Questions Answered

  • Is it true that Vatican II was a complete break with the past?
  • Is authority in society optional? Is it primarily a matter of the intellect or the will?

Question: This year the Church is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the documents of Vatican II. Is it true that this council was a complete break with the past?

Answer: The evaluation of the documents of the Second Vatican Council is especially timely for two reasons. The Church is in the middle of a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of many of these documents. In addition, the Church is implementing the vision of the council with a synod on the New Evangelization. In fact, the New Evangelization flows directly from the council initiative.

There are three basic interpretive devices one can use in evaluating this council. First, the council was a complete break with the past and ushered in a new and completely different understanding of the Church which diverged from previous councils. Second, the council was a simply continuity with the past which contributed no new understanding to the constant teaching of the Church. Third, the council was a reform in the self-understanding of the Church which invited both head and members to a true conversion of heart which would form the basis for a fresh presentation of Church teaching.

The first option completely flies in the face of all Catholic understandings of the development of doctrine. Doctrine does develop, but it cannot do so in a heterogeneous fashion so as to deny previous Church teaching. Pope John XXIII stated in his opening address: “The major interest of the Ecumenical Council is this: that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously” (October 11, 1962). The fact that it should be guarded demonstrates that it was not in any sense the intention of John XXIII that doctrine should be changed. In fact, Pope Paul VI maintained that there were no new doctrines taught in Vatican II, and John XXIII echoed this: “The salient point of this council is not … a discussion of one article or another of the fundamental doctrine of the Church which has repeatedly been taught by the Fathers and by ancient and modern theologians, and which is presumed to be well known and familiar to all.”

Though this is the case, it is also well-known that the council Fathers rejected some of the first document proposals, especially on the basic documents like revelation and the Church, because they thought they were too academic and too scholastic in their language. They wanted to present a fresh view of the Church teaching to the world. This meant a homogeneous evolution, especially in the manner of presentation of Church teaching. The council was, therefore, not just continuity with past Church teaching, especially in its manner of presentation. For one thing, it was not called to answer a schismatic or heretical situation as had been the case with all other councils. Its purpose has recently been summarized by a contemporary author as involving three main areas: “Sacrament, Holiness, and Dialogue” (Cardinal Marc Ouellet, The Relevance and Future of the Second Vatican Council, 39).

Vatican II was, in fact, a reforming council. It was not a reformation based on any substantive dogmatic change. Nor was it a council which changed morals. The reformation called for by Vatican II was first a renewal of sacramental practice to encourage the laity to seek holiness by a more efficacious participation in the Mass. This, in turn, should cause man to become aware again, in the face of an increasingly secular age, that only God can bring him happiness, and, therefore, he should seek holiness. The perspective which this renewed practice and holiness stimulates is a truly supernatural one, so that the Church is not just a very authoritarian religious society imposing ideas and disciplines externally. Rather, the Church, as an authentic “Mother of Grace,” should stimulate the faithful to a more free practice of Catholic morality and, thus, to personally become an example of the joy of grace. This very joy, and the emphasis of truths shared with other Christian sects and other religions should be the cause of realistic and loving dialogue. A Church full of Christians so informed and joyful should certainly serve as a very attractive alternative to the modern alienation of man from God and from religion. “Today, in particular, the pressing pastoral task of the New Evangelization calls for the involvement of the entire People of God, and requires a new fervor, new methods, and a new expression for the announcing and witnessing of the Gospel” (Pastores dabo vobis, 18).


Question: Is authority in society optional? Is it primarily a matter of the intellect or the will?

Answer: This question is central to the nature of obedience and is very important for modern issues of freedom. Ever since the social contract theory of Hobbes and Rousseau became popular in the 16th and 17th centuries, it has been customary to interpret such statements as “governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed” to mean that the power of the human will is sovereign connected to an absolute freedom to live without society. In the case of Hobbes, this freedom was the cause of strife, the war of all-in-all. In the case of Rousseau, it was the result of an idyllic natural man, unspoiled by property and greed. In either case, man created society and authority, and its sole sanction was man himself. Human authority did not just implement justice, but created it.

The Church has always rejected this solution to the problem of freedom and authority. There is certainly a freedom in human actions created by the will. Man is certainly not subject to society in all he has and does, at least to no civil society. This is because, though the members of a society have a right and duty to choose what kind of government they shall have, and, also, who shall exercise authority in it, the origin of society itself is from nature. Man is naturally a political animal. The reason is that whenever a group of people join to pursue any common good, there must be someone to give direction. This is even the case with people rowing a boat. If everyone rowed where they wished, without order, the boat would go in circles, or at least, not in a unified direction.

Just as the intellect governs the will, so there must be one intellect who, by his will, engages another person’s intellect, and so implements truth in practice for the common good of a society to be sufficiently pursued. This is true regardless of sin. Thomas Aquinas maintained that authority was as necessary as society, even in the state of Original Justice before Original Sin. The only difference in the relation of authority to freedom before and after the sin, is that, before sin, there was no need for punishment. People would have naturally chosen the best, and most just, authority. After the sin, the sanction of punishment is necessary, and people do not always choose the best, or the most just, rulers. In fact, often it is just the opposite.

The aversion to authority and advocacy of group government is endemic to a steady erosion of the natural law since the 18th century. When there is no objective nature which springs from the mind of God on which to base moral judgments, the conscience becomes an oracle in itself, and freedom is exalted. This leads to a mindset in which authority and conscience do not implement truth, but rather create it.

Catholicism has always held that the ultimate origin of all law and authority is the eternal law which is present in God’s mind when he creates the world. The theory of this law is based on a modification of the ideas of Plato filtered through St. Augustine. One will remember that Plato maintained there were absolute spiritual ideas which were the reality on which all material things were based. These were the origin of objective truth and good. However, they did not dwell in the mind of God (the “Good” in Plato), and the created things which participated in them were only an illusion. Matter was, therefore, useless to discover them. Augustine, and after him, St. Thomas Aquinas maintained that these objective ideas were indeed at the source of everything which exists. However, they exist in the mind of God, reflect him in a limited way, and are truly reflected in the participation of created things which are not shadows, but real things.

One discovered these ideas through abstraction on matter. In the case of man, this discovery was through the ideas in the human mind which reflected these divine ideas for man. This was the natural law. Since human law and authority were primarily an application of the truth of one person’s intellect directing actions through engaging another’s intellect, albeit through the will, all authority must respect and implement the natural law. An authority which did not do this, by commanding something which would be a sin, was not exercising authority, but an abuse of authority. Human authority derives its primary sanction from God through the natural authority in civil law and Christ in divine law. This authority is necessary for the formation of the conscience in practical matters.

Fr. Brian Mullady, OP About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, “Questions Answered.”

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