A Case Study: The Bad Fruits of Vatican II

By Jeremy Hausotter

April 30, 2022

A common argument advanced by radical traditionalists against Vatican II is premised upon the cliché “judge a tree by its fruits”. Syllogistically, they argue:

1)      One should judge a tree by its fruits

2)      Vatican II has bad fruits

3)      Therefore, Vatican II is a bad tree

 

In defense of the first premise, these authors can easily cite Scripture. Matt. 7:15-20 states:

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? So, every sound tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears evil fruit. A sound tree cannot bear evil fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.

The radical traditionalist can hence say they are taking Christ’s words to heart in living by this admonition. The premise, furthermore, possesses an obviousness to it. Practically speaking, you judge someone not based on their words alone, but also their actions, how they conduct themselves and treat others. It is a time for clichés, for “actions speak louder than words” is directly applicable here. This is good, practical wisdom for the individual to live by.

When we consider now the second premise, this too appears to be rather obvious. These authors typically have amassed many empirical data points that they dutifully refer us to; such as the decline in vocations, the priesthood, and religious life, the closure of seminaries and dying out of religious orders, and the lack of faith amongst Catholics and society today. Polls suggest that a majority of Catholics in the United States do not accept Church teachings on abortion, the Eucharist, contraceptives, other moral prohibitions against sexual deviancy, and the restriction of the priesthood to males alone. There appears to be a wholesale destruction of the Church, given the empirical data, which these authors warn us about. They next point to another obvious data point, that these symptoms seem to have appeared after Vatican II. Hence their conclusion follows, that Vatican II is the cause for the modern crisis in the Church.

 

In what we are about to argue, I want to be explicitly clear, these symptoms the radical traditionalists highlight are a serious problem and they do indicate a travail of the modern Church, to which we are called to stand up and take action. The Church needs a new generation of saints to renew her spiritual life. The radical traditionalist solution here, however, shows its naivety, for they argue that the solution is to turn back time and return to the pre-Vatican II Church.

 

We can make such a distinction temporally and historically, between the postconciliar and preconciliar Church. Such a definition is useful; but, on the other hand, we cannot dare to equivocate this concept in its temporal-historical sense with the existential one, for the preconciliar and post-conciliar Church is the one and the same agent who acts through history. This single agent is the One, Holy, Catholic Apostolic Church granted by God teaching authority and the means for our salvation. Just as it is an act of despair for someone to wish a return to their youth after becoming an adult and tries to return, so it is also a manifestation of despair to bifurcate the Catholic Church into preconciliar and postconciliar in this existential sense. The Catholic Church as an agent in history is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow as the Mystical Body of Christ and Bride of Christ. Time and historical events do not change the existential identity of the Church.

 

In consideration of the second premise now, given that the empirical facts themselves we are not disputing, the question becomes why is it invalid to say Vatican II is the cause of these bad fruits? We begin with the observation that simply because there exists a correlation between event X and event Y, that this does not necessitate the existence of a causal relationship between X and Y. Correlation does not necessarily imply causation. It is quite possible that another event, Z, is responsible for Y, or that a conjunction of variables S={Z_1, Z_2, Z_3,..Z_N} are, or even the conjunction of S and X. In these last two cases the question can be raised as to which variables contributed the most to Y. Did X contribute 1% or 30%, or 80%? for example.

In short, on empirical grounds alone the radical traditionalist can at best state that proposition (2) is probable. He is, in essence, making a statistical inference which ultimately rests on probability. The threat of error in his assessment, therefore, can never be definitively eliminated from his arguments and analysis. Epistemologically, this argument qua empirical is at best highly probable, but since its premises rests on synthetic a posteriori propositions, I can raise the question as to whether one can refute it a priori, on non-empirical grounds, in a definitive, necessary manner.

 

There are some who will no doubt attempt to argue, at first, for the necessity of their observations and the drawn conclusions. Consider the following. If one wished to advocate for this view, that every correlation necessarily has a corresponding cause and effect relation, then let us expose this infantilism for what it is.

 

If we assume for the moment that all correlations have a corresponding cause-effect relation, then consider the following examples. If it is observed that with every full moon a family member dies, then did the moon cause the death? If I eat chips and solve a math problem, did my chip eating habits cause my mathematical enlightenment? Or, even better, if I fart and noticed that the stock market crashed, did my flatulence cause the crash?

 

The problem with this view is that the size of the set of correlations and possible correlations is much greater than the number of cause-effect relations. Hence, while it is true that every cause-effect relation maps to a correlation, the contrary is not, for not every correlation maps to a cause-effect relation. Some correlations are purely accidental, no matter how plausible they appear at first. We can simplify the radical traditionalist argument as simply post hoc ergo propter hoc.

 

Having demonstrated that not every correlation maps to a cause-effect relation by reductio ad absurdum, we can now continue our inquiry. Given that this argument is based on empirical grounds, it is necessarily a probability argument and not an a priori one. I am not interested in this topic in regards to its empirical grounds nor refuting it on such grounds. Such a counterargument would itself also be probable. I am seeking a definitive refutation on necessary grounds, which no probabilistic argument or objection can deliver. 

 

The key observation we must make is that this argument is being made to advocate a theological view. Theology is not an empirical science, though empirical sciences can help us illuminate theology if done properly. We can hence argue against proposition (2) on theological grounds, and do so a priori.

   

The basis for our a priori assault is the fact that this argument presupposes a hermeneutic of rupture. For a full discussion on this topic, I refer the reader to my several articles that constitute Part II of my Vatican II hermeneutics series. In sum, we must observe a hermeneutic of continuity. This is the consistent teaching of the Church, from the documents of Vatican II themselves, the several statements by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, and Popes John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis. A hermeneutics of rupture is disobedient to the teaching authority of the Magisterium and calls into question basic truths of ecclesiology. We must point out that there can never be rupture in terms of dogma and doctrine. Our understanding can increase, but never at the cost of contradiction, (cf. Part II.3 concerning continuity and the theological notes for further elaboration). Ecumenical Councils and the Popes, who possess the legitimate authority to interpret them, cannot contradict previous teachings in the manner the radical traditionalists propose. These thinkers would be wise to listen to the words of Pope Alexander VIII, who in his condemnation of the Jansenists in the Dec. 7, 1690 Decree of the Holy Office censured the following proposition:

The assertion of the authority of the Roman pontiff over an ecumenical council and infallibility in deciding questions of faith is futile and often contradicted.[1]

We hence give a first rejection of the argument presented by the radical traditionalists based on the hermeneutic of continuity.

 

The argument put forth by the radical traditionalists arrives at the conclusion that Vatican II is a bad Council. This is to be interpreted as either doctrinally bad or doctrinally ambiguous such that Vatican II represents the weaponization of the Magisterium by the Modernists. Such a view is, however, a poor ecclesiology and indicates an intellectual poverty in these thinkers, who may in other ways be gifted expositors. The betrayal of this poor ecclesiology is found in their interpretation of proposition (1).

 

Judge a tree by its fruits can be applied to a Pope privately, for it is possible to have a bad Pope, but this principle can never be applied to the Church as a whole, to the Petrine Office, or the Pope’s teaching authority. The Universal Magisterium in her authority legitimately exercised through the celebration of Vatican II cannot be accused as the case of bad fruit because this exercise is protected by the Holy Spirit through the charism of indefectibility. By applying this Scripture passage to the Church herself, these interpreters: 1) reject the lawful authority of the Church; 2) implicitly reject the indefectibility of the Church by implication; 3) effectively call Jesus a liar; and 4) set themselves up over and above the Divinely given authority to the Church as the true interpreter of Christian doctrine. These radical thinkers are hence no different than the radical liberals who also oppose Church authority. In this respect, the radical traditionalists are no different from the Modernists.

 

Let us now begin reviewing some basic ecclesiology. In Matt. 16:18f we learn that Jesus appointed Peter as rock, to be the foundation of the Church, and that the gates of hell shall not prevail against the Church. This means that the essence of the Church cannot be corrupted. This teaching is the indefectibility of the Church. The indefectibility of the Church means that the Church in her essence cannot be corrupted. The essence of the Church is constituted by three elements: her liturgy, teachings, and hierarchy. The promise that the gates of hell will not prevail means that the hierarchy, liturgy and teachings will be preserved. These three elements cannot be corrupted because of Divine promise, Christ promised and sent the Holy Spirit to protect the Church from such dangers.

 

The hermeneutic of rupture calls into question these basic truths of the faith; for, it states that the Church has indeed been corrupted, whether it is in her hierarchy, liturgy, or teachings. The hermeneutic of rupture requires the rejection of the Church's indefectibility. And, doing such, casts doubt upon the veracity of Christ’s promise. Fundamentally, the hermeneutic of rupture paves the path forward to schism.

 

The 1983 Code of Canon Law defines schism as “the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.”[2] Similarly, St. Thomas teaches that the sin of schism is “directly and essentially opposed to unity” and the schismatic is he who is “is directly and essentially opposed to unity.”[3] One becomes a schismatic materially when he or she is opposed to the Church’s authority. One becomes a formal schismatic when the Church pronounces the individual to be a schismatic.

 

When one embraces the hermeneutic of rupture, this places him or her into direct conflict with Church authority and the temptation to sin against the Church’s unity. The acceptance of an Ecumenical Council is required in order to be a Catholic, by definition. Lumen Gentium 14 defines full membership into the Mystical Body of Christ to be the full acceptance of the Church and the means of salvation given to her. This requires a profession of faith, participation in the sacraments and the acceptance of ecclesial government and communion. Mystici Corporis Christi 22 similarly defines Church membership to require the acceptance of ecclesial governance. As the 1917 Code of Canon law stated: “An Ecumenical Council enjoys supreme power over the universal Church.”[4]

 

We must spend a moment to remark upon the fact that according to the 1917 Code of Canon law, Vatican II is a legitimate Ecumenical Council. I provided such an argument in Part II.4 of our hermeneutic series. In Part II.3, we have also mentioned that there are two types of infallible teachings, corresponding to the primary and secondary objects of infallibility. The primary objects of infallibility consist of those things which formally belong to the deposit of faith, whereas the secondary objects of infallibility consist of those things which virtually belong to the deposit. Primary objects include things such as the Trinitarian and Christological teachings, whereas the secondary objects can include things like precepts of natural law and historical truths that are necessary due to their relationship with the deposit of faith.

 

Now, the theological note for secondary objects of infallibility is fides ecclesiastica, and such teachings demand an assent of Catholic faith. Both primary and secondary objects of infallibility require an assent of faith. For primary objects, it is an assent of faith where God is the authority in Whom we place our faith; whereas in the case of secondary objects we place our faith in the authority of the Church, an authority God granted her. If one errs concerning a primary object, they are a heretic, and their erroneous view is heresy. An erroneous view against a secondary object is called an error in fides ecclesiastica.

 

What is important for our consideration now, is that there is both a preconciliar and postconciliar tradition teaching that the legitimacy of Ecumenical Councils themselves are propositions falling under secondary objects of infallibility. This means that if a Catholic rejects an Ecumenical Council, he is sinning against his faith by rejecting a fides ecclesiastica proposition that demands an assent of faith by him. This sin against faith is also a sin against the Church’s authority and communion, for these are the objects of his disdain in rejecting the Council. The act of doing such makes him materially schismatic and no longer a member of the Catholic Church by definition according to Lumen Gentium 14, for now he no longer accepts the ecclesial governance of the Church.

 

This brings me now to my main concern. In accomplishing all of this, such a person has placed himself outside the ark of salvation; for, there is no salvation outside the Church. Any cursory look into this de fide teaching of the Church should inform the reader that this teaching was first formulated against heretics and schismatics during the Patristic period. One could cite the Council of Florence, Boniface VIII’s bull Unam sanctam, or even Lumen Gentium 14 again. I refer to the reader my commentary on Lumen Gentium 14 that examines the historical development of the dogma “no salvation outside the Church”. If one rejects an Ecumenical Council, they have rejected their salvation. Hence, if one rejects Vatican II accordingly, they threaten their own salvation if they do not repent of their schismatic views and obey the legitimate teaching authority of the Church. As the Council of Constance teaches, it is a condemned view to believe that one can reject an Ecumenical Council and still be saved. Here are the Council’s own words. It begins by citing the erroneous proposition:

 

It is not necessary to salvation to believe that the Roman Church is supreme among the other churches. — [Censure:] It is an error if by the Roman Church is meant the universal Church or a general council, or insofar as it denies the primacy of the supreme pontiff over other particular Churches.[5]

To summarize, one must reject proposition (1) in the sense that it is inappropriate to use Scripture against the lawful authority of the Church, for it is the Church who possesses the legitimate teaching authority and is the authoritative interpreter of Scripture. The premise has good practical use, but not as a theological weapon against the Church’s authority. Proposition (2) can be rejected because of the ecclesiological errors it implies and poor theological hermeneutics it adopts. Therefore, we can ignore the attempted conclusion.

 

It must be noted now, that since the bad fruits of modern Catholicism cannot be directly attributed to the Council, they could still be attributed to it in a secondary way in the manner of the Council being the catalyst that brought latent forces in view which were brewing beneath surface in the preconciliar years leading to the Council. Here then, the real cause was other forces at work, and the Council was only an accidental cause which triggered their release. One could also interpret the crisis of the bad fruits as a crisis of faith. Vatican II is hence the antidote to which a deeper reception of the Council is required than either superficial attempts by the radical traditionalists and liberals. The radical traditionalist rejections of Vatican II emphasize the real faith crisis facing the Church, for this demographic too is struggling in their faith. How else are we to explain why schism seems so favorable? To come to the conclusion that one must reject an Ecumenical Council is an act of despair and schism, i.e. an abandonment of faith. The way of faith leads to the Catholic Church and accepting Vatican II’s rightful authority. We cannot begin to understand Vatican II until we recognize that it is a gift of the Holy Spirit, which requires faith. To bifurcate the identity of the Church into a postconciliar and preconciliar Church, and not recognize that it is the same agent, the Bride of Christ, in both cases, is a matter of despair over the postconciliar period and the despairing individual has blinded himself from recognizing the activity of the Holy Spirit through Vatican II.

They, therefore, walk in the path of dangerous error who believe that they can accept Christ as the Head of the Church, while not adhering loyally to His Vicar on earth. They have taken away the visible head, broken the visible bonds of unity and left the Mystical Body of the Redeemer so obscured and so maimed, that those who are seeking the haven of eternal salvation can neither see it nor find it.[6]

Endnotes

[1] Peter Hünermann et al., Compendium of Creeds, Definitions, and Declarations on Matters of Faith and Morals, 2012. 2329.

[2] Canon 751.

[3] STh II-II, Q39, A1.

[4] Canon 228.1.

[5] Peter Hünermann et al., Compendium of Creeds, Definitions, and Declarations on Matters of Faith and Morals, 2012. 1418.

[6] Mystici Corporis Christi 41.

Viaticum by Henryk Siemiradzki

Wikimedia Commons