Thursday, October 22, 2020

The Hopeless Ambiguity of Sacrosanctum Concilium

Recent events of all kinds have provoked yet another round of discussions on the meaning of the documents of Vatican II, and their relevance (if any) to the life of the Church today. It is not my intention to address the issue as a whole, a task for much wiser and more learned heads than my own. For what little it may be worth, I believe that, as has been the case in the past, the only thing that can bring much-needed clarity to the subject is another council, much as Trent was needed to address the hopeless and embarrassing mess left behind by the Council that preceded it, Lateran V. (Whether a council held in present conditions would in fact bring any clarity to anything is at best highly debatable.)
I do, however, wish to address the subject of the ambiguity which is often imputed to the documents of Vatican II, particularly because it is of great relevance to the Apostolic Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, the very first document issued by the Council, and the most pertinent to the subject and interest of NLM.

Photo taken before a Papal Mass during Vatican II. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Lothar Wolleh, CC BY-SA 3.0)
I got to thinking about this when I stumbled across an FAQ about Vatican II on the Word on Fire website, which addressed the question: “Did thinkers behind Vatican II deliberately use ambiguity to change Church teaching?” Their answer is as follows.
“Theologian Edward Schillebeeckx has been quoted as saying, ‘We have used ambiguous phrases during the Council and we know how we will interpret them afterwards.’ The suggestion is that conspirators planted certain phrases within the Vatican II documents that appeared vague and innocent on the surface, but would later be exploited by those wishing to overturn traditional Church teaching.”
For our younger readers, Fr Edward Schillebeeckx was a Belgian Dominican who served during the Council as a “peritus”, an “expert” theologian and consultant, to the Abp of Utrecht, Bernard Cardinal Alfrink. He was actively involved in the preparation of various documents at the Council, although Word on Fire correctly notes that, not being a bishop, he had no vote on the final form which the drafting committees would submit to the Council for approval. Less than a year after the Council ended, he and a Jesuit named Piet Schoonenberg published the shameful Dutch Catechism, an unmistakable sign of just how rapidly the Church had already declined less than five years into the New Pentecost™. Later on, his writings on the Resurrection of Christ and ministerial priesthood, inter alia et multa, were the subject of so much concern (as one might say today) that he was called to explain himself to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. And these writings were indeed very ambiguous, never (e.g.) flat out denying Our Lord’s bodily resurrection, while giving every suggestion that the author thought it at best irrelevant, and most likely untrue.
Fr Schillebeeckx in 1979, wearing the updated habit of a Dominican Doctor of Theology. (Image from Wikimedia Commons, CC0 1.0)
These being the mad years after the Council, when the Church’s very highest authorities had mostly surrendered control of the asylum to the lunatics, he was not, of course, actually made to either assert his belief in the bodily Resurrection or leave the Church, but the mere fact that the CDF took any action at all is nevertheless highly significant. (Schoonenberg was also censured by the CDF.) Schillebeeckx is therefore, in short, one of the most likely candidates both to have deliberately introduced ambiguities into the documents of Vatican II, and to have exploited them afterwards, as stated in the quotation given above.
However, Word on Fire points out that the quotation does not, apparently, come from anything that he himself wrote or said, but rather, from Abp Lefebvre’s Open Letter to Confused Catholics, and is not otherwise corroborated. And in point of fact, almost every result of a Google search of those words comes back to either Abp Lefebvre himself or someone else quoting him, and none to Schillebeeckx directly. (Google is not, of course, either infallible or comprehensive, and if anyone knows more about the veracity of this quote one way or the other, I would be glad to hear from them.)
Word on Fire then turns to this statement taken from the autobiography of the Ven. Fulton Sheen, as a “far more trustworthy and reasonable” assessment of the matter.
“Those who read the Documents of Vatican Council II have no idea how much care and preparation went into every word they contained. . . . I can testify to how we would discuss various Latin words for a day in order to arrive at a precise meaning. Then, after a chapter was prepared, printed, and given to the Council Fathers, the debates on each subject went on for months until finally there were hammered out documents that were acceptable to all except a very few who voted against them.”
One is, of course, immediately struck by how forcefully the first sentence of this suggests the very opposite of what Abp Sheen clearly meant when he wrote it, and what Word on Fire’s FAQ wants to prove by it. If so very much care and preparation went into every word contained in the documents of Vatican II, how is that fact not immediately evident to those who read them?
I do not know whether Sheen was personally involved in the drafting of all sixteen of the Council’s documents, but we have his good reputation to assure us of the truth of the statement that a great deal of careful preparation was in fact put into the drafts “to arrive at a precise meaning”, even discussing specific (individual?) words for a whole day. Furthermore, the text was then debated “for months” in the Council itself in order to hammer out documents that were acceptable to all.
Image from Wikimedia Commons
It hardly needs to be said that none of this proves in any way that the documents of Vatican II are devoid of ambiguities.
First of all, it should be obvious that a good way to get any large group of people (in this case, more than 2,600 of them) to agree on any kind of statement is to make it ambiguous, so that each one thinks it means what he wants it to mean. I do not assert that this WAS in fact done at Vatican II, only that the agreement of the bishops on a particular text is no proof of its lack of ambiguity. And indeed, Word on Fire admits exactly this when it states that “sometimes, including in the Councils of Trent and (First) Nicaea, theologians are not in full agreement and so somewhat ambiguous statements must be used in the final documents.” (In regards to First Nicaea, this is historically inaccurate; the details of the theological discussions at that Council are unknown to us.)
But more to the point, assuming that Bishop Sheen is correct, and that the greatest care and attention were indeed put into every word of every document, that is also no proof whatsoever against ambiguity.
A few years ago, I was thrilled when an editor at National Review asked me to review Dr Kwasniewski’s book Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness, in part because my mother had worked for that publication back in the 1960s. I tried to be particularly careful with what I wrote, knowing that many of the eventual readers would likely not be conversant in the subject, only to hear back from the editor that one of his non-Catholic colleagues had read my piece over, and not been able to follow it at all. Likewise, I have often reread one of my own articles and realized that on one point or another, I had not been anywhere near as clear as I thought I was when I first wrote it.
I am certain that other writers have this experience, and I can cite one particularly good example to the point. In 1959, 14 years after the original publication of Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh revised the book. In his introduction to this revision, he states that in his then-current frame of mind, he would not have even attempted to write the famous passages in which we “hear” the interior monologues of Julia Flyte and Lord Marchmain, precisely because he didn’t think his readers realized that they were the characters’ thoughts, and not things they said out loud.
All of which is to say, if the Fathers at Vatican II did indeed try their best to avoid ambiguity, as Bishop Sheen states, that does not preclude the possibility that their documents did nevertheless wind up being ambiguous. And if they are in fact ambiguous, the question of whether they got to be so by deliberate machinations, malign or benevolent, is a merely historical one, which has no bearing on their ambiguity per se.
And the fact remains that, however it got to be so, Sacrosanctum Concilium is indisputably full of ambiguities. It says that “a broader place (amplior locus) can be given” to the use of the vernacular in the liturgy (36.2), without stating how much broader. Does this exclude or include the possibility that such a place will in fact be so broad as to eliminate Latin from the liturgy altogether? The text does not say. It says that “The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services.” (116) Which “other things”, and how shall we know them to be equal? The text does not say. Does this exclude or include the possibility that the Church will “lose a great part of that stupendous and incomparable artistic and spiritual thing, the Gregorian chant?” as the Pope himself, less than six years after Sacrosanctum Concilium was issued, stated would happen? (General audience, Nov. 26, 1969). The text does not say. Further examples could be adduced almost endlessly.
Is there a single document of the Council about which similar questions cannot be asked?
The text does not say.

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