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A Syllabus of the Errors of Vatican II?

A Response to Bishop Athanasius Schneider’s

Proposals for a Correct Reading of the Second Vatican Council

David Werling POSTED: 1/25/11
A complete translation of Proposals for a Correct Reading of the Second Vatican Council, by Bishop Athanasius Schneider, has just been posted by EWTN, and it has instantly become a talking point among Catholic bloggers on the internet. Bishop Schneider’s address was given at Conference hosted by the Franciscans of the Immaculata, in Rome on December 17, 2010. Most provocative is Bishop Schneider’s call for a new “Syllabus of Errors concerning the interpretation of the Second Vatican Council”

Much of what Bishop Schneider said will appeal to both neo-conservatives and many traditionalists. His apparent embrace of the texts of Vatican II and his “hermeneutic of continuity” interpretation is sure to appeal to neo-conservatives, and his conclusion regarding a need for clarification and a “completing” of the texts of Vatican II is sure to appeal to many traditional Catholics as well. For this reason there seems to be, as yet, no significant attempts on the part of traditionalists to critically evaluate his address. While Bishop Schneider’s ideology and chosen interpretation of the texts of Vatican II are admirable, there are still many elements in his address that serve to highlight the on-going confusion that has been caused by the unique nature of the watershed ecumenical council—Vatican II.

The uniqueness of the Second Vatican Council lies in the fact that it was styled by the pontiffs at the time, and by the Fathers of the Council, as a “pastoral” ecumenical council, that claimed to formulate no new dogmas, that did not teach infallibly, and did not intend to condemn errors. Bishop Schneider attempts to unpack what a “pastoral” council is by explicating a pastoral theology in line with traditional Catholic teaching, while at the same attempting to draw this pastoral theology from the documents of the Second Vatican Council. His apparent intent is to protect the integrity of Vatican II, while at the same constructing an interpretation that explains and clarifies the ambiguity of the Council’s documents.

Bishop Schneider, because he is at a conference specifically geared toward liturgy, draws primarily from Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy from the Second Vatican Council. However, it is from outside Sacrosanctum Concilium that Bishop Schneider must draw his foundational principle of pastoral theology, which is, to put it succinctly, the salvation of souls in Jesus Christ. Bishop Schneider uses as his proof texts the Nicene Creed, Canon Law, and Scripture. Once he lays this foundation, he then quotes Sacrosanctum Concilium.

Bishop Schneider presents in his address a foundational principle of pastoral theology, but in doing so simply adds what is missing from the Sacrosanctum Concilium: an explicit mention of the salvation of souls. This is an admirable attempt, to be sure. However, it is impossible to get around the fact that Bishop Schneider’s “theological foundation of pastoral theology”, which is true in and of itself, is still, at the end of the day, conspicuous by its absence from the VCII document itself. Here is the quote from Sacrosanctum Concilium:

The liturgy is the summit toward which the action of the Church tends, and, at the same time, the fountain from which all her energy flows.  Apostolic work, in fact, is ordered so that all who have become sons of God by means of faith and baptism may join in assembly, praise God in the Church, and take part in the sacrifice and at the table of the Lord. (para 10)

The term “Apostolic work” in Sacrosanctum Concilium is not explicitly linked to the salvation of souls in the text itself. Bishop Schneider presents a sound interpretation, but only by providing a truth this is not contained in the actual text of Sacrosanctum Concilium.  While the document could be defended by contending the truth provided by Schneider is assumed by the text, it must be admitted the absence of an explicit mention of the salvation of souls in Jesus Christ renders the text ambiguous and incomplete. Unfortunately, other interpretations do exist, and traditionalists have criticized them. However, traditionalists have also criticized, perhaps more roundly, the documents themselves, whose ambiguity and lack of clarity have led to various false interpretations.

What we can surmise from this ambiguity in Sacrosanctum Concilium is a clear indication of the influence brought to bear by the 20th Century Liturgical Movement.  As Fr. Didier Bonneterre wrote in The Liturgical Movement:

However, one must no delude oneself, the ‘apostolic’ character of the liturgy which Dom Beauduin ‘tended’ to over-emphasize was to become more and more pervasive. And that was to be the great temptation of the movement: to make the liturgy a means of apostolate. The crux of the matter is there. As we shall see, it was through being unable to withstand this temptation that this magnificent work broke down and brought with it nearly the entire fabric of the Church. (17)

Sacrosanctum Concilium simply reflects the early radicalizing tendencies of men like Dom Lambert Beauduin and Fr. Romano Guardini, who used the new interest in liturgical piety to advance agendas that were removed from Dom Prosper Guéranger’s sound principle that the Church’s liturgies are fundamentally our means of sanctification. These agendas, as can be seen when the 20th Century liturgical movement evolves from the 1930s to culminate in our present crisis, are ultimately opposed to the faith, and their influence on the modern Church has been devastating. It remains to be seen, though, if and to what degree the texts of Vatican II advanced the heterodox agendas of the 20th Century liturgical movement. It would appear that Bishop Schneider is intent on avoiding any such connection in an effort to protect the integrity of the Vatican II texts.

Bishop Schneider is, however, aware of the confusion of interpretations, and proposes that we turn to the documents of Vatican II to formulate a pastoral theology that will provide a definitive interpretation. This explication of a pastoral theology takes up the majority of Bishop Schneider’s address. He once again draws from Sacrosanctum Concilium, paragraph 9, to provide an outline for seven essential characteristics of pastoral theory and practice.

The seven essentials of pastoral theology, as explicated by the Sacrosanctum Concilium, paragraph 9, are: (1) is the duty to proclaim the Gospel to all non-believers; (2) the duty of proclaiming the faith to the faithful; (3) the duty of preaching repentance to the faithful; (4) the duty to prepare the faithful for the sacraments; (5) the duty to teach the faithful all the commandments of God; (6) the duty of promoting the apostolate of the lay faithful; and (7) the duty of promoting the vocation of all to holiness. These essentials are culminated in Pope John XXIII’s explanation of the purpose of the Second Vatican Council: “To make ever more known to men of our time the Gospel of Christ, that it be practiced willingly and that it penetrate deeply into every aspect of society.”

As an explication of pastoral theology, there’s nothing wrong with what Bishop Schneider proposes, nor can I imagine any traditional Catholic taking exception. But what does this have to do with the nature of the Second Vatican Council and the worth of its documents? Bishop Schneider does not explain. He seems to be saying that since there are good things in the Council documents, they must be regarded as perfectly acceptable. That, of course, doesn’t follow.

Allow me to clarify. It is important to note that it is very true that the perennial teachings of the Church are stated frequently in the documents of the Second Vatican Council. This isn’t the problem. The problem is in clarity and completeness. Take, for example, this statement from Sacrosanctum Concilium: “Pastors of souls must, therefore, realize that, when the liturgy is celebrated, something more is required than the laws governing valid and lawful celebration” (11). I’ve used this passage to explain to a friend of mine that not all Masses are equal; that there is more to the Mass than validity and law. However, while it is true that this quote from Sacrosanctum Concilium can be used by the traditionalist to promote the traditional Latin Mass and its aesthetic qualities, it can also be used for other purposes that are less than traditional.  The reason is that this “something more” isn’t explained. This is the kind of imprecision that plagues of the texts of Vatican II, and most especially Sacrosanctum Concilium.

It is here that we approach the crux of the crisis, and we begin to see the internal contradiction in Bishop Schneider’s address. Even though the authentic teaching of the Church is frequently mentioned in the course of the Council’s documents, the unique nature of the Second Vatican Council—a Council with no definitions or condemnations, lacking technical and scholastic terminology, and intentionally geared toward non-Catholics—has hampered the advancement of those same authentic teachings. What Bishop Schneider seems to be struggling with is this: How can this ambiguity be explained, and how can it be explained in such a way that protects the integrity of the Council’s documents?

Bishop Schneider proposes two means by which to formulate an interpretation that explains this imprecision and protects the integrity of the texts: the documents read as a whole and the judgment of the Magisterium.

Bishop Schneider agrees that there are ambiguous statements in the Council documents that were, and continue to be, interpreted in ways contrary to the faith, but a complete reading of all the documents dispels these interpretations. However, that simply is not the case. Bishop Schneider goes to extreme lengths to provide quotations from the Council documents that counter the notion of “anonymous Christianity”.  He presents quotes from Lumen Gentium and Dignitatis humanae, as well as addresses given by Pope John Paul VI. However, he seems to ignore the fact that those who argue for anonymous Christianity turn to the same documents of Vatican II to support their own position, such as Ad Gentes, paragraph 115, Nostra Aetate, paragraph 2, and Lumen Gentium paragraph 8 (though subsequently clarified by the CDF).  All of these texts have been used as proof texts to promote the very same anonymous Christianity and other forms of indifferentism.

What Bishop Schneider demonstrates in his address is that much in the Vatican II documents can be interpreted in an orthodox and traditional manner. While this is very true, it does not remove the fact that the other portions of the documents can be interpreted with equal ease in a heterodox and Modernist manner. Indeed, in order to explain a sound pastoral theology, Bishop Schneider had to preface a passage from Sacrosanctum Consilium with a truth of the faith not actually mentioned in the same document. This, then, renders an orthodox interpretation.  However, if one were to preface the same text with an error, such as, for example, “the foundational principle of pastoral theology is that all religions are more or less the same“, the resulting interpretation of the exact same text turns out very differently. Why should the faithful be left to preface the texts? Must we exhaustively cross-reference the texts of Vatican II to come to a proper interpretation of any given part? It seems to me that, if this is the case, we have been handed both a stone and a snake.

The second means that Bishop Schneider turns to solve his dilemma is the Magisterium of the Church. Bishop Schneider posits that the only proper and orthodox interpretation of Vatican II is provided by the documents themselves (which, as has been demonstrated, is not an effective method), and by the authentic Magisterium of the Church. It is at this point that we reach Bishop Schneider’s call for a magisterial document to clarify and complete the documents of Vatican II. This is a rather crucial portion of the bishop’s address and bears a more thorough examination.

Bishop Schneider said,

In the decades past there have existed, and exist to this day, groupings with the Church that commit an enormous abuse of the pastoral character of the Council, and of its texts, written according to that pastoral intention, since the Council did not wish to present its own definitive or irreformable teachings. From the pastoral nature of the Council’s texts it is evident that its texts are, on principle, open to further completion and to greater doctrinal clarification.

It is unclear why Bishop Schneider concludes that the pastoral nature of the Council legitimizes a lack of completion and a lack of definitive or irreformable teachings. It is difficult to see how this nature of the Council fits into Bishop Schneider’s explication of the seven essentials of pastoral theology. It would appear, therefore, that Bishop Schneider simply asks us to accept as a reality that a pastoral Council is, by nature, marked by a lack of clarity and definitiveness, even though there is no explanation why this should be the case. This seems more like an attempt to rationalize a fundamental weakness and limitation of this council. How is stating that the texts of the Second Vatican Council are “open to further completion and to greater doctrinal clarification” different from stating that the texts of the Council are ambiguous and incomplete?

Bishop Schneider continued:

Taking account of the experience of several decades since then, of interpretations doctrinally and pastorally confused, and contrary to the continuity, over two millennia, of doctrine and prayer of the faith, the necessity and the urgency rise for a specific and authoritative intervention by the pontifical Magisterium for an authentic interpretation of the conciliar texts with completions and doctrinal clarifications: a type of “Syllabus errorum circa interpretationem Concilii Vaticani II.” There is need for a new Syllabus, this time directed not so much against errors coming from outside the Church, but against errors spread within the Church on the part of those who maintain a thesis of discontinuity and rupture with its doctrinal, liturgical, and pastoral application. Such a Syllabus would consist of two parts: a part marking errors and a positive part with propositions of doctrinal clarification, completion, and precision.

What Bishop Schneider recommends is exactly what traditional Catholics have been asking for since the close of the Second Vatican Council: an end to the Second Vatican Council! This may not be what Bishop Schneider intended to convey but it is the reasonable consequence of his argument.

Allow me to explain. What Bishop Schneider is calling for is not the same as past syllabi, especially the famous Syllabus of Errors by Pope Pius IX. The Syllabus of Errors by Pope Pius IX was not intended to complete prior Church teachings. Rather, it intended to make clear that current notions were, indeed, at odds with perennial Church teachings. What Bishop Schneider is calling for here is a list of errors, and then a doctrinal clarification and (please note well His Excellency’s own words) a “completion”. This Magisterial document wouldn’t just explicate the errors of current notions or opinions; it would complete and give precision to the Vatican II texts. This document, wouldn’t, therefore, be a clarification at all. It would, practically speaking, abrogate the prior texts.

Why would anyone consult the texts of the Second Vatican Council when one would more easily consult texts that are doctrinally complete and precise? Ironically enough, Bishop Schneider’s admission regarding the documents of the Second Vatican Council is why traditional Catholics “reject” the same. Traditional Catholics consult prior magisterial teachings, rather than the documents of Vatican II, when attempting to understand and explain what the Church teaches.  Why?  Because, as Bishop Schneider states quite clearly and eloquently, the texts of Vatican II are incomplete, imprecise, and lack doctrinal clarity. Why use or consult the texts of the Vatican II if they are incomplete, imprecise, and lack doctrinal clarity? If that constitutes a rejection of Vatican II, then Bishop Schneider’s suggestion for a new magisterial document is an equal rejection of Vatican II.

For this reason, Bishop Schneider’s discourse concerning “some traditionalists” who “reject the Council” falls flat. It’s hard to accept a criticism of a group of people for rejecting the Council from someone who has just admitted that the Vatican II documents are incomplete, imprecise and lack doctrinal clarity, and, what’s more, goes on to suggest a new magisterial document that, practically speaking, would abrogate the texts of Vatican II. In fact, if the present magisterium of the Church were to issue such a document (or documents), it is reasonable to conclude that all but the most stubborn and radical traditionalist that currently avoids “submission to the supreme living Magisterium of the Church… submitting for now only to the invisible Head of the Church, waiting for better times” would gladly submit, because, well, those “better times” would have indeed come.

In a nutshell, there’s no way to explain and clarify the ambiguities contained in the Vatican II texts while at the same time maintaining their integrity as magisterial documents. Magisterial documents throughout the history of the Church have done the exact opposite of what the Vatican II documents have done. The confusion of interpretations, to use Bishop Schneider’s own words, that has resulted in the wake of Vatican II demonstrates the internal contradiction of Bishop Schneider’s thesis that the incompleteness and lack of doctrinal clarity can be recognized while at the same time recognizing the integrity of these texts as magisterial documents. Catholics cannot ignore the real, and quite reasonable, possibility that these documents, especially Sacroscanctum Concilium, were drafted to be intentionally ambiguous in order to promote an agenda at odds with the Tradition. There were time bombs left that were later detonated. The evidence for this unfortunate reality is all too abundantly clear as one surveys the landscape of the modern Church.

It certainly is nice to hear a prelate in the Church voice this desire for the “better times” for which we all pray.  However, given the current state of the Church’s leadership, we probably have a long way to go before Bishop Schneider’s proposal becomes a reality, but that is no reason to give up hope. Things are changing. Despite the fact that churchmen are still searching for a definitive interpretation of Vatican II, traditional Catholic communities are flourishing. These enclaves, where the business of salvation is being carried on by Our Blessed Lord, are having a sometimes underestimated, but powerfully positive, influence on the Church.

So while our Church leaders try to salvage the wreck of Vatican II, more and more of them will—as they attempt in vain to forge a “traditional interpretation”—eventually come to understand what Archbishop Lefebvre explained about these documents in his book A Bishop Speaks:  They are “a mass of ambiguities, vagueness and sentimentality, things which now clearly admit all interpretations and have left all doors open” (110).

The more these sincere churchmen honestly endeavor, the closer we will come to those “better times”.  For this reason, traditional Catholics need to join their voices with that of Bishop Schneider’s in a renewed call for a document or documents that will clarify and complete the texts of Vatican II, not so much to formulate a definitive interpretation, but to put, once and for all, the Vatican II experience behind us and get back to the business of the Church militant: The salvation of souls.

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