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No, It Was Just Plain Old Equivocal

A Response to Fr. Cavalcoli’s letter in the on-going debate over the Second Vatican Council and the traditionalist critique

David Werling POSTED: 6/28/11

Nevertheless, there are certain objections of the Fraternity of Saint Pius X that do make sense, because there has been an interpretation of rupture.

-Msgr. Pozzo,  Secretary of the Pontifical Council Ecclesia Dei 

( This comment, given in a recent interview concerning the doctrinal discussions between the Vatican and the Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X reveals a rather remarkable shift in the Church, and this shift has much to do with the current debate concerning the traditionalist critique of the Second Vatican Council. There is present here, albeit hesitatingly so, an admission that the cause for the interpretation of rupture may be contained in the documents of the Council themselves. This has always been, more or less, the essence of the Fraternity’s objections, and apparently they “make sense”. Something did go wrong, the consequences of which are easy to see, but pinpointing the Second Vatican Council as the cause has been the source of no little consternation.

Fr. Giovanni Cavalcoli (See 6/15/11 edition of The Remnant, P. 2) refuses to admit that the Council is the cause of this interpretation of rupture, and posits that the Council simply has to be interpreted anew, this time in continuity. Far from being the root of the interpretation of rupture, the imprecision and ambiguity of the Council invites us to join the Church of the univocal with the Church of the analogous.

My resistance to Fr. Cavalcoli’s approach resides in the fact that he attributes to the Council documents and the Magisterium a license that belongs to the theologian, but should not be enjoyed by the teaching office of the Church. He explains away the imprecision of the Council documents and the modern Magisterium as a healthy contribution to, as Fr. Cavalcoli puts it, “what the Council calls ‘the analogy of the faith’”. However, the teaching office of the Church and the analogy of the faith are two distinct things, and confusing the two provides no justification for the imprecision and equivocality that the traditional critique rightly attacks.

The analogy of the faith isn’t really what Fr. Cavalcoli is suggesting it is. The analogy of faith is a principle in Catholic thought that any given doctrine must be understood in relation to the whole corpus of Christian doctrine. Analogy in this case is referring to the relational nature of Catholic doctrine, not a philosophical method of reasoning. Cavalcoli’s argument, though, is still clear. The Second Vatican Council has invited, he asserts, the notion of joining the univocal pre-Conciliar Church to a resurrected analogy of the faith type of Church.

In my column, Why Not the Univocal (See May 31st edition of The Remnant), I pointed out that in Newman’s explanation of the development of doctrine there is a necessary role of polity over time. The faithful over time live the truths of the deposit of faith, given once and for all by Christ to His apostles, and the faithful, primarily the theologians, reflect on these truths to both understand them better and to apply them to concrete historical circumstances. It is in this polity over time that the work of the theologian is understood to take place. I agree. Thus, by no means am I positing that there is no place for analogical thought in theology (or any other science, for that matter), nor am I denying the fact that analogous thought is indispensable in the development of doctrine. What I resist is confusing the analogous thought that occurs in polity over time with the role played by the Magisterium, which is something that is necessarily and entirely different.

I also explained in the same column the role Newman attributed to the Church’s Magisterium in the development of doctrine, and this role is distinct from that of the polity over time. The role of the Magisterium is to separate what is mere speculation, corruption, or error from what authentically belongs to the deposit of faith. The Magisterium is the warrant, the guarantee to the faithful, that such and such a point is in agreement with the deposit of faith or this or that idea contradicts the deposit of faith.

The Magisterium has always done this by defining dogma, an exercise of the Extraordinary Magisterium, wherein a truth already revealed by Christ to His apostles is defined in a univocal, clear and precise manner in response to formulations or opinions that reject that truth. The Magisterium also performs this role by condemning the error. The ordinary Magisterium also provides guidance for the faithful by applying the truths of the deposit of the faith to concrete historical circumstances. In the former case, the equivocal is impossible; in the latter the equivocal is possible, but never necessary or helpful.

Cavalcoli writes that the Council invites us to join the Church of the univocal type with a new understanding of the Church as an analogous type. This, however, is the same false dichotomy that I addressed in the former column. There is no such thing as a univocal type as opposed to an analogous type of Church. Before the Council the element of polity over time that included all manner of analogous thought flourished alongside the Magisterium of the Church, which taught univocally both in an extraordinary and ordinary manner.

What Fr. Cavalcoli must really be suggesting is not a new understanding of the Church, but a new understanding of the Magisterium, that instead of univocally being the guarantee of doctrinal veracity, should become simply another voice among many in the polity. This new understanding of the Magisterium was, indeed, introduced by the Second Vatican Council. The Magisterium in the course of the Second Vatican Council taught in a way that was imprecise and unclear, non-dogmatic, and eschewing infallibility, as though the teaching office of the Church had become some kind of corporate theologian.

It was declared from the very outset that the Second Vatican Council did not intend to define anything new, not to, in short, exercise its extraordinary organ of dogmatic infallibility. Thus the Council freed itself from a particular help of the Holy Ghost. For this very reason, that the Council declared no special assistance from the Holy Ghost, it allowed the possibility of error. The error, though, was not in doctrinal content, but in methodology.

To borrow from Enrico Maria Radaelli’s excellent article at Sandro Magister’s website, the Council fathers forsook their highest form of “munus docendi”, their highest “duty to teach” at the dogmatic and infallible level. The faithful are left with a questionable body of doctrine, that while perhaps not containing outright error, thanks, no doubt, to the workings of the Holy Ghost in the Church, the questionable nature of these doctrines and the method chosen to convey them, opened the door for the subsequent errors, which all of us are in agreement did indeed materialize quite soon after the Council.

Fr. Cavalcoli would like to explain this flaw away as a legitimate exercise of analogy on the part of the Magisterium that was misinterpreted by the “rupturists” after the fact. However, it was not the role of the Church’s Magisterium to enter into the polity by way of analogy in the first place. It is the role of the Magisterium to stand over it, authoritatively separating the wheat from the chaff, shepherding the work of the polity toward truth by condemning what is false, identifying what is mere speculation, and defining dogmatically what is necessary for man to believe to be saved. This is Blessed John Henry Newman’s understanding of the role of the Magisterium in the development of doctrine. However, this is precisely what the Magisterium has failed to do ever since the Second Vatican Council.

The equivocal content of documents gives the impression that established judgments of the previous Magisterium, which were indeed dogmatic and infallible, had been opened up for speculation. The introduction of the novel notion of “full communion” versus “partial communion” is a good example of an equivocal, non-dogmatic, and non-infallible pronouncement that invited speculation on matters that had previously been judged, definitively and infallibly, by the Magisterium.

In condemning the errors of Protestantism, the Magisterium acted infallibly. It separated those errors from the authentic truths of the Christian religion. The Magisterium acted, as Blessed John Henry Newman would put it, as the warrant standing over the polity, identifying, univocally, Christian truth from error.  In doing so, the Magisterium also pronounced that those who held these errors were “anathema”, meaning, simply, they were cut off from communion with the Catholic Church, or excommunicated.

Now, though, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council we are told that those who hold in a truncated fashion some elements of Christian truth (i.e. Baptism, the Trinitarian formula, portions of the Scriptures, etc.) enjoy some measure of “partial communion”. It is not explained how those who were judged (infallibly, mind you!) by the Church’s Magisterium to be cut off from communion with the Catholic Church are also, at the same time, somehow in partial communion with the Church. The principle of non-contradiction doesn’t seem to hold much water for the Vatican II churchmen.

Nor is it explained how one might judge to what degree someone is partially in communion. Is a man more in communion who holds this doctrine, but not that doctrine? Does some error more so than another error make the same man less in communion? Is there a moral as well as confessional element in this process of determining partial communion? It would seem to follow that there ought to be. If by confession someone can be in more or less communion, then the same must hold true for moral behavior. Is a man less in communion after committing some sin? Am I less in communion than my wife because I swore in anger this morning? Is a man less in communion because of some moral fault, such as failing to discipline the eyes, or an inordinate love for some material thing? It would seem that this ought to be the case as well, since one can more or less practice the virtues we are obligated to practice as Christians. Thus, can anyone, even the pope, be one-hundred percent in “full communion”? After all, no man is perfect, not even the pope.

This is, of course, taking the notion to a ludicrous extreme, but I’m not being entirely cynical in pointing out the problem. Fr. Cavalcoli tells us that the notion of “partial communion” invites us to see likenesses between Catholicism and to non-Catholic ecclesial communities; it invites us to make analogies. Such a notion may invite us to identify those traces of true Christianity in other ecclesial communities, including elements that are still efficacious sources of grace, such as Baptism, the Holy Scriptures, etc.

At the same time, though, the notion also invites us to ignore that even though these elements may be efficacious sources of grace, they are still truncated and, most importantly, they do not belong by right or nature to those various non-Catholic ecclesial communities. On the other hand, the more precise notion, the traditional understanding, that non-Catholic ecclesial communities have retained to various degrees traces of true Christianity, as ashes are traces left behind by fire, would equally invite us to see the same likenesses without sowing confusion or casting doubt on what the Church has always taught infallibly.

The traditional understanding also focuses the purpose of the endeavor rightly toward the evangelization of individuals in these non-Catholic communities, instead of an assumed endeavor of compromise, which in the final analysis is nothing more than a Modernist reconstruction of Catholic doctrine. In fact, the “hermeneutic of rupture” could just as easily be identified, and probably more accurately, as the wholesale Modernist reconstruction of Catholic doctrine.

The equivocal nature of these pronouncements, far from encouraging analogical thought or enriching “the analogy of the faith”, succeeds only in sowing confusion and casting doubt on what has been infallibly pronounced previously.  These kinds of novel and imprecise pronouncements are the very reason for the emergence of the hermeneutic of rupture. These “pastoral” pronouncements created opportunities for confusion that was conveniently embraced and used by the purveyors of that “hermeneutic of rupture”. Can we call it mere coincidence when the “rupturists”, themselves, were so intimately involved in the Council? The floodgates of Modernist doctrinal reconstruction were thrown open even before the Council was concluded. As Radaelli points out in the already mentioned article, this was due, not to a misinterpretation of the “rupturists” after the fact, but by the interpretation of the very periti who were responsible for much of the content of the documents. As it turns out, many of the authors of the Council were the “rupturists”! Is it possible, then, that perhaps the documents were interpreted as they were intended to be interpreted, as rupture, by those who worked behind the scenes at the Council?

The imprecision of the great “Pastoral” Council and the imprecision of the Magisterium ever since was not a healthy contribution to the polity wherein analogy has its proper and vaunted place. It was, to apply Ockham’s razor, just plain old equivocal. The damage that this equivocality has produced is more than evident, as the Church currently reels in the aftermath of the failed liberal experiment.

How can Fr. Cavalcoli honestly suggest that the Magisterium’s imprecision has enriched the faith when the Church is racked by doctrinal confusion, liturgical abuse, wrecked altars and sanctuaries, and a devastating priest-sex-abuse scandal and commensurate institutional cover-up? How can Fr. Cavalcoli happily go about trusting that a redefined Magisterium has been a success when kitsch has replaced sacred art and architecture, seminaries are closing for want of seminarians, pews are emptying, parishes are closing in the thousands, and there is widespread disobedience among priests and bishops? How can Fr. Cavalcoli consider it an improvement when bishops and priests actively promote homosexual marriage or challenge the male only priesthood? That is not a healthy state of affairs!

The present crisis has confounded the faith to such a point that the Christian religion apparently can no longer make any significant impact on the modern world. The dearth of evangelization and the missionary spirit in the modern Church points to a faith weakened, not strengthened, by the changes in the Church.

This deficiency can have no other cause than the most obvious: the watershed event of a “merely pastoral” Ecumenical Council.

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