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Nostra aetate: a break with tradition?

Pope Benedict XVI prays alongside Mustafa Cagrici, the grand mufti of Istanbul, in the Turkish capital’s Blue Mosque in November 2006 Photo: CNS

Dear Fr Aidan,

Thank you for your reply to my letter on ecumenism in which you maintain that I went beyond “the limits of acceptable criticism” by asserting that the documents of Vatican II contain “modernist-derived theses or ideas”.

Since we are now getting to the heart of the matter, perhaps I could respond to this before addressing the next topic on the agenda for discussion between the SSPX and Rome: the relationship between the Church and non-Christian religions. You say it is permissible to point out the Council’s faults, for example “failures of prudence” and “weakness”, but that the “doctrinal intentions embodied in the Council documents” must be accepted “insofar as they are legitimate developments of what was already found in Tradition as received in the pre-Conciliar Church”. This, then, is surely the crucial point, because if Vatican II’s “doctrinal intentions” do not represent “legitimate developments” of Tradition, then Catholics have the right to reject them just as the SSPX has done.

“We refuse and have always refused to follow the Rome of the neo-Protestant trend clearly manifested throughout Vatican Council II and, later, in all the reforms born of it,” stated Archbishop Lefebvre in his famous Declaration of 1975. “The only attitude of fidelity to the Church and to Catholic doctrine appropriate for our salvation is a categorical refusal to accept this reformation.” The question must be: do legitimate developments of Tradition include sidelining teachings of the Church and/or introducing new ideas from outside the Deposit of Faith? Because, as argued in my second letter, the Council documents have sidelined Traditional doctrine on the propitiatory character of the Sacrifice of the Mass as defined by the Council of Trent. In fact, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy has omitted this teaching altogether and not once, in over 15 years as a Catholic, have I heard this teaching proclaimed by the conciliar Church. At the same time, does the new notion presented in the Decree on Ecumenism that “in Catholic doctrine there exists a hierarchy of truths”, an idea condemned by Pope Pius XI in his encyclical Mortalium Animos, represent legitimate development? And is it not pure innovation to say, as the Council documents do, that a priest is the “president of the assembly who have gathered to celebrate the Eucharist”? Because according to Tradition, as Archbishop Lefebvre points out in A Bishop Speaks: “It is the priest who offers the holy sacrifice of the Mass, and the faithful participate in this offering, with all their hearts, with all their soul, but it is not they who offer the holy sacrifice of the Mass.”

It is the priest alone who acts in persona Christi and who, by virtue of the words of consecration which he alone pronounces, makes the Divine Victim truly present on the altar before offering Him as a propitiatory sacrifice to the Father. Can “president of the assembly” adequately convey the awful dignity of the priest who alone has the power to call down God from heaven and hold Him in his consecrated hands? But to do justice to the subject of this letter, let us agree that the Council had faults but pass over the above stumbling blocks in true ecumenical fashion. At any rate, the Council’s 1965 Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate), is a short document which opens with a statement to rival Gaudium et Spes for the naïve optimism you have previously alluded to. It states: “In this age of ours, when men are drawing more closely together and the bonds of friendship between different peoples are being strengthened, the Church examines with greater care the relation which she has to non-Christian religions.” And so the scene is set for a rethink of the Church’s position, slap-bang in the middle of a century estimated by the United Nations to be the most murderous in history.

The Declaration certainly speaks with admiration of the non-Christian religions. For example, it asserts of the Hindus (para 2) that “they seek release from the trials of the present life by ascetical practices, profound meditation and recourse to God in confidence and love”, and of the Muslims (para 3) that “they strive to submit themselves without reserve to the hidden decrees of God, just as Abraham submitted himself to God’s plan, to whose faith Muslims eagerly link their own. Although not acknowledging him as God, they venerate Jesus as a prophet, his virgin Mother they also honour, and even at times devoutly invoke.” But which God do the Hindus have recourse to: Vishnu, Krishna, Kali? And I have always thought that the Muslims “strive to submit themselves without reserve” to Allah. Reading these paragraphs in full gives the distinct impression that the followers of Hinduism and Islam worship the same God as Catholics but in a different form, since the whole drift of the document is to emphasise what the different religions have in common. The fact that Islam does not acknowledge Christ as God is simply glossed over.

“The keynote of the reform is the drive against certainties,” claimed Archbishop Lefebvre in An Open Letter to Confused Catholics. “Catholics who have them are branded as misers guarding their treasures, as greedy egotists who should be ashamed of themselves. The important thing is to be open to contrary opinions, to admit diversity, to respect the ideas of Freemasons, Marxists, Muslims, even animists. The mark of a holy life is to join in dialogue with error.”

Being judgmental is, in our time, considered the greatest sin of all. Error, and the state of being in error, are concepts which do not sit easily with the contemporary mind. St Cyprian’s formula, “outside the Church there is no salvation”, seems harsh and exclusive in a culture which relentlessly promotes tolerance and inclusivity in order to promote the universal and render the particular insignificant. But the Tradition of the Church recognises three ways of receiving baptism: the baptism of water; the baptism of blood, ie that of martyred catechumens; and the baptism of desire. Baptism of desire can be explicit in the case of a catechumen who dies before receiving baptism by water, and it can also be implicit. In An Open Letter, Archbishop Lefebvre explains: “This consists in doing the will of God. God knows all men and He knows that amongst Protestants, Muslims, Buddhists and in the whole of humanity there are men of good will. They receive the grace of baptism without knowing it [and] become part of the Church… The error consists in thinking they are saved by their religion. They are saved in their religion but not by it.”

Therefore the Traditional view of the non-Christian religions follows from the fact that Christ founded only one Church. As Archbishop Lefebvre further explains: “There is only one Cross by which we are saved, and that Cross has been given to the Catholic Church. It has not been given to others. To his Church, His mystical bride, Christ has given all graces. No grace in the world, no grace in the history of humanity is distributed except though her.”

A certain bravery is required to announce this in today’s so-called secular society, which neatly brings me to a non-Christian religion not mentioned in the Declaration. I say “so-called” secular society because of course what we see around us isn’t secularism; it’s Paganism. England in particular, and Europe in general, is turning Pagan again, and what is on the cards is some kind of neo-Roman empire in which you can worship any god, or gods, you like as long as you don’t claim that yours is the one true one. And so we have suicide as an honourable act again; the worship of wealth and fame; the cult of the body and bread and circuses to keep the masses quiet. Just as ecumenism tends towards a one-size-fits-all version of Christianity, Modernism aims for a one-size-fits-all religion, or rather spirituality, which offers universal values and a deified image of man, while also accommodating a profusion of local cults, household gods and superstitions which can be called upon for protection and the granting of good fortune.

The demands of Catholic charity should determine the relationship of the Church to non-Christian religions, a charity which cannot include keeping quiet about the truth in its fullness and entirety so as not to upset people. But do the men of the Church still believe they have the truth? Not according to Archbishop Lefebvre in An Open Letter. “They refuse to say – even priests, seminarians and seminary professors – that the Catholic Church is the only Church, that she possesses the truth, that she alone is able to lead men to salvation through Jesus Christ… They sometimes grant it a slight superiority, if you press them.” How then will you convert the Pagans?

Best wishes,


Dear Moyra,

Thank you so much for your sixth letter, where you broach the topic of the Second Vatican Council and inter-religious dialogue. You begin, though, by raising again the question of the doctrinal intentions of the Council as expressed in its documents at large. I agree with you that this is the heart of the matter, since what we think about it will determine the spirit in which we approach all the conciliar texts – whether on inter-religious dialogue or on anything else.

We are at one in saying that any Catholic may legitimately call into question the wisdom of the Council’s prudential statements – about the reform of worship, say, or the helpfulness or otherwise to the Gospel of contemporary culture. Where we differ is in this: I do not believe we have a similar liberty where the doctrinal statements of the Council are concerned even if we find these to be in some regard ambiguous in character. My reason for saying so is straightforward: in evaluating any General Council, legitimately convoked and ratified, an orthodox mind will always take a benign view of the doctrinal intent of the Fathers concerned.

I take an example from the patristic centuries. A secular historian, or a historian working outside the Great Church, might well wonder whether the Fathers of the Council of Chalcedon (451) understood the single person of the Word incarnate to be the pre-existent Word or, rather, a person constituted by the coming together of that Word and the humanity taken from Mary, for there is an ambiguity in the formulation. A Catholic historian will want to defend the intentions of the Fathers of Chalcedon, in the light not only of the subsequent clarification of the meaning of the Chalcedonian definition at the Second Council of Constantinople (553) but also of Tradition as a whole. The ground of so wanting is simply the ecumenicity of the Council which implies its preservation from doctrinal error by the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Before addressing the substance of our main issue in the sixth exchange, might I just look quickly at the three examples you give of defective doctrinal intention as found in particular conciliar texts? First, the topic of the ends of the Mass – including not only its propitiatory character but its petitionary character more widely – was not raised by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, but those ends are implicitly acknowledged in the statement of the Constitution on the Liturgy that “especially through the divine sacrifice of the Eucharist, ‘the work of our redemption is carried on’ ”.

Secondly, you mention the question of the hierarchy of truths. What Pius XI condemned was the drawing of a distinction between fundamental and non-fundamental articles such that the former were mandatory for Christian faith and the latter optional. That the intention of the Fathers of Vatican II was not contrary to the pope’s judgment is plain from their statement in the Decree on Ecumenism that doctrine must be presented “in its entirety”, even if some elements within it are more intimately related than are others to the basis of the faith (I take it no sane person could possibly hold that the doctrine of indulgences, say, was as intimately related to that basis as is, for example, the doctrine of the Trinity).

Thirdly, you cite the description of the celebrant of the Mass as “presider”. While, so far as I can see (I may have missed something here), the conciliar texts use this term only for a bishop-celebrant, it has New Testament justification in St Paul’s reference to ordained ministers in the First Letter to the Thessalonians as “those who preside over you in the Lord” (5: 12): words which, in a Catholic or Orthodox perspective, may well be regarded as a Eucharistic allusion. But, again, if we wish to construe aright the intention of the Council fathers in re-appropriating this sort of ancient language we need to bear in mind their statement – as crystalline as anything Archbishop Lefebvre could wish – in the Decree on the Life and Ministry of Priests: “Through the hands of priests and in the name of the whole Church, the Lord’s sacrifice is offered in the Eucharist in an unbloody and sacramental manner until he himself returns.” I have been told that, before the polarisation of the post-conciliar period, Mgr Lefebvre was particularly pleased with this document.

Of course, what has been done with these documents, so read, is a totally different matter. The decline of stipendiary Mass-offerings reflects lack of instruction about those ends of the Mass which go beyond the spiritual good of those immediately present. The notion of the hierarchy of truths has been taken to justify a casual attitude towards specifically Catholic doctrines. And as to “presidency”, in its present-day connotations (whatever it may have meant to the Apostle) it’s difficult to think of any synonym for celebration of the Mass more calculated to insinuate the banal.
So, Moyra, the spirit in which I approach Nostra aetate, the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, is not going to be one of looking for bogeys. I hope, however, that the trio of examples I’ve just given you illustrates the way a benign reading does not mean relaxing doctrinal vigilance on the spurious ground that, after Vatican II, anything goes.

When we find the document under discussion encouraging Muslims to “forget the past” in their relation with Christians, it is difficult to deny your opening charge of naïve optimism. That particular passage is not, though, typical of a text which overall is positive rather than unrealistic. But even positiveness, like all emotional tones, can be overdone. I find it surprising that the Declaration carries so few references to the history of religion as a story of error, both metaphysical and moral, and not simply a story of truth and holiness. One does not need to be a follower of Karl Barth, for whom all humanly initiated religious activity – ie all religion outside the sphere of the biblical covenants – is intrinsically idolatrous, to think that a major feature of the Scriptural witness has somehow disappeared from view. I remember my novice-master, the late Geoffrey Preston OP, saying: “Surely Pan led men astray.” The Acts of the Apostles would lead us to think the same was true of Diana of the Ephesians. And while we’re on the Book of Acts, for which the Church’s missionary expansion is the sign of the work of the Holy Spirit between Pentecost and the Parousia, the early victories of Islam, which effectively wiped out the Church in large areas of north Africa and western Asia, can hardly be anything other than counter-signs of the Kingdom of God.

Still, such silences in Nostra aetate do not invalidate the doctrinal intention of the Fathers of the Council which was to affirm that, by the criterion of evangelical and Catholic truth, there are elements of truth and holiness not only in Judaism (something we can take for granted, given the biblically attested divine origin of the faith of Israel) but in religions outside the Judaeo-Christian tradition as well. Strangely, the Fathers omit to mention what seems to me the anchor-hold in Tradition for this statement, and this is the early Apologist St Justin’s notion of the “seeds of the Word” scattered through paganism, a notion tacitly accepted by the consensus of the Church Fathers in their (careful) use of Greco-Roman philosophy, and highlighted in the Council’s Decree on Missions, Ad Gentes.

But actually, if, de facto, some aspect of the teaching or the practice of a non-Christian religion is in accord with the doctrine of the Church about faith and morals, there is, in any case, no logically available ground for denying the statement the Council Fathers made. How could there possibly be?

Where Catholic theologians can differ, though, is in their interpretation of how such congruent aspects of, say, the theistic traditions within Hinduism or the ethics of Gautama, come to be in place. We do not necessarily need to invoke for an explanation divine revelation or even sanctifying grace. It may suffice to say that the mercifully incomplete consequences of the Fall left the powers of human nature sufficiently intact for some appropriation of such “elements” of truth and goodness to be made. Personally, I would go further, and say that the work of Providence (one might think here of the role of the angelic powers) included these religions within its ambit by the bestowal of graces that steadied the minds and focused the wills of those responsible for the elements of truth and holiness concerned. That, of course, is very far indeed from maintaining that these religions are ordinary means of salvation for those who follow their life-ways – even were we to add that the ultimate foundation of such means of salvation is Christ, the Head of the Church. That is the misconception Marcel Lefebvre was keen to exclude.

You ask me how I would convert Pagans. Moyra, when you visited Blackfriars Cambridge, I gave you my answer. It is, in effect, the apologia of the Swiss dogmatician Hans Urs von Balthasar (one of my heroes). My answer to you ran: by showing them how the revelation carried by the Church is the greatest – the most comprehensive and beautiful – truth that can be conceived. On that (very enjoyable, I must say!) occasion, you didn’t seem to find my reply persuasive. But I’m afraid I have no other to give.

I hope this finds you in good heart, despite all the difficulties of the Church today. Meanwhile I am, dear Moyra,

Yours sincerely,

Fr Aidan OP