Giving up Vatican II For Lent?

Blessed Pope Pius IX
Blessed Pope Pius IX

A facebook friend became disturbed when I shared the video that Pope Francis sent to a Protestant conference that included a friend of the pope’s.

She wrote:

These charismatics [Protestants] are worshiping a spirit that is NOT of God. And the Pope asks for manifest heretics to pray for him? Their prayers can only effect their own conversions, but no one else’s as they are not in the Mystical Body.

“I will not pray with your your prayer, nor will you pray mine. Nor will I say “Amen” to your prayer, nor will you say “Amen” to mine.” — St. Margaret Clitherow before her martyrdom, reaffirming that she will remain truly and fully CATHOLIC rather that save her life and lose her soul.

I responded that I believe the Church teaches that in fact, these validly baptized Protestants are in the Mystical Body of Christ. The discussion we had, which turned rancorous very quickly, was nonetheless interesting.

From the outset, I have only one goal in mind: to think with the Church and believe in all that she teaches. If the Church teaches that Protestants are not in the Mystical Body of Christ, then I want to understand and believe that. If the Church teaches that Protestants are (or at least, can be) in the Mystical Body, then I want to know and believe that.

Let me start with the last thing first: the quote she gave from St. Margaret Clitherow. I haven’t looked it up but assume it is accurate. She is one of the many English martyrs, executed by the Anglican Protestants during the first decades of the Reformation.

160px-Margaret_ClitherowI would note that, firstly, it seems that her life was on the line and all she had to do was to agree to some prayer or statement of the Anglican authorities and she would go free (perhaps to live as an early recusant her whole life, but at least not being killed). Sort of like St. Thomas More’s story: all he had to do was sign a paper given to him by King Henry VIII.

So this was a different time: it was not just saying a prayer with a Protestant but rather renouncing your Catholic Faith entirely, in the case of St. Margaret. And that is something that no Catholic should do. (Incidentally, later my facebook interlocutor accused me of “hating the martyrs” because I ostensibly reject what they died for. A harsh and false thing to say, especially since I named my son Edmund after St. Edmund Campion, another English martyr from this same time period!)

My facebook friend made another claim, when I responded to her that Protestants are in a real, but imperfect communion with the Church. She said:

To be in the Mystical Body of Christ, one must not be in heresy.

So her claim is that 1) Protestants are in heresy, so 2) they cannot be in the Mystical Body of Christ.

I replied distinguishing between formal and material heresy. It seems to me that most Protestants are in material heresy (and unfortunately a great many Catholics are as well–perhaps that will come in later), which means:

The heretical tenets may be ignorance of the true creed, erroneous judgment, imperfect apprehension and comprehension of dogmas: in none of these does the will play an appreciable part, wherefore one of the necessary conditions of sinfulness–free choice–is wanting and such heresy is merely material.

Further, one must be careful in reading quotes of the saints as well as Church documents: does the use of the word “heresy” in a given location indicate formal or material heresy. The quotes that my interlocutor used just said “heresy” and her interpretation was “formal and material heresy” whereas I was not so sure, and in some cases knew that the traditional interpretation was only “formal heresy.”

For instance, the Catholic Encyclopedia says:

The guiding principles in the Church’s treatment of heretics are the following: Distinguishing between formal and material heretics, she applies to the former the canon, “Most firmly hold and in no way doubt that every heretic or schismatic is to have part with the Devil and his angels in the flames of eternal fire, unless before the end of his life he be incorporated with, and restored to the Catholic Church.”

My understanding of the development of the Church’s doctrine on the relationship of heretics to the Church has indicated that she has always maintained that obstinate rejection of the Church, from someone who does so with full knowledge, is formal heresy. They are rejecting the Church that they know is God’s rightful authority on earth. Maybe they do so because of pride, or malice.

But the Church has always left open the possibility of salvation for the invincibly ignorant and others who are not in full communion with the Catholic Church. Hence, when someone seeks to claim that the Council of Florence and other dogmatic teachings regarding “outside the Church no salvation” are in contradiction to Vatican II’s statements about Protestants, a careful reading is in order of all the relevant documents.

The Called to Communion guys wrote a good article responding to just such a claim–not from a traditionalist Catholic–but from a Protestant seeking to use the same arguments:

The Second Vatican Council was not a “watershed” of inclusive salvation which was merely foreshadowed by earlier texts.  Rather, it was firmly in line with a steady development of doctrine on the possibility of salvation for those not materially united to the Catholic Church, that is, the universal Church governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him

They go on to quote Blessed Pope Pius IX and harmonize his statements, which some interpret as contradictory on this topic. The fact is that God can use extraordinary means of bringing someone to salvation. No one can be saved without baptism, for example. Yet the Church has recognized that God is not bound by the sacraments. And so baptism of desire and baptism of blood are both accepted as extraordinary ways that God can give someone the same salvific effect of baptism.

Fr. Brian Harrison wrote a good article analyzing whether Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio) contradicted earlier Church teachings on ecumenism. He makes a convincing case that their is no discontinuity here.

The Catechism says in paragraph 838:

“The Church knows that she is joined in many ways to the baptized who are honored by the name of Christian, but do not profess the Catholic faith in its entirety or have not preserved unity or communion under the successor of Peter.”322 Those “who believe in Christ and have been properly baptized are put in a certain, although imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church.”

Part of the justification for this doctrine is that the grace of the sacraments comes ex opere operato “by the thing itself done,” and so valid baptisms can and are done by Eastern Orthodox, Copts, and Protestants.

augustine1But notice that such Protestants are put in a certain but imperfect communion with the Catholic Church. It is not full communion, which is a deficiency, a lack, a wrongness. The Church recognizes these valid baptisms but nonetheless calls all Christians to full communion with Christ’s Church, which subsists in the Catholic Church.

My facebook friend though did not believe in these various quotations that come from Vatican II documents. She claimed that Vatican II was only a “pastoral” council that “did not define any infallible dogmas.”

This is an interesting position, one I’ve certainly heard before from traditionalists, both schismatic and those in full communion with the Catholic Church. Can we reject Vatican II, or at least the parts of it we think contradict prior teachings?

It seems to me that the default stance of a Catholic should be to “think with the mind of the Church” when it comes to such things. Vatican II was an Ecumenical Council, and so we should not be quick to dismiss its teachings. Instead, we should seek to understand them and how the Church herself harmonizes them with her ancient and constant teachings.

In particular it seems dangerous to me to claim that we can reject Vatican II because “no infallible dogmas were declared.” Since we can harmonize Vatican II’s teachings on ecumenism, Protestants, material and formal heresy, and other related issues, with her consistent teachings in the past, we should be ready to accept those teachings.

I wonder if one cause of the disagreement between my facebook friend and I was a different definition of what “Mystical Body of Christ” means. I have understood that the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ. Hence when the Church teaches that non-Catholics through their baptisms are joined to her in some real, but imperfect way, I equate that with saying that they are joined to the Mystical Body of Christ in a real, but imperfect way. But perhaps there is a distinction between the Mystical Body of Christ and the Church that I am missing, that would make my facebook friend’s statement correct (that Protestants are not part of the Mystical Body of Christ)? If a reader has clarity on this, I would be interested in hearing it.

At the end of the day, unfortunately this facebook friend became angry at me and called me a modernist heretic, one who accepted Protestants as Christians as if we were all just one big happy family.

Ironically, she knew I had written a book but perhaps failed to realize that the book was all about why Protestants should and need to become Catholic! Far from affirming all Protestants in our mutual okayness, I long for all of them to enter full communion with the Church that Christ founded, to receive all the sacraments, to believe in all that she teaches.

While God can save people in extraordinary ways, we should want to do things the ordinary way that He gave to us, and that means submitting to the rightful authority of His Church, led by the successors of the Apostles in full communion with the bishop of Rome, the principle of unity of the Church.

In conclusion, I don’t plan to give up Vatican II for Lent. It’s an Ecumenical Council that can be fully harmonized with the Church’s unchanging teachings. Instead, perhaps I’ll fast for the healing of the wounds of division that have hurt our Lord, and the reception into full communion of all Protestant Christians.

12 thoughts on “Giving up Vatican II For Lent?”

  1. Your friend is right. Protestants are not part of the RCC church. To many assumptions are made by RC’s that their church is the one established by Christ when in reality its not. Just compare the doctrines taught by the RCC with what the apostles taught. They are not the same things.

  2. Protestants in general a material heretics, but most of their leaders are formal heretics, including the self-anointed bishop Palmer and Copeland.

    Catholics in good standing cannot be heretics, because one is heretical only if stubbornly rejecting Catholic doctrine after he was explicitly exposed to it. Ignoring a doctrine or misunderstanding it is not heresy.

    Since heretics must be baptized persons and all baptized persons belong to the Body of Christ, Protestants, whether material or formal heretics, are members of the Body.

  3. Augustine,
    Just read a study that says that 58% of RC support gay marriage. Homosexuality is condemned by Scripture and RCC teaching says it is not to be supported in any way.

    Does this make those RC’s who support gay marriage heretics?

    1. I should have been more precise, such Catholics are material heretics. A Catholic is good standing cannot be a formal heretic. Perhaps the best known Catholic formal heretic nowadays is Hans Kung, who was asked to recant heretic teachings and refused, though he was never declared to be a heretic or excommunicated.

  4. You are correct that there’s no substantive distinction between the Church and the Mystical Body: see Pius XII’s ‘Mystici Corporis.’

  5. This debate itself seems not too distant from some of the debates the Pharisees attempted to have with Christ…. to which I imagine Christ responding with a modern parable on par with the Good Samaritan (e.g., which individual would you say is less imperfectly joined to the Mystical Body of Christ?).

  6. Forgive me if I’m mistaken, but didn’t I read somewhere that the Council of Trent held that Protestant Baptisms and marriages are sacramental, and hence that Protestants are in partial but not full communion with the Holy See? If so, isn’t that enough to convince anyone open to the Holy Spirit, since the Council of Trent was part of the Catholic Counter-Reformation?

  7. I am excited to read your book. We came into the Church Easter 2011 after being life-long protestants. I have a passion for Catholic apologetics. My problem is that most Protestants are so completely anti-Catholic (whether they realize it or not) that I don’t think your final point of “we should want to do things the ordinary way” is going to cut it for them. At all. I have a tendency to agree with your traditionalist “friend,” although maybe I shouldn’t…because I feel that accepting too broad a road leads to relativism.

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