Construing the council

I was asked in another place: “I thought you ‘uber Catholics’ always taught that since Vatican II was a pastoral council and not a doctrinal council, it wasn’t binding on Catholics.” That’s not a straw man; some “traddies” do take that position. But I’m not a traddie; they do not speak for me, nor I for them, and so here’s my take on the point.

Vatican II was a Church council. The notion that the Pope can ringfence a council to “pastoral” issues ex ante, yet the Pope plus the entire episcopate may not then choose to address doctrinal issues in media res, does not cry out to be taken seriously. Nevertheless, the Holy Father’s stated intention that the council be pastoral rather than doctrinal supplies a hermeneutic: When a passage in a conciliar document could be taken to be changing or reformulating doctrine, we should be careful to read it in context and to understand what is actually being said.

Here’s a recent example of the kind of thing that I have in mind. Timothy Card. Dolan opened his RNC benediction with these words: “Almighty God, father of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, revealed to us so powerfully in your Son, Jesus Christ, we thank you for showering your blessings upon this our beloved nation.” If one wrenched that fragment from its context and interpreted it literally, one could cast it as contradicting the unique relationship of the Son to the Father (cf. CCC454), placing Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob on the same plane as Jesus. Jack Chick would have a field day with that line! One imagines that it is plastered all over those anti-Catholic websites that one sees—”Romish Cardinal denies that Jesus is the only son of God!” But no intelligent person, understanding the context of the line, understanding the “literary form” (so to speak) in which it is found, would understand Dolan to have been offering some radical new teaching.

Much the same consideration underlines the care with which ex cathedra pronouncements are undertaken; it may often happen that when one is making a particular point, statements will be made along the way with more or less care, statements which could be misunderstood as speaking authoritatively on a point that the author does not have in mind. Hence, in part, Chief Justice Marshall’s famous dictum about dicta: “It is a maxim not to be disregarded that general expressions, in every opinion, are to be taken in connection with the case in which those expressions are used.” And in just that manner, when we read the conciliar documents, we should realize that they were intended to be pastoral rather than doctrinal, and should hesitate to seize a passing comment made on the way to a pastoral point and proclaim it doctrinal. Vatican II does teach doctrine, but where it doesn’t, it woefully misrepresents the council to pretend that it does.