The Second Vatican Council, at least in the Western world, was followed by decades of dissension from authoritative Catholic teaching, a phenomena that did much to weaken the Church's evangelizing mission.
Many are the reasons for this widespread dissent, not the least of which was the fact that Vatican II coincided with a period of massive cultural upheaval in the West.
However, it cannot be truthfully said the council's teachings were a counsel to the faithful to fashion the will of God as they see fit. Some took what Vatican II said about the sense of the faithful, about conscience and about religious liberty as opening the door for the faithful to reject or select only some Church teachings. In fact, that is not the case.
Indeed, the council provided a strong reaffirmation of the need for the faithful to adhere to magisterial teaching – the teachings of the popes and those bishops in communion with him.
When the council spoke of the sensu fidei in Lumen Gentium 35, it was not providing a licence for the laity to override the teachings of the popes and bishops. Rather, it said that God gave the laity an understanding of the faith "so that the power of the Gospel might shine forth in their daily social and family life." That understanding of the faith calls us to conversion, not to write our own ticket.
CNS PHOTO | PAUL HARING
The offices of pope and bishop include a call to proclaim God's word in season and out.
The offices of pope and bishop include a special office and call to be prophetic, to proclaim God's word in season and out. That was part of the office of the apostles and it is essential to the unity of the Church that it be passed along from generation to generation.
The unity of the Church is not an amorphous spirit or a nice feeling. It is a unity in truth. Truth, especially in faith and morals, is not easily discerned. Pride and ignorance are both huge barriers to one knowing the truth. Humility requires us to seek knowledgeable guides who will help us know what God teaches.
Christ promised to be with the apostles and their successors until the end of time and to send the Spirit to lead them into all truth.
The popes and bishops do not have a special pipeline to God that allows them to know his will better than anyone else. They do, however, have a consecration and responsibility – to go along with Christ's promise – that ensures that as a body they will not be in error when teaching basic truths of faith and morals. The pope does have a charism of infallibility, a charism that has tended to be used with reticence.
Church teachings are not conjured up by the pope on his own initiative. They develop and emerge over the centuries as the Church reflects on God's Word – both Scripture and tradition – and as it reflects on erroneous interpretations of the Word. A formal declaration of an infallible teaching is the end of a long process.
Lumen Gentium reiterates the Church's teaching on papal infallibility when it says the pope, "as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful . . . proclaims in an absolute decision a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals" (25). Such decisions do not need others' approval; they are "irreformable by their very nature."
There are also the infallible teachings of ecumenical councils. As well, although individual bishops "do not enjoy the privilege of infallibility," when they are in agreement among themselves and with the pope about a particular teaching, "even though dispersed throughout the world," they can teach definitively and absolutely.
The Church's infallible teachings are not just those about Mary's immaculate conception, her assumption into heaven and the male-only priesthood that popes have formally declared. It surely also includes the teachings found in the Apostles' and Nicene creeds and other teachings as well.
However, what is most important is not so much what has been infallibly taught as what is true. Truth includes a wider body of teaching than what is certainly true. Certainty is a modern obsession, but the person who seeks wisdom will not make certainty his or her sole guide.
In that regard, the council says the faithful must give "loyal submission of the will and intellect" to all that the pope teaches. A Catholic will always receive papal pronouncements as well as those of bishops who teach in communion with Rome "with a ready and respectful allegiance of mind" (25).
All of this puts the Church - and Vatican II - at odds with the modern spirit of autonomous reason. God has given us the faculties of intellect, will and judgment, and we should use them appropriately. But God did not give men and women the ability to make up their own truth. Only God creates truth. The will ought always to bow before truth.
Today, however, we don't want to bow before anyone or any truth. We too often resist the best guides we have to truth in the matters of faith and morals.