by Sebastian R. Fama
There are several Traditionalist groups who reject the Second Vatican Council and the changes that followed. They consider those who have accepted the changes to be what they call “The Conciliar Church.” They somehow imagine that members of this “Conciliar Church” are no longer Catholic and that they themselves are the loyal remnant.
Traditionalists understand that ecumenical councils have always spoken with authority. They try to get around this by claiming that Vatican II was a pastoral and not a doctrinal council. A pastoral council, they contend, can teach error and thus does not require assent. But no such distinction exists. An ecumenical council is an ecumenical council. When Pope John XXIII called the council pastoral he was referring to its approach. He wasn’t creating a new non-binding class of council. What sense would that even make? Why summon 2600 bishops to Rome if their work would ultimately be meaningless?
Traditionalists prefer the style employed by the Council of Trent where anathemas were issued against heresies. They see Vatican II’s kind words to other religions as being contradictory to the work done at Trent. But that is simply not so. Trent was convened to address attacks on the faith by former Catholics (heretics). Thus, anathemas would be a natural part of their work. Vatican II was, among other things, concerned with bringing the message of Christ to the world, thus its pastoral approach. If you want to communicate the Gospel effectively you begin by drawing attention to what is good in others as the apostle Paul did in Acts 17:22-23. You don’t foster effective communication with condemnations.
The “pastoral argument” becomes even more untenable when you consider two of the documents produced by the council. For instance: “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” and “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation.” Use of the word Dogmatic would seem to indicate that these documents were something more than friendly suggestions.
In its article on General Councils, the Catholic Encyclopedia of 1908 says the following: “All the arguments which go to prove the infallibility of the Church apply with their fullest force to the infallible authority of general councils in union with the pope.” Even if for some reason the council were not ecumenical its teachings would still require assent as they were promulgated by Pope Paul VI. Any teaching promulgated by a pope is authoritative by virtue of the Church’s Ordinary Magisterium (Vatican I, session 3, chapter 3).
Traditionalists try to back up their arguments by quoting council documents out of context. For instance, I received the following concerning “Lumen Gentium:”
But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place among these there are the Moslems, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind (No. 16).
Ask any Moslem if he adores Jesus as God. He does not and therefore he denies the one true God. Therefore, Vatican II is in error when it equates Islam with Catholicism. Jesus established one Church and it has no equal.
There is no claim here of spiritual equality. This passage merely affirms the traditional Church teaching that those outside the Church can be saved. The subject is treated in greater detail a few sentences later: “Those who through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do His will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation.”
The document affirms other traditional views of the Church:
1. All men are called to the union of the Catholic Church (1:3).
2. The Church has the mission to proclaim the kingdom of Christ to all peoples (1:5).
3. Christ is the one mediator (1:8).
4. The Church is necessary for salvation (2:14).
5. Whoever knows this and leaves the Church cannot be saved (2:14).
Traditionalists are scandalized by the liturgical abuses that plague many Catholic churches today. They are appalled by Catholic universities that routinely alter Church doctrines to make them more acceptable. On these points their outrage is justified. Indeed, every Catholic should be outraged by such behavior. However, dissent within the Church never justifies schism. As someone once said, “You don’t leave Peter because of Judas.” If anything, you stay and work for change.
Some Traditionalists are more creative than others. Within the movement there is a group known as the Sedevacanists. This group realizes that Catholics are supposed to be obedient to the pope. And yet they have been at odds with every pope since the council. Their solution to this dilemma – they claim there hasn’t been a pope since 1958. How do they know there hasn’t been a pope since 1958? Because everyone who has occupied the office since that time has disagreed with them. Therefore, they must be heretics and thus not real popes.
There are a couple of things wrong with this argument. First of all, not agreeing with someone’s private interpretation of Church documents does not constitute heresy. Secondly, even if they were guilty of heresy they would still have been popes. Pope Pius XII, the last real pope according to Sedevacanists, tells us as much in his apostolic constitution “Vacantis Apostolicae Sedis.” He wrote: “None of the cardinals may in any way, or by pretext or reason of any excommunication, suspension, or interdict whatsoever, or of any other ecclesiastical impediment, be excluded from the active and passive election of the supreme pontiff. We hereby suspend such censures solely for the purpose of the said election; at other times they are to remain in vigor” (no. 34).
Passive election refers to the cardinal himself being elected pope. This may seem odd at first glance. But it is necessary. Heresy can be a purely internal disposition without any outward manifestation. If a pope were a heretic and kept it to himself no one would know. If being a heretic would negate a papal election and you could never know for sure if a pope were a heretic, it follows that you could never know if we had a pope. If this were the case the Church would be in a constant state of chaos. We see this same principal applied to the Eucharist. The validity of the Eucharist does not depend on the worthiness of the priest. If it did you would never know if you were receiving a validly consecrated host. If a heretic actually became pope, the Church would be protected from his heresy by papal infallibility. We have Christ’s word on that (Matthew 16:18).
There isn’t enough room in a short essay to adequately address all the complaints Traditionalists have against the Church. However, some are worthy of note. Some believe that only Catholics can be saved. This idea was condemned by Pope Pius IX in his encyclical, “Quanto Conficiamur Moerore,” No. 7. They believe that Christ died only for the elect. This idea was condemned by the Council of Trent, session 6, chapter 2. Some Traditionalists, such as the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, even appoint their own bishops. This was condemned by Pope Pius XII in “Ad Apostolorum Principis” and it results in an automatic excommunication for all involved.
So, when Traditionalists say they reject Vatican II it is only the tip of the iceberg. In practice they also reject Trent, Vatican I, Pope Pius IX, and Pope Pius XII. At the end of the day Traditionalists need to answer one question; what verse of Scripture or what Church teaching gives them the authority to pass judgment on the Magisterium? If they can’t answer they have no argument. If they can they discredit their argument by proving Martin Luther right and Jesus Christ wrong.
Traditionalists consider 2 Thessalonians 2:15 to be their guiding principle: “Therefore, brothers, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours.” But the question must be asked, exactly what Traditions are they holding fast to? By rejecting Papal authority, they reject the oldest Catholic Tradition (Matthew 16:18-19). Ironically this puts them in a position where they are advocates for the oldest Protestant tradition, a rejection of Church authority.
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