Church of Santissima Trinità sei Pellegrini, Rome (Lumen roma)

The last four popes all participated in the Second Vatican Council (1962–65) either as bishop or peritus (theological adviser), and it is clear that their legacies will be distinctively tied to that epochal event. It may be early to assess Pope Benedict XVI’s approach to the implementation of council teaching, but two Vatican documents promulgated this summer, within days of one another, give cause for concern.

As pope, Benedict has made numerous statements supporting the teaching of Vatican II. At the same time, he has also expressed understandable concerns regarding the proper interpretation of the council. In December 2005, Benedict returned to a topic that had long preoccupied him as a theologian and leading curial official—namely, the appropriate methodology for interpreting council teaching. He identified two different approaches. The first he characterized, and to some extent caricatured, as a “hermeneutics of discontinuity and rupture.” In Benedict’s view, this way of understanding the council mistakenly emphasizes the discontinuity between Catholic tradition and the teaching enunciated by the bishops at Vatican II. Advocates of this perspective, Benedict has argued, presume a radical break from, and even a repudiation of, much of the preconciliar tradition.

The pope rejects this view of the council, advocating instead a “hermeneutics of reform.” This approach focuses less on Vatican II as an “ecclesial event” and more on the authoritative status of the council documents themselves. By ecclesial event I mean the way in which the council disclosed a new, more dialogical and reforming spirit within the church. For Benedict, however, the focus is on the council documents, in their final form, rather than on a larger textual history or a vague appeal to “the spirit of the council.” This approach, while insisting on continuity at the level of fundamental principles, allows for a measure of discontinuity in church teaching and practice in the face of changing historical contexts. Benedict does not seem to accept the possibility of discontinuity at the level of “principles.”

Benedict’s description of the so-called party of discontinuity raises important issues. Of course, there is a danger in vague appeals to a “spirit of the council.” At the same time, the ecclesiological and theological impact of any council goes beyond the documents it promulgates. Every ecumenical council is the church in microcosm. What happens at a council is an expression, in a more dramatic and concentrated form, of what the church always is. Saints and sinners, the learned and the ignorant, gather together. They share their faith, voice their concerns, pray together, argue, gossip, forge alliances and compromises, indulge in political intrigue, rise above that intrigue to discern the movements of the Spirit, worry about preserving the great tradition in which their identity is rooted, seek to understand the demands of the present moment, and hope for a better future. As an event, it is possible for a council to transform one’s sense of the church in ways that cannot be captured in formal documents. To see Vatican II as an ecclesial event is thus to reaffirm one’s belief in the ongoing presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit. An appreciation of the council as an ecclesial event reminds us that genuine change is not necessarily a sign of chaos or unfaithfulness; it may be a sign of life and evidence of the Spirit’s gentle persuasion.

Benedict’s assumptions regarding how change occurs within a living tradition also beg the question of whether something more than the affirmation of continuity is possible. In his December 2005 statement, all of this may have appeared as merely an argument about theories of conciliar interpretation. But the publication of the recent Vatican documents suggests that this debate will have significant concrete consequences.


The pope’s new teaching in Summorum pontificum regarding the Tridentine rite

On July 7, 2007, the Vatican released the long-awaited Summorum pontificum authorizing the use of the Latin Missal of Pope John XXIII (a reissue of the Pius V Missal of 1570). The pope’s action has dramatically expanded the faithful’s access to what is often referred to as the “Latin Mass,” which was promulgated soon after the Council of Trent. Summorum pontificum declares that all the faithful have a right to “request” celebration of the Tridentine rite. “If a group of lay faithful...has not obtained satisfaction to their requests from the pastor, they should inform the diocesan bishop. The bishop is strongly requested to satisfy their wishes.” Although the reformed Missal of Paul VI (1969) authorizing the use of vernacular languages is to continue as the “ordinary” form of Catholic Christian worship in the West, the Tridentine rite is to be treated as equally legitimate. Benedict, in his explanatory letter, told the bishops that the John XXIII Missal “was never juridically abrogated and, consequently, in principle, was always permitted.” He then goes on to say:

There is no contradiction between the two editions of the Roman Missal. In the history of the liturgy there is growth and progress, but no rupture. What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.

Insofar as the Paul VI Missal is widely regarded as the fruit of Vatican II’s most far-reaching reform initiative, Benedict’s championing of the Tridentine rite suggests something about his ambivalent attitude toward the council.

To be sure, the pope does not question the legitimacy of the reformed liturgy. Indeed, he makes a point of praising the postconciliar liturgical renewal. However, by restoring the Tridentine rite, perhaps as a conciliatory gesture to Lefebvrist schismatics, the pope has quietly subverted one of the council’s central initiatives. The council clearly stated the bishops’ intentions:

The rite of the Mass is to be revised in such a way that the intrinsic purpose of its several parts, as well as the connection between them, may be more clearly shown, and that devout and active participation by the faithful may be more easily achieved. To this end, the rites are to be simplified, due care being taken to preserve their substance. Duplications made with the passage of time are to be omitted, as are less useful additions. Other parts which were lost through the vicissitudes of history are to be restored according to the ancient tradition of the holy Fathers, as may seem appropriate or necessary (Sacrosantum concilium, 50).

In other words, the Tridentine rite was judged as insufficient to the needs of the church. The council established an agenda for liturgical reform that would produce a thoroughly reconceived rite, eliminating superfluous liturgical accretions while retrieving neglected features of the church’s ancient liturgical tradition. These elements, thought to have been obscured in the Tridentine liturgy, included a greater participation of the faithful, a stronger emphasis on the paschal mystery, greater prominence for the proclamation of Scripture, and the recovery of the prayers of the faithful. Yet Benedict is now raising up the unrevised 1962 missal as an alternative to the 1969 missal. His motu proprio also allows the other sacraments, reforms of which were equally central to the council’s vision, to be celebrated according to their preconciliar form.


CDF document on Vatican II’s teaching on the church

A few days after the motu proprio appeared, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) issued “Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church.” This document was issued to clarify one of the Second Vatican Council’s most dramatic and long-contested teachings regarding the church’s understanding of the salvific status of other Christian churches.

In an early draft of the council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, the church of Christ is understood as being found only in the Roman Catholic Church. So absolute was the traditional identification between the church of Christ and the Catholic Church that non-Catholic Christians were simply not considered a part of Christ’s church. In what was regarded as a momentous development at Vatican II, this passage was amended to read that the church of Christ “subsists in the Catholic Church” (Lumen gentium, 8). Most ecclesiologists have interpreted the council’s substitution of subsistit for est (“is”) as a fundamental shift in Catholic teaching. The bishops at Vatican II acknowledged that there could be no absolute identification between the Roman Catholic Church and the church of Christ. Since other Christian communities also possessed objective means of sanctification and truth (such as the Bible and the sacrament of baptism), these believing communities could be referred to as “churches or ecclesiastical communities” (Lumen gentium, 15; Unitatis redintegratio, 3).

In the clarification released this summer, however, the CDF puts forward a substantial reinterpretation of this passage. According to the congregation, the use of the word “subsists” did not signal a departure from traditional teaching. “The Second Vatican Council neither changed nor intended to change this doctrine, rather it developed, deepened, and more fully explained it.” Arguing for a purely metaphysical understanding of the word “subsists,” the CDF claims that the church of Christ subsists only in the Catholic Church. This revisionist view appears to be based, in large measure, on a much longer essay published several years ago in L’Osservatore Romano by Karl Becker, a professor at the Gregorian University and an adviser to the CDF. Becker’s analysis of what the council intended has been challenged in a recent issue of Theological Studies by Francis Sullivan, himself a professor emeritus of the Gregorian University. Sullivan argues for a more historical, not strictly metaphysical, understanding of the term. The council, Sullivan wrote, wished to affirm that the church of Christ continues to exist in the Roman Catholic Church in its full institutional integrity (for it possesses the fullness of the means of sanctification and truth). But this did not preclude asserting that the church of Christ is also present in other Christian communities, even if they do not possess all of those elements found in the Catholic Church. These are issues of immense theological significance, and they will no doubt be the subject of ecumenical discussion for years to come.

But when the new CDF document is read in conjunction with Summorum pontificum and the pope’s accompanying letter, a recognizable interpretation of the council emerges. Although nuanced in some respects, this interpretation seems to rule out the very possibility that the council took substantive steps to change church teaching. The CDF document accepts the idea of a “development” or “deepening” of church teaching, but it has no place for any change that might be construed as a reversal or a “rupture” of tradition. Where many Catholics thought the council had effected substantive change in church teaching about religious freedom or Judaism, for example, Benedict sees only “innovation in continuity”—that is, change that is either “organic” development or merely a shift in historical application of unchanging principles.


What is the real issue?

Benedict has consistently spoken out against the forces of secularization and religious relativism that undermine belief in divine truth and the ability of the modern believer to maintain a coherent religious identity. The antidote to our present cultural zeitgeist, he seems to be saying, is a more robust and unambiguous assertion of Catholic identity, one grounded in the certitude and distinctiveness of Catholic teaching and practice. Such a viewpoint makes little room for substantive shifts in church teaching, particularly shifts that suggest corrections or reversals. Nor is there much enthusiasm for celebrating the teachings of the council that stressed the real but imperfect communion existing among all Christians.

In the first half of the twentieth century, the theological conviction that church doctrine was static and immutable in all respects was often characterized as integrism. Although it may be tempting to attribute to Benedict a form of neo-integrism, that would not do justice to his many expressions of appreciation for modern biblical scholarship (even as he worries about its excesses) and his acceptance of genuine “innovation in continuity.” Still, Benedict’s understanding of how change is brought about appears to rely on a theory of revelation and doctrinal development that allows for change only at the level of contingent historical application or so-called organic maturation. Consider the CDF document’s quotation of Paul VI, regarding the promulgation of a Vatican II text:

There is no better comment to make than to say that this promulgation really changes nothing of the traditional doctrine. What Christ willed, we also will. What was, still is. What the church has taught down through the centuries, we also teach. In simple terms that which was assumed, is now explicit; that which was uncertain, is now clarified; that which was meditated upon, discussed, and sometimes argued over, is now put together in one clear formulation.

A similar stance has allowed Pope Benedict, along with other church leaders, to affirm their fidelity to Vatican II even as they resist the implications of the council’s teaching.

What is most regrettable about this reluctance to acknowledge more substantive shifts in church teaching and tradition is how unnecessary it is. Contemporary Catholic theology affirms the church’s central doctrines (dogma) while insisting on the possibility of reformulating those teachings to make them more intelligible to contemporary men and women and to reflect further insight into the mysteries they communicate. This consensus also recognizes that beyond the church’s central dogmatic affirmations is a much broader category of church teachings, laws, and practices that are not immune from error and which on occasion must be put aside. The church’s sacramental/liturgical tradition, for example, possesses elements essential to the very constitution of the church as well as elements that are merely historical accretions. The sacrament of penance is a classic example of a ritual tradition that has undergone profound changes over time. Other examples of doctrinal shifts or reversals include the church’s past acceptance of slavery or its justification of forced conversions and even torture. The noted jurist and historian John Noonan has documented such substantive shifts in church teaching in A Church That Can and Cannot Change and other books.

I share the concerns of the pope and other church leaders regarding the need to attend more deliberately to the formation and maintenance of Catholic identity. Yet no pastoral response that refuses to acknowledge the fact of historical change can offer a compelling long-term solution. Unqualified assertions regarding the certitude of all church teaching are ultimately futile. More fruitful for catechesis, I suspect, is the encounter with reflections on the compelling Christian narratives and distinctive Christian practices that help shape coherent religious identity. Should we be surprised by the number of young Catholics who are so taken with the stories of a Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa, or Thomas Merton, or who are willing to volunteer in a Catholic Worker house or give a year or more of their lives to Catholic service projects like those sponsored by the Jesuit Volunteer Corps? My suspicion is that while some young adults may be drawn to the easy certitudes to which the catechism is often unfairly reduced, a set of immutable propositions will not sustain their Catholic identity in the long run. The better answer is immersion in the life of a Catholic community.

Pope Benedict has often said much the same thing. Therein lies the tension in his vision. In his December 2005 address he juxtaposed two different approaches to the council, one emphasizing continuity and the other discontinuity. In doing so, he was offering two ideal types as foils for a more subtle middle position. Yet his middle position still discounts the possibility of substantive change. It still fails to do justice to the dynamics of tradition, in general, and to the shifts in church teaching embraced by the bishops at Vatican II. Australian theologian Ormond Rush makes a helpful distinction that avoids a false absolutizing of either continuity or discontinuity. He distinguishes between a “macro-rupture,” a fundamental severance with the great tradition of the church, and a “micro-rupture,” which reflects a genuine innovation that must be considered discontinuous with some aspect of the tradition but which can also be read as “rejuvenating that broader tradition” (Still Interpreting Vatican II). Vatican II clearly did not represent a macro-rupture, but the council did effect specific micro-ruptures, especially with regard to religious freedom, the church’s stance toward Judaism, the need for fundamental reform of the liturgy, and our understanding of the relationship among the hierarchy, clergy, and laity.

Finally, reducing the impact of an ecumenical council to its formal documents, as some now want to do, is quite untraditional itself. As a church we must affirm the ways in which the Spirit’s guidance was evident both in Vatican II’s passing on of the great Catholic tradition and in its willingness to depart from some aspects of established doctrine and practice in order to affirm the deeper and larger tradition. Joseph Komonchak, John O’Malley, and other noted ecclesiologists and church historians have emphasized the significance and impact of Vatican II as an ecclesial event. As Komonchak has written:

From the standpoints of sociology and of history, one looks at the council against a broader backdrop and one cannot limit oneself to the intentions of the popes and bishops or to the final texts. One is now studying the impact of the council as experienced, as observed, and as implemented. It’s hard, from these standpoints, not to stress the discontinuity, the experience of an event, of a break with routine. This is the common language used by participants and by observers at the time—the young Joseph Ratzinger’s reflections after each session, published in English as Theological Highlights of Vatican II, are a good example. It is from this perspective that James Hitchcock calls Vatican II “the most important event within the church in the past four hundred years,” and the French historian/sociologist Emile Poulat points out that the Catholic Church changed more in the ten years after Vatican II than it did in the previous hundred years. Similar positions are held by people along the whole length of the ideological spectrum. Whether they regard what happened as good or as bad, they all agree, “something happened.”

Finally, we must have the courage to embrace the possibility that at Vatican II genuine change, innovation, and even reversal were not repudiations of the great tradition but signs that the Spirit continues to move among God’s people. Only with that recognition can the council continue to be a sign of hope for the church today.

Related: The Old Rite Returns: four views on Benedict's Summorum pontificum

Ratzinger at Vatican II: A Pope Who Can & Cannot Change, by John Wilkins
Rewriting History, a review of Vatican II: Renewal within Tradition by Joseph A. Komonchak
A Change Some Don't Believe In, a review of What Happened at Vatican II by Bernard P. Prusak

Read more on Benedict XVI from Commonweal here.

Richard R. Gaillardetz is the Joseph Professor of Catholic Systematic Theology at Boston College and the author of An Unfinished Council: Vatican II, Pope Francis and the Renewal of Catholicism (Liturgical Press).

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Published in the 2007-10-12 issue: View Contents
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