January 2012 Print

A History Never Written

Fr. Albert, OP

Roberto de Mattei is far from being a man of one book: the list of his published works is, on the contrary, very impressive and includes a wide range of topics from erudite historical studies to more popular books on controversial questions (like Turkey in Europe: Benefit or Catastrophe? and Evolution: The Sunset of an Hypothesis) some of which have been translated into other languages, including English. His latest book, however, entitled The Second Vatican Council: A History Never Written (Il Concilio Vaticano II: Una storia mai scritta, Lindau, 2011) is certainly his most important work so far, a monument that is obviously the result of an immense labor and destined to take a place beside the few other irreplaceable books on the Council like The Rhine Flows into the Tiber by Fr. Ralph Wiltgen and The History of Vatican II by Giuseppe Alberigo and his famous School of Bologna.

A Long-awaited Alternative Reading

For some time now already it has been clear that a response was needed to the hefty five volumes of Alberigo, which is as tendentious in its radical progessivism as it is intimidating in its scientific pretentions. Backed by the funding of the Mesnil Foundation in Houston, Texas, this work, written by a vast group of collaborators from all over the world and translated into six languages, threatened to impose by its mere weight and volume its “hermeneutic of rupture” as the only “scientific” interpretation of the Council. The book of De Mattei constitutes a long awaited alternative reading of the events that manages, by a tour de force that only a professional historian of international stature like De Mattei could accomplish, to equal and even surpass the scientific quality of Alberigo and company while showing that their interpretation of the events, far from being the only one possible, is not at all the correct one. The author peruses the same immense documentation used by the School of Bologna and even outdoes them in several cases, quoting several new unpublished sources (including several diaries of the various protagonists ignored by Alberigo, as well as documents of the so-called “minority” at the Council as, for example, the archives at Ecône).

A Powerful Unity

Methodologically, De Mattei’s book has the great advantage of being written by a single author, which gives it a powerful unity that is sorely lacking in Alberigo’s cumbersome collection of articles penned by various authors that often overlap and leave the reader the task of trying to put it all together somehow himself. That one man could manage this is no mean feat, and the quality of his labor has been recognized by his being awarded the extremely prestigious Acqui Storia Award for history, presented by an institution that has the adhesion of the highest governmental officials and bodies in Italy, including the President of the Republic. De Mattei himself has held important governmental posts, being an Adviser for International Affairs for several years and also Vice-President of the National Research Council of Italy from 2004 until 2011. He has come under heavy fire from liberal critics for his “politically incorrect” positions, as, for example, the book mentioned above on evolution, which is composed of different conferences given by various experts in a congress he organized in his capacity of Vice-President of the National Research Council. Even the Acqui award was not without controversy: the president of the commission of historians in charge of making the award resigned in protest against the decision to present it to De Mattei, who is described by Il Giornale as “a Catholic of iron” and “already at the center of polemics because of his traditionalist and anti-Darwinist positions.”

His book on the Council has also caused a storm, provoking attacks in both the newspaper of the pope, L’Osservatore Romano, and that of the Italian Bishops, Avvenire, in which his book is accused of being “ideological,” “extremist,” and “a veritable Summa of anticonciliarist theses.” Obviously not a man who backs down before a fight, De Mattei responded to these articles with a long rebuttal where he writes: “I have been reproached with neglecting the documents of the Council or of interpreting them using as a key a discontinuity with the Tradition of the Church. Neither affirmation is true. The interpretation of the documents of the Council does not regard myself nor any aspiring interpreter of the Council; it regards the magisterium of the Church, and I hold to it. What I narrate are the facts, what I reconstruct is the historical context in which these documents came into existence....

“I affirm that on the historical level the post-Conciliar era cannot be explained without the Council, just as the Council cannot be explained without the pre-Conciliar era because in history every effect has its cause, and what happens has its place in a process that is often even multi-secular and has to do not only with the field of ideas but that of mentalities and customs.

“I do not deny the supreme authority of the Council and the authenticity and validity of its acts. But that does not mean infallibility. The Church is certainly infallible, but all the expressions of its representatives, even the supreme ones, are not infallible, and a Council is not necessarily holy nor infallible; for if it is true that the Holy Ghost is never lacking in assisting it, it is also true that one must correspond to the grace of the Holy Ghost, that it does not automatically produce either sanctity or infallibility. If it is true that every Council can exercise, in union with the pope, an infallible magisterium, a Council can renounce the exercise of such a magisterium in order to place itself on a totally pastoral level and, on this level, commit errors as happened, in my opinion, when the Second Vatican Council omitted condemning Communism…

“The problem that concerns me, however, is not the discussion of the texts of the Council; I leave that exegesis to the theologians, and above all to the pope. The problem that interests me as a member of the Church is to understand the historical roots of the crisis we are going through. The remote roots, because the crisis we are going through is several centuries old, but also the recent roots, because the present crisis goes back to even before 1968, to the time of the Second Vatican Council that is not just the 16 documents that concluded it, but the words, the acts, the omissions during and after the Council, of the Conciliar Fathers and, on the other hand, of the parallel magisterium, especially of the media, that put itself along side the authentic magisterium of the pope and the bishops.”1

No Intention of Laying Down Arms

It is interesting to note that Roberto De Mattei’s name figures in the recent petition sent to the pope by a group of over 50 Italian intellectuals asking for an authoritative examination of the Council in order to interpret it in the light of Tradition. Along with the recent book of Msgr. Gherardini, Il Concilio Vaticano II: Un Discorso a Fare, and the already classic work of Romano Amerio, Iota Unum, the book of De Mattei on the Council is cited in the petition, in particular in its conclusion where the author makes this same request for what he terms “an in-depth examination of the Second Vatican Council…in order to verify its continuity with the twenty Councils that preceded it.”

De Mattei does not consider himself as a supporter of the Society of St. Pius X (in one of his conferences viewable on the Internet he clearly says: “Non sono di questi—I am not one of them”) and this is apparent from certain positions he takes, and particularly in his omission of any critical remarks of Benedict XVI or of John Paul II and even some rather pathetic attempts to cover himself under their authority.2 Whether this be the result of Italian finesse or a genuine naïve blindness born of misplaced filial devotion to the papacy, it is unfortunate, for it leaves a dangerous breach in the otherwise impregnable intellectual citadel he has succeeded in constructing.3

In spite of the uproar occasioned by his book, the author clearly has no intention of laying down his arms yet. In order to help “anyone who desires to study more deeply the problems that the lively debate provoked by his book,” he has just published a sequel to it entitled Apology for Tradition: Postscriptum to “The Second Vatican Council: A History Never Written”.


1 From an article in http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/articolo/1347753, May 5, 2011. Also in Libero, December 12, 2010, he writes: “It is impossible to understand the alarmist reactions of those who fear this history will be grist to the mill of the hermeneutic of discontinuity. Would this be a good reason for not writing the history of Vatican II? Should its history be left entirely in the hands of the Bologna School, which has made scientifically valuable but ideologically tendentious contributions? If elements of discontinuity were to emerge at the historical level, why should we fear bringing them to light? How can one deny a discontinuity, if not in the content then at least in the new language of Vatican II? A language that consists not only of words but also of silences, gestures, and omissions can reveal the deeper currents of an event even more than the content of a speech. The history of the unexplainable silence about Communism on the part of a Council that should have been concerned with the facts of the world cannot, for example, be ignored.”

2 For example, under fire yet again because of a book he wrote entitled The Mystery of Evil: The Chastisements of God, he tries to appeal to texts of these two last popes to protect himself when, in reality, both of them would certainly reject his traditional position on the question.

3 Regrettable also is the evident sympathy of the author for the suspect movement Tradition, Family and Property (TFP) whose founder, Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, is often quoted in the work.