An Italian Priest On How To Interpret Vatican II – Nicely Done!

[ Many of our readers are aware of the work of Don Pietro Leone (for instance, The Roman Rite: Old and New, on the Traditional Mass and the many problems of the new liturgy). Don Pietro Leone is the pen name of a priest who celebrates the traditional Mass in full and peaceful communion with his Ordinary somewhere in that great cradle of civilization known as Italy.

In this special essay, reflecting the personal position of the author and translated by our contributor Francesca Romana, the reverend Father tries to explain what is the best way to regard the Second Vatican Council, 50 years later and with the full knowledge of all its fruits and consequences, willed or unintentional. ]

The Vaticanum Secundum is characterized by a number of declarations lacking in clarity. An example is the statement: ‘The Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church’ (Lumen Gentium, 8). In this essay we shall present three criteria for understanding the Council as a whole in relation to this unclarity.

The criteria are as follows:

1) the accomplishment of the objective purpose of Vatican II as a Council;

2) the assistance of the Holy Spirit;

3) the ‘Hermeneutic of Continuity’.

I. The Accomplishment of the Purpose of the Council qua Council

The purpose of a Church Council is to exercise the Church’s munus docendi.

The Church has three munera or offices: the munus docendi, (the teaching office), the munus regendi (the office of government), and the munus sanctificandi (the office of sanctification).

The munus docendi, or teaching office, was entrusted to the Church by Our Lord Jesus Christ together with the Depositum Fidei, in order that she might teach the Faith, the content of the Faith, or, in other words, that she might teach Catholic doctrine.

The Church has the competence to teach this doctrine, she has no competence to teach any other doctrine. This doctrine is immutable; it is re-iterated over the ages as the same doctrine and in the same sense; it is always to be understood in the same manner (in eodem scilicet dogmate, eodem sensu, eademque sententia, Dei Filius, First Vatican Council, s.3 ch.4). The only change to which it is subject is the change in its expression, namely the increase in the depth and clarity of its expression over the ages.

Now, the Second Vatican Council did not declare Catholic doctrine in the same sense as it had been declared before, nor did it declare it with greater depth and clarity than before: rather it declared it in an obscure manner. In so doing it made an inadequate use of the Church’s munus docendi, and thereby failed in its purpose.

To illustrate this last paragraph let us return to the example given above: ‘The Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church’.

Now it is de Fide: it is an infallible doctrine of the Church, that is to say a dogma, that the Catholic Church was founded by Our Lord Jesus Christ and constitutes His Mystical Body.

As to the first fact, St. Pius X declares In the Antimodernist Oath (1910): ‘the Church was founded by the true and historical Christ Himself in the time of His earthly life, immediately and personally.’

As to the second fact, Pope Pius XII, repeating the doctrine he expressed in his encyclical Mystici Corporis (1943), declares in the encyclical Humani Generis (1950, § 27): ‘…the Mystical Body of Christ and the Roman Catholic Church are one and the same thing.’

From the fact that the Catholic Church was founded by Our Lord Jesus Christ and constitutes His Mystical Body it follows that the Church of Christ is identical to the Catholic Church.

What we now need to do is to compare the proposition: ‘The Church of Christ is identical with the Catholic Church’ with the proposition: ‘The Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church’. And we shall ask whether the latter is the same doctrine as the former; whether it has the same sense; whether it is understood in the same manner; and, if it is different in any way, whether this difference is simply a difference in expression, which consists in an increase in depth or clarity of that expression.

We must reply that it is not in a clearer way the same doctrine, it does not have the same sense, it cannot be understood in the same manner vi verborum. Rather it is different, and this difference does not represent a clearer and deeper expression of the former doctrine. In a word, it is obscure. Therefore, at least in this declaration, the Council has failed in its purpose.

Someone might object that other doctrines of the Council, which are Catholic in nature, are indeed expressed in the same sense as they were previously, so that we must conclude that the Council accomplished its purpose as a Council, if not in all its texts, then at least in some of them.

To this objection we must reply that if the body of the texts is vitiated in part, it is vitiated as a whole, according to the principle: bonum ex integra causa. This is particularly true where it is hard to distinguish that which is vitiated from that which is not, where we need experts to do so, experts with the requisite formation in theology and Church history. And where do we find such experts to-day?

Take the example of a consignment of buns, some of which contain food-poisoning. If some are bad, then the consignment as a whole is bad, especially if it is hard to distinguish which buns are good and which are bad.

II. The Assistance of the Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit may assist a Council in two manners: a positive and a negative manner. He assists a Council in a positive manner in helping the Church to accomplish the purpose of the Council qua Council: that is to say in expressing Catholic doctrine adequately: in the same way as, or with greater depth and clarity than, it was expressed in the past; He assists the Council in a negative manner in preserving the Church from heresy in its various declarations.

Now since the Council did not express Catholic doctrine adequately, we may conclude that the Holy Spirit did not assist it in a positive manner. Since, by contrast, no formal heresies have been discovered in the Council texts, we may conclude that the Holy Spirit did at least assist it in a negative manner.

III. The Hermeneutic of Continuity

Pope Benedict XVI stated that the Council texts should be read in the ‘Hermeneutic of Continuity’. Several remarks may be made about this.

1) The mere word ‘Hermeneutic’, when used of the Council texts, indicates that the Council has failed in its purpose in the way that we have outlined above, for if they need to be interpreted, then they are unclear. The same is true of the statement: ‘The Council must be understood in the light of Tradition’, for if it is in need of light, it is obscure, and therefore unclear by that token as well.

2) The phrase ‘Hermeneutic of Continuity’ is itself in need of a ‘hermeneutic’ because it too is unclear. Does it only mean that the texts must be understood in continuity with Traditional Catholic doctrine, or does it also mean that the texts already stand in continuity with that doctrine?

The former proposition is true, and is simply the application of the ‘remote rule of Faith’, which determines the meaning of any official Church declaration by its conformity with Tradition.

The latter proposition, by contrast, is untrue, inasmuch as many of the said texts, in addition to a Catholic sense, have a non-Catholic sense as well: in other words a sense which is at variance, which is not in continuity, with Traditional Catholic doctrine. This discontinuity is manifest historically in the act of force majeure by which the Preliminary Schemes containing traditional Catholic teaching were abrogated at the very outset of the Council. [Rorate note: Five of nine original Preliminary Schemes, with footnotes and commentary, have been made available in English translation by Fr.Komonchak, a priest in the Archdiocese of New York known for his more liberal positions. The original Vatican II schemata available in English are: On the Sources of Revelation, On Defending Intact the Deposit of Faith, On the Christian Moral Order, On Chastity, Marriage, the Family and Virginity, and the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.]

3) The phrase ‘Hermeneutic of Continuity’ suggests that the only problem with the Council texts is their unclarity: as though as an effect of the sublimity of their content, or the theological sophistication of their form. It suggests that this problem may be solved simply by interpreting the texts correctly in the light of Tradition; after which they may be accepted as orthodox without demure.

The truth, however, is that the texts are not simply unclear but, as we have just observed, ambiguous, and ambiguous between a Catholic and a non-Catholic sense; it is not enough, then, simply to interpret them, but rather to evaluate them, in the light of Tradition; and to accept their Catholic sense and reject their non-Catholic sense accordingly.

4) The ‘Hermeneutic of Continuity’ is offered as the definitive solution to the problem of the Council texts. As such it presents their problem as solely a linguistic one. This is however not the only problem with the texts, for there is another problem which is the deeper and underlying problem, the source of the linguistic one, and that is a problem of a moral nature.

We have noted that the texts are ambiguous between a Catholic and a non-Catholic sense. We should add that the non-Catholic sense is the prima facie sense of the texts, and is the sense, moreover, that was intended by their authors. The texts are in fact the work of the Conciliar ‘periti ’, a number of whom had already been censured for heterodoxy prior to the Council; together they constitute a body of doctrines condemned by various of the previous Popes under the name of ‘Modernism’, a body of doctrines, furthermore, which was to cause untold damage to the Church in the years succeeding the Council.

Let us look again at the declaration: ‘The Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church’. The prima facie sense of these words is that the Church of Christ is not identical with the Catholic Church, (otherwise why not say so?), but this sense is non-Catholic.

5) There is a certain continuity between Tradition and the Council, that is to say between Tradition and the Catholic sense of the ambiguous doctrines; whereas there is discontinuity between Tradition and the Council in their non-Catholic sense. But because the latter sense is, as we have just noted, the prima facie sense of these, and of many of its, doctrines; because it corresponds to the deliberate intention of its authors; and because it is in this sense that the Council as a whole has been both understood and implemented, we must conclude that what is more remarkable in the Council is its discontinuity with Tradition, rather than its continuity.

6) The promotion of the ‘Hermeneutic of Continuity’ corresponds to the ‘pacifist’ approach to Modernism typical of the neo-conservatists: Ecumenism is good; the New Mass is good if it is celebrated with dignity; the Council is good, or some bizarre action or statement of a modern Pope is good, once we know how to interpret it.

The pacifist approach is, however, mistaken, because it places peace with others or peace of mind, above Truth: it gives precedence to the Order of Good over the Order of the True. Furthermore, in relegating Truth to second place, it is both unrealistic and irresponsible.

To illustrate this approach to the Council, and at the same time to contrast it with the Modernist and the Traditionalist approaches, let us return to the example given at the beginning of the present essay.

Imagine that the Rector of a seminary with 100 students decides to switch from a relatively expensive, old-fashioned bakery at some distance from the seminary to a cheaper, modern one in easier reach, and then discovers that out of the 100 buns which it delivers every day, approximately 71 regularly contain food-poisoning. What is he to do?

a) Continue feeding the seminarians contaminated goods for 50 years despite their illnesses and perhaps even death, as if there were nothing wrong with the buns, and indeed speaking euphorically of a ‘Golden Age of the Bun’ the while? or issuing some bland, conciliatory statement such as ‘The Church has a high regard for all types of bun, without discrimination. All types of bun are white, edible, and the fruit of human endeavour. With these she seeks to satisfy the inner needs of man.’

b) Continue feeding them these goods while eulogizing the 29 buns which are uncontaminated? – ‘So light! so white! so fluffy! and not poisonous either!’

c) Or as soon as he has realized his mistake, reveal the truth to all concerned and return to the old bakery, even if it requires courage to do so and sacrifices for every-one?

Such then are the various ways of evaluating the Second Vatican Council on the part of the Modernists, the Pacifists, and the Traditionalists respectively.


The purpose of a Church Council is to declare the Faith in a way which can change over time only by increasing in depth and clarity. Vatican II did not do so, and thereby failed in its purpose.

For this reason we cannot claim that it enjoyed the positive assistance of the Holy Spirit but only a negative assistance, in preserving the declarations of the Council from formal heresy.

The obscure texts are ambiguous between a non-Catholic sense which is primary, and a Catholic sense which is secondary. In the primary sense they represent a rupture with Tradition and the Faith, whereas in the secondary sense they represent a line of continuity with Tradition and the Faith.

The purpose of a Church Council is to exercise the Church’s munus docendi: to teach the Faith, but the Council in question is obscure. For this reason it cannot be used for teaching the faithful or seminarians, but must be set aside: an unreliable teacher must be dismissed from service.

It has the status of an incoherent body of doctrines, a mixture of Catholic and non-Catholic elements, like the output of some obscure medieval mystic: male sonans and offensivum piis auribus. If the Church desires to draw some benefit out of this body, she must consign it to such experts as are competent to evaluate it, as we have said above.

But this is not the priority. The priority is that faithful and seminarians come to know the Truth, to practice it, and so to save their souls and those of the others entrusted to their care. To this end they must have recourse to a more reliable teacher, namely that incontestable authority to which the Pope submitted the Council texts themselves: the Church’s Tradition.

As for the Council, we may treat it in the way in which it treated Tradition: with silence. And we shall call this silence the ‘Hermeneutic of Forgetfulness’.

Labels: The Church of Vatican II, Vatican II at 50

Posted by New Catholic at 3/10/2014 03:18:00 PM

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One comment on “An Italian Priest On How To Interpret Vatican II – Nicely Done!

  1. Well said. Sometime within the next two decades (if the world has that long), what’s left of the Church will have to take a deep breath and candidly admit that this Frankenstein Council must fade and be forgotten before the Church can ever heal.

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