Cardinal Zen: In Vatican II, Catholics Hear ‘Real Voice of the Holy Spirit’

Cardinal Zen warned against interpretations of Vatican II not “faithful to the documents of the Council, but rather a subjective understanding of it.”

Cardinal Joseph Zen.
Cardinal Joseph Zen. (photo: CNA)

WASHINGTON — Cardinal Joseph Zen, the emeritus Bishop of Hong Kong, has made an impassioned defense of the Second Vatican Council, criticizing both “extreme conservatives” and “extreme progressives” for rejecting the authority and authenticity of the conciliar documents.

In both an interview with CNA and an essay published on his own website, Cardinal Zen said that, for decades, Vatican Council II had been misused to advance “subjective” and “narrow” agendas within the Church.

The cardinal called for a new appreciation of the council documents themselves, and a renewed understanding of what the Church teaches an ecumenical council to be.

“Vatican II happened 50 years ago, but it surely doesn’t belong to the past, its light still leads the Church through the darkness of her journey today,” Cardinal Zen said in the July 17 essay, in which the cardinal warned against the “danger” of polemical interpretations.

Cardinal Zen warned against interpretations of Vatican II not “faithful to the documents of the Council, but rather a subjective understanding of it.”

Both “progressive” and “traditionalist” factions within the Church have advanced in recent criticisms the idea that the Second Vatican Council, which took place from 1962 to 1965, represents a definitive break with previous Church teaching and authority. This interpretation of the Vatican II is often called a “hermeneutic of rupture.” 

Cardinal Zen wrote that such interpretations are foreign to the nature of an ecumenical council.

“The extreme conservatives say: The Church after the Vatican II is no more the Catholic Church I received baptism in. But you were baptized in a Church which believes in one apostolic Church, led by the Pope and the Bishops as authentic teachers of faith,” Cardinal Zen wrote in his essay.

“The extreme progressives say: Before the Council nothing was allowed to change, now with Vatican II many changes have been made, so, many things should be allowed to change also in the future.”

Rejecting both characterizations, Cardinal Zen cited St. John Henry Newman.

"The Church is a living body; it certainly grows and changes, but, as Cardinal John Henry Newman puts it, the development is ‘homogeneous,’ i.e. with the substantial identity not altered. A boy grows into maturity and he is still the same person."

The authentic work of Church reform comes “only by a decision of the legitimate authority, not by an arbitrary choice of anybody, and surely not by undoing the past,” Cardinal Zen added. 

“The Holy Spirit of today doesn’t contradict the Holy Spirit of yesterday.”

In his post, prompted by a series of articles on Vatican Council II by a priest in Hong Kong, Cardinal Zen argued that many debates about Vatican II misunderstand the Church’s theological understanding of ecumenical councils.

“Let us start from the fundamentals: What are the Ecumenical Councils for? They are not for the creation of a new Church, but for a new self-understanding. The Church was founded by Jesus Christ on the Apostles.”

CNA asked Cardinal Zen about the position of Catholics who question the legitimacy of the council while claiming to stand within the tradition of the faith.

“The Church’s ‘tradition’ is the living Church, founded on the Apostles,” Zen answered. “The ecumenical councils are the milestones on this journey of the Church through centuries. The first ‘Ecumenical Council’ of Jerusalem declared: ‘The Holy Spirit and we (the Apostles) have decided…”, it’s not only a question of canon law. Each Ecumenical Council is a ‘Sacrosanctum Concilium’!”

In recent weeks, some Catholic voices have argued that the documents of Vatican II are the cause of erroneous theological positions advanced after the council. They have suggested that Vatican Council II should be in some way repudiated, either by Pope Francis or one of his eventual successors.

Former Vatican ambassador Archbishop Carlo Viganò said in an interview last month that at the Second Vatican Council “hostile forces” caused “the abdication of the Catholic Church” through a “sensational deception.”

“The errors of the post-conciliar period were contained in nuce in the Conciliar Acts,” the archbishop added, accusing the council, and not just its aftermath, of overt error.

Speaking to CNA, Cardinal Zen rejected the idea that authentic acts of an ecumenical council could contain errors of faith.

“The post-conciliar errors do not belong to the Council, just as heresies do not belong to the Bible,” the cardinal told CNA.

Citing ongoing debates about liturgical reform after the council, Cardinal Zen said that “when Pope Benedict talked about a ‘Reform of the Reform in liturgy,’ he is not repudiating the conciliar liturgical constitution but the abuses that originated from a distorted interpretation or even the repudiation of that constitution.”

In his July 17 essay, Zen called for a rediscovery of the texts of council, which he called the true fruits of Vatican II. “Through those documents you hear the real voice of the Holy Spirit,” he said.

At the same time, the cardinal acknowledged the human politicking which played out around the council, and recalled being a young priest studying in Rome at the time.

“I enjoyed, like other young priests and seminarians in Rome, all the daily hot news and gossips about the Council; the fierce battles along the stereotype of divide between conservatives and progressives; Council Fathers accusing each other with leaflets flying over Saint Peter’s square…The jokes!” he recalled in his essay.

But Cardinal Zen stressed that the human participants in the council, and even malevolent spiritual attacks, could not overcome or exclude the agency of the Holy Spirit.

“There is a saying, not far from the truth: an Ecumenical Council starts from human efforts, then comes the devil to make trouble, but at the end the Holy Spirit brings everything to a happy ending.”

The cardinal told CNA that Catholics at all levels need to rediscover and re-appreciate the documents of the council to understand what the Church in the post-conciliar period is called to be.

“The Ecumenical Council concluded with documents,” he said, “then it’s the duty of popes and bishops to make those documents living realities.”

CNA asked Cardinal Zen if he believes there has been a failure to transmit the teachings of the conciliar documents to ordinary Catholics, and how they could be better brought to the faithful.

Cardinal Zen said that “the main channel [for transmitting the council’s authentic teaching] is the seminarian formation of the clergy.”

“Unfortunately there are theologians who put themselves above the Council documents, [but] vice versa there are outstanding lay people, docile to the Holy Spirit, who draw out from the documents all the wisdom contained therein.”

Cardinal Zen said that his recommendation is that all Catholics better familiarize themselves with the context of the council itself, and why it was called.

“I believe it would be very fruitful to read the opening sermon of Vatican II by Pope John XXIII, where he explained the true meaning of 'aggiornamento': facing all the threats of modern civilization the Church must not be afraid, but find the ways apt to show to the world the true face of Jesus, the Redeemer of Man.”