17 February 2007


Like all right-thinking people, I hope well of the deliberations between members of certain dikasteries, and representatives of the SSPX. Anything they can do to throw light on the conciliar texts, and especially upon the odder among them, will be a gift to the Universal Church. Though mind you, if the SSPX had had the benefit of our waspish Anglo-Catholic sense of humour, they would have put on the table the Question of the Implementation of Sacrosanctum Concilium. They would have demanded a time-table for the putting into effect of what the council actually did mandate in the field of Liturgy. For example: the Council required that all clergy (except for a few individual cases individually dispensed by their bishops) say the Office in Latin. When, SSPX could have asked, is that to be enforced?

But there is a broader question than that of textual minutiae which, sooner or later, will have to be grasped: the matter of discerning between Councils. Because a view of history suggests that not all councils have been equally significant, either in their treatment of the problems of their own days, or in the value of the legacy they have bequeathed to subsequent generations.

This is a difficult time to go in with all guns blazing on that topic. Two quite different motives exist for the over-estimation of councils: firstly, the view of some Orthodox that it is in councils that the Magisterium of the Church is uniquely discerned. Orthodox might forgive us Latins for an occasional suspicion that the prominence assigned to councils in some Orthodox ecclesiologies has something to do with needing an alternative to set against the Papacy. And Anglicans will recall Gregory Dix's insistence that, compared with the operation of the Roman Primacy, councils are johnny-come-latelies which have a slightly sinister connection with the growth of Caesaro-papism. We also tend to wonder why, if Orthodoxy is the Church and councils are so important, Orthodoxy itself seems to do so superbly well, in bad times and in good, without councils, and has done for so many centuries. I might go further: the glory days of Byzantine Christianity lie, at least arguably, in the period since it ceased to hold or receive 'Ecumenical' Councils. Don't accuse me of a crude attack on Orthodoxy: I am perfectly aware of Orthodox articulations of the Faith which avoid all the arrows that I have just let loose. But I think some more reflective Orthodox might concede to me that there are Orthodox polemicists, just as there certainly are Western apologists, who do promote over-simplifications.

The second factor which has led to an excessive estimate of Councils is the modern superstition that there is something God-given about Democracy. While many Orthodox may be conciliarists, they are conciliarists because they see councils as bulwarks of Tradition and of orthopraxy. But the Modern Churchperson is likely to see councils as an admirable simulation of secular democracy and as a way of making the Church vulnerable to the infections and corruptions of the Zeitgeist: in other words, the Modernist is likely to favour councils for a reason diametrically opposed to that which makes them attractive to some Orthodox.

But it is not my intention to attack Orthodox - I'm truly sorry if I have made any Orthodox irritable - or even Modernism, but to have a look at some characteristics of councils (particularly Western councils) and to suggest a discernment between councils ... not all of which, I may suggest, have been particularly beneficial either to their own age or to posterity, or have had a long-term effect upon the Church. One can obediently agree that those councils deemed Ecumenical by the Magisterium really were ecumenical, and that any de fide propositions they imposed under anathema are to be accepted with divine and catholic faith ... without seeing each and every council as a particularly good thing or as a particularly significant thing for the future life of theChurch.

And such a hermeneutic of councils must, in the broadest sense, have a relevance to our estimation of the place Vatican II has in the Church of 2011.


Councils have, like popes, have included some rum individuals among themselves. But perhaps I should begin by distinguishing between Dogmatic Councils and those whose dogmatic pretensions have been rather limited. So: as a Latin, I would see something normative about the first Seven Councils, which established orthodox belief with regard to the Blessed Trinity and the Hypostatic Union. But even here, the closer up you bring the microscope, the more some ragged edges tend to appear. Did Nicaea I end in 325 ... or was there another session in 327? Are we sure that its requirement of Standing as the posture for prayer in Eastertide has always been regarded as binding? How edifying were the proceedings of ... e.g. ... the Fifth Ecumenical Council?

Again, as a Latin, I would see the Councils of Trent and Vatican I as similarly dogmatic councils, laudably addressing the errors of their times, defining the truth for their own time in a way that is also definitive for all time. But when you look at some of the earlier Western medieval councils ... well, it can't be denied that they did address the issues of their day. But not all those issues are of lasting value to the Church. Medieval Councils were often, obsessively, concerned with the recovery of the Holy Land. Even if we disregard the mere details of their enactments and fall back on a rather generalising acceptance of [Anglican jargon] "the trajectories" which they suggested, or, to use a different phrase [RC jargon] "the Spirit of the Councils", we are in trouble: who now advocates ... even in theory ... the recovery of the Holy Land from the Jews and the Moslems by the military powers of Christian Europe (whoever they may be)? How important did the Deposition of the Emperor remain to the Church after Lyons I ... at which council, incidentally, there were fewer than 150 bishops, and those mainly from Italy, Spain, and France?

In 1308, the Council of Vienne concerned itself with the Templars. Historians are far from agreed that these gentry were guilty of sodomy and of the other crimes of which they were accused. But even if they were, would even the most doctrinaire supporters of the 'Spirit of the Council (of Vatican II)' give whole-hearted backing to the 'Spirit of the Council (of Vienne)': which would have to include the desireability of burning sodomites at the stake? How genuinely and permanently useful to the Universal Church was the commissioning of Philip IV to go on Crusade - a Crusade which he never discharged, although he did retain the tithe raised for that Crusade, as well as most of the Templars' property?

Perhaps a Council which lurched around Europe in the fifteenth century raises the most interesting questions. Convoked at Basle, how many of its sessions are 'ecumenical'? Theological historians disagree. It is best known for its sessions at Forence which resulted in unity (1439) with Byzantium. But this unity did not survive the Fall of the Great City in 1453 ... so it was a union even briefer than the Union which was 'secured' at Lyons II in 1274. Finally, this Council was transferred to Rome, where little is known of its activities. How rubustly central to the life of the Church is a Council with regard to which the experts cannot agree which of its sessions were authentic, the date of whose conclusion is unrecorded, and whose final decrees, if there were any passed in its later sessions, have been lost?

Those whose conciliarist enthusiasms lead them to an exaggerated regard for Vatican II seem blithely, absurdly, unaware of the preposterous historical conclusions to which their views would lead them ... were they but consistent.

Let me be blunt about this. There are strictly dogmatic Councils, the texts of which are admirably punctuated by anathemas. These are permanently, objectively, a part of the church's fundamental dogmatic structure, so that those exercising a teaching ministry should be able to give the most willing, enthusiastic, assent to them. But the other Councils ... they, I suggest, gradually merge into the background and, largely forgotten even by theologians, become simply part of the General Mind of the Church; a process which invoves a degree of weeding-out and corporate forgetting, as what is less valuable in their enactments is quietly, sometimes mercifully, erased from the record. Not that I exclude the possibility that they may include in their texts elements which will be permanently fruitful for the Church; elements which in a process of Reception the Church will discern.


Vatican II met for the first time in 1962. It set out to address the 'issues', 'concerns', of 1962. It did not ... pray forgive me for stating something so obvious ... get to work on what had been the needs of fifty years before: the year, say, of 1912.

So it did not deal with the Modernist Crisis or the question of the Papal States. Of course not. Vatican II is situated in the aftermath of two major wars which happened after 1912; in the period when Europe was just recovering its self-confidence after the disasters, (plural) holocausts, privations, of the period 1914-1945. It attempted to deal with the agenda of its own period: whatever else could it have done? Had it attempted to revisit and relive the controversies and talking-points, the problems and anguishes, of 1912, it would have been laughed out of court before it even began its deliberations. Both those who welcomed its convocation with exuberant joy, and most of those whose reaction was more guarded, would have combined in 1962 to describe the agenda of 1912 as a time-wasting irrelevance.

I again venture to test your patience with another statement of the obvious: I have pointed out that the world of 1962 was a very different world from that of 1912; that the Church of 1962 was a very different Church from that of 50 years before. And, in 2012, we shall be 50 years later than 1962. And I do not think that the changes, both in the World and in the Church, will have been any less significant in these fifty years than they were in the fifty years between 1912 and 1962.

Quite apart from minor details such as resurgent Islam, the Church now faces, at least in "the West", an aggressively secularised World. And this secularism is much more inimical than the secularism of the century after the French Revolution. That earlier secularism left largely intact certain ethical and social assumptions inherited from the Judaeo-Christian past. It has been well - and often - said that Western Society was living off the moral capital of its past. But the world of 1962 was a world which was on the cusp of passing from this sub-Christian culture to an aggressively Anti-Christian ideology. And Vatican II seems to have been totally unaware of this significant fact. Moreover, we were on the very edge of a precipice in matters of sexual ethics. The Pill was posing its questions; was presenting itself as a modest advance which, without even corrupting the structure of the sexual act in itself, would enable nice and responsible married people to Plan their Families in a convenient way. Of course we cannot blame the Council Fathers for not realising that in fact this was the beginning of an era in which the entire structure of sexual morality, as shared by Christians, adherents of most other major religions, and even the great bulk of the post-Christian citizens of Western Europe and North America, was about to become the victim of a lethal and very successful onslaught. The Fathers did not come to Rome equipped with crystal balls; I am not in the blame-game. But it remains a fact of history that they did not, in any of their teaching or any of their enactments, prepare the Church for the cultural onslaught which it was about to face. The Pill itself was relegated to a footnote explaining that this question was being left to the Holy See. Whether this happened because the Fathers lacked the courage to face the problem, or because the Roman Pontiff did not trust them to do so (I think each of those narratives could be made to stand up and run), the fact is that the Council gave no guidance.

And the Fathers had no inkling of the Paedophile Priest crisis. If one takes "Spirit of Vatican II" in its usual sense of something which, neither mandated nor envisaged by the Council, resulted from the fashions of the conciliar milieu (Benedict XVI has pointed out the plausibility of connecting it with the systems of relative and situational 'non-absolute' ethics taught at the time), then that crisis is very much actually a part of the Spirit of Vatican II.

And, as we know only too well, the next item on the Enemy's agenda was to be the confusion of the whole subject of gender. Questions of 'same-sex unions', and of the 'ordination' of women, are among the most obvious symptoms of this revolution. Again - and it is fact, not blame, that concerns me - the Second Vatican Council did absolutely nothing to prepare and to arm the Church for what lay ahead of her.


Vatican II was a validly convoked Ecumenical Council, a Sacrosanctum Concilium of the Whole Church. If it had chosen to do so, it could have defined dogmas de fide to which (Papal assent having been given) any and every Catholic would have been obliged to give the complete assent of Divine Faith. Laws, canons, which it enacted ... if it did ... bind the faithful for a long as they remain unrepealed by lawful authority or, through desuetude, cease to bind. Its pronouncements command respect, religiosum obsequium, just as those enacted by the Council of Vienne in 1311, did in 1361 and, for that matter ... I presume ... still do.

All this is compatible with certain other propositions. For example: that it would have been better unconvoked; that it did no good; that it encouraged, unwittingly, heterodox tendencies which have had a baleful effect upon the Church ever since. I do NOT wish, in this piece, to advance, attack, or defend, any of those propositions. The proposition which I now have in mind is a little different: that Vatican II is History; that its relevance is Not For Our Time, fifty years later, any more than its relevance was for fifty years previously. Vatican II itself claimed to speak to the World of its own time: fair enough; that time was not our time, is not our time.

Vatican II, like so many of its predecessor councils, is obsolete or, at the very least, obsolescent. Yes, there are elements in its texts which are well put and will have continuing value and use. But it did not foresee many of the the major problems of our age and, therefore, did not give us guidance for getting through them. Its silly optimisms are no more relevant to our very different, much harsher, age than is the proccupation of so many medieval councils with "Just-One-More-Crusade". The notion that it was some sort of super-council which displaced and replaced  - or even simply relativised - the Councils which preceded it is, in my view, a heresy: because it disregards Councils which did, dogmatically, bind, in favour of a council which did not even claim to bind. Worse even than heresy, it is historical twaddle.

Emphasis on Vatican II has a number of unfortunate side-effects. It means that other, worthier, councils are ignored; and, in saying this I am not only thinking of Trent ... and not even of the Synod of Bethlehem. I wonder if you remember the striking ... mind-blowing ... assertion of Cardinal Ratzinger that the West needs to receive the "fundamental lines of the theology" of the Council of Moskow in 1551. And I am far from sure that the Latin Church would come to much harm if it humbly, prayerfully, set itself to assess the teachings of the 'Palamite' councils of the fourteenth century as they bear on the central Christian mystery of theosis.

And the fetichising of Vatican II distracts attention from the real and significant and valuable actions of the Roman Magisterium, which deserve so very much better than the sneers directed at them by illiterate fools. Humanae vitae and Ordinatio sacerdotalis, slender volumes, are worth more than all the paper wasted at Vatican II. Documents of the CDF, keeping up with the errors proposed in areas of ethics by the World's agenda, represent the locus to which perplexed modern Catholics should turn for teaching and guidance.

Byzantine Christians have an elegant custom of keeping, a few days after a major festival, a Leave Taking of that feast. I rather think that 2012 would be a good year for an official Leave Taking of Vatican II (with either a solemn EF Requiem or a patriarchal concelebration of the Liturgy of S John Chrysostom - propers as on Orthodoxy Sunday - in S Peter's?). In practical terms, it is high time that we all stopped seeking help in the yellowing pages of Abbot's not-particularly-good translation of its documents. "Leave taking" would of course include a prudent discernment and recovery of what is continuingly valuable in the texts of the Council.

It is in this context that I view the dialogue between the Vatican and SSPX. I wish it well, very well. But it is really a little bit like the old ARCIC dialogues between Rome and Anglicans ... painstakingly and painfully going over the old controversies of a moribund past in purblind ignorance of the actual problems in the world outside the seminar-room windows. It is all thoroughly worthy and admirable; it is even quite fun to contemplate their lengthy verbal convolutions; for the people who like this sort of thing, this is precisely the sort of thing that they like. But it is of rapidly diminishing relevance to anything real.

If I had any influence with either the Roman dikasteries, or the SSPX, which I don't, I would advise both sides to stop taking this whole business so painfully seriously; to give each other a broad wink across the negotiating table; to drink deep together in whatever vintages the dikasteries keep in their cellars; and to sign up to some cheerful ARCIC-like semantic fudge which would enable the Holy See to get on with the urgent and joyful task of erecting SSPX Ordinariates all over the world. Droves of them. Ordinariates is the Future. Fresh Expressions of Church, as the dear old C of E used to say.

6 February 2007

Where have the Gesimas gone?

Vatican II, Sacrosanctum Concilium, Paragraph 107:

The liturgical year is to be revised so that the traditional customs and discipline of the sacred seasons can be preserved

Well, the pre-Lent Season of Septuagesima, Sexagesima, Quinquagesima somehow seems to have missed out on that.

or restored to meet the conditions of modern times; their specific character is to be retained

The pre-Lent Season certainly had a specific character. It entered the Liturgy at a time when Rome had been sacked ... have I got this right ... some seven times; catastrophic floods had, as they still do in some parts of the world today, led to typhoid; the Lombards were relocating the population of Latium to the slave-markets of the North. So the Bishop and people of Rome resorted to penitential supplication in the three basilicas of the three patrons of Rome, Ss Lawrence, Paul, and Peter, which stood like fortresses at the approaches to the city. They prayed in penitence, seeing their calamities as the punishment fo their offences, begging deliverance. As Dr Cranmer translated the ancient Septuagesima collect:

O Lord, we beseech thee favourably to hear the prayers of thy people: that we, who are justly punished for our offences; may be mercifully delivered by thy goodness for the glory of thy Name.

Has the world changed much? Has the theme of the Gesimas lost any of its topicality? Is there any reason for the Roman Rite to continue to deny its worshippers these instructive and relevant Sundays, which it would be so easy to restore

so that they may duly nourish the piety of the faithful.