Catholic Church

Response to Vatican II: A Fictitious Short Story

I was cutting into my baked potato as Frank, my nominally Catholic friend who does not follow the faith and can only be best described as a cafeteria Catholic not attending Mass, leaned over to Joe, a new convert to the faith who, unfortunately, has had very little catechesis, and said, “What made you join the Catholic Church Joe?  After all, since Vatican II the Catholic Church teaches that all can be saved and the Church, while nice, isn’t really important.  If you like it, then great, but if not, that’s okay; just find what speaks to you.”

Joe, a bit fazed, coughed on his own slightly over cooked baked potato.  “Well, Frank, I thought that the Catholic Church was the Church that Christ established.”

“Sure, sure, but really, if you’re a good person, it doesn’t matter.  Only those like Hitler really go to Hell if there is such a place.”

“Jeez, I don’t know,” said Joe. “I thought that the Church mattered…well, for example, isn’t it the only place one can receive Sacraments like the Eucharist?”

“Nope!  Eastern Orthodox have the same things we have.  Groups like Lutherans and Anglicans offer communion as well.  In fact, most Christians have a communion meal and, heck, even non-Christian religions have a concept of communing with God.  For example, Jews have the Passover meal and Muslims have Ramadan.  These are all really pretty much the same thing; just our personal way we choose to relate to God.”

Joe, looking a bit stumped, slowly moved the potato around his plate without bringing it to his lips.  Frank, highly energized and leaning forward in his seat, sensed victory.  “See Joe, isn’t it unrealistic for God to punish good people just because they aren’t Catholic?  The Catholic Church used to think that, but that was really just an archaic, medieval thing brought on by biased European men who wished to enforce their intolerant views upon everyone else probably so they could enslave them and scare them into obedience.  But now that the Catholic Church has been enlightened and, after Vatican II, it no longer believes such silly things.  To think, the Catholic Church used to condemn people as heretics!  But, it has all changed now since Vatican II.  Really, if you read the documents, you can see that Catholicism is just one way to know God and we really shouldn’t even be presenting our views to others as something as archaic as “the only truth” since that gives the impression that there is something wrong with what they believe.”

By this time, Joe had quit even pretending to eat.  Frank, tasting victory, pushed on.  “I mean, it has all changed now…for the better!  There are no more medieval views on objective evil, no more puritanical views on sex…we’re liberated!  The Catholic Church is really just one institution among many and, honestly, it doesn’t do a very good job making people happy and finding fulfillment in themselves.”

“That’s enough!” I commanded as I brought my fist down upon the table.  I withdrew my steak knife and, with one clean stroke, sliced off Frank’s head.  No blood poured forth, but out slithered the ancient serpent laughing to himself as he made his way down to the floor and out of the room.  Joe sat hunched over in the trancelike position of the hypnotized.  I could see the fang marks near his ear and the trace of venom that blackened his veins.  I feared that the poison of the serpent had gained control over his mind and that death loomed imminent.

I blinked and my prophetic vision cleared; I returned to the room.  Joe sat the same as described, not victim of mere material poison that one can easily expel, but that black venom that seizes the mind, poisons the will, and, if left to fester, destroys God’s grace in the soul.

Frank, with head still upon his shoulders, was intently staring at Joe.  He swayed slightly and was like a cobra who had just struck its prey and was prepared to strike again.  His eyes had a strange yellow hue, that of a serpent or worse, that of a demon.

I unclenched my fist which, not having struck the table, was trembling.  I took a deep breath, blessed myself, and prayed.

” St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our safeguard against the wickedness and snares of the Devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray, and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly hosts, by the power of God, cast into hell Satan, and all the evil spirits, who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls. Amen…Holy Spirit, illumine my mind and endow my speech with Thy Truth…St. Thomas Aquinas, pray for me…Immaculata, I am totally yours.  Grant me your gentleness and carry me to the foot of your Son’s cross.”

“Frank,” I said now a bit less homicidal.  “Do you care to have a real discussion on the faith?”  Joe shuffled slightly showing a small bit of life; a spark that I hoped could be stoked back into a flame.

Frank, remiss to take his eyes from his prey if even for a moment, hastily snapped, “Isn’t that what we’re doing?”

“I just wanted to make sure,” I said. “For the sake of clarity, what exactly are you suggesting?”

His eyes flashed and he fully turned away from Joe to set his eyes upon his next victim.  “Did you not hear anything I just said?!”

“Well Frank, you said a lot of things.  I could offer what I think you are suggesting, but I wanted to give you the chance to clarify.  That way we can be clear that we are discussing the same thing and that there isn’t confusion; I don’t want us to talk past each other; I’d like a fruitful conversation.”

“I said what I said,” Frank snapped. “And it was clear; were you not listening?”

“Fair enough, Frank,” I responded. “let me then summarize exactly what I think you are saying.  I’m going to focus on what I deem important since I think you touched on a lot of topics.  Correct me if I get anything wrong.”  I took a moment to gather my thoughts.

“Frank, I think you are saying the following: that the Church used to teach something that now after Vatican II, she doesn’t teach anymore.  Ultimately, you are stating that there really isn’t anything special with Catholicism and that it is just one of the paths to heaven among the many paths out there; that being a “good” person is all that really matters.  I also think you attacked the true presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, but that is probably a discussion for another time.  Is that pretty much what you said?”

He glared a bit and retorted, “You’re twisting my words!”

“Okay,” I said.  “I apologize.  What are you saying?”

“I’m saying that yes God won’t send a good person to hell and that Vatican II has changed all the chauvinistic, discriminatory policies of the Church, and we shouldn’t force our beliefs on others.”

“Okay.  Let’s focus on the concept that the Church changed her teaching on salvation.  You believe that Vatican II changed what the Church had taught before?”

“Of course! I’ve read the Vatican II documents.  Have you?!”

“I have.”

“Oh really? Then you know that in Lumen Gentium it states that the Church is linked to Christians even if they aren’t Catholics and that the plan of salvation includes those who acknowledge a creator.”

“I believe you are referring to articles 15-17 or there about.  I happen to have a copy of the document in my office.  Would you care to move our discussion there so we have access to more resources?  Then we can discuss exactly what the Council taught and what the Church teaches?”

“Fine!” said Frank.

“What do you think Joe? Do you have time?” I asked.

“Sure.  I can’t say I know much about it, but I’d love to listen.” He responded.

“Great! I’ll pour us some coffee and let’s make our way over there.”  We stood up and cleared the plates, filled our mugs with the aforementioned hot beverage, and made our way to my office.  As we settled down amongst the worn, leather armchairs, I pulled from the contents of my bookshelf a small, slightly worn booklet, Lumen Gentium.

“I apologize that I don’t have copies for all of us, but you can look up the documents online if you’d like.”  Frank was already scanning through them on his phone.  “Let’s read articles 14-17,” I suggested.

After doing so, Frank said, “See!  It says that Christians are joined to us[1] and that the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator[2] which specifically includes Muslims and Jews![3]  Then it states that those who sincerely seek God and don’t know the Church can follow their conscience and achieve salvation![4]  I told you!”

“True enough,” I responded.  “However it says those things very loosely, and not explicitly.  Upon studying these paragraphs, one can see there is emphasis on ‘whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel.”[5] And, the last piece is describing invincible ignorance when the document says, ‘those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace, strive by their deeds to do his will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience.’[6]

“To be honest,” I continued, “I find this section very ambiguous.  In part this is due to the fact that it starts with Catholicism and ends with invincible ignorance which are the two pieces that the Church clearly teaches on.  But, by doing so, it sandwiches all sorts of things in between which, in my opinion, supports the false view that there are many paths to salvation.  But, this contradicts clear Church teaching especially from the Council of Trent.[7]  And, that being said, Lumen Gentium itself says in the Appendix “the sacred Council defines as binding on the Church only those things in matters of faith and morals which it shall openly declare to be binding.  The rest of the things which the sacred Council sets forth, inasmuch as they are the teaching of the Church’s supreme Magesterium, ought to be accepted.”[8]  Further, in the introductory paragraph, Lumen Gentium states “that it intends to…[follow] faithfully the teaching of previous councils.”[9]

“Considering both what the Council of Trent taught and the Second Vatican Council’s own deferment to previous councils, I suggest that where areas of Vatican II documents seem to contradict what was taught before, we defer to that which came before.  While I can’t claim to be an expert in this area, I recommend Dr. Ralph Martin’s book The Urgency of the New Evangelization since it walks through this section of Lumen Gentium.”

“Fine,” said Frank. “I’ll give you that, but what of Gaudium et Spes when it states ‘we ought to believe that the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every man the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery.”[10]

“I would argue that the Church has always taught God offers salvation to all – this is clear from the Bible – but many turn away from this offer.  This cannot be used to claim universal salvation.”

“What then,” argued Frank, “of the Council’s decree Unitatis Redintegratio, Nostra Aetate, and Dignitatis Humanae?  They speak about the many paths to God!”

“Firstly, the documents are written alongside Ad Gentes which states ‘the mission of the Church…is fulfilled by that activity which makes her, obeying the command of Christ and influenced by the grace and love of the Holy Spirit, fully present to all men or nations, in order that, by the example of her life and by her preaching, by the sacraments and other means of grace, she may lead them to the faith, the freedom and the peace of Christ; that thus there may lie open before them a firm and free road to full participation in the mystery of Christ.[11] And, further, “the Church…itself includ[es] the totality or fullness of the means of salvation.”[12]

“Secondly,” I continued, “I would agree that these documents can be viewed in a lens of universalism.  However, they must be viewed within Tradition which clearly condemns universalism.  I would say this can be found especially in those documents that condemn Modernism.[13] Therefore, in so much as the aforementioned Vatican II documents are in accord with these teachings, then they are in accord with truth and the Magesterium of the Church.  As I mentioned previously, this is what the Council itself said on the matter.  In so much as one uses the Vatican II texts to preach “new” truths even to the point of claiming the Church’s teachings have “evolved”[14] then this is false and contrary to the Catholic Faith.”

“Thirdly, I think we need to make a major distinction between the discussion of inter-religious dialogue contained in those aforementioned documents and salvation.  Even though it is important to work towards unity, this cannot be understood as universal salvation as it is often taken to be.  True Christian unity, thought not clearly defined in the Vatican II documents, can only be understood as being truly one, that is, united in the Catholic faith.  I think what we have previously discussed suffices to cover this point since salvation is really what is at stake and unity is found in relationship with Jesus Christ which, again, comes back to salvation.”

A long pause ensued as both Frank and I sat facing each other.  I could see that Frank was working things through his mind, trying to figure out the best approach to promote his view.  I was, for my own part, yet again disappointed that the documents of Vatican II were written in such a way that allowed Frank to take such a view.  I was also, to be honest, quite happy that he had not gone into some of the intricacies of the documents he mentioned because, from my own experience, they often prove to be confusing and difficult to decipher.[15]

It was as I was thinking these things that Joe, quite forgotten to both Frank and I, spoke up.  “So, Zane, what you are saying is that when the documents of Vatican II seem to contradict the teachings of the Church, one should look elsewhere for answers?”

“Indeed,” I responded. “As I’ve alluded to, I struggle to understand how the Vatican II documents fit in with the teaching of the Church and, since the Council itself said as much, I find it more prudent to search for clear answers that I can understand elsewhere… One final example of this point, I recommend reading Pope St. John XXIII’s opening speech to the Council where he discusses the pastoral nature of the Council; that it did not intend to define doctrine.”

“Wouldn’t you say,” said Joe, “that the Cathechism of the Catholic Church would help in this discussion?”

“That’s a great idea!”

“Thanks! I remember reading it during RCIA and I think the section of the profession of faith covers this topic a little bit…hmmm… Oh here we are!  Paragraph 846 states “Outside the Church there is no salvation” which was often stated by the Church Fathers…and ‘hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.’  Hey! That is quoting Lumen Gentium!”

“Good eye Joe!  I think that does help a little bit to explain what Lumen Gentium is supposed to mean.  It also reminds me of a couple sections in Denzinger’s Enchiridion Symbolorum.  If you look at the Systematic Index in the back, you can find the following: “[The Church] is necessary to all for salvation; ‘outside the Church there is no salvation,’ nor remission of sins…Those ought (at least in desire) to be members of the Church who wish to be saved…’  Pretty interesting.  There are a ton of references there as well; I bet we could spend a lifetime unpacking this!”

“Indeed!” laughed Joe. “Since my intellect is dim, I have one other suggestion.”

“What’s that?” chimed in Frank who had caught the cheerful bug.

“Let’s take a look at what the Bible teaches on this subject.  I think of especially John 6.”

“John 6,” said Frank, “I don’t know too much about that one.”

“Really!” both Joe and I exclaimed.  Joe glanced at me with a “I’ll take this one” kind of look.  We started going through John 6 and Joe really knew his stuff.  He was passionate while, unlike my natural tendency, he was still patient with Frank.  Joe spoke of the wonder of Christ’s love for us, the importance of the sacrificial nature of the Mass, and the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.  Frank was really blown away.

“Man, nobody ever taught me that before.” Frank said. “I guess that answers my original question, Joe.”

“Original question? What do you mean?” Joe asked quite confused.

“Why you joined the Church! You said it yourself, you joined because Christ died for us and unless we eat His flesh and drink His blood, we do not have life within us.  The Catholic Church has His True Flesh!  That’s pretty powerful and really puts things in perspective. Next time I’m at Mass, I’m going to think about it in those terms.  In fact, I’m going to go to Mass this weekend!”

“Glad to hear, Frank!” Joe responded.  “By the way, I’m headed to Confession this Saturday; are you interested in coming with me?  It is a powerful way to repair your relationship with God even if you haven’t completely broken away from Him through mortal sin.”

“Jeez, Joe. I guess I haven’t been in years.  I don’t know if I should.”

“Well, it isn’t about whether or not you’re worthy; you aren’t. But Christ loves you so much that He died for you and He commanded the Apostles to follow His path and free people from their sins…” By this time, Joe and Frank had stood up and were walking down the hall.  I listened to Joe in amazement as the love he had of God shone forth.  The two left my home almost arm in arm; Joe on fire to share the Gospel; Frank hearing things he had never heard before and in awe of them.  I returned to my office, musing to myself the fact that no matter how much knowledge I gain, it is nothing, but a drop in the ocean of God’s mystery.  A man like Joe, who had encountered Christ in a powerful way and realized the salvation the Church has to offer, was better equipped than me to share the Good News with Frank.  While I too often get bogged down on the intricacies of theology and lack gentleness, Joe cut straight through the heart of things and spoke to the burning need Frank had for Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.  I realized, at that moment, that I had been wrong too at the dinner table.  I had thought that Joe was stunned and being poisoned, but reflecting upon it now, I could see that Joe was really asking God for the grace to express himself.  I could see that Joe had a burning love of Frank’s soul while I only cared about winning an intellectual argument.  Humbled, I knelt down in prayer…


[1] LG, 15

[2] LG, 16

[3] I think it is worth noting that Hilaire Belloc, a brilliant historian and scholar, rightly persisted in Church teaching when he presented Islam as a heresy derived from Christianity.  This can be seen in his chapter “The Great and Enduring Heresy of Mohammed” in the book The Great Heresies. This is likewise confirmed by the Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas.  cf. Summa Contra Gentiles Book I, Chapter 6, article 4 where it says, “those who founded sects committed to erroneous doctrines proceeded in a way opposite to this.  The point is clear in the case of Mohammed.”

[4] LG, 16

[5] LG, 16

[6] LG, 16

[7] c.f. CCC 846; The Council of Trent Session VI chapters 6-8; session 7 Can. 4 that states, “If anyone shall say that the sacraments of the New Law are not necessary for salvation, but are superfluous, and that, although all are not necessary for every individual, without them or without the grace of them through faith alone men obtain from God the grace of justification; let him be ananthema.” (Denzinger, p.262)  Also Session 7 Can. 5 “If anyone shall say that baptism is optional, that is, not necessary for salvation; let him be ananthema.” (Denzinger, p.264)  And again, Canon 8 “if anyone shall say that those baptized are free from all precepts of the holy Church, which are either written or handed down, so that they are not bound to observe them, unless they of their own accord should wish to submit themselves to them; let him be ananthema.” (Denzinger, p.264)

[8] LG, Appendix

[9] LG, 1

[10] GS, 22

[11] AG, 5

[12] AG, 6

[13] c.f. Pascendi Dominici Gregis by Pope St. Pius X which states “Modernists do not deny, but actually maintain, some confusedly, others frankly, that all religions are true.” (The Popes Against Modern Errors, p.192-193)  Also recommended is his Syllabus Condemning the Errors of the Modernists, specifically 41, 42, 54, 59, 63, 64, and 65. Pope Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors especially #’s 15-18 are relevant as well.  For example, the following was condemned: “Every man is free to embrace and profess the religion which, guided by the light of reason, he shall consider true.” (The Popes Against Modern Errors, p.29)

[14] c.f. Pope St. Pius X when he condemns the belief that “dogmas, Sacraments and hierarchy, both their notion and reality, are only interpretations and evolutions of the Christian intelligence which have increased and perfected by an external series of additions the little germ latent in the Gospel.” (The Popes Against Modern Errors, p.178) Also see when he discusses in Pascendi Domnici Gregis “The Evolution of Doctrine.” (The Popes Against Modern Errors, p.205)

[15] Dr. Jeff Mirus of addresses this topic in his article “Vatican II on Religious Freedom.” I hope to study this more as time permits to better understand the implications.

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