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A Contribution to the Trad Conversation

Updated: 1 day ago

Although I am not a traditionalist, I would like to take up some of the talking points floating around in the tradosphere and add to a particular conversation. Maybe this can be an opportunity for friendly dialogue and for a respite in the ecclesial tensions we are experiencing (I want to be clear that I am not using the term “traditionalist” in a pejorative sense). In the last couple years, a phrase—often used to describe the tumultuous time immediately following the Second Vatican Council—has been applied to the First Vatican Council by some traditionalists. This phrase is: “the false spirit of the council.” Thus, according to traditionalists, not only is there a “false spirit of Vatican II” but also, a “false spirit of Vatican I.” This false spirit, of course, refers to the inflated status that the role of the papacy took on following the council.

It seems to me that the project of Vatican I was (some might say “obviously”) not to reject Ultramontanism, and (some might say “less obviously”), not to reject Conciliarism. This took on the shape of a double rejection: of both Conciliarism and Ultramontanism. How is this not nonsensical? My contention is that Vatican I’s answer to the ecclesiological debates of the early modern period is a “yes” to elements of both Ultramontanism and Conciliarism because it is a “no” to each, construed as an ecclesiological ideology tout fait. Similar to the debate between tritheism and modalism, the rejection of both is a teaching that transcends reason alone and finds its locus in what we call “revelation.” Something received and not made. Heard and not thought up (cf. Rom 10:17). God is both three and one because he is the God who speaks and his Word is love, both in a divine unity and in a salvific mission. He has spoken to us. We cannot personally know God unless he discloses himself to us, although we can know things about God based on reason, as Vatican I teaches us. Another dialectic. Same with ecclesiology. The Church is not a circle with the pope as the center, but an ellipse with two foci: primacy and episcopacy.

In his book God’s Word, Joseph Ratzinger writes the following:

If we think again about the section “De R. Pontificis et episcoporum iurisdictione” (D 1828)—which is often quickly passed over—in the light of the bishops' "Collective Declaration" then it becomes clear that this former brings into play, in the doctrine of primacy, the same dialectic that characterizes the Council's concept of revelation and faith. Here, too, there are ultimately two series of statements standing over against each other that cannot be brought to coincide completely, and, by that very fact, are capable of expressing something like the whole of the reality, which is not one-dimensional. The Church appears […], not as a circle with a single center, but as an ellipse with two foci: primacy and episcopacy. To put this in terms of the history of doctrine: In the context of the centuries-old struggle between episcopalism/conciliarism, on one side, and papalism, on the other, the Vatican Council is not at all simply a victory for the latter, as it might well seem to superficial observers. [1]

Ratzinger is of course not attempting to promote a possible rejection of the pope, like some might wish, but to affirm the pope only within a richer ecclesiology that cannot be reduced merely to the pope. He expounds upon this in the same section:

The Vatican Council represents a condemnation of papalism just as much as of episcopalism. Actually, it characterizes both doctrines as heresies, and in the place of one-dimensional solutions on the basis of late theological ideas or those of power politics, it sets the dialectic of the reality already given, stemming from Christ, a dialectic and a reality that confirm their obedience to the truth in their very renunciation of a uniform formula satisfying to the intellect. […] In the great historical struggle of these two powerful movements, it puts itself neither on one side nor on the other, but creates a new position that goes beyond all human conceptualization in formulating the peculiar nature of the Church, which ultimately springs, not from man's judgment, but from the word of God.” [2]

In light of the above, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre’s criticism that Vatican II’s teaching on collegiality was Conciliarist is an interesting criticism. Likewise, father Johann von Döllinger’s criticism that Vatican I’s teaching on the pope was Ultramontane is an interesting criticism. We all know the sad state of affairs concerning the rifts with the Old Catholics and the Society of St. Pius X. What do we make of the weal and woe of these events in ecclesiastical history?

Yves Congar, Joseph Ratzinger, and Gérard Philips—in their theological writings—associated Ultramontanism with a vision of the Church that is first and foremost juridical. In this vision the sacraments are goods which the Church provides. But this is not the direction the Second Vatican Council took. For Vatican II the Church is a sacrament (it is Eucharistic) and the juridical flows from the sacramental—from the inner logic of the sacramental. This is why “office” comes into its own and has its raison d’être from the Eucharist, and not from the institutional, politically construed (even if it is ecclesial politics). This, of course, ties into Vatican II’s Dignitatis Humanae, on religious liberty, and the distinction between the potestas of the king (State) and the auctoritas of the priest (Church)—this last phrase being taken from Pope Gelasius I. We ought to notice how “power” and “authority” are here distinguished. In fact, David C. Schindler has written and spoken about this distinction many times. [3] Authority is analogically related to power, not univocally. Unlike power, it is an intrinsic (and even intimate) relationship between father and son, a relationship which bespeaks a unity of wills within the freedom of love. Thus, it is also sacramental, and personal, and social. Power, on the other hand, is extrinsic. It is at home in the juridical. Both power and authority are in a relationship which is similar to the relationship between Old and New Testaments, nature and grace, Law and Gospel, etc… The authority of the church is sacramental first and foremost. Here, the council’s teachings on the nature of the episcopacy emerge in their intelligibility.

But this is somewhat of a digression. My point is that the Romanitas needs the Catholica and vice versa, and precisely in terms of the authority which flows from communion. Not in terms of the juridical structure of a “political” society with a CEO at its head. “Office,” for Christianity, is not univocally interchangeable with political rule. It is an office of service which flows from the sacramental nature of the ecclesia. As we saw from Ratzinger, Vatican I sets up its teaching on the pope within an unresolved dialectic—one which Vatican II picks right back up with its teaching on the episcopacy.

More could be said of course, but I simply wanted to open a conversation with my article. Seeing how the conciliar texts work together in harmony can be an extremely rewarding project. It seems to me that Vatican II has much to offer, precisely to the ecclesial debates taking place today. I will say that my biggest criticism of Vatican II is that it was too theological at the expense of proper catechesis and implementation. But I believe that the theology of the communio movement sought to make up for this problem, and, precisely by being neither traditionalists nor progressive, it is the most apt theology at bringing respite to our “ecclesial meaning crisis.”


[1] Joseph Ratzinger, God’s Word: Scripture—Tradition—Office (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), 19.

[2] Joseph Ratzinger, God’s Word: Scripture—Tradition—Office (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), 20.

[3] Cf. this lecture which I had the privilege of attending:, as well as Schindler’s book The Politics of the Real: The Church Between Liberalism and Integralism (Steubenville OH: New Polity Press, 2022).

Dom, from The Logos Project.

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