Last week I had a debate on Twitter with a Traditionalist Catholic. I know I have written about Traditionalists before, but this debate was different. The Traditionalist in question focused his arguments around the opinion that Vatican Council II was not an infallible council. He said that since Vatican II focused on disciplines it was not infallible.
The error in this way of thinking should be obvious. First of all, Vatican I and the Code of Canon Law (not to mention the CCC) are clear that an ecumenical council’s decrees are infallible when ratified by the Supreme Pontiff. Since Vatican II was an ecumenical council called by a legitimate Roman Pontiff and continued under his successor, it is considered infallible. Nowhere in Catholic Teaching is a difference made between “dogmatical” and “disciplinary” ecumenical councils.
This does not mean that disciplinary decisions can not be changed. What it does mean, however, is that decisions of discipline, practice, customs, rituals, ceremonies, etc. made by Vatican II must be obeyed until either the Pope or another ecumenical council changes things. Insofar as the decisions of tradition made during Vatican II were legitimate and in accordance with Church Teaching, they are considered infallible in the sense that they do not contradict anything in the depositum fidei.
If the Second Vatican Council was capable of error (an impossibility according to the infallible teaching of the Magisterium) then the Church was never infallible. Not even one ecumenical council can be fallible, since the Church has always clearly taught that the bishops of the world gathered together in council in union with the Supreme Roman Pontiff must be infallible. This only applies, however, to decrees ratified by the pope. That is part of the bishops being in union with him. So either Vatican II is infallible, or Catholicism was always wrong.
By not accepting the infallibility and authority of Vatican II, Traditionalists are contradicting themselves. Their claim that Vatican II was merely a “disciplinary council” is nonsense. Besides the fact that the Church doesn’t designate between “disciplinary” and “dogmatic” ecumenical councils (though there is a difference between disciplinary and dogmatic decrees), there is at least one other ecumenical council accepted as authoritative by Traditionalists that should also be classified by them as “disciplinary”. This was the Third Ecumenical Council of the Lateran (A.D. 1179). This council dealt almost exclusively with disciplinary issues-including changing the rules of papal elections.
Traditionalists, as already stated, view the Third Lateran Council as infallible. But since this council dealt almost exclusively with disciplinary issues, shouldn’t Traditionalists disregard Lateran III, as well? To avoid contradiction, yes!
Allow me to reiterate that I am not claiming disciplinary decrees are infallible, and therefore, unchangeable. These issues are relevant to culture, society, historical circumstances, etc. So issues of discipline are always changeable.
What I am saying is that ecumenical councils are protected from error by the Holy Spirit. All decrees or decisions from an ecumenical council ratified by the Roman Pontiff must be obeyed. One can not simply disregard them by saying, “These are issues of tradition, not of Sacred Tradition. So I am free to reject them.”
Such an approach is contradictory to Catholic Teaching throughout history. An ecumenical council is free from error, so it must be obeyed. One day, the Church-whether a pope alone, or in another ecumenical council-may decide to change some of the traditions begun by, or altered by, Vatican II. Until then, however, they must be obeyed.
Traditionalists are similar to the Churches of Christ. The Churches of Christ want everything in the Christian Church today to be exactly as it was during the time of the Apostles. While the teachings must be the same-as these deal with truth, and truth never changes-disciplines, rituals, customs, etc. can change. Sometimes they must change. Traditionalists, like the Churches of Christ, want no change of any kind. They feel that nothing in the Church should ever change. They have a very legalistic view of religion.
People like Traditionalist Catholics tend to forget that the Church is organic. It is a living entity. The Holy Trinity is God of the living, not of the dead. The Church established by Jesus Christ, and endowed with His authority, must be the Church of the living. It can not be a dead, or stagnant Church. Living things change. They adapt to new circumstances. The Church must be the same. She must retain the core of Her Teachings. Anything pertaining to truth (what call Sacred Tradition, or the depositum fidei) must remain the same. Everything else, however, is subject to change at the Church’s discretion.
God is the truth, and He never changes. We are human. Although we do change to some extent, our nature will always be human nature. We will always be human, no matter what. So it is with the Church. The Catholic Church is always the same, at its core. Superficial features of the Church, however, can (and sometimes must) change.
This is what it means to be a living church. We can change, while essentially remaining the same. That is the Catholic Church of the Second Vatican Council. The church of the Traditionalists is a dead one.
Peace in Christ,
David J. Pollard
American Catholic Solidarity