automatically suggest to us that it ought to be read in a certain way). The source of the contention hinges on whether or not it overturns the previous teachings on religious worship and, in particular, the relationship of the State with the religion.
For example, the declaration expressly forbids the State to coerce a citizen into the confession of a particular creed. At the same time it upholds the noble teaching that only the free conscience can make a true profession of faith. Citizens may not be compelled to adopt the faith under any circumstances. At a glance, this appears to be a change in attitude from the position previously held by the Church, which had always insisted on the public profession of Christ’s social kingship—particularly through the voice of Leo XIII.
We will return to the issue of Church and State at the appropriate point in our study, but for now it suffices to quote a section from Dignitatis Humanae which is all too often disregarded, but which points us in the direction of clarity as to the Council’s intent:
“Religious freedom…has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society. Therefore it leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.”
Now, taking what we already said regarding the relationship between Church and State, and if we also admit that Dignitatis Humanae does contain statements which would seem to contradict “traditional Catholic doctrine,” we must choose between three possible ways of handling the situation:
- We can ignore the quote above, take the apparent departure from tradition as a real departure from tradition, side with tradition, reject the document, the council, and all post-conciliar popes, and thereby separate ourselves from the Church as it exists today. This option corresponds with the so called “sedevacantists.”
- We can ignore the quote above, take the apparent departure from tradition as real departure from tradition, side against tradition, thereby separating ourselves from two-thousand years of Church teachings. This is the position of the liberal or “modernist” elements of the Church.
- We can take the quote above into full account, giving the Magisterium the benefit of the doubt which it deserves, assuming that it would not so blatantly contradict itself. We can then set ourselves to the task of reconciling the apparent contradiction between Dignitatis Humanae and the traditional understanding on religious liberty, such as the one taught by Leo XIII in Immortale Dei and Libertas. (Both of Leo XIII’s encyclicals, we might add, are cited in Dignitatis Humanae.) For example, we can assume that a State may be forbidden to coerce belief while at one and the same time being obligated to acknowledge Christ as King.
In this guide, we will adopt the third approach throughout this study. Any other way of going about things would make this project, and any other of its kind, a waste of effort. How exactly this reconciliation of an apparent contradiction must be handled will become clear in what follows.
 Mt 12:25
 Mt 18:7.
 This is the position of the “sedevacantists,” whose name derives from the Latin sede vacante which means “the seat is vacant.” The sedevacantists usually insist that the last legitimate pope was Pius XII, and that the seat has been vacant since his death in 1958.