Cardinal Joseph Zen, Bishop Emeritus of Hong Kong, defended the Second Vatican Council in an article on his personal blog on July 19 and in an interview with the Catholic News Agency on July 27, 2020. He returns conservatives back to back and progressives who reject the authority of conciliar documents.
The interventions of Bishop Athanasius Schneider as well as the articles of Bishop Carlo Maria Vigano questioning the Council have become more incisive over the months. The Vatican news site attempted to defend Vatican II on June 22 with an article by Sergio Centofanti with the evocative title: “Development in doctrine is fidelity in novelty.”
On July 6, Sandro Magister published on his blog Settimo Cielo a “masterful lesson” from Cardinal Walter Brandmüller on the reception of councils, in response to Msgr. Vigano. On July 20, the Diakonos.be site published several pages of an essay by Msgr. Franco Giulio Brambilla, Bishop of Novara since 2011 and vice-president of the Italian Episcopal Conference since 2015, seeking to defend the Council. Finally, Cardinal Joseph Zen, Bishop Emeritus of Hong Kong, intervened twice to also defend the texts of Vatican II.
A Hijacked Council
Cardinal Zen regrets that the Second Vatican Council was hijacked “for decades” to serve personal theses. He warns against interpretations of Vatican II “unfaithful to the documents of the Council.” He denounces the theses of the “progressive” and “traditionalist” factions who, for opposite reasons, want Vatican II to represent a definitive break with the teaching of the Church, either to justify even more radical changes, or to cry out for betrayal and reject a transformation of the Church deemed unacceptable.
Faced with these two attitudes, Cardinal Zen defends the homogeneous development of Vatican II in relation to the past magisterium of the Church. Here he holds the position of former Pope Benedict XVI, which was developed before the cardinals on December 22, 2005.
In support of his demonstration, Cardinal Zen recalls the teaching of the Church on ecumenical councils, convened and ratified by legitimate ecclesiastical authority. They are intended for a new understanding of the Church, he explains, forming as landmarks on its journey through the centuries, confirmed by the authority of God himself: “The Holy Spirit of today does not contradict the Holy Spirit of yesterday.”
For this reason, the cardinal rejects the idea that the authentic acts of an ecumenical council may contain errors contrary to the faith. He therefore calls for a rediscovery of the texts of the Council and of the fruits of Vatican II.
It is necessary, he adds, to ensure the formation of the clergy in the seminary, and to teach them the conciliar texts. All Catholics should also familiarize themselves with the Council itself. He suggests studying the speech opening the Council by Pope John XXIII, in which the principle of aggiornamento is exposed: in the face of the threats of modern civilization, the Church should neither fear nor condemn errors, but show the world the true face of Jesus, the Redeemer of man.
An Error Is Always an Error
Cardinal Zen views the Second Vatican Council in the same way as the Ecumenical Councils that preceded it. But this assumption is erroneous and vitiates his argument. Indeed, all previous councils have sought to give a definitive teaching - even if they have dealt with matters of discipline elsewhere. Their teaching was clear, knowing how to denounce the errors of the time and proclaim the truths to be believed by fidelity to the deposit of faith.
Thus the First Vatican Council defined papal infallibility, while the Council of Trent strongly condemned Protestant errors. Even if the disciplinary provisions of the Council of Trent are no longer all valid or applicable today, its dogmatic teaching must still be believed by every Catholic.
The Second Vatican Council liked to think of itself as and proclaimed itself to be “pastoral,” refusing to deliver dogmatic teaching. The question arose during the Council, moreover, in the face of the vagueness of the expressions used, and the Fathers were told that each passage should be understood according to the usual rules, depending on the matter treated, i.e., that this atypical council did not intend to establish anything definitive.
Worse, some texts contain serious ambiguities which encourage error, as “traditionalist” criticism has shown. Rather than refute their arguments, the defenders of the Council are content with repeating that an ecumenical council cannot be wrong. This is to ignore the claimed specificity of this assembly.
When Cardinal Schönborn, renowned conservative, argues that religious freedom as Vatican II defined it allows apostasy and abandonment of the faith, does he not show the harmfulness of a text that several Fathers, including Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, had denounced during the discussions in the conciliar aula? The text on religious freedom alone shows that this Council cannot claim infallibility.
If Cardinal Zen courageously defends the Chinese Catholics, and knows how to oppose certain diplomats of the ecclesiastical hierarchy who compromise themselves with the communist authorities, it is regrettable that he defends a Council which is at the basis of the current policy of the Vatican vis-à-vis China, the conciliar “religious freedom” justifying the rapprochement with the Patriotic Church.