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Part II.2: The Hermeneutic of Discontinuity

By Jeremy Hausotter

Oct. 3, 2020, Revised Jan. 30, 2022

Table of Contents

2. The Hermeneutic of Discontinuity

2.1. The Christmas Address
     2.2. The Rejection of the Hermeneutic of Discontinuity
     2.3. The Disjunction of Time and History
     2.4. The Authority of Vatican II

2. The Hermeneutic of Discontinuity

We have previously outlined the hermeneutic of continuity in Part II.1. We must now consider its negation, the hermeneutic of discontinuity or rupture. All discussion concerning the continuity or discontinuity of the Council must at some point analyze the Christmas Address of Benedict XVI.

2.1. The Christmas Address

Benedict XVI’s 2005 Christmas Address is famous for it examines the problems of hermeneutics over Vatican II and the dialectical tension between a hermeneutics of continuity versus one of discontinuity, two different hermeneutical principles opposed to each other. The first bears fruit, the second causes confusion.[1]

The hermeneutic of discontinuity understands Vatican II as a rupture. According to it, the texts of Vatican II do not express the spirit of the Council. The Council texts are necessary compromises required to reach wide consent which entailed keeping several old, outdated teachings. The “spirit” of the Council is hence an impulse that reaches beyond the letter of the texts as indicated by the direction of the new perspectives within the conciliar texts. This hence requires going beyond what the Council has formally taught concerning the reforms it proposed such that “it would be necessary not to follow the texts of the Council but its spirit.”[2] The ambiguous nature of such a “spirit” made way for every whim to be proposed as following this “spirit”.[3]

The problems with such a hermeneutic of rupture is that first, it splits the Church into a pre-conciliar and post-conciliar Church. Secondly, “the nature of a Council as such is therefore basically misunderstood.” Third, this rupture and replacement with a “spirit” of the Council “eliminates an old constitution and creates a new one.”[4] In other words, the essence of the Church is changed. The Council Fathers never understood their project to be such and as the Pope reminds us, it is impossible for anyone to have given them such a task because this ignores the fact that the Church’s constitution is given by Christ for our salvation which man cannot change.

Fidelity to Christ requires understanding the Council not by a hermeneutic of discontinuity, but through a hermeneutic of continuity as reform and renewal, “of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us.”[5] Benedict XVI cites the words of John XXIII and Paul VI concerning the Council’s continuity (which we looked at earlier).

The demand to express a truth in new ways, as John XXIII challenged the Church to in Vatican II and which it did, requires a new thinking and a new relationship with this truth. New ways of expressing ancient truths requires “an informed understanding of the truth expressed” and that it is to be lived.[6]

The hermeneutic of rupture derives some of its plausibility, according to Benedict XVI following Paul VI’s analysis in his speech closing the Council, from the fact that the Council had placed its focus on the theme of anthropology and determining in a new way the Church’s relationship to modernity in contradistinction to the 19th century Magisterium’s clashes and defensive negative attitude towards modernity.

Benedict XVI continues to expand on a hermeneutic of the Council in terms of a macrocontinuity with microruptures. The need for the Church to change course from this 19th century worldview included three circles of questions the Council needed to address: 1) redefining the relationship between faith and science, specifically in the domains of natural, historical and biblical research; 2) a new definition for the relationship between the Church and state and the problem of religious freedom; and 3) a new definition for the relationship between Catholicism and the world religions with a particular focus on Judaism in light of the Shoah.

These problems present themselves as a discontinuity in terms of a microrupture that when investigated proved to still be in continuity in terms of principles and doctrine. The discontinuities are distinguished as a matter of historical situations and their requirements, and hence are not a matter of doctrine.

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.[7]

The discontinuity found within the conciliar texts are therefore due to breaking away from historical circumstances which have encrusted themselves into Church life. Vatican II is hence a combination of continuity and discontinuity. The Council is continuous in teaching the deposit of faith while breaking from historical contingencies. This combination leads us to a true understanding of the reform Vatican II intended, for “it is precisely in this combination of continuity and discontinuity at different levels that the very nature of true reform consists.”[8] Benedict XVI gives Dignitatis Humanae as an example of such concerning the continuity with doctrine while breaking away from a historical attitude that was necessary at previous times but no longer (while of course affirming the truths put forth by the 19th century papacy). This continuity and discontinuity of the Council is significant not only for its reversal of historical decisions but, most importantly, that it preserved the Church’s nature and identity:

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.[9]

2.2. The Rejection of the Hermeneutic of Discontinuity

The hermeneutic of discontinuity quite simply is to be rejected. We have seen that the Magisterium has consistently taught that Vatican II is in continuity with the deposit of faith and of the same authority as the previous Ecumenical Councils. John Paul II explicitly states that: “To interpret the Council on the supposition that it marks a break with the past, when in reality it stands in continuity with the faith of all times, is a definite mistake.”[10] Joseph Ratzinger has made several similar statements in The Ratzinger Report where he clearly rejects both the radical progressive and radical traditionalist interpretations of the hermeneutic of discontinuity such as found in the following passage:

First: ‘It is impossible (‘for a Catholic’) to take a position for Vatican II but against Trent or Vatican I. Whoever accepts Vatican II, as it has clearly expressed and understood itself, at the same time accepts the whole binding tradition of the Catholic Church, particularly also those two previous councils. And this also applies to the so-called ‘progressivism’, at least in its extreme forms.’ Second: ‘It is likewise impossible to decide in favor of Trent and Vatican I, but against Vatican II. Whoever denies Vatican II denies the authority that upholds the other two councils and thereby detaches them from their foundation. And this applies to the so-called ‘traditionalism’, also in its extreme forms.[11]

2.3. The Disjunction of Time and History

The hermeneutic of discontinuity understands Vatican II as a “break with the past”. The Church of today is in a sense severed from her pre-conciliar history. This existential situation of the post-Vatican II Church has been interpreted in two ways: 1) the radical traditionalists understand the Council such that it was unfaithful to the deposit of faith and hence is always looking backwards towards the past; 2) the radical progressives, on the other hand, look towards the future in a manner unhinged from the past. Both adopt a view that severs the Church as an agent of history from elements of that history, the progressives cut off the past in favor of the post-conciliar period whereas the traditionalists have written off the post-conciliar period and the present while looking to the future anachronistically.

What must be asserted to the contrary is that the Church has no before and after in that she is the same, single agent in history. The hermeneutic of discontinuity misunderstands this reality entirely.[12] As Ratzinger has so eloquently spoken:

This schematism of a before and after in the history of the Church, wholly unjustified by the documents of Vatican II, which do nothing but reaffirm the continuity of Catholicism, must be decidedly opposed. There is no ‘pre-’ or ‘post-’ conciliar Church: there is but one, unique Church that walks the path toward the Lord, ever deepening and ever better understanding the treasure of faith that he himself has entrusted to her. There are no leaps in this history, there are no fractures, there is no break in continuity. In no wise did the Council intend to introduce a temporal dichotomy in the Church.[13]

Yves Congar likewise made a similar statement:

There was at Vatican II a rather simplistic practice of applying the pattern ‘before’ and ‘after’ to the Council, as though it marked an absolute new beginning, the point of departure for a completely new Church. I was at the time and still am anxious to stress the continuity of Tradition. Vatican II was one moment and neither the first nor last moment in that Tradition, just as Trent, Pius V, and Pius X were neither the first nor the last.[14]

2.4. The Authority of Vatican II

It immediately follows from the propositions that (1) Vatican II is in continuity with the previous Ecumenical Councils and (2) that Vatican II itself is an Ecumenical Council, that Vatican II enjoys the same authority as all previous Councils. The question on authority and continuity are interrelated and inseparable. Rejection of either (1) or (2) entails the rejection of the other. In order for Vatican II to be continuous it must also be an Ecumenical Council, otherwise the Council Fathers of Vatican II and the Popes have either failed in their mission or deceived the world in calling Vatican II an Ecumenical Council. Similarly, rejecting the continuity of Vatican II while accepting it to be an Ecumenical Council undermines its very own legitimacy as such. Rejection of either (1) or (2) not only requires the rejection of the other proposition, but more fundamentally, doing such is an embracement of despair over the “Sacred Synod gathered together in the Holy Spirit…”[15] such that the role of the Holy Spirit within Vatican II is either obscured, ignored, rejected, or reduced to ambiguities.

The misunderstanding of Vatican II’s authority is a result of not understanding the teachings of the Council’s texts themselves. Ratzinger claims that false views of the Council prevail because of the plethora of false interpretations that are not grounded in the reality of the texts themselves.[16] It is hence understandable why the 1985 Extraordinary Synod, Ratzinger, John Paul II, and others have stressed the need for a real catechetical engagement and enrichment with the conciliar texts. In opposition to those who employ a hermeneutic of discontinuity Ratzinger asserts that:

it must be stated that Vatican II is upheld by the same authority as Vatican I and the Council of Trent, namely, the Pope and the College of Bishops in communion with him, and that also with regard to its contents, Vatican II is in the strictest continuity with both previous councils and incorporates their texts word for word in decisive points.[17]

It should hence come as no surprise then that Ratzinger will go on to declare that “To defend the true tradition of the Church today means to defend the Council.”[18] If Vatican II is legitimate as I have argued then it rightfully belongs to the deposit of faith and be received faithfully as a gift of the Holy Spirit.[19] Vatican II is thus a legitimate expression and proclamation of the Church’s tradition, and to reject this can only endanger one’s spiritual life, for in doing so one rejects the God-given authority to the Magisterium exercised through a solemn universal assembly of the bishops in union with the Pope. This is why Ratzinger can say that “I see no future for a position that, out of principle, stubbornly renounces Vatican II. In fact in itself it is an illogical position.”[20]


[1] Address to the Roman Curia Offering Them His Christmas Greeting, Dec. 22, 2005. “Addresses of Benedict XVI on Vatican II,” Le Nouvel Esprit, accessed December 25, 2021,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Address to the Conference Studying the Implementation of the Second Vatican Council, Feb. 27, 2000.

[11] Vittorio Messori and Benedict XVI, The Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church (Ignatius Press, 1985), 28-29.

[12] “First, within the flow of church history, Vatican II is not to be interpreted as an isolated ecclesial event; it occurs within a living tradition as an attempt to re-receive that tradition in order to transmit it anew to future generations more effectively. It lies on a continuum of church life and is to be seen in continuity with all that has gone before. Within that living process of ecclesial reception and transmission, what is being retrieved from the past (then reconceived, and then passed on into the future) includes the myriad modes in which the church witnesses to the faith it has received: public and private prayer, especially the sacraments, scripture, creeds, doctrinal formulations, lives of the saints, writings of the patristic period, classical theological works, works of art, and so on, all forming part of a living process of traditioning “the faith” and applying it through Christian witness in daily life. Vatican II is an event of reception of (within) that living tradition from a new horizon. It gathers the past into the present for the sake of the future. The history behind the text therefore includes 2000 years of traditioning the Gospel leading up to the Council.” Ormund Rush, Still Interpreting Vatican II, 5.

[13] The Ratzinger Report, 35.

[14] “A Last Look at the Council” in Vatican II by Those Who Were There, ed Alberic Stacpoole, 351.

[15] Lumen Gentium 1.

[16] The Ratzinger Report, 33.

[17] Ibid, 28.

[18] Ibid, 31.

[19] See Part I of my series on hermeneutics of Vatican II, URL: <>

[20] The Ratzinger Report, 31.

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 
Wikimedia Commons

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