Hermeneutics of Vatican II
Part IV: The Unity of the Conciliar Texts
By Jeremy Hausotter
Oct. 3, 2021
Table of Contents
Our overall approach thus far in our analysis of hermeneutics for interpreting the Second Vatican Council have been conducted mainly from an existential perspective. In Part I we argued that Vatican II is a gift of the Holy Spirit. This truth comes with placed upon all Catholics the demand to live the Council as a gift. Understanding Vatican II’s gift aspect likewise leads us towards and places the demand upon us a spirituality of the gift.
This spirituality of the gift is a responsive attitude of faith. Vatican II cannot be understood apart from a hermeneutic of faith. We have previously argued that Vatican II must be understood as an enrichment of the faith. Faith is the light by which we live and see, by which reality shines in its truth. Faith illuminates reality and our ability to understand the states of affairs as they really are. Part III is the application of this faith hermeneutic to Vatican II and some of the manifold problems concerning the Council’s interpretation.
The spirituality of the gift likewise demands obedience. Obedience requires us to respect the Church’s own authority, to give religious submission of intellect and will towards her non-infallible teachings. There is hence a duty of obedience towards Vatican II. This obedience further requires a hermeneutic of continuity instead of one of rupture. This was the theme of Part II. Vatican II cannot be understood as a break with Sacred Tradition without questioning the Church’s own authority at some existential level of the exegete. The Church, from the texts of Vatican II and Popes from John XXIII on, have defended the Council’s continuity with Tradition and dogma.
The task before us in Part IV is therefore to apply these existential themes to the conciliar texts. Our aim is therefore to apply the spirituality of the gift with the hermeneutics of faith and obedience to develop a basic textual methodology for interpreting the texts of Vatican II.
We begin by describing the unity of the conciliar texts. There are sixteen documents on Vatican II. These span a wide variety of topics and are the result of a 2,500 member committee of deliberations, votes, and a constant antagonism between different parties within the Council. If one focuses on these surface details however, he or she may lose sight of the fact that there is a great unity to be discovered in the Church documents.
2. The Unifying Role of the Holy Spirit
We have already addressed the hermeneutic of gift in Part I, namely, that Vatican II is a gift of the Holy Spirit. In Part III this theme was developed further wherein we argued that the Holy Spirit is the true Spirit of Vatican II. Paul VI described Vatican II as the Church's encounter and rediscovery of the Holy Spirit alive within her.
Benedict XVI described the Holy Spirit as a painter and Vatican II as His painting. Vatican II
lies before us like a great fresco, so to speak, painted with the great multiplicity and variety of its elements under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And as if we were standing in front of a large picture, still today we continue to perceive the extraordinary wealth of that moment of grace, to discover in it particular scenes, fragments and pieces of the mosaic.
In analyzing a fresco, it is easy to focus on a particular element or scene. An overemphasis on the particulars however blinds one to the unicity of the fresco and its general themes. We must stand back and gaze upon the fresco as a whole, and once we understand the picture in this manner, then we can understand how the different elements interrelate.
Vatican II as a fresco no doubt suffers these same problems. Many have focused on particulars and hence arrived at false conclusions of this great ecclesial event. Some details are interpreted out of proportion, given overemphasis, others are underemphasized, and the vision of the whole is lost on many. Several of these problems we addressed under the hermeneutics of faith, suspicion, continuity, rupture, dialogue, renewal, pastorality, aggiornamento, spirit of Vatican II, and so on. These are all particulars however that share a common unity.
The unity is found in the Holy Spirit and the understanding that Vatican II is a gift of the Holy Spirit. This is in a sense the “eidos”, or form, of Vatican II. Our understanding of hermeneutics begins with a spirituality of the gift, that Vatican II is a gift of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is hence the great unifier of the Council because He is the painter of the fresco. The documents of the Council were guided by His brushstrokes.
If we do not adopt this spirituality of the gift and live it, how can we but see Vatican II in terms of suspicion, ambiguity, and rupture? The spirituality of the gift is rooted in faith. The hermeneutic of faith is concomitant with a spirituality of the gift. The two are inseparable from each other and together must inform our existential approach to the Council. Hence the failure to adopt such an outlook can lead us towards exegetical abuses and a warped perspective of the Council. The spirituality of the gift is the still-point, the center of mass, around which all authentic interpretation revolves.
3. The Hermeneutic of Intertextuality
The spirituality of the gift, which begins with the fact that Vatican II is a gift of the Holy Spirit, is therefore a unifying principle. There is in a sense a double “authorship”, human and Spirit, of the conciliar texts, but unlike Scripture the texts of Vatican II are not protected by infallibility. This double authorship or inspiration of the Spirit, is the unifying principle across the sixteen Vatican II documents. This double authorship therefore manifests this unity in two ways according to both the human and Spirit dynamisms. The Holy Spirit as an actor within the Council, who inspired the texts, provides an authentic unity amongst the documents which can be discerned by the open minded heart. Like the Bible, the conciliar texts themselves must be interpreted as a whole. God’s unifying role in salvation history and Vatican II provides the basis and grounds for the unity of both sets of documents, the Bible and Vatican II texts.
When we introduce the human element, we can still perceive a unity proper to this order. The documents are interrelated and interlinked, and so they cannot be legitimately interpreted separated hermeneutically. We can discern this interdependence both structurally and thematically. Lumen Gentium forms the core of the Council. Most of the documents are extensions and elaborations of what is already found in Lumen Gentium, such as Apostolicam Actuositatem being a further investigation of Lumen Gentium chapter 4 on the laity. Lumen Gentium 36 condemns the view that religious liberty can be rejected by society, but what is meant by religious liberty, how it is defined, and its parameters are all elaborated in Dignitatis Humanae. It is therefore with good reason why the 1985 Extraordinary Synod proposed a hermeneutic of intertextuality.
The theological interpretation of the conciliar doctrine must show attention to all the documents, in themselves and in their close inter-relationship, in such a way that the integral meaning of the Council's affirmations—often very complex—might be understood and expressed.
The conciliar documents must be interpreted in relationship to each other, for not only is this how the Council Fathers and Magisterium understood the interrelationship between the Council documents, but also because the Holy Spirit in some way “inspired” the Council. Following Karol Wojtyla, it is likewise my belief that the Church today needs to be “animated by the belief that the Council was the ‘word of the Spirit’...”
As a textual hermeneutic, we can readily see the importance of the interrelationship between the different documents. Lumen Gentium describes for example the roles of the laity, religious vocations, priesthood, bishops and relationship with non-Catholics, but these themes are further developed in each of their own documents. It is hence highly irresponsible to interpret one of these documents independently from the other conciliar texts or to interpret any two conciliar texts as opposed or contradicting one another. Doing so introduces an interpretative “spirit” against the letter and Spirit of the conciliar texts themselves.
When we consider the problems of ambiguity and juxtaposition within the conciliar texts, these need to be interpreted in a manner consistent with the Council as an integral whole, as the teaching authority of the Magisterium. Most of the problems revolving around claims of juxtaposition and ambiguity are resolved through a hermeneutics of intertextuality obedient to the Magisterium. Sometimes there are ambiguities such as the many meanings of world in Gaudium et Spes and the Council’s decision to not state a position on birth control. This question was relegated to a commission outside of the Council and ultimately led to Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae. What must be avoided is a despairing hermeneutic of ambiguity that either denies the unity of the texts or claims that the conciliar texts were ambiguously written in order to be perverted by modernistic teachings. Both attitudes reject the thematically of the Holy Spirit within the Church.
4. The Constitutions as Interpretive Key
The 1985 Extraordinary Synod’s Final Report outlined several hermeneutical principles required for correctly interpreting Vatican II. One of which is that the four Constitutions are the “interpretive key” for the other conciliar texts.
Vatican II issued three types of documents: constitutions, decrees, and declarations. All sixteen documents of the Second Vatican II fall into one of these three categories. There are four constitutions, three declarations, and nine decrees. There is a question as to the authority status of these categories, but this is a question we are going to bracket aside. The four constitutions are Sacrosanctum Concilium (on the liturgy), Lumen Gentium (on the Church), Dei Verbum (on Revelation), and Gaudium et Spes (the Church’s relationship to modernity).
Benedict XVI used the analogy of the constitutions as being the “four cardinal points of the compass” which guide the Church. The overall theme of Vatican II is the Church as a “pilgrim people”. Dei Verbum describes the convocation of the Church in the Word of God. Lumen Gentium describes how the Church’s fundamental task is the “glorification of God” which is expressed through liturgy and the topic of Sacrosanctum Concilium. Gaudium et Spes describes how the Church brings the light of Christ to the world. It is properly speaking evangelistic.
We can observe a deficiency in the Synod’s principle of intertextuality here; namely, that the Final Report does not specify which of the four constitutions possess theological priority over the others. Lumen Gentium and Dei Verbum are designated as dogmatic constitutions, Sacrosanctum Concilium as a constitution, and Gaudium et Spes as a pastoral constitution. What is the theological ranking of these three types of constitutions? In Part V of our hermeneutic series I will argue that the two dogmatic constitutions possess theological priority over the other two.
5. Applying the Spirituality of the Gift
Faith in Christ requires faith in the Church. Since our faith in Christ is a gift, so is our faith in the Church. Our faith in the Church while being a choice on our part is also a gift. We must remember this and practice humility.
The Church is both the object of dogma and a subject, the Bride of Christ. Since the Church is the Bride of Christ, she shares Mary as her Mother. Mary is the Mother of the Church. Hence, it follows that if Mary is the Mother of the Church and the Holy Spirit is the spouse of Mary, then is not the Spirit himself the Father of the Church? Was it not the Spirit who came on Pentecost and inaugurated the work of the Church to go out and preach Christ in season and out, that public sacramental expression began with the baptism of the 3,000?
The Holy Spirit as the father of the Church is the great protector of the Church. He protects her nature and essence from corruption. He preserves her teachings, hierarchy, and liturgical expression. As a father, the Spirit knows how to give good gifts to His children; bread instead of a rock, a fish instead of a scorpion. It is in the nature of fatherhood that the Spirit does such. He cares for the Church because she is His daughter married to the Son. The Spirit gives her the gifts needed for her to live and flourish, to obtain a deeper communion with Christ.
Vatican II is such a gift. As we have first argued in this series, Vatican II is a gift of the Holy Spirit. The Council is a gift from the Spirit as a father to the Church, His daughter. We as children of the Spirit must bear this in mind and not reject His good gift. We must care for it, bring the talent given and make another talent instead of burying it in the sand.
Since the Spirit is the father of the Church who knows how to give good gifts, he is the guarantor for the doctrinal continuity amongst the Ecumenical Councils. Each Ecumenical Council is a gift of the Holy Spirit. A gift from the Spirit cannot contradict another, for otherwise God would contradict Himself. This is not to say that everyone will perceive this gift-character of the Council. We may not see why Vatican II is a gift. Vatican II may appear murky, but it is through faith in the Spirit as the Church’s father that we know with certitude the goodness of this esteemed gift, and it is with a faith in the Spirit that we can begin to see the luminosity and depth of Vatican II’s teachings.
It is with such a faith that we can see the unification of the sixteen conciliar texts. If Vatican II is a gift from the Spirit, then the texts as “inspired” by Him bear His imprint. Not everyone can discern this imprint. That much should be obvious given the modern Church crises. Those who cannot see this is due to a faith impediment within themselves. It is not a fault of the Council. Vatican II is a gift of the Spirit. The problem is the task of implementation, of living out the Council’s teachings through first and foremost the individual’s life, and through such, the Church’s life as well.
The failure of Vatican II is not its teachings, but our faithful response to this magnificent gift of the Holy Spirit. This is why Ratzinger has repeatedly reminded us that the task of implementing the Council has yet to begin decades after its conclusion. The failure is within us and our inability to see as the Spirit, and discern His gifts to us. The problem is not the gift, for that implies a problem with the Gift-Giver, who has no imperfections. The problem is us and our implementation of the Council, for we are the ones who are imperfect.
This is why hermeneutics is important. A proper hermeneutics of Vatican II is nothing other than the response of the Church to her father the Holy Spirit in gratitude to His gift. It is a thank you because we accurately describe and use this gift according to His will. It is also a response of duty and defense, to preserve the gift given. Proper hermeneutics is also a response of proclamation. When we are given a precious gift, we celebrate it, show it to our friends and neighbors, and set it high on the mantle in the living room for all our visitors to see. Vatican II as a gift is to be celebrated and preserved, lifted high for the whole human family to see and admire. The preservation of this great gift demands a hermeneutic of continuity.
The juxtapositions and ambiguities within Vatican II are not imperfections of the gift, but imperfections of the human element of the conciliar event. The more one lives within the spirituality of the gift, the more these superficial appearances diminish and vanish. They are like the mirage the thirsty soul chases and dies of dehydration. Many have pointed out the mirage of ambiguity and juxtaposition, and chased the mirage to their own detriment from being able to understand what makes Vatican II a precious gift.
A proper hermeneutical method places the character of giftedness first. Some emphasize Vatican II as an event that begun with the Council but continued onwards afterwards. These thinkers separate the spirit from the letter of the conciliar texts. More appropriately, they attempt to separate the gift from the Gift-Giver, to run off like a vagabond with stolen goods.
What we must remember is that the continuity of the Council’s teachings are ultimately a product of the Spirit. Human enterprises alone cannot make such claims to continuity. Continuity itself is a gift of the Spirit to His daughter the Church. This continuity manifests the interior unity amongst the different conciliar texts. We perceive it topically through the interdependence of the different texts upon the constitutions, but it is the Spirit of the texts that provides the authentic intertextuality. Intertextuality is a principle for discerning the role of the Spirit within the Council just as much as the hermeneutics of continuity and faith. When we separate the documents and analyze them separately and alone, we threaten ourselves with the possibility of not perceiving the unicity of the texts. With this said, the four constitutions possess the distinct privilege of being the four compass points leading us on the true course towards the meaning of the text and their Spirit.
After saying all of this, it would be a crude misinterpretation to walk away believing that everything Vatican II taught was protected by the gift of infallibility. We must remember the proper norms of theological interpretation and curb that dogmatizing tendency to treat every statement as if it were infallible. The Council was certainly assisted by the Spirit, but it was not the intention of the Council Fathers to define infallible doctrine. Nevertheless, Vatican II must be held with high authority as a supreme act of the Magisterium. The distinction that is to be kept in mind here is that divine assistance in teaching does not imply the infallibility of that teaching.
In the beginning of our essay I mentioned briefly the role of obedience. Faith requires obedience, obedience to God and His revelation. This an obedience to Jesus, the Word of God, He who is the fullness of revelation. The Church likewise commands our obedience for two reasons. First, the Church herself is also an element of Christ’s revelation. Second, Christ gave the Church teaching authority. As we said before, faith in Christ requires faith in the Church, so likewise, obedience to Christ requires obedience to the Church.
This is why the Catechism teaches that obedience is an evangelical counsel. In fact, obedience is closely related to the virtue of justice. The Catechism states:
The duty of obedience requires all to give due honor to authority and to treat those who are charged to exercise it with respect, and, insofar as it is deserved, with gratitude and good-will.
This is very similar to the definition of justice St. Thomas gives in the Summa Theologiae. St. Thomas later teaches that obedience, while being a part of justice, is its own special virtue.
The point I wish to make is simply this: Vatican II is a gift of the Holy Spirit; as such, the reception of Vatican II as a gift requires upon us a twofold duty of obedience. First, one must submit to the teachings of the Council. This is a response of obedience to both the Church and the Holy Spirit. By being obedient to the Council you are being obedient to the Gift-Giver, the Spirit Himself. Second, this duty of obedience requires us to protect the gift, to be a witness to it. We become a living testimony of the Holy Spirit in doing so. Failure to perform either demands obedience lays before us, on the other hand, is an injustice to the Church, the Council, and the Holy Spirit, for Vatican II is the Spirit’s gift to us.
 Part III is broken up into nine subparts. The first of which examines Vatican II as an enrichment of faith, developing the hermeneutic of faith. URL:
 “The Church has gathered herself together in deep spiritual awareness, not to produce a learned analysis of religious psychology, or an account of her own experiences, not even to devote herself to reaffirming her rights and explaining her laws. Rather, 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.
 Benedict XVI, General Audience, Oct. 10, 2012.
 1985 Extraordinary Synod Final Report, I.5.
 Karol Wojtyła, Sources of Renewal, 38.
 General Audience, Oct. 10, 2012.
 Acts 2:41.
 Luke 11:11-13.
 Matt. 25:14-30.
 Cf. “Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the apostles teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, and in a particular way, to the Roman Pontiff as Pastor of the whole Church, when exercising their ordinary Magisterium, even should this not issue in an infallible definition or in a "definitive" pronouncement but in the proposal of some teaching which leads to a better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals and to moral directives derived from such teaching.
One must therefore take into account the proper character of every exercise of the Magisterium, considering the extent to which its authority is engaged. It is also to be borne in mind that all acts of the Magisterium derive from the same source, that is, from Christ who desires that His People walk in the entire truth. For this same reason, magisterial decisions in matters of discipline, even if they are not guaranteed by the charism of infallibility, are not without divine assistance and call for the adherence of the faithful.” Donum Veritatis 17.
 CCC 915.
 CCC 1900.
 “...justice is a habit whereby a man renders to each one his due by a constant and perpetual will…”, STh II-II, Q58, A1.
 STh II-II, Q104, A2. Cf. STh II-II, Q80.
Hermeneutics of Vatican II Articles
Festenburger Frauenhimmel by Johann Cyriak Hackhofer