May 2019 Print

Book Review: The Disputed Teachings of Vatican II

Continuity and Reversal in Catholic Doctrine

by Gabriel Sanchez

In Search of an Apologia for Vatican II

Will debate over the Second Vatican Council (otherwise known as “Vatican II”) ever end? Shall a point be reached where critics and defenders alike can agree on what was taught, what it means, and whether or not the Council’s teachings can be framed as continuous with prior Catholic teaching? For an ecclesiastical event that was intended to both clarify doctrine and make it accessible to contemporary sensibilities, Vatican II has wrought an arguably unprecedented amount of confusion and controversy in the Catholic Church.

From St. Vincent to Vatican II

One of the latest installments in the cottage industry of Vatican II apologetics is Fr. Thomas A. Guarino’s The Disputed Teachings of Vatican II: Continuity and Reversal in Catholic Doctrine (Eerdmans, 2018). Guarino, a professor of systematic theology at Seton Hall University and a committed ecumenist, has written previously on the 5th-century theologian St. Vincent of Lerins, specifically St. Vincent’s contribution to what Catholics today refer to as “development of doctrine.” It is St. Vincent that Guarino turns to again in his latest work, a move that may strike some as shocking given the perception that St. Vincent was intransigently conservative in his doctrinal views, not to mention his conspicuous absence from Vatican II’s final documents.

St. Vincent is best known for the adage, “We hold that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by everyone.” Despite this, Guarino reads St. Vincent as a more dynamic theologian, one who was aware even in the relatively early days of the Catholic Church that doctrine can mature, grow, and develop in the same way a child becomes an adult or a seed springs into a plant. However, not all change can be adjudged good. For St. Vincent, change can either be profectus, that is, a legitimate and organic extension of what has been taught before, or permutatio, a corruption caused by an alteration or distortion of what was once held. So what was Vatican II? Profectus or permutatio?

Analogy Covers All Things

In approaching Vatican II, Guarino insists that analogical reasoning was central to the Council. That is, by drawing positive comparisons between, say, Catholicism and other religions and Christian confessions rather than focusing exclusively on differences, Vatican II broke with prior ecumenical councils by not condemning errors and issuing anathemas. Doing so fulfilled the Council’s alleged mandate to bring the “medicine of mercy” to the modern world while demonstrating that the Church had a communal role to play in the world rather than an antagonistic one. This was all well and good according to Guarino because this is what Pope John XXIII and many other conciliar bishops wanted; never does he stop to ask whether it was the right way in which to proceed.

As for the application of analogy, Guarino appears most interested in what it can allegedly do for ecumenical relations. Instead of the Church taking a critical and condemnatory position against other Christian communions, analogy allowed the Vatican II bishops to speak of ways in which these non-Catholic churches participated in the true Church of Christ, that is the Catholic Church. Without dismissing the fact that these non-Catholic churches are limited and imperfect, Guarino holds that Vatican II did no wrong in furnishing a fresh sense of unity with these communities while all but ignoring that such an approach was disruptive to prior ecclesiastical instruction and praxis. Moreover, he fails to appreciate the extent to which this analogical approach contributed less to a sense of unity among all Christians and more to a pervasive feeling of indifference toward the sharp ecclesiastical, theological, and doctrinal issues that remain at the heart of Christian disunity.

More controversial than Vatican II’s ecumenical gestures toward non-Catholic Christians was its declaration on world religions, Nostra aetate. Here, analogical reasoning was stretched to its limits as the Council attempted to bring forth similarities not only between Christianity and Judaism, but fundamentally alien religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism. Interestingly, Guarino highlights Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI’s skepticism on the over-use of analogy in Nostra aetate and the hyper-ecumenical outlook it engendered: “it speaks of religion solely in a positive way and it disregards the sick and distorted forms of religion which, from the historical and theological viewpoints, are of far-reaching importance” (from the article “Fu una giornata splendida” published October 11, 2012 in L’Osservatore Romano).

Guarino, unfortunately, is unmoved by these and other criticisms of misplaced positivity. Sure, perhaps Vatican II was one-sided in its optimistic appraisal of non-Christian religions, but so be it. Taking place in the shadow of World War II, the Holocaust, and the Cold War, the world was weary of negativity, or so says Guarino. Because Vatican II did not go so far as to outright deny Jesus Christ or wholly relativize the Catholic Faith, it did nothing wrong. Disregard the profound sociological upheavals inflicted by the Council such as the vocational crisis and rampant apostasy. Analogy covers all things.

Process, Not Permutationes

Although this review cannot cover the myriad of ways Guarino uses analogy to cover or justify Vatican II’s apparent deviations from earlier Catholic teaching and practice, it is worth noting that Guarino is not blind to all conciliar contradictions. Right or wrong, there is some superficial plausibility to Guarino’s thesis that the Council could organically develop Church teaching by clarifying obscurities and addressing new challenges. Where Guarino recognizes trouble is with respect to blatant attempts by Vatican II to overturn earlier ecclesiastical pronouncements. This is nowhere more apparent than with respect to Gaudium et Spes, a conciliar document that Benedict XVI, as Joseph Ratzinger, called a “countersyllabus” to Blessed Pope Pius IX’s 1848 encyclical Quanta Cura and its accompanying Syllabus of Errors.

Guarino recognizes that Gaudium et Spes takes the exact opposite approach to the modern world as the Syllabus by both avoiding any condemnatory language against liberalism and, more crucially, openly embracing liberal tenets such as religious liberty and the ideology of progress. How is this a “development?” According to Guarino, it isn’t, or at least not exactly. Obvious reversals of prior teachings are not developments per se but rather part and parcel of the so-called “process of development” on the way to a fully realized teaching. That’s convenient.

But if Guarino’s “process” thesis is true, then what magisterial weight does a contra´╗┐dictory or reversing teaching hold? If those parts of Gaudium et Spes which seem to overturn the Syllabus are merely a halfway house along the road to a completely blossomed truth, then why do they matter? What if this alleged road is winding and eventually leads back to the earlier starting point, for instance the Syllabus’s rejection of liberalism? Would it not be safer to “wait and see” under the protective canopy of Church instructions with a more ancient pedigree than novel (and contradictory) pronouncements which even an apologist such as Guarino is unwilling to imprint the stamp of finality upon? Sadly, these questions are both unasked and unanswered.

A Closing Remark on Religious Liberty

The Disputed Teachings of Vatican II’s apex is reached in its discussion of Dignitatis Humane, the conciliar declaration on religious liberty which has proven to be Vatican II’s most contentious document. Here, Guarino demonstrates commendable care in highlighting the gulf between the pre- and post-conciliar teachings, even going so far as to include extensive quotes from Popes Gregory XVI, Pius IX, Leo XIII, and St. Pius X on the matter. In the end, though, Guarino repairs to analogy, holding that because Vatican II had unveiled the positive connections of non-Catholic Christian confessions and even non-Christian religions to Catholicism, the Church’s earlier condemnations have lost their force.

Such an explanation will no doubt ring hollow to traditional Catholics, as will Guarino’s under-developed idea that certain categories of “ordinary” papal teachings, such as those contained in 18th and 19th-century encyclicals, can be dropped on a whim. Guarino either ignores or is unaware of ongoing traditional Catholic arguments for the infallibility of the condemnations issued in Quanta Cura and the Syllabus; if those arguments are correct, then what becomes of Guarino’s apologetics? It would seem they cannot stand.

Guarino’s book is hardly the last word on Vatican II. With respect to religious liberty, for example, the English theologian Thomas Pink has proposed reading Dignitatis Humanae as a change in ecclesiastical policy rather than doctrine. Pink’s thesis continues to be studied and criticized, just as most discussions of Vatican II are. While traditional Catholics will be leery of what Guarino proposes in his text, The Disputed Teachings of Vatican II does represent a thoughtful excursion into some of the Council’s deepest problems and an intelligent, albeit unsatisfactory, attempt at overcoming them.