Two members of the hierarchy have recently issued statements about the doctrinal and historical significance of the Second Vatican Council, and the debates that have dominated the Church ever since the Council concluded nearly fifty-five years ago. Both of these prelates, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò and Bishop Athanasius Schneider, agree on the essential nature of the doctrinal and moral crisis within the Church in our time. But nuances of differences appeared when Archbishop Viganò, after quoting important observations made by Bishop Schneider, disagreed with some of his historical comparisons.
A primary example they discuss is that of the Council of Constance, which included in one of its decrees a statement understood as reflecting the error of conciliarism, which had to be corrected after that Council, and by the Pope. Bishop Schneider sees this as an example of an ambiguity or error in a conciliar document, concluding that there are similar ambiguities in the documents of Vatican II, which also need to be corrected by a subsequent Magisterium.
Archbishop Viganò, on the other hand, does not believe that earlier ecumenical councils can be understood in this way, and holds that Vatican II is unique among all the ecumenical councils, and therefore must be evaluated differently. His judgment is based in part on popular and widespread interpretations of the Council, not just on his personal interpretation. For he writes, “On closer inspection, never in the history of the Church has a Council presented itself as such a historic event that it was different from any other council….”
With this observation of Archbishop Viganò in mind, one can easily resolve the differences between the perspectives of the two bishops. The Council of Constance, which they discuss, is significant primarily for one historical fact. It brought to an end the Great Western Schism, when there were three claimants to the papal throne. With the election of a Pope who was universally recognized as the successor of Peter, the Church was reunited. But the Council was not successful in the doctrinal and moral reforms that it intended to introduce. For this reason theologians and historians are not in universal agreement regarding which of its decrees represent authoritative statements of the Magisterium.
Secondly, most Councils prior to Vatican II were considered by theologians to be expressions of the extraordinary Magisterium, issuing infallible dogmatic pronouncements. Vatican II, on the other hand, excluded dogmatic definitions from its purpose, and Pope Paul VI used a different term, solemn ordinary magisterium, to characterize its authority. The ordinary magisterium, as defined by the First Vatican Council, is only infallible when it is universal. Traditionalist theologians after the Council were able to clarify that universal must refer not merely to place – the gathering of bishops throughout the world in a Council. It must also refer to time – the constant teaching of the Magisterium throughout all of the Church’s history. For this reason Pope John Paul II and Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre agreed on a formula: Vatican II must be understood in light of Tradition.
Whereas the Council of Constance had succeeded in uniting the Church, Vatican II left the Church doctrinally divided between progressive and traditionalist schools of thought – those who would move the Church in the direction of what Archbishop Viganò described as an unprecedented “post-conciliar era,” and those who would resist this orientation. At the time of the Council of Constance, Christendom had been divided along national lines because bishops had become partly beholden to their nations’ rulers, in circumstances where the close union between Church and State was misused through State interference in the affairs of the Church. But at Vatican II the circumstances were very different, in that modern States were separated from the Church and constituted a very different danger, and atheistic Communism challenged the very existence of the Church.
The divisions at Vatican II therefore took the form of the desire of the progressives to accommodate the Church to this secularized political world, and that of traditionalist bishops who advocated for the condemnation of Communism, and the consecration of Russia to the Immaculate Heart, as requested by Our Lady of Fatima, in order to fight the primary political threat to the Church. Both Archbishop Viganò and Bishop Schneider today speak as leaders of this traditionalist current.
There are nuances of differences between them, just as there were in the previous generation. Two leaders of the traditionalist current during the Council, along with Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, were the Brazilians Archbishop Sigaud and Bishop de Castro Mayer, who were closely supported by the lay leadership of Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira. When the two Brazilian prelates explained to Dr. Corrêa de Oliveira why they were signing the documents of the Council, they said that their efforts were aimed at “saving the Council.” Dr. Corrêa de Oliveira replied by indicating that he thought they were merely saving progressivism instead, by signing documents that contained ambiguities.
Similarly, at the present time Bishop Schneider has focused attention on saving legitimate elements within the Council documents, while at the same time exposing the ambiguities. Archbishop Viganò, as an older and more experienced prelate, is emphasizing that the primary direction of Vatican II made it different from all previous Councils, and that Catholics must face this fact with honesty, in order to adequately understand the magnitude of the present crisis.
At the very center of Catholic life is the Holy Eucharist, and the faith of the Church is reflected in the manner in which the Eucharist is treated with the utmost solemnity. After the Council, the “spirit of Vatican II” analyzed by Archbishop Viganò manifested itself in the introduction of the practice of Communion in the hand, in violation of the Church’s liturgical laws. In his book documenting this development, now containing a preface by Bishop Schneider, Bishop Juan Rodolfo Laise did not blame the Council itself for this practice, but did what Bishop Schneider advocates – citing what was traditional in the Council’s documents – in order to show the reverence due to the Blessed Sacrament, and showing that this new custom was not authorized by the Council. But his analysis confirms what Archbishop Viganò is now saying – that this act of disobedience grew and spread throughout the world, through a false collegiality that gave rise to what Bishop Laise called the “most serious disobedience to the papal authority of recent times.”
Since the liturgical lives of Catholics in turn inspire the course of their daily lives within society, a lack of respect for what is most sacred, the Holy Eucharist, inevitably leads to a diminishing of the Church’s influence in the moral guidance of society. Instead of the Church being seen as the soul of true civilization – which St. Pius X identified exclusively with Christian Civilization – its antithesis emerged in the form of the doctrine of socialism: The principle that material goods must be owned not by families, nor by the institutions of the Church that foster both the worship of God and the works of charity, but only by the State, by its assuming complete control over all human activity, to the detriment of religion and the livelihoods of citizens. All of this was foreseen already in the mid-nineteenth century by Juan Donoso Cortés.
After what Donoso Cortés foretold had materialized in the twentieth century, Bella Dodd documented the process of the spread of these errors throughout the world through Communism, based upon her experiences after having drifted away from the Catholic Faith of her childhood, and entering the Communist Party. But when she later returned to the Church, she devoted the rest of her life to exposing what was happening in her generation, including the infiltration of Communism inside the Church.
When we witness these developments reaching a climax in our own day, we see the need for voices from the hierarchy to guide us through the present crisis. Various Cardinals and Bishops had spoken out against the errors, but by the 1980s Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre was virtually alone, until he was joined by Bishop Antonio de Castro Mayer. Whereas Bishop de Castro Mayer originally had spoken to Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira about his desire to save the Council, Bishop de Castro Mayer in his later years saw the need to support Archbishop Lefebvre in taking a more critical position regarding the Council’s effects. And now, decades later, it is the voice of Archbishop Viganò that insists upon the necessity of acknowledging that the Council itself cannot be freed from responsibility for the present crisis.
While there are nuances of difference among the episcopal voices diagnosing the crisis, a common theme among them is often an appeal to Our Lady of Fatima and her warnings. Inevitably these discussions turn to the debate about the Secret of Fatima, a debate that we have analyzed in Fatima and the Third Secret. On this point we must turn to Bishop Schneider rather than to Archbishop Viganò for the clearest insight, for it was Bishop Schneider who rejected the theory of a missing document or fourth secret. To defend that thesis, as Bishop Schneider explained, one would be forced to accuse Cardinal Ratzinger, and later again as Benedict XVI, of deceiving Catholics about the completeness of the published document.
Bishop Schneider saw in the actual Third Secret a description of the passion of the Church, calling our times the Good Friday of the Church. Bishop Bernard Fellay of the Society of St. Pius X had taken this same observation a step further, when he saw in the Third Secret a description of the passion and death of the Mystical Body. To understand what this means, one must turn to the central doctrinal problem of the Council documents, highlighted by Archbishop Viganò, the “subsistit in” of Lumen Gentium, which distinguishes between the Church of Christ and the Catholic Church. Whereas Leo XIII and Pius XII had taught that the Holy Spirit is the Soul of the Mystical Body which is the Catholic Church alone, Vatican II taught that the Holy Spirit was the Soul instead of the “Church of Christ.”
What the new teaching did was to describe the Catholic Church as a body, made up of human members, but without the Holy Ghost as the Soul of this unique Mystical Body. Separation of soul and body means death. Whereas Bishop Fellay had spoken of a death of the Mystical Body represented in the Third Secret, it was the founder of his Society, Archbishop Lefebvre, who once said that Vatican II’s document Lumen Gentium had ignored the Holy Ghost. And he was not alone. The French theologian Father Louis Bouyer made a similar observation, stating that the conciliar document had neglected to give sufficient importance to the Holy Spirit.* Pius XII had been clear in teaching that the term Mystical Body was the most perfect expression to manifest the true nature of the Church. The Council introduced multiple other descriptions to replace this former papal clarity and left the unique nature of the Catholic Church unclear, in favor of a more ecumenical description of the Church. It is for this reason that the Church since the Council has entered her passion, and Archbishop Viganò is therefore justified in showing why we cannot deny that the Council was at the origins of the present crisis.
* “The constitution on the Church practically ignores canon law, and, with the exception of a paragraph that is more pious than doctrinal, completely ignores the Holy Spirit!” – Father Louis Bouyer, The Church of God (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1982), p. 172.