Just four days after removing the excommunication from the four bishops of the Society of St. Pius X, Pope Benedict XVI offered insight regarding his motives during the General Audience of January 28th.
“In the homily delivered on the occasion of the solemn inauguration of my pontificate, I said that the ‘call to unity’ is an ‘explicit’ duty of the pastor,” he said. The decision to lift the excommunications, the Holy Father explained, should be viewed as “precisely in fulfilling this service to unity.”
He went on to express his expectation that the Society would undertake a “prompt effort to complete final necessary steps to arrive to full communion with the Church, thus giving testimony of true fidelity and true recognition of the Magisterium and the authority of the Pope and the Second Vatican Council.”
The heart of the matter is unity alright, but not just as it relates to those who claim membership in the SSPX; rather it involves unity for all Catholics as – let’s be honest – we are experiencing a crisis of true fidelity to the authority of the Pope and the Second Vatican Council well within the Church’s most visible bounds.
On October 26th, as a step toward full communion, theological experts representing the Society met with those representing the Holy See in the first of what promises to be many meetings to examine what a Vatican Press Office bulletin called “doctrinal differences” relative to Vatican II.
The bulletin went on to list the primary issues that will be “studied” in future meetings including, “the concept of Tradition, the Missal of Paul VI, the interpretation of Vatican Council II in continuity with Catholic doctrinal Tradition, the themes of the unity of the Church and the Catholic principles of ecumenism, the relationship between Christianity and non-Christian religions, and religious freedom.”
I for one find the Press Office’s use of the word “studied” intriguing; it tells us that these discussions are far more meaningful than simple negotiations; the result, in other words, will not just be some sort of holy compromise.
Regardless of whether or not the meetings result in the SSPX arriving at full communion – something each of us should be praying for – it seems that we can expect one of its fruits to be a greater degree of clarity for every Catholic concerning the way in which the Council is to be received. Given the many divisions that exist within the Church concerning Vatican II, the importance of this in service to what we might call a greater degree of “internal unity” cannot be overstated.
The fact is there are many Catholics of good will that have questions concerning the doctrinal weight of the conciliar decrees. For example, shortly after the excommunications were lifted chief of Human Life International’s Rome bureau, Monsignor Ignacio Barreiro, voiced an opinion shared by many when he said, “They [the SSPX] won’t be asked to accept the Council. There is nothing dogmatic regarding faith and morals in the Council documents. [Vatican II] was not dogmatic at all.”
As I said, my expectation is that the aforementioned discussions will bring answers to the lingering questions of doctrinal authority that are implied by the Monsignor’s statement, but “as we wait in joyful hope” a few things seem rather clear already.
First and foremost, the Second Vatican Council is an entirely valid ecumenical council of the Church, and according to Canon Law, “the decrees of an ecumenical council” once approved by the Pope “have obligatory force.” (cf Can. 341) This renders the notion that the SSPX or anyone “won’t be asked to accept the Council” entirely unsustainable.
Another fact that should be obvious to all is that there are many dogmatic statements to be found in the documents of Vatican II. While it is true that the Council chose not to define any new dogma, it does not follow that the Council refrained from teaching that which has already been defined concerning matters of faith and morals; it most certainly did. In fact, it did this and much more.
You see, one of the problems associated with the opinion expressed by Monsignor Barreiro and others of like-mind is that it creates the false impression that Vatican II essentially did nothing with regard to doctrine, and we are therefore justified in behaving as though Vatican II never happened.
This central deficiency in this view is that it ignores the simple fact that ours is not a static Church fixed at a particular place and time, rather we are members of a pilgrim Church that is being led into all truth as it journeys toward eternity.
In addressing the many false interpretations of the Council, Pope Benedict XVI cautioned that we must ever remain aware that the Church “increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same,” and the substance of Vatican II is “the one subject of the journeying People of God.”
So what does the Council represent in this regard? It represents a moment of authentic development in the unbroken continuum of sacred Tradition.
In the words of the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, (notice the word “dogmatic” in the title?) “There is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down as this Tradition which comes from the Apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit.” (cf DV 8)
This is precisely what happened at Vatican II.
Do questions remain? Of course they do; the interpretation and implementation of Vatican Council II continues to develop in the life of the Church as does the Tradition that She is called to safeguard, and that is one of the reasons that all of us should be prayerfully and gratefully anticipating the fruits of the upcoming meetings between the SSPX and the Holy See.