It has become common among critics of the Second Vatican Council to use the expression “weaponized ambiguity” to describe certain conciliar teachings. This expression assumes that language in the Vatican II documents is ambiguous, in the sense that teachings can be interpreted both in an “orthodox” way and at the same time in a “heterodox” way. The “orthodox” interpretation would be used to cover up the heterodox interpretation, so as to avoid accusations of heresy. Nevertheless, the “heterodox” interpretation would be the one that was meant to be implemented in the first place.
The term “weaponized ambiguity” also entails intentionality on the part of those who wrote and approved the Vatican II documents. By using “weaponized ambiguity”—it is claimed—the Council Fathers could proceed to introduce their radical reforms, while evading charges that they were changing doctrine according to their whims.
Even though this accusation of ambiguity has existed since the Council itself, the term has gained a lot of traction lately, given that the word “ambiguity” has become a dog whistle of sorts for those who oppose Francis’s pontificate. Since its publication, Amoris Laetitia has been called “ambiguous” in the same sense that the Vatican II documents have. The claim is that Francis deliberately worded Amoris in such a way that allowed it to be read as both “orthodox” (i.e. a simple restatement of the sacramental discipline of Familiaris Consortio), and also in a way that its critics deem heterodox (one that allows for an expansion of access to the sacraments to the divorced and remarried in certain conditions not present in Familiaris).
However, if we look at Amoris Laetitia carefully, we can see there is no substance to the claim that it is Familiaris 2.0 (which is not the same as saying it contradicts it). In fact, Amoris spends a whole chapter developing the concepts of culpability and mitigating circumstances; a concept that is not considered in Familiaris (even though it already existed in Tradition prior to Familiaris.) If there were any doubts about what the document was meant to say, Pope Francis clarified his meaning perfectly by authoritatively affirming that the interpretation of the Buenos Aires bishops was the “only possible interpretation“.
The real problem is—for those critics who use the “ambiguity” argument—the Buenos Aires interpretation is seen as heterodox. For them, understanding Amoris Laetitia chapter 8 as a simple reaffirmation of Familiaris Consortio 84 is the only possible interpretation of the document that they are willing to consider orthodox. The plain truth is this: they disagree with the pope’s intended meaning. In this sense, they are really the ones creating ambiguity where there is clarity, in order to advance their own interpretation without appearing to be heterodox themselves by dissenting from papal teaching. Paradoxically, they are projecting onto the Holy Father what they themselves are doing.
A similar thing seems to be currently happening with Vatican II. In fact, most (if not all) of those who are now attacking this Council are also detractors of Pope Francis. It’s natural that the logic used to criticize the latter would eventually infiltrate into other areas.
Is there any truth to these claims that the Council documents also employ “weaponized ambiguity”? Many of those who affirm that Vatican II is ambiguous will quote modernist or liberal figures of the Council to prove their assertions. It doesn’t cross their minds that those figures may really be imitating the same modus operandi: artificially creating ambiguity where there is none, in order to hammer their own interpretations as legitimate, while also avoiding accusations of heterodoxy.
But when we study the actual history of the Second Vatican Council, we arrive at a very different picture that what has been proposed. Two very important books in this regard are What happened at Vatican II by John O’Malley (Belknap Press, 2010) and The Disputed Teachings of Vatican II: Continuity and Reversal in Catholic Doctrine by Thomas Guarino (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2018).
These books can help us better understand the hefty discussions that took place, both on the floor of St. Peter’s basilica (involving all bishops), and in the committees that drafted the documents before they were submitted to the floor. Not rarely, these discussions involved minutiae and very fine distinctions in wording, some even seeming at a first glance to not alter the meaning of the text in any significant way. The most impressive case for me involves a few isolated sentences in what would become Dei Verbum: an account of this heated debate can be read in Guarino’s book, pp.s 163-173. Yes, it takes 10 pages to describe the discussion around these finer points.
With this background, the claim of Vatican II critics that the Council’s teachings include “intentional ambiguity” appears incredibly shallow. When I read the story of the Council, I was extremely impressed by the level of precision that was sought by the Council Fathers, and by the high level of nuance of the debates therein.
I suspect that what the critics really decry is the fact that the so-called “traditional” positions were not affirmed in an unqualified and unedited way. The formulations that were approved were the results of compromises where the “conservative” minority did not get everything they wanted. Modern detractors of the post-Conciliar Church tend to view dialogue and compromise as hallmarks of “ambiguity,” since they think of themselves as gatekeepers of orthodoxy and of anyone who does not fully agree with them as a harbinger of heresy.
But I believe this dialogue and compromise actually signal a greater exactness. If agreement was eventually reached between these two opposing factions, one of which was highly concerned with doctrinal clarity, then this makes it highly likely that legitimate developments were approved—all the while preserving the deposit of the faith.
This is made even the more probable if we acknowledge that these compromises were actually stacked in favor of the supposedly “conservative” faction of bishops. From the beginning of the Council, it was clear that this faction was an underwhelming minority of the Fathers. Yet, Paul VI intervened several times in order to allay the fears of this minority. Sometimes, as in Unitatis Redintegratio (the decree on ecumenism), the Pope made several last-minute changes when the document was already poised for approval as it was. Another time, the Holy Father imposed an explicative note to be added to Lumen Gentium. It was clear that—at least in certain key documents—Paul VI would not be satisfied with majorities of even 2,000 yes to 300 no votes, but was seeking supermajorities that ended up with most documents being approved with fewer than 100 negative votes (and with over 2,000 bishops approving).
This is not what weaponized ambiguity looks like.
Again, something similar happened with Pope Francis and Amoris Laetitia. If we study actual accounts of what happened in the 2014 and 2015 Synods on the Family (which prompted the post-synodal apostolic exhortation), like the one given by Austen Ivereigh in Wounded Shepherd (Henry Holt and Co., 2019), we see that similar discussions happened on the topic of sacraments for the divorced and remarried. In his book, Ivereigh recounts that a “liberal lobby” was indeed present at the synods, but theirs was not Francis’s preferred approach. This is confirmed in the book by key figures, like Archbishop Victor Fernandez (understood to have been the main ghostwriter of Amoris) and Cardinal Christoph Schönborn (who presented the document when it was published).
This liberal lobby ultimately did not prevail. However, when Francis asked Cardinal Kasper (who was the spearhead of this lobby) to give an address to the cardinals in 2014, this was seen by concerned conservatives as a seal of approval. This was a gross misreading of the pontiff’s intentions. Francis wanted to kickstart a discussion that would end up with an orthodox middle way between the status quo of Familiaris and the heterodox proposals from the liberals.
When Kasper noticed his proposal was not gathering significant support at the Synod, he desisted from it. Instead, he sought a broad agreement, including centrists (like Schönborn) and conservatives (including, surprisingly, his fellow German Cardinal Gerhardt Müller), that would find the orthodox middle way desired by Francis. That’s how we arrived at the current sacramental discipline, which is made clear both in Amoris itself, and in subsequent authoritative clarifications from the Holy Father.
In both cases, the narrative of “weaponized ambiguity” does not hold up to closer scrutiny. If, as Newman said, to study history is to cease to be Protestant, then to study the history of the Councils and Synods is to cease to be a dissenter. There is no intentional confusion there. Implying otherwise is an uncharitable assumption about the souls, hearts, and intentions of the Successors of the Apostles. It is a profound disrespect towards weeks of hard work to find the best possible wording for the documents.
When we undertake a dispassionate study of this history, we end up finding among the bishops a desire for a greater clarification of doctrine, but one that will at the same time respond to the needs of the age. That response will also maintain continuity with perennial truth. There is discernment, in ecclesia, to find the best possible doctrinal formulations that can solve tensions between development and tradition, and do so in a faithful and truthful way.
That said, any document—no matter how clear—can be made to be ambiguous if it is twisted in order to obfuscate its meaning. Again, what we can see when we study the histories of both the so-called “Spirit of Vatican II” and the Amoris dissenters, is that those who end up on the “losing” side of the discernment process create ambiguity because they want to bypass the discussion (which is the guarantee of clarity and exactness) and to promote their agenda through this venue, since they cannot do it in communion with the rest of the Church.
We must also remember that some confuse their personal opinions with Tradition. Such Catholics often insist that any doctrinal statement that does not affirm these personal opinions is “ambiguous.” They seem to know, in principle, that as part of the Magisterium these teachings are not heterodox, but since they are not in line with what they think the Church should teach, they see doctrinal ambiguity where there is none. In this way, they mitigate their cognitive dissonance.
In this sense, it is true that weaponized ambiguity around Vatican II and Francis’s pontificate exists. Unfortunately this accusation is usually misdirected at the bishops and pontiffs, when in reality it is caused by those who cry “ambiguity” the loudest. These days, many of these critics share their opinions on social media as if they were unquestionably orthodox. By doing so, they are not subject to the kind of rigorous scrutiny that the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council or the Synods on the Family underwent in drafting their documents. It is, therefore, extremely ironic when such people appoint themselves as champions of “clarity” against the “ambiguity” of all Church teaching they dislike. They, more than anyone else, weaponize ambiguity even though tragically they fail to realize this fact.
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Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.