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Quiet retreat from Vatican II’s accomodation to secularism: five experts comment Quiet retreat from Vatican II’s accomodation to secularism: five experts comment

Excerpts from five important articles, including:
♦  How Vatican II leaves concordat privileges untouched
♦  How, beginning in the 1990s, Vatican II began to be quietly reversed
♦  How Cardinal Ratzinger’s “positive secularism” and 1993 Catechism undermine church-state separation

Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council in 1962, in the hope of liberalising the Catholic Church. After his death, part way through Vatican II, his successor claimed to be continuing this, through a dramatic gesture. In November 1963 Paul VI descended the steps of the papal throne in St. Peter's Basilica and ascended to the altar, where he laid his triple crown. In the spirit of the CounciI, he made this “gesture of renouncing the papal claim to temporal power”. [1]

Only three months later, however, the Holy See unilaterally named itself a permanent observer at the United Nations. [2] This gave it a continuous presence at the UN which was invaluable for lobbying. Thus, even while Vatican II was underway, Paul VI was quietly extending the temporal power of the Church on the world stage.

The year after Vatican II ended Paul VI again violated its spirit, and even did so in its name. In 1966 the brutal General Onganía crushed democracy in Argentina, repressed all protests and then quickly concluded a military concordat with the Vatican. Paul VI hailed this as “the first fruit in the field of Church-state relations of the Ecumenical Council Vatican II.” [3]

Perhaps Paul VI's most momentous reversal of the direction set by Vatican II was his rejection of effective methods of family planning. In 1963, the same year as John XXIII convened Vatican II, he also established a Pontifical Commission on Birth Control. It released its recommendations three years later under Paul VI, finding nothing "instrinsically evil" in artificial contraception and leaving the whole matter to Catholic couples to decide. The new pope, however, rejected the recommendations of the majority and followed the advice of the minority, led by the Polish theologian who would become John Paul II. The argument of the minority report was that a liberlisation of Church doctrine here would undermine the doctrine of papal infallibility established. by the First Vatican Council. According to August Bernhard Hasler, the Catholic theologian who leaked the minority report, "the core of the problem was not the pill but the authority, continuity, and infallibility of the Church’s magisterium". [4] This was not what Vatican II was supposed to be about.

Since Paul VI there has been a series of conservative popes whose appointments are shaping the hierarchy. The Salesian priest Thomas Rosica reported in 2010 that the move away from Vatican II was reflected in the attitudes of the seminarians and younger priests, where it is creating a generational divide.

Why are candidates for ministry and newly ordained priests raising questions about the validity and enduring significance of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council? Why does there seem to be a fascination with old liturgical practice and things that appear to be external and superficial? Why is the divide growing between younger priests and older priests? [...] Are we turning the clock back on Vatican II? Are we trying to erase what the Council taught? [5] 

Vatican II was meant to be an “open window”, letting the modern world into the Catholic Church. Its declaration on religious freedom represented a break with Church tradition. Father John Courtney Murray, the American Jesuit who drafted it, explained its implications. He said that no longer would there be “freedom for the church when Catholics are a minority, privilege for the church and intolerance for others when Catholics are a majority.” [6] 

But how does the practice compare with the theory? In deference to post-Vatican II sensibilities, most concordats are now called “agreements” or “treaties”. [7] However, the tactful renaming of concordats does not abolish their inequities, as a Catholic scholar, Brian Harrison points out below. Furthermore, the very substance of Vatican II immediately came under attack. Even as early as the death of Pope John XXIII partway through the Council, the conservative factions in the Church began attempts to roll it back and under John Paul II and especially Benedict XVI this trend accelerated. As the Swiss theologian Hans Küng notes, Benedict XVI “has, time and again, taken a step backward from the achievements of the Council” [8]

The political scientist, Caroline Fourest, agrees and she notes something else. To bury Vatican II Pope Benedict XVI did not launch a frontal attack. Instead, she says, he tried to quietly undermine the separation of church and state recognised by Vatican II by substitutingwhat he called “positive secularism”. For this idea was not the brainchild of President Sarkozy of France, but came from Pope Benedict himself: a papal Trojan horse. According to Fourest, the Pope has also used the same indirect strategy to “reinterpret” Vatican II (repeatedly stressing its “continuity” with traditional Church teaching). [9] His interpretation of Church doctrine has been anchored in the Catechism that he wrote when he was doctrinal guardian before becoming pope.

Even under Vatican II “error” should only enjoy limited rights, leaving concordat privileges untouched  (1962-65)

Excerpt from Fr. Prof. Brian W. Harrison, O.S. of the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico [10]

[The Second Vatican Council's Declaration on Religious Freedom was called Dignitatis Humanae (Of the Dignity of the Human Person)]

In saying that Dignitatis Humanae requires “equal civil rights” for truth and error, Davies appears to be mistaking the part for the whole: equality in one respect for equality in general. He is referring to the statement in Dignitatis Humanae: §6, that where one religion has special recognition, members of other religions must also be granted religious liberty. This means they must be equally immune from coercion in practising their faith.

But this immunity from coercion is the only right amongst many. As the Colombian Concordat makes clear (and even more so, as I have recently discovered, that of the Dominican Republic), Dignitatis Humanae by no means insists that “error" should have “equal civil rights” in regard to public education, marriage legislation, chaplaincy to state institutions, civil religious ceremonies, the designation of public holidays (Our Lady’s feast days, for instance), clerical immunity from civil prosecution, and other important aspects of civic life which reflect Catholicism’s uniquely-recognized status as “a fundamental element of the common good” (Colombia) [Article 1] or “the religion of the Dominican Nation” (Dominican Republic) [Article 1].

 Rolling back Vatican II: John Paul II challenges religious pluralism

Excerpt from John Cornwell [11] 

[In the later part of the reign of John Paul II his pronouncements became more conservative. Already in 1991 he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s, (although this was only admitted twelve years later) which led to the pope secretly delegating more an more to Cardinals Sodano and Ratzinger.] [12]

In the last declaration of the reforming Second Vatican Council, On Religious Liberty, in December 1965, the Catholic Church had decided to espouse an American model of separation of church and state, insisting that freedom was an unconditional and indivisible right.

The notion that there was a Christian basis for pluralism ― the right of people to choose their own values and beliefs ― was new in Catholic belief. Conservatives in the church were uncomfortable with it from the outset.

[“On the council’s third day, Cardinal Nicola Canali, a conservative, reportedly told the pope, ‘Holy Father, the devil is roaming the floor of that council’.” [13]

By the early to mid-1990s, John Paul began to challenge the significance of the council's intention. We are free, he argued, only in order to pursue the truth, which always has primacy. And the truth, if one followed his line of argument, was the truth of Catholicism under the protection of the pope.

According to this view, pluralism was to be set over and against Catholic teaching. It was the duty of Catholics in public life, moreover, to attempt to bring civic law into conformity with Catholic moral law. In effect, John Paul was rejecting the Christian basis of pluralism and secularism inherent in the declarations of the founding fathers of America. He was condemning pluralism as license and moral relativism. He was returning to the situation that had prevailed through much of the 19th century, when Pius IX had declared freedom of conscience a form of insanity.

One consequence of this backward-looking innovation was a growing distance between the founders of the new Europe and the ethical preoccupations of Catholic teaching. The European view of religion and the state, supported by most lay Catholics, is that secular government protects the rights of individuals under the law. The pope’s view, however, is that Catholics should attempt to impose morals upon on the state. 

Rolling back Vatican II: Benedict XVI re-interprets it 

Excerpt from Caroline Fourest and Fiametta Venner [14]

The new pope is undoubtedly the best situated to allow the full and complete reconciliation between Rome and the traditionalists, at the cost of Vatican II. But will this reconciliation lead to the Church returning to the way it was before Vatican II? Not officially. No pope, especially not this one, is going to risk giving credit to the idea that there was an error of judgement on the part of the Church. Rome's obsession is to find a way to roll back the reforms of Vatican II without harming the myth of “papal infallibility”. Two discursive strategies developed in parallel by Cardinal Ratzinger and members of the Society of Saint Pius X [15] are being employed here.

The first consists in explaining that the Traditionalist Catholic interpretation of Vatican II is not in opposition to the Council itself, but to an abusive interpretation called “the spirit of the Council”. This argument was developed by Ratzinger in 1985 in Entretien sur la foi. [16] In veiled language he proposes a plan of  “restoration” allowing the limitation of the modernist influence of the spirit of the Council, while remaining faithful to it: by rediscovering the “real Council” beyond the “spirit of the Council”.

The other discursive strategy consists in reducing the reach of the Council, by transforming it from a doctrinal statement ― which involves papal infallibility ― to a simple “pastoral” statement ― which is fallible and modifiable. This point would bring the new pope and the traditionalists into agreement. The abbot Gregoire Celier recalls that in 1988 Cardinal Ratzinger already seemed to be favouring this interpretation: “The truth is that the Council itself didn't define any dogma and confined itself to the more modest level of a pastoral council.” [...]

[Update: In 2005 Benedict attempted to bolster the idea that Vatican II was nothing new by decrying “the hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture”. [17]

“Positive secularism”: The Pope’s plot [to redefine “secularism”]

According to Caroline Fourest “positive secularism” (laïcité positive), coined in 1985 by Cardinal Ratzinger, is a Trojan horse

Excerpt from Agnès Poirier [18]  

 [During the Pope’s visit to Paris the French President broached the subject of secularism,] advocating, in front of the evidently delighted Pope, the benefits of a secularism “more open to religions”. In his speech, Benedict XVI blessed Sarkozy's idea [...]. Concerning the relations between the French state and the Church, he declared: “I pay tribute to your expression of positive secularism. [...]”

What the Pope and president pretend not to know is that there is no positive or negative secularism (laïcité in French). Secularism is neutral. It is neither a dogma nor a doctrine. If anything, it’s an abstention. Secularism abstains from favouring one religion over another, or favouring atheism over religious belief. It is a political principle that aims at guaranteeing the largest possible coexistence of various freedoms. [...]

According to the political scientist Caroline Fourest [...] the sympathy between the Pope and the French president shouldn't be surprising. Their “new idea” is a Trojan horse. The term “positive secularism” was actually coined in 2005 by the then Cardinal Ratzinger, whose views have inspired two of President Sarkozy's close aides and speechwriters, the practising Catholic Emmanuelle Mignon and the Dominican friar Philippe Verdin.

So what we have witnessed is Nicolas Sarkozy pretending to have an idea that originated at the Vatican, while the Pope, its delighted author, sits back and waits for the president to implement “his” idea. [...] Read the full article. 

Cardinal Ratzinger’s Catechism requires the state to support the Church (1993) 

Excerpt from Edd Doerr [19]

[His translation from the Spanish version (before the English one became available) is given below, as it seems clearer than the circuitous English version (to which the links lead for comparison).]

The new Catechism of the Catholic Church [was] formally approved by the pope on October 11, 1992. As the first complete statement of official Catholic church doctrines and teachings since the Reformation, the new catechism should be of interest to many who are concerned about the policies and actions of the leadership of the largest religious body in both the United States and the world. Notice that I refer to the leadership of the Catholic church ― the unelected power structure which actually speaks for only a fraction of the people who identify their religious preference as Catholic. [...]

[The Catholic Church is God’s exclusive mouthpiece]
♦  “The task of authentically interpreting the word of God, spoken or written, has been given only to the living Magisterium [teaching authority] of the [Catholic] church, which it exercises in the name of Jesus Christ, that is to say, to the bishops in communion with the successors of Peter, the bishop of Rome” (85).

[National churches derive their authority from the pope]
♦  In an apparent retreat from the spirit of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the catechism states that “the Roman Pontiff, in effect, has in the Church, by virtue of his functions as Vicar of Christ and Pastor of the whole Church, full, supreme and universal power, which he can exercise with complete liberty” (882). Furthermore, the bishops “have no authority separate from the Roman Pontiff” (893).

[The Church claims jurisdiction over marriage of its members]
♦  For the marriage of a Catholic and a non-Catholic to be valid in the eyes of the Catholic church, church permission is required and the Catholic party is required to promise to do all possible to have the children baptized and raised as Catholics (1635). Divorce is not permitted (1644), being considered “a grave offense against the natural law” (2384).

[The state must criminalise abortion as well as every form of birth control that the Vatican defines as abortion]
♦  With regard to family planning, “every matrimonial act must remain open to the transmission of life” (2366), which proscribes all forms of contraception; only “periodic continence” may be used for birth control (2370). Artificial insemination and surrogate motherhood are prohibited (2376, 2377). Human personhood is considered as beginning “at the moment of conception” (2270), abortion is termed a grave wrong subject to excommunication (2272), and the state should not permit abortion (2273).

[The state must subsidise Catholic schools]
♦  Sections 2211 and 2229 say that the state must assure families of “the means and necessary institutions” for religious education, which means tax subsidies for denominational schools. 

[The state may limit the religious freedom of non-Catholics.] 
♦  Religious liberty may be subjected to “just limits” by state authorities “in conformity with the objective moral order” (2109), which somehow is not very reassuring to people of other persuasions.

 Read the full article.


1. “The papal tiara”, Society of St. Pius X, 9 November 2011.

2. The Catholic Church at the United Nations: Church or State? Catholics for Choice, 2013, p.5.

3.  Pope Paul VI, in an allocution at the Sacred College and at the Roman Prelature on 23 December 1966, referring to the Concordat with General Onganía concluded two months earlier:  “Ci è gradito rilevare che l’Accordo di Buenos Aires è il primo frutto, nel campo delle relazioni tra Chiesa e Stato, del Concilio Ecumenico Vaticano II.

“Discorso di Paolo VI al Sacro Collegio e alla Prelatura Romana, Venerdì, 23 dicembre 1966” 

4. August Bernhard Hasler quoted in Stephen D Mumford, The Life and Death of NSSM 200: How the Destruction of Political Will Doomed a US Population Policy, (rev. ed 1996), Chapter 6..

5. Thomas Rosica, C.S.B. (Congregation of Saint Basil), “Reflections on Pastoral Leadership and Ministry in the Church of 2010 and Beyond”, [keynote address at] 47th Annual National Convention of the Conference of Diocesan Vocation Directors, 14 September 2010, Zenit, 13 November 2010.

6. Agostino Bono, “Religious freedom: Vatican II modernizes church-state ties”, Catholic News Service, 12 October 2005.

[For an expert assessment of the direction of the Church under the current pope, see John Cornwell, “Profile: Pope Benedict XVI”, New Statesman, 12 February 2009.]

7. “Why aren’t they all called ‘concordats’?” Concordat Watch.

8. “The Failed Papacy of Benedict XVI”, Spiegel, 6 April 2010.,1518,687374-3,00.html

9. “Pope Reinstates Four Excommunicated Bishops”, New York Times, 24 January 2009. See also Cardinal Bertone's description of Benedict XVI as emphasising “the interpretation of the Council in terms of continuity, and not in terms of rupture with Tradition.” “Cardinal Bertone: Pope Is a Good Listener”, Zenit, 16 December 2009.

10. Brian W. Harrison. “The Center is holding”, a review of Michael Davies', The Second Vatican Council and Religious Liberty in Living Tradition: Organ of the Roman Theological Forum, (Oblates of Wisdom), Number 44, January 1993.

11. John Cornwell, “The pope and pluralism”, International Herald Tribune, 10 February 2005.

12. John Cornwell, The Pope in Winter, 2004, pp. 199, 203.

13. John Tagliabue, “Swiss Guard Marks 500 Years as Popes’ Potted Plants”, New York Times, 18 November 2005.

14. Les nouveaux soldats du pape, (Paris, 2008), pp. 270-71.

15. The tenor of the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Pius X (SSPX) can be judged from this article: “Bishop accuses Vatican of ‘excessive sensibility’ towards Jews”, Guardian, 4 August 2009. 

The German Superior of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X, Franz Schmidberger, claims that, the talks with the Vatican, are moving “in the direction of a personal prelature”. 
“Important interview: ‘Similar to Opus Dei?’ Schmidberger responds: ‘Somewhat.’ This is a translation of:
„Allein die Tradition ist der Maßstab“, DomRadio, 25 June 2009.

And for a look at how the Pope was forced to backtrack when his apparent approval of a Holocaust denier from the SSPX provoked a storm of protest, see:
Philip Pullella,  “Holocaust denier affair mishandled: Pope”,  Reuters, 11 March 2009.

16. “Abstract: Verdict on Vatican II. The Cardinal holds that the idea of the Church is the root of the present crisis; he tackles several aspects of this crisis: relations between priests and bishops, theology, morality, women, spirituality, liturgy, ultimate goals, ecumenicism, liberation theology, evangelisation.” The English version is the 1986 Ratzinger Report.

17. William Oddie, “The SSPX claim the Novus Ordo is a Protestant rite. Can they be serious?” Catholic Herald, 28 February 2011. 

18. New Statesman, 18 September 2008.

19. Edd Doerr, “Forward to the past ― new catechism of the Catholic Church”, Humanist, Nov-Dec 1993.



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