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The Pope and the interpretation of the Council

I thought it might be worthwhile to devote a separate theme to Pope Benedict and the interpretation of Vatican II. I had not read until this afternoon the remarks the Pope made to the group of priests who had asked his opinion about the Council. From what had been described in other posts I I expected to find it giving aid and comfort to anti-conciliarists and restorationists and to promote continuity over discontinuity in the interpretation of the Council. Instead, I find that this dichotomy between continuity and discontinuity is absent from his remarks and that he distinguishes two extremes that he thinks once predominated with reference to the Council: a progressive mentality that thought everything can and ought to change in the Church and an absolute anti-conciliarism, between which, he says, a third and more valid interpretation had difficulty making its way.

The idea that Pope Benedict wants to return us to "those thrilling days of yesteryear", that is, before the Council, should be discredited, I think, by two quotes, one at the beginning and one near the end. The first is the one to which Bob Imbelli drew attention: "We had such great hopes, but in reality things proved to be more difficult. Nonetheless, it is still true that the great legacy of the Council, which opened a new road, is a "magna carta" of the Churchs path, very essential and fundamental." The other quote describes all the good the Council has brought:

"It seems very important to me that we can now see with open eyes how much that was positive also grew following the Council: in the renewal of the liturgy, in the synods Roman synods, universal synods, diocesan synods in the parish structures, in collaboration, in the new responsibility of laypeople, in intercultural and intercontinental shared responsibility, in a new experience of the Churchs catholicity, of the unanimity that grows in humility, and nonetheless is the true hope of the world.

"And thus it seems to me that we must rediscover the great heritage of the Council, which is not a "spirit" reconstructed behind the texts, but the great conciliar texts themselves, reread today with the experiences that we have had and that have born fruit in so many movements, in so many new religious communities."

And then the Pope recommends a re-reading, a re-reception of the conciliar texts in the light of what has happened in the Church and in the world since the Council.

I do not know what could possibly be considered restorationist about these remarks.

The Popes speech to the Roman Curia on December 22, 2005, contained in its final section, comments on the interpretation of the Council. The text can be found at:

Here the Pope did describe two hermeneutics of the Council, a hermeneutics of discontinuity or rupture and a hermeneutics of reform. The names he gave to the two trends are odd, I think: to discontinuity one would expect to see continuity counterposed, but that is not what the Pope did and I think that the reason for this is that in his explanation of reform, his stress falls on all that had to be rethought and restated when it came to the Church's relationship to the world. In other words, the very notion of "reform" involves some degree of discontinuity.

Sandro Magister and others expected that in this address the Pope would confirm the criticisms of the five-volume History of Vatican II, edited by Giuseppe Alberigo, of which I am the editor of the English version. This project was criticized for placing the two popes of Vatican II, John XXIII and Paul VI, in tension or even opposition to one another; for relying too much on unofficial sources; and for neglecting the conciliar texts in favor of "the spirit of Vatican II" and of the event-character of the Council, that is, its discontinuity with previous moments of Church history.

Pope Benedict had surprisingly little to say about the hermeneutics of discontinuity. He simply warns against thinking that there are "breaks" in the Churchs history, as if it were possible to give the Church a new constitution, and against attempting to identify a "spirit of the Council" apart from the conciliar texts. That is all. After two rather brief paragraphs, he turns to what is clearly his main purpose: to set out what a hermeneutics of reform might mean. His attention focuses on the conciliar texts that deal with the Churchs relationship to the world. He stresses several times how necessary it was for the Council to rethink, reconceive, these relationships, a rethinking that was long delayed by the estrangement of the Church from the modern world that Pope Paul VI had deplored in his closing speech at the Council. I will add here a few paragraphs from a forthcoming article:

The Pope offers a rapid historical survey of the difficulties the Church had experienced over the previous four centuries, beginning with the trial of Galileo (described with some understatement as a "very problematic beginning"), moving on to Kants reductive religion and to the "radical phase" of the French Revolution, which left no room for the Church and faith, and ending with the "radical liberalism" of the nineteenth century and with natural sciences that claimed they had no need of the "God-hypothesis." Under Pope Pius IX the Church had responded with such "harsh and radical condemnations of such a spirit of the modern age" that it appeared "that there were no longer any grounds for a positive and fruitful understanding," given also the equally drastic refusals of those who considered themselves "representatives of the modern era." This impasse, and the implied criticism of Pius IX, provides the background against which Benedict sets out the novelty of Vatican II.

It was prepared, he says, by certain developments. In a statement that would have pleased John Courtney Murray, the Pope points to the recognition that the American political experiment offers "a model of the modern state different from that theorized by the radical tendencies that had emerged in the second phase of the French Revolution." Meanwhile, the natural sciences were learning more modesty about their range and limits. Developments were also taking place in the Church. Between the two world wars and especially after the second, "Catholic statesmen had shown that a modern lay state can exist that, nonetheless, is not neutral with respect to values but lives by reaching back to the great ethical sources opened by Christianity." (Perhaps a reference to Konrad Adenauer?) Finally, Catholic social teaching was developing and offering a "third way" between radical liberalism and Marxist theory of the state.

As a result of all this, as the Council opened, three circles of questions, defining a single general problem, awaited responses, required new ways of defining the Churchs attitude to them:(1) the relation between faith and the modern sciences, including also modern history, here presented by the Pope as if it were as reductive as the natural sciences had been; (2) the relation between the Church and the modern State, the latter described as one "that was making room for citizens of various religions and ideologies, acting impartially towards these religions and simply assuming responsibility for the orderly and tolerant co-existence among citizens and for their freedom to exercise their own religion" (this limited role also a description that Murray would have welcomed); (3) the relation between Christian faith and the world religions, especially Judaism. The adjective "new" occurs four times in this section, and the Pope admits that in these areas a certain degree of discontinuity did in fact emerge

In the Popes remarks about the developments that led to this situation, one can hear echoes of the position he set out thirty years earlier when he said that Gaudium et spes, Dignitatis humanae, and Nostra aetate, represent "a revision of the Syllabus of Pius IX, a kind of counter-syllabus." Then he had spoken of twentieth-century developments, beginning with Pius XI, as a result of which

.".. the one-sidedness of the position adopted by the Church under Pius IX and Pius X in response to the situation created by the new phase of history inaugurated by the French Revolution was to a large extent corrected via facti, especially in Central Europe, but there was still no basic new statement of the relationship that should exist between the Church and the world that had come into existence after 1789. In fact, an attitude that was largely pre-revolutionary continued to exist in countries with strong Catholic majorities. Hardly anyone today will deny that the Spanish and Italian Concordats strove to preserve too much of a view of the world that no longer corresponded to the facts. Hardly anyone today will deny that in the field of education and with respect to the historical-critical method in modern science, anachronisms existed that corresponded closely to this adherence to an obsolete Church-state relationship."

Against this background, Gaudium et spes can be interpreted as "an attempt at an official reconciliation with the new era inaugurated in 1789."

Properly to understand and evaluate the discontinuity that this rethinking of the relation between the Church and the modern world entailed, the Pope told the Roman Curia, requires one to make certain distinctions. The first distinguishes "between concrete historical situations and their demands," on the one hand, and "principles," on the other. This was, of course, the distinction in the matter of Church and State that was urged by people like Jacques Maritain and Murray and was rejected by their Roman and American critics for whom the Catholic confessional state was an ideal theologically, even dogmatically, required..For Pope Benedict, however, it is a valid and important distinction. Affirming continuity on the level of principles and discontinuity on the level of concrete applications--"this process of novelty in continuity"-- reveals "the nature of true reform" and grounds the hermeneutics of reform. An affirmation of discontinuity in relation to Vatican II, then, is common to the two hermeneutics that the Pope has counterposed. The clash between the Popes rival hermeneutics does not revolve around the issue of continuity vs. discontinuity.

The Pope goes on to explain and illustrate his distinction. Church decisions with regard to certain forms of liberalism or to liberal interpretations of the Bible had themselves to be contingent because they referred to concrete and changeable realities. He is, I believe, here referring to condemnations of religious freedom in the last two centuries and to decrees of the Pontifical Biblical Commission at the beginning of the last century. In the remarks with which he presented his Congregations "Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian" (Donum veritatis), Ratzinger had already pointed to such texts as examples of magisterial decisions that "cannot be the last word on a subject as such"; "provisional dispositions," they are valid at their core, but may need "further rectification" with respect to "individual details influenced by the circumstances at the time."

In his remarks to the Roman Curia, Benedict XVI makes a perhaps more valid distinction when he says that only the principles express the lasting element; "the concrete forms" instead are dependent on the historical situation and are therefore changeable. "Thus the basic decisions can remain valid while the forms of their application to new contexts can change." The Pope then offers an illustration: "if religious freedom is associated with agnosticism and relativism, it is only natural that it be rejected by those who believe us capable of knowing the truth about God. Quite different is a view of religious freedom that links it to the need of social co-existence and derives it from the fact that "the truth can never be imposed from without but must be appropriated by a person only through a process of being convinced." Religious freedom in the first sense, therefore, the Church can only condemn; religious freedom in the second sense the Church can embrace.

In the final paragraphs the Pope summarizes what the Council did as "a basic Yes to the modern era," and as "the step taken by the Council toward the modern era." He is at pains to point out that this was not and could not be an indiscriminate Yes and that there are important respects in which the Church must remain "a sign of contradiction." Repeating something he has said often in other places, he says that the Council did away with "mistaken or superfluous contradictions in order to present to this world of ours the demands of the Gospel in all their greatness and purity."

In the end one is left with the impression that the sharp disjunction between rival hermeneutical orientations with which the Pope began his remarks on the Council has become much less sharp in the course of his argument. The "reform" which Benedict sees as the heart of the Councils achievement is itself a matter of "novelty in continuity," of "fidelity and dynamism," indeed it involves important elements of "discontinuity." It is, of course, possible to contrast two approaches by saying of one: "You stress only continuity!" and of the other: "You stress only discontinuity!" But these positions are abstractions, and it would be difficult to find anyone who maintains either position. Perhaps the Popes counterposed hermeneutics represent what sociologists call "ideal-types," possibly useful tools for setting out the important questions, but not to be taken as literal descriptions of positions actually held by anyone. A hermeneutics of discontinuity need not see rupture everywhere; and a hermeneutics of reform, it turns out, acknowledges some important discontinuities.

So far from the Popes remarks being aimed at the Alberigo-led historical project, I wonder whether they are not more precisely aimed at the Lefebvrist interpretation of the Council as a radical break with the past. His choice of the topic of religious freedom to illustrate "continuity in novelty," "fidelity and dynamism," may indicate that it was the anticonciliarists that he had principally in mind.

In any case, I see no reason to fear that he is about to go back on the great conciliar texts on the Churchs relationship to the modern world, and no reason to doubt that he continues to consider them a necessary "counter-Syllabus."


Commenting Guidelines

Jim,Back in the days when I had to pay Fr. Komonchak to teach me theology, I wrote papers under his advice about the Nouvelle Theologians, who were severely persecuted before Vatican II by their own religious communities for theology that was often threatening precisely because it was drawn from the deepest wells of Tradition.Then they became the Council's theological experts.As I said before, Vatican II made the world safer for the charisms to flourish. That is a wonderful thing. But, as Vatican II said, freedom is found by following the spirit of the Gospel, not in false autonomy.

Kathy:The point is not whether relativizing of Church authority was "envisioned or encouraged by the Council." It certainly wasn't. But what does that have to do with the question of whether the Council had the character of an "event", in the historians' sense of that word? History is not theology.

Kathy,The Council will be remembered as an event because it enabled the charisms of freedom in the Church to flourish, as you say.HV, and the reaction to it, will be remembered within that broader context. I am not as willing as you to judge that reaction, primarily because of my ignorance on the matter, but I simply doubt that history will look back and see the disontinuity you are claiming.

Fr. Komonchak,I think that the current task of receiving the Council is largely a matter of distinguishing between the event of the Council and the events immediately following the Council.I would suggest that the non-reception of HV was more disruptive than the Council was. It was close in time, and, I admit, would not have happened without the Council. The pastoral advice to follow one's conscience before HV was consonant with the Council and would not have happened without it, i.e., before the Council the benefit of the doubt would have been given to the restricted norm. But the non-reception itself of HV was not "of" the Council. It was of the Pill. Obviously people have ignored Church teaching before. But has there been, since the Reformation preaching against indulgences, such widespread confusion in which the pastors of the Church actively urge the laity to ignore the Pope?

Kathy, I cannot speak to the theology of the matter, but as for sociology -- one could say that the non-acceptance of HV was disruptive. One could also say that HV was itself disruptive -- disruptive to the hopes of many Catholics that their intimate marital life would cease being the domain of prelates just as it was rapidly ceasing being the domain of princes (i.e., government). I don't want to argue whether it was correct or not, but it is a fair point that it is a morally abstract principle that purports to govern the most concrete of relationships. HV was a watershed moment in that it bespoke continuity of a type that many people couldn't bear. My father stopped going to church altogether after HV. He was an outlier. Many (and now possibly most) just compartmentalized and stopped taking the Church to bed with them.

Barbara, Not to question your interpretation of these experiences, but if I were in your father's position I might have been disappointed on an even deeper level, of "I thought the Church gave a damn."That was the public message of the Council: the Church is listening to everyone. "The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts."All those dispatches from Rome about what was going on at the Council--meetings with Lutherans and rabbis--everything said that the Church was in the business of listening and caring. Every day some bishop from someplace no one has ever heard of would stand up and say, "These are my concerns. These are the needs of my people." So the struggles of a family man, working hard for his family--the Pope really cares about him, right? No, the Pope cares more about his abstract principles in his ivory tower. That's how I might have taken it.

And that is more or less how he did take it. I guess it was more like, the council had given him confidence that the Church was looking outward and forging a place in the world that was more interested in justice than power, but HV reaffirmed that older inward looking institution that was more interested in controlling than enabling people. I'm not denying the tensions faced by the church in preserving its principles without stifling its people, but this is clearly how he saw it. He was more honest than most people in that he made his views clear by his actions -- he stopped supporting the church. We along with our Jewish neighbors were viewed as forging a direct path to hell. But people were nice about it.

Thanks, Joe.I hope the Commonweal blog is stored stored in a safe web place--you have given us a tremendous set of resources, which will be of great benefit as a reference for future use and thought.Cathy

Nice about the path to hell...Barbara, what I don't understand is why HV came across as the Church being self-protective.

This particular thread is such a perfect example of my learning a lot through good and responsible dialogue. In that vein, I would suggest a separate thread on the apparent change in the reception, yes even the meaning, of "conscience" before and immediateafter Vat II - from "guilty" conscience, "informed" conscience, and acting as you "should"

(continued) - immediately(?) after Vat II - from "guilty" conscience, "informed" conscience, and acting as you "should" to acting as you deem best, both, of course, after the same period of intense soul-searching. This seems to be another possible discussion along the lines of continuity vs. discontinuity.

Controlling the behavior of others is a form of self-protection -- protection of one's power over them. I think everyone was confused about the role of conscience versus doctrine in the wake of VII. I think people are still confused, or if they are not confused, there is still alot of conflict over what it should be. I can't add much more than that. I would certainly enjoy reading better informed views on this subject than mine.

Since this thread has wandered into matters relating to Humanae Vitae, I have a question that perhaps one of you can answer.It is evident that as relates to the subject of artificial contraception as decreed by HV that there is near universal yet silent rejection of it by the laity. This is evident, not only from the statistics, but from our own observation. Very rarely does one see at Sunday Mass families with more than four children. Families of eight, nine or ten children are never seen. The norm appears to be about two or three. And unless human reproductive capacity has undergone a radical change, that even when allowing for later marriage ages, I think it is fair to assume that artificial contraception is practised by almost all regular church going Catholics of child bearing years.So my question is whether there is precedent in the long history of our Church for the laity to have a belief or follow a specific practice not approved by the hierrarchy which in time is accepted by the entire Church, including the hierarchy. Said differently,has the Holy Spirit ever spoken through the laity ? I hope that this question does not constitute too great a departure from this thread.

I agree with many here who suggest that the question of conscience might be served better in a separate thread. Such a thread should consider these items, as I see it.1. Most Catholics do not consider contraception a sin.2. The church's teaching on sexuality is very problematic.3. Pedophilia among clerics is centuries old.4. Humanae Vitae is not infallible.5. Love as a primary end of marriage is a new concept.6. Since most of the conscience questions involve sex, is there an obsession about sex within the church?7. Private confession was not made mandatory until the Lateran Council in the 12th century.

Contraception is also an unusual conscience issue because it involves 2 people in the same act, each of whom might have different intentions regarding the contracepted/ uncontracepted character of the act.

So freedom of conscience is involved in two ways: the individual couple's conscience in relation to Church teaching, and the spouse's consciences in relationship to one another.

I'm sorry to have taken this thread so far afield, when there is a lot more to say about the Council. But I'm thankful for this part of the dialogue and would also, as others have expressed, be interested in a new discussion regarding conscience.I have a question about the Council. Fr. Komonchak, you mentioned that people disagree about what the rupture was, and when. I keep trying to place it after the Council--in HV in matters of conscience, and in the enormous number of post-conciliar liturgical documents. But I take it that you see the rupture as interior to the Council itself?

Sandro Magister takes note (in Italian) of the Commonweal discussion:

kathy,Here is my two cents. Humanae Vitae was indeed the bombshell that shocked Catholics. But the rupture had to start at the council since many of the documents are compromises with each interest conceding points so that some of its ideas would also be entered. The council had its politics from beginning to end and that is not necessarily a bad thing.Cardinal Spellman declared that the changes of the Council would not "get pass the Statue of Liberty." Mostly all priests at the time who were not associated with seminaries and schools felt very confused about the council. It was a momentous council. Really an avalanche. Which no one was really prepared for as well meaning as many people were.

Bill, I think that Fr. Komonchak is right when he says "I see no reason to fear that he is about to go back on the great conciliar texts on the Churchs relationship to the modern world..."But I see reason no reason to believe that the Pope will apply the texts in the same way they were widely applied immediately following the Council.

For a slightly satirical but nonetheless quite accurate portrayal of things pre and post-V2, read David Lodge's "Souls & Bodies." It's about England, but transfers well into the experiences in the US.

Sorry to go on and on. But I have a question about whether there might have been an unreasonable hope raised by the experience of the Council, which was so dialogical. Maybe it seemed that the Church would always be open to dialogue about everything and that every process would always be consultative.Granted that the Council itself called for greater consultation in many situations, still, it seems to me that these were specified to some degree.I wonder if Councils themselves are high-water marks of dialogue, moments within the life of the Church when consultation is the norm--and whether expecting this moment to go on as a permanent state is realistic.

Kathy, there were conflicts and swings from the beginning. A renewal was hoped for but there was concern about excesses. Paul VI tried to hold peace between both poles. He wanted to hold both toghether. He went back in forth in his positions. Thus "Hamlet."He loved Bernard Haring, for example, but allowed the CDF to investigate him in 1970 after Haring objected to Humanae Vitae. One always prefers that dialogue occur. But like today people become more fixated when the other side becomes unreasonable. Common Ground is a great idea. What is lacking is the leadership to see it through.

Just a housekeeping matter: if possible, please group multiple responses into one comment rather than a series of comments.