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Part II.1: The Hermeneutic of Continuity

By Jeremy Hausotter

Oct. 3, 2020

Table of Contents

0. Introduction

1. The Hermeneutic of Continuity

1.1. John XXIII’s Speech Opening the Council

1.2. Paul VI on the Council’s Continuity
          1.2.1. Ecclesiam Suam on Continuity
          1.2.2. Ecclesiam Suam and the Meaning of Reform
          1.2.3. The Liturgy as an Example of this Reform
          1.2.4. Paul VI’s Closing Address
          1.2.5 Paul VI’s Letter to Lefebvre
1.3. Reform against Isms and the Antimodernistic Neurosis
          1.3.1. The Example of Dignitatis Humanae
1.4. Other Statements on Continuity within the Vatican II Texts
1.5. The Post-Conciliar Church
          1.5.1. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
          1.5.2. The Extraordinary Synod of 1985

0. Introduction[1]

For anyone who has taken even the smallest peek into the subject matter of Vatican II knows that one of the major debates surrounding the Council is how to faithfully interpret Vatican II according to the tradition (or whether this is even possible)? Does Vatican II represent a continuity or discontinuity when we look back upon the great Catholic Tradition, or perhaps both? On the macro level, is Vatican II fundamentally at odds with previous Catholic Tradition or is it continuous with it? This is perhaps the fundamental question to ask about the Council. These types of questions revolves around whether one adopts a hermeneutics of continuity or rupture, and within each hermeneutical option is an array of opinions.

One could adopt a view in favor of continuity such that the continuity of Vatican II is over-emphasized to such an extent that the Council’s teachings are understood as adding nothing new to the Magisterium’s teachings, effectively stripping the “newness” character from them and ignores the historical facts concerning the Church’s struggles against modernism. One could adopt another view that also asserts there is continuity but also reform, macrocontinuity in matters of faith and morals with microruptures in the reforms of the Church the Council proposed. These microruptures I will claim are the result of a renewal of the Church breaking away from some historical practices and a change in weltanschauung or denkformen.

Those who adopt a hermeneutics of rupture or discontinuity make for strange bedfellows. One the one hand, there are those who represent an extreme progressive wing within the Church that interpret the reforms of Vatican II as a rupture from the pre-Conciliar Church. These progressive reformers understand the project of Vatican II as incomplete, arguing that the Council did not go far enough in its reforms; and so these reformers propagated a progressive “spirit of the Council” zeitgeist far removed from the original spirit and letter of the Council itself. Some in fact, such as Edward Schillebeeckx, go so far as to claim that the very modernism vehemently rejected by the Magisterium prior to Vatican II actually follows from the true “spirit” and teachings of the Council.[2]

On the other hand, there are those who equally interpret Vatican II as a rupture but take this hermeneutic in the opposite direction in favor of the pre-Conciliar Magisterium as representing “true Catholicism” and oppose the “liberalism” or “modernism” of Vatican II. These thinkers see themselves as the true bearers of Catholic tradition and err towards an extreme conservatism and traditionalism (such as the SSPX). Notice that there is a general pattern where a number of thinkers from the radical left and right who both accept Vatican II as teaching and promoting modernism.

The progressives favor the future Church over the present Church and while being especially against the Church of the past, whereas the traditionalists pit the Church of the past against the present Church. Both schools, in dialectically opposing ways, reject the Church of the present in light of a future-oriented program. The progressives want a new future disconnected from the Church’s history and the traditionalists seek to reform the Church in terms of an anachronistic past. For both schools the present Church represents an entity of foreign identity to each’s pure eidos of what the Church ought to be, and hence strive to implement their projects accordingly to their own image.

What is affirmed here in this essay in opposition to the progressive and traditionalist approaches is the principle that “No council is to be interpreted as fundamentally against the ecclesial tradition.”[3] It will be argued that Vatican II is best interpreted in terms of a macrocontinuity in respect to the deposit of faith and authority, and microrupture in terms of renewal and restoration. Our first task aims at outlining the hermeneutic of continuity according to the teachings of the Magisterium.

1. The Hermeneutic of Continuity

1.1. John XXIII’s Speech Opening the Council

In John XXIII’s speech opening the first session of the Second Vatican Council he outlines the purpose and plan for the Council. The main task of the Council is identified as: “the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously.”[4] This new more effective way is required due to the demands of modernity with its new situations, entailing a need for a new way of announcing the kergyma. This new way is to be defined by renewal.[5]

This renewal in John XXIII’s vision presupposes continuity. He emphasizes that the doctrines Vatican II is about to investigate and propose to the world “should never depart from the sacred patrimony of truth received from the Fathers.”[6] A little later on he states:

The manner in which sacred doctrine is spread, this having been established, it becomes clear how much is expected from the Council in regard to doctrine. That is, the Twenty-first Ecumenical Council, which will draw upon the effective and important wealth of juridical, liturgical, apostolic, and administrative experiences, wishes to transmit the doctrine, pure and integral, without any attenuation or distortion, which throughout twenty centuries, notwithstanding difficulties and contrasts, has become the common patrimony of men.[7]

This new way of examining the faith by the Council is to “transmit the doctrine, pure and integral”. Recall that integral means whole. The whole deposit of faith is to be transmitted in a new way that stands in continuity with previous Councils, in “tranquil adherence to all the teaching of the Church in its entirety and preciseness, as it still shines forth in the Acts of the Council of Trent and First Vatican Council.”[8]

This new way retains the truth of the faith for Catholic doctrine is certain and immutable, but this does not mean that our understanding of this inheritance cannot be deepened and examined more fully. Modernity demands such a deepening. The truths are the same but how they are announced is different while retaining the same meaning of those truths. As John XIII stated: “The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another.”[9] The truth of a teaching cannot change, but we can penetrate its content deeper so as to be able to express it better and to address the man of every age. This is the core idea of renewal.

For John XXIII, the defining practice of this new way of addressing modernity is not to condemn errors as in the manner of past Councils but to apply the “medicine of mercy” and more clearly expose the value of the Catholic faith and its truths, to propose truths, not impose. The concern of the Council is in the promotion and protection of truth to give Christ to all of mankind. In the words of John XXIII, Vatican II is to raise “the torch of religious truth…”[10]

1.2. Paul VI on the Council’s Continuity

John XXIII believed that the Second Vatican Council would usher in a new Pentecost within the Church. In Part I of this series on Vatican II hermeneutics we have shown that John XXIII clearly believed that the Holy Spirit would help guide the process and teachings of the Council. Was the Council successful though? John XXIII certainly believed that the Council would successfully present the deposit of faith in continuity. The question thus becomes, after John XXIII died, was Vatican II in continuity with the Church of the past or did “progressives” hijack the Council? After John XXIII’s death, Paul VI was elected as his successor and continued the Council’s work to its end. Paul VI shared John XXIII’s belief that the Council’s teaching stood in continuity with Sacred Tradition.

1.2.1. Ecclesiam Suam on Continuity

Paul VI’s encyclical Ecclesiam Suam was published while Vatican II was still in session. The task of the Council is, according to the encyclical, “dealing once more with the doctrine de Ecclesia and of defining it, that it has been called the continuation and complement of the First Vatican Council.”[11] There are three conclusions we can take from this sentence: 1) the Council intends to define doctrine; 2) this new doctrine is in continuity with previous teachings with Vatican I particularly mentioned; and 3) Vatican II is understood as continuing and complementing the doctrine of Vatican I. Vatican I was interrupted due to the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war and remained an unfinished Council. Vatican II hence in some respect is supposed to finish where Vatican I left off. Joseph Ratzinger likewise made a similar statement: “Both Trent and Vatican Council I set up bulwarks for the faith to assure it and to protect it; Vatican Council II turned itself to a new task, building on the work of the two previous Councils.”[12]

The first conclusion that Vatican II intended to define doctrine is a surprising one for many today since many Catholics are under the impression that Vatican II in effect did not define any doctrine, a topic which deserves its own special treatment. We will only note that Paul VI clearly understands the opposite of this false impression.[13] It should not be a surprise given that Dignitatis Humanae explicitly claims to develop new doctrine.[14]

Elsewhere in the encyclical Paul VI explicitly links this task of developing and penetrating more fully the “teachings of Christ” with the “help and light of the Holy Spirit”. The success of the Council rests upon “our readiness to follow His inspirations.”[15]

1.2.2. Ecclesiam Suam and the Meaning of Reform

The continuity of Vatican II is itself a continuity of reform. Ecumenical Councils not only define doctrine and crush heresies but also reform the Church. Vatican II is identified as a Council of reform. Paul VI writes:

How often in past centuries has the determination to instigate reforms been associated with the holding of ecumenical councils! Let it be so once more; but this time not with a view to removing any specific heresies concerning the Church, or to remedying any public disorders — for disorders of this sort have not, thank God, raised their head in our midst — but rather with a view to infusing fresh spiritual vigor into Christ's Mystical Body considered as a visible society, and to purifying it from the defects of many of its members and urging it on to the attainment of new virtue.[16]

The question now arises as to what kind of reform does Vatican II promote? Paul VI gives us some guidelines as to how this reform is to take place. First, this reform does not involve changing the essence of the Church or her structure. Paul VI explicitly rejects such an interpretation.

Obviously, there can be no question of reforming the essential nature of the Church or its basic and necessary structure. To use the word reform in that context would be to misuse it completely.[17]

This reform here entails a grave responsibility to guard the deposit of faith.[18]

The reform of Vatican II hence is not about changing doctrine or the Church’s essence but preserving the features Christ has impressed upon the Church. A better word for this reforming is restoration. The concern of Vatican II is the restoration of the Church to its original image.

In this context, therefore, when we speak about reform we are not concerned to change things, but to preserve all the more resolutely the characteristic features which Christ has impressed on His Church. Or rather, we are concerned to restore to the Church that ideal of perfection and beauty that corresponds to its original image, and that is at the same time consistent with its necessary, normal and legitimate growth from its original, embryonic form into its present structure.[19]

Ratzinger described this restoration similarly as a renewal where the measure is Christ and the objective:

But the measure of the renewal is Christ, as scripture witnesses him. And if the renewal seeks to think through and to speak the Gospel of Christ in a way understandable to contemporary man - i.e. in a contemporary fashion (aggiornamento means bringing up to date), then the objective is precisely that Christ may become understood.[20]

The restoration of the Church, however, has its dangers, namely, that some who think that this reformation should entail adapting the Church to the ways of the secular world or in light of philosophies and theologies incompatible with the Catholic faith. Those who are not rooted in the Church’s faith and laws face the temptation to adjust the Church according to the world’s standard of living. To avoid this danger requires a strengthening of faith rooted in the Church.[21] Catholics must remember that “We must be in the world, but not of it.”[22]

1.2.3. The Liturgy as an Example of this Reform

One example of how Vatican II reformed the Church was the constitution on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium. For now the debates surrounding the liturgy, the post-conciliar abuses, and the question of the Novus Ordo “versus” the Traditional Latin Mass are bracketed aside as too complex of an issue for our purposes here. Instead I want to focus precisely on how the Council Fathers of Vatican II understood the liturgical reforms within Sacrosanctum Concilium.

Joseph Ratzinger at the time of Vatican II was a peritus, a theological advisor, and participated in all four sessions of the Council. His reflections of the Council can be found in Theological Highlights of Vatican II. According to him, the debates on the liturgy freed the Church “from the ‘hierarchical narrowness’ of the previous hundred years, and returned to its sacramental origins.”[23] Some historical accretions had to be pruned. “The return to the sources was to have its effect especially in the Mass liturgy. Ritual rigidity, which almost obliterated the meaning of individual actions, had to be defrosted.”[24] Cardinal Frings in the debates on Sacrosanctum Concilium located the renewal of the liturgy within the developing liturgical renewal within the papacy itself (as Pius X had started some reforms which Pius XII continued), stating that: “The schema before us is like the last will and testament of Pius XII, who, following in the footsteps of Saint Pius X, boldly began a renewal of the sacred liturgy.”[25]

Fruits of this reform, according to Ratzinger,  include priority given to the Sunday liturgy over saints’ feast days, the restoration of the liturgy of the word, liturgy understood as dialogical, emphasis on community Masses over private, a revival of the homily, rearrangement of Scripture readings to enhance their liturgical accessibility, vernacular Masses, and more.[26]

The historian Guiseppe Alberigo, author and editor of the five volume History of Vatican II likewise share’s Ratzinger’s interpretation of the liturgical changes implemented by Vatican II. He wrote:

And, in fact, the constitution Sacrosanctum concilium was inspired by the great ancient liturgical tradition that had been revived and mediated by decades of experience of the liturgical movement. The notion people sometimes have that Vatican II set out in a radically new direction springs from a hasty and superficial reading that mistakes the return to the ancient liturgical practices for subversive innovation. Reviving the active participation of the faithful instead of reducing liturgies to dry and remote ritualism was anything but an innovation![27]

1.2.4. Paul VI’s Closing Address

Paul VI’s Address closing the Second Vatican Council proposes some hermeneutics for understanding the Council. He speaks about how Vatican II is a study of man in modernity, that the parable of the Good Samaritan is the model of spirituality for the Council, the Holy Spirit's involvement, and that the richness of the Council’s texts flow directly from contact with the living God.[28] Paul VI also teaches within this address that Vatican II’s teachings are in continuity and faithful to the deposit of faith.

This council hands over to posterity not only the image of the Church but also the patrimony of her doctrine and of her commandments, the "deposit" received from Christ and meditated upon through centuries, lived and expressed now and clarified in so many of its parts, settled and arranged in its integrity.[29]

Later on Paul VI quotes John XXIII’s words from his speech on the opening of the Council again reaffirming the Council’s continuity.[30]

1.2.5 Paul VI’s Letter to Lefebvre

Later on, some interpreters, such as Marcel Lefebvre, came to see Vatican II as a modernistic innovation. Between Lefebvre and the Church dialogue was initiated to try and reconcile differences. On Oct. 11, 1976, Paul VI wrote a letter to Marcel Lefebvre, who started the SSPX schism, warning him of disciplinary action. In that letter Paul VI addressed the question concerning the validity of Vatican II. His wrote:

Nothing that was decreed in this Council, or in the reforms that We enacted in order to put the Council into effect, is opposed to what the two-thousand-year-old Tradition of the Church considers as fundamental and immutable. We are the guarantor of this, not in virtue of Our personal qualities but in virtue of the charge which the Lord has conferred upon Us as legitimate Successor of Peter, and in virtue of the special assistance that He has promised to Us as well as to Peter: "I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail" (Lk 22:32). The universal episcopate is guarantor with Us of this.

Here Paul VI is again affirming the authority of Vatican II, invoking his power as Pope assisted by the Holy Spirit.

1.3. Reform against Isms and the Antimodernistic Neurosis

The brief discussion of the liturgy, as an example of continuity and reform, is an element of the wider project of Vatican II to re-present the faith in a new way while retaining its immutable truths. There is macrocontinuity and microruptures. Many of the microruptures involved breaking away with practices that developed out of the medieval and post-Tridentine period. Alberigo remarked that:

A comparison of the texts of the preparatory schemas with the documents finally accepted helps us measure the substantial continuity with Christian tradition as understood in Catholicism, but also the discontinuity with the Catholicism of the medieval Christian centuries and post-Tridentine period. No substantial novelties emerged, but an effort was made (even if not always satisfactory) to restate the ancient faith in language intelligible to contemporary humanity and freed of the more or less parasitical encrustations that had hardened in place over the centuries.[31]

Since the time of Pius IX and Pius X, Ratzinger observes, a sort of antimodernistic neurosis had settled within Catholic thought. The Syllabus of Errors in a way inaugurated an era within Catholicism that opposed itself to whatever was “modern”, thus creating a sort of neurosis in Catholic thinking. This generated a “secret fear and mistrust of any theological expression of modern historical and philosophical thought.”[32]

The Second Vatican Council was announced in 1959 and three years of intense scholarly research went into drafting preliminary schemata by the Curia. These schemata represented this neurosis according to Ratzinger. They were written as a “line of defense”, suffering “cramped thinking” with a “theology of negations and prohibitions…”[33] The early debates of the first session of Vatican II rejected this approach. Sacrosanctum Concilium, the first document passed by the Council, represented a break with this pattern of “anti-isms” and defensive posture to undertake “a Christian offensive”.[34]

The primary debate in the first session was perhaps not on the liturgy or first drafts of what became Dei Verbum, but rather what attitude of mind would guide the Council. Would it be an attitude of distrust and defense against modernity or a breaking away from a mindset that dominated Catholic thought for 100 years, and arguably since Trent? Vatican II became a new beginning for the Church precisely because the Council Fathers decided to break away from this attitude while remaining in continuity with the Tradition.[35] “The Council had resolutely set itself against perpetuating a one-sided anti-Modernism and so had chosen a new and positive approach.”[36] Alberigo stated the matter more forcefully. This rejection of the post-Tridentine attitude in addition to the belief that fidelity to tradition required a renewal in understanding the deposit of faith is the cause and purpose of Vatican II.[37]

What the Council brought home to the Church was the need of realizing without delay that Christianity had finished its tridentine age and must henceforth break new ground and take new forms. Vatican II saw that if a creative response was to be possible, that is, a response arising out of renewed fidelity to the gospel, the Church must shake off its inertia and realize that the walls surrounding the Christian citadel had fallen and that further resistance would be oppression rather than self-defense.[38]

For some it is precisely this reform that was labeled progressive because it was new and a source of distrust. It is a mislabeled characterization because the term “progressive” has been often associated with the more liberal interpretations of Vatican II that attempted reforms which went far beyond what the texts and Council Fathers themselves intended. The Council Fathers intended something else from such a progressivism: a return to the sources to engage modernity in a mode or style similar to the Patristic Fathers. This “progressive” attitude in breaking away with the scholastic method represents both a progressivism and conservatism, a microrupture and macrocontinuity. The historian John O’Malley concluded that the “progressives” argued:

That their positions were more conservative than those of the conservatives because they were retrievals of traditions fundamental and ancient. His Beatitude Maximos IV Saigh articulated this basic premise more clearly than any other figure at the council. He was the most daring progressive because he was the most radically conservative. His interventions consistently invoked ancient traditions of the church to challenge the status quo, and he thus opened up for the council fathers a new breadth in the choices they had to make.[39]

This “conservativism” of the “progressives” did not involve a separation of the post-Tridentine period from the conciliar teachings of Vatican II however. Ormund Rush notes, for example, that Trent and Vatican I make up half of the references to Ecumenical Councils, and in terms of papal teachings, Pius XII is referenced 50% of the time.[40] Yves Congar gives numbers behind these claims.[41] There are 93 quotations from prior Councils, of which 21 are from Trent and 24 from Vatican I. There are also 201 quotes or references from 92 acts of Pius XII.

When we look back at the 19th and 20th centuries on the Church’s war against Modernism, a subtle distinction needs to be made. The Popes and Churchmen of these times made a valiant and heroic stand against the heresies which arose. The Church needed a defense. This was a historical necessity at the time (which Ratzinger acknowledged).[42] The problem, however, is that this generated suspicion of anything modern or new. It became easy to claim “modern” ideas are modernist and it is this confusion of all things modern with modernism which instilled into some theologians a sort of neurosis against all things modern. It became their pattern or way of thinking and intellectual behavior.

It was this particular problem theologians like Ratzinger and Congar took issue with, for as Ratzinger put it, it was time for the Church to end this siege mentality and begin an assault of proposing truths to man in a new manner through Vatican II. The Council became a clash of two weltanschauung or denkformen[43], one which distrusted modernity and favored a highly philosophical scholastic approach that was largely represented by the Roman Curia, and a second way that sought engagement with the world through the encounter with the original sources of faith, Scripture and early traditions of the Church represented by those who sought a more pastoral and ecumenical approach such as what John XXIII announced.[44]

At this point we have found that the Council Fathers and Vatican II Popes understand the Council to be in continuity with Sacred Tradition and the previous Ecumenical Councils. We now turn to the Vatican II documents themselves to see what they say for themselves concerning continuity and rupture. We will begin with Dignitatis Humanae.

1.3.1. The Example of Dignitatis Humanae

Dignitatis Humanae is a controversial teaching for many Catholics who lean towards the traditionalist spectrum of Church politics. It appears on the surface to be in contradiction with the 19th century condemnations on religious freedom (when it really is not and I refer the reader my Commentary on Dignitatis Humanae  Parts I, II, and IV especially). What is important for our purposes here is the fact that the conciliar text understands its teachings to be in continuity with Church doctrine.

We read in the first article of the text, for example, that the teachings of Dignitatis Humanae “leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.”[45] The Council Fathers here explicitly claim continuity with Catholic doctrine regarding the duties towards the true religion which was developed in the 19th century papal encyclicals, the very same sources that Marcel Lefebvre and Michael Davies will appeal to in their objections to the teachings of Dignitatis Humanae.

The Council Fathers also explicitly claim to develop the teachings of recent teachings concerning the rights of man: “Over and above all this, the council intends to develop the doctrine of recent popes on the inviolable rights of the human person and the constitutional order of society.”[46] This development of doctrine, according to the text, is understood to be in continuity. In the first paragraph of the same article the Council Fathers describe themselves as searching doctrine to bring new things in continuity with previous teachings: “To this end, it [Vatican II] searches into the sacred tradition and doctrine of the Church — the treasury out of which the Church continually brings forth new things that are in harmony with the things that are old.”[47]

The conciliar text, while claiming continuity, resulted in microruptures in Church practice. The 19th century papacy denied religious freedom vehemently (as it should since the rejected notion was grounded in relativism), whereas now the papacy ardently defended religious freedom (especially the pontificate of John Paul II) as defined in Dignitatis Humanae (which is not grounded in the same principles of the condemned views of religious freedom from the 19th century). This global defense of religious freedom entailed a change in how the Church saw herself in relation to world politics and governments.

These practices resulted in the abandonment of the concordant system in Church-state policy making.[48] Different state governments rewrote parts of their constitutions to include statements granting religious freedom, even in Catholic dominant countries such as Spain and Italy, at the request of the Vatican. John Paul II’s defense and promotion of religious liberty, it can be argued, resulted in the collapse of the Soviet Union.[49] The political revolution in communist Poland, for example, was not a violent movement utilizing force but a religious one inspired by truths concerning man, his rights and destiny.

1.4. Other Statements on Continuity within the Vatican II Texts

Dignitatis Humanae is not the only text which declared its continuity with Tradition. We read for example in Gaudium et Spes 58 that the Council’s teachings on evangelization and contact with other cultures are consistent with previous Catholic teachings.

But at the same time, the Church, sent to all peoples of every time and place, is not bound exclusively and indissolubly to any race or nation, any particular way of life or any customary way of life recent or ancient. Faithful to her own tradition and at the same time conscious of her universal mission, she can enter into communion with the various civilizations, to their enrichment and the enrichment of the Church herself.[50]

The very first article of Lumen Gentium likewise states that the Council intends its fidelity to previous councils:

Since the Church is in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race, it desires now to unfold more fully to the faithful of the Church and to the whole world its own inner nature and universal mission. This it intends to do following faithfully the teaching of previous councils.[51]

Dei Verbum  likewise appeals to continuity. In the first article the Council explicitly identifies itself as teaching “authentic doctrine” continuous with Vatican I and Trent.

Therefore, following in the footsteps of the Council of Trent and of the First Vatican Council, this present council wishes to set forth authentic doctrine on divine revelation and how it is handed on, so that by hearing the message of salvation the whole world may believe, by believing it may hope, and by hoping it may love.[52]

Citing Lateran V, Unitatis Redintegratio states “Every renewal of the Church is essentially grounded in an increase of fidelity to her own calling.”[53]

Sacrosanctum Concilium likewise states its intentions to be continuous with Catholic Tradition and does so multiple times. We saw previously that the liturgical reforms promulgated by the Council are supposed to be understood as a return to traditional practices according to authorities such as Ratzinger and Alberigo. The conciliar text itself likewise makes this claim. We read in article 4 two such appeals: 1) tradition is appealed to in the Council’s declaration that each rite is of equal dignity and right; 2) the revision of rites needs to be done in light of tradition.

Lastly, in faithful obedience to tradition, the sacred Council declares that holy Mother Church holds all lawfully acknowledged rites to be of equal right and dignity; that she wishes to preserve them in the future and to foster them in every way. The Council also desires that, where necessary, the rites be revised carefully in the light of sound tradition, and that they be given new vigor to meet the circumstances and needs of modern times.[54]

In section 23 on norms for the reform of the liturgy the Council explicitly identified that “sound tradition” needs to be a guiding principle for such renewal.[55] Tradition needs to be retained and a source of inspiration for reform. And we see this when the Vatican II text proposes its reforms.

In Chapter IV on The Divine Office Sacrosanctum Concilium cites tradition five times for its renewal.[56] The next chapter on The Liturgical Year likewise cites tradition three more times for its source of inspiration of renewal.[57] Tradition is also cited in the reforms on Sacred Music.[58]

The Decree on the Catholic Churches of the Eastern Rite, Orientalium Ecclesiarum, likewise looks to tradition for its teachings and renewal. In the teachings on the eastern rite patriarchs tradition is cited twice when the Council teaches that the rights and privileges of the patriarchs are to be re-established.[59]

1.5. The Post-Conciliar Church

We have seen, before and during the Council, that Vatican II understood itself to be in continuity with Tradition and previous Ecumenical Councils. There is macrocontinuity while microruptures in favor of reform, restoration, and renewal where there were attitudes and practices which inhibited the exercise of Catholicism in a more full manner. This was why there was, for example, a liturgical renewal within the Council and a break from the antimodernistic approach characterized by 19th and early 20th century Magisterium. The post-conciliar Magisterium likewise interpreted Vatican II to be within continuity.

1.5.1. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

Just months after the Council closed the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (CDF) under Cardinal Ottaviani issued a letter concerning how to interpret Vatican II. In this letter the CDF affirms that Vatican II taught with authority all that had been proposed or decreed, and this was done under the influence of the Holy Spirit in the universal assembly of bishops with the Pope presiding over.

Since the recent successful conclusion of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, many wise Documents have been promulgated, both in doctrinal and disciplinary matters, in order to efficaciously promote the life of the Church. All of the people of God are bound by the grave duty to strive with all diligence to put into effect all that has been solemnly proposed or decreed, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, by the universal assembly of the bishops presided over by the Supreme Pontiff.[60]

1.5.2. The Extraordinary Synod of 1985

The Extraordinary Synod of 1985 was convoked 20 years after Vatican II in order to assess, verify, promote and reexperience the Council, its Spirit and collegiality.[61] The Synod twice affirms that the Second Vatican Council is faithful to the deposit of faith:

Unanimously and joyfully we also verify that the Council is a legitimate and valid expression and interpretation of the deposit of faith as it is found in Sacred Scripture and in the living tradition of the Church. Therefore we are determined to progress further along the path indicated to us by the Council.[62]

The second affirmation of the Council’s continuity is in the section on hermeneutics for interpreting the Council:

Moreover, the Council must be understood in continuity with the great tradition of the Church, and at the same time we must receive light from the Council's own doctrine for today's Church and the men of our time. The Church is one and the same throughout all the councils.[63]

The post-conciliar Magisterium here has made itself clear: Vatican II must be interpreted as in continuity with Catholic tradition and the previous Councils. Such a conclusion is shared by Avery Dulles who commented:

The Synod’s hermeneutical principles will make it clear that, notwithstanding some real shifts and developments, Vatican II is fundamentally self-consistent, stands in substantial continuity with earlier church teaching, and remains valid in its essentials for our own day.[64]

It would therefore be a definite mistake to interpret Vatican II otherwise since in doing so one is disobeying what the Magisterium has spoken concerning the proper hermeneutics for interpreting the Council. It is analogous to the case when one ignores the hermeneutical principles put forth by the Magisterium for interpreting Scripture, for doing so in either case endangers one’s faith while also disobeying the Magisterium’s authority. Vatican II is not only in continuity with the deposit of faith for as the Synod affirms, the Council “remains the ‘Magna Charta’ for the future.”[65]


[1] General references: Alan Schreck, Vatican II: The Crisis and the Promise (Servant Books, 2005). Avery Dulles, Magisterium: Teacher and Guardian of the Faith (Sapienta Press, 2007). Matthew Levering, The Reception of Vatican II (Oxford University Press, 2017). Matthew Levering, Vatican II: Renewal within Tradition (Oxford University Press, 2008). Agostino Marchetto and Kenneth D. Whitehead, The Second Vatican Ecumenical Council: A Counterpoint for the History of the Council (University of Scranton Press, 2010). Giuseppe Alberigo and Joseph A. Komonchak, History of Vatican II (Orbis Books, 1995). John W. O’Malley, What Happened at Vatican II (Harvard University Press, 2010).

[2] Cf. Daniel Speed Thompson’s The Language of Dissent. I caution the reader however since this work can undermine one’s faith given that it is an extended argument for the necessity of dissent.

[3] Otto Hermann Pesch, Das Zweite Vaticanische Konzil: Vorgeschichte-Verlauf-Nachgeschichte, 149, quoted from Ormond Rush, Still Interpreting Vatican II: Some Hermeneutical Principles (Paulist Press, 2004), 7.

[4] Address on the Occasion of the Solemn Opening of the Most Holy Council, Oct. 11, 1962. Found in The Documents of Vatican II in a New and Definitive Translation: With Commentaries and Notes by Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Authorities, Walter M. Abbott, General Editor (American Press, 1966), 712.

[5] Ibid, 715.

[6] Ibid, 714.

[7] Ibid, 715. Emphasis mine.

[8] Ibid, 715.

[9] Ibid, 715.

[10] Ibid, 716.

[11] Ecclesiam Suam 30.

[12] Joseph Ratzinger, Theological Highlights of Vatican II (Paulist Press, 1966), 23.

[13] As indicated by his words here in his encyclical and also his speech closing Vatican II for example.

[14] Cf. Dignitatis Humanae 1, also Lumen Gentium 1.

[15] “And so We are confident that the great work of the Council will continue to enjoy the help and light of the Holy Spirit, and will be brought to a successful conclusion through our readiness to follow His divine inspirations, our eagerness to inquire more fully and more deeply into the genuine teaching of Christ and its legitimate and necessary development in the course of history, and our earnest resolve to make of divine truth an argument for union, understanding, and harmony among men and not a reason for dividing them in sterile discussions and regrettable rivalries. Thus may the Council be a source of glory for God, joy for His Church, and edification for the world.” Ecclesiam Suam 32.

[16] Ibid, 44.

[17] Ibid, 46.

[18] “We hold in our possession that great heritage of truth and holiness which characterizes the Catholic Church of the present day, preserving intact the living heritage of the original apostolic tradition. That is our boast, if you like. It is rather our reason for giving thanks continually to God. It is also the reason why we feel ourselves bound by a graver responsibility before God, to whom we are accountable for so great a benefit, and before the Church in which we must arouse this same conviction together with the desire and resolve to guard this treasure, this "deposit," as St. Paul calls it.” Ibid, 46.

[19] Ibid, 47.

[20] Theological Highlights of Vatican II, 2.

[21] “We must strengthen these convictions in ourselves if we are also to avoid another danger which the desire for reform can produce, not so much in us pastors, who are restrained by the proper awareness of our sacred duty, as in many of the faithful, who think that the reform of the Church should consist principally in adapting its way of thinking and acting to the customs and temper of the modern secular world. The fascination of worldly life today is very powerful indeed, and many people regard conformity to it as an inescapable and indeed a wise course to take. Hence, those who are not deeply rooted in the faith and in the observance of the Church's laws, readily imagine that the time is ripe to adjust themselves to worldly standards of living, on the assumption that these are the best and only possible ones for a Christian to adopt.” Ecclesiam Suam 48.

[22] Ibid, 49.

[23] Theological Highlights of Vatican II, 14.

[24] Ibid, 15.

[25] Quoted from O’Malley’s What Happened at Vatican II, 133.

[26] Ibid, 14-17.

[27] History of Vatican II, vol. 5, 593.

[28] “The council documents—especially the ones on divine revelation, the liturgy, the Church, priests, Religious and the laity—leave wide open to view this primary and focal religious intention, and show how clear and fresh and rich is the spiritual stream which contact with the living God causes to well up in the heart of the Church, and flow out from it over the dry wastes of our world.” Address During the Last General Meeting of the Second Vatican Council, Dec. 7, 1965.

[29] Ibid.

[30] “Still fresh in our memory are the words uttered in this basilica by our venerated predecessor, John XXIII, whom we may in truth call the originator of this great synod. In his opening address to the council he had this to say: "The greatest concern of the ecumenical council is this: that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine be guarded and taught more effectively.... The Lord has said: 'Seek first the kingdom of God and His justice.' The word 'first' expresses the direction in which our thoughts and energies must move".” Ibid.

[31] History of Vatican II, vol. 5, 593. Elsewhere Alberigo states: “Closer examination shows that the period of Christian history involved in the phenomenon of Vatican II is much more extensive. It includes not only Vatican I (1869-70), the immediate predecessor of Vatican II, but to some extent even the Council of Trent (1544-63) insofar as it was a strictly monoconfessional and monocultural council. For Vatican II was, in contrast, “open” to the other Christian confessions and to a variety of cultural influences; it also aimed at restoring both a real subordination of ecumenical councils to the word of God and a real involvement in human history, to the point of even recognizing in this history “signs” pregnant with the gospel. To that extent, Vatican II represents a recovery of direction — neglected but not abandoned — that are profoundly embedded in Christian tradition as understood in its fullest Catholic sense.” “The Christian Situation after Vatican II” in The Reception of Vatican II, 1-2.

[32] Theological Highlights of Vatican II, 21.

[33] “The schemata of the theological commission, the first of which now law before the fathers for consideration, breathed this same spirit. The same cramped thinking, once so necessary as a line of defense, impregnated the text and informed it with a theology of negations and prohibitions; although in themselves they might well have been valid, they certainly could not produce that positive note which was now to be expected from the Council.” Ratzinger, Theological Highlights of Vatican II, 21. Emphasis mine.

[34] “The passage of the liturgy schema had given rise to a new possibility foreign to the old pattern of ‘anti-ism’ and negativity, the possibility of abandoning the defensive and really undertaking a Christian offensive.” Ibid, 22.

[35] “The real question behind the discussion could be put this way: Was the intellectual position of “anti-Modernism” - the old policy of exclusiveness, condemnation and defense leading to an almost neurotic denial of all that was new - to be continued? Or would the Church, after it had taken all the necessary precautions to protect the faith, turn over a new leaf and move on into a new and positive encounter with its own origins, with its brothers and with the world today? Since a clear majority of the fathers opted for the second alternative, we may even speak of the Council as a new beginning.” Ibid, 23.

[36] Ibid, 26. The defining moment that resulting in this break was the vote on Nov 20, 1962 where the majority of the Council Fathers and the Pope decided in favor of this new positive approach, cf. ibid 25-26. Yves Congar in his Journal quoted the following from an article “It can be said that with this vote on 20 November, the age of the Counter Reformation came to an end and that a new age, with unforeseeable consequences, was beginning for Christendom” to which Congar added two words: “Please God!” Yves Congar, M. Cecily Boulding, and Denis Minns, My Journal of the Council (Liturgical Press, 2012), Nov. 20, 1962, p. 196.

[37] Alberigo, “The Christian Situation after Vatican II” in Giuseppe Alberigo, Jean Pierre Jossua, and Joseph A. Komonchak, The Reception of Vatican II (Catholic University of America Press, 1987), 15.

[38] Ibid, 17.

[39] John O’Malley, What Happened at Vatican II, 292.

[40] Still Interpreting Vatican II, 13-14.

[41] “A Last Look at the Council” in Alberic Stacpoole, Vatican II: By Those Who Were There (Burns & Oates, 1986), 341.

[42] Cf. Theological Highlights of Vatican II, 21.

[43] Cf. Yves Congary, My Journal, Nov. 15, 1960, p. 31.

[44] Yves Congar gives his impressions of this weltanschauung clash in his Journal of a sort of battle between the Roman Curia and the pastoral approach. In the pre-conciliar preparatory phase, for example, he writes “One had the impression — confirmed by the people coming from Rome with the latest gossip from ‘that miserable court’ — that in Rome a whole team of people was applying itself to sabotaging the Pope’s project.” (p. 5) and to “monopolize… all the lines of direction and control” (p. 7) in order to “minimise the damage” (ibid). A little bit later on he wrote, “I think that the leading members of the Curia very quickly realised that, with John XXIII and his plan for a Council, they might be in for a very strange adventure, that they needed to erect fences, regain control as far as possible, and limit any possible damage.” (p. 7), to “restrict the working of the actual Council as far as possible” (p.8) such that the Council is “prefabricated in Rome” (p.8).

This same pattern continued in the first session of the Council. The Curia and the Holy Office, according to Congar, restricted academic freedom by forbidding Gregorianum students from meeting with some of the Council Observers (Nov. 18, 1962, p. 186) and recalled a conversation with a priest at the Angelicum: “He told me that, here research is absolutely impossible. As soon as a professor says, in a course, a single word that goes beyond the manuals, it is reported to the Curia and one way or another the consequences are disagreeable…” (ibid). And further in a conversation with Henri De Lubac, S.J. this same day that: “Ottaviani has informed some of the bishops that the ‘Holy Office’ both controlled and judged the Central Commission. The claim of the ‘Holy Office’ is to control and judge the Council.” (ibid, p. 187, cf. Nov. 25, 1962, p. 205).  Mgr Fenton, as an advocate of the Curia, “keeps the American bishops under surveillance, intervenes all over the place and tries to point everything along ‘Holy Office’ lines. Here in Rome, he does not give the American bishops an inch of slack, and continues to watch what they do. The American bishops are intimidated. They dare not speak. They feel inadequate as theologians.” (Nov. 25, 1962, p. 204-205). Cf. also Congar’s conversation with Ottaviani, Nov. 30, 1962, p. 221-222, and with Danielou, Dec. 4, 1962, p. 237.

[45] Dignitatis Humanae 1.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid.

[48] See Hittinger’s essay “The Declaration on Religious Liberty, Dignitatis Humanae” in Vatican II: Renewal within Tradition. One of the conclusions of this essay is precisely that Dignitatis Humanae found a way for the Church to deal with states in a language and framework accessible to them which the concordant system failed to deliver, 374-375.

[49] I refer the interested reader to George Weigel, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (Harper Collins, 2005) for the historical data concerning this claim.

[50] Gaudium et Spes 58.

[51] Lumen Gentium 1.

[52] Dei Verbum 1.

[53] Unitatis Redintegratio 6.

[54] Sacrosanctum Concilium 4.

[55] “That sound tradition may be retained, and yet the way remain open to legitimate progress careful investigation is always to be made into each part of the liturgy which is to be revised.” Ibid, 23.

[56] Sacrosanctum Concilium 84, 88, 89a, 91, 101.1.

[57] Ibid, 105, 106, 107.

[58] Ibid, 112.

[59] “By the most ancient tradition of the Church the patriarchs of the Eastern Churches are to be accorded special honor, seeing that each is set over his patriarchate as father and head. This Sacred Council, therefore, determines that their rights and privileges should be re-established in accordance with the ancient tradition of each of the Churches and the decrees of the ecumenical councils.” Orientalium Ecclesiarum 9.

[60] Circular Letter to the Presidents of Episcopal Conferences regarding some sentences and errors arising from the interpretation of the decrees of the Second Vatican Council, July 24, 1966.

[61] “The Synod has been for us an occasion which has allowed us once again to experience communion in the one Spirit, in the one faith and hope, and in the one Catholic Church, as well as in the unanimous will to translate the Council into the practice and life of the Church.” The Final Report of the 1985 Extraordinary Synod, 1. “The end for which this Synod was convoked was the celebration, verification and promotion of Vatican Council II.” Ibid, 2.

[62] Ibid, 2.

[63] Ibid, 5

[64]Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., “The Reception of Vatican II at the Extraordinary Synod of 1985” in The Reception of Vatican II, 350.

[65] The Final Report, 7.

Hermeneutics of Vatican II

A Case Study: The Bad Fruits of Vatican II

Part I: Gift of the Holy Spirit

Part II.1: The Hermeneutic of Continuity

Part II.2: The Hermeneutic of Discontinuity

Part II.3: The Theological Notes and the Hermeneutic of Continuity

Part II.4: Is Vatican II an Ecumenical Council?

Part II.5: The Problem of Dissent

Part II.6: A Concluding Argument

Part III.1: Vatican II and Faith

Part III.2.1: Vatican II as a Study of Man

Part III.2.2: The Hermeneutic of Dialogue

Part III.2.3: The Hermeneutic of Pastoral

Part III.2.4: The Hermeneutic of Aggiornamento

Part III.2.5: The Hermeneutic of Ad Intra and Ad Extra

Part III.2.6: The Spirit of Vatican II

Part III.2.7: The False Hermeneutic of Ambiguity

Part III.3: The Hermeneutic of Suspicion

Part IV: Textual Hermeneutics

Part V: The Theological Priority of the Dogmatic Constitutions

Festenburger Frauenhimmel by Johann Cyriak Hackhofer 
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