Rough Draft

Hermeneutics of Vatican II

Part III.2.7: The False Hermeneutic of Ambiguity

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. 

2.7. The False Hermeneutic of Ambiguity

The enrichment of faith hermeneutic has allowed us to resolve several hermeneutical problems surrounding the Second Vatican Council. This faith hermeneutic has allowed us to clearly perceive the path to take in interpreting the meanings of renewal, aggiornamento, the Spirit of Vatican II, and the Council’s pastorality. Another common false start amongst interpreters of Vatican II is the hermeneutic of ambiguity.

The controversy over the ambiguity of Vatican II is a complicated matter. There have been many arguments put forth for why the Council’s teachings are ambiguous. We outline several arguments here and give a response to them. 

2.7.1. Ambiguous Due to Juxtaposition

Many who have objections to the Second Vatican Council argue that its documents are ambiguous because they are a juxtaposition of different views combined into an incoherent mess. The argument for understanding the conciliar texts as a hodge-podge of juxtapositions arises from the historical fact that the Council Fathers debated back and forth on the texts. The texts were voted on and revised repeatedly, some of which took several sessions to be approved (such as Dei Verbum). Hence John O’Malley called the texts “committee documents, full of compromise and ambiguity.”[1]

This issue is however somewhat alleviated by the textual hermeneutic of intertextuality which I will develop in a later project. The hermeneutic of intertextuality states that the different conciliar texts must be read with one another. The different texts illuminate each other and play off one another. Hence while O’Malley called the texts ambiguous, he also recognized that this hermeneutical principle demonstrates a coherence amongst the texts produced by the Council.

The issues-under-the-issues are three different ways of looking at Vatican II that reveal the remarkable coherence of the council’s final product—the sixteen official constitutions, decrees, and declarations—despite the compromises, ambiguities, misleading euphemisms, stylistic infelicities, and the hundreds of specific issues that abound in them and sometimes looks like clutter.[2]

Individually then, the conciliar texts according to this historian appear ambiguous, and when we look at each text in relation to the other Vatican II documents, “Each of them echoes, specifies, qualifies, or enlarges on themes, values, and principles found in other documents.”[3]

We can give another reply to this type of objection. Such an objection forgets that the Second Vatican Council is not only a human event, but a divine event. It was nothing else than the experience of the Church encountering the Holy Spirit still alive within her. Vatican II was a gift of the Holy Spirit and He is the true Spirit of Vatican II. The juxtaposition-ambiguity argument fails to take into account the intelligibility the Spirit introduces into the Council. This argument for ambiguity is similar to what has been done to the Bible by the historical critical method, by which some conclude that the Bible is simply a sloppily edited juxtaposition of texts by numerous authors, many of whom are anonymous to the Bible’s credited authorial traditions; eg, the Gospel of Mark has its source in Q, Genesis had five authors, Isaiah three, etc. Such over-emphasis on the mere letter fails to perceive the resounding intelligibility of both the Bible and Vatican II texts which both possess due to the Holy Spirit factor. This factor is instead ignored or rejected.

2.7.2. The Ambiguity of Dignitatis Humanae

There are other arguments made for the ambiguity of the Council. Some argued that the notion of religious freedom presented in Dignitatis Humanae is ambiguous.[4] Lefebvre in particular focuses his objections on the concept of liberty, claiming that this notion is ambiguous in the document. I have already dedicated a lengthy response to Lefebvre’s objections,[5] some given by the SSPX,[6] and wrote a commentary on the text.[7] As it turns out, the ambiguity of Dignitatis Humanae is not so much due to its definitions but rather because of these authors’ own personal disagreement with the teachings contained within the conciliar text, and so they attempt to delegitimize and undermine the Council’s teachings for the sake of their own metanarratives. Ambiguity is weaponized because of personal vendetta and for propaganda.

2.7.3. Ambiguous Due to Pastorality

Marcel Lefebvre also argued that Vatican II was ambiguous because Vatican II is a pastoral council and not doctrinal. Hence, according to this argument, liberal thinkers were able to embed ambiguous language into the conciliar texts to be exploited later. Lefebvre wrote:

 

Vatican II was a pastoral Council; John XXIII said so, Paul VI repeated it. During the course of the sittings we several times wanted to define a concept; but we were told: "We are not here to define dogma and philosophy, we are here for pastoral purposes". What is liberty? What is human dignity? What is collegiality? We are reduced to analysing the statements indefinitely in order to know what they mean, and we only come up with approximations because the terms are ambiguous. And this was not through negligence or by chance. Fr. Schillebeeckx admitted it. "We have used ambiguous terms during the Council and we know how we shall interpret them afterwards". Those people knew what they were doing.[8]

Interestingly enough, there is a website run by a librarian who argues that the Schillebeeckx quote cited by Lefebvre is actually Schillebeeckx quoting someone else and Schillebeeckx disagreeing with this view.[9] Regardless of Schillebeeckx’s view as to whether it was legitimate to weaponize ambiguous language for later use, he certainly also believed that the Council had ambiguous language. Schillebeeckx in his book, Vatican II: The Real Achievement, described how the “pastoral” nature of the Council was used as a pawn to introduce ambiguous statements or definitions that made them acceptable to both the minority and majority.[10]

 

Such arguments, however, fail to account for pastorality in its authentic meaning. Pastorality has a definite content, the doctrines of the faith. This type of argument only becomes reasonable if one has already made the divorce between pastorality and dogma. Such is an illegitimate separation as we have already demonstrated. It is telling that both of these thinkers, Schillebeeckx and Lefebvre, have done much in creating the crisis of the Church today. Such is the fruits once one has separated pastorality from dogma and then argue Vatican II is ambiguous. It is only logical that once the Council’s meanings and doctrines are separated in letter and spirit that Vatican II appears ambiguous.

2.7.4. Ambiguity in Gaudium et Spes’ Teachings on Marriage

There are two complaints of ambiguity within Gaudium et Spes concerning its teachings on marriage and procreation. One of these complaints is due to the following passage from Gaudium et Spes on procreation:

Relying on these principles, sons of the Church may not undertake methods of regulating procreation which are found blameworthy by the teaching authority of the Church in its unfolding of the divine law.[11]

Schillebeeckx noted the ambiguity of this text.[12] The text here is purposefully ambiguous because the Council did not want to address the problem of birth control. This was to be resolved separately from the Council. Paul VI created a special commission to study the theological problems posed by birth control, from which came the encyclical Humanae Vitae and the scandals that followed its promulgation. 

 

Marcel Lefebvre put forth a different argument that the teachings on marriage in Gaudium et Spes were ambiguous precisely because the conciliar text taught that marriage now had two ends: procreation and spousal love.[13] Until the 1920’s no Catholic held such a view. Marriage traditionally had one end, procreation. The work of Dietrich von Hildebrand and  Herbert Doms challenged this view by successfully arguing that marriage had two ends and this view ultimately made its way into the official teachings of Vatican II and Karol Wojtyła/John Paul II in his theology of body and Love and Responsibility.

The objection of Lefebvre’s here however is not so much the “ambiguity” of marriage now being taught to have two ends nor the “ambiguity” in the meaning of love, but rather that the Council in doing so was moved beyond “tradition”. Lefebvre’s complaint arises due to the presupposition of the hermeneutic of discontinuity, which itself is a problematic hermeneutical approach.

Some objected due to the ambiguity of the meaning of “love” given the super-eroticism of love in modern culture.[14] This objection can be easily dismissed by consideration of the fact that Christian love is radically distinct from modernity’s super-eroticism. If Christians authentically lived out their vocations of love the differences between both concepts would be readily discernible by all. Such is the demand of Christian love to be a witness to the world.

Besides these problems concerning marriage, objections during the Council were raised concerning the ambiguous use of the terms “world” and “church” in Gaudium et Spes.[15] Such terms in some respect are ambiguously used since each possesses several meanings and these meanings change according to the context it is used in. These terms do not prove to be a danger except in the hands of fools and discontents.

Interestly enough, Jacques Maritain after reading Gaudium et Spes came to the opposite conclusion that the text was quite clear and a source for inspiration.

Schema XIII—the Pastoral Constitution on the Human Condition in Today’s World—is a document of great wisdom and admirable loyalty, even more significant, it seems to me, in its general approach than in its particular clarifications. What is paramount in such a teaching is not so much its analyses of today’s problems, as correct as they are, but the exposition and complete clarification which it offers us of the attitude of the Church herself to the world, whether one considers the unalterable truths on which this attitude is based, or on the modalities required by the degree of evolution reached by the world of today.[16]

2.7.5. Ambiguity in Lumen Gentium

Another Vatican II text also argued to be ambiguous is Lumen Gentium. One notable source of concern over ambiguity in the text is the meaning of “collegiality”. Collegiality sparked a fierce debate over the text’s meaning that resulted in the publication of an explanatory note, one which both conservatives and liberal thinkers were happy with and believed that it taught their view.[17] Others will argue the fact alone that a note was published shows that the theological foundation in Lumen Gentium for collegiality is ambiguous.

Another very notable problem is the relationship between the Catholic Church and those outside the Church, and the question of the salvation of these individuals in Lumen Gentium 16. What must be observed is that Vatican II did not always specify an answer but began the conversation in a new way. Lumen Gentium 16 is such an example concerning the meaning of “no salvation outside the Church”. The text is both a development and a need for further theological reflection, which the post-conciliar Church has been very active working out.[18]

A third source of complaints of ambiguity is found in the statement that the true Church “subsists in the Catholic Church”.[19] Atila Sinke Guimarães argued that this formulation is ambiguous because the understanding of the true Church is changed.[20] The Catholic Church is no longer exclusively the true Church. The change in vocabulary from est to subsistere hence introduces an ambiguity. The problems concerning the meaning of collegiality and subsistere are reserved for a future investigation. We can note that at this time the resolution to these problems can be found only if we adopt the hermeneutic of faith. It is only when we first realize that both collegiality and subsistere are enrichments of the faith that we can begin to discern their authentic meanings. Joseph Ratzinger provides a very insightful observation on the subsistere-est question in Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith.[21]

2.7.6. Guimarães’s Argument for Ambiguity

Guimarães’ book, In the Murky Waters of Vatican II, is perhaps the most extensive volume that argues for the ambiguity of Vatican II. To outline his thought, the texts of Vatican II are ambiguous because the Council Fathers’ intention was to achieve unanimity at the expense of doctrinal clarification. Hence ambiguous definitions were used that appeased both the liberals and conservatives. This is exemplified further due to the pastorality of Vatican II. Ambiguity was advanced further by the abandonment of scholasticism in favor of a ressourcement. Ambiguity was weaponized to achieve unanimity and to leave open for the future more progressive interpretations. Such are his views in summary.

Much of what we have already stated concerning ambiguity and proper hermeneutics can be applied here. One further point of elaboration must be made on this argument that meaning was sacrificed for the sake of unanimity. This proposition is problematic because it separates the letter from the Spirit of the Council, and presumes a separation between doctrinal clarification and the conciliar texts. The result of such a view requires interpreting Vatican II as non-doctrinal, which is also an erroneous hermeneutical position to adopt.

2.7.7. Ambiguity in the “Spirit” of Vatican II

Another source for possible ambiguity is the debate surrounding the “spirit of Vatican II”. Those who put forth such an argument already accepted the prior proposition that the meaning of this “spirit” is the progressive impetus of secularization. This interpretation is necessarily ambiguous because its content of meaning itself has removed the unchanging truths of Christianity for polymorphic cultural trends and private opinions. Both the radical progressives and ultraconservatives adopt this interpretation of the Council’s “spirit”. The distinction in this case arises in that these progressive thinkers weaponize ambiguity to promote their modernistic agendas and convert the Church into the world’s image; whereas these ultraconservative thinkers weaponize ambiguity to explicitly attack the Council as modernism. Both schools share in common the weaponization of ambiguity against the legitimate authority of the Church in disobedience and dissent, while claiming for themselves to be working for the improvement of the Church. Both forget that such disobedience and dissent is sinful itself and that ends do not justify means. 

2.7.8. Resolution

In one respect, some statements and phraseology of the Council are ambiguous. This is something not unique to Vatican II either. One reason Vatican II may have an ambiguous statement is when the Council Fathers decided against making a statement on a subject such as contraceptives for example. There were some questions the Council decided it would not decide for or against, and this tension is reflected in the texts themselves such as in the passage of Gaudium et Spes on regulating birth. Another prime example is the term “People of God”. Does this term refer to the Church or all people that are saved or all Christians?  Regardless of its meaning, it is a term that was easily abused. This however does not mean that terminology such as “People of God” cannot be understood properly according to the mind of the Council. The task of interpreting ambiguity in this respect hence rests on understanding what the Council was teaching and what it decided to leave open for theologians to work out. Dignitatis Humanae worked out a concept of religious freedom, but left open the task of understanding how to reconcile this declaration with the previous tradition to the future work of theologians. Dignitatis Humanae simply stated that its teachings were not in contradiction to previous doctrine. Such projects can only be successfully completed in faith and fidelity to the Council and the authority of the Magisterium. One needs to approach these questions with the hermeneutic of faith and a sound textual approach.

In another respect, the problem of ambiguity arises precisely because of the absence of a hermeneutic of faith by the interpreter. Marcel Lefebvre makes several statements about the ambiguity of different documents and their teachings, but what is absent in his analysis is faith in the Church and faith in the Council. The ambiguity argument employed by him, Guimarães, and others is weaponized as a dialectical device of skepticism and presumption of bad faith of the actors of the Vatican II.

 

It is a skepticism because one could not really know what is actually taught if core teachings of the Council, such as those on human dignity and collegiality, are in fact utterly ambiguous. How would one be able to determine the truth if ambiguity is presumed? It is here that the deviousness of this type of argument arises: Vatican II is ambiguous but thinkers like Lefebvre and Guimarães presume to possess the true meaning of the Council and so they can interpret it for us. They assume that they have the insight and authority to interpret what the Magisterium taught in her supreme act, which is pretentious at the least. They place themselves in the position of being the true “magisterium” with interpretative authority instead of the Magisterium instituted and willed by Christ Himself. These thinkers accomplish this by claiming their authority is from Tradition itself and the truths it possesses. They see themselves as the authoritative interpreters of Sacred Tradition and hence interpret Vatican II as a rupture. Such a hermeneutical approach creates a sort of “magisterium of tradition” by which these thinkers derive their interpretative authority.

Some of those who were involved in the Council were no doubt there to change the Church for the worst. This is a temptation that Ecumenical Councils face, which anyone familiar with their histories can attest. To claim however, that these bad actors hijacked an Ecumenical Council betrays a fundamental despair and lack of faith in the work of the Holy Spirit through that Ecumenical Council. Such thinkers doubt the power of the Holy Spirit. The objections of Guimarães and Lefebvre are fundamentally existential, arising out of a lack of faith in the Church, and so a lack of faith in Christ. Faith in Christ implies a faith in the Church, these two faith ins cannot be separated.  It is telling that Lefebvre argues for the ambiguity of the Council precisely when it teaches doctrines he does not assent to.

The argument for the ambiguity of the Second Vatican Council due to its pastorality arises out of the prior assumption that pastorality is somehow opposed to doctrine. We can give a first reply to this view based on the fact that the pastoral nature of the Council requires true doctrine, and so each is not opposed but rather interpenetrate and depend upon one another. Doctrine informs our pastoral approach and pastoral activity is the living interpretation of doctrine in the life of the Church. 

The problem of ambiguity due to the juxtaposition of views between “the warring factions” at the Council is another false start. This case is similar to the problem of Lefebvre in that the interpreter is adopting a method of interpretation not out of a hermeneutic of faith. The hermeneutic of faith acknowledges the working of the Holy Spirit through the Council. The interpreter here does not acknowledge the Spirit of the Council and the inner unifying Logos.

As Pottmeyer acutely observed, those who saw internal incoherence, ambiguity, and juxtaposition in the conciliar texts betray a preference of a historical model and attitude in opposition to the conciliar texts themselves.[22] The juxtaposition of the conciliar texts arose out of a deeper insight into doctrine because the Council’s own method was a juxtaposition of renewal and continuity with Sacred Tradition.[23] This penetration into the Church’s historical teaching is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit who brings an inner unity and freshness to the conciliar texts. Those who see the juxtaposition alone fail to see the Spirit at work in the Council like the biblical exegetes who see the multivarious human authorships of the books of the Bible but fail to see the unity of the whole corpus from within due to the Bible’s divine authorship. In both cases these interpreters and exegetes adopt a priori a faithless hermeneutic.

What must be asserted against these prophets of doom is the fact that “The Spirit who spoke through the Second Vatican Council did not speak in vain.”[24] The Holy Spirit spoke through the Council. He does not speak ambiguously nor in vain. This however requires a recognition by faith in order to accept. We must remember that

The words of the Holy Spirit always represent a deeper insight into the eternal mystery, and point out the paths to be walked by those entrusted with the task of bringing this mystery to the contemporary world.[25]

A faithless hermeneutic will every time fail to perceive the deeper insight and challenges of the Second Vatican Council because the interpreter first fails to discern the workings of the Holy Spirit. Instead of a hermeneutic of faith he adopts instead a hermeneutic of suspicion.

Endnotes

[1] John O’Malley, Tradition and Transition: Historical Perspectives on Vatican II, 45.

[2] What Happened at Vatican II, 309.

[3] Ibid, 310.

[4] Cardinals Quiroga y Palacios and Jose Bueno y Monreal for example argued such during the conciliar debates, cf. The Rhine Flows into the Tiber, 243. Marcel Lefebvre stated in reference to Dignitatis Humanae “How true it is that all false or ambiguously expressed principles will inevitably reveal their implicit errors.” An Open Letter to Confused Catholics,  83.

[5] See Commentary on Dignitatis Humanae Part IV at URL:

https://www.lenouvelesprit.com/commentary-dignitatis-humanae/part-iv.

[6] See Commentary on Dignitatis Humanae Part III at URL:

https://www.lenouvelesprit.com/commentary-dignitatis-humanae/part-iii.

[7] See Commentary on Dignitatis Humanae Part I and II at URL:

https://www.lenouvelesprit.com/commentary-dignitatis-humanae/part-i  and URL:

https://www.lenouvelesprit.com/commentary-dignitatis-humanae/part-ii

[8] An Open Letter to Confused Catholics, 111.

[9] Check the URL: https://sharonkabel.com/post/schillebeeckx-implicit-conclusions/.

[10] Vatican II: The Real Achievement, 84-85.

[11] Gaudium et Spes 51. Abbot translation, The Documents of Vatican II, America Press, 1966, 256.

[12] Vatican II: The Real Achievement, 86.

[13] An Open Letter to Confused Catholics, 47-48.

[14] “Doumith and McGrath are insisting on this: to talk about love is all very well, but it could be ambiguous because people of today, Christians and non-Christians, mean very different things by ‘love’. The word, and what it designates, are so exalted and so perverted in our erotic age that the text could be dangerous, not sufficiently envisaging the concrete REALITY.” Yves Congar, My Journal, 690.

[15] What Happened at Vatican II, 234, 260.

[16] Jacques Maritain, The Peasant of Garonne, 50.

[17] Cf. What Happened at Vatican II, 244-245. The Rhine Flows into the Tiber, 351-356.

[18] The Magisterium for example published Redemptoris Missio and Dominus Iesus in addition to the CDF’s involvement in the Jacques Dupuis and the Notifications on his work. The problems of the theology of the other religions will be developed later in a later investigation on Nostra Aetate and Lumen Gentium 16 as a separate project.

[19] Lumen Gentium 8.

[20] In the Murky Waters of Vatican II, 1-13.

[21] Joseph Ratzinger, Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith, p 148n18. Cf. Guy Mansini “Lumen Gentium” in The Reception of Vatican II.

[22] Hermann Pottmeyer, “A New Phase in the Reception of Vatican II: Twenty Years of Interpretation of the Council” in The Reception of Vatican II, 36-37.

[23] Ibid, 37.

[24] Crossing the Threshold of Hope, 165.

[25] Ibid, 159-160.

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