Still Trying to Interpret Vatican II...40 Years Later
(A Handy Schematic)

Christopher A. Ferrara

( As the Novus Ordo establishment completes its inevitable collapse into a heap of scandal and apostasy, and the fortieth anniversary of the close of Vatican II is upon us, we are still hearing calls for a return to the “real meaning of the Council” as the solution to the Novus Ordo’s catastrophic failure.  Pope Benedict XVI himself has exhorted us to keep alive “the spirit of Vatican II”—whatever that means.  The “return” to the “real meaning” of Vatican II is a staple of neo-Catholic thought.  That Vatican II actually triggered this whole disaster is, of course, unthinkable to the neo-Catholic mind.

A typical example of the neo-Catholics’ endless recourse to the Council’s “real meaning” is found in an interview of neo-Catholic luminary George Weigel.  Weigel is the author of one of those 15-Lb. Biographies Of John Paul II That No One Would Even Consider Reading From Beginning To End.

According to Weigel: “Unlike other ecumenical councils, Vatican II did not provide ‘keys’ to its teaching in the form of creeds, canons or anathemas.”  In other words, we cannot tell what Vatican II teaches simply by reading what it teaches. No, the Council’s documents are inscrutable without “keys” that had to be supplied later!  Those “keys”, Weigel claims, were supplied by the pontificate of the last Pope: “It has been left to the pontificate of John Paul II to provide an authoritative interpretation of the council…” An interpretation of an ecumenical council? Since when must an ecumenical council be interpreted? Since Vatican II.

But what is the “authoritative interpretation” of Vatican II?  Weigel proposes the following, based on his understanding of the thinking of John Paul II:

Like Blessed John XXIII, John Paul II thinks of the Second Vatican Council as a new Pentecost—a privileged moment in which the Holy Spirit prepared the Church for a springtime of evangelization. Contrary to the conventional readings of the meaning of Vatican II proposed by both Catholic traditionalists and Catholic progressives, John Paul II has insisted that the council was not primarily about the distribution of authority and jurisdiction inside the Church. Rather, the council was meant to revivify within the Church a profound sense of itself as the sacrament of the world’s salvation: the "communio" in which we experience, here and now, a foretaste of what God intends for humanity for all eternity. In Karol Wojtyla´s experience of the council as one of its most active Fathers, and in his authoritative interpretation of the council as Pope, Vatican II was meant to prepare the Church, theologically and spiritually, to rediscover itself as a great evangelical movement in history, proclaiming to the world the truth about the human person, human community, human origins and human destiny.

So, as Weigel understands it, the “authoritative interpretation” of Vatican II developed in the teaching of John Paul II is as follows:

·   Vatican II was a new Pentecost,

·   to prepare for a springtime of evangelization;

·   it was not about distribution of authority in the Church, but rather was meant

·   to revivify the Church’s profound sense of itself,

·   provide a foretaste of what God intends for humanity for all eternity, and

·   prepare the Church to rediscover itself as a great evangelical movement in history.

In short, George Weigel doesn’t have the slightest idea what he’s talking about.  His description of the Council’s “authoritative interpretation” reads like something an unprepared student of European History would write in his bluebook exam in answer to a question about the Thirty Years War:  “The Thirty Years War was a time of great upheaval. It ushered in a new era in European history, which awakened a new self-awareness in those who had suffered through the War.  The War marked a preparation of Europe for the new age that was to come. After the Thirty Years War had ended (in approximately 30 years) Europe would never be the same.”  The answer tells us absolutely nothing, just as Weigel tells us absolutely nothing about what is taught by the actual words of the Council’s ambiguity-laden documents.

Why the Council’s “true interpretation” remains elusive even to its staunchest defenders should be obvious after forty years of wandering in the post-conciliar desert: Except where it simply repeated a constant teaching of the Church, Vatican II is utterly meaningless. Insofar as its supposedly “distinctive” teaching is concerned, the Council is a collection of ambiguities that tend to cancel each other out, leaving us, in essence, with nothing.  It is precisely the nothingness of Vatican II that has led to the endless debate over what it means.  If Weigel’s attempt at describing the “authoritative interpretation” of Vatican II is any indication—and it certainly should be, given his close reading of the late Pope’s writings and his status as the Pope’s approved biographer—not even John Paul II was able to solve the problem of the Council’s nothingness.

But that problem has not prevented Weigel and others from telling us in various extra-Magisterial writings what the Council really means.  In order to learn of this “real” meaning, however, one must first consult the Council document in question, then some extra-Magisterial book or article interpreting its meaning.  And in some cases one must also consult a third source—a book or article that interprets the interpretation offered in the secondary source.  Let me provide a handy schematic of how this can be done in one case: the search for the real meaning of the Conciliar document Gaudium et spes.

Speaking of the need for present-day “diagnoses” of Gaudium et Spes and the other key conciliar texts, the former Cardinal Ratzinger observed that “The lack of clarity that persists even today about the real meaning of Vatican II is closely associated with such diagnoses.”[1] That is, in order to comprehend the “real meaning” of Vatican II, one must “diagnose” its texts.  The Cardinal’s oft-quoted “diagnosis” of Gaudium spes is as follows:

If it is desirable to offer a diagnosis of the text as a whole, we might say that (in conjunction with the texts on religious liberty and world religions) it is a revision of the Syllabus of Pius IX, a kind of countersyllabus… [T]he one-sidedness of the position adopted by the Church under Pius IX and Pius X in response to the situation created by the new phase of history inaugurated by the French Revolution was, to a large extent, corrected via facti, especially in Central Europe, but there was still no basic statement of the relationship that should exist between the Church and the world that had come into existence after 1789.  In fact, an attitude that was largely pre-revolutionary continued to exist in countries with strong Catholic majorities.  Hardly anyone will deny today that the Spanish and Italian Concordat strove to preserve too much of a view of the world that no longer corresponded to the facts.  Hardly anyone will deny today that, in the field of education and with respect to the historico-critical method in modern science, anachronisms existed that corresponded closely to this adherence to an obsolete Church-state relationship…[2] [T]he text [of Gaudium et Spes] serves as a countersyllabus and, as such, represents, on the part of the Church, an attempt at an official reconciliation with the new era inaugurated in 1789.[3]

So, at least part of the real meaning of Vatican II, according to the Ratzinger diagnosis, is that its teaching serves as a “counter-syllabus” that corrects the “one-sidedness” of Bl. Pius IX and Saint Pius X, as well as the “obsolete” Church-state relation of times past, which must be abandoned so that the Church can attempt “an official reconciliation” with “the new era” that began with the French Revolution.  Of course, this very reconciliation with the “new era” is condemned by the Syllabus itself, wherein the following proposition (#80) is listed as one of the principal errors of modern times: “The Roman Pontiff can and ought to reconcile himself and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization.”  But that’s another article.

Now, our search for the real meaning of Gaudium et spes does not end with the former Cardinal’s diagnosis.  Given that it seems quite outrageous that Vatican II would attempt to counter and correct the teaching of two of the greatest Popes in Church history, the neo-Catholic commentators rushed in at the time with their interpretation of the Cardinal’s interpretation. That is not what the Cardinal really meant about the real meaning of Vatican II, they said.

For example, we have an article entitled “The Counter-Syllabus Canard,” by one I. Shawn McElhinney, who maintains a website decrying the errors of “ultra-traditionalists.” McElhinney conceded that Cardinal Ratzinger’s reference to a “counter-syllabus” is “unfortunate.” But McElhinney also assured us that “the intended meaning of the Cardinal Prefect was that the condemnation of errors in the Syllabus could logically be seen as being countered by positive teaching in GS [Gaudium et Spes] that encapsulates the elements of truth contained in the aforementioned errors. Seen in this light, the negative element of the summary condemnations complimented [sic] by the later positive and elaborated teaching encapsulating what elements of truth the previously condemned errors contained results in the climate moving from negative and reactive to positive and pro-active….”[4]

Now I know the reader will ask this question: What did he say?  And I must admit the interpretation of the interpretation is quite confusing.  But it seems, dear reader, that we have reached the end of this particular schematic on how to find the real meaning of Gaudium et spes. McElhinney said that Ratzinger said that the Council said that “the negative element of the summary condemnations complimented [sic] by the later positive and elaborated teaching encapsulating what elements of truth the previously condemned errors contained results in the climate moving from negative and reactive to positive and pro-active…”  That is where the line ends, and so it seems the Church has spoken.  Granted, this appears to be one of those “hard sayings” the Church obliges us to accept, but to whom shall we go, when, in this case, it is McElhinney who has the words of eternal life?

Or we could simply use the Alternative Rule for the interpretation of Vatican II. The Alternative Rule is as follows:  Vatican II must be read in the light of Tradition.   In which case, why not simply go back to the traditional teaching and forget the whole problem of Vatican II?  Or am I missing something?

A few years ago Mike Matt and I were discussing the situation in which the Church now finds itself—a situation in which lay commentators tell us what the Pope or the Cardinal really means to say about the real meaning of a Council whose real meaning seems undetectable—we both began laughing uproariously. We have reached a point in this crisis where laughter seems to come naturally. The crisis has become that absurd.  After we had finished having our laugh, I asked Mike: “Do you suppose that any traditional Catholics of the 4th century found the Arian crisis hilarious?” The devil’s insane masterpiece of confusion in this epoch of Church history has reached such proportions that one feels impelled to laugh at the sheer gargantuan spectacle of it all.  And that is no laughing matter.

Postscript:  The biblical period of forty years cannot be without significance to our situation.  Going out on a very long limb, I predict that the Vatican (almost in spite of itself) will make significant moves in the direction of Tradition after December 8, 2005—the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and the first day of the 41st year after the Council.  After all, this insanity cannot go on forever.  I am perfectly prepared to be disappointed, however.


[1]Joseph Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), pp. 378, 379.

[2]Ibid., pp. 381-82.

[3]Ibid., p. 381.