Addresses of Benedict XVI on Vatican II

Note on the text: 

The Christmas address to the Roman Curia below is not the full text. Only the sections concerning Vatican II appear below. The full text can be found on the Vatican's website here. This address is important because in it Benedict XVI outlines the hermeneutics of continuity and rupture. 

The General Audience on Oct. 10, 2012 outlines several hermeneutics for understanding Vatican II, such as the Council being a gift of the Holy Spirit, the role of the four constitutions, and the concept of renewal. The full text is presented below and can be also found on the Vatican Website here

Address to the Roman Curia offering them his Christmas Greetings

Thursday, 22 December 2005

The last event of this year on which I wish to reflect here is the celebration of the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council 40 years ago. This memory prompts the question: What has been the result of the Council? Was it well received? What, in the acceptance of the Council, was good and what was inadequate or mistaken? What still remains to be done? No one can deny that in vast areas of the Church the implementation of the Council has been somewhat difficult, even without wishing to apply to what occurred in these years the description that St Basil, the great Doctor of the Church, made of the Church's situation after the Council of Nicea:  he compares her situation to a naval battle in the darkness of the storm, saying among other things:  "The raucous shouting of those who through disagreement rise up against one another, the incomprehensible chatter, the confused din of uninterrupted clamouring, has now filled almost the whole of the Church, falsifying through excess or failure the right doctrine of the faith..." (De Spiritu Sancto, XXX, 77; PG 32, 213 A; SCh 17 ff., p. 524).

We do not want to apply precisely this dramatic description to the situation of the post-conciliar period, yet something from all that occurred is nevertheless reflected in it. The question arises:  Why has the implementation of the Council, in large parts of the Church, thus far been so difficult?

Well, it all depends on the correct interpretation of the Council or - as we would say today - on its proper hermeneutics, the correct key to its interpretation and application. The problems in its implementation arose from the fact that two contrary hermeneutics came face to face and quarrelled with each other. One caused confusion, the other, silently but more and more visibly, bore and is bearing fruit.

On the one hand, there is an interpretation that I would call "a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture"; it has frequently availed itself of the sympathies of the mass media, and also one trend of modern theology. On the other, there is the "hermeneutic of reform", of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us. She is a subject which increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God.

The hermeneutic of discontinuity risks ending in a split between the pre-conciliar Church and the post-conciliar Church. It asserts that the texts of the Council as such do not yet express the true spirit of the Council. It claims that they are the result of compromises in which, to reach unanimity, it was found necessary to keep and reconfirm many old things that are now pointless. However, the true spirit of the Council is not to be found in these compromises but instead in the impulses toward the new that are contained in the texts.

These innovations alone were supposed to represent the true spirit of the Council, and starting from and in conformity with them, it would be possible to move ahead. Precisely because the texts would only imperfectly reflect the true spirit of the Council and its newness, it would be necessary to go courageously beyond the texts and make room for the newness in which the Council's deepest intention would be expressed, even if it were still vague.

In a word:  it would be necessary not to follow the texts of the Council but its spirit. In this way, obviously, a vast margin was left open for the question on how this spirit should subsequently be defined and room was consequently made for every whim.

The nature of a Council as such is therefore basically misunderstood. In this way, it is considered as a sort of constituent that eliminates an old constitution and creates a new one. However, the Constituent Assembly needs a mandator and then confirmation by the mandator, in other words, the people the constitution must serve. The Fathers had no such mandate and no one had ever given them one; nor could anyone have given them one because the essential constitution of the Church comes from the Lord and was given to us so that we might attain eternal life and, starting from this perspective, be able to illuminate life in time and time itself.

Through the Sacrament they have received, Bishops are stewards of the Lord's gift. They are "stewards of the mysteries of God" (I Cor 4: 1); as such, they must be found to be "faithful" and "wise" (cf. Lk 12: 41-48). This requires them to administer the Lord's gift in the right way, so that it is not left concealed in some hiding place but bears fruit, and the Lord may end by saying to the administrator:  "Since you were dependable in a small matter I will put you in charge of larger affairs" (cf. Mt 25: 14-30; Lk 19: 11-27).

These Gospel parables express the dynamic of fidelity required in the Lord's service; and through them it becomes clear that, as in a Council, the dynamic and fidelity must converge.

The hermeneutic of discontinuity is countered by the hermeneutic of reform, as it was presented first by Pope John XXIII in his Speech inaugurating the Council on 11 October 1962 and later by Pope Paul VI in his Discourse for the Council's conclusion on 7 December 1965.

Here I shall cite only John XXIII's well-known words, which unequivocally express this hermeneutic when he says that the Council wishes "to transmit the doctrine, pure and integral, without any attenuation or distortion". And he continues:  "Our duty is not only to guard this precious treasure, as if we were concerned only with antiquity, but to dedicate ourselves with an earnest will and without fear to that work which our era demands of us...". It is necessary that "adherence to all the teaching of the Church in its entirety and preciseness..." be presented in "faithful and perfect conformity to the authentic doctrine, which, however, should be studied and expounded through the methods of research and through the literary forms of modern thought. The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another...", retaining the same meaning and message (The Documents of Vatican II, Walter M. Abbott, S.J., p. 715).

It is clear that this commitment to expressing a specific truth in a new way demands new thinking on this truth and a new and vital relationship with it; it is also clear that new words can only develop if they come from an informed understanding of the truth expressed, and on the other hand, that a reflection on faith also requires that this faith be lived. In this regard, the programme that Pope John XXIII proposed was extremely demanding, indeed, just as the synthesis of fidelity and dynamic is demanding.

However, wherever this interpretation guided the implementation of the Council, new life developed and new fruit ripened. Forty years after the Council, we can show that the positive is far greater and livelier than it appeared to be in the turbulent years around 1968. Today, we see that although the good seed developed slowly, it is nonetheless growing; and our deep gratitude for the work done by the Council is likewise growing.

In his Discourse closing the Council, Paul VI pointed out a further specific reason why a hermeneutic of discontinuity can seem convincing.

In the great dispute about man which marks the modern epoch, the Council had to focus in particular on the theme of anthropology. It had to question the relationship between the Church and her faith on the one hand, and man and the contemporary world on the other (cf. ibid.). The question becomes even clearer if, instead of the generic term "contemporary world", we opt for another that is more precise:  the Council had to determine in a new way the relationship between the Church and the modern era.

This relationship had a somewhat stormy beginning with the Galileo case. It was then totally interrupted when Kant described "religion within pure reason" and when, in the radical phase of the French Revolution, an image of the State and the human being that practically no longer wanted to allow the Church any room was disseminated.

In the 19th century under Pius IX, the clash between the Church's faith and a radical liberalism and the natural sciences, which also claimed to embrace with their knowledge the whole of reality to its limit, stubbornly proposing to make the "hypothesis of God" superfluous, had elicited from the Church a bitter and radical condemnation of this spirit of the modern age. Thus, it seemed that there was no longer any milieu open to a positive and fruitful understanding, and the rejection by those who felt they were the representatives of the modern era was also drastic.

In the meantime, however, the modern age had also experienced developments. People came to realize that the American Revolution was offering a model of a modern State that differed from the theoretical model with radical tendencies that had emerged during the second phase of the French Revolution.

The natural sciences were beginning to reflect more and more clearly their own limitations imposed by their own method, which, despite achieving great things, was nevertheless unable to grasp the global nature of reality.

So it was that both parties were gradually beginning to open up to each other. In the period between the two World Wars and especially after the Second World War, Catholic statesmen demonstrated that a modern secular State could exist that was not neutral regarding values but alive, drawing from the great ethical sources opened by Christianity.

Catholic social doctrine, as it gradually developed, became an important model between radical liberalism and the Marxist theory of the State. The natural sciences, which without reservation professed a method of their own to which God was barred access, realized ever more clearly that this method did not include the whole of reality. Hence, they once again opened their doors to God, knowing that reality is greater than the naturalistic method and all that it can encompass.

It might be said that three circles of questions had formed which then, at the time of the Second Vatican Council, were expecting an answer. First of all, the relationship between faith and modern science had to be redefined. Furthermore, this did not only concern the natural sciences but also historical science for, in a certain school, the historical-critical method claimed to have the last word on the interpretation of the Bible and, demanding total exclusivity for its interpretation of Sacred Scripture, was opposed to important points in the interpretation elaborated by the faith of the Church.

Secondly, it was necessary to give a new definition to the relationship between the Church and the modern State that would make room impartially for citizens of various religions and ideologies, merely assuming responsibility for an orderly and tolerant coexistence among them and for the freedom to practise their own religion.

Thirdly, linked more generally to this was the problem of religious tolerance - a question that required a new definition of the relationship between the Christian faith and the world religions. In particular, before the recent crimes of the Nazi regime and, in general, with a retrospective look at a long and difficult history, it was necessary to evaluate and define in a new way the relationship between the Church and the faith of Israel.

These are all subjects of great importance - they were the great themes of the second part of the Council - on which it is impossible to reflect more broadly in this context. It is clear that in all these sectors, which all together form a single problem, some kind of discontinuity might emerge. Indeed, a discontinuity had been revealed but in which, after the various distinctions between concrete historical situations and their requirements had been made, the continuity of principles proved not to have been abandoned. It is easy to miss this fact at a first glance.

It is precisely in this combination of continuity and discontinuity at different levels that the very nature of true reform consists. In this process of innovation in continuity we must learn to understand more practically than before that the Church's decisions on contingent matters - for example, certain practical forms of liberalism or a free interpretation of the Bible - should necessarily be contingent themselves, precisely because they refer to a specific reality that is changeable in itself. It was necessary to learn to recognize that in these decisions it is only the principles that express the permanent aspect, since they remain as an undercurrent, motivating decisions from within.


On the other hand, not so permanent are the practical forms that depend on the historical situation and are therefore subject to change.

Basic decisions, therefore, continue to be well-grounded, whereas the way they are applied to new contexts can change. Thus, for example, if religious freedom were to be considered an expression of the human inability to discover the truth and thus become a canonization of relativism, then this social and historical necessity is raised inappropriately to the metaphysical level and thus stripped of its true meaning. Consequently, it cannot be accepted by those who believe that the human person is capable of knowing the truth about God and, on the basis of the inner dignity of the truth, is bound to this knowledge.

It is quite different, on the other hand, to perceive religious freedom as a need that derives from human coexistence, or indeed, as an intrinsic consequence of the truth that cannot be externally imposed but that the person must adopt only through the process of conviction.

The Second Vatican Council, recognizing and making its own an essential principle of the modern State with the Decree on Religious Freedom, has recovered the deepest patrimony of the Church. By so doing she can be conscious of being in full harmony with the teaching of Jesus himself (cf. Mt 22: 21), as well as with the Church of the martyrs of all time. The ancient Church naturally prayed for the emperors and political leaders out of duty (cf. I Tm 2: 2); but while she prayed for the emperors, she refused to worship them and thereby clearly rejected the religion of the State.

The martyrs of the early Church died for their faith in that God who was revealed in Jesus Christ, and for this very reason they also died for freedom of conscience and the freedom to profess one's own faith - a profession that no State can impose but which, instead, can only be claimed with God's grace in freedom of conscience. A missionary Church known for proclaiming her message to all peoples must necessarily work for the freedom of the faith. She desires to transmit the gift of the truth that exists for one and all.

At the same time, she assures peoples and their Governments that she does not wish to destroy their identity and culture by doing so, but to give them, on the contrary, a response which, in their innermost depths, they are waiting for - a response with which the multiplicity of cultures is not lost but instead unity between men and women increases and thus also peace between peoples.

The Second Vatican Council, with its new definition of the relationship between the faith of the Church and certain essential elements of modern thought, has reviewed or even corrected certain historical decisions, but in this apparent discontinuity it has actually preserved and deepened her inmost nature and true identity.

The Church, both before and after the Council, was and is the same Church, one, holy, catholic and apostolic, journeying on through time; she continues "her pilgrimage amid the persecutions of the world and the consolations of God", proclaiming the death of the Lord until he comes (cf. Lumen Gentium, n. 8).

Those who expected that with this fundamental "yes" to the modern era all tensions would be dispelled and that the "openness towards the world" accordingly achieved would transform everything into pure harmony, had underestimated the inner tensions as well as the contradictions inherent in the modern epoch.

They had underestimated the perilous frailty of human nature which has been a threat to human progress in all the periods of history and in every historical constellation. These dangers, with the new possibilities and new power of man over matter and over himself, did not disappear but instead acquired new dimensions: a look at the history of the present day shows this clearly.

In our time too, the Church remains a "sign that will be opposed" (Lk 2: 34) - not without reason did Pope John Paul II, then still a Cardinal, give this title to the theme for the Spiritual Exercises he preached in 1976 to Pope Paul VI and the Roman Curia. The Council could not have intended to abolish the Gospel's opposition to human dangers and errors.

On the contrary, it was certainly the Council's intention to overcome erroneous or superfluous contradictions in order to present to our world the requirement of the Gospel in its full greatness and purity.

The steps the Council took towards the modern era which had rather vaguely been presented as "openness to the world", belong in short to the perennial problem of the relationship between faith and reason that is re-emerging in ever new forms. The situation that the Council had to face can certainly be compared to events of previous epochs.

In his First Letter, St Peter urged Christians always to be ready to give an answer (apo-logia) to anyone who asked them for the logos, the reason for their faith (cf. 3: 15).

This meant that biblical faith had to be discussed and come into contact with Greek culture and learn to recognize through interpretation the separating line but also the convergence and the affinity between them in the one reason, given by God.

When, in the 13th century through the Jewish and Arab philosophers, Aristotelian thought came into contact with Medieval Christianity formed in the Platonic tradition and faith and reason risked entering an irreconcilable contradiction, it was above all St Thomas Aquinas who mediated the new encounter between faith and Aristotelian philosophy, thereby setting faith in a positive relationship with the form of reason prevalent in his time. There is no doubt that the wearing dispute between modern reason and the Christian faith, which had begun negatively with the Galileo case, went through many phases, but with the Second Vatican Council the time came when broad new thinking was required.

Its content was certainly only roughly traced in the conciliar texts, but this determined its essential direction, so that the dialogue between reason and faith, particularly important today, found its bearings on the basis of the Second Vatican Council.

This dialogue must now be developed with great openmindedness but also with that clear discernment that the world rightly expects of us in this very moment. Thus, today we can look with gratitude at the Second Vatican Council:  if we interpret and implement it guided by a right hermeneutic, it can be and can become increasingly powerful for the ever necessary renewal of the Church.

General Audience

Oct. 10, 2012

This is the eve of the day on which we shall be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council and the beginning of the Year of Faith. With this Catechesis I would like, with a few brief thoughts, to start reflecting on the important Church event which the Council was and which I witnessed directly. It lies before us like a great fresco, so to speak, painted with the great multiplicity and variety of its elements under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And as if we were standing in front of a large picture, still today we continue to perceive the extraordinary wealth of that moment of grace, to discover in it particular scenes, fragments and pieces of the mosaic.

On the threshold of the third millennium Blessed John Paul II wrote: “I feel more than ever in duty bound to point to the Council as the great grace bestowed on the Church in the 20th century: there we find a sure compass by which to take our bearings in the century now beginning” (Apostolic Letter, Novo Millennio Ineunte, n. 57). I think this is an eloquent image. The Second Vatican Council Documents, to which we must return, freeing them from a mass of publications which instead of making them known have often concealed them, are a compass in our time too that permits the Barque of the Church to put out into the deep in the midst of storms or on calm and peaceful waves, to sail safely and to reach her destination.

I remember that period well: I was a young professor of fundamental theology at the University of Bonn and it was Cardinal Frings, Archbishop of Cologne — my human and priestly reference point — who took me with him to Rome as his theological consultant; I was then also appointed a Council peritus. It was a unique experience for me: after all the excitement and enthusiasm of the preparations, I could see a living Church — almost 3,000 Council Fathers under the leadership of the Successor of the Apostle Peter — which set herself to learn at the school of the Holy Spirit, the true driving force of the Council. Only rarely in history has it been possible, as it was then, almost “to touch”, to feel tangibly the universality of the Church at a moment of the great fulfilment of her mission to take the Gospel in every epoch to the ends of the earth. In these days, if you look at the pictures of the opening of this great assembly, on television or via the other means of communication, you too will be able to discern the joy, hope and encouragement that participation in this event of light, which shines to this day, gave to us all.

In the history of the Church, as I think you know, various Councils preceded Vatican II. These great ecclesial assemblies were usually convoked to define fundamental elements of faith, above all to correct errors which endangered it. Let us think of the Council of Nicea, held in 325 to oppose the Arian heresy and to reassert clearly the divinity of the Only-Begotten Son of God the Father; or of the Council of Ephesus, in 431, that defined Mary as the Mother of God; of the Council of Chalcedon, in 451, that affirmed the one Person of Christ in two natures, the divine nature and the human. To come a little closer to us, we must mention the Council of Trent in the 16th century that clarified essential points of Catholic doctrine in the face of the Protestant Reformation; or the First Vatican Council that began to reflect on various topics but — because it was interrupted by the occupation of Rome in September 1870 — only had time to produce two documents, one on knowledge of God, the revelation, faith and the relationship with reason, and the other on the primacy of the Pope and on his infallibility.

If we look at the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, we see that in that stretch of the Church’s journey there were no particular errors of faith to correct or condemn, nor were there any specific questions of doctrine or discipline to explain. It is thus possible to understand the surprise of the small group of cardinals in the Chapter Hall of the Benedictine monastery of St Paul Outside-the-Walls when, on 25 January 1959, Blessed John XXIII, announced the Diocesan Synod for Rome and the Council for the universal Church. The first question that arose in the preparation of this great event was, precisely, how to begin it and what specific task to attribute to it. Blessed John XXIII issued a general instruction, in his opening Discourse on 11 October 50 years ago: faith had to speak in a “renewed” and more incisive way — because the world was rapidly changing — but all the while keeping its perennial content intact, without concessions or compromises. The Pope wished the Church to reflect on her faith, on the truth that guides her. However, this serious, in-depth reflection on faith, was to delineate in a new way the relationship between the Church and the modern epoch, between Christianity and certain essential elements of modern thought, not in order to be conformed to it but to present to this world of ours, that is tending to drift away from God, the requirement of the Gospel in its full greatness and purity (cf. Discourse to the Roman Curia for the Exchange of Christmas Greetings, 22 December 2005).

The Servant of God Paul VI expressed this well in his homily at the end of the last Council session — on 7 December 1965 — using extraordinarily modern words, when he said that to appreciate this event properly: “it is necessary to remember the time in which it was realized”. In fact, the Pope said “it took place at a time which everyone admits is orientated toward the conquest of the kingdom of earth rather than of that of heaven; a time in which forgetfulness of God has become habitual, and seems, quite wrongly, to be prompted by the progress of science; a time in which the fundamental act of the human person, more conscious now of himself and of his freedom, tends to pronounce in favour of his own absolute autonomy, in emancipation from every transcendent law; a time in which secularism seems the legitimate consequence of modern thought and the highest wisdom in the temporal ordering of society.... It was at such a time as this that our Council was held to the honour of God, in the name of Christ and under the impulse of the Spirit”.

This is what Paul VI said. And he ended by identifying the key point of the Council, God, who “is — and more, he is real, he lives, a personal, provident God, infinitely good; and not only good in himself, but also immeasurably good to us. He is recognized as our Creator, our truth, our happiness; so much so that the effort to look on him, and to centre our heart in him which we call contemplation, is the highest, the most perfect act of the human spirit, the act which even today can and must be at the apex of all human activity from which human beings receive their dignity” (cf. AAS 58 [1966], 52-53).

We see that the era in which we live continues to be marked by forgetting and being deaf to God. I think, therefore, that we should learn the simplest and most fundamental lesson of the Council: namely, that Christianity in its essence consists of faith in God which is Trinitarian Love, and in a personal and community encounter with Christ who orients and gives meaning to life. Everything else flows from this. What is as important today as it was for the Council Fathers is that we see — once again, and clearly — that God is present, concerns us and responds to us. And when, instead, man lacks faith in God, the essential collapses because man loses his profound dignity and what makes his humanity great enough to withstand any form of reductionism. The Council reminds us that the Church in all her members, has the task, the mandate of transmitting God’s word of love which saves, so that we may hear and welcome the divine call which contains in itself our eternal beatitude.

Looking in this light at the riches contained in the documents of the Second Vatican Council, I would like to mention only the four Constitutions, as it were, the four cardinal points of the compass that can direct us. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium points out to us that in the Church at the beginning there is worship, there is God, there is the centrality of the mystery of Christ’s presence. And the Church, the Body of Christ and the pilgrim people in time, has the glorification of God as her fundamental task, as the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium explains. The third document I want to mention is the Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum: the living Word of God convokes the Church and never fails to enliven her as she journeys on through history. And the way in which the Church brings to the whole world the light she has received from God so that he may be glorified is the basic theme of the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes.

The Second Vatican Council is a strong appeal to us to rediscover every day the beauty of our faith, to know it deeply for a more intense relationship with the Lord, in order to live our Christian vocation to the full. May the Virgin Mary, Mother of Christ and of the whole Church, help us to achieve and to bring to completion what the Council Fathers, motivated by the Holy Spirit, pondered in their hearts: the desire that all might know the Gospel and encounter the Lord Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Many thanks.

 
 

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