Vatican II: a Fire in the Library of Catholic Doctrine?

“The teachings of the Council do not constitute an organic and complete system of Catholic doctrine; it is much broader, as everyone knows.” (Pope St. Paul VI)

Newsroom (15/08/2022 18:00, Gaudium Press) The conciliar assembly which marked the 20th Century brought together, for the first time, more than two thousand prelates from all over the Catholic world to deal with the renewal of the Church in the face of the challenges of a de-Christianized world, and will mark the history of the Church. Convoked by Pope St. John XXIII – who was soon after called by God into eternity – it became Pope St. Paul VI who was the pontiff to lead the Council and bringing it to its conclusion.

From October of 1962 to December of 1965, several significant documents, under various headings, came to light: “Declaration”, “Decree”, “Constitution”, “Pastoral Constitution” or “Dogmatic Constitution”.

New ecclesiology

The hundreds of pages thus approved by the bishops, archbishops and cardinals of the whole world all bear the signature of Pope St. Paul VI, which gives them particular authority as the Magisterium of the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Complete Magisterium? Infallible Magisterium? Innovative Magisterium? A Magisterium that replaces the previous one?

Since then, much has been promoted about the deep meaning of these documents, about the emergence of a “new ecclesiology”; that is, a new vision of the Church which was willed by Christ, as though it had been ignored, hidden, forgotten throughout the millennia.

Changes in liturgy, organization and government have taken place in the ecclesial body. Much has been said about the “Spirit of the Council”, indicating something that would be ‘deeper’ than the simple reading of the official texts, and that would be the true “key of interpretation”. But stated in such a way that implied that, separating himself from this “key”, the baptized person would be abandoning the “ecclesial communion”, even if he faithfully follows the “letter” of the Council, more or less (or even worse) like a Lutheran who detaches himself from Holy Mother Church.

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The Library of Alexandria

The imperious need to apply the legendary penalty imposed by the Muslim conqueror Omar ibn al-Khattâb, in 642, to the previous texts of the Magisterium, the Fathers of the Church, the Doctors and the Saints, to the enormous collection of works of philosophy and classical culture, Greek and Roman, Syrian or Egyptian, contained in the Library of Alexandria, would thus arise:

“If they indicate the right path, we already have the Qur’an; otherwise they should not be preserved.”

And all the thousands of manuscripts would have been thrown into a huge furnace because they were simply legend. And much of the same is repeated.

Should we make the imaginary burning of the Alexandrian scrolls a reality in our days? May only the Vatican II texts reflect the doctrine of the Church and may only they be quoted?

Conciliar Spirit

When did these ways of interpreting the conciliar documents arise as a function of a supposedly innovative and supra-textual “Conciliar Spirit”? It may come as a surprise to some.

It was on the eve of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, 7 December, 1965, when the last conciliar session took place. In it, St. Paul VI recalled the words of his predecessor when he began the work of the great Synod: “What matters most to the Ecumenical Council is this: that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine be guarded and taught more effectively” (Address at the last public session, 7/7/1965).

By dawn the next morning, a few hundred conciliar fathers, theologians, secretaries and assistants, filled with memories of the past days, had begun their journeys back home. And also, like an early morning mist on a winter’s day, the singular expression of the “Spirit of the Council” began to emerge.

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The Pope himself was surprised: in the first Wednesday catechesis (on 12 January, 1966), he called attention to such a singular expression:

The legacy of the Council,” said the Pope, “consists in the documents that were promulgated in the various concluding moments of its discussions and deliberations… To know, to study, to apply these documents is the duty and the lot of the post-conciliar period.”[1]

However, Pope St. Paul VI emphasized, “we must be careful: the teachings of the Council do not constitute an organic and complete system of Catholic doctrine; this is much broader, as everyone knows, and is neither questioned by the Council nor substantially modified... We must not separate the teachings of the Council from the doctrinal patrimony of the Church, so it is good to see how they fit into it, how they are consistent with it, and how they testify, augment, explain and apply it.”

And recalling his predecessor he underlined: “This was the first idea that moved Pope John XXIII, of venerable memory, to convoke the Council, as he well said at the opening session: ‘ut iterum magisterium ecclesiasticum. . . affirmaretur’; ‘It was our intention, so he expressed it, in calling this great assembly, to reaffirm the ecclesiastical Magisterium’ (AAS 1962, p. 786).

Therefore, it would not be true to think that the Council represents a detachment, a rupture, or, as some think, a liberation from the traditional teaching of the Church.”

The Council’s Thought

And not wishing to give rise to erroneous interpretations regarding the magisterial value of the documents he promulgated in union with the Council Fathers, the Pope categorically stated:

“There are those who wonder what is the authority, the theological qualification, that the Council wanted to attribute to its teachings, knowing that it avoided giving solemn dogmatic definitions, avoided compromising the infallibility of the ecclesiastical Magisterium. And the answer is known to anyone who remembers the Council’s clarification of 6 March, 1964, repeated on 16 November, 1964: given the pastoral character of the Council, it avoided pronouncing in an extraordinary way dogmas endowed with the note of infallibility; but it nevertheless supplied its teachings with the authority of the supreme ordinary Magisterium, which ordinary Magisterium – it is so clearly authentic – must be meekly and sincerely accepted by all the faithful, in accordance with the Council’s thinking as to the nature and purposes of individual documents.”

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So there is a “Thought of the Council,” a “Spirit of the Council,” transcending the letter of the documents of the ordinary Magisterium, whose assimilation is more important than the Magisterium itself? For the Pope, this thought and this spirit consisted of fidelity to the elementary, multi-secular criteria that rank the teachings of the Magisterium: without taking away the importance they deserve, and without relegating them to a second plane just because “they are not infallible”. Here are the Pope’s words: “We must enter into the spirit of these basic criteria of the ecclesiastical Magisterium… Because the ‘Spirit of the Council’ really wants to be the Spirit of truth (Io. 16:13).

Therefore, the “Spirit of the Council” (as explained by Pope St. Paul VI) would depart from those who try to give its documents a value that they did not seek, inventing a new fable based on the imaginary destruction of the library of Alexandria by Omar ibn al-Khattâb, because “the teachings of the Council do not constitute an organic and complete system of Catholic doctrine; it is much broader, as everyone knows”.

Compiled by Sandra Chisholm

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