Vatican II and the Church- Part III
Sentire Cum Ecclesia
We have see now Fr. Congar's sentiments at ground-zero of the Council, and then Pope Benedict's reaction in its forty year aftermath. Now it is time to analyze what the relationship between a church council and the Church. To do this, I want to focus on a very good essay by one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century, the Russian Orthodox priest Georges Florovsky. Fortunately, this essay (The authority of the ancient councils
and the tradition of the Fathers) is available on the Internet on this link.
We will start by quoting the pertinent passage:
The Councils of the fourth century were still occasional meetings, or individual events, and their ultimate authority was still grounded in their conformity with the "Apostolic Tradition." It is significant that no attempt to develop a legal or canonical theory of "General Councils," as a seat of ultimate authority, with specific competence and models of procedure, was made at that time, in the fourth century, or later, although they were de facto acknowledged as a proper instance to deal with the questions of faith and doctrine and as an authority on these matters. It will be no exaggeration to suggest that Councils were never regarded as a canonical institution, but rather as occasional charismatic events. Councils were not regarded as periodical gatherings which had to be convened at certain fixed dates. And no Council was accepted as valid in advance, and many Councils were actually disavowed, in spite of their formal regularity. It is enough to mention the notorious Robber Council of 449. Indeed, those Councils which were actually recognized as "Ecumenical," in the sense of their binding and infallible authority, were recognized, immediately or after a delay, not because of their formal canonical competence, but because of their charismatic character: under the guidance of the Holy Spirit they have witnessed to the Truth, in conformity with the Scripture as handed down in Apostolic Tradition... There is no space now to discuss the theory of reception. In fact, there was no theory. There was simply an insight into the matters of faith....In other words, the ultimate authority and the ability to discern the truth in faith is vested in the Church which is indeed a "Divine institution," in the proper and strict sense of the word, whereas no Council, and no "Conciliar institution," is de jure Divino, except in so far as it happens to be a true image or manifestation of the Church herself. We may seem to be involved here in a vicious circle. We may be actually involved in it, if we insist on formal guarantees in doctrinal matters. But, obviously, such "guarantees" do not exist and cannot be produced, especially in advance. Certain "Councils" were actually failures, no more than conciliabula, and did err. And for that reason they were subsequently disavowed. The story of the Councils in the fourth century is, in this respect, very instructive. The claims of the Councils were accepted or rejected in the Church not on formal or "canonical" ground. And the verdict of the Church has been highly selective. The Council is not above the Church; this was the attitude of the Ancient Church. The Council is precisely a "representation." This explains why the Ancient Church never appealed to "Conciliar authority" in general or in abstracto, but always to particular Councils, or rather to their "faith" and witness.
It will be claimed by some that this is the opinion of a non-Catholic, that an Orthodox theologian has nothing to comment on a council of the Catholic Church. Florovsky, I would respond, is probably one of the foremost authorities on the Patristic Church, and is a voice that speaks very clearly and succinctly on what the early Church thought. We cannot help but agree that the job of a council is to witness to Tradition, a thing is true not because of the canonical mechanism that was used to say it, but rather because of:
....the appeal to the "faith of the Church," the faith and kerygma of the Apostles, the Apostolic paradosis. The Scripture could be understood only within the Church, as Origen strongly insisted, and as St. Irenaeus and Tertullian insisted before him. The appeal to Tradition was actually an appeal to the mind of the Church, her phronema. It was a method to discover and ascertain the faith as it had been always held, from the very beginning: semper creditum. The permanence of Christian belief was the most conspicuous sign and token of its truth: no innovations.
It thus cannot be reduced to a question of power, who says it, and was it said on the proper authority. These are important, but they are not all there is to consider in these questions.
...[T]he "power of tradition" "virtus traditionis " was always and everywhere the same . The preaching of the Church is always identical: constans et aequaliter perseverans The true consensus is that which manifests and discloses this perennial identity of the Church's faith "aequaliter perseverans".
So in this case, anything that is not singing the same tune must become suspect. What shall we then say to our dear Pere Congar?
Let us end with the last part of the essay, which somes it all up:
The teaching authority of the Ecumenical Councils is grounded in the infallibility of the Church. The ultimate "authority" is vested in the Church which is for ever the Pillar and the Foundation of Truth. It is not primarily a canonical authority, in the formal and specific sense of the term, although canonical strictures or sanctions may be appended to conciliar decisions on matters of faith. It is a charismatic authority, grounded in the assistance of the Spirit: for it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us.
So in the end we must ask the question, "was Vatican II faithful to tradition?" Was it, simply by virtue of being called as an ecumenical council a guaranteed success, or will it inevitably need to be pulled from the annals of Church history? Is it possible for the hierarchy to make a mistake, and still for the visible church to remain "the Church"? Florovsky does not seem to have a problem with that idea.
We will try our best to reflect on this in the conclusion to our reflections on Vatican II and the Church.