The fundamental historiographical question of the post-Conciliar period is whether the collapse of faith that occurred in the wake of Vatican II was a result of the poor implementation of good conciliar documents, or were the Council documents themselves deficient in such a way that they directly enabled or led to the collapse. This is where the question of “ambiguity” arises—to what degree were the Council documents ambiguous? And is ambiguity always a bad thing? After all, the Bible is ambiguous in many parts, and we do not go around blaming God for the ambiguity of the Bible. In this essay, we will attempt to really dig into this question of ambiguity, utilizing the Council fathers themselves as our sources.
Why is this study necessary? It is often stated that the accusation of ambiguous Council documents is a traditionalists invention, used as a club to delegitimize Vatican II. Furthermore, in answering these objections, it is not sufficient to talk about ambiguity in the Council without being able to document which texts are ambiguous and what damage this ambiguity can do.
What we have below are accusations of ambiguity and vagueness, not from the blog of some Traditionalist representing his own opinion or poorly formed theological vision, but from the Council Fathers themselves, from the men who made the Second Vatican Council. These statements are all taken from the public acts of the Council, during the discussions of the General Congregations in which the drafts (or schemas) that would become the Vatican II documents were discussed. The “interventions” of the Council Fathers quoted below are thus part of the public acts of the Council.
Nor are these fathers obscure; in these citations we will see the heads of religious orders, like the Irish Dominican Michael Browne; archbishops of major sees like Cardinal Siri of Genoa; Cardinal Ottaviani, head of the Holy Office; even the Karol Wojtyla criticized two documents for ambiguity, and none other than Paul VI himself admits “fundamental contradictions” in the final text of Lumen Gentium, contradictions that eventually led to him to publishing an explanatory note to the document.
The purpose of this collection of citations, then, is to prove two points:
(1) The critique of ambiguity in the documents of Vatican II is not some canard invented and bandied about by traditionalist Catholic bloggers. It was in fact a substantial charge made against many conciliar documents by the Council Fathers themselves. It was, and remains, a legitimate criticism of the documents of the Second Vatican Council that must be taken seriously since the Council Fathers themselves took it so seriously.
(2) To offer this critique does not imply any “denial of the Council”, heterodoxy, or poor taste —if it does, then similar accusations must be leveled against Cardinal Ottaviani, Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, Cardinal Kasper, Bishop Athanasius Schneider, and the hundreds of bishops who all voted non placet on many conciliar documents and did not thereby become heretics. What we are dealing with when looking at the question of ambiguity is a simple acknowledgement of fact: the documents have inherent ambiguities, and as much was admitted by scores of Council Fathers.
A few things to keep in mind:
First, to be as accurate as possible in this study, the following citations from the Council Fathers are taken solely from sessions three and four of the Council (1964-1965), when the Council schemas were either complete or very near the forms we know them today. The purpose of this is to take away the objection that the Fathers were simply objecting to errors in earlier drafts of the schemata that were subsequently corrected. All of the criticisms you will read are criticisms of the documents in their final or near final incarnations, and most have to do with the overall tone or nature of the documents, not with specific words or phrases.
Second, since the ambiguities in the constitution on the liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium are already very well know, having been extremely well documented by the late Michael Davies, I have omitted all critiques of the liturgical documents here, lest it be said that I am simply reproducing what everybody already knows. The specific objections below all relate to the remaining council documents, mostly Gaudium et Spes, Lumen Gentium, Dignitatis Humanae, and Dei Verbum. If we were to add the ambiguous “time bombs” documented by Mr. Davies, as well as further critiques from sessions one and two, this study could be much more extensive.
A final word on sources: except where otherwise stated, the sources for these interventions by the Council Fathers were the Acta Synodalia of the Council, which contains the complete acts of the congregations and public sessions, the interventions of the fathers, oral and written, the different versions of the schemas, proposed amendments, and in some cases, letters sent by council fathers or groups to the pope or distributed amongst the rest of the fathers. Much of the material taken here was documented in the excellent reference work The Second Vatican Council: An Unwritten Story by Robert de Mattei (Loreto Publications, 2012).
The major dispute on the document that became Lumen Gentium was the issue of collegiality, addressed in Chapter 3. Whereas traditional ecclesiology held that the pope’s infallibility was a personal prerogative given to the Successor of St. Peter directly by Christ, the text on collegiality seemed to suggest that the pope held this grace only by virtue of being head of the Episcopal College; thus, the true subject of infallibility is the College, and the pope only exercises it by virtue of being head of that College. This vagueness of the nature of the pope’s infallibility confused many fathers. The nature of the Blessed Virgin’s Mediation was also a topic of controversy, the ambiguity being in the source of her mediation: was it due to her Divine Maternity and relation to her Son, or was it due to her relationship with the Church as exemplar and model?
In September 1964, during the opening of the third session, a group of conservative bishops presented a document (“Note Addressed to the Holy Father on the Schema Constitutio De Ecclesia“) to Paul VI which expressed “serious reservations” about the chapter on Chapter 3, saying that the teaching contained therein was “uncertain” and contained “doctrines and opinions that are often vague or insufficiently clear in their terms, their true meanings, or in their aims.” The document also called the teaching of collegiality “a new doctrine, which, until 1958 or rather 1962, represented only the opinions of a few theologians.” The document was signed by twenty-five cardinals and thirteen superiors of religious orders, including the Dominicans and the Jesuits. (1)
On September 20th, 1964, Cardinal Larraona, Prefect of the Sacred Congregation of Rites, wrote a letter to Paul VI in which he said Chapter 3 “cannot help but be profoundly disconcerting” and stated that “if the Church were to go so far as to accept the proposed teaching, she would deny her past, and the teaching that she has upheld until now would automatically accuse her of having failed and of having acted for centuries against divine law.” (2)
Amazingly, Paul VI himself noted in a letter back to Cardinal Larraona, dated October 18, 1964, that Chapter 3 of what would become Lumen Gentium did in fact contain “fundamentally contradictory statements“, and said that these “objections [are] supported in Our personal opinion.” These concerns would later cause Paul VI, not to amend Lumen Gentium, but to add an explanatory note to the document. (3)
On October 28, Cardinal Larraona again addressed Paul VI, saying that the schema on the Church was still sufficiently vague so as to permit a variety of interpretations, even heretical ones: “Unless some formulas are not revised, in many questions disputed among theologians we will end up taking a position contrary to what has been until now the more common opinion, reinforced by the Church’s magisterium and by its practice for entire centuries.” (4)
With regards to Chapter 8, what would become the section on the Blessed Virgin Mary, Cardinal Ernesto Ruffini, Archbishop of Palermo, said the schema “obscured” Mary’s work in the redemption. (5)
When the progressive and conservative sides could not come to a consensus on the nature of Mary’s co-mediation, Cardinal Frings of Cologne suggested a “compromise” that could be supported “either by the right of the left”; in other words, an ambiguous statement that any party could find what they want in. This was one of the deliberate ambiguities later referred to by Cardinal Kasper. (6)
Bishop Franic of Split, Croatia, said the document contained doctrinal error, with propositions “altogether new, unheard-of, and anomalous” and said the teaching on collegiality constituted “a serious danger“. (7)
On October 26, 1965, during the discussion of the chapter on the vocations of religious, Bishop Compagnone of Anagni, speaking for eighty-five fathers, said that the exhortation to priestly holiness was unclear and insufficient. (8)
During the third session, a number of liberal German and Dutch bishops exchanged letters noting the possibilities that the ambiguous passages of Lumen Gentium on collegiality would afford them for pushing their progressive agenda after the Council. These letters were passed on to Paul VI, who as a direct result, amended the document with his Nota explicativa praevia. Nevertheless, despite the explanatory note, confusion abounded on the meaning of the phrase subsistit in in Lumen Gentium 8 almost immediately and was the object of “contradictory interpretations” which were being published within months of the promulgation of the document in November, 1964. The ambiguity was not resolved until 2007 with the CDF document of Benedict XVI. The fact that both Paul VI and Benedict XVI issued explanatory notes is a sure testament to the ambiguity of this document. (9)
Dignitatis Humanae on religious liberty was the most controversial document of the Council and received the least support of the Council Fathers. Common critiques were that the document was vague on the distinction between the rights of people to practice the true faith versus false religions, distinctions between different forms of coercion, and the difference between liberty and tolerance. Note the objections to the document made by Karol Wojtyla.
On September 16, 1964, a group of nine Latin American bishops wrote to Paul VI to express reservations about the schema of this document. They mention that the texts were interwoven with “new and sometimes entirely unexpected formulations” that “do not seem to preserve the same sense and same significance as those images used by the Church.” Going into further detail, they wrote, “What seems to us to aggravate the question is the fact that the schemas’ lack of precision threatens to allow the intrusion of ideas and theories against which the Apostolic See has not ceased to warn us.” (10)
Speaking on the same schema on September 23, Cardinal Heenan of Westminster thought the document so ambiguous that it could even be taken in a sense repugnant to Catholic teaching: “Is it truly possible that an ecumenical council should say that every heretic has the right to alienate the faithful from Christ, the Chief Shepherd, and to carry them to pasture in his poisonous fields?” (11)
Cardinal Ottaviani stated that the document contained “a substantial omission” in its failure to speak about the liberty of the faithful to profess the true religion, something that would have been especially relevant and pastoral given the millions of Catholics living under communist regimes. (12)
Cardinal Quiroga y Palacios of Santiago de Compostella proposed the schema on religious liberty be entirely scrapped because of its ambiguity. Cardinal Michael Browne, Irish Master General of the Dominicans, supported this objection. (13)
Archbishop Karol Wojtyla of Cracow objected to the document on the grounds that its teaching was not sufficiently clear that the only real freedom is found in adherence to the truth. Yes, John Paul II believed Dignitatis Humanae was ambiguous. (14)
On the eve of the fourth session, Cardinal Siri, Archbishop of Genoa and former head of the Italian Episcopal Conference, sent a letter to Paul VI, saying the document was “extremely and seriously perplexing.” (15)
On September 16, 1965, Bishop Velasco, exiled Ordinary of Hsiamen, China, stated that the document was unclear enough that it could be construed to encourage pragmatism, indifferentism, religious naturalism, and subjectivism. Similar complaints were offered by three other bishops, as well as by the eminent Bishop Emilio Tagle Covarrubias of Valparaiso, Chile, who spoke on behalf of forty-five Latin American bishops. (16)
Cardinal Ottaviani, on September 17, 1965, stated that the document was vague in that it did not properly distinguish “between physical restraint and moral restraint, or even more than moral constraint, moral obligation.” (17)
On November 17, 1965, Shortly before the vote on the schema on religious liberty, the conservative episcopal block Coetus Internationalis distributed a letter to all of the Council fathers, noting that the document was distressingly vague on “the criterion determining the limits of religious liberty.” (18)
When the schema that would become Dignitatis Humanae was finally voted on on November 19, 1965, it received 1,954 fathers in favor and 249 against, garnering the highest number of negative votes of any conciliar document. (19)
While Dignitatis Humanae may have been the most controversial, Dei Verbum undoubtedly went through the most revisions. It was the first schema proposed at the first session in 1962 and was revised multiple times, not being ratified until session four. The fundamental problem with Dei Verbum was on the sources of revelation: tradition spoke of two sources of revelation (Scripture and Tradition) while Dei Verbum spoke of a single source which was passed on in two forms. The ambiguity, then, centered on the nature of tradition. Was tradition a constitutive element of revelation, or merely explicative? That is, did tradition itself constitute part of revelation, or was it merely a lens used to interpret revelation, which basically means Scripture? The continuous work that went into Dei Verbum ensured that the compromise document was full of questions and ambiguities, such as the debate about inspiration “for the sake of our salvation” in Chapter 11.
Bishop Schroeffer of Eichstatt stated that Dei Verbum was a disappointing, compromise, “the result of a laborious struggle”, “a compromise with all of the disadvantages that a compromise entails.” (20)
On September 30, 1964, during the third session, Cardinal Ruffini of Palermo said that he was “amazed” at the omissions in Dei Verbum.” (21)
Bishop Franic of Split in Croatia noted that, while the document did not contain any error, it was “notably deficient” because “it did not present the integral tradition.” (22)
Luigi Maria Carli, Archbishop of Gaeta, said the document was unclear on the historicity of the Gospels. He called this a “serious defect” and said “Tradition is not sufficiently respected in Chapter 3…It is deplorable that this schema says nothing about the veracity of the Gospels concerning Christ’s infancy and the post-Resurrection.” (23)
Shortly before the document was approved, and when it was in its final form, Cardinal Siri of Genoa wrote to Paul VI, warning that Dei Verbum “leaves to be desired a greater clarity concerning the constitutive tradition” (24)
Despite all of these objections, there were no more revisions of the text. The schema was approved at the beginning of the fourth session between September 20-22, 1965.
Gaudium et Spes
Gaudium et Spes, originally referred to simply as “Schema XIII”, was the subject of some biting criticisms by the Council Fathers, who castigated the document as being a pile of banalities, too wordy, confusing, overly optimistic, imbibed with the spirit of secular humanism, and dangerously confusing. Note Cardinal Heenan’s bitter criticism of the document as laughable and unworthy of an ecumenical council.
On March 20, 1965, Cardinal Ruffini said of Gaudium et Spes: “There are things that are said wrongly or at least that I do not understand” and that the implication that human nature arose as a result of gradual processes “is contrary to the Church’s doctrine.” (25)
The strongest words against the problems with the document came from Cardinal John Heenan of Westminster. He said Gaudium et Spes was “unworthy of an ecumenical council of the Church” and stated “It would be better to say nothing rather than these banalities and these empty words…This pitiful schema will make the world laugh…Even when completed with additions, it would remain insufficient and ambiguous. Without the additions, then, it would be downright harmful.” (26)
Cardinal Ruffini, speaking of the section that would become Part II, Chapter 1 of Gaudium et Spes on marriage and the family, said the document’s language on spouses’ responsibility to regulate the number of children was “obscure, and full of extremely dangerous ambiguities.” (27)
Monsignor Philippe Delhaye, a periti, called the document “a synthesis holding a middle position between two tendencies”, in which both “tendencies” could find justification for their positions. (28)
In a September, 1965 letter to Paul VI, Cardinal Siri of Genoa said Gaudium et Spes was “profoundly perplexing and frightening” and feared “that the Christian people may be scandalized” when reading the document. (29)
On December 3, 1965, shortly before the final vote on Gaudium et Spes, the episcopal bloc Coetus Internationalis Patrum, representing around 80 cardinals and bishops, sent a text to all the Council fathers urging them to vote against the document because of its ambiguous positions on the ends of matrimony, conscientious objection, and total war. (30)
Archbishop Wojtyla also criticized the document strongly for not relating human fulfillment to Christ in strong enough terms; in other words, the document’s statements on human happiness were too vague. (31)
Even Cardinal Lercaro, a moderate liberal, called the whole document into question and said it was riddled with “defects and ambiguities” and criticized the document’s “naturalistic optimism.” (32) This is not too dissimilar from the critique Benedict XVI would make years later.
Cardinal Frings, one of the major liberals of the Council, also asked for the text to be completely redone because of the “dangerous confusion” it caused in confounding human progress with supernatural salvation. (33)
Cardinal Ruffini, speaking on September 29, 1965, stated that the section on birth-control and population would sow doubts and confusion among wedded couples. (34)
As with Dei Verbum, the fundamental issues addressed in these critiques went unresolved.
The charge of vagueness against the schema on ecumenism was essentially the same one that has been repeated ever since: by over-emphasizing the “elements of truth and sanctification” found in other Christian ecclesial groups, the necessity of formal membership in the Catholic Church is downplayed to the point of confusion, leading to indifferentism.
Monsignor Gherardini, theology Professor at the Pontifical Lateran University and editor of the theological journal Divinitas, said the ambiguity in the document left it “decidedly open to syncretism“. (35)
While there was much discussion on whether or not to have a schema that treated of non-Christian religion, most debate was not on potential ambiguities, but on the question of whether or not to include the word deicide with reference to the Jews and the death of Christ. Nevertheless, a serious charge of ambiguity was leveled against the document on the question of whether the necessity of Jews to convert to Christianity was sufficiently addressed.
On October 11, 1965, Cardinal Browne, Master General of the Dominicans, opined that the statements on the Jews in the schema on non-Christian religions could be misinterpreted to give the impression that “the perseverance of the Jews in Judaism is without fault”, thus encouraging indifferentism. (36)
It is plain that the documents of the Second Vatican Council were problematic from their inception, and this much was admitted by the Council Fathers. While they all had their own concerns, questions and difficulties, the theme that connected them all was ambiguity, expressed in such terms as “lack of clarity”, “greater precision needed”, “insufficiently clear”, “lacking distinction”, “perplexing”, and so on. This was the opinion of a great many of the Council Fathers, even some of the liberals and (in the case of Lumen Gentium), Paul VI himself.
Given this straightforward evidence, this obvious matter of fact, it is no longer tenable for anyone to assert that the charge of ambiguity in conciliar documents is a recent invention by Traditionalists, nor that it is without merit or unsubstantiated. On the contrary, the documents of the Second Vatican Council do contain problematic ambiguities that need to be addressed and remedied. It does not detract from the validity or authority of the Council to simply admit this; many Council Fathers admitted it, and they did not consider it disobedient or schismatic to do so. Rather, they saw it as their duty as bishops to ensure that the faith was expounded in the most clear, precise, and easy to understand manner as possible. In posting these citations from these same fathers, we do so hoping the problems that went unheeded in 1962-65 will one day be satisfactorily addressed.
 “Nota personalmente riservate”, cited in G. Caprile, Contributo alla storia della”Nota explocativa praevia,” op. cit., 596
 ibid., 620
 ibid., 622-623
 ibid., 649
 AS, III/1:440-441
 AS, III:2:10-11
 AS III/2:199
 AS IV/5:197-199
 Roberto de Mattei, The Second Vatican Council: The Unwritten Story, 419
 AS, VI/3:339-340
 AS III/2:611-612
 AS III/2:375-376
 AS III/2:357-359 and 470-471
 AS III/2:530-532
 AS V/3:352
 AS IV/1:274-277 and 252-254
 AS V/1:299-300
 Mattei, 445
 AS IV/7:95-96
 Ralph Wiltgen, The Rhine Flows Into the Tiber, 175
 AS III/3:142-145
 AS III/3:124-129
 AS III/3:187-188
 AS V/3:354
 AS III/5:220-223
 AS III/5:319
 AS III/6:52-54
 Vatican II; L’Eglise dans le monde de ce temps, quoted in Mattei, 397
 AS V/3:353
 Mattei, 483
 ibid., 448
 AS IV/2:28-33
 AS IV/2:406
 AS IV/3:18
 B. Gherardini, The Ecumenical Vatican Council II, 232
 AS V/2:645
Phillip Campbell, “Council Fathers on Ambiguity in Vatican II,” Unam Sanctam Catholicam, August 19, 2013. Available online at: http://unamsanctamcatholicam.com/2022/06/council-fathers-on-ambiguity-in-vatican-ii