Editor’s Note: please see the whole list of columns and replies here.
By Timothy S. Flanders
I was pleased to read your rigorous reply to my critique in your most recent post. God willing, depending on my family and financial situation, I hope to prioritize our dialogue and write more frequently now. I hope that by the prayers of our Lady our conversation will give greater glory to God and serve the salvation of souls.
I’m going to proceed from what I consider to be the most important matters in your reply and thus may leave off certain other matters which to my view are less important to the discussion. (The most important matter, however, will be left to the end.) We seem to agree that the present Modernist crisis (“Neo-Modernism” if you like) is more or less the “greatest crisis in the history of the Church.” In this I think we are following your mentor of blessed memory, John Hardon, SJ and my own greatest influence, Dietrich Von Hildebrand as you state.
Thus if we agree on the problem, we may proceed to find agreement on the cause in order to find a solution. There is remarkable agreement on the solution, however, as I was pleased to discover from your last reply. This suggests it may not be necessary to agree on the cause. But more on that later.
A Council Can only “Fail” on the Historical Level
The Trad contention asserts that Vatican II is in some way the cause of the present crisis. I conceded that this cannot be asserted on the ontological level, since acts of the Magisterium (such as Vatican II) cannot per se be said to cause anything evil whatsoever. Nevertheless I contended that even an act of the Magisterium can be a cause in the historical sense, in that it might fail to properly address a situation, or be prevented by evil men from achieving its full fruitfulness. I see this happening throughout history, as each Council is very much the work of God through sinful men, even though saints carry the will of God to conclusion.
After I wrote about the parallels that I see on this point between Lateran V and Vatican II, I came across a quotation from Ratzinger which seemed to adhere to my perspective in this matter. In Principles of Catholic Theology, p. 378, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote that, “Not every valid council in the history of the Church has been a fruitful one; in the last analysis, many of them have been a waste of time.” In a footnote, he elaborates: “In this connection, reference is repeatedly made, and with justification, to the Fifth Lateran Council which met from 1512 to 1517 without doing anything effective to prevent the crisis that was happening.”
Lateran V was an act of the Magisterium and cannot be called the direct cause of the crisis. But we may say that it was unfruitful in effectively addressing the crisis. This is my assertion regarding Vatican II specifically for what it did about the existing pastoral approach of the Pian Magisterium. Vatican II did not fail on its ontological level, but only its historical level as I argued previously. Would you agree with Ratzinger’s assertion and concede that a Council can fail in a historical sense but not ontological?
The most central aspect of Vatican II was its failure to do that which would have been truly “effective” to prevent the crisis: the charitable anathema. This approach was specifically abandoned by St. John XXIII in his speech about the “medicine of mercy.” This pastoral approach had been used by the Pian Magisterium for generations and the Vatican II Magisterium abandoned it. But this is the approach that we both agree should be renewed as we will discuss below.
The idea that a Council can “fail” can only be understood on some historical level, not on the level of Magisterial action. As you correctly implied, the Council of Nicea might be called a “failure” in these terms until it was “confirmed” by Constantinople I, even though no man can say that God did not act at Nicea and dogmatize binding doctrine.
In other words, every Catholic must agree with your assertion: no definitive act of the Magisterium can “contain literal heresy that binds the faithful.” This, you say is “not possible.” I don’t think any Catholic can assert otherwise. As I have said recently, all the Devil needs to do to destroy the Church is make the Magisterium dogmatize heresy and the Magisterium is compromised and the Church is no more. I do believe that evil men have invaded the Church (as perhaps you may agree to some extent), but I believe they have been unsuccessful in dogmatizing heresy. I do not see any text of Vatican II or after which contains a positive error, but the appearance of error or merely ambiguity juxtaposed with prior clarity on a given point.
You critiqued my signing of the Open Letter thanking Vigano for opening the discussion on Vatican II. You made reference to a point in that Open Letter which states that
Such a debate [on Vatican II] cannot start from a conclusion that the Second Vatican Council as a whole and in its parts is per se in continuity with Tradition. Such a pre-condition to a debate prevents critical analysis and argument and only permits the presentation of evidence that supports the conclusion already announced. Whether or not Vatican II can be reconciled with Tradition is the question to be debated…
I would agree these sentences are ambiguous, and these were the only lines in the document that I hesitated to sign on to. This is because the Open Letter does not specify in what sense they are negating “continuity with Tradition.” The sentence following seemed to clarify that they meant “continuity” in a sense whereby all debate is silenced without discussion. I don’t think any Trad can argue that Vatican II is not in continuity on the ontological level of the Magisterium. That would amount to saying that Vatican II was not an Ecumenical Council at all. Nevertheless, I understood the lines as noting that the ambiguities were introduced by the documents of Vatican II in areas which had previously been made clear by the Magisterium.
Continuity must be Definitively Defined by the Magisterium
This is what I mean by saying that Unitatis Redintegratio (and other such documents) were issued “without reference to the prior documents on this subject.” You point out this document references prior Magisterium and the Holy Scripture. Certainly. But Ecumenism as a movement predates Unitatis Redintegratio by a few generations. This is not the Church’s first pronouncements on the subject. The Leo XIII issued Satis Cognitum (1896) and Pius XI issued Mortalium Animos (1928) on this subject, expressing the stance of the Church toward Ecumenism. This policy of the Church was not changed until Unitatis Redintegratio. When the policy changed, I assert that Vatican II could have been made more clear by referencing Leo XIII and Pius XI’s documents in Unitatis Redintegratio so that the continuity would be solid from the beginning. Thus, conceivably, the long clarification Dominus Iesus (2000) would have been unnecessary, since the text of 1964 would include, develop and re-affirm the same teachings contained in Leo XIII and Pius XI.
This is what what would normally happen for large “reversals” of policy before Vatican II, as I state in my Hypothesis:
Ven. Pius XII in Divino Afflante Spiritu changes the attitude toward the Vulgate, and thus includes an explanation using distinctions (20ff) in order to correctly understand how his encyclical does not contradict the Council of Trent. Vatican II and the post-conciliar Magisterium often simply ignore prior teachings, leaving the faithful to wonder how they are to be understood in light of prior Magisterium.
The fact that Vatican II makes a reversal on major issues without an explanation is admitted by defenders of the Conservative viewpoint. Would you agree that in 1964 this explanation (which came later in Dominus Iesus) may have been more effective in Unitatis Redintegratio some thirty-six years prior? Indeed, Ratzinger himself wrote in 1966: “A basic unity—of Churches that remain Churches, yet become one Church—must replace the idea of conversion, even though conversion retains its meaningfulness for those in conscience motivated to seek it.”
It would seem that by 2000, Ratzinger could reject the concept of “replacing the idea of conversion” when he helped issue Dominus Iesus, which repudiates most doubts as to the necessity of conversion to the Catholic Church for eternal life (even though the dogma of Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salvus is still not prominent).
This is what I mean by “failure” and “cause of the crisis” when I speak of Vatican II. It is not unreasonable nor schismatic for the Trad to say that the documents “contain error” in the sense that they “miss the mark” of realizing the Hermeneutic of Continuity within the text. This is why numerous theologians petitioned Benedict XVI to clarify crucial parts of continuity after he famously coined the phrase, but the faithful were given no answer.
I assert that the Magisterium has a duty to issue a definitive document which demonstrates the Hermeneutic of Continuity on all of the disputed points between the Pian Magisterium and the Vatican II Magisterium. But Ratzinger himself says that Gaudium et Spes and other documents play “the role of a counter-Syllabus to the measure that it represents an attempt to officially reconcile the Church with the world as it had become after 1789.” I assert that the current Magisterium has the duty to reconcile the Church to its own prior Pian Magisterium. I have argued this in more detail in another place.
Did Vatican I Dogmatize Pighius?
You have countered my assertions by stating that any concept of error contained in a Magisterial Act is contrary to the First Vatican Council which you quote at length. You seem to assert that Vatican I dogmatized Pighius’ sententia regarding a heretical pope. His opinion was that a pope can never be a heretical. It is simply impossible. This was the opinion defended by Bellarmine, which he says is sententia probabilis in his famous passage on the five opinions on the question of a heretical pope. You seem to assert that Vatican I raised this sententia from probabilis to de fide at Vatican I. Please clarify if I’ve misunderstood you.
This assertion, however, cannot be proved by simply quoting the passage you did from Vatican I. The phrases you bolded have been used by the Holy See for centuries, and known to the same theologians who argued against Pighius, and continued to do so after 1870. (I am relying here on the work of Mr. Ryan Grant, Bellarmine’s foremost English translator.) Ott even seems to say otherwise when he talks about the decisions of the Holy See:
The ordinary and usual form of Papal teaching activity is not infallible[.] … Nevertheless they are normally to be accepted with an inner assent which is based on the high supernatural authority of the Holy See (assensus religiosus). The so-called silentium obsequiosum, i.e. reverent silence, does not generally suffice. By way of exception, the obligation of inner assent may cease if a competent expert, after a renewed scientific investigation of all grounds, arrives at the positive conviction that the decision rests on an error.
In order to prove your assertion, you would need to show that Vatican I intended to address the well-known discussion on heretical popes and make a definitive pronouncement on this subject. However, the assertions of these theologians mentioned by Bellarmine and held by others before and after the Council are not addressed anywhere. Moreover, as Mr. Grant mentions in the above-linked discussion, the Acta show that the Council Fathers discussed whether to define one of the sententiae on the subject, but declined to do so.
You seem to assert that the dogma of indefectibility hinges on an alleged dogma of Pighius’ sententia, but this has not been proven. A good point to strengthen your case would be prove that Bellarmine (who held to Pighius) believed that if Pighius was wrong, then indefectibility was compromised. But this seems a tenuous claim, since he admits the other sententiae besides Pighius, and never accuses these others as compromising indefectibility.
I assert that the sententiae mentioned by Bellarmine have not been defined by the Magisterium. The most we can say about them is that one of them may be more probable than the others, but none of them can be said to be sententia communis, before or after Vatican I. I have not seen any evidence to the contrary, but as always I’m willing to be corrected.
Von Hildebrand Agreed with Davies on Vatican II
You assert that Deitrich Von Hildebrand “loved” Vatican II. It is true that in his first two books on the crisis you quote in your linked article, he made no direct critique of Vatican II but seems to place all the blame on the liberal interpreters of the same. To this I would not disagree in principle as I have said, but I do not say those who follow Lefebvre’s opinion of the Council are acting schismatically nor irrationally, since Vatican I did not dogmatize Pighius or your assertion about indefectibility.
First, it should be noted that Von Hildebrand was completely opposed to the New Mass. In the work you cite in your article on him, he also said this: “The new liturgy is without splendor, flattened, and undifferentiated…truly, if one of the devils in C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters had been entrusted with the ruin of the liturgy, he could not have done it better.” His critique was against the Latin text and rubrics of the New Mass, not merely its implementation. Therefore he wrote “I hope and pray…that in the future the Tridentine Mass will be reinstated as the official liturgy of the holy Mass in the Western Church.” As you point out, he stated that a Catholic must obey these orders regarding the New Mass but he can lawfully advocate for the reversal of these orders as he himself did. Would you call him a reactionary on these grounds? Would you disagree that a Catholic can lawfully advocate what Von Hildebrand advocated using his reasons?
Turning back to the subject of Vatican II itself, Von Hildebrand stated this regarding its authority:
The Second Vatican Council solemnly declared in its Constitution on the Church that all the teachings of the Council are in full continuity with the teachings of former councils. Moreover, let us not forget that the canons of the Council of Trent and Vatican Council I are de fide, whereas none of the decrees of Vatican II is de fide; the Second Vatican Council was pastoral in nature. Cardinal Felici rightly stated that the Credo solemnly proclaimed by Pope Paul VI at the end of the Year of Faith  is from a dogmatic point of view much more important than the entire Second Vatican Council. Thus, those who want to interpret certain passages in the documents of Vatican II as if they implicitly contradicted definitions of Vatican I or the Council of Trent should realize that even if their interpretation were right, the canons of the former councils would overrule these allegedly contradictory passages of Vatican II, because the former are de fide, the latter not. (It must be stressed that any such “conflict” would be, of course, apparent and not real.)
Here Von Hildebrand sets the Council as lower in authority than the prior Councils on the dogmatic level. Would you agree with his principles here? The traditionalist is responding to the imposition of at least an apparent break with Tradition. He sees, for example, the advocacy by popes of America-style religious liberty on the basis of Dignitatus Humanae, an advocacy which contradicts prior teaching that he believes to be de fide. Therefore he appeals to the Holy See, as the aforementioned theologians did with Benedict (or the Dubia Cardinals did with Francis) and does not receive a reply. Therefore, according to Von Hildebrand’s principles here, if he receives no answer, he must ignore Vatican II and hold to the de fide teaching from prior Magisterium. Traditionalists appeal to the Holy See and are ready to obey when this definitive definition is proclaimed. And this is where we may find agreement, as I will say below.
But ultimately, it appears that Von Hildebrand agreed with Michael Davies’ critique of Vatican II. Mr. Davies read Hildebrand’s words you quoted about Vatican II, and sent him a copy of his critical work on the Council. After Von Hildebrand read it, he wrote back and said concerning Davies’ work that he is “completely satisfied.” He praised Davies’ open letter in opposition to a bishop: “Thank you for writing it.” He said further concerning the Council, consistent with his principles quoted above:
I consider the Council—notwithstanding the fact that it brought some ameliorations—as a great misfortune. And I stress time and again in lectures and articles that fortunately no word of the Council—unless it is a repetition of former definitions de fide—is binding de fide. We need not approve; on the contrary we should disapprove. Unfortunately Maritain said in his last book: the two great manifestations of the Holy Spirit in our times are Vatican Council II and the foundation of the state of Israel.
I don’t think even Lefebvre would disagree with Von Hildebrand’s praise of the Council in comparison to the teachings of the liberal heretics he was attacking. Nevertheless, the issue is that on certain matters the Council failed to act, or acted in a way that was ambiguous. This brought about a situation–as indirect, historical causality alone–which exacerbated the crisis that erupted. Let us now to turn to the most important omission of Vatican II and the Conciliar Magisterium, where we find agreement.
Our Agreed Solution: The Charitable Anathema
As I stated above, the pastoral approach of Vatican II sought to reverse the pastoral approach that had been used for about nineteen centuries. This is the charitable anathema. Von Hildebrand beautifully articulates this pastoral action in his book of the same name:
The anathema excludes the one who professes heresies from the communion of the Church, if he does not retract his errors. But for precisely this reason, it is an act of the greatest charity toward all the faithful, comparable to preventing a dangerous disease from infecting innumerable people. By isolating the bearer of infection, we protect the bodily health of others; by the anathema, we protect their spiritual health[.] …
And more: a rupture of communion with the heretic in no way implies that our obligation of charity toward him ceases. No, the Church prays also for heretics; the true Catholic who knows a heretic personally prays ardently for him and would never cease to impart all kinds of help to him. But he should not have any communion with him. Thus St. John, the great apostle of charity, said: “If any man say, I love God, and hateth his brother; he is a liar” (I Jn. 4:20). But he also said: “If any man come to you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into the house[.]” (2 Jn. 1:10)
This “act of the greatest charity toward all the faithful” was abandoned by Pope St. John XXIII in his speech at the opening of the Council. He stated that the Church “thinks she meets today’s needs by explaining the validity of her doctrine more fully rather than by condemning” since “people by themselves seem to begin to condemn them.” Thus the charitable anathema was abandoned with the belief that Modern Man could condemn his own errors.
With respect to His Holiness, we feel we must disagree with this approach, as the history of the 60s to the present has shown us. Would you agree with this assessment of St. John XXIII? Pope St. Paul VI revoked the Oath against Modernism, but then Pope St. John Paul II instituted a new Oath of Fidelity including canonical penalties against heresy. Still, he did not renew the charitable anathema (except for Lefebvre and De Castro Mayer). This was a prudential error which must be reversed. This is the omission from Vatican II and after which is the “cause” of the crisis on a bare historical level, not on the level of Magisterium.
You said that you agreed with the Trad effort to get the Holy See to condemn heretics with the charitable anathema:
I think “the law should be laid down,” and rather forcefully. Recently I conceded that the traditionalists have been correct in calling for this approach for some time. I noted that the “strategy” of the Church of being more tolerant (itself borne out of the fear of schism: which was why St. Paul VI was reluctant) has been a manifest abject failure, and that it was time to go back to the approach of Pope St. Pius X: “kick the bums out” as it were.
We are in complete agreement here. The approach of Pope St. Pius X is the proven approach against Modernists, and indeed all of the history of heresy. That is why it is truly an “act of the greatest charity toward all the faithful.” I will say further that I think this agreement between us is more important than our disagreement about the nature of the Magisterium, the nature of Vatican II, etc. Those things will be debated among historians and theologians and Church may never work them out. But on the issues of manifest heresies, these things must be worked out and quickly, for the love of souls.
Therefore I say that Conservatives and Trads must unite around calling for the Charitable Anathema from the Holy See. From my view, the Declaration of Truths is the best example of this. It is a succinct act of a few bishops which clarifies numerous propositions of the faith using the Magisterium from Vatican II and after. From my view, it is the way forward for the Church. This is because the crisis cannot be resolved until the Magisterium definitively defines the Hermeneutic of Continuity and binds all the faithful to it on pain of anathema. The Declaration, to a large degree, achieves this. That is why I advocate that all bishops must confess the Declaration and excommunicate those who oppose it. In my view this is the solution, as bishops have done for centuries but now do not do.
Perhaps in your next response you could share your thoughts on my proposal and how and what you might advocate in regards to the Charitable Anathema. As always, I am happy to be corrected wherever I am in error.
Yours for the cause of the Gospel,
 Josef Ratzinger, Theological Highlights of Vatican II, (Paulist Press; Rev. ed. edition, 2009), 114. Emphasis in the original.
 “Le texte joue le rôle d’un contre-syllabus dans la mesure où il représente use tentative pour une réconciliation officielle de l’église avec le monde tel qu’il était deveneu depuis 1789.” Josef Ratzinger, Les Principes de la Theologie Catholique Esquisse et Materiaux (Paris: Tequi, 1982), 427
 Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (Baronius, 2018), 10
 Dietrich Von Hildebrand, The Devastated Vineyard, trans. Crosby and Teichert (Roman Catholic Books: 1973), 71
 Ibid., The Charitable Anathema (Roman Catholic Books: 1993), 33
 Ibid., 28. Emphasis his.
 Ibid., 5-6. Emphasis his.
 “[M]agis quam damnando, suae doctrinae vim uberius explicando putat hodiernis necessitatibus esse consulendum…ut hodie homines per se ipsi ea damnare incipere videantur.” Pope St. John XXIII, Allocution (October 11, 1962)