Behind the Scenes at Vatican II

Reading Roberto de Mattei’s The Second Vatican Council: An Unwritten Story, I began to recall some “hot button” Catholic issues of the early 1960s – “active participation” at Mass; the advent of the contraceptive pill; the communist threat; the place of Marian devotions; and the ecumenical movement.

There seems to be a widespread impression now that calling for a new church council was a spontaneous idea that popped into the head of the supremely optimistic and somewhat liberal Pope John XXIII. But this is mistaken. Pope John’s predecessors, Pius XI and Pius XII, had both seriously considered calling for a council as a sequel to Vatican I. The conservative Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, head of the Vatican curia, strongly suggested to both Pius XII and John XXIII initiatives for a new council. Pope John, a few months after his coronation as pope, accepted Ottaviani’s suggestion as an inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and decided to call for an ecumenical council.

In his magisterial account, de Mattei describes the initial preparations: In his 1959 encyclical, Ad Petri cathedram, Pope John XXIII delineated two principal purposes for the council: “In order to bring about a growth in the Catholic Faith and a true moral renewal of the Christian people.” A query about possible agendas for the Council was sent to the world’s bishops, superiors of religious orders, and Catholic universities. By January1960, about 3000 responses were received by the Vatican. The recommendations (vota) were tallied. De Mattei sums up:

The majority of the vota (even from the French episcopate, reputed to be one of the most progressive) asked for a condemnation of modern evils, both inside and outside the Church, above all of communism, and for new doctrinal definitions, in particular regarding the Blessed Virgin Mary.

In the first of four sessions of the council, 2,381 council fathers participated. One-third of the bishops were from Europe, although most of the 500 fathers from Africa and Asia were of European origin. Only about 50 of the 146 bishops were from the European communist world, and only 44 of the 144 Chinese bishops were present. All the business of the council was conducted in Latin.

The initial schemas had been prepared by ten commissions appointed by the pope, under the direction of thirteen cardinals, coordinated by three secretariats. The initial commissions mostly corresponded to congregations of the Roman Curia, under the direction of Cardinal Ottaviani. At the instigation of Archbishop Lorenzo Jäger and Cardinal Augustin Bea, John XXIII also created a Secretariat for promoting Christian Unity under the direction of Bea and the Dutch priest, Johannes Willebrands.

Very soon this Secretariat for Promoting the Unity of Christians was designated by Pope John as a commission with the power of checking and reformulating the work of the various other commissions. It gradually became a “first among equals” and began to upstage the efforts of the curia. According to de Mattei, the importance of this ecumenically-oriented commission for Council proceedings cannot be underestimated: “It took away from the Holy Office the responsibility for relations between Catholics and other Christians, and. . .it turned on its head the traditional Roman attitude towards heretics and schismatics.” It became a watchdog for work emerging from the other commissions that might have possibly negative consequences for ecumenical relations.

Vatican II, according to the pope’s intentions and the directives, was “ecumenical” in the traditional sense – a calling together of prelates from the whole world to deliberate on issues affecting the Church. It was not intended to be “ecumenical” after the model of Protestant denominations at the beginning of the 20th century, coordinating their various missions, and leading in 1948 to the establishment of the World Council of Churches. However, under the direction of Cardinal Bea’s commission, the latter, Protestant-initiated sense of “ecumenism” began to give direction to most of the Council’s proceedings.

Many proposals were evaluated on the basis of how they would facilitate or impede the ideal of unification with other Christians. Protestants and Orthodox representatives who had been invited as “observers” to the Council were often consulted by the theologians and prelates associated with the commission.

Conflict between Bea and Ottaviani became apparent during the initial preparations in a session devoted to the relation between Catholicism and other religions. Cardinal Ottaviani’s presentation was entitled De tolerantia, and Bea’s was De libertate religiosa. Ottaviani claimed that the relation to other religions was a theological issue that should be under the direction of his theological commission, and he defended his right to formulate for the Council the schema on the subject. Bea responded that it was the prerogative of his own commission, and he added, “I radically oppose what you say in your schema De tolerantia religiosa.” This was the first of a number of maneuvers that would eventually minimize the influence of the Holy Office.

A progressive alliance of theologians such as Yves Congar and Henri de Lubac, and progressive bishops and cardinals such as Léon-Josef Suenens and Helder Câmara, began to meet regularly and drew up an “enemies” list of “Ultramontanists” who were obstructing their moves for reconciliation with Protestantism. “The leading conference speakers,” observes de Mattei, “were Fathers Rahner or Küng for the German-speaking regions, Chenu, Congar, de Lubac, Daniélou for the Francophone countries, and Schillebeeckx for the English-speaking world.”

Prior to the Council, Cardinal Eugêne Tisserant had carried out secret negotiations with potential Russian Orthodox observers, who wanted assurances that there would be no explicit denunciations of communism during the Council. In response to multiple appeals for a clear condemnation of communism, John XXIII disassociated himself from such “prophets of misfortune” in his opening address and emphasized his reliance on what the “plan of divine goodness” would provide for the Church.

Although Pope John, along with many Council Fathers, was favorable to the preservation of Latin in the Church, Cardinal Ottaviani in defending the Latin liturgy was publicly humiliated by Dutch Cardinal Bernard Jan Alfrink, who ordered Ottaviani’s microphone to be shut off mid-debate for exceeding the ten-minute limit, causing some in the assembly to applaud. According to de Mattei,  “Bishop Helder Câmara saw in that applause the emergence of the ‘spirit of the council’.” The progressives considered Latin as an instrument of control by the Roman Curia. Bishop Duschak, apostolic vicar of Calpan in the Philippines, but a German by birth, proposed an “ecumenical Mass,” celebrated aloud in the vernacular and facing the people. His proposal was actually put into effect before the conclusion of the Council. In March, 1965 Paul VI began celebrating Masses in Italian in some Roman parishes.

During the second of the four sessions of Vatican II, the numerous but disorganized conservatives, realizing that they were being out-maneuvered and even silenced by the progressive anti-Roman party, began to coordinate their own efforts with regular meetings and strategic moves, under the leadership of Cardinals Ottaviani, Giuseppe Siri, and Ernesto Ruffini. Ruffini’s office in the Domus Mariae became the source of well-planned “interventions.” Cardinal Siri cooperated in spite of his discouragement at Paul VI’s apparent sympathy with the progressive wing. The group resulting from this new alignment was called the Coetus Internationalis Patrum (International Group of Fathers).

The numerous animated, and occasionally hostile, debates between the two factions resulted in compromises, ambiguities, occasional victories, and some omissions:

  • In 1964, 510 prelates from 78 countries implored the pontiff to consecrate the world, and in particular Russia, to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, in union with all the bishops of the world; and many council fathers appealed for a definition of “Mary Mediatrix of all Graces.” But the progressive theologians Yves Congar, Karl Rahner, and René Laurentin fought successfully against such initiatives, and were even able to demote a planned separate schema on Mary to a mere segment of a chapter being prepared concerning the Church. Towards the very end of the conference, however, Pope Paul VI intervened and overruled the Conciliar Commission that had refused to bestow the title, “Mother of the Church,” on Mary.
  • Progressives, in an attempt to democratize the Church returned to the issue of “collegiality,” which had been defeated in Vatican I, and argued for the primacy of the Apostolic College, with the pope as “first among equals.” The idea was that papal primacy and the Congregation of the Holy Office were an obstacle to ecumenical reunion. But Bishop Luigi Carli of Segni, in an impassioned defense of papal primacy, changed the atmosphere of the discussion to a more moderate tone. And Pope Paul VI, on what the progressives called “Black Thursday,” added numerous further changes clarifying the primacy of the pontiff in regard to the episcopal college.
  • In the sessions on marriage and the family, Cardinal Suenens suggested a reexamination of the Church’s position on contraception, in view of the “overpopulation problem,” and exhorted the Fathers, “Let us avoid a new ‘Galileo trial.’ One is enough for the Church.” The distinction made by Pius XI in Casti connubii between “primary” and “secondary” ends of marriage, was utilized by progressives to prioritize the secondary ends, even at the expense of procreation. This caused Cardinal Ruffini to pound his fist on the table and ask whether the Church was going to now officially change morality. This led to heated discussions, and Pope Paul VI strongly reprimanded Suenens for his lack of judgment. Ultimately, the Pastoral Constitution, Gaudium et spes, which resulted from these discussions, reiterated in general terms the traditional position regarding contraception: “sons of the Church may not undertake methods of birth control which are found blameworthy by the teaching authority of the Church in its unfolding of the divine law.” Pope Paul, in the aftermath of the Council, placed the issue beyond dispute with his encyclical Humanae vitae.
  • In the 3rd session of the Council, bishops began to bring up the possible scandal if a “pastoral” council said nothing about communism, which was the greatest scourge of the era. This subject was brought up again in the fourth session and was subject to explosive debate. 435 council fathers from 86 countries presented a petition to the assembly to include some paragraphs in The Church in the Modern World condemning the errors of communism, since this was without doubt the main pastoral problem of the era and persecuted Christians throughout the world were expecting clear directives from the Council. However, through extreme negligence (in the opinion of some, malice) of Monsignor Achille Glorieux, secretary of the Mixed Commission, this petition was not passed on to the commission working on the schema. When Glorieux’s irregularity was brought to the attention of Paul VI, in view of the 1962 negotiations between Cardinal Tisserant and Orthodox Metropolitan Nikodim concerning avoidance of embarrassing remarks about communism, the pope agreed with Tisserant that no explicit condemnation should be made. The compromise was a very general reference in §21 of Gaudium et spes to poisonous ideologies: “The Church has already repudiated and cannot cease repudiating, sorrowfully but as firmly as possible, those poisonous doctrines and actions which contradict reason and the common experience of humanity, and dethrone man from his native excellence.”
  • In the discussion of Nostra aetate, the movement to remove liturgical references to “deicide” by the Jews, and to recognize the significance of the divine covenant with the Jews, led some from Arabic countries to charge that this might be perceived as “pro-Zionist.” This objection led eventually to the parallel inclusion of Islam in the segments on “non-Christian religions” – referring to the Church’s “esteem” of the Muslims who “adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees. . . .they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.” This praise of Islam was continued in Lumen gentium, which characterized Islam as an “Abrahamic” religion adoring “the one merciful God.” With such extraordinary praise, the Council proved that it was not pro-Zionist. But then, with Dignitatis humanae, on religious freedom, the council not only removed every type of state protection of the Catholic Church in countries like Spain and Italy, but also inadvertently opened the door to the relativistic spread of any other religion, including Islam.

Roberto de Mattei

DeMattei observes:

Relativism asserted itself by denying to the state any form of religious and moral censorship as it faced rampant de-Christianization. Islam, in the name of this same religious freedom, demanded the construction of mosques and minarets, which were destined to surpass in number the churches that had been abandoned or transformed into hotels and supermarkets.

DeMattei concludes that what is called “the spirit of Vatican II” is:

embedded primarily in four documents, Gaudium et spes, which sought dialogue with the modern world, Unitatis redintegratio on ecumenism, Nostra aetate on the Church’s relations with non-Christian religions, and the declaration Dignitatis humanae, on religious liberty. The common perspective of these texts is ecumenism, and the decisive contribution to their composition came from Cardinal Bea’s Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity. (Emphasis added.)

What are we to make of this Council? I would suggest the following lights and shadows in its legacy:

The lights: This was a truly worldwide Council, truly “ecumenical” in the original sense – not primarily European, like Vatican I, but including substantial delegations from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In spite of a weak Vatican Ostpolitik and the scandalous omission of any condemnation of communism, inroads were made towards eventual reunification with the Orthodox, who among Christians are closest to Roman Catholicism and its traditions. Many now would consider the openness to the vernacular in the liturgy a great step forward. And the Council in the face of multiple challenges reaffirmed numerous Catholic doctrines – including the equal importance of tradition and Scripture, papal primacy, the moral unacceptability of contraception, and the fact that Christ’s church “subsists” in the Catholic Church.

The shadows: The silence about communism, which, even from a purely pastoral point of view, was the greatest threat to the Church in the 20th century, was, in the words of the Brazilian philosopher and historian, Plinio Corréa de Oliveira, “enigmatic, disconcerting, dreadful, and apocalyptically tragic.”  Probably connected with this outlandish omission was the inattention to Mariology, in spite of the appeals of numerous Church fathers – topped off by Pope Paul VI’s 1967 visit to Fatima, in which he refused to agree to a conversation with Sr. Lucia, to whom Our Lady had entrusted the warnings about the spread of Soviet communism. Also regrettable: the tremendous naiveté about Islam, which without doubt is the religion most hostile to Christianity, by Council fathers who apparently had no knowledge of Muslim scriptures, the warnings of numerous Catholic saints, or even familiarity with the opinions of Hilaire Belloc, Winston Churchill, John Quincy Adams, and other astute thinkers.


Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.

  • Jim Soriano

    Professor Kainz,

    Thank you for this very fine summary de Mattei. You say that the silence on communism was one of Vatican II’s “shadows,” and it strikes me that, in the greater scheme of things, the silence may have been ironically a background condition conducive to the election of Karol Wojtyla years later. If communism was one of Vatican II’s hot button issues, making it hotter by an strong condemnation might have led the conclave in 1978 to opt for a candidate other than one from a communist country. As it turned out, a Catholic Pope played no small role in burying communism in the latter part of the twentieth century.

  • Thomas C. Coleman, Jr.

    The Kremlin finessed the Holy See magnificently. To this day I hear priests repeat like automatons that “The Church no longer categorically condemns Communism.” The plot was so successful that even the hint that Marxism is the enemy of Christianity soundsto modern ears like an endorsement of the geocentric model. Does anyone now understand “diabolical disorientation”? As for inroads toward reconciliation with the Orthodox world, the situation is worse than before. The entire event was a catastrophe for humanity, and there is no dogma that requires that we believe otherwise.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    I would sugest that the document that epitomies the teaching of the Council and discloses the unity to the others is Dei Verbum

  • Shawn Marshall

    “burying communism”…..
    Marxist Liberation Theology is alive and well in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. See “Jesuits” by Malachi Martin.

  • Chris in Maryland

    It was a mistake of tragic and gigantic proportions that all work in Vatican II was shifted and sifted through the filter of “Secretariat for Promoting the Unity of Christians.”

    The goal of the “Secretariat for Promoting the Unity of Christians” was, quite frankly, not to unite with theologically closer Eastern Orthodox. It is disclosed by Karl Rahner’s emerging principle of “epistemological tolerance,” that is: “no particular church” (read: The Catholic Church) can reject the truth claim made by another church. It is the Rahner versus Ratzinger debate. For Rahner, Christian unity is not uniting around truth claims, but “unity in action.” For Ratzinger, truth claims, that is, a common profession of faith, is the basis and ground for unity. It is a belief that ultimately, Truth comes before unity, and in the hectic “here-and-now,” Truth trumps unity.

    As an example of “Truths” that Rahner couldn’t hold, he rejected transubstantiation, and was finally personally rebuked for that by Pope Paul VI.

    So to Rahner and the Secretariat, for the sake of “Christian Unity” truth will be subordinated.

    And what has happened in those other protestant denominations Cardinal Bea was going after since the Council? They have utterly collapsed. Less than 10% of their people even do the bare minimum of “going to Church” on Sunday. Even their own people realize that there is nothing worth committing themselves to – so they drifted away.

    And yet, in its primacy over all things at the Council, the “Secretariat for Unity of Christians” willingly diluted and suppressed our own Catholic liturgy, and fabricated a new one, in the expectation that, along with The Church ceasing to make truth claims, we would be re-united with those who reject Catholic truth claims, like the Eucharist. Meanwhile – I guess the “ecumenists” simply assumed that the Eastern Orthodox would “see the light” and realize that clinging to the Eucharist would put them, as progressives like to say, “on the wrong side of history.”

    This explains why the various Constitutions of the Council, while having many good parts and pieces, are in the whole so ambiguous and contradictory.

    It is a mighty struggle to keep The Church abiding in Christ, the “The Way, the Truth and the Life.” Ratzinger’s “Introduction to Christianity” is a great gift in this struggle, along with his numerous other lucidly written work. I am going to go back and read “Dominus Jesus.”

  • Jon S.

    And yet for all the machinations behind the scenes, Vatican II was an exercise of power over the universal church in a solemn manner by the college of bishops with the agreement of the Roman Pontiff (cf. Catechism 883-884).

    If only every bishop had implemented Vatican II in his diocese as Archbishop Karol Wojtyla did in Krakow.

  • Paul Jaminet

    Thank you, very informative!

  • RBT

    To my way of thinking, the document that made the most direct (because political) liberal inroads into the Church was Dignitatis Humanae. Not that it contains, prima facie, dogmatic novelites–it simply hobbles full Catholic ecclesiology in modern societies, apparently for as long as this mode of society lasts. Additionally, it has made the Church incapable of combating a type of religious and ideological pluralism that “goes all the way down.” Our current, rear-guard action against religious persecution in the US is all the weaker for DN and might be, in some indirect way, due to the weak reed that DN is.

  • Manfred

    Thank you, Howard, for a very frank and informative synopsis of de Mattei’s opus. I was hoping you would quote Msgr. Joseph(?) Fenton, but maybe next time.
    What many Catholics do not realize is that Protestants, in order to show their good faith and support of these ecumenical ideas, almost IMMEDIATELY BEGAN TO ORDAIN WOMEN, a practice which had never occurred before in all of Judeo-Catholic history. The naivete of the Council Fathers on many subjects is truly alarming.

    You mention “his discouragement” concerning Cardinal Siri. Actually, as these quotes make clear, it was a lot more than that.

    “I am bound by the secret.The secret is horrible. I would have books to write about the different Conclaves.Very serious things have taken place. But I can say nothing.”

    “If the Church were not Divine, the Council would have buried her.”

  • jm

    I’d argue a major shadow is found in Dei Verbum with the phrase “that truth which God wanted put into the sacred writings *for the sake of our salvation.*” Whether interpreted rightly or wrongly, its inclusion opened the door to a highly skeptical view of the contents of Scripture that has paralyzed effective catechesis ever since. If you read de Mattei’s account surrounding that document, you realize how it reflects a downshifting to a more Modernist take on inspiration. The concept of Inerrancy was dismissed in a waive, despite explicit approval in encyclicals up until then. The shoe thing represented a ‘development’ of doctrine that was more an abrogation.

  • Howard Kainz

    @jm and Michael Paterson-Seymour: Dei Verbum had, as Mattei puts it, “the longest gestational period” at the Council, but at the end was voted for with 2,344 “yes” votes, and only six “no” votes. The overwhelming support can be partially explained by the fact that the document contained no dogmatic definitions. But Fr. Henri de Lubac, who had a great influence on the Council deliberations, in 1969 indicated that he had second thoughts about distortions of Dei verbum — it had become a pretext for a “narrow biblicism which disregards any and all tradition.”

  • George Sim Johnston

    There are significant gaps of appreciation in this article. The main documents of Vatican II propose an attractive Christian humanism, summed up in section 22 of Gaudium et Spes: “Christ the new Adam … fully reveals man to himself …” Christ, who is total self-gift, is proposed as a model for man, who “by his innermost nature … is a social being; and if he does not enter into relations with others he can neither live not develop his gifts.” (GS 12)

    As the young Joseph Ratzinger, who was an adviser at the Council, recognized, there was a need for Catholic theology to get beyond an increasingly sterile neo-Thomism, where one only had to push a button to get an answer. There was a need to redefine the Church as a missionary movement and not simply a juridical machine run by the bishop of Rome. There was a need to get beyond merely negative definitions of the laity as “not the clergy”. And so forth.

    The documents did all this. The messy human contingencies behind them signify no more than they did at the previous twenty councils, which also featured plotting and machinations.

  • Myshkin

    Historians nowadays do not shy from advocating their point of view in their works. Writing mostly from their perch in academia, they often push a particular slant on the events they describe. Their reasoning is that history was always done that way; however, past historians were weasels and tried to market themselves as “objective,” whatever that meant to those past shysterish historians. Dr. De Mattei does not shy away from loading his prose with his point of view on Vatican II. And as an eminent academic historian, that is his prerogative. Other academic historians, like Fr. John W. O’Malley, have larded their own point of view onto the Council in like fashion. You can pick your history as you wish.

    My only caveat emptor is that discounting the doctrinal importance of the Council, denying it the infallibility it has claim to as the 21st Ecumenical Council leads one down the path to heresy. Mennonites for example prattle on about the “Constantinian shift” that supposedly occurred at the First Council of Nicaea. Before this supposed shift everyone was a good Mennonite, but then came the dastardly First Council of Nicaea after which the Church became corrupted. Renowned academic historians like John Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas have maintained this is true. They scorn the events of the First Council of Nicaea, loading their own Protestant views onto it. To follow them is to plunge into heresy. The lesson is: Be careful that you don’t let your own private judgement separate you from the Magisterial teaching of the Roman Catholic Church.

  • Martha Rice Martini

    You mention “[t]he silence about communism” as a strategic concession, problematic in itself, to Russian Orthodoxy. But that silence was no doubt also supported by a positive view of socialism extending even through the highest clerical ranks.

    Paul VI, for example, was a close friend of Jacques Maritain, who was a close friend of Saul Alinsky. It is sometimes forgotten that Maritain began as a socialist, indeed, married to a Russian; and though the two of them later converted under the influence of St. Thomas, St. Thomas too appears to have been “converted” under THEIR influence. At any rate, while the common good for St. Thomas is a complicated matter, for Maritain, it is almost a simple redistribution of goods and services in the name of material equality.

  • Howard Kainz

    @Myshkin: You refer to “the infallibility it has claim to as the 21st Ecumenical Council.” But it would be a mistake to attach “infallibility” to ecumenical councils. Also, Vatican II did not make any laws, and offered no dogmatic definitions regarding faith and morals. There may have been mistakes or omissions, but no infallible pronouncements (and also no heresies).

  • Matt

    “Pope John, a few months after his coronation as pope, accepted Ottaviani’s suggestion as an inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and decided to call for an ecumenical council.”

    This is not my understanding of the history. My understanding was the then-cardinal went to the conclave as a known papabile candidate and during the conclave ballots promised to call a council if elected.

    Pope John XXIII was a proponenet of calling a council long before Ottavania and if I am not mistaken….the Pope later said well into his Papacy) that it was a flash of inspiration from the Holy Spirit.

  • Murray


    To what PRECISE propositions or definitions are we bound under penalty of heresy in the Vatican II documents? Of course, Vatican II speaks infallibly whenever it restates a prior dogmatic teaching, but what else? Please be specific, since up till now I have never seen anyone provide a serious answer to this question.

  • Howard Kainz

    @Martha Rice Martini: According to DiMattei, Maritain’s “Integral Humanism,” which developed his idea of a “new Christendom,” was highly influential in neo-modernist circles. “At the basis of this philosophy of history, which looked for a hypothetical ‘third way’ between ‘the medieval conception’ and the ‘liberal’ one, there was the deterministic thesis of the irreversibility of the modern world and the Marxist postulate of ‘the historical role of the proletariat.'”

  • Myshkin

    @Dr. Kainz

    There’s more than one way infallibility may be manifested in the Roman Catholic Church. An Ecumenical Council when in agreement with the Holy See, manifests the infallibility (at least, but perhaps more, depending on other circumstances), the infallibility of the Ordinary Magisterium. No one could argue that the Second Vatican Council was not in agreement with the Holy See (unless you are in something of a break with the Holy See, like a sede-vacantist or privationist, or mayhap an Old Catholic, etc.). My point, which you must grant, is that when people privilege their private judgment above the Roman Catholic Magisterium, they certainly have stepped off the straight and narrow way which Christ made for us to follow.

  • Murray


    I know you were answering Dr Kainz, but your answer doesn’t do anything to clarify. If the Second Vatican Council invokes the infallibility of the Ordinary Magisterium, *to what are we bound, EXACTLY?*

    I hear this all the time: someone claims that Vatican II binds the faithful, but is mysteriously unable to specify the precise declarations our definitions that bind us. In itself, this is an unprecedented situation in Church history: a set of infallible teachings that no-one can enumerate!

  • Howard Kainz

    @Matt: In an interview after the conclave, when asked about the idea of the council, Cardinal Ottaviani said, “It was I who visited him in his little room at the conclave on the eve of the election. Among other things I told him, ‘Your Eminence, it is necessary to think about a council.’ Cardinal Ruffini, who was present at the conversation, was of the same mind. Cardinal Roncalli adopted this idea….”

  • Myshkin


    First, in a very real way you have already answered your own question: “whenever it restates a prior dogmatic teaching.”

    Second, as Fr. McCloskey writes in today’s TCT, get a hold of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Read through the Catechism and observe how the Church uses the various documents from Vatican II to structure and teach the faith. This will provide the larger view of the Council’s infallibility. As you shall see, documents like Lumen Gentium provided an organizational renewal for the Church’s doctrine, but not new doctrines. This is reflected in the way the Roman Catholic Church has configured its present catechesis. Of course, the temptation with the Catechism is to only consult it piecemeal, but not study it as a whole. It will take time and effort, but if you are really looking to understand the Second Vatican Council’s manifestation of infallibility, reading and absorbing the Catechism is the best way to do that.

    If you don’t want to take my word for it, then take Fr. McCloskey’s!

  • Murray


    But it’s entirely conceivable that the Church could, after a certain period of time, return to its pre-VII, ancient modes of liturgy, catechesis, evangelism, and ecumenism. Not necessarily in a revolutionary fashion, perhaps over several generations. Would they be heretical to do so?

    After all, we know from a great many experts, including both Conciliar popes and then-Cardinal Ratzinger, that Vatican II deliberately chose to remain on a purely pastoral level, without defining new binding teachings. This seems to imply that as “pastoral” circumstances change over the years (or if Vatican II is seen in hindsight to have largely borne rotten fruit), the Council documents might fall into desuetude. Would this be heretical, in your opinion? If so, please explain why.

  • George Sim Johnston

    There is some confusion in this discussion about the “infallibility” of the Second Vatican Council. Technically, two of the documents contain infallible teachings of the extraordinary Magisterium– “Lumen Gentium” and “Dei Verbum”–and they are labeled as such. The other documents do not have this level of authority, but of course are to be taken seriously. The place to start a discussion about the different levels of authority of Magisterial documents is “Lumen Gentium” 25.

  • Howard Kainz

    @George Sim Johnston: Lumen Gentium speaks quite a bit about infallibility and the general conditions for infallibility, but does it or Dei Verbum make any infallible doctrinal declarations? Pope Paul seemed to put this into doubt when he said in a 1966 General Audience: “In view of the pastoral nature of the Council, it avoided any extraordinary statements of dogmas endowed with the note of infallibility, but it still provided its teaching with the Authority of the Ordinary Magisterium which must be accepted with docility according to the mind of the Council concerning the nature and aims of each document”

  • Jon S.

    For clariifcations on the nature of doctrine and infallibilty, see the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s “Doctrinal Commentary on the Concluding Formula of the Professio Fidei” (1998) issued coincident with the promulgation of Pope John Paul II’s “Ad Tuendam Fidem.”

    Based on Paragraph 4 of which, I believe it is accurate to distinguish between three orders of truth taught by the Magisterium.

    Re Maritain and “Neo-Thomism,” I have found the great Thomists of the 20th Century–Maritain, Pieper, and Gilson–to have been immensely helpful in understanding the Faith of the Apostles, the Fathers, the Doctors, the saints, the popes, the Ecumenical Councils, Chesterton, Newman, and Weigel.

  • George Sim Johnston

    Howard: “Dei Verbum” is a Dogmatic Constitution, and is labeled as such for a good reason. It clarifies the relationship between the two sources of revelation, Scripture and Tradition, in a way that previous documents had not.

  • Howard Kainz

    @George Sim Johnston: I understand that an ecumenical council could make infallible dogmatic declarations. But with regard to Vatican II, how do you explain Pope Paul VI’s 1966 statement mentioned above concerning its “pastoral” and “non-infallible” nature?

  • George Sim Johnston

    I believe Paul VI was echoing John XXIII, in that the overriding purpose of the Council was pastoral–to find ways to speak more convincingly to the modern world by proposing an attractive Christian humanism, and so forth. And, indeed, no new doctrines were defined. There were no new Marian dogmas, for example, even though some cardinals wanted this. However, the Council Fathers in the two Dogmatic Constitutions, “Lumen Gentium” and “Dei Verbum”, nailed down–clarified, if you will–teachings that are part of the Deposit of Faith and must be believed by the faithful. For example, there are not “two” sources of revelation, Scripture and Tradition, that are in tension with one another, but one source, Jesus Christ who reveals the Father.