Three Rhetorical Questions About Vatican II and Tradition

(This article is a reprint from

By Phil Lawler  

The promulgation of Traditionis Custodes has given new urgency to an old debate about interpretation of the Second Vatican Council. Pope Francis believes that Catholics who prefer the traditional Latin Mass are likely to reject the Council’s teachings. Traditionalists counter that the Council’s teachings—in particular, those on the reform of the liturgy—have been regularly ignored. And so we return yet again to the question of whether the “spirit of Vatican II,” so frequently invoked by liberal Catholics, is at odds with the Council’s actual work.

It is odd, isn’t it, that fifty years after the Council, there is no settled consensus on what the Council fathers taught? Disagreement about nuances of theology would be understandable, but in this case, competent theologians hold utterly incompatible views, and cite the Council to support them. There is precedent for fierce disputes in the wake of Church councils; one recalls that the Oriental Orthodox churches split with Rome over the Christological definitions of the Council of Chalcedon. But has there ever before been such a profound division of opinion about what the Council said?

With very little hope of resolving that old argument—since the opposing sides have been digging into their fortified positions for several decades now—let me ask a few rhetorical questions, which might at least help clarify the situation we now face.

1. Should we interpret the teachings of Vatican II in the light of tradition, or interpret tradition in the light of Vatican II? This is essentially the question that Pope Benedict XVI raised, when he decried the “hermeneutic of rupture” that has led many theologians to suggest that Vatican Council marked a radical break with previous Church teachings.

In Traditionis, Pope Francis argues rightly that a believing Catholic cannot reject the work of an ecumenical council without calling into question the doctrinal tenet that the Holy Spirit guides the work of the Church. But by the same logic, a faithful Catholic cannot accept the notion that the Church was misguided for centuries; the Holy Spirit was at work before Vatican II as well. The “hermeneutic of continuity”—the understanding that the Council could not fundamentally change Church teaching, but only clarify and develop what was already taught—is the only option available to a faithful Catholic. So the Council must be properly understood through the perspective of the Church’s constant tradition. If there are passages in the Council documents that appear to conflict with that tradition, then further clarification, further development, or even perhaps simple correction is necessary.

2. Did the Council wish for the Church to engage with the modern world, or to be guided by the modern world? The eras of the Enlightenment, the Reformation, and the French Revolution had driven the Church into a defensive posture vis-à-vis modernity. Pope John XXIII saw a need to sally forth from the ecclesiastical fortress, to open fresh lines of communication with the secular world. But did he, or did the Council fathers, intend that the Church should judge her successes and failures according to the standards of that secular world? Certainly not. On the contrary, the Council exhorted lay Christians to transform the secular world through the power of the Gospel.

Today, unfortunately, that exhortation is too often reduced to a suggestion that Christians should concentrate on the “good works” that our secular society recognizes—to the detriment of the prophetic witness that the Church offers when Christians condemn the evils of a society that tramples on the dignity of human life.

Which brings me to my third and final rhetorical question.

3. Did the Council proclaim the universal call to holiness, or the universal call of holiness? That is, did the Council fathers teach that all Christians are called to sanctify themselves and the world around them? Or did they teach that all Christians are already sanctified, and should be encouraged and praised in every action they undertake? Were we Catholics enjoined to make the world holy, or to recognize the world as already holy?

The quest for holiness is an arduous campaign, whereas a complacent Church would be satisfied to set lower standards, to accept personal failings, to wink at minor transgressions. The reader can judge for himself whether, for instance, the “synodal path” of the German hierarchy will lead to holiness or to complacency.

There may indeed by some traditionalist Catholics who reject all the teachings of Vatican II. But there are far more, I submit, who recognize that something has gone seriously awry within the Church in the past few generations. And if the problems of Catholicism cannot be blamed on the Council—because those problems were in evidence before the Council fathers gathered—it is also sadly evident that the Council did not solve all the problems. So earnest Catholics look further back into the traditions of the Church to find a sure foundation on which to build.

PHIL LAWLER has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at 

March 11, 2022 - 5:03pm

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