And So It Begins

Formal theological discussions about Vatican II will begin later this month, it was announced today. Why is Benedict XVI allowing this new debate on the most vexed questions of the Second Vatican Council?

By Robert Moynihan, reporting from Rome

“The first real task of the Council was to overcome the indolent, euphoric feeling that all was well with the Church, and to bring into the open the problems smoldering within.” —Father Joseph Ratzinger, in a talk on the Second Vatican Council delivered in October 1964, while the Council was still in session (he was then 37 years old and a peritus or “expert” at the Council; see

“What has happened since the Second Vatican Council can, according to Cardinal Ratzinger, be described as a cultural revolution, considering the false zeal with which the churches were emptied of their traditional furnishings, and the way that clergy and religious orders put on a new face. That ‘rashness’ is already regretted by many, the cardinal contends. There was, he believes, a ‘widening gulf’ between the Council Fathers, who wanted aggiornamento, updating, and ‘those who saw reform in terms of discarding ballast, a more diluted faith rather than a more radical one…'” —The London Tablet, April 19, 1997, reviewing the book Salt of the Earth, a book-length interview with German writer Peter Seewald (conducted when Ratzinger was in his late 60s)

“After the Second Vatican Council, the impression arose that the Pope really could do anything in liturgical matters, especially if he were acting on the mandate of an Ecumenical Council. Eventually, the idea of the givenness of the liturgy, the fact that one cannot do with it what one will, faded from the public consciousness of the West. In fact, the First Vatican Council had in no way defined the Pope as an absolute monarch. On the contrary, it presented him as the guarantor of obedience to the revealed Word. The Pope’s authority is bound to the Tradition of faith…” —Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, 2000 (published when Ratzinger was 73 years old)

Pope Benedict XVI has just made a dramatic choice, one which will certainly be numbered among the major decisions of his pontificate.

He has decided, in effect, to reopen formal debate on the Second Vatican Council and its teaching.

The new dialogue, which will take place in Rome between the leaders of the Fraternity of St. Pius X (the followers of the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre) and Vatican experts will take place on October 26 at the Vatican, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said today.

(Here is a link to a full report on the announcement:

For the Pope’s critics, the decision is unwise, as it seems likely to open a large can of worms.

These critics have argued that the lid on this can should be kept tightly closed. In essence, they have advised the Pope not to “dignify” the Society’s objections to certain conciliar teachings — or to the interpretations of those teachings — by granting such a formal dialogue.

But Benedict has decided to let the dialogue begin.

For the Pope’s supporters, the decision is an occasion for praise.


Because the Pope, almost five years into his pontificate, has finally decided to face head on and “bring into the open” the doctrinal problems “smoldering” (to cite his own words of 45 years ago) just beneath the surface of Church life throughout the entire post-conciliar period (1965 to the present, or 44 years).

So, with this decision to engage in a dialogue about the Council, a very significant phase of Benedict’s pontificate begins.

Because this dialogue will inevitably come to grips, more than a generation after the close of the Council, with profoundly important doctrinal issues — issues which seriously divided the Council Fathers at the time of the Council, and which eventually, and tragically, led:

(1) to a formal schism in the Church between those whom we may call “traditionalists” and “progressives” (though the two terms are woefully inadequate) when in 1988 the bishops of the Society of St. Pius X (the Lefebvrists) were excommunicated, and

(2) to widespread confusion among the Catholic faithful, to many exaggerated and erroneous interpretations of Christian and Catholic identity, and even to the formal or de facto abandonment of the Catholic faith by many.

With Benedict’s decision, the Second Vatican Council is, in a certain sense, as it were, being called in “for further questioning” — for an new examination and cross-examination, like a witness in a trial, to determine what the Council actually said, and intended.

And this means that theology, the strong point of this “theologian-Pope” (his career before he was consecrated a bishop was as a professor of theology in Germany), is about to take center stage in Benedict’s pontificate.

And the goal in all this will be to arrive at clarity and a common understanding of the faith which will allow the reunion of the Lefbevrists with Rome, and so end of the only formal schism since Vatican II.

But we will not be able to observe this crucial theological debate.

It it will take place behind closed doors.

The Announcement

Here is the official Vatican communique on the matter:



The first meeting of the foreseen discussions with the Fraternity of Saint Pius X will take place on Monday, October 26, in the morning.

Those who will participate [in the meeting] will be, from the part of the Commission Ecclesia Dei, other than the Secretary of said Commission, Mons. Guido Pozzo, the Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, H.E. Archbisop Luis F. Ladaria Ferrer, S.I., and the already named experts: Fr. Charles Morerod, O.P., Secretary of the International Theological Commission, consultant of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; Rev. Mons. Fernando Ocáriz, Vicar General of Opus Dei, consultant of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; the Rev. Fr. Karl Josef Becker, S.I., consultant of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

The meeting will take place at the Palace of the Holy Office. The contents of the conversations, which regard open doctrinal questions, will remain strictly reserved.

At the end of the meeting, a communiqué will be released.

The Response

And here is the response of the Fraternity:


Bishop Bernard Fellay has named as representatives of the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Pius X for the theological discussions with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: Bishop Alfonso de Galarreta, director of the Seminary Nuestra Señora Corredentora de La Reja (Argentina), Father Benoît de Jorna, director of the Séminaire International Saint-Pie X of Ecône (Switzerland), Father Jean-Michel Gleize, professor of Ecclesiology at the seminary of Ecône, and Father Patrick de La Rocque, prior of the Priory of Saint Louis in Nantes (France).

Bishop de Galarreta had already been the president of the commission which was in charge of the preparation of these discussions withon the Fraternity, after the month of April 2009.

The works will start in the second half of the month of October and will require the discretion needed for a serene exchange on difficult doctrinal questions.

Menzingen, October 15, 2009

Some Additional Background

In a recent interview granted to a Society magazine in South Africa and picked up by Reuters, Bishop Fellay spelled out his view of the issues to be raised during the upcoming dialogue.

“The solution to the crisis is a return to the past,” Fellay said.

He said Pope Benedict agrees with the SSPX on the need to maintain the Church’s links to the past, but still wants to keep some reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).

“This is one of the most sensitive problems,” he said. “We hope the discussions will allow us to dispel the grave ambiguities that have spread through the Catholic Church since (the Council), as John Paul II himself recognised.”

Here is a fuller report on the interview, with some interesting comments attached:

One Issue: The “Subsistit” Clause

(Note: I draw most of the following material, which I condense and edit here, from an article by Anthony Grafton published in The New Yorker, July 25, 2005, which may be found here: The point Grafton focuses on below will certainly be among the points discussed in the upcoming dialogue.)

In May, 1984, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger summoned the Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff to Rome.

At the time, Ratzinger was the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

When Boff arrived, Ratzinger questioned him on relations between the Catholic Church and other Christian denominations.

Boff replied by citing Chapter 1, No. 8 of Lumen Gentium (“Light of the Nations”), one of the key documents of Vatican II, which sets forth the Church’s understanding of her own nature.

Lumen Gentium in one well-known passage of considerable importance for ecumenical dialogue with Protestant Christians, teaches that the true Church “subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him. Nevertheless, many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside its visible confines.”

Boff — like many others before him and after him — interpreted this passage as teaching that the traditional teaching that the Catholic Church is the “one true Church” founded by Jesus Christ had been qualified by the Council and so, in effect, slightly altered.

Did those who drafted the document have this view? That is a vexed question.

For the first two years of the Council, the draft document stated simply and directly that the mystical body of Christ “is” the Catholic Church.

But in the fall of 1964 the word “subsists” (“subsistit” in Latin) was added, along with the passage about elements of truth being present outside the Church.

The official commentary explained that the change was meant to make the text “more harmonious with the affirmation of ecclesial elements which are elsewhere.”

The Dominican theologian Yves Congar seemed to interpret the passage the same way Boff did: “Vatican II acknowledges, in sum, that non-Catholic Christians are members of the mystical body.”

Yet Cardinal Ratzinger read this text in a different way.

To understand the chapter, he said, one must bear in mind a noun — substantia — closely related to subsistit, the verb that the Council Fathers had used.

Substantia, meaning “substance,” refers to the essence of a thing (as in “transubstantiation”).

According to Ratzinger, when the Council used the verb “subsists,” it was stating that the true Church “both is, and can only be, fully present” in the Roman Church, with all its hierarchies.

After Boff returned to Brazil, the Congregation published a formal critique of his work stating that Boff had drawn from Lumen Gentium “a thesis which is exactly the contrary to the authentic meaning of the Council text.”

Considering this incident, it seems clear that the upcoming dialogue of Vatican officials with the representatives of the Lefebvrists, occurring in almost exactly the same spot as Boff’s encounter with Ratzinger, may have considerable importance for the future of ecumenism, that is, of efforts to reunite all Christians in one visible Church.

But we should keep in mind that a clarification of the actual intent of the Council Fathers when they drew up and approved the documents of Vatican II cannot in any case do harm to ecumenical dialogue: clarification of the truth of the Church’s teaching must always be viewed as positive and freeing, and as helping to lead, in the long run, to authentic progress toward that Church unity desired and prayed for by Christ himself on the night before he died.

And that is why Benedict is allowing this dialogue: because he wants to clarify the true teaching of the Council, in the face of many erroneous claims, and after decades of real hope, yet hope marred by real confusion.

On October 16, this process of clarification will formally begin.

“He that takes truth for his guide, and duty for his end, may safely trust to God’s providence to lead him aright.” —Blaise Pascal (French mathematician, philosopher, physicist and writer, 1623-1662)

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