Hermeneutics of Vatican II
Part III.2.6: The Spirit of Vatican II
By Jeremy Hausotter
May 16, 2021
Note on the Text:
Part III is broken up into nine separate pages because this investigation in Google Docs is approximately 130 pages. In Google Docs it is broken up into three parts, which the reader here can discern based on the numbering scheme. The reader will profit most by reading Part III in sequential order. Part III.1 develops the hermeneutic of faith. Part III.2 applies the hermeneutic of faith to several hermeneutical controversies of Vatican II. Part III.3 develops the hermeneutic of suspicion.
Table of Contents
2.6. The Spirit of Vatican II
There is perhaps no other phrase or slogan that originated from the Second Vatican Council that is more maligned. The “Spirit” of Vatican II has been responsible for many errors the Church faces today. Many of the movements of secularization are due to inspirations from this “Spirit”. Some progressive theologians naturally made the term their own and used it as inspiration for their own opinions, views which can be properly condemned as neomodernism. This only fueled many conservatives to disparage not only the “Spirit” of Vatican II, but for some even the Council itself.
The question before us, however, is whether first of all there is an authentic meaning to the phrase “Spirit of Vatican II”, or whether the phrase is to be thoroughly condemned as a progressive hermeneutic offensive to the faith? Is it the case that this progressive “spirit” is the only valid meaning? Or is there an authentic “Spirit of Vatican II”?
2.6.1. A First Definition
A first definition of the “spirit of Vatican II” is interpreting the phrase as the will of the majority of the Council Fathers. Otto Pesch defined it as follows:
The “spirit of the council” is the will of the overwhelming majority of the council Fathers which has emerged from the official record and in view of the pre-history of the council, even where it became watered down and weakened in particular by objections and sometimes unfair tricks of a small minority. As such it is a valid rule for interpretation of the conciliar texts… One can here truly say: The world-church stands behind this or that theological statement.
Such a meaning of “spirit of the Council” can be understood in the progressive interpretation mentioned above. One theologian for example interpreted the “spirit of the Council” such that “The extraordinary meaning of the Council far surpasses the actual letters of its texts which do not convey the true significance which animates them except when one places them in the context of the Council’s grand design.” This attitude reflects a common position of the progressive camp.
The “spirit of the Council” can be further interpreted according to the Council’s pastorality and the principle of aggiornamento. Schillebeeckx in one place described the “spirit of the Council” as a “secular spirit” because of the pastoral orientation found in particular in Gaudium et Spes which he identified with aggiornamento later on. The “spirit” of the “will of the Council” is hence also identified with the Council’s strategies for addressing modern man.
The problem, as Dietrich von Hildebrand and John O’Malley acutely noted, is that once the “spirit” is separated from the conciliar texts, then the phrase “spirit of Vatican II” itself becomes ambiguous. The ambiguity arises because these progressive thinkers separate the concept from its sources of intelligibility, namely the conciliar texts themselves. The concept of the “postconciliar spirit” hence requires to be defined according to another content; and in the case of the radical progressives, the solution was the identification of this concept with the impetus of modernization and secularization. This impetus, empty of meaning, needed to be filled with a content, and since it was divorced from the sources of faith, these thinkers selected whatever trend or opinion suited them. Such an impetus naturally led to a second degree of separation between the conciliar texts and their authoritative interpreter, the Magisterium. This impetus now becomes the measure and authority over the conciliar texts, and those interpreters who follow the current of this impetus become the authoritative interpreters over and against the Magisterium. What cannot be forced into an interpretation by this impetus is thus dismissed along with whoever claims authority to say otherwise.
In opposition to this view, the 1985 Extraordinary Synod’s Final Report taught that “it is not legitimate to separate the spirit and the letter of the Council.” What is being asserted here by the Synod is that it is illegitimate to claim a “spirit of Vatican II” and teach an opinion that is opposed to the Church’s own doctrines and the texts of the Council themselves; which was what several progressive theologians were doing such as Edward Schillebeeckx, Charles Curran and Hans Küng. Both degrees of separation are invalid. One cannot separate the “spirit” from the letter nor from the authoritative voice of the Magisterium who authentically interprets the texts.
Pesch’s definition however need not be necessarily condemned to this progressive interpretation. The “will of the Council Fathers” can be interpreted as the progressive “updating” of the Church according to modern solutions for Church life such as introducing women priests and rejecting of papal infallibility, but such is far from the minds and wills of the Council Fathers as a whole.
In opposition to this liberal paradigm, it needs to be affirmed that the Second Vatican Council was the exercise of the Church’s own faith. It was and is a renewal of her faith, for we as Catholics still yet face the task of authentically implementing the contents of Vatican II. Vatican II was an exercise of faith in the past, but remains today as a Council to be implemented in faith. Vatican II is a present challenge to be faithfully lived by, which in doing so likewise orientates us towards its full implementation.
As an exercise of faith, Vatican II must be interpreted accordingly, and hence its doctrines and doctrinal continuity must be taken into account in order to adequately interpret the Council. The hermeneutic of faith requires a hermeneutic of doctrinal continuity, which the conciliar texts themselves and the Magisterium both teach. Every Council pope and post-conciliar pope taught this hermeneutic of doctrinal continuity. The progressive interpretation requires the adoption of a hermeneutic of discontinuity which the Magisterium has repeatedly condemned.
The progressive interpretation of the “spirit of Vatican II” also fails to appropriately utilize the hermeneutic of dialogue. Those who adopt the progressive interpretation correctly see that Vatican II addresses itself to man, but these thinkers accommodate themselves to the world’s solutions to modernity’s problems instead of solutions rooted in faith and Christ. Dialogue is grounded in truth, and in particular, the dialogue Vatican II began with the world is grounded in the truths of the Catholic faith revealed by Christ. The progressive interpretation disposes of revealed truth in favor of becoming worldly.
The progressive interpretation furthermore fundamentally misunderstands the hermeneutics of pastoral, renewal, and aggiornamento. The progressive “updating” is an updating without a content. It is a “pastoral activity” that lacks all but the pretension of being pastoral. Aggiornamento requires an authentic interpretation of doctrine in order for the Church to be able to update herself. One must first understand what it is that is to be updated. There must be a renewal of faithful penetration into the doctrines of faith. The pastoral nature of Vatican II requires a correct content to present and proclaim in pastoral activity, and without the doctrines of faith any pastoral activity has surrendered its raison d'etre and has become farcical; for it is a parody for any pastor to present untruths as a true act of love for mankind. Such a pastor is giving gifts of scorpions when his congregation asked for bread.
Instead, a true “will of the Council” must be interpreted accordingly as a will to faith. Vatican II is an act of faith, and hence the will of the Council Fathers cannot be of another content other than that of faith. The definition given by Pesch faces an ambiguity in that it can be understood in a way that does not consider the relationship of this “will of the Council Fathers” to faith. When we adopt the hermeneutic of faith as an existential hermeneutic, not every Council Father willed an act of faith. Some were acting in bad faith, either trying to instill a traditionalism or progressivism that both actively worked against faith. The “will of the Council Fathers” must hence be existentially referring to the Church herself and those who were making an act of faith through the Council as the subjects. The “will of the Council” is the “will of the Church” as she made her act of faith in Vatican II and continues to do so in faithfully implementing the Council’s teachings. Ratzinger rightly called the progressive “spirit of the Council” a Konzil-Ungeist, an anti-spirit, for it adopts whatever is new instead of the Church’s own doctrines as the “true doctrines” of the Church.
We can now point out a third interpretation of the “will of the Council Fathers”. This will as we have explained it can be understood as the progressive impetus to secularize the Church and as the Church’s own will to faith. We would however be forgetful if we failed to mention the “traditionalist” interpretation.
Some of the Council Fathers, such as Marcel Lefebvre, had a “traditionalistic” will with which they strived to direct the course of the Council “in order to save it from the progressive forces”. According to this interpretation, true Catholicism is identified with an idealized version of preconciliar theology and hence Vatican II represents a rupture from this ideal. Therefore, since Vatican II did not follow the will of these “traditionalist” Council Fathers, Vatican II is a failed Council since it instead followed the will of the progressives. There is hence a failed “spirit” of the “traditionalists” who must now erect a fortress to fend off the progressive “spirit” that became the Council’s adopted policy. This “traditionalistic spirit” is a spirit of bitter defeat. The battle over the meaning of the Council was lost and now the task according to this “spirit” is to warn as many Catholics as possible of the dangers of Vatican II before Christ comes again.
It is such a “spirit of defeatism” that leads to resentment, dissent and revolt. Did we not see this play itself out historically in Lefebvre’s schismatic act of illegally consecrating bishops on his own authority? This act as such was an act of despair. It is the result of years of defeat and bitter resent over what became the Church, and so one naturally had to take matters into one’s own hands to erect the change the Magisterium was apparently failing to enforce to stem the progressive tidal wave. Both the traditionalistic and progressive “spirits” lead the faithful to tragedy.
It is furthermore worth noting that these ultraconservative thinkers accept the progressive interpretation of the “spirit of Vatican II” and the progressive corollary that one must separate the spirit from the texts. Such a methodology coupled with this bitter traditionalistic “spirit” is found in the works of these thinkers such as Marcel Lefebvre in his books such as An Open Letter to Catholics and Religious Liberty Questioned, Michael Davies’s books like The Second Vatican Council and Religious Liberty and Pope John’s Council, or Romano Amerigo’s Iota Unum and Atila Sinke Guimarães’ In the Murky Waters of Vatican II. Such thinkers and books are a threat to the faith of those who read them. On Davies’ Pope John’s Council, the Catholic historian James Hitchcock wrote the following in his scathing review of the book:
Davies, the defender of traditional Catholic orthodoxy, finally approaches the Second Vatican Council in precisely the way those on the "left" have done—he is more interested in detecting the "spirit" of each document than in analyzing its letter; firmly traditional statements are treated as unrepresentative or as mere sops thrown to the masses, and the "true meaning" of the Council is discovered in the obiter dicta of periti and even of journalists.
This can be said of many authors on Vatican II.
2.6.2. A Second Definition
The man known as both Karol Wojtyła and Pope John Paul II certainly believed there was a “spirit” of the Council, but not understood as a “will of the Council Fathers”. Dr. Schreck interpreted this “spirit” as the spirit of the new evangelization, citing the Pope’s statement “for the new evangelization, which originated precisely at the Second Vatican Council.” As Cardinal Dulles observed, Vatican II marked a recovery of the idea and duty of evangelization. For example, Vatican I used the term “gospel” once and never used either “evangelize” or “evangelization”. Vatican II, on the other hand, used “gospel” 157 times, “evangelize” 18 times, and “evangelization” 31 times. This meaning of “spirit of the Council” is identified with the concepts of evangelization, dialogue, ecumenism, and collegiality. “This style and this spirit will be remembered as the essential truth about the Council… In this spirit the Second Vatican Council will continue to be a challenge for all Churches and a duty for each person for a long time to come.”
2.6.3. A Third Definition
Both definitions, however appropriate, are insufficient in themselves. For example, what was the inspiration for the New Evangelization? What gives this movement its dynamism? Its impetus? The “will of the Council Fathers” can be generalized to the “will of the Council” understood as a will to faith, but whose will? Is Vatican II purely a human event or was it a council of demons or angels as well?
One hermeneutical mistake we must caution against is the danger in politicizing the Council; for once we approach the Council in political terms such as “progressive” and “conservative”, we fail to adequately understand the Council itself. The politicalization of the Council threatens to interpret it strictly in terms of a battle of wits between two contestants, according to which some unfortunately interpret it as a win for the “progressive” camp.
The questions and problems raised are answered in the insight that Vatican II is a gift of the Holy Spirit, a hermeneutic we have already examined. John XXIII firmly believed that heaven and earth united in the meeting of Vatican II with the Holy Spirit inspiring the Council’s work. Paul VI stated that the purpose of Vatican II was to find the Holy Spirit alive within the Church. The 1985 Extraordinary Synod stated that the Council is to be heartfully embraced by the prompting of the Holy Spirit. John Paul II and Benedict XVI called Vatican II a seminary of the Holy Spirit. Francis called Vatican II a beautiful work of the Holy Spirit.
Since Vatican II is a gift of the Holy Spirit, Vatican II has both a divine and a human source. The texts of Vatican II are not merely written by human authors but in some respect are inspired by the Spirit. This is not to say that the Spirit gave us new public revelation on par with Scripture, but rather that the Spirit inspired the Church in the manner of a new Pentecost that has sent the Church on the mission of the new evangelization. And yet, the Holy Spirit spoke in a real way through the Council to the Church and world. The texts of Vatican II therefore bear the imprint of the Spirit. Paul VI for example spoke to the Council:
We consider it a good sign that the Spirit of Truth in this Council has greatly illumined the teaching authority of the Church and proposes a clearer doctrine of the nature of the Church.
2.6.4. Synthesis and Conclusion
The progressive interpretation of the “spirit of the Council” is nothing other than a term empty of any authentic contents of the faith for these theologians to fill it with their own private opinions. The fruit of this impetus of secularization is dissent from the Church’s teachings, (which was observed in the postconciliar Church especially in the areas of morality and the opposition to the Church's own authority and infallibility.) These theologians, in understanding Vatican II in this manner, falsify the true Spirit of the Council and separate Him from the letter of the conciliar texts. They misunderstand the true “spirit” of the Council as both the will of the Council Fathers and as the will of the Holy Spirit. As such, these theologians actively work against the true Spirit of Vatican II.
Ultraconservative interpreters, on the other hand, face the temptation of gazing upon the progressive view and decidedly rejecting Vatican II. It is worth noting that these thinkers agree with the progressive conception of the “spirit of Vatican II”. Instead of following the Church’s authority, the ultraconservatives follow the radical progressives by actively dissenting from that very authority. The “traditionalists” embrace their own “spirit” when both sides make the same fundamental error of misidentifying their proposed “spirits” with the activity of the Holy Spirit, since both claim that their “spirits” are the true Spirit of Catholicism.
The solution to the problem posed by the “spirit of Vatican II” is the adoption of the existential hermeneutic of faith, for it is by faith that we can understand Vatican II as a gift and work of the Holy Spirit despite the human actors involved. Faith in God implies faith in His Church for as we state in the Creed “I believe in the Church”. Vatican II is hence a real test of faith.
One of the most extraordinary statements is perhaps the following by Schillebeeckx:
If the spirit of this constitution [Gaudium et Spes] does not actively and readily arouse believers—laity, priests and bishops—and they neither live up to it nor act by it… a new flood of secularism must be feared.
If we were to generalize this, if we Catholics do not live up to the demands the Spirit of Vatican II imposes upon us through the conciliar texts, then we will be faced with a secularized Catholicism, as has been observed in the postconciliar era. Both the ultraconservative and progressive forces with their private “spirits” are two streams that flow into the same river that empties itself in the ocean of secularization, because both deny legitimate authority. As von Hildebrand said:
One must say simply that those who proclaim that they possess the real meaning of the Council and are able to predict the future have lost their faith in the Church as a divine institution.
It is ironic that this same theologian, Schillebeeckx, did much to damage the Dutch Church’s relationship to the Vatican in the postconciliar era. Rightly does Schillebeeckx emphasize that the teachings of Gaudium et Spes lay upon Catholics the guilt and duty to live up to their vocations as Catholics because we are in part responsible for the rise of secularism and atheism. We Catholics are in many ways responsible for the “crisis of Vatican II”. We are responsible for the bleeding Church and to stop the hemorrhaging we must first simply pray. Vatican II must be implemented into each Catholic’s life and this begins with a life of prayer and faith. This is the existential principle of faith. Failure brings the scandals of secularism, atheism, and division. Pray and repent, repent and pray.
John XXIII prayed that Vatican II would be a New Pentecost. To achieve this, each Catholic faces the demand of the Spirit of Vatican II to authentically implement the Council. We must live the renewal Vatican II demanded of each of us.
 Quoted from Ormund Rush’s Still Interpreting Vatican II, 23.
 Andres Torres Queiroga, quoted in The Spirit of Vatican II by Gerd-Rainer Horn, 12.
 Cf. Vatican II: The Real Achievement, 78.
 Ibid, 83-84.
 The Charitable Anathema, 57-62.
 “We hear much about the “spirit” of Vatican II, but that expression wallows in subjectivity and vagueness until rescued by studies that can ground it in the conciliar texts…” Tradition and Transition: Historical Perspectives on Vatican II, 28.
 Final Statement, I.5. URL:
 “[Vatican II] was opposed by a self-styled ‘spirit of the Council’, which in reality is a true ‘anti-spirit’ of the Council. According to this pernicious anti-spirit, everything that is ‘new’ is always and in every case better than what has been or what is. It is the anti-spirit according to which the history of the Church would first begin with Vatican II, viewed as a kind of point zero.” The Ratzinger Report, 34-35.
 James Hitchcock, The Catholic Historical Review, Vol. 65, No. 3 (Jul., 1979), 504-505.
 Alan Schreck, Vatican II: The Crisis and the Promise, 45. Cf. Pope John Paul II’s Crossing the Threshold of Hope, 160.
 Avery Dulles, S.J., “John Paul II and the New Evangelization: What does it Mean?” in John Paul II and the New Evangelization, ed. Ralph Martin and Peter Williamson, 4.
 Crossing the Threshold of Hope, 162.
 Cf. John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, 162.
 See Hermeneutics of Vatican II, Part I: Gift of the Holy Spirit. URL:
 “We might say that heaven and earth are united in the holding of the Council the saints of heaven to protect our work, the faithful of the earth continuing in prayer to the Lord, and you, seconding the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in order that the work of all may correspond to the modern expectations and needs of the various peoples of the world.” John XXIII, Opening Speech to the Council. URL:
 “It was to find in herself, active and alive, the Holy Spirit, the word of Christ; and to probe more deeply still the mystery, the plan and the presence of God above and within herself; to revitalize in herself that faith which is the secret of her confidence and of her wisdom, and that love which impels her to sing without ceasing the praises of God.” Paul VI, Address During the Last General Meeting of the Second Vatican Council. URL:
 Final Statement, I,3.
 Crossing the Threshold of Hope, 159. Benedict XVI, General Audience, Oct. 10, 2012. URL:
 Paul VI, “The Task” in Council Speeches of Vatican II, 27.
 Cf. Dietrich von Hildebrand, The Charitable Anathema, 133-136.
 Vatican II: The Real Achievement, 78-79.
 The Charitable Anathema, 54.
 “The solution to this problem of atheism is, therefore, dependent not only on a purified concept of God but also on the very life of church people themselves.” Ibid, 79.
 “Renew Your wonders in our time, as though for a new Pentecost, and grant that the holy Church, preserving unanimous and continuous prayer, together with Mary, the mother of Jesus, and also under the guidance of St. Peter, may increase the reign of the Divine Savior, the reign of truth and justice, the reign of love and peace.” Humanae Salutis. URL:
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