Fifty years after the opening of the Second Vatican Council, the Church in the United States is in the throes of a struggle. Loyal Catholics are showing renewed vigor and vitality, and are helping the Church to move forward in unity. At the same time, the Church is also being exhausted and drained from within by a vocal movement of other Catholics who continue to dissent from Church teachings, particularly the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.
Dissent is entrenched in the Church in the U.S.
For most American Catholics over 50, it is an accepted fact that dissent from the magisterium of the Church is widespread, tolerated, and, in some quarters, even welcomed. The breaking point, of course, was Paul VI’s 1968 prophetic encyclical, Humanae Vitae, which condemned contraception as “intrinsically disordered.” The encyclical became one of the most controversial documents of the century, if not many centuries. The widespread dissent by Catholics was led with enthusiasm by huge numbers of Catholic theologians, professors and intellectuals. The onslaught of bright, articulate academics turning on the Pope encouraged many Catholics in the pews to do the same.
Why would so many educated Catholics—who should have been ready and able to defend the teaching authority of the Church—turn against the Pope with such force? How could they justify it?
The most popular argument was that permission to dissent had been given by none other than the Second Vatican Council. The dissenters claimed that “the spirit of Vatican II,” along with theological perspectives of the Council, supported their argument that individual Catholics have a right to dissent from “non-infallible” Church teachings—even authoritative encyclicals like Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae—if they felt they had a good enough reason.
Unfortunately, this false notion was unwittingly given a boost by none other than the bishops of the United States. On November 15, 1968, a few months after the promulgation of Humanae Vitae, the bishops issued their pastoral letter, “Human Life in Our Day,” to help Catholics interpret the Pope’s encyclical. The bishops said in no. 51 of that document that in some cases, a Catholic could dissent from “non-infallible authentic doctrine” of the magisterium. They explained: “The expression of theological dissent from the magisterium is in order only if the reasons are serious and well-founded, if the manner of the dissent does not question or impugn the teaching authority of the Church, and is such as not to give scandal.”
So, the bishops did approve of limited dissent from papal teaching in faith and morals.
This position was given even more credence later by the powerful and widely quoted Cardinal Bernardin when he was Archbishop of Chicago. Shortly before his death in 1996, Cardinal Bernardin initiated his Catholic Common Ground Project, to bring factions of the church together in “dialogue.” According to a Nov. 14, 1996, article in Origins (pp. 353-356), the axis of Cardinal Bernardin’s legacy was the belief that “limited and occasional dissent” from the magisterium of the Church was “legitimate.”
But what did Vatican II really teach?
So, the intellectual community and even the high-ranking Church leaders were reinforcing the idea that dissent from Church teachings was to be expected, even welcomed—and that permission to do so came straight from Vatican II.
However, had they really read the documents of Vatican II?
The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), no. 25, presents a far different answer from the dissenters. This carefully reasoned Vatican II document states that, even though the bishops of the Catholic Church are not individually infallible, they do teach infallibly the Church’s doctrines of faith and morals “when, gathered together in an ecumenical council, they are teachers and judges of faith and morals for the universal Church, whose definitions must be adhered to with the submission of faith.”
What could be clearer? Lumen Gentium, no. 25, explicitly states that one such case of the bishops teaching infallibly is when they teach a matter of faith and morals in “an ecumenical council.” Vatican II was “an ecumenical council.” The Council also taught in no. 25 of Lumen Gentium that these definitions of the bishops on matters of faith and morals must be held with a “religious assent.” Furthermore: “This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra …”
The Council goes on to explain this required assent to the Pope’s non-ex cathedra teaching: “…that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will.” But how does one know the Pope’s “manifest mind and will?” Again, the Council clarifies it by saying that: “… His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.”
Clearly according to the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council there is no room for dissent from even the non-ex-cathedra or “non-infallible” decisions of the Pope on matters of faith and morals—not even “limited and occasional” dissent. This means that there is no room for dissent from the Pope’s teaching on contraception in Humanae Vitae. A Catholic, therefore, who would maintain that one could dissent from a non-ex cathedra or non-infallible decision of a pope, would be implicitly dissenting from Lumen Gentium no. 25 and the Second Vatican Council itself.
The occasion for the misunderstanding
Although Lumen Gentium, no. 25, speaks clearly, it should not come as a surprise that it was misinterpreted. Part of the confusion arose from an interpretation of Paul VI’s statement about the authority of the decisions of the Council. As found in vol. 11 of The Pope Speaks, Paul VI stated in “After the Council: New Tasks,”
In view of the pastoral nature of the Council, it avoided any extraordinary statement of dogmas that would be endowed with the note of infallibility, but it still provided its teaching with the authority of the supreme ordinary magisterium. This ordinary magisterium, which is so obviously official, has to be accepted with docility and sincerity by all the faithful, in accordance with the mind of the Council on the nature and aims of the individual documents.
For the dissenters, the Pope’s careful parsing of the Council’s mission—to avoid “any extraordinary statement of dogmas that would be endowed with the note of infallibility”—was apparently just enough of a loophole to keep the fires of their argument alive.
However, note that the Council titled Lumen Gentium, as the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. That indicates that the “nature” of Lumen Gentium is “dogmatic” per se, and its “aim” is to point out to Catholics those dogmas of divine faith which have always been part of the belief of the Church!
So, while there are no “extraordinary” dogmas in Vatican II, there are ordinary dogmas which are drawn from Scripture, Tradition, or previous teachings of the magisterium. Thus, even though the Pope and the Council did not exercise their infallible authority to teach Lumen Gentium, the contents (teachings) in Lumen Gentium are, by their very sources, clearly dogmatic. Thus, each Catholic must accept no. 25 of Lumen Gentium as a matter of faith, even though the form of the document itself is not infallible.
Of course, the fact remains that none of the documents of Vatican II are taught ex cathedra. Therefore, none of the teachings of Vatican II are formally pronounced as dogmas by the Second Vatican Council itself. So, very strictly speaking, a person can dissent from Vatican II itself without being a formal heretic. However, to dissent from an ecumenical council is no small matter. To put it informally, one may avoid being a heretic, but still may be a “bad” Catholic.
Ordinary counciliar self-verification is not enough
How did this confusion take root? It can best be explained as rising from the concept of conciliar self-verification. In other words, the Second Vatican Council teaches that the fathers at an “ecumenical council” are teachers of faith and morals, and their “definitions must be adhered to with the submission of faith.” The problem is, the ecumenical council making this statement is itself an ecumenical council—and, therefore, is making statements about itself and not making it with the highest authority, i.e., ex cathedra.
In other words, one might say this is the conciliar version of chasing one’s own theological tail. The fallout has been that, for several generations of Catholics, from academics and Church leaders to the laity in the pews, the lasting impression is, “Vatican II said it was okay to disagree with the Pope.”
Thus began the era of “taking sides.” It was as if the Catholic faith became no more than a grand game—Pope and established Church teachings versus the dissenters—and individual Catholics could simply pick which team to root for. Some called themselves liberals (the “left”) while others called themselves conservatives (the “right”). Each group dissented from Vatican II, but for different reasons.
Many liberal nuns in the U.S., for example, continue to sympathize with anti-life groups that claim they are helping the poor by promoting the poor’s right to funds for abortion and contraception. They claim to be supporting social justice by defending, or, at least, sympathizing with, the gay agenda. They are especially vocal in demanding that the Church ordain women to the priesthood—even after John Paul II informed them that the Church teaching on an all male priesthood is infallible and, therefore, cannot be changed.
On the other hand, the Society of St. Pius X, founded by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, continues to err on the side of utter conservative rigidity. They reject the Second Vatican Council as a movement of the Holy Spirit, and cling to the minutiae of 500-year-old rituals as necessary, for their own sake. The change of the liturgy from Latin to English, or the vernacular of each particular country, is their most well-known objection.
Therefore, today, 50 years after the opening of Vatican II, the misinterpretation of one of its most salient documents, Lumen Gentium, continues to drive a number of Catholics in the United States into one of two camps, the “right” or the “left.”
However, the age of confusion may be coming to an end. According to a July, 2012, article in Catholic World Report, the widespread errors that had grown up about papal authority was addressed head-on by Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller, the newly-appointed prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
“We also have the problem of groups—of the right and the left, as is usually said—which take up much of our time and our attention,” Archbishop Müller was quoted as saying. “Here, the danger easily arises of losing sight of our main task, which is to proclaim the Gospel and to explain concretely the doctrine of the Church.”
The archbishop was clear: dissenters do not belong solely to one camp or the other, despite the fact that each one would claim it to be so. Rather, dissenting Catholics on both the “right” and on the “left” are soaking up the energy of the Church by demanding attention to grievances and stifling the apostolate.
A clear path ahead
One way out of this dilemma is clear and simple. Obviously, the Second Vatican Council’s self-verification of Lumen Gentium, no. 25, was not sufficient to bring about the hoped for unity in faith and morals in the Church.
Therefore, Lumen Gentium, no. 25, should be verified outside of the Second Vatican Council. This could come either by the Pope, using his infallible authority to define Lumen Gentium, no. 25, as ex cathedra, or by another ecumenical council doing so. Given the deep, lasting errors which inadvertently took root after Vatican II—clearly, a great Council which has been unfairly besmirched by controversy—is it too much to think that the solution may be another, clarifying Council, perhaps Vatican III?
Some may argue that requiring all Catholics, even theologians, to make an absolute assent to Lumen Gentium, no.25, to remain in the Church would be severe. It would be a retreat from the spirit of John XXIII’s promise, which he made when he opened Vatican II in 1962, that the worldwide Council would use “the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity.” In other words, the Church would guide her flock without condemnations”—known in earlier centuries as the much dreaded “anathema sit” (“let him be excommunicated”).
However, if this confusion is faced, either through a ringing papal document, or the dramatic convening of a new Council, the outcome will absolutely follow Pope John XXIII’s call for “mercy rather than severity.”
Consider that it is Mercy itself for the Church to clearly proclaim her true nature and teaching authority. If she puts an end to the confusion of several generations, she can turn her entire strength and authority to attract people to the Catholic faith. And by doing so, how can we not say that she will be extending the Mercy of Christ himself?
As Christ said, “The Truth will set you free”—and what greater act of mercy is there, than to free those enslaved by error? Finally, dissenters on both the “right” and the “left” will have the Truth clearly presented to them, so that they can freely decide whether or not they are going to join the Church’s mission into the future.
The beauty of this approach is that no one needs to be explicitly condemned. The proclamation would be equivalent to the definition of “papal infallibility” or the “Immaculate Conception” or the “Assumption.” It would be a dogma defining the Church. A person who could not assent to Lumen Gentium, no. 25, would finally know—clearly and without equivocation—that they are no longer Catholic. The decision would be theirs.
Will this happen? We have reason to hope. Perhaps, the first inklings of a definitive move by the Church came in the words of Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller, the new Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Asked by an interviewer, “What do you think of the discussions with the Lefebvrists, and with the religious sisters of the United States?” The archbishop replied: “There are no negotiations on the Word of God, and one cannot “believe and not believe” at the same time. One cannot pronounce the three religious vows, and then not take them seriously. I cannot make reference to the tradition of the Church, and then accept it only in some of its parts.”
The Archbishop went on to say: “The path of the Church leads ahead, and all are invited not to enclose themselves in a self-referential way of thinking, but rather to accept the full life and the full faith of the Church.”
In the archbishop’s words are the seeds of rebirth, a rooting out of error, and the beginning of a new era of faith.
Editor’s note: This essay first appeared April 22, 2013 in Homiletic and Pastoral Review and is reprinted with permission.