Popes, cardinals and ambiguity

A brief thought on the ongoing, and troubling, impasse over Amoris Laetitia, and the dubia  submitted by i quattro cardinali seeking clarification of controverted formulations in and implications of the papal exhortation.

Sandro Magister today wrote of what he described as “the calculated ambiguity of the text, which has opened the way to a multiplicity of interpretations and applications, some of them decidedly new with respect to the age-old teaching of the Church.” This was part of his introduction to an essay by Claudio Pierantoni which finds a parallel to the current crisis of confusion in the early Church.

However it strikes me that we can find not merely a parallel with but also the origin of the present situation. Magister is almost certainly right in detecting a deliberate ambiguity in Amoris Laetitia (AL). However, it is probably not so very surprising that this is so. AL seems to embody a hermeneutic of ambiguity that can find its roots in the documents of the Second Vatican Council. One does not need to be a scholar to recall the many ways in which ambiguity has been read into conciliar texts, or extracted form them, in order to justify innovations in liturgy, theology and ecclesial life that the majority of the Council fathers would not have countenanced if they had been presented to them at the Council itself.

This conclusion is easily reached even without recourse to the new historiography and hermeneutics which are upsetting the deeply entrenched status quo when it comes to interpreting the Council. One need only read the 1966 classic, The Rhine Flows into the Tiber, by the Divine Word missionary, Fr Ralph Wiltgen SVD. Released while the dust of the Council was still settling, and written from a liberal perspective, it is disarmingly frank in its innocent-faced revelations about the machinations of the northern European faction at the Council, including “compromises” in drafting the texts of the conciliar documents. The ambiguity of these documents was clearly planned by their theologian drafters, it not by their episcopal promulgators.

This “calculated ambiguity” in the conciliar documents begat the ambiguity today in AL. This time, however, lessons have been learned and it seems that some are prepared to confront the ambiguity in order to nip its deleterious effects in the bud. No one of sound mind wants to revisit the chaos and trauma of the post-conciliar confusion.

More often than not, magisterial formulations allow room for future doctrinal reflection and elaboration (not change) by stating the barest minimum necessary to counter error and safeguard truth. The Magisterium never tries to say more than is necessary. It has a most un-German terseness and economy of language. Words are carefully chosen, having often been fought over, precisely in order to avoid ambiguity and the chaos that would almost certainly arise from it in the future.

If the Council fathers can be said to have failed, or made a mistake, at all it is certainly in this, if not elsewhere: that they failed to do the work of thrashing out the formulations to the extent they should have. In order to prevent an ever-lengthening Council, and the atrophy that might arise from this, they accepted all too readily the compromise texts placed before them by the periti, in which, as is now often admitted, “time bombs” of ambiguity had been carefully hidden. Desperate to keep up with the swinging sixties, they raced ahead of God.

Cardinal Kasper is but the heir to Hans Küng
The fathers ate sour grapes and the children’s teeth have been set on edge. Or what they sowed we have been painfully reaping ever since. AL is part of this conciliar harvest. It seems prudent at the very least that some pastors of the Church have learned the bitter but prophetic lesson afforded by Cardinal Ottaviani and are politely but firmly working to ensure that the teeth of the next generation will not also be set on edge, that they will a richer and more abundant harvest to reap than that sown with studied ambiguity, however good its intention. We all know that adage will tells us which road it is that is paved with good intentions. And would that Pope Francis might note the bitter lesson afforded by Pope Paul VI.

Cardinal Ottaviani: a prophet not recognised by his own?

12 thoughts on “Popes, cardinals and ambiguity

  1. Ok Father—you didn’t say—how was the inquisition… or what is also known as the defense of one’s thesis…..???? I know you surely did well—even if you didn’t have on your pink socks 🙂
    Oh and I’m reading a great book—I’ve read his story before but this is a real meat and potatoes story that is great no matter the latest book recounting of his selfless exploits…
    Hide & Seek: The Irish Priest in the Vatican Who Defied the Nazi Command
    The true story of Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty…
    Squeeze it in between writing papers and defending them, blogs and the demands of shepherding the flock…
    Blessings Father and happy Advent!


  2. Yes indeed, dear Father. Might we hope that we are in the midst of the last bloom of the post-conciliarists? A last desperate attempt on their part permanently to determine the Church’s direction? But nothing is permanent in this world, and such people will soon be dust, as we all will be. The Truths of the Gospel will be preserved and handed on, even if the Church is considerably diminished in the next generation. PAX


  3. Except that some post-conciliar documents do not bear the stamp of this thinking at all (e.g. Veritatis Splendor). I’m not sure its really the fault of Vatican II. I blame the fact that the pope has now become a media figure. The present holder of the papal office in particular knows how to work social media to reach out to people who would not otherwise listen to a single word he says. Unfortunately, truth is compromized in the process and the pope, perhaps unwittingly, ends up telling the punters what they want to hear. This might cheer them up during their earthly sojourn, but does it help them “do now what will profit them for eternity”?
    The ‘pick-and-choose’ nature of social media soundbites is also a problem. The same people who take advantage of Amoris Laetitia’s ambiguities do not ever seem to mention its uncompromising positions (e.g. on homosexual unions).


    1. Nor does Dominus Iesus. And others. But my point is not that everything since the Council is tainted with ambiguity, but that ambiguity is a device that can be employed when needed now that it has its foot in the doctrinal door. I do not think the vast majority of Council Fathers were intending anything other than a revitalised missionary endeavour, a slightly trimmed Mass and some sensible adaptations to modern technology and the post-war political balance. However they were naively, though understandably, trusting of the periti and too easily manipulated. The problem with the Council is not the Council’s documents per se, but the legacy that has profited from their inbuilt deficiencies.


  4. It is my firm conviction that most of what Pope St John Paul II wrote as pope (and a great deal of what Cardinal Ratzinger wrote as Prefect of the CDF) was intended as a corrective to the tendentious interpretations of the documents of the Council that had proliferated since the end of the Council. The sub-text of JP’s writings often seemed to be “You might think the Council taught *this*, but I was there and I can tell you it was *this*. I have always thought that individual sacramental Confession, prayer of the Rosary and Eucharistic Adoration were being quietly consigned to history until he single-handedly rescued them.

    I don’t think it was only the periti who were the bad guys, although I agree with you that the majority of the Council Fathers came with only modest intentions/expectations. I think there was a small number of Fathers who came with an agenda, and too many of the others simply went along for fear of being thought behind the times. The ‘Rhine Flows into the Tiber’ gang were better organised than the others, and were therefore better placed to make the running. Another of the great ‘if onlys’ thrown up by Pope Benedict’s resignation is that the proposed retranslation of the Council documents will probably not now ever take place.


    1. Oh, I would never have meant that only periti were the bad guys. They would have little headway, or only with the slowest progress, without some bishops in their camp. This is precisely what Fr Wiltgen shows.

      I would not be so sure that the documents will not be re-translated. Not under this pope, I agree. but the next is another matter altogether.

      Id St John Paul II had a failing in his magisterial programme, it was that he did not fully engage with the problems of the liturgical reform. He tried to crush abuses, but this was treating the symptoms not the cause. That weakened his entire doctrinal project because liturgy and doctrine have a mutual dependence not always recognised. Benedict XVI saw this, but was not pontiff long enough to carry through fully his insights.



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