As an initial matter, although we must consider any legitimate defenses of Vatican II, we can easily dismiss two of the more standard (and nonsensical) defenses of the Council. First, while it is true that the documents of Vatican II include positive elements, such as the universal call to holiness, we can in no way see those elements as unique to Vatican II. For example, if we merely read the words of Our Lord, and countless saints, we can readily identify the universal call to holiness. As such, we should not defend Vatican II simply because it had some positive elements, any more than we would defend Francis because he occasionally says something Catholic.
We can also dismiss another common defense of Vatican II which often takes the following form: “I have read [or even studied] the documents and can confirm that they are all consistent with what the Church has always taught.” Setting aside the fact that those proffering this defense of Vatican II often lack the qualifications that might render it credible, we have unambiguous confirmations from the individuals who drafted the documents in question that (a) several key passages were intentionally ambiguous, and (b) certain documents directly contradict previous Church teaching. As such, we must take the word of those who drafted the documents over those who have merely read portions of them several decades later.
If Benedict XVI and his fellow bishops determined that they “do not simply want to approve what has already been done,” it seems that Francis is indeed acting consistently with the Council when he too breaks with what the Church has always done.
With these standard defenses of Vatican II dismissed, we can look to the words of the person who was almost certainly the most credible “conservative” defender of Vatican II, Benedict XVI. His final Address to the Clergy of Rome from February 14, 2013 is essentially an apologia for “the real Council,” as distinguished from the “Council of the media,” which he said had “created so many disasters.” Given the facts that he was a key figure at the Council, held positions of the greatest influence in the Church throughout much of the post-Conciliar period, and acknowledged that some real problems flowed from the Council, we can reasonably conclude that he would be among the most qualified individuals to show us what, if anything, was truly worthwhile from Vatican II.
And so we can look to those positive aspects of Vatican II identified by Benedict XVI in his final Address to the Clergy of Rome to evaluate the extent to which Francis’s words and deeds harmonize with “the real Council.” The point is not to judge Benedict XVI, or even denounce Vatican II — rather the aim is to demonstrate that most of what we detest about Francis’s words and deeds flows naturally from the “real Council” as Benedict XVI called it:
Rejecting the Past. Prior to Vatican II, John XXIII established a Roman Synod to prepare for the Council. As Professor Romano Amerio described in Iota Unum, the Roman Synod documents were relatively conservative:
“The texts of the Roman synod promulgated on 25, 26 and 27 January 1960 constitute a complete reversion of the Church to its proper nature.”
However, as Benedict XVI recalled with approval, the bishops rejected these conservative documents in favor of their own new ideas:
“I remember that the Roman Synod was thought of as a negative model. It was said – I don’t know whether this was true – that they had read out prepared texts in the Basilica of Saint John, and that the members of the Synod had acclaimed, approved with applause, and that the Synod had been conducted thus. The bishops said: no, let’s not do that. We are bishops, we ourselves are the subject of the Synod; we do not simply want to approve what has already been done, but we ourselves want to be the subject, the protagonists of the Council.”
If Benedict XVI and his fellow bishops determined that they “do not simply want to approve what has already been done,” it seems that Francis is indeed acting consistently with the Council when he too breaks with what the Church has always done. We criticize Francis for denouncing Traditional Catholics for “going backwards,” but the Council offered the same rebuke to all of Catholic tradition.
This desire to adapt to the world seems to animate almost all of the changes promoted by Francis. The unholy and ridiculous Synod on Synodality is simply the most extreme manifestation of this “seeking” in the post-Conciliar era.
Continuously Seeking. Benedict XVI praised the real Council (which he also identified as the “Council of the Fathers”) as one of “seeking”:
“[T]he Council of the Fathers was conducted within the faith – it was a Council of faith seeking intellectus, seeking to understand itself and seeking to understand the signs of God at that time, seeking to respond to the challenge of God at that time and to find in the word of God a word for today and tomorrow.”
Here Benedict XVI echoes John XXIII and Paul VI, and highlights the fact that Vatican II did not attempt to condemn errors but rather open the Church to the world so that it would become more relevant as the world changed. This desire to adapt to the world seems to animate almost all of the changes promoted by Francis. The unholy and ridiculous Synod on Synodality is simply the most extreme manifestation of this “seeking” in the post-Conciliar era.
Rehabilitating Theologians Suspected of Heresy by Pope Pius XII. Benedict XVI recalled some of the “great figures” he worked with at the Council:
“I remember meetings with Cardinals, and so on. And this continued throughout the Council: small-scale meetings with peers from other countries. Thus I came to know great figures like Father de Lubac, Daniélou, Congar, and so on.”
As Fr. Dominque Bourmaud described, though, Congar and de Lubac were under theological scrutiny for Modernism before the Council:
“It is impossible to speak of the genesis of the Second Vatican Council without mentioning the leading figures of the whole movement. Let us mention three names who manifest clearly how people of such different cultures and formations reached similar conclusions: Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar, and Karl Rahner. Many things unite these three men. They all had a long history as university professors; all were under theological scrutiny for modernist ideas under Pius XII; all were somehow disciplined or exiled from their positions. All were then miraculously reinstalled as Council periti on the eve of the Council.”
Those who oppose Francis’s Synod on Synodality may recall that Francis specifically praised Congar as an inspiration for changing the Church through the Synod:
“Father Congar, of blessed memory, once said: ‘There is no need to create another Church, but to create a different Church.’”
Throughout its history, the Church has emphasized its theological beliefs through a process of elevating those who champion them, and silencing and distancing those who oppose them. The Council abandoned St. Thomas Aquinas in favor of men who had been silenced by Pius XII. In this light, it is clear that Francis has been faithful to Vatican II.
The surprise is not so much that Francis has taken additional steps to abandon the Traditional Latin Mass but that Benedict XVI granted it as much freedom as he did.
Replacing the Mass. Many Traditional Catholics found the Traditional Latin Mass thanks to Benedict XVI, for which we should be grateful. But Benedict XVI’s words about the need for active participation make it clear that he saw the Novus Ordo as more fitting for the new direction of the Church:
“[T]here was a rediscovery of the beauty, the profundity, the historical, human, and spiritual riches of the Missal and it became clear that it should not be merely a representative of the people, a young altar-server, saying ‘Et cum spiritu tuo,’ and so on, but that there should truly be a dialogue between priest and people: truly the liturgy of the altar and the liturgy of the people should form one single liturgy, an active participation, such that the riches reach the people. And in this way, the liturgy was rediscovered and renewed.”
Even though he was apparently upset by Francis’s Traditionis Custodes, Benedict XVI clearly believed that the Council did well to transition away from the “Et cum spiritu tuo” of altar boys in favor of communal responses and handshakes for the entire congregation. The surprise is not so much that Francis has taken additional steps to abandon the Traditional Latin Mass but that Benedict XVI granted it as much freedom as he did.
On this point, it bears repeating that the Society of St. Pius X’s 2006 General Chapter reaffirmed two conditions for further discussions with Rome: the lifting of the 1988 excommunications, and freedom of the Traditional Latin Mass. Benedict XVI issued Summorum Pontificum the following year, and lifted the excommunications two years later. Would he have had any reason to take either step were it not for an attempt to “reconcile” the SSPX?
We can also consider Dr. Marian Horvat’s prediction from a 2005 article:
“Who knows what overtures of ‘reconciliation’ Benedict XVI will make to the traditionalist Catholics to silence their growing opposition to the Council? He would, I believe, permit a broader practice of the indult Tridentine Mass, perhaps even grant a broader apostolic prelature to say the Tridentine Mass than what was allowed in Campos. This would be granted only if traditional Catholics would compromise and accept Vatican II and all its consequences.”
In this light, it appears that Francis is to a large extent adopting the same “carrot and stick” approach with the Traditional Latin Mass, all for the sake of silencing opposition to Vatican II.
Once we see Catholicism as simply one good religion among many, we must reject those who fastidiously adhere to the belief that, absent extraordinary circumstances, there is no salvation outside of the Catholic Church. This is what we see today, as Francis embraces all religions other than the Faith as it existed prior to Vatican II.
Abandoning the Traditional (True) Conception of the Church. Prior to Vatican II, the Church taught that the Mystical Body of Christ is the Catholic Church. As Benedict XVI explained, though, the Council needed to abandon this concept because it was too exclusive:
“A certain amount of criticism arose after the 1940’s, in the 1950’s, concerning the concept of the Body of Christ: the word ‘mystical’ was thought to be too spiritual, too exclusive; the concept ‘People of God’ then began to come into play. The Council rightly accepted this element, which in the Fathers is regarded as an expression of the continuity between the Old and the New Testaments. . . The others, we pagans, are not per se God’s People: we become sons of Abraham and thus the People of God by entering into communion with Christ, the one seed of Abraham. . . In a word: the concept of ‘the People of God’ implies the continuity of the Testaments, continuity in God’s history with the world, with mankind, but it also implies the Christological element.”
We of course reject Francis’s unholy overtures to non-Catholic religions (which are simply variations on John Paul II’s Prayer Meeting at Assisi) but once we no longer see the Church as the exclusive Mystical Body of Christ, we have already overcome the primary barrier to seeing Catholicism as just one good religion among many. And once we see Catholicism as simply one good religion among many, we must reject those who fastidiously adhere to the belief that, absent extraordinary circumstances, there is no salvation outside of the Catholic Church. This is what we see today, as Francis embraces all religions other than the Faith as it existed prior to Vatican II.
Focusing on the Church’s Contributions to the Global Order. Benedict XVI noted that the Council focused on how the Church should contribute to the “building up of this world”:
“There appeared with great urgency the issue of today’s world, the modern age, and the Church; and with it, the issues of responsibility for the building up of this world, of society, responsibility for the future of this world and eschatological hope, the ethical responsibility of Christians and where we look for guidance; and then religious freedom, progress, and relations with other religions.”
Clearly the primary goal could no longer be to “teach all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever [Jesus has] commanded” (Matthew 28:19-20). Once the orientation shifts to building up the world rather than building up the Mystical Body of Christ, everything must change, albeit gradually. Is there anything we deplore about Francis’s ten destructive years in Rome that does not fit with this new orientation introduced by the Council?
The most positive thing of Benedict XVI’s papacy was his freeing of the Traditional Latin Mass, which was obviously not a fruit of the Council. It is astonishing that, as he was forced to flee from the wolves, he was still praising “the true Council with all its spiritual force.”
Trusting the Council Despite Putrid Fruits. Benedict XVI recognized so many grave problems flowing from the “Council of the media” (the “virtual Council”):
“[The Council of the media] created so many disasters, so many problems, so much suffering: seminaries closed, convents closed, banal liturgy . . .”
Our Lord told us to judge by the fruits, so Benedict XVI knew that he must argue that the horrendous fruits were all from a “virtual Council” — conversely, the “real Council” had finally taken root and was producing glorious fruits:
“[T]he real Council had difficulty establishing itself and taking shape; the virtual Council was stronger than the real Council. But the real force of the Council was present and, slowly but surely, established itself more and more and became the true force which is also the true reform, the true renewal of the Church. It seems to me that, 50 years after the Council, we see that this virtual Council is broken, is lost, and there now appears the true Council with all its spiritual force. And it is our task, especially in this Year of Faith, on the basis of this Year of Faith, to work so that the true Council, with its power of the Holy Spirit, be accomplished and the Church be truly renewed.”
The most positive thing of Benedict XVI’s papacy was his freeing of the Traditional Latin Mass, which was obviously not a fruit of the Council. It is astonishing that, as he was forced to flee from the wolves, he was still praising “the true Council with all its spiritual force.” This is the same cognitive dissonance we see from Francis and everyone else who touts the fruits of the Council. Those of us nauseated by these fruits are told to obey and quit imagining that the pre-Vatican II popes were right when they told us this was exactly what would happen if Catholics accepted the errors that Rahner, Congar, de Lubac, and others convinced unsuspecting Council Fathers to accept at the Council.
Without a doubt, Francis’s words and deeds are generally far more offensive than those of his predecessors. But God permits this evil for a reason and the conclusions we draw about Francis’s destructive occupation of the papacy are almost certainly an important factor in our ability, collectively and as individual Catholics, to profit from this crisis. There is no saintly virtue in throwing up our arms and saying we cannot possibly discern the will of God.
At this stage in the crisis, we should have no patience whatsoever for those who insist that it is un-Catholic to question the Council. It is obvious that Francis is a natural fruit of Vatican II — if you have a problem with Francis’s attacks on the Faith, you have a problem with the Council.
Many sincere Catholics appear to believe that the problem began with Benedict XVI’s abdication and that we are one holy conclave away from resolving the crisis. However, as objective observers can see from the considerations above, among many others, Francis’s wicked beliefs truly do follow from an accurate interpretation of the Council. Those who denounce Francis while defending Vatican II are either deluded or, worse, cynically trying to shore up the Council in the face of powerful reasons to reject it entirely.
At this stage in the crisis, we should have no patience whatsoever for those who insist that it is un-Catholic to question the Council. It is obvious that Francis is a natural fruit of Vatican II — if you have a problem with Francis’s attacks on the Faith, you have a problem with the Council. Immaculate Heart of Mary, pray for us!
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