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."

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

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