Hermeneutics of Vatican II
Part I: Gift of the Holy Spirit
By Jeremy Hausotter
Aug. 16, 2020
Table of Contents
Many when they hear about the Second Vatican Council have images of debate, fierce contentions between conservatives and progressives, concepts such as aggiornamento and “spirit of Vatican II”, and upon reading the texts of the Council find a style rather different in comparison with previous Councils, which can create a suspicion that Vatican II’s teachings are ambiguous, as some see the Council as something strictly pastoral and not “dogmatic”. These are problems concerning the hermeneutics of Vatican II. These problems are many and varied, and the focus of this series Hermeneutics of Vatican II.
To address these problems I wish to begin with a first existential hermeneutic, a first principle and groundwork from which one should gaze upon the Council and its teachings. This existential hermeneutic is the understanding that Vatican II is a gift of the Holy Spirit, and as a Spirit given gift it demands the human response, our response.
Chapter 1: Vatican II as a Gift of the Holy Spirit
John XXIII on the Role of the Holy Spirit
John XXIII’s opening speech to the Council on October 11, 1962 outlines the program of the Council to defend and advance truth in all quarters of human life, including society, work, the family, and the various new circumstances of modernity. This ambitious goal has help, man is not alone. John XIII understood that heaven and earth are working together in the Council. The saints are protecting the work and the faithful on earth are working under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to meet the needs of modernity.
We might say that heaven and earth are united in the holding of the Council the saints of heaven to protect our work, the faithful of the earth continuing in prayer to the Lord, and you, seconding the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in order that the work of all may correspond to the modern expectations and needs of the various peoples of the world.
John XXIII firmly believed that the Holy Spirit was to work through the human endeavors of the Council like any other Ecumenical Council. But is this so? Was John XXIII simply optimistic before a Council turned sour?
Paul VI on the Role of the Holy Spirit
John XXIII did not live to see the conclusion of the Council. Paul VI became the second Vatican II Pope and concluded the Council. Paul VI too clearly saw the work of the Holy Spirit in the Council. In his encyclical Ecclesiam Suam published while the Council was still in session Paul VI clearly saw the Spirit operative, guiding and inspiring the Council Fathers.
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...
Since the Council enjoys the Spirit’s influence, Paul VI shares the same optimistic confidence as John XXIII about the Council’s future success.
In his closing address ending Vatican II, Paul VI teaches that the purpose of the Council was not a religious experiment or psychology, to explain laws or affirm rights, but rather “it was to find in herself, active and alive, the Holy Spirit, the word of Christ...” Vatican II is not an exercise of man directed towards man primarily (though it is explicitly stated that the Council seeks to address the concerns of man caught up in modernity), but instead first and foremost is an act of faith, an encounter with God to rediscover within the Church again the living Spirit of God.
It was to find in herself, active and alive, the Holy Spirit, the word of Christ; and to probe more deeply still the mystery, the plan and the presence of God above and within herself; to revitalize in herself that faith which is the secret of her confidence and of her wisdom, and that love which impels her to sing without ceasing the praises of God.
John Paul II on the Role of the Holy Spirit
John Paul II is the Vatican II Pope, for every action of his was done in reference to the Council and he has perhaps done the most to implement its teachings: “Vatican II has always been, and especially during these years of my Pontificate, the constant reference point of my every pastoral action…” He participated in the Council as a cardinal and took part in the debates and drafting of Dignitatis Humanae and Gaudium et Spes. John Paul II describes his experiences at the Council as “a seminary of the Holy Spirit.”
At the Council the Holy Spirit spoke to the Church in all its universality, which was reflected in the presence of bishops from the whole world and by the presence of representatives of many non-Catholic Churches and communities.
The words of the Council as spoken words of the Spirit hence “represent a deeper insight into the eternal mystery, and point out the paths by those entrusted with the task of bringing this mystery into the contemporary world.”
Shortly after the Council John Paul II while still a cardinal wrote a “study of initiation” on the texts of Vatican II, Sources of Renewal. All who participated in the Council “contracted a debt towards the Holy Spirit…” and Sources of Renewal is part of John Paul II’s response towards this debt (as is his pontificate). It is through the Council that “the word of the Spirit became particularly expressive and decisive for the Church”. Bishops and cardinals are especially indebted since they have the task to translate this divine message into human language. And while this task is human and imperfect, John Paul II as Karol Wojtyła writes that this translating is still authentic “because it contains that which the Spirit ‘said to the Church’ at a particular historical moment.” This debt to the Spirit demands a response of faith to the word of the Spirit. “It would be a mistake not to consider the implementation of Vatican II as a response of faith to the word of God as it proceeded from that Council.”
Elsewhere John Paul II has stated that Vatican II was a “particular gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church.” In his address to the conference on implementing the Council John Paul II repeats that Vatican II is a gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church.
The 1985 Extraordinary Synod
The 1985 Extraordinary Synod was convoked to celebrate and assess Vatican II twenty years later. The Synod’s final report describes the Council as a gift and grace of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit in fact is prompting the Church to embrace “with heartfelt adherence” the teachings of the Council. As such, as gift and grace, Vatican II is “the greatest grace of this century” given by God. Vatican II is compared to the Apostles in the upper room where in both cases “the Holy Spirit has suggested to us what he wishes to say to the church in her journey towards the third millennium.”
Benedict XVI on the Role of the Holy Spirit
As a cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger ascribed to the texts of Vatican II a “prophetic function.” The texts of the Council were in some way ahead of their time and only after crises arose that we discover anew that the Council has already proposed solutions to them.
It should be no wonder that the Vatican II documents possess a propheticity given the teachings of the previous three Popes on the Spirit’s involvement in the Council, a view which Benedict XVI shares. In his audience on Oct 10, 2012 for example Benedict XVI uses the analogy of the Spirit as a painter:
[Vatican II] lies before us like a great fresco, so to speak, painted with the great multiplicity and variety of its elements under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And as if we were standing in front of a large picture, still today we continue to perceive the extraordinary wealth of that moment of grace, to discover in it particular scenes, fragments and pieces of the mosaic.
Like a fresco the Council requires repeated meditations to glean out particular riches, a wealth originating from God Himself.
Like John Paul II, Benedict XVI saw Vatican II as a “school of the Holy Spirit”. It is the Holy Spirit who is “the true driving force of the Council.” The Council Fathers were “motivated by the Holy Spirit”.
Francis on the Role of the Holy Spirit
In Pope Francis’ homily on April 16, 2013, he describes man’s resistance to the Holy Spirit. The Spirit upsets man because “it moves us, it makes us walk, it pushes the Church forward.” He who resists this dynamism of the Spirit wishes to tame Him. One example Francis offers of resistance to the Holy Spirit is Vatican II. The Second Vatican Council is “a beautiful work of the Holy Spirit.” Those who wish to “turn back the clock” because they do not like the Council are identified as those who are stubborn and want to tame the Spirit, i.e. are actively resisting His dynamic impulses.
We have seen that every Pope since Vatican II has understood that the Council is a gift of the Holy Spirit. We must now ask ourselves what is our owed response to this great gift?
Chapter 2: Man’s Response to this Gift of the Spirit
The Vatican II and post-Vatican II papacies have clearly identified the Council as “a beautiful work of the Holy Spirit”, a gift of the Spirit to man. This gift demands a response of man. It is man’s response and attitude towards the gift of the Council that precisely designates Vatican II’s gift-character as an existential hermeneutic, for it places a great demand upon each and every Catholic from the lay person to Pope, and even the whole world to reply to the promptings of the Spirit expressed through this Council.
Pope Francis’ homily mentioned earlier describes the response man ought to not give, namely a resistance and stubbornness to the promptings of the Spirit that seeks to tame the Spirit and His dynamisms by reducing them to the human order. It is an existential stance of disobedience which can lead to defiance. As an act of disobedience, it turns man away inwardly from the currents of the Spirit’s impulse. Man sets himself in opposition to God. Resistance hence results in an existential attitude that fails to perceive the gift-character of the Council as a gift bestowed by the Holy Spirit. It is a fundamental blindness within man’s spirituality and today an imposing danger.
Many today appear to have lost in some respect a joy for the Council. The mentioned problems in the introduction about progressives, radical traditionalists, the specter of a “spirit of Vatican II”, and claims of ambiguity are all attempts to blind man from this one truth that the Council is a gift of the Holy Spirit. There is a spiritual pessimism becoming prevalent amongst those who wish to educate themselves in all matters Vatican II. These are dangers which imperil one’s understanding and existential outlook to the fact of Vatican II’s gift-character, and ultimately one’s spirituality.
The gift-character of Vatican II is a beautiful gift of the Holy Spirit which demands a response of faith. It is a magnificent display of His workings and as a work of God, this content raises the very same drama of faith in Christ. The fierce contentions concerning how to understand Vatican II within Catholicism is analogous to the embittered secular world towards religion for both are a crisis of faith with a vocal population who do not want to see the works of the Spirit at the Council or in the world. It is the same drama of faith for man must choose again whether to obey the promptings of the Spirit within his or her own innermost, personal core.
Vatican II demands a faith perspective for “only from a faith perspective can we see the Council as a gift whose still hidden wealth we must know how to mine.” It is only with the eyes of faith that orientates man existentially to perceive Vatican II’s true nature as gift.
Vatican II as a gift of the Spirit places a debt upon Catholics. The debt is most weighty upon the bishops and cardinals, but all have a share. This debt to the Spirit demands a response of faith. This response is the faithful implementation of the Council. Man must likewise be a witness of the Council to the Church and world. Fundamentally it is an act of obedience to the Magisterium and her authority exercised in an Ecumenical Council. Such obedience is a transcendentally oriented act of obedience to the Triune God and His workings through the Council. It is therefore an act of disbelief to resist the Council or to fail to acknowledge the Council’s gift-character.
There are several points we can take away from this analysis. First, we have seen that every Pope from Vatican II onwards and the 1985 Extraordinary Synod believed that the Spirit was operative within the Council, working through the Council Fathers in translating the divine words of the Spirit into human language in the Council texts. It would therefore be quite erroneous to believe in a narrative which argued that the Council Fathers were duped by a “progressive left” bent on destroying the Church or that the teachings themselves are ambiguous as such views are opposite to how the Magisterium has understood the Spirit’s role within the Council. Such views betray a despair over the real power of the Holy Spirit and His influence in the Council.
Second, since the Holy Spirit was operative within the Council, the Council itself possesses the indelible seal of the Spirit as a gift to the Church. This greatest gift and grace of the 20th century is a font we must return to again and again, and ponder its depths.
Third, it follows from the gift-character of Vatican II that the Council is to be received with a response of faith. A failure to do so is a resistance to the inner impulses of the Holy Spirit such that the individual sets his or herself against the Spirit and His spoken word at the Council. Such a resistance is a disobedience to the Magisterium and God and is an attempt to “tame the Spirit”.
Fourth, the response of faith to the gift of the Spirit to the Church and the world likewise ought to be an act of joy and rejoicing for God has shown Himself in the Council and joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit.
Fifth, when we combine the fact that the Spirit gifted the Church Vatican II and that such a gift demands a response, man now is placed under a debt to the Spirit to defend and expound this precious gift. Man must now bear witness to the truths of the Council to defend the Spirit’s Council from opprobrium, slander, and ignominy by authentically experiencing the Council and passing on its teaching. As Ratzinger said “to defend the true tradition of the Church today means to defend the Council…”
It is for these reasons that the gift hermeneutic of Vatican II is properly an existential one because it places a great demand upon man. It is the same demand all men face, namely the drama of faith in God. Those who reject or spurn Vatican II are analogous to the Jews at the coming of Christ. They accepted what God has said in their traditions until Jesus. Jesus represented a break, a test of faith between those who choose to listen to what God has spoken through the God-Man or reject it. Jesus represented something new, unfamiliar to the previous Jewish tradition even though that very tradition contained within it signposts pointing to His coming and continuity with that very tradition. Vatican II is analogous. No one saw the Council coming except John XXIII who mysteriously heard and knew the promptings of the Spirit. The Council was something new, unfamiliar to previous Councils while remaining in continuity with signposts in the great Tradition. It is a test of faith as to whether one accepts that God spoke in the Council like when God spoke to man in Christ. Man’s response to this invitation is properly existential. Man can respond in faith, ignore it, reject it, or even hate it. Such are actions and attitudes of the spirit within man of his personal existential outlook towards the encounter with the Spirit in Vatican II. This is why Vatican II like every other Ecumenical Council is a source for controversy.
This essay was rather limited in scope. There are several more hermeneutics which need to be investigated in order to appreciate more fully the Second Vatican Council. The hermeneutics for the meaning of pastoral, aggiornamento, and continuity are some examples of topics in future articles.
 Opening Speech to the Council, link: https://vatican2voice.org/91docs/opening_speech.htm.
 Ecclesiam Suam 32.
 Address During the Last General Meeting of the Second Vatican Council. Link: http://www.vatican.va/content/paul-vi/en/speeches/1965/documents/hf_p-vi_spe_19651207_epilogo-concilio.html
 Fidei Depositum.
 Crossing the Threshold of Hope, 159.
 Ibid, 159.
 Ibid, 159-160.
 John Paul II uses this phrase to describe his study, Sources of Renewal, 11.
 Ibid, 10.
 Ibid, 10.
 Ibid, 10.
 Ibid, 11.
 Address to the Council of the International Catholic Charismatic Renewal Office, Mar. 14, 1992. Link: http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/speeches/1992/march/documents/hf_jp-ii_spe_19920314_charismatic-renewal.html.
 Address to the Conference Studying the Implementation of the Second Vatican Council, Feb. 27, 2000. LInk: http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/speeches/2000/jan-mar/documents/hf_jp-ii_spe_20000227_vatican-council-ii.html
 The Final Report of the 1985 Extraordinary Synod, 2. Link: https://www.ewtn.com/catholicism/library/final-report-of-the-1985-extraordinary-synod-2561.
 Ibid, 3.
 Ibid, 7c.
 Ibid, 7c.
 The Ratzinger Report, 34.
 General Audience, Oct. 10, 2012. Link: http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/audiences/2012/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20121010.html.
 Address to the Council of the International Catholic Charismatic Renewal Office, Mar. 14, 1992, John Paul II.
 Sources of Renewal, 10.
 “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…” Gal 5:22-23.
 The Ratzinger Report, 31.
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