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Why Not the Univocal?

A Response to Fr. Cavalcoli in the Ongoing Debate

Regarding Vatican II and the Traditionalist Critique

David Werling POSTED: 5/23/11

The Debate Thus Far:

Francesco Arzillo’s essay On Continuity

David Werling’s Remnant Response

Fr. Giovanni Cavalcoli’s Defense of Francesco Arzillo

I would like to thank Fr. Giovanni Cavalcoli for the clarifications he provided concerning Francesco Arzillo’s arguments. I would also like to thank Fr. Cavalcoli for taking the time to seriously consider the traditionalist critique. This is an important development that would have seemed incredible just a few years ago. When I was a seminarian back in the late eighties few would have thought the traditionalist critique should be taken seriously by respected theologians, the lay faithful and members of the modern Magisterium. Yet, here we are today seriously discussing what would have been considered back then as nothing short of radical traditionalism. So, whether or not one agrees with the new hermeneutic of continuity proposed by the Holy Father, we can thank him, sincerely, for initiating renewed respect and interest in the traditionalist critique of the Second Vatican Council and the crisis in the modern Church.

There remain, however, certain points of contention concerning Fr. Cavalcoli’s position that require further clarification and debate. This is particularly the case in regard to the dichotomy presented between “analogy” and “univocality”, and the consequences of a lack of the univocal in the pronouncements of the modern Magisterium, and specifically in the documents of the Second Vatican Council.  

As I understand the clarification, the heart of Arzillo’s and Cavalcoli’s argument is their claim that the traditionalist treats all doctrine as a kind of Catholic version of the Cartesian “Cogito ergo sum”, treating of doctrine as the clear and distinct ideas, which are unchangeable, from which all theological inquiry proceeds by rigid logical abstraction, with mathematical precision, to necessary, inescapable and univocal conclusions. While Arzillo makes an allowance for dogma to be definitive and unchangeable, other teachings of the Ordinary Magisterium need be treated analogously rather than univocally. The traditionalist position is flawed because it insists on treating non-definitive teachings of the Magisterium as though they should be univocal.

Let’s unpack this criticism of the critics. First, the explanation suggests that “analogy” is at odds with “univocality”, as though the two were mutually exclusive. Fr. Cavalcoli does not define “univocality”, but I’m assuming that he is referring to statements or propositions that can be said to be univocal. A univocal statement or proposition is, simply, a proposition or statement that is unambiguous and unmistakable. Its meaning is clearly evident. Analogy is a similarity between two like things from which conclusions can be drawn from a comparison.

Cavalcoli gives the impression that René Descartes embraced univocal propositions, while Aristotle avoided them in favor of the analogous. This is a false impression. While it is true that Descartes’ “Cogito ergo sum” is an univocal proposition, it is just as true that Aristotle’s proposition, “just action is possible between people who share in things intrinsically good, and who can have an excess and a deficiency of them”, is just as univocal as given in book five, chapter nine, of the Nicomachean Ethics. Certainly I don’t have to remind Fr. Cavalcoli that St. Thomas Aquinas’s statement, “et hoc dicimus Deum”, is as univocal a statement as one can find.

An Aristotelian approach does not avoid the univocal, as is evident from just a cursory reading of either Aristotle’s Physics or his Nicomachean Ethics.  Likewise, St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica is rather stacked full of univocal propositions, statements and conclusions. If univocal propositions are propositions that are unambiguous, clear and precise, then the Aristotelian certainly doesn’t shy away from them, nor does he avoid making necessary distinctions that are clear and precise. On the contrary, the whole Aristotelian corpus is an attempt to achieve, with precision and clarity, univocal conclusions about reality. If St. Thomas did not write his Summa to elucidate, to make clear and unambiguous, the truths of the Catholic religion, then what did he write it for?

Furthermore, analogy can lead to univocal conclusions. An obvious example that springs to mind is St. Thomas Aquinas’ fourth proof for the existence of God, which demonstrates by analogy that “more and less” are predicated to different things. He concludes, univocally, “that there must also be something which is to all beings the cause of their being, goodness, and every other perfection; and this we call God” (ST I, Q2, Art 3). Thus, it is clearly evident (pun intended) that analogy and univocal propositions are not mutually exclusive.

The difference between the Aristotelian approach and the Cartesian approach to philosophical inquiry is not distinguished by an “over dependence” on the univocal proposition, in either the Cartesian or the Aristotelian methodology. The univocal proposition has a useful place, even an exalted place, in both.  Rather, the difference between the two methods of inquiry is that while the Aristotelian method strives to achieve univocal propositions that correspond to reality by the exercise of reasoned inquiry, the Cartesian method attempts to use the univocal proposition, a clear and distinct idea, the veracity of which is accepted solely on the basis of not being subject to speculation, as the necessary starting point of all inquiry.

However, we are here at the level of inquiry, and the Church’s Magisterium, while certainly utilizing both philosophical and theological inquiry, does not endeavor primarily in either one. The Church’s Magisterium teaches, it elucidates, it makes clear; in short, its business is the making of univocal statements. Obviously, the Magisterium can utilize analogy or any other methodology to arrive at the univocal statements, but it does not change the fact that the Church’s Magisterium isn’t some sort of collective theologian delving into matters of speculative theology.

Fr. Cavalcoli suggests that the traditionalist, who eschews analogical thought because of an over dependence on the univocality, is unable to understand how Catholic doctrine has developed, progressed, explicated and clarified itself.  Fr. Cavalcoli mentions Blessed John Henry Newman, but fails to explain the essential points of Newman’s theory of the development of doctrine.  Allow me to highlight two of the essential points of Newman’s argument for the development of doctrine.

Newman held that the human mind is such that an idea, which is necessarily attendant to both the heart and mind, requires time and polity to accommodate full comprehension. Before he was elected pontiff, Pope Benedict XVI once summed this up by stating, “the individual knows little, but together we know all that is necessary” (from the short treatise, To Look on Christ). Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger was drawing upon this notion of polity and time. The nobler the idea, the more time and polity are naturally required.

The deposit of Christian faith is the most noble, most perfect “idea” presented to the human mind and heart, and thus requires the most time and polity for the human mind to fully comprehend given aspects of it. However, the deposit of faith remains, in and of itself, unchanged. What changes is man’s mental relationship to it. Man comes to know it more clearly.  Blessed John Henry Newman uses the term “full elucidation” to explain the process of the development of doctrine (Introduction, n. 21*). Thus, we can conclude that authentic development moves in a definite direction, from less-clear to more-clear to fully-clear, or, dare we say, toward the univocal!

Secondly, this “full elucidation” is dependent not just on polity, but also upon a “warrant”. “Certainly a warrant is necessary; and just such a warrant is the authority of the Church” (chapter 4, n. 10). Newman wrote:

Reasons shall be given in this Section for concluding that, in proportion to the probability of true developments of doctrine and practice in the Divine Scheme, so is the probability also of the appointment in that scheme of an external authority to decide upon them, thereby separating them from the mass of mere human speculation, extravagance, corruption, and error, in and out of which they grow. This is the doctrine of the infallibility of the Church; for by infallibility I suppose is meant the power of deciding whether this, that, and a third, and any number of theological or ethical statements are true. (Chapter 2, n. 4)

In Newman’s schema, it is not the place of the Church’s Magisterium to indulge in speculation, but rather to render judgment, to separate speculation, corruption and error from what authentically belongs to the deposit of faith. The Magisterium is the warrant, the guarantee, if you will, that the development of doctrine moves from the less-clear, to the more-clear, to the fully-clear.  As St. John Vianney stated in one of his sermons for the Fourth Sunday after Easter, “in the ever-clearer definition of the truth consists the progress of Christianity.”

If this is the role of the Magisterium in the development of doctrine, how then do we account for the Magisterium proposing for belief pronouncements that are unclear, imprecise and ambiguous? If we compare, or use analogical thinking, to evaluate the admitted imprecision and ambiguity of the Second Vatican Council with the development of doctrine as presented by Blessed John Henry Newman, we are presented with a clear departure from what has always been understood as authentic development of doctrine. Indeed, the ambiguity and imprecision of the documents of Vatican II present an obvious dissimilarity, and this dissimilarity neither Arzillo nor Cavalcoli have explained adequately. The traditionalist critique cannot be dismissed until this dissimilarity is explained.

Fr. Cavalcoli seems concerned that the traditionalist critique states or implies that the Second Vatican Council has taught “something that is false or contrary to what the Church taught before.” This isn’t the case. Traditionalists aren’t accusing an Ecumenical Council of teaching error, but, rather, teaching in a manner that is unclear and, as a consequence, creates the appearance of contrariety.

This position does not negate or bemoan the possibility of disciplinary change in response to historical circumstances. To use the example provided by Fr. Cavalcoli, the medieval practice of ocular confession to only one’s pastor is no longer the discipline of the Church. However, both then and now, competent authority has conveyed the discipline in such a way that those living then knew they could only confess their sins to their pastor, and those living now know clearly that they can confess their sins to any priest in good standing. There is no confusion on the matter not because of a process of analogical interpretation that juxtaposes the medieval practice with today’s practice, but because the Magisterium has clearly taught that this discipline has changed. This, clear teaching from the Magisterium indicating that former discipline has changed, is exactly what is lacking in the documents of the Second Vatican Council.

This lack of clarity is present, not just in matters of discipline, but also in matters pertaining to doctrine. Fr. Cavalcoli states as much when he admits the texts of the Council are, indeed, obscure. This obscurity is coupled by a manner of presentation that gives the impression that what has been already defined, even dogmatically, is now open to further speculation. If this were not the case, then there would not have been the emergence of a “hermeneutic of rupture” in the first place.

It was gracious of Fr. Cavalcoli to admit that the imprecise and unclear language of the documents lends itself to contrary interpretations, “even of the modernistic kind”. However, what we would like to see from the Hermeneutic of Continuity Crowd is a serious consideration of the fact that the very documents of the Council themselves, because they contain obscure and imprecise language, are an unwelcome anomaly in the history of the Church’s Magisterium.

Of course, the faithful can take Fr. Cavalcoli’s advice. The faithful can consult the Catechism of the Catholic Church, but it also contains problematic passages. The faithful can wait for the Magisterium to make doctrinal condemnations, which come about once every twenty years or so. In the case of Bishop William Morris it took the Vatican over a decade to finally clarify a number of troublesome doctrinal and disciplinary aberrations on the part of the Australian bishop. The faithful can wait for any number of clarifications from the Vatican regarding the documents; for example, it only took forty years to see a clarification of “subsistit in”. At the rate modernist and liberal positions are condemned and troublesome aspects of the documents are clarified, we should have all the obscurities contained in the Vatican II documents cleared up in… say… three centuries?

I don’t mean to be facetious. These options aren’t exactly an acceptable answer to the imposition that has been placed on the faithful, here and now living out their vocations in the trenches of the spiritual combat. The lack of clarity has caused a serious upheaval in the Church, a crisis that has reached an intolerable crescendo. This is a serious matter, and as the crisis in the Church plays out before us, it is evident that the salvation of souls hangs in the balance. Granted, there is a perceptible shift in the Church in recent years. This debate is evidence enough of that. However, the situation is still rather urgent, and amends should not be delayed.

But from whence are these amends to be forthcoming when the Magisterium is only just now beginning to emerge from the “spirit of Vatican II”? Fr. Cavalcoli mentions his present endeavor with Fr. Enrico Finotti and Fr. Piero Cantoni to pen a book in which “we propose to demonstrate the doctrinal continuity between the Council and the previous magisterium through careful comparison of the official texts of the Church.” However, allow me to repeat what Roberto de Mattei has already made clear: the faithful do not submit to the opinions and positions of theologians, no matter how erudite and orthodox they may be; rather, the faithful are to submit to the Magisterium of the Church. While I’m sure we will greatly appreciate the work of Fathers Cavalcoli, Finotti and Cantoni, this book simply will not substitute for the clear, and yes, univocal! teaching that the Magisterium of the Church is supposed to provide.

Until that time Catholics ought to have the option to continue to believe and practice the Catholicism that Catholics in centuries past believed and practiced to their credit and salvation. After all, what was considered sacred and good before cannot all of a sudden be considered evil or wrong now. This is certainly not an ideal that should content us, especially traditional Catholics. This is, perhaps, a sad, but necessary fallback position imposed on the sincere faithful who see no other choice due to the negligence of those who should have taught, and ought to be teaching now, the truths of the faith clearly and without fear. To have to live by a hermeneutic is a perilous imposition. To live as a traditional Catholic? To that there is no imposition at all.

(22 May 2011, Fourth Sunday After Easter)


*Newman, John Henry. An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. Longmans, Green, and Co. London. 1909.

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