Rough Draft

Hermeneutics of Vatican II
Part II: Continuity or Discontinuity?

By Jeremy Hausotter
Sept. 27, 2020


For almost anyone who has taken even the smallest peek into the subject matter of Vatican II, he or she knows that one of the major questions surrounding the Council is how to faithfully interpret Vatican II according to Sacred Tradition (or whether this is even possible)? Does Vatican II represent a continuity or discontinuity when we look back upon the great Catholic Tradition, or perhaps both? On the macro level, is Vatican II fundamentally at odds with previous Catholic Tradition or is it continuous with it? This is perhaps the fundamental question to ask about the Council. These types of questions revolves around whether one adopts a hermeneutics of continuity or rupture, and within each hermeneutical option is an array of opinions.

One could adopt a view in favor of continuity such that the continuity of Vatican II is over-emphasized to such an extent that the Council’s teachings are understood as adding nothing new to the Magisterium’s teachings, effectively stripping the “newness” character from them and ignores the historical facts concerning the Church’s struggles against modernism. One could adopt another view that also asserts there is continuity but also reform, macrocontinuity in matters of faith and morals with microruptures in the reforms of the Church the Council proposed. These microruptures I will claim are the result of a renewal of the Church breaking away from some historical practices and a change in weltanschauung or denkformen.

Those who adopt a hermeneutics of rupture or discontinuity make for strange bedfellows. One the one hand, there are those who represent an extreme progressive wing within the Church that interpret the reforms of Vatican II as a rupture from the pre-Conciliar Church. These progressive reformers understand the project of Vatican II incomplete, that the Council did not go far enough in its reforms; and so these reformers propagated a progressive “spirit of the Council” zeitgeist far removed from the original spirit and letter of the Council itself. Some in fact, such as Edward Schillebeeckx, go so far as to claim that the very modernism vehemently rejected by the Magisterium prior to Vatican II actually follows from the true “spirit” and teachings of the Council.[2]

On the other hand, there are those who equally interpret Vatican II as a rupture but take this hermeneutic in the opposite direction in favor of the pre-Conciliar Magisterium as representing “true Catholicism” and oppose the “liberalism” or “modernism” of Vatican II. These thinkers see themselves as the true bearers of Catholic tradition and err towards an extreme conservatism and traditionalism (such as the SSPX). Notice that there is a general pattern where a number of thinkers from the radical left and right who both accept Vatican II as teaching and promoting modernism.

The progressives favor the future Church over the present Church and while being especially against the Church of the past whereas the traditionalists pit the Church of the past against the present Church. Both schools, in dialectically opposing ways, reject the Church of the present in light of a future-oriented program. The progressives want a new future disconnected from the Church’s history and the traditionalists seek to reform the Church in terms of an anachronistic past. For both schools the present Church represents an entity of foreign identity to each’s pure eidos of what the Church ought to be, and hence strive to implement their projects accordingly to their own image.

What is affirmed here in this essay in opposition to the progressive and traditionalist approaches is the principle that “No council is to be interpreted as fundamentally against the ecclesial tradition.”[3] It will be argued that Vatican II is best interpreted in terms of a macrocontinuity in respect to the deposit of faith and authority, and microrupture in terms of renewal and restoration.


Chapter Endnotes

[1] General sources of reference: Vatican II: The Crisis and the Promise by Alan Schreck, Magisterium: Teacher and Guardian of the Faith by Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., The Reception of Vatican II ed by Matthew Levering, The History of Vatican II ed by Guiseppe Alberigo, What Happened at Vatican II by John O’Malley.

[2] Cf. Daniel Speed Thompson’s The Language of Dissent. I caution the reader however since this work can undermine one’s faith given that it is an extended argument for the necessity of dissent.

[3] Otto Hermann Pesch, Das Zweite Vaticanische Konzil: Vorgeschichte-Verlauf-Nachgeschichte, 149, quoted from Ormund Rush’s Still Interpreting Vatican II, 7.

Chapter 1: The Hermeneutic of Continuity

John XXIII’s Speech Opening the Council

In John XXIII’s speech opening the first session of the Second Vatican Council he outlines the purpose and plan for the Council.[1] The main task of the Council is identified to be that “the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine be kept and taught in a more effective way.”[2] This new more effective way is required due to the demands of modernity with its new situations, entailing a need for a new way of announcing the kergyma.

This new way of examining the faith by the Council “intends to transmit integral, not diminished, undistorted doctrine Catholic”.[3] Recall that integral means whole. The whole deposit of faith is to be transmitted in a new way that stands in continuity with previous Councils, “without taking anything away, in that accurate way of thinking and formulating the words that stands out above all in the acts of the Councils of Trent and Vatican I”.[4]

This new way retains the truth of the faith for Catholic doctrine is certain and immutable, but this does not mean that our understanding of this inheritance cannot be deepened and examined more fully. Modernity demands such a deepening. The truths are the same but how they are announced is different while retaining the same meaning of those truths.[5]

For John XXIII, the defining practice of this new way of addressing modernity is not to condemn errors as in the manner of past Councils but to apply the “medicine of mercy” and more clearly expose the value of the Catholic faith and its truths, to propose truths, not impose. The concern of the Council is in the promotion and protection of truth to give Christ to all of mankind. In the words of John XXIII, Vatican II is to raise “the torch of Catholic truth…”[6]

Paul VI on the Council’s Continuity

John XXIII believed that the Second Vatican Council would usher in a new Pentecost within the Church. In Part I of this series on Vatican II’s hermeneutics we have shown that John XXIII clearly believed that the Holy Spirit would help guide the process and teachings of the Council. Was the Council successful though? John XXIII certainly held that the Council would successfully present the deposit of faith in continuity. Was Vatican II in continuity with the Church of the past or did “progressives” hijack the Council? John XXIII died during the Council and so it was Paul VI who continued the Council’s work to its end. Paul VI also believed with John XXIII that the Council stood in continuity with the Church’s great Tradition.

Ecclesiam Suam on Continuity

            Paul VI’s encyclical Ecclesiam Suam was published while Vatican II was still in session. The task of the Council is “dealing once more with the doctrine de Ecclesia and of defining it, that it has been called the continuation and complement of the First Vatican Council.”[7] There are three conclusions we can take from this: 1) the Council intends to define doctrine; 2) this new doctrine is in continuity with previous teachings with Vatican I particularly mentioned; and 3) Vatican II is understood as continuing and complementing the doctrine of Vatican I. Vatican I was interrupted with the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war and remained an unfinished Council. Vatican II hence in some respect is supposed to finish where Vatican I left off. Joseph Ratzinger likewise made a similar statement.[8]

The first conclusion that Vatican II intended to define doctrine is a surprising one for many today since many Catholics are under the impression that Vatican II in effect did not define any doctrine, a topic which deserves its own special treatment. We will only note that Paul VI clearly understands the opposite of this false impression.[9] It should not be a surprise given that Dignitatis Humanae explicitly claims to develop new doctrine.[10]

Elsewhere in the encyclical Paul VI explicitly links this task of developing and penetrating more fully the “teachings of Christ” with the “help and light of the Holy Spirit”. The success of the Council rests upon “our readiness to follow His inspirations.”[11]

Ecclesiam Suam and the Meaning of Reform

The continuity of Vatican II is itself however a continuity of reform. Ecumenical Councils not only define doctrine and crush heresies but also reform the Church. Vatican II is identified as a Council of reform. Paul VI writes:

How often in past centuries has the determination to instigate reforms been associated with the holding of ecumenical councils! Let it be so once more; but this time not with a view to removing any specific heresies concerning the Church, or to remedying any public disorders — for disorders of this sort have not, thank God, raised their head in our midst — but rather with a view to infusing fresh spiritual vigor into Christ's Mystical Body considered as a visible society, and to purifying it from the defects of many of its members and urging it on to the attainment of new virtue.[12]

The question now arises as to what kind of reform does Vatican II promote? Paul VI gives us some guidelines as to how this reform is to take place. First, this reform does not involve changing the essence of the Church or her structure. Paul VI explicitly rejects such an interpretation.

Obviously, there can be no question of reforming the essential nature of the Church or its basic and necessary structure. To use the word reform in that context would be to misuse it completely.[13]

This entails a grave responsibility to guard the deposit of faith.[14]

This reforming hence is not about changing doctrine or the Church’s essence but preserving the features Christ has impressed upon the Church. A better word for this reforming is restoration. The concern of Vatican II is the restoration of the Church to its original image.[15] Ratzinger described this restoration similarly as a renewal where the measure is Christ and the objective.[16]

The restoration of the Church however has its dangers, namely that some who think that this reformation should entail adapting the Church to the ways of the secular world or in light of philosophies and theologies incompatible with the Catholic faith. Those who are not rooted in the Church’s faith and laws face the temptation to adjust the Church according to the world’s standard of living. To avoid this danger requires a strengthening of faith rooted in the Church.[17] Catholics must remember that “We must be in the world, but not of it.”[18]

The Liturgy as an Example of this Reform

One example of how Vatican II reformed the Church was the constitution on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium. For now the debates surrounding the liturgy, the post-conciliar abuses, and the question of the Novus Ordo “versus” the Traditional Latin Mass are bracketed aside as too complex of an issue for our purposes here. Instead I want to focus precisely on how the Council Fathers of Vatican II understood the liturgical reforms within Sacrosanctum Concilium.

Joseph Ratzinger at the time of Vatican II was a peritus, a theological advisor, and participated in all four sessions of the Council. His reflections of the Council can be found in Theological Highlights of Vatican II. According to him, the debates on the liturgy freed the Church “from the ‘hierarchical narrowness’ of the previous hundred years, and returned to its sacramental origins.”[19] Some historical accretions had to be pruned. “The return to the sources was to have its effect especially in the Mass liturgy. Ritual rigidity, which almost obliterated the meaning of individual actions, had to be defrosted.”[20] Cardinal Frings in the debates on Sacrosanctum Concilium located the renewal of the liturgy within the developing liturgical renewal within the papacy itself (as Pius X had started some reforms which Pius XII continued), stating that: “The schema before us is like the last will and testament of Pius XII, who, following in the footsteps of Saint Pius X, boldly began a renewal of the sacred liturgy.”[21]

Fruits of this reform, according to Ratzinger, include priority given to the Sunday liturgy over saints’ feast days, the restoration of the liturgy of the word, liturgy understood as dialogical, emphasis on community Masses over private, a revival of the homily, rearrangement of Scripture readings to enhance their liturgical accessibility, vernacular Masses, and more.[22]

The historian Guiseppe Alberigo, author and editor of the five volume History of Vatican II likewise share’s Ratzinger’s interpretation of the liturgical changes implemented by Vatican II. We read for example

And, in fact, the constitution Sacrosanctum concilium was inspired by the great ancient liturgical tradition that had been revived and mediated by decades of experience of the liturgical movement. The notion people sometimes have that Vatican II set out in a radically new direction springs from a hasty and superficial reading that mistakes the return to the ancient liturgical practices for subversive innovation. Reviving the active participation of the faithful instead of reducing liturgies to dry and remote ritualism was anything but an innovation![23]

Paul VI’s Closing Address

Paul VI’s Address closing the Second Vatican Council proposes some hermeneutics for understanding the Council. He teaches for example that Vatican II is a study of man in modernity, that the parable of the Good Samaritan is the model of spirituality for the Council, the Holy Spirit's involvement, and that the richness of the Council’s texts flow directly from contact with the living God.[24] Paul VI also teaches within this address that Vatican II’s teachings are in continuity and faithful to the deposit of faith.

This council hands over to posterity not only the image of the Church but also the patrimony of her doctrine and of her commandments, the "deposit" received from Christ and meditated upon through centuries, lived and expressed now and clarified in so many of its parts, settled and arranged in its integrity.[25]

Later on Paul VI quotes John XXIII’s words from his speech on the opening of the Council again reaffirming the Council’s continuity.[26]

Reform against Isms and the Antimodernistic Neurosis

The brief discussion of the liturgy as an example of continuity and reform is an element of the wider project of Vatican II to re-present the faith in a new way while retaining its immutable truths. There is macrocontinuity and microruptures. Many of the microruptures involved breaking away with practices that developed out of the medieval and post-Tridentine period. Alberigo remarks that

A comparison of the texts of the preparatory schemas with the documents finally accepted helps us measure the substantial continuity with Christian tradition as understood in Catholicism, but also the discontinuity with the Catholicism of the medieval Christian centuries and post-Tridentine period. No substantial novelties emerged, but an effort was made (even if not always satisfactory) to restate the ancient faith in language intelligible to contemporary humanity and freed of the more or less parasitical encrustations that had hardened in place over the centuries.[27]

Since the time of Pius IX and Pius X, Ratzinger observes, a sort of antimodernistic neurosis had settled within Catholic thought. The Syllabus of Errors in a way inaugurated an era within Catholicism that opposed itself to whatever was “modern”, thus creating a sort of neurosis in Catholic thinking. This generated a “secret fear and mistrust of any theological expression of modern historical and philosophical thought.”[28]

The Second Vatican Council was announced in 1959 and three years of intense scholarly research went into drafting preliminary schemata by the Curia. These schemata represented this neurosis. They were written as a “line of defense”, suffering “cramped thinking” with a “theology of negations and prohibitions…”[29] The early debates of the first session of Vatican II rejected this approach. Sacrosanctum Concilium, the first document passed by the Council, represented a break with this pattern of “anti-isms” and defensive posture to undertake “a Christian offensive”.[30]

The primary debate in the first session was perhaps not on the liturgy or first drafts of what became Dei Verbum, but rather what attitude of mind would guide the Council. Would it be an attitude of distrust and defense against modernity or a breaking away from a mindset that dominated Catholic thought for 100 years, and arguably since Trent? Vatican II became a new beginning for the Church precisely because the Council Fathers decided to break away from this attitude while remaining in continuity with the Tradition.[31] “The Council had resolutely set itself against perpetuating a one-sided anti-Modernism and so had chosen a new and positive approach.”[32] Alberigo states the matter more forcefully. This rejection of the post-Tridentine attitude in addition to the belief that fidelity to tradition required a renewal in understanding the deposit of faith is the cause and purpose of Vatican II.[33]

What the Council brought home to the Church was the need of realizing without delay that Christianity had finished its tridentine age and must henceforth break new ground and take new forms. Vatican II saw that if a creative response was to be possible, that is, a response arising out of renewed fidelity to the gospel, the Church must shake off its inertia and realize that the walls surrounding the Christian citadel had fallen and that further resistance would be oppression rather than self-defense.[34]


For some it is precisely this reform that was labeled progressive because it was new and a source of distrust. It is a mislabeled characterization because the term “progressive” has been often associated with the more liberal interpretations of Vatican II that attempted reforms which went far beyond what the texts and Council Fathers themselves intended. The Council Fathers intended something else from such a progressivism: a return to the sources to engage modernity in a mode or style similar to the Patristic Fathers. This “progressive” attitude in breaking away with the scholastic method represents both a progressivism and conservatism, a microrupture and macrocontinuity. The historian John O’Malley concludes that the “progressives” argued

That their positions were more conservative than those of the conservatives because they were retrievals of traditions fundamental and ancient. His Beatitude Maximos IV Saigh articulated this basic premise more clearly than any other figure at the council. He was the most daring progressive because he was the most radically conservative. His interventions consistently invoked ancient traditions of the church to challenge the status quo, and he thus opened up for the council fathers a new breadth in the choices they had to make.[35]

This “conservativism” of the “progressives” did not involve a separation of the post-Tridentine period from the conciliar teachings of Vatican II however. Ormund Rush notes, for example, that Trent and Vatican I make up half of the references to Ecumenical Councils, and in terms of papal teachings, Pius XII is referenced 50% of the time.[36] Yves Congar gives numbers behind these claims.[37] There are 93 quotations from prior Councils, of which 21 are from Trent and 24 from Vatican I. There are also 201 quotes or references from 92 acts of Pius XII.


When we look back at the 19th and 20th centuries on the Church’s war against Modernism a subtle distinction needs to be made. The Popes and Churchmen made a valiant and heroic stand against the heresies which arose. The Church needed a defense. This was a historical necessity at the time (which Ratzinger acknowledged).[38] The problem however is that this generated suspicion of anything modern or new. It became easy to claim “modern” ideas are modernist and it is this confusion of all things modern with modernism that for some theologians created a sort of neurosis against all things modern, which hence became their pattern or way of thinking.


It was this particular problem theologians like Ratzinger and Congar took issue with, for as Ratzinger put it, it was time for the Church to end this siege mentality and begin an assault of proposing truths to man in a new manner through Vatican II. The Council became a clash of two weltanschauung or denkformen[39], one which distrusted modernity and favored a highly philosophical scholastic approach that was largely represented by the Roman Curia, and a second way that sought engagement with the world through the encounter with the original sources of faith, Scripture and early traditions of the Church represented by those who sought a more pastoral and ecumenical approach such as what John XXIII announced.[40]

We find that not only the Council Fathers interpret the Council as being in continuity but that the conciliar texts themselves claim such continuity with the Church’s tradition. One example of this is Dignitatis Humanae.

The Example of Dignitatis Humanae

Dignitatis Humanae is a controversial teaching for many Catholics who lean towards the traditionalist spectrum of Church politics. It appears on the surface to be in contradiction with the 19th century condemnations on religious freedom (when it really is not and I refer the reader my Commentary on Dignitatis Humanae  Parts I, II, and IV especially). What is important for our purposes here is the fact that the conciliar text itself understands its teachings to be in continuity with Church doctrine.

We read in the first article of the text for example that the teachings of Dignitatis Humanae “leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.”[41] The Council Fathers here explicitly claim continuity with Catholic doctrine regarding the duties towards the true religion which was developed in the 19th century papal encyclicals.

The Council Fathers also explicitly claim to develop the teachings of recent teachings concerning the rights of man: “Over and above all this, the council intends to develop the doctrine of recent popes on the inviolable rights of the human person and the constitutional order of society.”[42] This development of doctrine, according to the text, is understood to be in continuity. In the first paragraph of the same article the Council Fathers describe themselves as searching doctrine to bring new things in continuity with previous teachings: “To this end, it [Vatican II] 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.”[43]

The conciliar text, while claiming continuity, resulted in microruptures in Church practice. The 19th century papacy denied religious freedom vehemently (as it should since the notion rejected was grounded in relativism), whereas now the papacy ardently defended religious freedom (especially the pontificate of John Paul II) as defined in Dignitatis Humanae (which is not grounded in the same principles of the condemned views of religious freedom from the 19th century). This global defense of religious freedom entailed a change in how the Church saw herself in the world’s politics and governments.

These practices resulted in the abandonment of the concordant system in Church-state policy making.[44] Different state governments rewrote parts of their constitutions to include statements granting religious freedom, even in Catholic dominant countries such as Spain and Italy, at the request of the Vatican. John Paul II’s defense and promotion of religious liberty, it can be argued, resulted in the collapse of the Soviet Union.[45] The political revolution in communist Poland, for example, was not a violent movement utilizing force but a religious one inspired by truths concerning man, his rights and destiny.

Other Statements on Continuity within the Vatican II Texts

Dignitatis Humanae is not the only text which declared its continuity with Tradition. We read for example in Gaudium et Spes 58 that the Council’s teachings on evangelization and contact with other cultures are consistent with previous Catholic teachings.[46] The very first article of Lumen Gentium likewise states that the Council intends its fidelity to previous councils:

Since the Church is in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race, it desires now to unfold more fully to the faithful of the Church and to the whole world its own inner nature and universal mission. This it intends to do following faithfully the teaching of previous councils.[47]

Dei Verbum likewise appeals to continuity. In the first article the Council explicitly identifies itself as teaching “authentic doctrine” continuous with Vatican I and Trent.

Therefore, following in the footsteps of the Council of Trent and of the First Vatican Council, this present council wishes to set forth authentic doctrine on divine revelation and how it is handed on, so that by hearing the message of salvation the whole world may believe, by believing it may hope, and by hoping it may love.[48]

Citing Lateran V, Unitatis Redintegratio states “Every renewal of the Church is essentially grounded in an increase of fidelity to her own calling.”[49]

Sacrosanctum Concilium likewise states its intentions to be continuous with Catholic Tradition and does so multiple times. We saw previously that the liturgical reforms promulgated by the Council are supposed to be understood as a return to traditional practices according to authorities such as Ratzinger and Alberigo. The conciliar text itself likewise makes this claim. We read in article 4 two such appeals: 1) tradition is appealed to in the Council’s declaration that each rite is of equal dignity and right; 2) the revision of rites needs to be done in light of tradition.

Lastly, in faithful obedience to tradition, the sacred Council declares that holy Mother Church holds all lawfully acknowledged rites to be of equal right and dignity; that she wishes to preserve them in the future and to foster them in every way. The Council also desires that, where necessary, the rites be revised carefully in the light of sound tradition, and that they be given new vigor to meet the circumstances and needs of modern times.[50]

In section 23 on norms for the reform of the liturgy the Council explicitly identified that “sound tradition” needs to be a guiding principle for such renewal.[51] Tradition needs to be retained and a source of inspiration for reform. And we see this when the Vatican II text proposes its reforms.

In Chapter IV on The Divine Office Sacrosanctum Concilium cites tradition five times for its renewal.[52] The next chapter on The Liturgical Year likewise cites tradition three more times for its source of inspiration of renewal.[53] Tradition is also cited in the reforms on Sacred Music.[54]


The Decree on the Catholic Churches of the Eastern Rite, Orientalium Ecclesiarum, likewise looks to tradition for its teachings and renewal. In the teachings on the eastern rite patriarchs tradition is cited twice when the Council teaches that the rights and privileges of the patriarchs are to be re-established.[55]

The Post-Conciliar Church

We have seen that before and during the Council that Vatican II understood itself to be in continuity with Tradition and previous Ecumenical Councils. There is macrocontinuity while microruptures in favor of reform, restoration, and renewal where there were attitudes and practices which inhibited the exercise of Catholicism in a more full manner. This was why there was, for example, a liturgical renewal within the Council and a break from the antimodernistic negative approach characterized by 19th and early 20th century Magisterium. The post-conciliar Magisterium likewise interpreted Vatican II to be within continuity.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

Just months after the Council closed the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (CDF) under Cardinal Ottaviani issued a letter concerning how to interpret Vatican II. In this letter the CDF affirms that Vatican II taught with authority for all that had been proposed or decreed was done so under the influence of the Holy Spirit in the universal assembly of bishops with the Pope presiding over.[56]

The Extraordinary Synod of 1985

The Extraordinary Synod of 1985 was convoked 20 years after Vatican II in order to assess, verify, promote and reexperience the Council, its Spirit and collegiality.[57] The Synod twice affirms that the Second Vatican Council is faithful to the deposit of faith:

Unanimously and joyfully we also verify that the Council is a legitimate and valid expression and interpretation of the deposit of faith as it is found in Sacred Scripture and in the living tradition of the Church. Therefore we are determined to progress further along the path indicated to us by the Council.[58]

The second affirmation of the Council’s continuity is in the section on hermeneutics for interpreting the Council:

Moreover, the Council must be understood in continuity with the great tradition of the Church, and at the same time we must receive light from the Council's own doctrine for today's Church and the men of our time. The Church is one and the same throughout all the councils.[59]

The post-conciliar Magisterium here has made itself clear: Vatican II must be interpreted as in continuity with Catholic tradition and the previous Councils.[60] It would hence be a definite mistake to interpret Vatican II otherwise since in doing so one is disobeying what the Magisterium has spoken concerning the proper hermeneutics for interpreting the Council. It is analogous to the case when one ignores the hermeneutical principles put forth by the Magisterium for interpreting Scripture, for doing so in either case endangers one’s faith while also disobeying the Magisterium’s authority. Vatican II is not only in continuity with the deposit of faith for as the Synod affirms the Council “remains the ‘Magna Charta’ for the future.”[61]


Chapter Endnotes

[1] Address on the Occasion of the Solemn Opening of the Most Holy Council, Oct. 11, 1962. Note that the English quotes are translated by Google since I do not know Italian. While not ideal it does give us an idea of what is being said while underscoring that there is a degree of uncertainty as to the accuracy of the translation. Feel free to reach out to if you wish to supply better translations. I would be most grateful.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “This certain and immutable doctrine, to which faithful assent must be given, needs to be deepened and explained according to what is required by our times. Indeed, the deposit of the Faith is different, that is, the truths that are contained in our venerable doctrine, the way in which they are announced is another, but always in the same sense and in the same meaning.” Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ecclesiam Suam 30.

[8] “Both Trent and Vatican Council I set up bulwarks for the faith to assure it and to protect it; Vatican Council II turned itself to a new task, building on the work of the two previous Councils.” Theological Highlights of Vatican II, 23.

[9] As indicated by his words here in his encyclical and also his speech closing Vatican II for example.

[10] Cf. Dignitatis Humanae 1, also Lumen Gentium 1.

[11] “And so 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, our eagerness to inquire more fully and more deeply into the genuine teaching of Christ and its legitimate and necessary development in the course of history, and our earnest resolve to make of divine truth an argument for union, understanding, and harmony among men and not a reason for dividing them in sterile discussions and regrettable rivalries. Thus may the Council be a source of glory for God, joy for His Church, and edification for the world.” Ecclesiam Suam 32.

[12] Ecclesiam Suam 44.

[13] Ecclesiam Suam 46.

[14] “We hold in our possession that great heritage of truth and holiness which characterizes the Catholic Church of the present day, preserving intact the living heritage of the original apostolic tradition.

That is our boast, if you like. It is rather our reason for giving thanks continually to God. It is also the reason why we feel ourselves bound by a graver responsibility before God, to whom we are accountable for so great a benefit, and before the Church in which we must arouse this same conviction together with the desire and resolve to guard this treasure, this "deposit," as St. Paul calls it.” Ecclesiam Suam 46.

[15] “In this context, therefore, when we speak about reform we are not concerned to change things, but to preserve all the more resolutely the characteristic features which Christ has impressed on His Church. Or rather, we are concerned to restore to the Church that ideal of perfection and beauty that corresponds to its original image, and that is at the same time consistent with its necessary, normal and legitimate growth from its original, embryonic form into its present structure.” Ecclesiam Suam 47.

[16] “But the measure of the renewal is Christ, as scripture witnesses him. And if the renewal seeks to think through and to speak the Gospel of Christ in a way understandable to contemporary man - i.e. in a contemporary fashion (aggiornamento means bringing up to date), then the objective is precisely that Christ may become understood.” Theological Highlights of Vatican II, 2.

[17] “We must strengthen these convictions in ourselves if we are also to avoid another danger which the desire for reform can produce, not so much in us pastors, who are restrained by the proper awareness of our sacred duty, as in many of the faithful, who think that the reform of the Church should consist principally in adapting its way of thinking and acting to the customs and temper of the modern secular world. The fascination of worldly life today is very powerful indeed, and many people regard conformity to it as an inescapable and indeed a wise course to take. Hence, those who are not deeply rooted in the faith and in the observance of the Church's laws, readily imagine that the time is ripe to adjust themselves to worldly standards of living, on the assumption that these are the best and only possible ones for a Christian to adopt.” Ecclesiam Suam 48.

[18] Ecclesiam Suam 49.

[19] Theological Highlights of Vatican II, 14.

[20] Ibid, 15.

[21] Quoted from O’Malley’s What Happened at Vatican II, 133.

[22] Ibid, 14-17.

[23] History of Vatican II, vol. 5, 593.

[24] “The council documents—especially the ones on divine revelation, the liturgy, the Church, priests, Religious and the laity—leave wide open to view this primary and focal religious intention, and show how clear and fresh and rich is the spiritual stream which contact with the living God causes to well up in the heart of the Church, and flow out from it over the dry wastes of our world.” Address During the Last General Meeting of the Second Vatican Council, Dec. 7, 1965.

[25] Ibid.

[26] “Still fresh in our memory are the words uttered in this basilica by our venerated predecessor, John XXIII, whom we may in truth call the originator of this great synod. In his opening address to the council he had this to say: "The greatest concern of the ecumenical council is this: that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine be guarded and taught more effectively.... The Lord has said: 'Seek first the kingdom of God and His justice.' The word 'first' expresses the direction in which our thoughts and energies must move".” Ibid.

[27] History of Vatican II, vol. 5, 593. Elsewhere Alberigo states: “Closer examination shows that the period of Christian history involved in the phenomenon of Vatican II is much more extensive. It includes not only Vatican I (1869-70), the immediate predecessor of Vatican II, but to some extent even the Council of Trent (1544-63) insofar as it was a strictly monoconfessional and monocultural council. For Vatican II was, in contrast, “open” to the other Christian confessions and to a variety of cultural influences; it also aimed at restoring both a real subordination of ecumenical councils to the word of God and a real involvement in human history, to the point of even recognizing in this history “signs” pregnant with the gospel. To that extent, Vatican II represents a recovery of direction — neglected but not abandoned — that are profoundly embedded in Christian tradition as understood in its fullest Catholic sense.” “The Christian Situation after Vatican II” in The Reception of Vatican II, 1-2.

[28] Theological Highlights of Vatican II, 21.

[29] “The schemata of the theological commission, the first of which now law before the fathers for consideration, breathed this same spirit. The same cramped thinking, once so necessary as a line of defense, impregnated the text and informed it with a theology of negations and prohibitions; although in themselves they might well have been valid, they certainly could not produce that positive note which was now to be expected from the Council.” Ratzinger, Theological Highlights of Vatican II, 21. Emphasis mine.

[30] “The passage of the liturgy schema had given rise to a new possibility foreign to the old pattern of ‘anti-ism’ and negativity, the possibility of abandoning the defensive and really undertaking a Christian offensive.” Ibid, 22.

[31] “The real question behind the discussion could be put this way: Was the intellectual position of “anti-Modernism” - the old policy of exclusiveness, condemnation and defense leading to an almost neurotic denial of all that was new - to be continued? Or would the Church, after it had taken all the necessary precautions to protect the faith, turn over a new leaf and move on into a new and positive encounter with its own origins, with its brothers and with the world today? Since a clear majority of the fathers opted for the second alternative, we may even speak of the Council as a new beginning.” Ibid, 23.

[32] Ibid, 26. The defining moment that resulting in this break was the vote on Nov 20, 1962 where the majority of the Council Fathers and the Pope decided in favor of this new positive approach, cf. ibid 25-26. Yves Congar in his Journal quoted the following from an article “It can be said that with this vote on 20 November, the age of the Counter Reformation came to an end and that a new age, with unforeseeable consequences, was beginning for Christendom” to which Congar added two words: “Please God!” My Journal of the Council, Nov. 20, 1962, 196.

[33] Alberigo, “The Christian Situation after Vatican II” in The Reception of Vatican II, 15.

[34] Ibid, 17.

[35] John O’Malley, What Happened at Vatican II, 292.

[36] Still Interpreting Vatican II, 13-14.

[37] “A Last Look at the Council” in Vatican II by Those Who Were There, ed. Alberic Stacpoole, 341.

[38] Cf. Theological Highlights of Vatican II, 21.

[39] Cf. Yves Congar, My Journal, Nov. 15, 1960, p. 31.

[40] Yves Congar gives his impressions of this weltanschauung clash in his Journal of a sort of battle between the Roman Curia and the pastoral approach. In the pre-conciliar preparatory phase, for example, he writes “One had the impression — confirmed by the 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.” (p. 5) and to “monopolize… all the lines of direction and control” (p. 7) in order to “minimise the damage” (ibid). A little bit later on he wrote, “I think that the leading members of the Curia very quickly realised that, with John XXIII and his plan for a Council, they might be in for a very strange adventure, that they needed to erect fences, regain control as far as possible, and limit any possible damage.” (p. 7), to “restrict the working of the actual Council as far as possible” (p.8) such that the Council is “prefabricated in Rome” (p.8).

This same pattern continued in the first session of the Council. The Curia and the Holy Office, according to Congar, restricted academic freedom by forbidding Gregorianum students from meeting with some of the Council Observers (Nov. 18, 1962, p. 186) and recalled a conversation with a priest at the Angelicum: “He told me that, here research is absolutely impossible. As soon as a professor says, in a course, a single word that goes beyond the manuals, it is reported to the Curia and one way or another the consequences are disagreeable…” (ibid). And further in a conversation with Henri De Lubac, S.J. this same day that: “Ottaviani has informed some of the bishops that the ‘Holy Office’ both controlled and judged the Central Commission. The claim of the ‘Holy Office’ is to control and judge the Council.” (ibid, p. 187, cf. Nov. 25, 1962, p. 205).  Mgr Fenton, as an advocate of the Curia, “keeps the American bishops under surveillance, intervenes all over the place and tries to point everything along ‘Holy Office’ lines. Here in Rome, he does not give the American bishops an inch of slack, and continues to watch what they do. The American bishops are intimidated. They dare not speak. They feel inadequate as theologians.” (Nov. 25, 1962, p. 204-205). Cf. also Congar’s conversation with Ottaviani, Nov. 30, 1962, p. 221-222, and with Danielou, Dec. 4, 1962, p. 237.

[41] DH 1.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid.

[44] See Hittinger’s essay “The Declaration on Religious Liberty, Dignitatis Humanae” in Vatican II: Renewal within Tradition. One of the conclusions of this essay is precisely that Dignitatis Humanae found a way for the Church to deal with states in a language and framework accessible to them which the concordant system failed to deliver, 374-375.

[45] I refer the interested reader to George Weigel’s Witness to Hope for the historical data concerning this claim.

[46] “But at the same time, the Church, sent to all peoples of every time and place, is not bound exclusively and indissolubly to any race or nation, any particular way of life or any customary way of life recent or ancient. Faithful to her own tradition and at the same time conscious of her universal mission, she can enter into communion with the various civilizations, to their enrichment and the enrichment of the Church herself.” Gaudium et Spes 58.

[47] Lumen Gentium 1.

[48] Dei Verbum 1.

[49] Unitatis Redintegratio 6.

[50] Sacrosanctum Concilium 4.

[51] “That sound tradition may be retained, and yet the way remain open to legitimate progress careful investigation is always to be made into each part of the liturgy which is to be revised.” Ibid, 23.

[52] Sacrosanctum Concilium 84, 88, 89a, 91, 101.1.

[53] Ibid 105, 106, 107.

[54] Ibid 112.

[55] “By the most ancient tradition of the Church the patriarchs of the Eastern Churches are to be accorded special honor, seeing that each is set over his patriarchate as father and head.

This Sacred Council, therefore, determines that their rights and privileges should be re-established in accordance with the ancient tradition of each of the Churches and the decrees of the ecumenical councils.” Orientalium Ecclesiarum 9.

[56] “Since the recent successful conclusion of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, many wise Documents have been promulgated, both in doctrinal and disciplinary matters, in order to efficaciously promote the life of the Church. All of the people of God are bound by the grave duty to strive with all diligence to put into effect all that has been solemnly proposed or decreed, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, by the universal assembly of the bishops presided over by the Supreme Pontiff.” Circular Letter to the Presidents of Episcopal Conferences regarding some sentences and errors arising from the interpretation of the decrees of the Second Vatican Council, July 24, 1966.

[57] “The Synod has been for us an occasion which has allowed us once again to experience communion in the one Spirit, in the one faith and hope, and in the one Catholic Church, as well as in the unanimous will to translate the Council into the practice and life of the Church.” The Final Report of the 1985 Extraordinary Synod, 1. “The end for which this Synod was convoked was the celebration, verification and promotion of Vatican Council II.” Ibid, 2.

[58] Ibid, 2.

[59] Ibid, 5

[60] “The Synod’s hermeneutical principles will make it clear that, notwithstanding some real shifts and developments, Vatican II is fundamentally self-consistent, stands in substantial continuity with earlier church teaching, and remains valid in its essentials for our own day.” Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., “The Reception of Vatican II at the Extraordinary Synod of 1985” in The Reception of Vatican II, 350.

[61] The Final Report, 7.

Chapter 2: The Hermeneutic of Discontinuity

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 texts are necessary compromises in order to reach wide consent which entailed keeping several old, out-dated 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 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] 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 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 hence are due to breaking away from historical circumstances which have encrusted themselves in 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 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]

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]


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 and 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]

Congar likewise makes a similar statement.[14]

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 Ecumentical Council that Vatican II shares 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 but more fundamentally it 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 without grounding in the reality of the texts.[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 authority of God given 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]


Chapter Endnotes

[1] Address to the Roman Curia Offering Them His Christmas Greeting, Dec. 22, 2005.

[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] The Ratzinger Report, 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] “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.” “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.

[20] The Ratzinger Report, 31.

Chapter 3: Is Vatican II an Ecumenical Council?

If the questions of continuity and authority over the Second Vatican Council are dependent upon the prior question of whether Vatican II is an Ecumenical Council, then we should ask ourselves is Vatican II an Ecumenical Council? And if so, what does this status entail? There is a twofold dimension to these two questions: the dimension of canon law, what does the Church’s law say on the matter, and secondly, the theological groundwork or foundation that the canon law is based upon, i.e. what is an Ecumenical Council theologically speaking?

The 1917 Code of Canon Law

In order to assess the question whether Vatican II is an Ecumenical Council according to the Church’s law, we must turn to the 1917 Pio-Benedictine Code of Canon Law which was the codified law of the Church until the 1983 Code of Canon Law was promulgated and abrogated it. The 1917 Code was hence the Church’s law at the time of Vatican II.

Canon 222: Who can Convoke an Ecumenical Council

We begin with Canon 222.1 which states:

An Ecumenical Council cannot be held that was not convoked by the Roman Pontiff.[1]

This means that any council cannot be designated as an Ecumenical Council unless the Pope convokes it. Canon 222.2 establishes the role the Pope is to have over Ecumenical Councils in determining the subjects to be considered, procedures, and promulgation of the council’s teachings:

It is for this same Roman Pontiff to preside himself or through another over the Ecumenical Council, to establish and designate the matters that are to be treated and the order to be observed, and to transfer, suspend, dissolve, and confirm the Council and its decrees.[2]

No one else has these responsibilities. Notice however that in section 2 the wording is “this same Roman Pontiff”, meaning that the one who convoked the council has the authority over it. Canon 229 establishes the rule to be followed when the Pope who convoked the Ecumenical Council dies, that in this circumstance the Council is interrupted and paused until a new Pope is elected and orders its continuation.[3]

The Authority of Ecumenical Councils

There are two canons which concern the authority of Ecumenical Councils. Canon 227 states that the decrees of a Council require the approval of the Pope before they have definitive authority:

The decrees of a Council do not have definitive obliging force unless they are confirmed by the Roman Pontiff and promulgated by his command.[4]

However, once a council’s decrees are confirmed and promulgated by the Pope, then Canon 228.1 states:

An Ecumenical Council enjoys supreme power over the universal Church.[5]

Summary of the 1917 Code

To summarize the 1917 Code then, the Pope alone possesses the authority to: 1) convoke an Ecumenical Council (Canon 222.1), 2) set the council’s agenda and procedures (Canon 222.2), and 3) end a Council or promulgate its decrees (Canon 222.2). On the authority of an Ecumenical Council the Code affirms: 1) the council lacks definitive obliging force without the confirmation and promulgation of the conciliar decrees by the Pope (Canon 227), and 2) once this is done the council enjoys supreme power (Canon 228.1).

The 1983 Code of Canon Law

Today the Church is under the 1983 Code which abrogated the 1917 Code. The 1983 Code’s Canon 338 follows the 1917 Code’s Canon 222 concerning the Pope’s role and authority in Ecumenical Councils. The 1983 Code Canons 341.1 and 338.1 repeats the 1917 Code’s Canon 227 that Ecumenical Councils require their decrees to be promulgated by the Pope in order to oblige.[6] The 1983 Code likewise repeats the 1917 Code concerning the supreme and full power of Ecumenical Councils (Canons 336-337.1).[7]

The Response Owed to an Ecumenical Council

The 1983 Code of Canon Law in Canon 749.2 specifies that Ecumenical Councils possess infallibility when the bishops are gathered together exercising their roles as teachers and judges of the faith and declare a doctrine of faith or morals to be definitively held.[8] When an Ecumenical Council does such, then these definitive teachings declared are to be believed with the assent of the faith (Canon 750).[9] The New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law gives the following definition of definitive teachings: “‘Definitively proposed’ doctrines are those solemnly defined by the pope or by an ecumenical council or taught infallibly by the ordinary and universal magisterium as teachings to be definitively held.”[10]

Many contend that Vatican II does not pronounce any definitive teachings. Such a statement is however ambiguous. On the one hand, the Vatican II papacy certainly understood the purpose of the Council as not giving new definitive teachings, while, on the other hand, the Council certainly did set forth new teachings and explicitly stated its intention to do so (such as in the case of Dignitatis Humanae). The question whether Vatican II taught a doctrine infallibly can be answered in different ways. It can be asserted that Vatican II did put forth infallible teachings in the case when the Council restated previous infallible teachings such as Vatican I’s definition of papal infallibility in Lumen Gentium. There is another question whether some teachings of Vatican II are infallible. This can be interpreted in different ways such as the Council explicitly stating a teaching is definitive[11], or whether a teaching falls under the sensus fidelium. The International Theological Commission argues that the teachings of Dignitatis Humanae is an example of sensus fidelium.[12] The question as to whether Vatican II has given new infallible teachings however can be bracketed aside, in part due to the prudence of Canon 749.3 “No doctrine is understood to be infallibly defined unless this is manifestly demonstrated.” and the fact that such an inquiry is unnecessary for our purposes of responding to the basic critics of the Council who believe they do not need to agree with non-infallible teachings. 

As far as the non-definitive teachings of an Ecumenical Council are concerned, Canon 752 states that Catholics are still required to give a “religious submission of intellect and will”[13] and to avoid whatever is not in accord with these doctrines.

While the assent of faith is not required, a religious submission of intellect and will is to be given to any doctrine which either the Supreme Pontiff or the College of Bishops, exercising their authentic magisterium, declare upon a matter of faith or morals, even though they do not intend to proclaim that doctrine by definitive act. Christ's faithful are therefore to ensure that they avoid whatever does not accord with that doctrine.

It is hence a grave error 1) to believe one can promote views contrary to the teachings of Vatican II because of the Council’s status as an Ecumenical Council still demands religious submission to its authority; and 2) to believe that the teachings of the Council as being non-definitive implies that one does not need to give a submission of intellect and will to them. Disagreements with the Council must be approached through the lens of faith and humility in order to encounter its teachings authentically and discern where the issue in the critic’s understanding lies.  Further, it must be noted that the canons here employ a distinction between two kinds of responses to the Church’s teaching authority: 1) an assent of faith in response to definitive teachings; and 2) a religious submission of mind to non-definitive teachings.

It should hence come as no surprise then that according to Canon 1371.1 those who teach a doctrine condemned by the Pope or an Ecumenical Council, or obstinately rejects teachings that require an religious submission of intellect and will as outlined in Canon 752 can be punished when after being warned do not retract his or her position.

The following are to be punished with a just penalty: a person who, apart from the case mentioned in Can. 1364 §1, teaches a doctrine condemned by the Roman Pontiff, or by an Ecumenical Council, or obstinately rejects the teaching mentioned in Can. 752 and, when warned by the Apostolic See or by the Ordinary, does not retract…[14]

Not only is a religious submission required to non-infallible teachings, but failure to give such can be punishable by canon law.

Is Vatican II an Ecumenical Council?

The 1917 Code clearly teaches that only the Pope can begin an Ecumenical Council and give such a Council’s teachings its authority. Did John XXIII however intend to convoke an Ecumenical Council? On January 25, 1959 John XXIII stunned the Curia in a speech within which he announced his intention to celebrate an Ecumenical Council.[15] No one doubted his intentions as they were quite clear. In his very first sentence that opened the first session John XXIII ends it with a statement that the Ecumenical Council now begins.[16] No one doubted they were witnessing and participating in an Ecumenical Council starting October 11, 1962.

In the apostolic brief In Spiritu Sancto Paul VI declared 1) that he was closing the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council by his apostolic authority and 2) approving and promulgating the decrees of Vatican II. In approving the Vatican II texts Paul VI also affirms that 3) the texts are valid and legally effective and 4) all efforts contrary to the texts are invalid.[17]

We can hence see that both Popes used their authority in accordance with the 1917 Code to begin and end an Ecumenical Council, and promulgate the conciliar texts. One cannot doubt that Vatican II was a legitimate Council in terms of canon law. Thus in order to reject the legitimacy of Vatican II from a canon law perspective requires a rejection of the validity of the papacies of John XXIII and Paul VI and argue that neither had authority to begin, end, and promulgate Ecumenical Councils. Such a position would be the most consistent while still erroneous, for once one accepts the legitimacy of both papacies, it immediately follows that the teachings of Vatican II are to be affirmed with religious submission of intellect and will and that opposition to the Council and its teachings are invalid.

One could object that some of the teachings of Vatican II are non-binding because he or she claims that a particular teaching is heretical or erroneous. This can be rejected on a surface level in that such cases employ an interpretation the Magisterium has in her authority declared to be an invalid hermeneutic for such views rejects the continuity of tradition and authority of the Council. It does however raise a theological question that requires a deeper penetration into ecclesiology and this is the theological dimension of the debate. Can any Ecumenical Council in principle teach error?

The Theological Dimension of Ecumenical Councils

Ecumenical Councils are the gatherings of bishops and cardinals from around the world convoked by the Pope or in ancient times at the behest of the emperor. A recent development in the understanding of Ecumenical Councils now deny emperors the right to convoke such Councils. The first Ecumenical Councils were not convoked by the Pope but the Roman emperor which were then approved by the Pope.

The universality of such councils is not defined in terms of numbers nor geographical representation. This universal gathering of the bishops historically need not be large. The First Council of Lyon for example had only about 140 bishops in attendance. The Councils with the highest attendance maxed out at around 1000 bishops and cardinals. The medieval Councils to Vatican I moreover were predominantly attended by European bishops with little representation from geographical regions outside of Europe. Vatican II in both categories was an anomaly in that not only did bishops from around the world come, but in numbers historically unseen. Vatican II had about 2500 bishops and cardinals in attendance across its four sessions with large representations from the different continents and Oceania, and across the different rites.


The universality of an Ecumenical Council derives itself from the fact that it is a gathering of bishops acting as true shepherds and judges on faith and morals in union with the Pope. The teachings of such Councils hence arise from the consent of the participating bishops and Pope. This gathering hence is universal in its authority for the Church as a whole.


The Church as a whole is indefectible.[18] The Holy Spirit is promised by Jesus to divinely assist the Church in her mission.[19] Jesus also promised that 1) he would never abandon the Church, that “I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt 28:20) and 2) that the gates of hell shall not prevail against the Church (Mt 16:18). With this divine assistance the Church can be confident in her faith and ability to teach on faith and morals such that she is “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15). This is why she is indefectible: Christ willed and established the Church and entrusted to the Church his teachings and the proper authority to interpret them. The Church is a witness, bearer, and defender of the truth, a mission she cannot fail in.


The promise that the gates of hell shall not prevail means that the Church in her essence will not be corrupted. This essence includes her hierarchy, the liturgy, and her doctrines. All three elements are protected by the Church’s indefectibility which is nothing other than the Holy Spirit’s protection. We can reemphasize this in another manner: 1) Christ willed the Church; 2) the Church in her essence consists of her hierarchy, liturgy, and teachings, therefore 3) Christ willed the Church’s hierarchy, liturgy, and teachings.


When we consider Ecumenical Councils in particular, they enjoy a special authority and status because they are solemn exercises of the college of bishops in union with the Pope gathered as true pastors to judge on faith and morals. Ecumenical Councils are hence indefectible. This solemn exercise of the universal Church enjoys the Holy Spirit’s protection because the Council now speaks with supreme power over the universal Church.[20]


Not every teaching within an Ecumenical Council is infallible however. Those declarations that are infallible are to be adhered to with a submission of faith.[21] When a Council does not teach definitively, i.e. teach infallibly, then the teachings are to be held with a religious submission of intellect and will out of reverence because the bishops are gathered together speaking in the name of Christ on matters of faith and morals in their episcopal authority.[22]

Infallibility is distinguished from indefectibility in that infallibility is active, that in the act of pronouncing or teaching a dogmatic teaching that the Pope or Council is free of error and even the possibility of error.[23] When the right conditions are met for infallibility, this power is manifested in the exercise of authority. The indefectibility of the Church refers to her imperishableness and the essential immutability of her teachings, constitution, and liturgy, which entails in part an invincibility from error.[24]


It is because Ecumenical Councils are exercises of the bishops in communion with the Pope that they are authentic teachers of authority and this commands our respect and assent, either religious or submission of faith depending on the type of teaching. This is affirmed by the 1983 Code. We have already mentioned Canon 752, but Canons 752-754 all reinforce this idea that even when the Magisterium does not teach infallibly we are still required to respect that authority with a religious submission of the mind. Here are the three Canons in order:

Canon 752: Although not an assent of faith, a religious submission of the intellect and will must be given to a doctrine which the Supreme Pontiff or the college of bishops declares concerning faith or morals when they exercise the authentic magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim it by definitive act; therefore, the Christian faithful are to take care to avoid those things which do not agree with it.

Canon 753: Although the bishops who are in communion with the head and members of the college, whether individually or joined together in conferences of bishops or in particular councils, do not possess infallibility in teaching, they are authentic teachers and instructors of the faith for the Christian faithful entrusted to their care; the Christian faithful are bound to adhere with religious submission of mind to the authentic magisterium of their bishops.

Canon 754: All the Christian faithful are obliged to observe the constitutions and decrees which the legitimate authority of the Church issues in order to propose doctrine and to proscribe erroneous opinions, particularly those which the Roman Pontiff or the college of bishops puts forth.

Note that Canon 754 is a restatement of Canon 1324 of the 1917 Code, and similar with Canon 753 and Canon 1326 of the 1917 Code.[25] In comparing the respective canons from the two Codes one finds both continuity and development.

The CDF document Donum Veritatis specifies that this religious submission of the intellect and will is not something “exterior or disciplinary but must be understood within the logic of faith and under the impulse of obedience to the faith.”[26] As such religious submission is a demand placed on the individual as a believer to conform his inner spiritual life under obedience towards what has been taught and to understand it within the context of the faith. 

The 1989 Profession of Faith

Those who are to teach Catholic theology at a university must make a profession of faith and state the 1989 Profession of Faith issued by the CDF. The last three paragraphs deal with obedience to the teachings of the Church. The teachings of Scripture, Tradition, and definitively taught or by solemn judgment of the Magisterium are to be firmly accepted. Non-definitive teachings are to be embraced with religious submission of mind.

Moreover, I adhere with religious submission of will and intellect to the teachings which either the Roman Pontiff or the College of Bishops enunciate when they exercise their authentic Magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim these teachings by a definitive act.[27]

In case one doubted what types of teachings this paragraph referred to, the CDF published a commentary on the Profession of Faith that makes it explicitly clear that it refers to any teaching not proposed as definitive by a solemn judgment of the Magisterium. Such teachings still have authority because they originate out of the authentic teaching office of the Magisterium and college of bishops.[28] The CDF next warns in the commentary that opinions contrary to these teachings are erroneous, rash, or dangerous, and so are not to be taught in accordance with Canons 752 and 1371 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law.

A proposition contrary to these doctrines can be qualified as erroneous or, in the case of teachings of the prudential order, as rash or dangerous and therefore 'tuto doceri non potest'. 

We have addressed the questions as to what kind of assent is required towards an Ecumenical Council based upon the distinction as to whether its teachings are infallible or not. Even fallible teachings require a religious submission of the intellect and will. The question now is what role does disagreement or dissent exercise for the life of the Church? And relatedly, how is one supposed to proceed when he or she disagrees with a particular teaching?


Chapter Endnotes

[1] The 1917 Pio-Benedictine Code of Canon Law, Edward Peters, Ignatius Press 2001, 94. Hereafter referred to as the  1917 Code.

[2] Ibid, 94.

[3] “If it happens that the Roman Pontiff, during the celebration of a Council, leaves life, [the Council] by law is interrupted until a new Pontiff resumes it and orders it to be continued.” Canon 229, ibid, 96.

[4] Ibid, 96.

[5] Ibid, 96.

[6] The 1983 Code’s Canon 341.1 also represents a development since it gives a collegial interpretation: the decrees of an Ecumenical Council are binding if it is approved by the Pope “together with the council fathers”. The pope alone however confirms and promulgates them. Cf. New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law, ed. John Beal, James Coriden, Thomas Green, 452. (Hereafter referred to as New Commentary). Note: While the New Commentary is excellent in many respects the reader should be aware that it does not always align with the teaching authority of the Magisterium when for example one of its authors disagrees that the CDF state that it is infallible doctrine that the Church cannot ordain women (913n2).

[7] “Can. 336 The head of the College of Bishops is the Supreme Pontiff, and its members are the Bishops by virtue of their sacramental consecration and hierarchical communion with the head of the College and its members. This College of Bishops, in which the apostolic body abides in an unbroken manner, is, in union with its head and never without this head, also the subject of supreme and full power over the universal Church.

Can. 337 §1 The College of Bishops exercises its power over the universal Church in solemn form in an Ecumenical Council.” 1983 Code of Canon Law.

[8] “The College of Bishops also possesses infallibility in its teaching when the Bishops, gathered together in an Ecumenical Council and exercising their magisterium as teachers and judges of faith and morals, definitively declare for the universal Church a doctrine to be held concerning faith or morals…” Canon 749.2.

[9] The text of Canon 750 is as follows: “Those things are to be believed by divine and catholic faith which are contained in the word of God as it has been written or handed down by tradition, that is, in the single deposit of faith entrusted to the Church, and which are at the same time proposed as divinely revealed either by the solemn magisterium of the Church, or by its ordinary and universal magisterium, which is manifested by the common adherence of Christ's faithful under the guidance of the sacred magisterium. All are therefore bound to shun any contrary doctrines.” Canon 750, emphasis mine.

The meaning of “the solemn magisterium of the Church” is defined in Canon 337.1 as an Ecumenical Council: “The College of Bishops exercises its power over the universal Church in solemn form in an Ecumenical Council.” Note however a distinction between solemn and infallibility. Ecumenical Councils are the solemn form of the College’s teaching authority and power, but this does not mean that such teaching is infallible. As the New Commentary states: “Similarly, even when the college of bishops teaches solemnly, as it did at the Second Vatican Council, it does not exercise its infallible authority. If it wished to teach infallibly within or outside of an ecumenical council, the college would have to do so quite explicitly, that is, with the expressed intention to act infallibly and the agreement that an opinion is to be definitively held (tamquam definitive tenendam).” (913).

[10] New Commentary, 915. Cf. the CDF’s Doctrinal Commentary on the Concluding Formula of the Professio fidei, 11, for examples of definitive teachings.

[11] Such as when the CDF states that the inerrancy of Scripture as defined in Dei Verbum 11 is to be definitively held in Doctrinal Commentary on the Concluding Formula of the Professio fidei, 11.

[12] Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church, 73.

[13] The Latin term for submission here is obsequium. Those who wish to defend a legitimacy to dissent argue that obsequium is difficult to translate into English and propose alternative translations such as “respect”. Hence they claim one can respect magisterial teaching while still dissent.


We can make the following replies: first, the Magisterium’s documents translate the term as “submission”, and so while there is legitimacy in the question as to whether “submission” is the best translation, this translation should still be given weight.


Second, the term “respect” is itself ambiguous for its meanings can be distributed across two genera determined by one’s acceptance and obedience or nonacceptance and even disobedience towards an authority figure. One can say for example that he “respects” his enemies and such usage is of the latter genus. Those who promote “respect” instead of “submission” thus introduce an ambiguity concerning whether one owes obedience, and some even strive to strip this component of obedience out of the term obsequium.


Third, the Magisterium understands obsequium to include this element of obedience, such as expressed in the Profession of Faith, Donum Veritatis, Lumen Gentium, and the 1983 Code Canon 1371.1. Furthermore, the Church has jurisdictional authority over Catholics to coerce such obedience and even impose punishment.

Lastly, to dissent is a willful disobedience to the Church’s authority. To dissent out of “respect” is like calling a riot a peaceful protest. 

[14] Canon 752. Note that Canon 1364.1 refers to the case of those who incur a latae sententiae excommunication, that is, an automatic excommunication. 

[15] “An ecumenical council for the Universal Church”.

[16] “Venerable Brothers, Mother Church rejoices because, by a special gift of Divine Providence, the much desired day has now arisen on which here, at the tomb of St. Peter, the Virgin Mother of God wishes, whose joy is celebrated today. maternal dignity, the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council solemnly begins.” Oct 11, 1962.

[17] “We have approved and established these things, decreeing that the present letters are and remain stable and valid, and are to have legal effectiveness, so that they be disseminated and obtain full and complete effect, and so that they may be fully convalidated by those whom they concern or may concern now and in the future; and so that, as it be judged and described, all efforts contrary to these things by whomever or whatever authority, knowingly or in ignorance be invalid and worthless from now on.” In Spiritu Sancto.

[18] Cf Lumen Gentium 25 which states that the universal Church herself is infallible.

[19] “The Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” John 14:26 RSV-CE. All Scripture verses are quoted from the RSV-CE.

[20] Lumen Gentium 22. “The supreme power in the universal Church, which this college enjoys, is exercised in a solemn way in an ecumenical council. A council is never ecumenical unless it is confirmed or at least accepted as such by the successor of Peter; and it is prerogative of the Roman Pontiff to convoke these councils, to preside over them and to confirm them.”

[21] Ibid, 25. Cf. Canon 1323.1-2 of the 1917 Code.

[22] “Among the principal duties of bishops the preaching of the Gospel occupies an eminent place. For bishops are preachers of the faith, who lead new disciples to Christ, and they are authentic teachers, that is, teachers endowed with the authority of Christ, who preach to the people committed to them the faith they must believe and put into practice, and by the light of the Holy Spirit illustrate that faith. They bring forth from the treasury of Revelation new things and old, making it bear fruit and vigilantly warding off any errors that threaten their flock. Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.” Ibid, 25.

[23] A distinction can be made between active and passive infallibility where the latter is defined by Ludwig Ott as the laity’s assent to the faith, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, Book 4, Part 2, Chapter 4, section 13.

[24] Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, Book 4, Part 2, Chapter 4, section 12.

[25] Canon 1324: “It is not enough to avoid heretical depravity, but also those errors should be diligently fled that more or less approach [heresy]; therefore all must observe the constitutions and decrees by which these sorts of depraved opinions are proscribed and prohibited by the Holy See.”

Canon 1326: “Bishops also, although individually and even gathered in particular Councils they do not partake of infallibility in teaching, nevertheless, for those faithful committed to their care under the authority of the Roman Pontiff, they are truly doctors and teachers.”

[26] Donum Veritatis 23.

[27] Profession of Faith.

[28] “To this paragraph belong all those teachings – on faith and morals – presented as true or at least as sure, even if they have not been defined with a solemn judgement or proposed as definitive by the ordinary and universal Magisterium. Such teachings are, however, an authentic expression of the ordinary Magisterium of the Roman Pontiff or of the College of Bishops and therefore require religious submission of will and intellect. They are set forth in order to arrive at a deeper understanding of revelation, or to recall the conformity of a teaching with the truths of faith, or lastly to warn against ideas incompatible with those truths or against dangerous opinions that can lead to error.” Doctrinal Commentary on the Concluding Formula of the Professio fidei.

Chapter 4: The Problem of Dissent

Our guide for the problem of dissent is the CDF document Donum Veritatis, Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian.[1] A distinction needs to be made when discussing disagreement with a teaching of the Magisterium between personal disagreement and dissent.

Personal Disagreement

Personal disagreement, according to Donum Veritatis, follows an existential approach in regards to the theologian, his or her subjective disposition, and his or her disagreement on a non-definitive teaching. This existential approach is situated within the context of a dialogue. The theologian in disagreement is envisioned as working together with the bishop and local Church in understanding the truths of the faith in collaboration. The nature of this dialogical collaboration in pursuit of truth hence is a stimulus for both the Magisterium and theologians in the vocation for truth.[2] This collaboration is threatened when one is combative and hostile.


This dialogue must follow a twofold rule: when it is a question of communion of faith the principle of “unity in truth” is to be followed, and when it is a matter of differences a “unity of charity” needs to be preserved.[3]


The theologian in disagreement with a non-definitive teaching must accept a norm of humility in his research. He cannot, for example, present contrary views as if they were non-arguable conclusions nor untimely promote them publicly through the media and other outlets.[4]


The CDF rejects three reasons for disagreement with a non-definitive teaching: 1) the validity of the teaching is not evident; 2) a disagreeing opinion seeming more probable; and 3) objections from conscience. On this last point the CDF rejected conscience as a legitimate grounds for disagreement because “conscience does not constitute an autonomous and exclusive authority for deciding the truth of a doctrine.”[5]


The existential framework of the disagreeing theologian is within this dialogical collaboration in “unity in charity” and humility has many implications for such theologians. Out of this framework the theologian needs to be obedient and loyal to the Magisterium such that he or she will strive to understand the teaching “in its contents, arguments, and purposes.”[6] This requires intellectual humility to authentically investigate the matter, to be ready to revise one’s opinions, and examine objections to his or her own views.[7]


If after this process the theologian is not convinced and still disagrees, then he must inform the Magisterium and continue his inquiries in the desire to resolve his difficulties with the teaching. The existential framework also requires that when one does reach out to the proper magisterial authorities he does not use mass media to exert public pressure since such practices do not serve the pursuit of truth.[8] Now if the theologian after this lengthy process still is not persuaded to give assent to the particular teaching, he still has the duty to remain open to deeper examinations of the doctrine and its truth.[9] Notice that this model of  collaborative dialogue is teleologically oriented towards the theologian’s understanding and assent to the truth.


On Dissent

In contrast to the ideal described by the CDF in the case of the theologian in personal disagreement with a teaching is the theologian in dissent. Dissent can take on many forms such as a democratic freedom, public opinion, or majority view seen as normative, or that dissent is a variation of political protest but reinterpreted into a theological setting.[10]

Another form of dissent condemned by Donum Veritatis is the view that the theologian is not bound by any teaching which is not infallible. Non-definitive teachings are understood to be non-obligatory in this view and hence one is free to assent or dissent from them at will. Such a theory the CDF dubbed theological positivism.

The CDF next outlines five arguments used to justify dissent. The first is a hermeneutical approach where the Magisterium’s documents are considered debatable and the dissenting theologian forgets the correct hermeneutical principle that due to the divine assistance of the Holy Spirit the Magisterium possesses an authority and validity beyond argumentation.[11]


The second argument is invoked in a theological pluralism setting that rejects normative theological truths, resulting in a relativism. The Magisterium becomes the product of one theology amongst many without authority since each theology is equally valid. In these two approaches to dissent the CDF notes that a sort of “parallel magisterium of the theologians” arises in direct competition to the Magisterium itself.[12]


Thirdly, another form of dissent is a sociological approach where truth is equivocated with majority opinion.[13] From this a false sense of the sensus fidei is proposed and identified with a majority view or public opinion. Such a view divorces the sensus fidei from the Church when in reality it is by nature in agreement with the Church and Magisterium for it is a property of theological faith and the faith of the Church, and hence the sensus fidei cannot err. There is an indissoluble bond between the sensus fidei and the Church.


The fourth argument advocating for dissent is based on the theological truth that the act of faith is a free act of self-determination. Related to this is the appeal to man’s rights as a basis for dissent based on religious liberty. The CDF rejects these types of argumentations because religious liberty, while is grounded in man’s freedom for the truth and the freedom of the act of faith, does not grant a right for a Catholic to dissent for religious liberty is restricted by due limits which includes both the objective moral order and particularly in the case of a dissenting theologian by the fact that Catholics are under the jurisdiction of the Church’s laws and she can punish accordingly.[14] It can, furthermore, be pointed out that religious liberty is in the service of pursuing objective truth, which the dissenting theologian has placed himself or herself in direct opposition to through the act of dissent itself.


Lastly is the argument from conscience. The conscience cannot legitimate dissent because the domain of conscience is practical judgments and decision making while what is at stake is doctrinal truths which are outside of this domain. Conscience is a fallible organ that requires formation and which one is duty bound to correctly form, shaping it with moral norms, theological truths, and a will ordered to the true good. Dissenting theologians are in reality acting out of bad conscience for a theologian in right conscience “presumes not only faith in the word of God whose riches he must explore, but also love for the Church from whom he receives his mission, and respect for her divinely assisted Magisterium.”[15] Those who dissent based on an argument from conscience similarly set up a parallel magisterium to the Church where one’s conscience is given supreme authority. Such a view the CDF notes is contrary to the mission of a theologian and a correct understanding of the economy of revelation for it makes theological truths products of the individual’s research. Keep in mind that the dissenting theologian, while appealing to conscience, acts in bad conscience since he or she is not acting out of loyalty and love for the Magisterium, because if this were so then he or she would act according to the proper existential attitude and outlook as outlined in the CDF’s idealized theologian with a personal disagreement on doctrine. 


After these analyses the CDF reaffirms that the Church is like a sacrament of the communion between God and men, and that theologians and pastors have a duty to defend the Church’s communion and build up the Church in truth. Dissent does not serve these goals for it divides and creates discord. It is a temptation from Satan for “to succumb to the temptation of dissent… is to allow the ‘leaven of infidelity to the Holy Spirit’ to start to work.”[16] Dissent draws the individual away from Christ.


Chapter Endnotes

[1] This can be found on the Vatican website and as Appendix G in Dulles’ Magisterium.

[2] Donum Veritatis 25.

[3] Ibid, 26.

[4] Ibid, 27.

[5] Ibid, 28.

[6] Ibid, 29.

[7] Ibid, 29.

[8] Ibid, 30.

[9] Ibid, 31.

[10] Ibid, 32-33.

[11] Ibid, 34.

[12] Ibid, 34.

[13] Ibid 35.

[14] Ibid, 36-37. Paragraph 37 in particular defends the Church’s jurisdictional authority. Part I of my Commentary on Dignitatis Humanae defends the interpretation of “due limits” as natural law. Part IV in addition examines the jurisdiction of the Church’s law in regards to the teachings of the secular arm or temporal sword.

[15] Ibid, 38.

[16] Ibid, 40.


It is one thing to disagree with a teaching of Vatican II, but another to dissent from it. To be a faithful Catholic in disagreement requires the right ordering of the self towards the Church in charity and loyalty with the self-understanding that one has a duty to investigate the matter and not give up. And once this is completed and if one is in disagreement still, the faithful Catholic must still acknowledge the Church’s authority and remains in principle open to deeper understanding and examination of the subject. One cannot reject a teaching of Vatican II based on hermeneutical principles contrary to what the Magisterium proposes nor out of conscience. Doing such is an act of disobedience to the Magisterium and mischaracterizes the Church’s own authority.

The Magisterium through the papacies, 1985 Extraordinary Synod and CDF have clearly stated that a hermeneutics of continuity is to be used in understanding Vatican II and its authority in light of the deposit of faith and previous Ecumenical Councils. With this comes a warning, those who fail to interpret Vatican II accordingly are not fulfilling his or her vocation as a member of Christ and a theologian (if one is trained to be so). Vatican II’s continuity is not open for debate. We must remember that the bishops in communion with the Pope taught with authority at Vatican II, even if no new infallible doctrines were taught. The words of Pius XII are worth recalling on this matter:

Nor must it be thought that what is expounded in Encyclical Letters does not of itself demand consent, since in writing such Letters the Popes do not exercise the supreme power of their Teaching Authority. For these matters are taught with the ordinary teaching authority, of which it is true to say: "He who heareth you, heareth me"; and generally what is expounded and inculcated in Encyclical Letters already for other reasons appertains to Catholic doctrine. But if the Supreme Pontiffs in their official documents purposely pass judgment on a matter up to that time under dispute, it is obvious that that matter, according to the mind and will of the Pontiffs, cannot be any longer considered a question open to discussion among theologians.[1]

What is at stake in the debate around Vatican II’s authority and continuity is the fact that Jesus Christ gave His promise to the Church that the gates of hell shall not prevail against her. A rejection of Vatican II in its continuity or authority calls this promise into question, for if such a view is true then hell has prevailed and Jesus is a liar. The Holy Spirit likewise would be a failure since He has the task of protecting the Church and her Councils.

One could reply that God cannot be a liar and failure, but to affirm this and the proposition that Vatican II erred requires the belief that the Church at large has apostatized and only a “remnant” remains faithful. Such views betray themselves in their duplicity for they imply: 1) private parties and their interpretations possess an authority which the Magisterium lacks; and 2) that Christ can divorce Himself from His Bride the Church.


What is fundamentally called into question is whether Christ can put away His Bride because any claim that the Church as a whole has apostatized according to the fantasy mentioned above or that an Ecumenical Council has erred is an affirmation that Christ is no longer joined to the Church. Just as Christ affirmed that man cannot divorce his wife, neither can Christ divorce His Bride.


When we consider the CDF document Donum Veritatis, the key to understanding a teaching of the Pope or an Ecumenical Council which is non-definitive, but taught when either are exercising their teaching offices as pastors, is that a religious submission of mind is still required to those teachings. This is because the Pope and such a Council possess legitimate authority over the Catholic Christian. When submission to teachings are understood in a manner that only accepts infallible statements and calls into question any non-definitive statement, then the real issue is one of undermining the Church’s authority (we have already cited Pius XII on this matter above). As Ratzinger points out, the Church’s authority cannot be reduced to infallibility.[2] Those who do so fundamentally misunderstand the role and purpose of authority within a community.[3]

To summarize: this second part on the hermeneutics of Vatican II puts forth two hermeneutics. First, Vatican II’s teachings are in continuity with the deposit of faith. While there is macrocontinuity, there are also microruptures which must be understood as a restoration and renewal in light of the Church’s Tradition. Second, Vatican II as an Ecumenical Council in continuity with the deposit of faith possesses the same authority as any previous Ecumenical Council. And since Vatican II possesses authority we must respond properly to this authority with an assent of faith to any definitive teachings and religious submission of intellect and will otherwise.


Chapter Endnotes

[1] Humani Generis 20.

[2] The Nature and Mission of Theology, 113.

[3] Cf ibid, 111-113.

Links to Some Cited Works

Benedict XVI:

Address to the Roman Curia Offering Them His Christmas Greeting, Dec. 22, 2005. Link:


Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith:

Circular Letter to the Presidents of Episcopal Conferences regarding some sentences and errors
           arising from the interpretation of the decrees of the Second Vatican Council, July 24,
           1966. Link:

Profession of Faith. Link:

Extraordinary Synod of 1985 Final Report. Link:



Address on the Occasion of the Solemn Opening of the Most Holy Council, Oct. 11, 1962.Link:

Speech Announcing the Council. Link:

Speech Opening the First Session, Oct 11, 1962. Link:


John Paul II:

Address to the Conference Studying the Implementation of the Second Vatican Council, Feb.
           27, 2000. Link:


Paul VI:

Address During the Last General Meeting of the Second Vatican Council, Dec. 7, 1965. Link:

In Spiritu Sancto. Link:


Enjoying our content? Consider supporting us through Paypal or Patreon!

Festenburger Frauenhimmel by Johann Cyriak Hackhofer 
Wikimedia Commons