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.