Saturday, April 01, 2006

The blind leading the blind

Roman Catholics keep telling us benighted Evangelicals that we need a magisterium, a divine teaching office, or living tradition, to guide us through life.

Here is part of what a cardinal has to say about how two of the architects of Vatican II, both of whom who went on to be Pope, differ over the reliability of this “ecumenical” council.

The current pontiff even attributes heresy to one portion of the conciliar end-product.


The pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes in final form was primarily the work of French theologians. The German group did not control the text. At the time of the council Ratzinger already noted many difficulties, beginning with the problem of language. In opting for the language of modernity the text inevitably places itself outside the world of the Bible, so that as a result the biblical citations come to be little more than ornamental. Because of its stated preference for dialogue, the constitution makes faith appear not as an urgent demand for total commitment but as a conversational search into obscure matters. Christ is mentioned only at the end of each section, almost as an afterthought.

Instead of replacing dogmatic utterances with dialogue, Ratzinger contends, it would have been better to use the language of proclamation, appealing to the intrinsic authority of God’s truth. The constitution, drawing on the thought of Teilhard de Chardin, links Christian hope too closely to the modern idea of progress. Material progress is ambivalent because it can lead to degradation as well as to true humanization. The Cross teaches us that the world is not redeemed by technological advances but by sacrificial love. In the section on unification, Gaudium et Spes approaches the world too much from the viewpoint of function and utility rather than that of contemplation and wonder.

Ratzinger’s commentary on the first chapter of Gaudium et Spes contains still other provocative comments. The treatment of conscience in article 16, in his view, raises many unsolved questions about how conscience can err and about the right to follow an erroneous conscience. The treatment of free will in article 17 is in his judgment “downright Pelagian.” It leaves aside, he complains, the whole complex of problems that Luther handled under the term “servum arbitrium,” although Luther’s position does not itself do justice to the New Testament.

Ratzinger is not wholly negative in his judgment. He praises the discussion of atheism in articles 19-21 as “balanced and well-founded.” He is satisfied that the document, while “reprobating” atheism in all its forms, makes no specific mention of Marxist communism, as some cold warriors had desired. He is enthusiastic about the centrality of Christ and the Paschal mystery in article 22, and he finds in it a statement on the possibilities of salvation of the unevangelized far superior to the “extremely unsatisfactory” expressions of Lumen Gentium 16, which seemed to suggest that salvation is a human achievement rather than a divine gift.

With regard to this constitution, the later Ratzinger does not seem to have withdrawn his early objections, notwithstanding his exhortations to accept the entire teaching of Vatican II.

The contrast between Pope Benedict and his predecessor is striking. John Paul II was a social ethicist, anxious to involve the Church in shaping a world order of peace, justice, and fraternal love. Among the documents of Vatican II, John Paul’s favorite was surely the pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes. Benedict XVI, who looks upon Gaudium et Spes as the weakest of the four constitutions, shows a clear preference for the other three.



  1. There is an interesting series of books written by the catholic theologian Johannes Dormann called Pope John Paul II's Theological Journey to the Prayer Meeting of Religions in Assisi.

    He shows through an analysis of JP II's enyclicals this his emphasis is quite different from pre-Vatican II thought and apparently contradicts it on a number of occasions.

    Dormann isn't a member of any traditionalist group, but his books were translated by Catholic traditionalists so his critique is ignored, from what I can tell.

  2. Popes are not all they're cut out to be.

    Have you seen Peter Lampe's book, "From Paul to Valentinus: Christians at Rome in the First Two Centuries"? Among Lampe's propositions: 1. No monarchical bishop existed in Rome before around 180 ad, and 2 the "apostolic succession" list used by Irenaeus in "Against Heresies" was "with the highest probability a historical construction." Others have called this list a forgery.

    Lampe's work is incredibly detailed. Eamon Duffy says "All modern discussion of the issues must now start from (this) exhaustive and persuasive analysis".

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  4. Relevant to this discussion are Steve Hays' critique of Philip Blosser's critique of sola scriptura, "By Scripture Alone," and Blosser's rebuttal, "Sola Scriptura revisited: a reply to Steve Hays (in 95 antitheses)."