Vatican II and Catholic Family News

Part III

In the context of the position of Catholic Family News regarding Vatican II, editor-in-chief Brian McCall has recently questioned the Fraternity of St. Peter, in the explanation of its devotion to both the Papacy and the traditional Latin Mass.1 Dr. McCall writes as a lawyer, using an analogy taken from the legal profession and from natural law. In traditional theology, philosophy is the handmaid of theology, and this would include moral and legal philosophy. However, in treating the relationship between the Faith and the Papacy, the part of philosophy needed to explain this relationship is not merely moral philosophy or the philosophy of law, but metaphysics or ontology. The Papacy and the Faith are not primarily distinct “goods” that are hierarchically ordered, but are more in the order of the transcendentals of being, for they transcend the hierarchy of natural goods and categories. By way of analogy, in the Blessed Trinity, Catholic dogma does not speak of a hierarchy of Persons, but of an equality.2

In The Theology of History in St. Bonaventure, the young Father Ratzinger in the 1950s explained how the theology of the relationship between Revelation and the understanding of the Faith by the Church developed during the period of medieval scholasticism. Initially, the Bible and the Fathers of the Church were seen as constituting Revelation, in that the Church Fathers represented Tradition. But by the thirteenth century it became clearer how it was the Magisterium of the Church that was necessary for the interpretation of this two-fold Tradition, both of Scripture and the Fathers. Tradition and the Magisterium therefore are not primarily ordered hierarchically, but instead are united and equal in a way analogous to the transcendentals of being.

Related to the argument of Brian McCall in his disagreement with the Fraternity of St. Peter3 is another article in the same issue of Catholic Family News,4 on the question of ultramontanism, interpreted as an exaggeration of papal authority. A debate has arisen over this question among traditional Catholics, for that thesis has been challenged by other traditionalist writers, beginning with José Antonio Ureta and more recently by Roberto de Mattei, both of whom defend ultramontanism.

When discussing the question of ultramontanism, one is not treating simply abstract theological principles, but also historical facts, which in turn are related to the development of the theology of Tradition, and to the theology of history itself. It was Roberto de Mattei who brought this aspect of Catholic doctrine to the forefront, first with the publication of his history of Vatican II, and later with his book Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira: Prophet of the Reign of Mary. While modernism reduces theology to historicism, to an historical evolution of dogma, Roberto de Mattei has helped to raise awareness of traditional philosophy and theology of history as a means of combatting modernism.

In reprinting Msgr. Joseph Fenton’s 1963 article defending the traditional theology manuals, Catholic Family News helped bring to light the anti-modernist perspective of these works of theology, which were guided by modern papal teachings.5 Theologians who were critical of these manuals, however, would argue that they were incomplete, accusing them of being too abstract. It is a subtle argument, and therefore one that must be analyzed to adequately respond to the present doctrinal crisis.

St. Thomas used Aristotelian philosophy as a handmaid of theology, holding that theology is a science, and therefore it studies universal concepts, which are abstracted from the concrete singulars that constitute reality. History, on the other hand, is about concrete singulars. Abstract principles do not replace real or concrete things, but rather enable the human mind to understand them. The intellect must then return to these singulars, precisely because they constitute reality.

For the new theologians, however, reality in terms of the human condition means that it is historical, in the sense that it is reduced to history. In the past, for the Dominican theologian Melchior Cano, history was one of the ten sources of theology, the loci theologici. But for the theologians who criticize traditional scholasticism, history is something more than that. Rather than being one source for understanding divine Revelation, history becomes its sole or ultimate source.

It was in the context of such theological speculation that the young Father Ratzinger in the 1950s wrote his work The Theology of History in St. Bonaventure.6 In his preface he stated that it is in times of historical crises that the philosophy and theology of history are brought to the fore. What Father Ratzinger could not have foreseen in the 1950s was that St. Bonaventure’s theology, which he was bringing to light in the twentieth century, provided the very refutation of the modernist theology of history that was to gain prominence at the time of the Second Vatican Council. In publishing his history of the Council, Roberto de Mattei explained to his readers that the Council could not simply be understood as a collection of conciliar documents, but must also be examined as a historical event in order to fully understand its significance. Finally, Prof. de Mattei’s book Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira: Prophet of the Reign of Mary examines in more detail certain elements of a traditional Catholic philosophy and theology of history, for it was Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira who inspired him to direct his own historical studies toward a deeper knowledge of historical events, because of the importance that he gave to the philosophy of history. And insofar as philosophy is the handmaid of theology, the contribution of these lay authors to the philosophy of history provides an incentive for traditionalist theologians to resolve the present doctrinal crisis in that light. The debates about ultamontanism, and about the relationship between the Papacy and Tradition, can only be fully resolved through an understanding of the theology of history. For Divine Revelation, according to St. Bonaventure, made known to us the precise nature of what was to become the present crisis in the Church, affecting the Papacy, the Liturgy, and the Social Kingship of Christ.


1 Brian M. McCall, “Confusion in Response to Traditionis Custodes and the Doubtful Dubia,” Catholic Family News, vol. 29, no. 2 (February 2022), 1, 23.

2 The analogy between the Blessed Trinity and the Church illustrates the infinite difference between God and the Church, while at the same time shows the authority given to the Church and therefore the Papacy: “With regard to the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity…we not only believe them, but also believe in them. But here we make use of a different form of expression, professing to believe the holy, not in the holy Catholic Church. By this difference of expression we distinguish God, the author of all things, from His works, and acknowledge that all the exalted benefits bestowed on the Church are due to God’s bounty.” Catechism of the Council of Trent (Marian Publications, 1972; TAN Books, 1982; Preserving Christian Publications, 2021), pp. 108-109.

3 Dr. McCall, in his criticism of the Fraternity, cites the work of John Finnis, Natural Law and Natural Rights (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), which he argues is in opposition to the teaching of St. Thomas on the hierarchy of moral goods. Aside from the debate about the natural law theory proposed by John Finnis, one of the points argued by the latter is that one cannot arbitrarily isolate moral goods (cf. p. 105), and to this he relates an understanding of the common good. Applied to the Church, the Papacy juridically represents in society the supreme realization of the common good.

4 Stuart Chessman, “Ultramontanism: Its Life and Death,” Catholic Family News, vol. 29, no. 2 (February 2022), 17, 25-26, 28.

5 “The Teaching Authority of the Theological Manuals,” Catholic Family News, Part I, vol. 28, no. 11 (November 2021), 7-8; Part II, no. 12 (December 2021), 7-8, 18.

6 Joseph Ratzinger, The Theology of History in St. Bonaventure (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1971). Reprinted by Ignatius Press.