Hermeneutics of Vatican II
Part III.2.1: Vatican II's Address to Modern Man
By Jeremy Hausotter
May 16, 2021
Note on the Text:
Part III is broken up into nine separate pages because this investigation in Google Docs is approximately 130 pages. In Google Docs it is broken up into three parts, which the reader here can discern based on the numbering scheme. The reader will profit most by reading Part III in sequential order. Part III.1 develops the hermeneutic of faith. Part III.2 applies the hermeneutic of faith to several hermeneutical controversies of Vatican II. Part III.3 develops the hermeneutic of suspicion.
Table of Contents
2. Faith Deciphers Other Hermeneutical Principles
There are many hermeneutical problems concerning Vatican II. The problem of interpreting the meaning of dialogue, pastoral, aggiornamento, and the distinction between ad intra and ad extra are solvable only once the Council is approached with the hermeneutic of faith which states that Vatican II is an enrichment of the Catholic faith. It is only with this first hermeneutical principle that the conflict of meaning over Vatican II can be resolved and the problems of interpretation addressed. Any other methodology which does not accept this first principle is not of God and will only deceive the interpreter into false conclusions and solutions. The conflict of interpreting Vatican II is not only a debate between man and man, but also with principalities and powers. The exegete of the Second Vatican Council must contend with false angels of light, demons who are dedicated to assaulting this precious gift of the Holy Spirit. This is in part why the debate over the meaning of Vatican II even exists, because Satan is jealous and a destroyer who desires only to pervert God’s gifts.
We begin by analyzing what is meant by papal statements that Vatican II is a study of man.
2.1. A Study of Man
There is a problem concerning the interpretation of Vatican II’s statements that it is a study of man. Various popes and the Council itself have indeed stated such, that the Council is a “study of man”. What does this mean? Such a tone itself is unprecedented in the history of Ecumenical Councils. This fact alone is why some commentators scoff at the very idea of an Ecumenical Council being a study of man. In the history of Ecumenical Councils, each was concerned with clear doctrinal definitions and anathemas, so as our interlocutors remind us, until the celebration of Vatican II.
Even more remarkable, such a notion of a Council being a “study of man” appears to be opposed to “official” Church teaching at the time. Our interlocutors especially remind us of the anti-modernist teachings of the 19th century and early 20th century papacies. In the Syllabus of Errors, for example, we read that the Papacy cannot be reconciled with modern society, and yet here with Vatican II, an Ecumenical Council, had the gall to address itself to modern society!
Some look at this problem and interpret such a change by Vatican II as a rupture with these previous papal teachings. Such an interpretation however presupposes an adopted first principle. Is a hermeneutic of continuity or rupture the most appropriate methodology for interpreting the Council? Those who see Vatican II as a rupture assume the hermeneutic of discontinuity. These two hermeneutics was our discussion in Part II, wherein we demonstrated that the Magisterium clearly taught that one must adopt a hermeneutic of continuity, which states that Vatican II cannot be interpreted as if the Council was in contradiction to Sacred Tradition and doctrine, but that Vatican II’s teachings are in continuity.
Those who interpret Vatican II’s study of man as at odds with previous teachings seem to forget that all Ecumenical Councils are not strictly “doctrinal”, as if Vatican II was “undoctrinal” or even “antidoctrinal”. Rather, what must be remembered is the fact that all Councils were an attempt at renewal and reform. Ecumenical Councils seek a renewal of faith with their doctrinal definitions and anathemas. Christians are to believe in proposition X and not Y. Those who believe Y need to repent and heed the call to faith. These definitions and anathemas were a call and demand to man to turn his life around and ever more devoutly commit himself to the mysteries and truths of the faith. Those who dialectically set “doctrinal” in opposition to “pastoral'' forget this basic insight that the teachings of Ecumenical Councils are an address to man to reform and renew himself with the contents of faith. Vatican II was unique in that it 1) emphasized renewal whereas most other Councils emphasized doctrine; and 2) previous Councils were concerned with heresies and the inner life of the Church whereas Vatican II addressed itself to every man and did not set out to fight heresies per se.
2.1.1. What the Conciliar Texts say on the Matter
The Second Vatican Council can be appropriately described as a study of man. This was Council’s intention according to its own documents and the mind of the Council Fathers. The poetic beginning of Gaudium et Spes outlines this vision and the problem of man.
The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community composed of men. United in Christ, they are led by the Holy Spirit in their journey to the Kingdom of their Father and they have welcomed the news of salvation which is meant for every man. That is why this community realizes that it is truly linked with mankind and its history by the deepest of bonds.
There are many themes here that touch upon man and modern society. The Council states that the joys, hopes, griefs, and anxieties are not only problems of the world, but problems of Christians. It is a statement of solidarity between the modern man and the Christian. The Council speaks of “nothing genuinely human fails” to rise in the Christian heart. The Christian community and humanity are “truly linked… by the deepest bonds”, because the Christian and modern man both share the common heritage of Adam. Both are of the same stock with the same nature, and hence share the same joys, griefs and dreams.
Continuing this theme, the next paragraph of Gaudium et Spes states:
Hence this Second Vatican Council, having probed more profoundly into the mystery of the Church, now addresses itself without hesitation, not only to the sons of the Church and to all who invoke the name of Christ, but to the whole of humanity. For the council yearns to explain to everyone how it conceives of the presence and activity of the Church in the world of today.
Therefore, the council focuses its attention on the world of men, the whole human family along with the sum of those realities in the midst of which it lives; that world which is the theater of man's history, and the heir of his energies, his tragedies and his triumphs; that world which the Christian sees as created and sustained by its Maker's love, fallen indeed into the bondage of sin, yet emancipated now by Christ, Who was crucified and rose again to break the strangle hold of personified evil, so that the world might be fashioned anew according to God's design and reach its fulfillment.
Here the Council Fathers explicitly state their intention to address themselves not only to Catholics but “the whole of humanity” with the purpose of explaining the role of the Catholic Church in modernity as the text stated: “For the council yearns to explain to everyone how it conceives of the presence and activity of the Church in the world of today.”
The second paragraph of article 2 cited here specifically mentions the triumphs and tragedies of modernity. The way in which we are supposed to interpret the recent history of modernity according to the mind of the Council is by Christ who died for the emancipation of man from sin and death. In other words, we are called to understand the modern world according to the light of faith. The challenges modernity has wrought upon mankind introduced several hermeneutics for interpreting contemporary life such as the Freudian and Marxist attempts. The true hermeneutic, however, is the light of faith. Jesus Christ is the true decipher of reality.
We can find similar statements in the opening of Dignitatis Humanae stating Vatican II’s intentions to address modern man and the questions he has, which in this case Dignitatis Humanae is addressing the question of religious freedom in particular. In the introduction the Council specifically mentions that religious freedom is a concern and truth which in a special way has come to the consciousness of modernity. This insight into human dignity by modern man the Council illuminated through its teachings in Dignitatis Humanae.
It was certainly not an accident that Vatican II concerned itself with modern man and the problems of contemporary society, for this was one of the specific goals John XXIII had for convoking the Council. In Humanae Salutis, John XXIII stated:
In the face of this twofold spectacle—a world which reveals a grave state of spiritual poverty and the Church of Christ, which is still so vibrant with vitality—we, from the time we ascended to the supreme pontificate, despite our unworthiness and by means of an impulse of Divine Providence, have felt immediately the urgency of the duty to call our sons together, to give the Church the possibility to contribute more efficaciously to the solution of the problems of the modern age.
2.1.2. How to Interpret Vatican II’s Address to Modern Man
The problem now at hand is how do we interpret this address of Vatican II to modern man? How are we to assess this turning towards modernity given statements such as those found in the Syllabus of Errors which state that the Pope and modernity cannot be reconciled? Quite simply, through faith. Vatican II explicitly stated its address to modern man through the voice of Christian faith. This what Gaudium et Spes stated.
It is indeed within this perspective of faith that Paul VI taught that we must interpret Vatican II’s study of man. In the Closing Address, Paul VI stated:
But we cannot pass over one important consideration in our analysis of the religious meaning of the council: it has been deeply committed to the study of the modern world. Never before perhaps, so much as on this occasion, has the Church felt the need to know, to draw near to, to understand, to penetrate, serve and evangelize the society in which she lives; and to get to grips with it, almost to run after it, in its rapid and continuous change.
This study of man according to Paul VI was due to the Church’s felt need to know who is modern man, his hopes and anxieties, so that she can draw near and address him with the light of faith, to evangelize him and society, to remind him of timeless truths in a continuously changing environment. The address to man is nothing other than the Church’s own realization and renewal of her duty to preach Christ in season and out to the four corners of the earth, to go out into the world and spread the Good News. Such a task requires understanding who is modern man. Just as St. Paul studied Greek culture so he could evangelize the Greeks, Vatican II demanded the Catholic Church to study and penetrate modern culture so that we Catholics of today can effectively preach Christ risen from the grave. The address to man has placed a demand upon the Christian to probe his own faith in order to understand it better for the sake to enter into dialogue with his contemporaries for their salvation.
The address to man has two movements. The Christian must first turn towards himself to renew himself in the faith. In turning inward to renew oneself, the Christian discovers the duty to outwardly express this renewed faith into the world so that modern man may too come to understand the truths about man and God, and be led to belief in Christ. The address to man is hence evangelical, for it is nothing other than a new evangelization.
Some may object to this perspective the Council took in addressing modern man by reference to statements such as what Pius IX made in the Syllabus of Errors, and argue that addressing modern man where he is and presenting the truths of the faith in a new manner has led to the infiltration of the Church by currents of modern thought incompatible with the Catholic faith. Such is a common objection we hear today.
What is perhaps surprising, however, is the fact that Paul VI in this very speech just mentioned already addressed this objection. Paul VI in the same paragraph quoted above continues to say that:
This attitude, a response to the distances and divisions we have witnessed over recent centuries, in the last century and in our own especially, between the Church and secular society—this attitude has been strongly and unceasingly at work in the council; so much so that some have been inclined to suspect that an easy-going and excessive responsiveness to the outside world, to passing events, cultural fashions, temporary needs, an alien way of thinking...may have swayed persons and acts of the ecumenical synod, at the expense of the fidelity which is due to tradition, and this to the detriment of the religious orientation of the council itself. We do not believe that this shortcoming should be imputed to it, to its real and deep intentions, to its authentic manifestations.
That very last line by Paul VI is explicit: “We do not believe that this shortcoming should be imputed to it, to its real and deep intentions, to its authentic manifestations.” In other words, it is inaccurate to interpret Vatican II’s teachings as being infiltrated by “modernist” tendencies given the textual and historical fact that the Council sought to address modern man. Instead, Vatican II’s analysis of modern man needs to be interpreted as an exercise of the Christian faith by the Council to bring that very faith to modern man and show him that it is the Catholic faith that can most intelligibly address his hopes and anxieties. That is the purpose, goal and aim of the Council in speaking to humanity. Benedict XVI has similarly echoed Paul VI’s understanding of the Council’s encounter with modernity:
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.
In Benedict XVI’s Christmas Address we find another such statement: “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 purpose of the Council was to address the world with its contradictions and anxieties by presenting the solution: faith in Christ. The problem of addressing the world and its problems and professing faith in Christ to the world is as Benedict XVI says, a problem that not only Vatican II addressed, but a problem that the Church must address in every epoch. The Christian has to be ready to give an answer in every age. This requires an engagement with one’s surrounding culture and society. In sum, such requires the encounter between faith and each age as the new modernity. As every age becomes the new modern age, each raises new questions concerning who is man, and in each age the Catholic faithful must be ready to give an answer, a task that requires a re-presentation of the same truths of the faith.
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 this respect, Vatican II in addressing modern man where he is and his questions is performing the Christian duty to give an answer to every age. Modernity raised several new questions and Vatican II is the Catholic Church’s reply, which she did as an exercise of her own faith. As such, it is erroneous to infer that this encounter between the Catholic Church and modernity is the Church’s embracement of a kind of “modernism”. Such is far from the case.
Another important text is the opening statement of the Council Fathers at the beginning of Vatican II, their Message to Humanity, which can be found on our site. This document is important since it is a statement by the Council Fathers as one voice at the beginning of the Council and helps us gain insight into the perspective with which they are entering the Ecumenical Council.
The very first words of the Message announce that the Council is addressing all men and nations. The Council Fathers describe their task at Vatican II as a process of renewal so as to deepen their faith in Christ: “In this assembly, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, we wish to inquire how we ought to renew ourselves, so that we may be found increasingly faithful to the gospel of Christ.” This task of renewal is furthermore done so not only for the sake of the Council Fathers themselves or Catholics, but in order to “present to the men of this age God’s truth in its integrity and purity that they may understand it and gladly assent to it.” In other words, the task of renewal within the Council is an exercise of faith for the purpose of the renewal of the Catholic Church and the world. Its aim is to present the Catholic faith so that others may see that faith and believe. Vatican II is hence also an act of evangelization. These themes are repeated two paragraphs later. Furthermore this evangelization effort of the Church requires doctrine continuity with previous Church teachings. Without authentic doctrine any act of evangelization is doomed from the start.
These statements by Popes Paul VI and Benedict XVI in addition to the Council’s Message are likewise reflected in Gaudium et Spes. Article 11 introduces us to the theme of Part I: The Church and Man’s Calling in the text. Here, the Council Fathers begin with a statement of faith that “The People of God believes that it is led by the Lord's Spirit, Who fills the earth” whereby the phrase “ People of God” the Council is referring to the Catholic Church. The Holy Spirit is leading the People of God. “Motivated by this faith”, the Council Fathers teach that the Catholic Church “labors to decipher authentic signs of God's presence and purpose in the happenings, needs and desires in which this People has a part along with other men of our age.” The operative principle we have been arguing for is repeated, that “faith throws a new light on everything, manifests God's design for man's total vocation, and thus directs the mind to solutions which are fully human.”
By the light of faith this statement of Vatican II teaches that 1) faith illuminates reality so that 2) God’s Providence can be readily discerned and 3) the problems of the world can be given authentically human solutions. Hence Gaudium et Spes continues by stating “This council, first of all, wishes to assess in this light those values which are most highly prized today and to relate them to their divine source.” By illuminating reality with the light of faith, Catholics evaluate and assess the world and the problems of modernity according to the objective hierarchy of values. Authentic values are not man-made and enlighten us towards what is truly human. Thus while Vatican II is a religious act of faith, the Council Fathers argue that by the very fact that they seek to illuminate the world with faith that this will demonstrate to the world the path that is authentically human. In other words, reality, the world's problems, and what is authentically human cannot be separated from the domain of religion for it is religion, specifically the Catholic faith, that can most endow mankind with an understanding of what is the properly human pathway forward and most human way of living. “Thus the mission of the Church will show its religious, and by that very fact, its supremely human character.” This act of illuminating the world, its problems, and the values the world truly perceives “stand in need of purification.” Faith purifies our understanding and way of living; and modernity perhaps moreso than any previous epoch has shown itself in dire need of purification.
We must make one final observation that since this address to the world is a call to evangelization, then it is not simply a one-time event, but a continual challenge for Catholics. Every modernity requires an answer, and so every epoch requires Catholics to analyze their surrounding cultures in order to provide such. Addressing the world is a continuous process because the world and ourselves will never cease the need to be evangelized until our own deaths and the end of the age of man with the Second Coming. Evangelization is not a static, single event, but a continual, living process.
The problem of Vatican II’s address to modern man raises a new question, what is the meaning of the Council’s use of the term “dialogue”? For in addressing modern man, Vatican II desired to enter into dialogue with him. This term has proved to be another stumbling block for some interpreters and so we now turn our attention to the meaning of “dialogue”.
 “The Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization.” Syllabus of Errors, 80.
 Gaudium et Spes 1.
 Ibid, 1.
 Ibid, 1.
 Gaudium et Spes 2. Emphasis mine.
 Ibid, 2.
 “A sense of the dignity of the human person has been impressing itself more and more deeply on the consciousness of contemporary man, and the demand is increasingly made that men should act on their own judgment, enjoying and making use of a responsible freedom, not driven by coercion but motivated by a sense of duty. The demand is likewise made that constitutional limits should be set to the powers of government, in order that there may be no encroachment on the rightful freedom of the person and of associations. This demand for freedom in human society chiefly regards the quest for the values proper to the human spirit. It regards, in the first place, the free exercise of religion in society. This Vatican Council takes careful note of these desires in the minds of men. It proposes to declare them to be greatly in accord with truth and justice. To this end, it 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.” Dignitatis Humanae 1. Emphasis mine.
 Cf. Gaudium et Spes 2, and above in 2.1.1.
 Address during the last General Meeting of the Second Vatican Council. URL: http://www.vatican.va/content/paul-vi/en/speeches/1965/documents/hf_p-vi_spe_19651207_epilogo-concilio.html. Emphasis mine.
 General Audience, Oct. 10, 2012.
 Address to the Roman Curia offering them his Christmas Greetings.
 Cf. 1 Pet. 3:15.
 Ibid. In continuation of this quote: “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.” Ibid.
 Message to Humanity 1, cf. 5, 15.
 Ibid, 3.
 Ibid, 3
 “Hence, obeying the will of Christ, who delivered Himself to death “that He might present Himself to the Church, not having spot or wrinkle… but that she might be holy and without blemish,” we as pastors devote all our energies and thoughts to the renewal of ourselves and the flocks committed to us, so that there may radiate before all men the lovable features of Jesus Christ, who shines in our hearts “that God’s splendor may be revealed.” Ibid, 5.
 Gaudium et Spes 11.
 There is an exegetical problem evaluating the exact meaning of “People of God” in Vatican II, but this is for a different essay.
 Gaudium et Spes 11.
 Gaudium et Spes 11. Cf. Apostolicam Actuositatem 4.
 Ibid, 11.
 Ibid, 11.
 Ibid, 11.
Hermeneutics of Vatican II Articles
Festenburger Frauenhimmel by Johann Cyriak Hackhofer