Monsignor Brunero Gherardini, Prof. Emeritus (Pont. Univ. Lat.), canon of the Vatican Basilica and director of Divinitas. [Source: Disputationes Theologicae, December 7, 2011 (Translation provided by the United States District of the Society of Saint Pius X - FSSPX/SSPX)]
The great 50th anniversary celebration has begun. There is no media drumbeat yet, but you notice it in the air. The 50th anniversary of Vatican II will uncork the most effervescent superlatives that can be devised in its eulogistic judgments. Not a shadow of the sober attitude that had been requested, as a moment of reflection and analysis for a more critically in-depth evaluation of the conciliar event. They have already started the free-wheeling statements and repetitions of what has been said and repeated for 50 years: Vatican II is the culminating point of Tradition and the very synthesis thereof. International conferences on the largest and most significant of all Ecumenical Councils are already scheduled; others, of greater or lesser importance, will be organized along the way. And the commentary on the subject is becoming more plentiful from day to day.L’Osservatore Romano, obviously, is doing its part and is harping especially on the adherence owed to the Magisterium (Italian edition, December 2, 2011, p. 6):
Vatican II is an act of the Magisterium, therefore…. The argument advanced is that every act of the Magisterium is to be accepted as coming from the Pastors who, by reason of apostolic succession, speak with the charism of truth (DV [Dignitatis Humanae] 8), with the authority of Christ (LG [Lumen Gentium] 25), in the light of the Holy Ghost (ibid.).
Aside from the fact that this just proves the magisterial authority of Vatican II with the documents of Vatican II, which at one time was called petitio principii [begging the question], it seems evident that this way of proceeding starts from the premise that the Magisterium is absolute, a subject independent of everything and everyone, except apostolic succession and the help of the Holy Ghost. Now although apostolic succession guarantees the legitimacy of Holy Orders, it appears difficult to establish a criterion that guarantees the intervention of the Holy Ghost, within the parameters being discussed here.
One thing, nevertheless, is indisputable: nothing in the world, the container of created things, has the gift of absoluteness. Everything is in flux, in a circuit of reciprocal interdependencies, and therefore everything is contingent, everything has a beginning and will have an end: “Mutantur enim,” the great Augustine used to say, “ergo creata sunt.” [“For they change, and therefore they are created.”] The Church is no exception, not her Tradition, not her Magisterium. It is a matter of sublime realities at the top of the scale of all creaturely values, endowed with dizzying qualities, but always penultimate realities. The eschaton, the final reality, is God and Him alone. Commentators often resort to language that turns this factual datum on its head and attributes to those sublime realities an importance and a significance above and beyond their limitations; in other words, they absolutize them. The result is that this deprives them of their ontological status and makes them into an unreal presupposition; in that same process they also lose the sublime greatness of their penultimate reality.
Immersed in the Trinitarian moment of her design, the Church exists and operates in time as the sacrament of salvation. The theandric character that makes her a mysterious continuation of Christ is not disputed, nor her constitutive properties (unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity), nor her structure and service, but all this is still within a this-worldly reality that is enabled to mediate the divine presence sacramentally, but always as a reality of this world, which by definition, therefore, excludes the absolute.
At any rate, she is identified in her Tradition, from which she draws continuity with herself, to which she owes her life’s breath, from which she derives the certainty that her yesterday always becomes today so as to prepare for her tomorrow. Tradition, therefore, gives her the interior movement that impels her toward the future, while safeguarding her present and past. But not even Tradition is an absolute: it began with the Church and will end with her. God alone remains.
The Church exercises real quality control over Tradition: a discernment that distinguishes what is authentic from what is not. She does so with an instrument that never lacks “the charism of truth”, provided that she does not let the temptation of the absolute lead her astray. This instrument is the Magisterium, the office-holders of which are the pope, as the successor of the first pope, the apostle St. Peter, in the See of Rome, and the bishops as successors of the Twelve in their ministry or service to the Church, or in a local expression thereof. It is superfluous to recall the usual distinctions—the Magisterium, whether of an Ecumenical Council or of the pope, is solemnwhen one or the other defines truths pertaining to faith and morals; it isordinary if it is of the pope in his specific activity or of the bishops as a whole and in communion with the pope. It is much more important to define more precisely the limits within which the Magisterium is guaranteed to have “the charism of truth”.
It must be said first of all that the Magisterium is not a super-Church that imposes judgments and guidelines on the Church itself; nor is it a privileged caste above the people of God, a sort of powerful authority that you have to obey and that’s that. It is a service, a diakonia. But also a task to be carried out, a munus, specifically the munus docendi [teaching office] that cannot and must not place itself above the Church from which and through which it comes into existence and operates. From the subjective point of view, it coincides with the teaching Church, the pope and the bishops united with the pope, insofar as she officially proposes the Faith. From the operative point of view, it is the instrument with which this function is carried out.
Too often, however, the instrument is regarded as a value in itself, and appeals are made to it in order to nip any discussion in the bud, as though this instrument were above the Church and as though it were not confronted with the enormous mass of Tradition that it must receive, interpret and hand on in its integrity and fidelity. And this is exactly where its limits become evident, which safeguard it from the danger of elephantiasis and from the absolutist temptation.
There is no reason to dwell on the first of these limits, apostolic succession. It should not be difficult for anyone to prove, case by case, the legitimacy and hence the continuous succession in the ownership of the charism belonging to the Apostles. On the other hand, a word must be said about the second, the help of the Holy Ghost. The hasty reasoning prevalent today goes more or less as follows: Christ promised the Apostles, and hence their successors (in other words the teaching Church), that He would send them the Holy Ghost to help them exercise the munus docendi in truth; error is therefore averted from the outset. Yes, Christ did make such a promise, but He also indicated the conditions for its fulfillment. However, a serious distortion can be glimpsed precisely in the manner in which appeals are made to this promise: either the words of Christ are not reported, or else when they are cited a different meaning is given to them. Let us see what this is about.
The promise is recorded above all in two passages from the fourth Gospel: John 14:16, 26 and 16:13-14. Even in the first passage, one of the aforementioned limits resounds with the utmost clarity: indeed, Jesus does not stop at the promise of “the Spirit of the truth”—note the underlined words, a translation required by the Greek definite article της, which previously and further on continues to be translated of, as though truth were an optional attribute of the Holy Ghost, whereas He personifies it—but declares in advance His function: He will recall to mind all that He, Jesus, had taught before. It is a matter, therefore, of help in preserving revealed truth, not of combining it with other or different truths, or truths that are presumedto be revealed.
The second of these two Johannine passages, confirming the first, goes into detail and makes further clarifications: the Holy Ghost, indeed, “will guide you into all the truth”, even the truth about which Jesus is silent now because it is above and beyond the capacity of His disciples (16:12). In doing this, the Spirit “will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak… He will take what is mine and declare it to you.” Therefore there will be no further revelations. The one revelation concludes with the men to whom Jesus is now speaking. His words are presented with an unambiguous meaning that pertains to the teaching imparted by Him and only to that teaching. This is not cryptic or code language; it is as clear as day. An objection could be raised about the prospect of apparent novelty in relation to what Jesus does not say now but the Holy Ghost will announce later; but the restriction of His help to an action of guidance toward the possession of all the truth revealed by Christ excludes substantial novelties. If novelties do emerge, it will be a matter of new senses and not of new truths; hence the very appropriate expression “eodem sensu eademque sententia” [“in the same sense and with the same meaning”] of St. Vincent of Lerins. In short, the pretense of attributing to the help of the Holy Ghost every rustling of a leaf, in other words, every novelty, and in particular those that measure the Church by the standards of the prevailing culture and of the so-called dignity of the human person, is not only an overturning of the very structure of the Church, but also a big X crossing out the two Scripture passages mentioned above.
And that is not all. The limit of a magisterial intervention is in its technical formulation as well. In order for it to be truly magisterial, whether or not it defines a dogma, the intervention must resort to a formula that is henceforth rendered valid, which makes clear, without any uncertainty whatsoever, the intention to speak as “Pastor and Teacher of all Christians in a matter of Faith and Morals, by virtue of our apostolic Authority,” if the pope is the one speaking; or makes clear with equal certainty, for example in the case of an Ecumenical Council, through the customary formulas of dogmatic assertion, the intention of the Council Fathers to connect the Christian Faith with Divine Revelation and its uninterrupted transmission. In the absence of such conditions, one can speak about the Magisterium only in a broad sense: not every written or spoken word of the pope is necessarily magisterial; and the same should be said for Ecumenical Councils, quite a few of which either spoke not at all about dogma or else not exclusively; sometimes they grafted the dogma onto a context of internal diatribes and personal or partisan disputes, which rendered absurd their magisterial claim within said context. Even today we get a distinctly negative impression from an Ecumenical Council of indisputable dogmatic and Christological importance like the Council of Chalcedon, which spent most of its time in a shameful struggle over personalities and who takes precedence, over deposing some and rehabilitating others; dogma is not found in that Chalcedon. Nor is it dogma when the pope, speaking as a private person [in the book-length interviewLight of the World], declares that “Paul did not see the Church as an institution, as organization, but as a living organism, in which everyone works for the other and with the other, being united on the basis of Christ.” Exactly the opposite is true, and it is well known that the first institutional form was structured by Paul as a pyramid precisely in order to foster the living organism: the apostle at the top, then the episkopoi-presbyteroi, thehegoumenoi, the proistamenoi, the nouthetountes and diakonoi [bishops, priests, leaders, superiors, advisors and deacons]. These distinctions among responsibilities and offices are not yet defined exactly, but they are already distinctions within an institutionalized organism. In this case too, it should be quite clear, the Christian’s attitude is one of respect and, at least in principle, also of adherence. If however the conscience of an individual believer finds it impossible to approve of a statement such as the one presented above, this does not involve rebellion against the pope or the denial of his magisterial authority: it only means that that statement is not magisterial.
Now, in conclusion, our discussion returns to Vatican II, so as to make, if possible, a definitive statement about whether or not it is part of Tradition and about its magisterial quality. There is no question about the latter, and those laudatores [eulogizers] who for a good 50 years have tirelessly upheld the magisterial identity of Vatican II have been wasting their time and ours: no one denies it. Given their uncritically exuberant statements, however, a problem arises as to the quality: what sort of Magisterium are we talking about? The article in L’Osservatore Romano to which I referred at the outset speaks about doctrinal Magisterium: and who has ever denied it? Even a purely pastoral statement can be doctrinal, in the sense of pertaining to a given doctrine. If someone were to say doctrinal in the sense of dogmatic, however, he would be wrong: no dogma is proclaimed by Vatican II. If it has some dogmatic value also, it does so indirectly in passages where it refers back to previously defined dogmas. Its Magisterium, in short, as has been said over and over again to anyone who has ears to hear it, is a solemn and supreme Magisterium.
More problematic is its continuity with Tradition, not because it did not declare such a continuity, but because, especially in those key points where it was necessary for this continuity to be evident, the declaration has remained unproven.
Published by Disputationes Theologicae
English translation of Italian original by Michael J. Miller