Hermeneutics of Vatican II
Part III.2.4: The Hermeneutic of Aggiornamento
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
2.4. The Hermeneutic of Aggiornamento
The term aggiornamento is another object of scorn for many interpreters of Vatican II. This word can be said to be a one-word summary of the Council. Aggiornamento represents the adopted style and approach of Vatican II. Aggiornamento is hence a stumbling block for some. According to one narrative, the term aggiornamento ushered in a new era of modernism within the Church. For another school of thought aggiornamento is a source for inspiration. The first school is represented by the ultraconservatives of course, and the latter in some respect represents the more progressive strands. Aggiornamento itself means updating, and so the radical progressives took the theme of updating and perverted it by attempting to secularize the Catholic faith according to the whimsical trends of the modern world. Both schools interpret aggiornamento in the same manner, only one pretends that this view is authentic Catholicism, i.e. the progressives, whereas the ultraconservatives rightly condemn it as modernism. Both schools either ignore or fail to take into consideration the meaning of the term as understood by the Magisterium.
2.4.1. Aggiornamento according to John XXIII
John XXIII’s vision of the new Ecumenical Council, Vatican II, was that it be both pastoral and doctrinal. This both-and approach is described as aggiornamento. John XXIII’s vision of how aggiornamento is to be applied to the Council is perhaps best described in his opening speech to the Council Fathers.
In it he stated that the “greatest concern of the Ecumenical Council” is that “the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously.” This outlines two duties of the Council, to defend the truth of the faith, but also to proclaim it, to teach it more effectively. Both aspects are to be taken up in a pastoral way. The doctrines of the Church are to “influence the numerous fields of human activity”, but this cannot be done in a manner that compromises the truth: “it is necessary first of all that the Church should never depart from the sacred patrimony of truth received from the Fathers.” And a little later on, John XXIII repeats:
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. It is a patrimony not well received by all, but always a rich treasure available to men of good will.
Our duty is not only to guard this precious treasure, as if we were concerned only with antiquity, but to dedicate ourselves with an earnest will and without fear to that work which our era demands of us, pursuing thus the path which the Church has followed for twenty centuries.
John XXIII clearly outlined that the method the Church is to pursue is a path that does not depart from the doctrines of the faith. Doctrinal truths are to form and guide the path the Second Vatican Council takes in dialoguing with modern man.
Doctrine is to influence the manifold fields of human activity which includes both intellectual and political, families and societal life, and such an endeavor requires a new look at the conditions of modernity so that the Church, while remaining faithful to the deposit of faith, can engage the world in these new conditions and forms of life. The Church in Vatican II is to “step forward” towards “doctrinal penetration” and a “formation of consciousness” that engages the modern world, its modes of thought and research methodologies for the sake of presenting the faith in a renewed manner. “The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another.”
The approach of John XXIII was a stark contrast to the path the Roman Curia desired the Council to follow. Some authors have suggested that the path of the Roman Curia was a desire to defend the Church theologically from the assaults of the modern world by raising up an ideological fortress and entering a siege mentality. This vision of the Roman Curia appeared not only to be in conflict with John XXIII’s vision, but even to be working against it. Yves Congar remarked in his Journal:
One had the impression—confirmed by 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.
John XXIII’s vision of the Church and the Council was much different. Aggiornamento. Update the Church in accordance to the Church’s Christocentric identity, and conform herself ever deeper to this identity rooted in faith, and with this identity confront the world, not out of a spirit of combativeness or condemnation, but in order to bring the world into the Church, an evangelical integration through dialogue. Truth is proposed for man to encounter. Truth is proposed, not imposed. As one historian summarized:
In his [John XXIII’s] view, the Church which he was leading had less need to confront the world around it by either affirmation or condemnation than to update itself in relation to its own true self in order to better respond to the new challenges with which the world was confronting it. In short, it had to adapt itself to the world around it, while remaining faithful to its principles, instead of simply presenting the world with its own conviction or with a blunt rejection. Or, again, it had to surrender its age-old intransigence and try to cultivate opportunities for a new integration.
The fact of this in part explains the two typical reactions to the Council of the ultraconservatives and radical progressives. As Alberigo observed,
For Catholicism to live like a besieged fortress of truth was a condition of apparent strength and substantial weakness. From this point of view, one can understand why some people denounced the “delay” in the convocation of the Council and why others instead were convinced that it had come “too soon”.
It was two very distinctive ways of theologizing. John XXIII’s way was in some respect a ressourcement, a “return to the sources” inspired by the nouvelle theologie. Ormund Rush in his Vision of Vatican II identifies aggiornamento with ressourcement, for the updating of the Church was done by returning to the sources of her faith by looking back at Scripture and the Patristics. The original sources of the faith served as inspiration for the Church to look forward to the world and upon herself, ad extra and ad intra, in the great task of aggiornamento.
2.4.2. Paul VI on Aggiornamento
Paul VI in his encyclical Ecclesiam Suam presents us with the basic contours of the meaning of aggiornamento. He wrote:
The purpose of this exhortation of Ours is not to lend substance to the belief that perfection consists in rigidly adhering to the methods adopted by the Church in the past and refusing to countenance the practical measures commonly thought to be in accord with the character of our time. These measures can be put to the test. We cannot forget Pope John XXIII's word aggiornamento which We have adopted as expressing the aim and object of Our own pontificate. Besides ratifying it and confirming it as the guiding principle of the Ecumenical Council, We want to bring it to the notice of the whole Church. It should prove a stimulus to the Church to increase its ever growing vitality and its ability to take stock of itself and give careful consideration to the signs of the times, always and everywhere "proving all things and holding fast that which is good" with the enthusiasm of youth.
The meaning of aggiornamento is immediately placed within the context of the dialectic between the roles of doctrine and the pastoral nature of Vatican II. Paul VI notes that there are various modern views which need to be tested according to the truths of the faith. The Church in her encounter with modernity needs to assess these “signs of the times” and be able to present her doctrines according to its needs. Aggiornamento is hence a call for the Church to develop her understanding of Christian doctrine in order to present the content of faith through her pastoral activity to modern man and provide an answer to his questions. Aggiornamento is the call and demand for the Church to increase her “vitality”, that is, the demand to renewal as we have described earlier.
Aggiornamento is precisely the task of encountering the Church’s own doctrines more deeply so as to be able to faithfully proclaim its contents to modern man; and so such a task is a demand of the faith. Faith requires aggiornamento, because the world is constantly changing and man has ever new questions to which the Church must be ready to provide an answer (1 Pet. 3:15). It is only when aggiornamento is interpreted accordingly within the context of faith that we can begin to understand why Paul VI stated that aggiornamento is the “guiding principle of the Ecumenical Council”.
The Final Report of the 1985 Synod affirmed that the meaning of aggiornamento cannot be interpreted as either a kind of accommodation with modernity that leads to the secularization of the Church as the radical progressives have interpreted it, nor as the closing in of the Church upon herself as an isolated community as some conservative commentators demand. Some yearn to erect a Catholic bastion to withstand the siege of modernity without realizing that the faith is not for the few elite withdrawn from the world, but for the masses. The Church is a Church for the poor. In order for the Church to be a Church for the poor, she must go out to the four corners of the earth and preach the Good News. She must enter humanity despite how dirty and soiled humanity is in order to try and save all, like Christ who despite our dirtiness humbled Himself by taking on human nature, lived among us and hung from a tree.
Opposed to these misinterpretations of the meaning of aggiornamento, it must be affirmed that aggiornamento “is a missionary openness for the integral salvation of the world”. Aggiornamento is identified by the Synod Fathers as both a pastoral activity of the Church, to purify the realities of modernity according to the truths of faith, and as an act of witnessing to the truth. Aggiornamento as a pastoral activity requires the Church to live out her faith in witness to the truths of man and God, thereby transforming the world according to Revelation and being a sign to the times.
 John XXIII’s Opening Speech. URL:
 Cf. Alberigo’s History of Vatican II, vol 1, especially 136-140. Joseph Ratzinger’s Theological Highlights of Vatican II.
 My Journal of the Council, 5.
 Fouilloux, in History of Vatican II, vol I, 72.
 Alberigo, History of Vatican II, vol I, 504.
 Vision of Vatican II, 17-21.
 Ecclesiam Suam 50.
 “From this paschal perspective, which affirms the unity of the cross and the resurrection, the true and false meaning of so-called "aggiornamento" is discovered. An easy accommodation that could lead to the secularization of the Church is to be excluded. Also excluded is an immobile closing in upon itself of the community of the faithful.” The Final Report, 3.
 Jean Danielou, Prayer is a Political Problem, 1-13.
 The Final Report, 3.
 “Affirmed instead is a missionary openness for the integral salvation of the world. Through this all truly human values not only are accepted but energetically defended the dignity of the human person, fundamental human rights, peace, freedom from oppression' poverty and injustice. But integral salvation is obtained only if these human realities are purified and further elevated through grace and familiarity with God, through Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit.” Ibid, 3.
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