The most disastrous  thing about the idea that Dignitatis Humanae or other documents of Vatican II contradict the previous Magisterium is the implications of such a claim. This would not mean that we could trust Vatican II but not the previous Magisterium (or vice versa), it would mean we cannot trust either. Because, according to the previous Magisterium we should have been able to trust Vatican II and if Vatican II repudiated that tradition then who is to say whether Vatican III might not go back to it or invent some third thing incompatible with either.
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For a disturbingly large number of minds unhinged by German philosophy this isn’t really a problem. It merely confirms that the Magisterium is really (what they once thought the Prussian State or the Soviet Union might be) the great Pantheos the emerging consciousness of the kirchengeist. The Magisterium is just like a box of chocolates you never know what you’re gonna get.
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There is a method of exegesis of Papal documents corresponding to this pantheist view of the Church whereby you interpret everything in light of the most recent statement without reference to the eminence of its source. It starts with interpreting the documents of Vatican II as repudiating the preceding Papal Magisterium (even when addressed to the universal Church on faith and morals) and ends with an aside in a Wednesday audience trumping the solemn definition of a General Council.
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In its least sinister incarnation this tendency is limited to accepting only solemn definitions as reliable expressions of Catholic doctrine. This is not the doctrine of either Vatican II or the Popes.
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“religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra” Lumen Gentium §25
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“Nor must it be thought that what is expounded in Encyclical Letters does not of itself demand consent, since in writing such Letters the Popes do not exercise the supreme power of their Teaching Authority. For these matters are taught with the ordinary teaching authority, of which it is true to say: ‘He who heareth you, heareth me'” Pius XII – Humani Generis §20
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If Vatican II contradicts the preceding Papal Magisterium then the obsequium required by ordinary teaching authority of the Popes (and Councils) can be no more than a ‘party line’ which one is expected to hold but not necessarily believe. Such an understanding seems hard to square with the doctrine of Pius XII and of Lumen Gentium.
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Of course there are some who take certain statements of Paul VI and John XXIII to indicate that Vatican II has no theological note of itself. I understand these statements merely to indicate that they intended it to abstain from the use of the extraordinary Magisterium.
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The upshot of these considerations is that the proper method of exegesis in regard to teaching documents is to interpret the less authoritative in the light of the more authoritative. There is no priority for more recent texts over older ones. (To some extent the priority is the other way round).
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In regard to an alleged conflict between two ordinary statements (in this case Dignitatis Humanae and Quas Primas/Immortale Dei/Quanta Cura etc.) the proper response is to go higher to the extraordinary Magisterium.
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This is what Thomas Pink, Professor of Philosophy at Kings College London, has done. Specifically he has gone to the 14th Canon of the Council of Trent on the Sacrament of Baptism.
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“If any one saith, that those who have been thus baptized when children, are, when they have grown up, to be asked whether they will ratify what their sponsors promised in their names when they were baptized; and that, in case they answer that they will not, they are to be left to their own will; and are not to be compelled meanwhile to a Christian life by any other penalty, save that they be excluded from the participation of the Eucharist, and of the other sacraments, until they repent; let him be anathema.”
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According to Pink the key to understanding the compatibility of Dignitatis Humanae with the rest of the Church’s teaching is the fact that DH quite explicitly considers only the native power of the State to coerce in religious matters (and declares it has none) not the authority of the Church to coerce the baptised to the fulfillment of their duties (defined by Trent) nor the duty of a State formed out of the baptised to cooperate with the Church’s coercive jurisdiction should the hierarchy require such a State to do so. This line of argument is anything but novel, rather it is, as Pink shows, the doctrine of Aquinas, Bellarmine, Suarez and Leo XIII. This is in fact the “traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ” which Dignitatis Humanae itself says it “leaves untouched”.
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Pink has now made the text of his paper available online and has guest-posted an introduction to it on Rorate Caeli.
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One interesting objection has come up in the discussion on Rorate Caeli from John Lamont who suggests that it is impossible to coerce the act of faith because this is interior and is the gift of God. I do not know what Pink would say to this but it seems to me that Lamont’s objection holds only for the non-baptised (who Pink agrees are immune from such coercion). Once baptism is received God makes available to the baptised through the sacrament of Penance the means to return to the fold if they have strayed and through the character and grace of the sacrament places the graces necessary to do so to some extent at their disposal. To coerce the unbaptised to faith would indeed be to seek to coerce God but not so the baptised. Furthermore, it seems that the lack of jurisdiction of the State in religious matters does not obstruct it from suppressing idolatry.

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The claim that Vatican II repudiated previous authoritative teaching has done great harm to the Church. The case of religious liberty is not the only difficulty of interpretation but it is one of the most serious. Pink’s insights are extremely helpful and should do immense good. It is very well worth taking the time to read his paper in full.

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