studies
2015.02.05 14:10

The Quandary of Interpreting Vatican II

Over fifty years ago,  October 11, 1962, the Second Vatican Council began. It lasted about three years, a little longer than the previous one, the Vatican Council of 1869-1870, which had been interrupted by political events. Nevertheless, it was briefer than the Council of Trent preceding it (1545-1563). Though convened by Pope John XXIII, it was essentially carried out by his successor Pope Paul VI.


As with nearly every other council - in any case, as with any meaningful Council - Vatican II simultaneously spawned order and chaos. Order, for after the fierce debates, certain ecclesiastical settlements were adopted, which bound on all the matters that had long been without either authoritative or popular solution. Chaos, because all such leaps in tradition confuse; they muddy the waters and give occasion to disclose our sinful inclinations, i.e. the narow-mindedness of conservatives and the audacity of reformers. So, as with any major council, feelings of enthusiasm , surprise, and bitterness mingled throughout the Church. Alongside the hope for renewal, there was new vigor as well as apprehension as to whether conciliar shockwaves would scandalize the mass of the faithful, who were not especially caught up in the goals and ambitions of the Council.

 

And yes, in the debate on the form of the liturgy, the Council Fathers had enthusiastically embraced the plan to complete the reforms that had been initiated earlier in the twentieth century by Pius X and Pius XII. Since these revisions of the traditional rite in general had been very cautious, it was thought that the most significant change would only be a little wider use of the vernacular in the Mass (already employed in other sacraments). It was hoped that this would prompt those who had left off attending church to go again.

Discussing the so-called collegiality of bishops, it was intended to finish the job interrupted in 1870 at the previous council, Vatican I. To the strong, dogmatic thesis of the Pope's primacy, they wished to add the doctrine of the deep solidarity of the bishops "with Peter and under the authority of Peter." This was, inter alia, to break an erroneous association between the Papal authority and the all too secular versions of the monarchical system in the Church, but above all, it highlighted the responsibility of all the successors of the Apostles.


Proceeding from the teachings about the Church, that had been discovered since the time of Pius XII, the fathers tried to displace the emphasis: Instead of the "fortress of God in the desert ," the Catholic Church was now to primarily present herself as the center of God's unity, to which should tend, by the power of their destination, all thingis that had for various reasons scattered throughout the world: all the seeds of truth and all the elements of sanctification - called to already existing on the earth nonforfeitable Catholic unity in the Church, governed by the Successor of Peter.

 

It was recognized that the desire to move towards Catholic unity was impeded due to certain barriers, such as unnecessarily harsh wording, which is not indispensable to the Church. Thus, when devising the "Catholic principles of ecumenism " fathers decided to relinquish all things that would impede  the "separated brethren" discovering what the Catholic Church has in herself, and not only for herself. Regarding non-Christian religions, they wanted to show that it is in Christ - and only in Christ - that the noble search of all religions may find their true end.

Last, the Council Fathers wished to make it clear that people have the right, in any circumstances, not to be physically coerced concerning religion, under condition that they respect peace, public morality, and the rights of others. The Fathers underlined in the same time that such a guaranty does not impede regarding Catholicism as the state religion where this is possible.


Though at times it was imperfectly implemented, the Council did nothing but strengthened the directives concerning liturgy, theology and  social teaching envisioned by Leo XIII , Pius X , Pius XI , Pius XII. It is true that new things were said, but the content was not entirely new.


In spite of this, the noble intentions of the Council were, even at this stage, shrouded in an atmosphere of abstraction and clever circumvention of troublesome issues . Apart from that, much was left unsaid, especially things concerning the darker side of human intentions, tendencies and inclinations. It was decided not to speak about the fact that the non-Christian religions in general mix truth with falsehood and nobility with wickedness. It was decided not to say that in non-Catholic Christian communities there is a strong aversion to essential dogmatic truths. That in the world today there is a strong tendency to tie the freedom of conscience to relativism. This attitude was epitomized also in the strange silence of the Council on the issue of Communism (which was a relief to the soviet “observers”) - whereas in the same time all sort of questions, including the atomic bomb and the culture of recreation, were widely discussed.


All the Council documents bore the signatures of churchmen as diverse as Ottaviani and Bea, Lefebvre and Suenens - the figureheads of the "conservatives" and the "liberals." They signed in a great variety of moods. As is usual in such cases, no one left the council with a sense of complete victory of his private opinions, which he in all honesty believed to be best for the Church, or simply the only right ones. However - also unsurprisingly - some still left with the sentiment: this is a step forward after all! Others felt the sentiment: it could have ended badly, but we have averted catastrophe. At the same time the majority of the representants of both sides were able to admit that the Council is the rule binding to all, that would end this tug of war between the party of change and the party of order. And most importantly, they were able to admit that even in the new wordings of documents it is ultimately vitality of the one and the same Catholic tradition that can be clearly seen.


The purpose of the Councils was not merely to repeat in other words the same formulae. They can further develop doctrine: not changing what was always maintained, the councils elucidate what did not need clarification so far or illuminate what has been so far obscured by the shadow of various opinions. Vatican II also faced such a task: it did not alter the deposit of faith, but started to elucidate and illuminate it, which turned out to be urgent already starting from the times of Leo XIII (pope from 1878-1903), and in the face of rising totalitarianism turned out to be indispendible - for pastoral reasons.


The voting statistics of the Council clearly signal that for about two hundred council fathers (the so-called conservative wing) the possibilities of far-reaching changes had been exhausted. That is to say that what can be found in the Council's documents is the acceptable maximum for this part of the Church. It is regrettable, that the existence of this strong voice was not taken seriously after the Council as an element of the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the course of the implementation of the Council's decisions.

 

Post-conciliar implementation is fundamentally distinct from the question of Vatican II itself. What was in the Council documents among the toil and controversies described as the road all share in common within the Church was in practice regarded as portents of much deeper changes the Council Fathers had never dreamed of. Some unwritten pact of loyalty had been shattered, yet loyalty was ever required. Despite of the developped system of synodal consultations, the power of the Holy See was still occasionally used in quite a pre-conciliar style. It would shatter doubt with an iron hand, yet at the same time, it possessed an air of enlightened absolutism, respecting experts more than the Church's heritage. Showing pretended aversion to juridicism some presented the writings of Vatican II as "essays, not documents" (Cardinal Garrone). Yet at the same time the passages of the same texts were enshrined with more devotion than dogma was. A remarkable power of secretariats, emergency committees, and other work groups, in one word of structures exempted from ordinary personal or institutional responsibility arose in the Church.


In the years that have passed under Paul VI and Bl. John Paul II, great instruments were made in which these Popes practically interpreted the teachings and provisions of Vatican II: This was a set of completely new liturgical books, starting with the Calendar (1969), the Missal (1970), a breviary ( 1971), and a new code of Canon Law (1983) and at last, a new Catechism (published twenty years ago in 1992). Structures and mechanisms began functioning, whose origins were perceived more or less justly as the will of the Council. In the papal Magisterium citations from the doctrine of Vatican II outnumbered for a long time references to all the previous teachings of the Church. One must recognize that it was the personal interventions of the Popes that often rescued the reforms from total separation, both from the Council and earlier tradition.


What took the form of radical transformation at the level of the Roman headquarters was diversely reflected in local churches. The dominant trend, imposed by the Church leaders from Germany, France, and the United States , was an even more profound radicalization. It took the shape of the will to create a post-conciliar Church (sharply opposed to the pre-conciliar Church). On the other hand, in individual dioceses or countries , as in Genoa, headed by Cardinal Siri, or in Poland, with Primate Wyszyński, the conciliar novelties were implemented loyally albeit with distinct moderation. Finally, the instances where churchmen refused to implement the Council were limited either to rejecting what was estimated as exceding the will of the Vatican II (e.g., the refusal to use the new Rite of the Mass in the Brazilian Diocese of Campos), or to the brutally marginalized movement of Archbishop Lefebvre.


Meanwhile, in the people of God the trend of the unquestioning (in various senses) affirmation of Vatican II was becaming , as the years passed, a peculiar mixture, in which it was sometimes difficult to distinguish between sober reading of the documents and senseless aspirations to make out of the Council a new beginning - openly negating over a thousand years of Church tradition. In this trend everyone wished together with others to affirm things, but not everyone had the courage to make necessary distinctions.

 

What happened further was even too natural a consequence. For several decades, we have witnessed not only constant refering to the conciliar documents, but also at times embarrassing attempts of apotheosis of the Council, treated as unique and exceptional, more important than other councils, the criterion for the dogmas and the event that initiated a new era. The succeeding sumptuous anniversaries became an opportunity to present Vatican II as something never enough glorified, but also as a stout stick for anyone who did not quite affirm it. Moreover, the stakes in this bid were infinite, just in accordance with the accepted in some circles belief that the Council only broke open the door to a new thinking and should not limit it afterwards. Therefore it happened that someone who cited the Council in good faith against its creative interpreters was labelled as a person “who does not accept the Council”. The case of the famous declaration, Dominus Iesus, showed according to this logic that none could feel immune and safe from criticism: not only the Cardinal Ratzinger, but also John Paul II himself. For even the Council itself hardly kept up with the "spirit of the Council".


One should note that the situation of the real or imagined Council's contesters  - whether genuine Lefebvrists or imagined ones - was (and is) worse, and altogether incomparable with that of the contesters of the pre-conciliar era who met ostracism in the Church due to accusations of disloyalty. They sufferd within the Church, but could always rely on the kind support of non-ecclesiatical progressive circles. Similarly after the Council any progressivist theologian or priest criticizing the Church for conservatism can count on support, media coverage and sometimes more. In case of those who reportedly “had rejected the Council”, the excommunication was sometimes total, enforced at the same time by the Church establishment and by the world, backing the Church's reform.


It is easy to point out the phenomena proving that all of this, to some extent, continues to this day. Though the "Ratzinger effect" (reinforced by the pontificate of Benedict XVI) in conjunction with the possibilities of the new media has mitigated the ruthless ostracism carried out by some circles of the "open Church".


However, we live now in the new conditions and atmosphere. The impressionism of "the spirit of the Council" is no longer the tolerated style. The change in how Vatican II is perceived, that arises before our very eyes, does not consist in the usual and mechanical shifts of the sentiment's pendulum. It is also not the automatic and blind application of any "new Vatican policy", fixed by the critical thinking of Benedykt XVI. Half a century after the fact, history simply is no longer the possesion of the generation of its human creators. Gradually we are no longer looking at the event through eyes influenced by the leaders of that time. Rather we begin, or we have a chance to begin, looking independently and a bit from the outside - even if the event is our "business", we being members of the Church for whom the Council will be always a separate chapter.


Just now this change is taking place, and it is marked by the calendar itself.

It is true that since opening and closing the Council the world has changed at least twice: in the 1968 and in 1989. Both these turning points have become a great challenge to the up-to-date character of the Council's pastoral directions. The circumstances in which the Council formed ​​its pastoral premises were already long outdated by the 1968 revolt. Due to the speed of the changes the project ​based on a single unit of data has been put into practice already within a framework of a disaster that broke these data into pieces. Divine Providence permitted a mockery of excessive confidence in sociology, whose theories - precisely in the realm of living the sacred - literally spun one hundred and eighty degrees around the day after the Council, regardless of the leftist revolt. Yet more profound a change took place twenty years after the close of Vatican II, around 1989. Although these massive changes throughout the world affected how the Council was implemented (the impact of the '68 revolt is not to be underestimated), they did not bring about any judicious adjustments in the perception of the practical and descriptive dimension of Vatican II. On the contrary, the earlier dogmas were destined - in committees of theological leaders - for the revaluation, but "pastoral orientations" were inviolable as gifts directly from heaven.

 

Benefitting from fifty years of hindsight, it is easier today to offer a useful, comprehensive understanding of the Second Vatican Council, which would have been much more difficult before to achieve, even for a saint.

 

Despite the fact that almost all things in the institutions of the Church were reformed "in the nameof the Council,"the Church has not yet seen true reform. Rather, we are in the course of going out from the first shock and from the state of being choked by the novelty of various conceptions and possibilities of changes. On the example of the liturgical reform, we may today assess that it is by no means necessaryto reject the Councilwhile calling into questionmany of the earlyinitiatives andinstitutions of reform. We may also assess that the way to a deeper reformconsists among other things in retracing one's stepsto the heritage from before Vatican II, e.g., to the liturgy in the older form.

 

Apparently, itremainsa challengeto understandthe textsof Vatican II.One finds in them things that are norms and regulations for the whole Churchas well as things that could be hardly treated as such, as they are only a testimony totheir moment in history.Human passions, affairs and ambitions all inundated this work, although it was carried outwith theassistance ofthe Holy Spirit. Inrecent years,attempts to differentiate these influences have been all too few.

 

As the key to understanding the intentions of the Council we should take the Pope John XXIII's thought from his speech "Gaudet Mater Ecclesia” that opened the event. The Pope said that as the Church has already at her disposal the clearly expressed output of doctrine, the Second Vatican Council would not necessarily focus on any further clarifications. Therefore, Vatican II did not aim to make any breakthroughs in dogma - but to expose these issues which had become particularly relevant for pastoral reasons. For this reason, a great tier of Vatican II's teachings is what Fr. Bernard Lucien proposes to call the pedagogical magisterium that is to say the least authoritative form of Church teaching. Yet, one finds in the Council also higher degrees of magisterial doctrinal teaching that they cannot be denied the binding character of different degree. The pastoral character of the Council does not exclude its doctrinal  meaning, but it describes the purpose of the conciliar work.

A good understanding ofthepastoral goals of Vatican IIis so important alsobecause in the current controversy the dead and untrue formulas are in use on both sides, which makes the controversy futile.

 

All agree to assert that this was apastoralcouncil, butdrawfalseconclusions from it. It is said, for example, that since it was apastoralcouncil and declared no new doctrine, it is an event from which Catholicsneed draw no conclusionsconcerning the Faith.This isa very commonposition on theconservativeside: because of itspastoralcharacter, the Councilmaybe left aside.

 

At the same time theother sideof the disputepromotes often a modelof thinking, according to which the Councilgave the stimulus to leave aside the doctrine and follow only what our times require. Therefore the Council's teaching need not to be treatedvery seriouslyas the Council meant basically the freedom to conductfurther experiments.

 

The pontificate of Benedict XVI was a time when also the people who did not owe their career mainly to a wise or unwise affirmation of the Council came to importance on a larger scale in the institutions of the Church - also in terms of presence in the media. The phenomenon was intensified by transmitting the manifold ecclesiastical power also to the persons, for whom even the Council is not exempted from the obligation to avoid idolatry.

 

The eventof Vatican IIis only now beginning to separate itself from the specific culture in which it arose. For when theeloquenceof the Councilceases totantalize,its supposeddescriptions ofcivilization evaporate, and when it ceases its role as the creation story ofmany ecclesiasticalcareers, there is a chanceto cut through the tangle at the surface and reach the innertruthof Vatican II. For when the eloquence of the Council ceases to delude with the descriptions of the civilization around us and when the Council's role as the foundation myth of many ecclesiastical careers disappears, only then a chance arises that from this jungle the essential and internal truths of the Vaticanum II come out.

 

The Council when detached fromitscontemporary culture(both within and outside the Church) sheds a great deal of excess weight. Contraryto the sum of its embellishment,it will become clearthat this eloquentCouncil is in fact a structure thoroughly dependent that needs to be completed and to be readin conjunctionwith earlierteaching.Like thepreceding councils, Vatican II is not a miraculous andhomogeneous sum of the Church'steachings, but it is the expression that develops the thought of the Church in concrete topicsthatwe will understand only together with the background of other statements of the Church.

 

Deprived of its insulated shield, its supposedly self-understood mental shortcuts imposed from outside the text, the Council will be more and more often confronted with the changed and rather unfavorable atmosphere of the ideology of our time. Our world is no longer neither post-war Western liberalism nor American democracy of Maritain's dreams, nor even the more and more human world of freedom of Centesimus Annus. It is a world with which it is very difficult to reach agreement even on a common understanding of the fundamental rights of the human person or human dignity, because in their understanding the principal dissent took place. It is the world, for which the conciliar concept of religious freedom is no longer attractive, because it is relativism and moral neutrality that has become the dogma. In that world, the Church will not be treated either as a master or as a partner. At best, it will be viewed as an organization which describes with its own language only what political correctness had earlier itself formulated. This is the way in which the Second Vatican Council is treated by the secular establishments.

 

In this encounter, this timewithout safe mediationandanesthesia, certain long-standingalternative is being whetted: TheCouncilwill appear either - justly - as one of thenewer items of an amalgam ofTradition, or - unjustly - as a seemingly Catholic element of the post-Christian amalgam.

 

In the receptionof Vatican IIit is moment of the ultimate "or-or". Meanwhile,the link between the Councilwith (earlier) Traditionis at first glimpse not at all obvious, at least in some places.And it is notbecause of any real supervening essential break, any contradiction indoctrine. It is rather because of the fact that the set of the Council's lumped together teachings, containing statements of various rank, does not "square" in some places with an analogical earlier set of lumped together teachings, formedin the clashbetween the Churchandthe Revolutionandliberalism.What doesn't "square"is mainly due to what is suggested or presupposed in the layer of commentaries, explanations, arguments, and practical suggestions. It seems certain that both of opposing  blocks cannot be upheld simultaneously. Hence the conflict between their followers, that is to say the integralists of antiliberal encyclicals and the integalrists of Vaticanum II, seems to be inevitable and insoluble.

 

ButTradition and the continuity of basic teaching is something else. Here the Catholic principle thatthe authoritative part of the teachings of VaticanIIdoes not collide with the authoritative part of the former Magisterium is always in force. Not onlyrepetitions of the oldwordings,but also what is presented in the documents of thestrictly understood doctrine ofthe Church, collegiality, ecumenism, religious liberty,andrelation tonon-Christian religions - all these were the elements of not only legitimate, but also desirable development of the doctrine.

 

This principle proves trueevenin the case ofthe Council'sDeclarationon Religious Freedom, a document as much orthodoxassusceptible tocounterfeiting, difficult in exegesis,and in practice read one-sidedly, because in oppositionto the earlierteaching of the Churchabout the socialreign ofChrist the King.

 

Traditional teaching on the moral duty of men and societies with respect to the one, true religion, and the teaching developed by the Council concerning the human right to religious freedom, had both been uttered in the Dignitatis Humanae in the same degree of authority. Anyway the content refers to duty and freedom. One cannot understand it in any other sense than that the Church accepts only such concept of duty, in which there is room for implementing freedom, and only such definition of freedom, which does not abolish duty.

Harmony between the moral obligationtoembrace Catholicismand the right to religious freedom is, therefore,the assumption placed on the supreme level of the teaching given inDignitatis Humanae. It is thebasic presupposition inthehermeneuticsof the document on religious freedom.

 

Application of this criteria of interpretation does not necessarily mean that this harmony was explicitly spelt out at every stage of the document - all the more if the thing was left to further study. However, one must admit that in the strictly doctrinal part (i.e. the first two paragraphs) of the declaration it was noted that the harmonization between freedom and duty did not refer to the bare concepts and abstract theses, but to some blocks of the Church teaching, crystallized in the form of concrete acts of the Magisterium. The declaration liststhree such blocks. The first and oldestis the “traditional Catholic doctrineon the moralduty of menandsocieties towardthe true religion and the unique Church of Christ”. And we know that it is the Magisterium until the time of Leo XIII. The second block is “the doctrine of recent popes on the inviolable rights of the human person and the constitutional order of society”, which we know to be theteaching of PaulVI, John XXIII,Pope PiusXII, Pope PiusXIandPope Leo XIII. The thirdblockisthe ownteaching of  Dignitatis Humanae “on religious freedom”.

 

The three above mentioned blocks differ not only intheir backstories, but in subject as well. They are not, therefore, at least in principle, successive versions of one teaching on the sameissue. In theory,their clashcouldoccuronlyper accidens, leaving nooccasionfor a head-on collision.

 

In practice however, this crucialcollisioncannot be excluded, because even the separateelements of doctrinal blocks may contain components insubstantialdisagreementwith the components ofanother block.The more so because the subjects of the three blocks: a moral obligationto thetrue religion, the inviolablerights of the person, and the constitutional orderof society andreligious freedom from coercionincivilsocietyare adjoined to each other, if notinterfering with one another outright.

 

In its core Dignitatis Humanaeaffirms that what the Council pronounced onthe doctrine ofreligious freedomleaves the older teaching on religious obligation intact on the one hand, while on the other, develops newerdoctrine on therights of the personandof the social order. The principleof harmony,visible on the level of principles in doctrinal statements, is thussustainedon the level ofthe relationship between the historical doctrinal blocks of the Magisterium.

 

This harmony, however, is to be grasped not only in thedoctrinalcoreof the document, where it has only been declared, not explained.To make it a reality, it must be readamongst the succeeding, complementarytheses completing the core of the conciliar document.

 

And herewe stumbleon a major difficulty: the Declarationon Religious Freedomneithersummarizes aforementioned traditional Catholic doctrinewithin itsdoctrinal part norrefers toitin further exposition. We can say that this intact traditional doctrine, after being mentioned in the first paragraph of Dignitatis Humanae, is present further on almost only implicite as the unexpressed reason of emerging in the text limitations, reservations or hypotheses.Thisundoubtedly makes the correct reading of the document verydifficult, especially because due to the peculiar cultural revolution inpost-concilarCatholicism we read this and otherdocuments of VaticanIIwithout the long memory or awareness that the Council fathers had - who certainly knewbetter than we do the Catholic doctrines expressed in Quantacuraby PiusIX, Syllabus, ImmortaleDei by Pope Leo XIII,andPius XI'sQuasPrimas.

 

The harmony declared inDH1is not so much theconclusionasthe criterion forfurther reading. This reading, forthe sake of full clarity, should set alongside together, on the one hand, the lessauthoritativeexplanations ofDignitatis Humanaeconcerning religious freedom, and on the other, the traditionalCatholic doctrineconcerning the moralobligationsof individuals and societies existing beyond this declaration.

 

We need to make one more reservation. Seekingharmonybetween the twohistoricalthreads ofthe Magisteriumdoes not mean an attack on theposition and importance ofany of them. On the contrary, harmony can only be achieved bygranting boththeir due. This of course does not mean in most cases equal importance, what was rightly pointed out in the conciliar teaching on the hierarchy of doctrines.

 

Exclusion of fundamentaldiscontinuity-rupture- is not the same asproclaiming complete identity between the two tiers of doctrine or a readyharmonybetween them. This harmonymust certainlybe foundin the"hard"tier ofdoctrinalstatements, butnot necessarily in a"soft" tier oftheirsupplementary teachings or disciplines. In this second tier the harmony, alreadyexistentin the sphere of"hard"doctrine, is the workof hermeneutics. It is revealedby careful drawing out,in the realmof "soft" teachings, the elements that are non-contradictory with the reconciled doctrinal principles and required by the implementation of at least one of them.

Understood in this way, thehermeneutic of reformis neithera denial ofnoveltyby artificiallyperpetuating the integrum of certain exposition ofCatholic doctrinenor is it a consent towhollynewstructuresthat are only generally fit withthe abstractessence ofChristianity.The hermeneutic ofreformremains faithful tothe substanceof Divine Revelation,in which continuity and growthare but functionsof the same life.The principle of continuityleads to generalacceptanceand concrete attitude to the real heritage. The principle ofgrowth recommends man to keep the same proportions of received truth, instead of attempting to confine it to the identical size of its expression.

 

So one should not be trapped by the scruples which demand reconciliation in all things fromalloverhistory, despite ruptures and discontinuities even in the superficial layers which can be scandalizing. Of course, anymanifestation of adeeprootedness of a new teaching and every moment of itssprouting(whethercloserorfurther from Tradition)must be disclosed.Yet,one ought not tobreedillusions thatin the past,in anyplace and at anytime, what wastaught in thename of the Churchwas materiallyandliterallythe same thing.There is also roomforchangein orthodoxy understood in the Catholic manner: In the sphere of firm doctrine, this change may make explicitdésenveloppement of whathad hitherto been allowed at best implicitly. In the layer of soft supplement it may also be purification and correction.

 

Of course,the chiefprincipleinthis work is notto force doctrinal consistency,butto achieve compatibility with revealed Truth in all respects. In 1967, oneof the leading theologians of Vatican II, Father YvesCongarOP,wrote that themost important elements inthe Councilweretwodogmaticconstitutions, On Divine Revelation and On the Church as they most strongly evince what was transmitted in revelation and not merely what seems indispensible to myself today. Thus, innovationmay arise inTradition - in the realm of doctrinal content and pastoralfoundations, only where it is merely the articulation of something already present in the Church, but not yet spoken.

 

However, an actualreturnto the trueteachings of VaticanIIrequiresa thoroughexamination of conscienceconcerning whatwentwrongin the Council's aftermath.It is practically impossible tosee the"true Council" without abandoning what resulted from its faulty understanding.

 

The best way to see thistoday ison the exampleof the liturgy.The fact thatBenedict XVIpresented as the right path thecoexistence between the two forms ofthe Roman Rite(the old and the new), is also asign that something was lost in the progress of liturgical reform, something importantthat the practice of the Old Rite can and should restorein the life ofthe Church.There is much for the post-conciliar liturgy to take advantage of in co-existing with the older one. In this way, a deeper sense of the liturgy and of the sacred may be restored.

 

The same concerns ecclesiology, albeit in a slightly different way. In the post-conciliar era there were too many perfunctory claims that theCouncilhad broken withhithertoteachings on the Church. Emphasizingthis allegedrupturenot onlycut us offfromthe richecclesiology of PiusXII in Mystici corporis, but also fromthestreamof spirituality"rooted inChrist," e.g., that which had been practiced by the once well-regardedFatherColumbaMarmionOSB. And yet before the Council it was dreamt that such things might become daily bread ofCatholics.Yet,somewhere it was lost. The focus came to bear on impressive -andsuperficial-oppositions. For example, whenin Lumen Gentium, the Council declared that the Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church instead of simply saying that it is the Catholic Church, it was pointed as rupture with regard to hitherto teaching. The Councilexpressed conviction that only one community can fully represent Christ's Church on earth, i.e. the Catholic Church, though beyond her borders there are many elements of sanctification and truth which tend towards Catholic unity. This is nobreak; it is a development.

 

Also, inlight of theteachings of VaticanII,theidentification of the Churchof Christwith the Catholic Church is established; she is the entitythat holdsthe fullness ofthe means of salvation. However, and this istruly adevelopment, this identificationdoes notexclude the existenceof ecclesial elementsoutside the Catholic Church, though without theCatholic fullness. In theMagisterium of thepast, there was neither confirmation nor denial of the latter, but there was tendency tobelieve that there may be many true Catholics beyond the visible boundariesof the Catholic Church.TheCouncil teachesthat such theactualCatholicityextends notonly to individuals, but also to the structures of sanctification that are present in theseparatedchurches andcommunities.

 

Such important words and points of issue are much more numerous in the Council documents; and it was worthwhile to consider them more deeply throughout recent years.

 

Findingthe truesense ofthe "novelty" in the last Council has nothing to do with cancelling the substance of traditionalteaching. Instead, itwould deprive such innovation of its supposedly revolutionary nature - revolutionary with regard to Tradition, but downright servile towards the dictatorship of relativism.On the other hand, it would complement in many valuable ways the understanding of what has long been accepted as traditional.

 

The Church will require the true teachings of Vatican II more and more, notto brighten anyone's day or to finda place inthe worldlyestablishments,but to continue what she has donefor centuries: the search for a better understanding of her mission, unique and indispensible for the world.

 

At the thresholdof the Year of Faith, in October 2012, Pope Benedict XVIcalledthe faithful to return to the documentsof the Council,"freeing them from a mass of publications that often hid them rather than made them know." As can be seen, the task of understandingthe true intentions ofVatican IImaybemore difficulttodaythanhalf a centuryago.Nevertheless,it is only truth that liberates.

 

Soit is high timefor anotherreadingof VaticanII-to readthe Council beyond theall tooreal - andnot alwaysfortunate- dependence on situations, individuals and communities, beyond privateideas of influentialtheologians. Now it must be read in thelight of thepreviousMagisterium, thekeythemes andinterpretationsgivenofficiallyinthe Councilhall.

 

The pastoralgoalof VaticanII does notdeprive it of the doctrinal importance. Althoughthe Councildid not usethe opportunity topronouncesolemn,dogmatic definitions, in many placesit spoke onthe doctrine of faithand morals. In these instances, the Council did not merelyrepeatthe wordingofthe previousMagisterium, but further developed the Church doctrine.

 

The concretehistorical circumstances,in which thedocuments of the Councilwere created, maywell have had their impact on the fact that especially new elementsof the doctrine werenot alwayspresented with thedue distance to the current spirit of the world. Such distance would make the proper understanding of their meaning easier,rooted through Tradition in the depositof faith.

 

In the midst of the Council itself,butin particularin the post-conciliar phase, the interpretation of “hermeneutics of rupture” influenced a great deal the understanding and implementation ofVatican II. As far asit wascapable of elicitingfaultyorbiasedreception, even in thosepassageswheredistinctwording was disregarded ("the spirit of the Council" over the letter), the more devastating an effectthisharmfulinterpretationof Vatican IIhad on theunderstanding ofdoctrinaldevelopments. Those areasnot sufficientlyprotectedagainst the imposition offalseunderstandings were particularly mutilated. Interpretation according to the "hermeneutics of rupture"has become the criterionfor many people of the Church.

 

For several decadesfollowing the Council,any reference toVatican IIwas infested withambiguity.Whenever the Council was invokedorselectedspeeches were cited, the recipient(and sometimes the sender) often did not receive the messagein the originalsense ofthe Second Vatican Council.The lens of the "hermeneutics of rupture" colored everything. In communication orchestrated like this the integration of the Council's doctrinal developments with the preceding traditional teaching of the Church was possible only exceptionally rarely.On the contrary,it wasmuch easierto read these developments (and the entire Council) as opposed to the earlierdoctrine and often as subordinated to private theological ideas. In such conditions, even repeated many times references tothe Council'steachings made by bl. John PaulII oftentook ona very differentmeaningfromthat intended.When thePopecalledtheChurchto "read Vatican IIin the light of Tradition", some understoodhimas wishing to deprive theCouncil ofitsdoctrinaldevelopments. Others understood it as mechanical adding to these developments the references taken from the pre-conciliar “prehistory”. In this way,the Councilbecameprisoner to thedialectic strategies of"immutable teachings" and the "new Pentecost".

 

In reference to the numerous endeavors of his predecessor who was the patron of  theCatechismof the Catholic Church, Benedict XVIreminded us all from the very beginningof his pontificateof the needto respect the"hermeneutic of reform, of renewal in thecontinuityof the one subject-Church." It is not a proposal of compromise, attempting tostrike a balance betweenconservatismandprogressivism. From the very beginning, whatever the shifts in the struggle betweenthe two factions, it was the onlyproper position in reading each newformulation within the Tradition.

One could saythat this hermeneutic of reform -also known as thehermeneutic of continuity-satisfiesthe hunger for Tradition. It restores to the Catholicmultitudesa sense of rootedness in Truth byits historicalmanifestation in Tradition, also from before the Council.The sense was strongly impairedby the"hermeneutic of rupture", which generallyhad either depreciatedor entirely cancelled the prior history of the Church, allin the name ofabstractreference to "sources" or to the modernist apotheosisof the "spirit of the times".

 

However, Benedict's hermeneutic of reform is not just the satisfaction of hunger for tradition (alreadyunbearabledue todecadesof neglect), but it is, at least in the same degree, an invitation toenterthe current of the concern, because of which Vaticanum II wanted to be the pastoral Council: " What is needed, [...] is that this doctrine shall be more widely known, more deeply understood, and more penetrating in its effects on men’s moral lives. What is needed is that this certain and immutable doctrine, to which the faithful owe obedience, be studied afresh and reformulated in contemporary terms."[1]For"unity injoy and peace, a renewedadherence totheteachings of the Churchinall its fullnessand accuracy - suchthatshinesconstantin the acts ofthe Councilsof Trent andVatican I - the Christian,Catholic, and Apostolic spirit throughout the worldexpects to seeprogressin the exploration ofdoctrine and a brighterformation of conscience - all incomplete fidelity tothe authenticdoctrine"[2].

Understood in this way, the object of the hermeneutic of reform is not so muchreducingthe Council to the wordings known from the earlierTradition, but finding in the doctrinal developments made by the Council Catholicanswers torealdifficultiesconnectedwith the currentform ofthe world.

 

Although we can and should share with the Council Fathers the same pastoral intention, yet the present situation of ours and of the Church (together with this intention) differs substantially. Due to the distance of time itself the fragments of the documents, most influenced by the conditions of the moment of those days, that had passed long time ago (and might be grasped a bit one-sidedly), may not only not be helpful for us, but may hinder the perception of the Church's thought.

 

Moreover, the experience wrought by the "hermeneutics of rupture" should strongly raise our awareness  - without rendering us incredulous- concerningthehuman weaknessesin the wordings of theCouncil's texts.At the same time, we should be alert to human weaknessin the interpretations of the Council, for together, these two forms of misunderstanding constitute a kind of system that impedes grasping the thought of the Church.

 

Finally, this same "hermeneutic of rupture"means that - after decadesin which statementsof Vatican IIwere erroneously treatedas the comprehensive"bible" of Catholic doctrine - current interpretation can no longer rely in any way onspontaneousor naturalassociationswith the previousMagisterium. At the same time this previous Magisterium is sometimes literallyindispensabletoa proper understanding ofthe Council's developmnets. One must remember that these doctrinalreferences, oftenmentioned but vaguely or briefly in the documents of VaticanII, are today generallycompletelyunknownevento persons obliged to the Council's teaching in the pastoral field. This resultsnot only in a one-sided vision of Catholic doctrine, but also disharmonyin the comprehension of those things, which were exposed by Vatican II.

 

 Therefore,the Councilought no longerto be read"in light of Tradition" - which would suggest that the Council and Tradition are twoseparateworlds-butwithin Tradition.

 

Is there now room in the Church to consider theSecond Vatican Council in this way? Yes, but it is apart from the warring of "Councilites"and"Anti-Councilites". Theyhave long beenlivingin a paradoxicalsymbiosis.Bothagreedlong agothat the CouncilandTraditionwere incompatible. Someclaimedthat on the side of the Council, and otherson the side of Tradition. And now, both havelost interest inVatican II. For someit is no longerattractive since it has long been overdrawn, whileothers awaitthe day when the Church may annul the “robber council”. Neithertheone northeotherwould aid us in finding whatreallyis inthosetexts,nor would we discover whatthe Church truly teacheswith their help.

 

The Churchwill storein its memorytheoutputof Vatican II - as well as all the documents of the preceding teaching that should be contained with due veneration therein. However, only somestatements and only some doctrinalstructures - those spoken with a particular authorization - exceed together with Credo the frontier of the time of their birth and stay shining, as guarded in the Church's eternal truths, separated from emotions andinterests of the moment of their discovery.This is themystery ofTradition.

 

In closing,a briefnoteprodomomea. On the occasion ofthe Year of Faith (and respondingto appeals fromPope Benedict XVIand John Paul IIin Novo Millennio Ineunte), we atChristianitasdecided to lookat whatisreallyin the documents ofVatican II,and whethereverything has alreadybeen said.We discoveredwith amazementthat the conciliar documents have been never published in Poland in an edition that wouldinclude allfootnotes,references, etc., all elements which would allow one to trace the evolution ofthe particulartexts. Therefore, we do not know till now, what the itinerary of the Fathers thoughtregarding e.g. the declarationon religious freedom, the constitutions Gaudium et Spes or Lumen Gentium. We do not knowwhat was the course of the discussions in the hall, or in whatdirection the interpretations of Councilcommissionswere going, etc. These things arevital, becausefor severalyears there was much noise andthehermeneutics ofrupture, which interpreted theCouncil contrary to earliertradition and often in the spirit ofconformitytothe world andinfidelityto the Gospel.The time is right tostart reading thedocumentstogether with theircontext, not according to the outdated journalism of the Council's era.

 

Paweł Milcarek

 

trans. R. Muracka

 

[1]              Jan XXIII, Gaudet Mater Ecclesia przemówienie na otwarcie Soboru Watykańskiego II, 11 października 1962.

 

[2]              Jan XXIII, Odpowiedź na życzenia Kolegium Kardynalskiego, 23 grudnia 1962.

 


Paweł Milcarek