Vatican II and Catholic Family News

The discussion between Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò and Bishop Athanasius Schneider regarding Vatican II, which we commented on previously, has led to a wider debate within the universal Church. Italian Vatican correspondent Sandro Magister has attempted to portray Archbishop Viganò’s criticism of the Council as the beginning of the decline of his influence, but at the same time more than fifty prominent priests and lay scholars have publicly thanked both Archbishop Viganò and Bishop Schneider for raising questions about the Council that need to be addressed.

While Sandro Magister has cited Cardinal Brandmüller as representing a response to the position of Archbishop Viganò and Bishop Schneider, His Eminence in his defense of the Council has acknowledged one of the Council’s most notable weaknesses – its failure to condemn Communism. We single out this fact because of two articles that appeared in the July 2020 issue of Catholic Family News.

The journal’s editor-in-chief, Dr. Brian McCall – one of those who signed the open letter to Archbishop Viganò and Bishop Schneider – clearly takes the strong position of Archbishop Viganò in the lead article, indicating the necessity of a firm judgment of the Church on Vatican II. However, the same issue of Catholic Family News contains an article by Dr. Peter Kwasniewski on the Church’s teaching regarding private property, in which, while citing pre-conciliar papal documents on the Church’s social teaching, he also quotes extensively from Popes of Vatican II. He maintains, as Bishop Schneider had done in a similar context, that one cannot “throw out the baby with the bathwater,” arguing that there are teachings in the conciliar or post-conciliar documents he maintains should be upheld (1).

This contrast within the same issue of Catholic Family News suggests a paradox in the approach that the journal has taken in the present doctrinal discussions. In dogmatic and liturgical matters, it has highlighted the weaknesses or failures of the Council, but in areas of Catholic social doctrine its position is less clear in relation to the Council, and there is a reason for this. In our own articles in previous emails we have emphasized the unity of the message of Our Lady of Fatima relating to the present crisis in the Church. When Sister Lucia explained the Third Secret to John Paul II in her letter of May 12, 1982, she did not refer either to Vatican II, or to the liturgical crisis in the Church, but to the errors of Russia which Our Lady had mentioned in the Second Secret, and which, Sister Lucia explained to John Paul II, found their fulfillment in the Third Secret. Sister Lucia did not separate the crisis in the Church from what was happening in temporal society – as if to treat the Second Secret as a revelation of political events, and the Third Secret as representing a separate crisis within the Church.

When reading the second part of the Secret of Fatima, we see that Our Lady mentioned two nations by name. The first was Russia, a non-Catholic Christian nation that had been overtaken by Communism, and Portugal, a Catholic nation that represented fidelity to Catholic dogma. Some have attempted to separate the threat of Communism from the internal crisis within the Church, but Our Lady did not do this, and Sister Lucia preserved that unity between the two spheres, manifesting one and the same crisis in both the spiritual and temporal orders. The fact that Cardinal Brandmüller, while defending the Council, acknowledged nevertheless its failure to condemn Communism, illustrates clearly the link between the crisis in both the Church and temporal society alike.

Turning now to the thesis of Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, we find in his argument a certain appreciation for the post-conciliar orientation regarding social doctrine, because it emphasizes the social nature of the use of private property. Dr. Kwasniewski rightfully refers to the obligation of the rich to share their wealth with the poor, citing the Fathers of the Church. However, what is the specific role of government in the achievement of this moral objective? Juan Donoso Cortés, in his speech before the Spanish Parliament on January 4, 1849, insisted that when religion prospers, the role of government becomes less, but when religion declines, government increases (2). And Donoso Cortés warned his audience that because of the direction in which modern society was moving, mankind was heading toward the worst government tyranny the world has even seen. Not only was his observation prophetic in its general prediction, but an expert on Soviet affairs in the century that followed, Father Edmund A. Walsh, S.J. in his book Total Power, cited Donoso Cortés for having foreseen the future rise of Russia (3).

An important way to understand the application of these principles is to turn to a historical comparison. When Spain and Portugal were exploring their newly acquired territories in the New World, they turned to the Pope to decide how these territories were to be divided, and Alexander VI drew the famous Line of Demarcation. It was later modified by the Treaty of Tordesillas, but it demonstrated the role of the Church – even though the Pope was also a temporal ruler – in deciding the distribution of the world’s territories. But when Pope Francis was preparing for the Pan-Amazon Synod, the territories of South America, of which the Church had historically led in their distribution, were suddenly being viewed as belonging not merely to the independent nations of those regions, but to the human race. And the conclusion was that the control of such lands should be viewed accordingly, and overseen by international bodies.

Was this objective of Pope Francis and the organizers of the Amazon Synod unrelated to the orientation of the previous Popes since Vatican II, those cited by Dr. Kwasniewski to emphasize a common sharing of the world’s goods? Or was it a logical development from a newly formulated emphasis on the social nature of property ownership, linked ultimately to the Council?

There is indeed a social responsibility incumbent upon the owners of wealth, and in Catholic social theory this is expressed in the principle of solidarity. But inseparable from this principle in Catholic social doctrine is the corresponding principle of subsidiarity. The foundations of the social order are local, and not merely international. Juan Donoso Cortés’s defense of private property emphasized that private property begins with the family, and it applies also to the Church, whereas liberalism and socialism seek to take these rights to property away from the family and the Church, and eventually to grant them exclusively to the State, and finally to all of humanity at the expense of the rights of independent nations.

In a more recent article, appearing in the August issue of Catholic Family News, Dr. Kwasniewski further develops his position by writing on the philosophy of distributism. He does this by referring to “government’s responsibility to implement policies that aim at widespread distribution of property,” and then he further explains: “While there will always be corporate giants with considerable wealth and landlords renting to tenants, an economy is imbalanced to the extent that it is dominated by them” (4). The question here concerns the meaning of the expression “widespread distribution of property,” and the role of government in achieving it. Dr. Kwasniewski highlights the medieval guilds, which in pre-conciliar papal doctrine became a model for the modern industrial economy. The guild system applied to the urban economy of the Middle Ages, but the medieval economy was predominantly rural, and was directed by a landed nobility, the owners of large domains. While modern economies have become highly urbanized, the medieval pattern of large rural estates continued in modern agricultural societies, but came under attack from movements advocating socialist land reform.

Such is the case with what occurred in Brazil in the 1960s, the world’s largest Catholic country, and which coincided with the Second Vatican Council. The leftist president João Goulart, with the support of many progressive members of the Brazilian hierarchy, wanted to impose a socialist land reform policy, breaking up large rural large estates to promote a wider distribution of rural property. But traditional Catholics of Brazil rose up to oppose this policy. Led by Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, whom David Allen White in his book on the diocese of Campos called the “leader of the fight” (5), they used the doctrine of the Popes to demonstrate that this proposed land redistribution was contrary to Catholic teaching. In publishing a book that became a national best-seller, Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira was joined by economist Luiz Mendoça de Freitas, and by Archbishop Geraldo Proença Sigaud and Bishop Antonio de Castro Mayer, the two Brazilian bishops who during those same years were working with Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and with other bishops in Rome, those resisting the progressive orientation being promoted at the Council. The battle to preserve the traditional rural economy of Brazil was intimately linked to what was happening in Rome, for it manifested in civil society the consequences of the doctrinal confrontation taking place at the Council itself.

The two articles of Peter Kwasniewski referred to above do not address this specific application of doctrinal principles that he proposes, but this one example from recent history is central for an understanding of the traditionalist reaction to the present crisis in the Church. For in Brazil Archbishop Sigaud, Bishop de Castro Mayer, Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira and Luiz Mendoça de Freitas faced opposition from another prominent Brazilian, Gustavo Corção, whose opinions were respected in various traditional Catholic circles. Dr. White in his book even speculated that Gustavo Corção had a unique insight into the personality of Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira that others lacked (6). However, it was not a psychological intuition that turned Gustavo Corção against the efforts led by Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira. Rather, it was a disagreement about principles. Dr. Plinio believed that all of creation is hierarchical, including temporal society. All have a natural right to own personal property, but the degree of ownership cannot be equal among all, because of the different abilities that each human being possesses. Just as the Church is hierarchical, human society is hierarchical. Therefore in Brazil there are large rural estates, medium rural estates, and small properties. The larger estates could not be artificially divided up in the name of a wider distribution of property without violating the legitimate property rights of landowners, and without harming the whole of society because of the devastating economic results of such redistribution. But Gustavo Corção opposed this effort that was being made to stop the false land reform policy, and he seems to have done so because he had concerns about Catholics supporting what he termed “power and prestige” (7)

Such suspicions entertained against the firm position of other Brazilian traditionalist leaders affected some traditional Catholics on other continents. In the United States Dr. David Allen White had given credibility to Gustao Corção’s suspicions about Dr. Plinio, and in Europe Bishop Tissier de Mallerais cited Dr. White’s interpretation in this regard in his biography of Archbishop Lefebvre (8). But in the same biography Bishop Tissier de Mallerais cited a principle of Archbishop Lefebvre that supports that of Prof. Plinio. Archbishop Lefebvre held that society needs business leaders, because society must be hierarchical (9). This was the principle that Dr. Plinio and his two supporters among the Brazilian bishops were applying to the rural economy of Brazil. And its clearest expression is to be found in Dr. Plinio’s final book, Nobility and Analogous Elites in the Allocutions of Pius XII, in which he traced the historical and social role of elites throughout Catholic history, elites who were leaders in every respect, insofar as in the Middle Ages the nobles were economic, military and political leaders at the same time.

The crisis in the Church that followed the Second Vatican Council led much of the Catholic world in a different direction. While the official teaching of the Church continued to uphold certain traditional Catholic principles governing the social order, the emphasis had changed in the practical applications. Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò has emerged in the last two years as a principal leader and spokesman for the traditional Catholic opposition to this new direction. And that leadership has not simply manifested itself in dogma and liturgy, but also in social doctrine as well. Understanding the practical application of commonly accepted principles requires not simply the knowledge of a single country like the United States, or an entire continent such as Europe, but the entire Catholic world – therefore not merely the industrial societies of the northern hemisphere, but also those more rural Catholic nations of the southern hemisphere, which have preserved a unique bond with the medieval Catholic social order.


(1) Peter Kwasniewski, “May His Kingdom Come – Catholic Social Teaching, Part IV: Are Property Rights Absolute? Not According to the Church,” Catholic Family News, vol. 27 (July 2020), no. 7, p. 3.

(2) “There are only two possible forms of control: one internal and the other external; religious control and political control. They are of such a nature that when the religious barometer rises, the barometer of control falls and likewise, when the religious barometer falls, the political barometer, that is political control and tyranny, rises.” Juan Donoso Cortés, “The Church, the State, and Revolution,” in Béla Menczer, Catholic Political Thought 1789-1848 (University of Notre Dame Press, 1962), p. 170. Obras Completas, tomo II, p. 187, Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos, Madrid, 1976.

(3) Father Edmund A. Walsh, S.J., Total Power: The Roots and Progress of World Communism (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Co., 1951), p. 266.

(4) Peter Kwasniewski, “May His Kingdom Come – Catholic Social Teaching, Part V: The Disagreement between Distributists and Capitalists,” Catholic Family News, vol. 27 (August 2020), no. 8, p. 3.

(5) David Allen White, The Mouth of the Lion: Bishop Antonio de Castro Mayer & the Last Catholic Diocese (Kansas City, MO: Angelus Press, 1993), p. 185.

(6) “Gustavo Corção attacked the book with such fervor because he had a deep-seated distrust of Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira. He sensed something disturbing and off-putting in the man and because of this intuitive impression could not line up with him even though the two men were fighting the same battle on the same side.” David Allen White, ibid., p. 84.

(7) Gustavo Corção, “What the World Expects from the Church,” in World Crisis and the Catholic: Studies Published on the Occasion of the Second World Congress of the Lay Apostolate, Rome (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1958), pp. 201-210. A central theme of this address given by Gustavo Corção is that the manifestation of worldliness among Catholics is expressed in what he calls “middle class morality,” which he associates with priests and religious as well as laity, whenever they give special status or importance to the upper social classes. Therefore it is understandable that in the following decade, when Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira defended the leadership role of the upper classes in the face of socialist land reform, Gustavo Corção would react with suspicion and open opposition.

(8) “Professor Plinio’s book…was criticized by Gustavo Corção, who was suspicious of Plinio’s personality.” Bishop Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, The Biography of Marcel Lefebvre (Kansas City, MO: Angelus Press, 2004), p. 290, footnote 72. French edition, p. 309, footnote 3.

(9) “His family background and sense of hierarchy led him to think that social reform ought to be achieved by Catholic action led by business leaders.” Bishop Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, ibid., p. 192, French edition, p. 209. The meaning of Archbishop Lefebvre’s position is that the common good of society is directed ultimately by the Church, which in turn inspires business leaders, not simply government officials, to work for a just social order. Cf. Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre on the meaning of the common good, They Have Uncrowned Him (Dickinson, TX: The Angelus Press, 1988), pp. 206-207. Whereas Peter Kwasniewski cited John XXIII’s Mater et Magister as upholding the principle of the common good, Archbishop Lefebvre criticized the pontiff’s understanding of the common good expressed in the encyclical Pacem in Terris as deficient and tending toward secularism.