[We are once again proud to post an English version of the main editorial feature of Polish quarterly Christianitas. This lengthy article, by Paweł Milcarek, examines the harrowing job of squaring the circle that the interpretation of the Second Vatican Council has become in the past 50 years.]
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 appear 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 are 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. 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 in the non-Christian religions in general confuse truth with falsehood and nobility with wickedness. It was decided not to speak that in non-Catholic Christian communities there is a strong aversion to essential dogmatic truths. That in the world today there is a stron 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 so relaxing for 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 more experts 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 were 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 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 Wyszynski the conciliar novelties were implemented loyally albeit with distinct moderation. Finally, the instances where churchmen refused to implement the Council either were limited 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 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 each one wished together with others to affirm things, but not everyone had the courage to make necessary distinctions.
What happened further was even too natural 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 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 noone 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 those in the pre-conciliar era who met ostracism in the Church due to accusations of disloyalty. They sufferd within the Church, but could always avail themselves of 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, the media's 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 the phenomena proving that this all, to some extent, continue to this day. Though the "Ratzinger effect" (reinforced by the pontificate of Benedict XVI) in conjunction with new opportunities afforded by 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 slips away out of 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 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, one can today easier offer a useful, comprehensive understanding of the Second Vatican Council that earlier would have been much more difficult to achieve even for a saint.
Despite the fact that almost all things in the institutions of the Church were reformed "in the name of 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 necessary to reject the Council while calling into question many of the early initiatives and institutions of reform. We may also assess that the way to a deeper reform consists among others in retracing one's steps to the heritage from before Vatican II, e.g., to the liturgy in the older form.
Apparently, it remains a challenge to understand the texts of Vatican II. One finds there things that are norms and regulations for the whole Church as well as things that could be hardly treated as such, as they are only a testimony to their moment in history. Human passions, affairs and ambitions all inundated this work, although it was carried out with the assistance of the Holy Spirit. In recent years, attempts to differentiate these influences have been all too few.
As the key to understanding the intentions of the Council we sould 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 clrearly 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 of the pastoral goals of Vatican II is so important also because 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 a pastoral council, but draw from it false conclusions. It is said, for example, that since it was a pastoral council and declared no new doctrine, it is an event from which Catholics need draw no conclusions concerning the Faith. This is a very common position on theconservative side: because of its pastoral character, the Council may be left aside.
At the same time the other side of the dispute promotes often a model of thinking, according to which the Council gave the stimulus to leave aside the doctrine nad follow only what our times require. Therefore the Council's teaching need not to be treated very seriously as the Council meant basically the freedom to conduct further 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 of transmitting the manifold ecclesiastical power also to the persons, for whom even the Council is not exempted from the obligation to avoid idolatry.
The event of Vatican II is only now beginning to separate itself from the specific culture in which it arose. For when the eloquence of the Councilceases to tantalize, its supposed descriptions of civilization evaporate, and when it ceases its role as the creation story of many ecclesiastical careers, there is a chance to cut through the tangle at the surface and reach the inner truth of Vatican II. For when the eloquence of the Council ceases to delude with the descriptions of the civilization around us and when Council's role as the foundation myth of many ecclesiastical careers disappears, only then a chance arises that from this jungle come out the essential and internal truths of the Vaticanum II.
The Council when detached from its contemporary culture (both within and outside the Church), it sheds a great deal of excess weight. Contrary to the sum of its embellishment, it will become clear that this eloquent Council is in fact a structure thoroughly dependent that needs to be completed and to be read in conjunction with earlier teaching. Like the preceding councils, Vatican II is not the a miraculous and homogeneous sum of the Church'steachings, but it is the expression that develops the thought of the Church in concrete topics that we 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 unfavourable 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, how the Second Vatican Council is treated by the secular establishments.
In this encounter, this time without safe mediation and anesthesia, certain long-standing alternative is being whetted: The Council will appear either - justly - as one of the newer items of an amalgam of Tradition, or - unjustly - as a seemingly Catholic element of the post-Christian amalgam.
In the reception of Vatican II it is moment of the ultimate "or-or". Meanwhile, the link between the Council with (earlier) Tradition is at first glimpse not at all obvious, at least in some places. And it is not because of any real supervening essential break, any contradiction in doctrine. It is ratherbecause of the fact that the set of the lumped together Council's teachings, containing statements of various rank, does not "square" in some placeswith analogical earlier set of lumped together teachings, formed in the clash between the Church and the Revolution and liberalism. 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.
But Tradition and the continuity of basic teaching is something else. Here the Catholic principle that the authoritative part of the teachings of Vatican IIdoes not collide with the authoritative part of the former Magisterium is always in force. Not only repetitions of the old wordings, but also presented inthe documents strictly understood doctrine of the Church, collegiality, ecumenism, religious liberty, and relation to non-Christian religions - all thiswere the elements of not only legitimate, but also desirable development of the doctrine.
This principle prooves true even in the case of the Council's Declaration on Religious Freedom, a document as much orthodox as susceptible tocounterfeiting, difficult in exegesis, and in practice read one-sidedly, because in opposition to the earlier teaching of the Church about the social reign of Christ 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 refer 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 moral obligation to embrace Catholicism and the right to religious freedom is, therefore, the assumption placed on the supreme level of the teaching given in Dignitatis Humanae. It is the basic presupposition in the hermeneutics of 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 concreet acts of the Magisterium. The declaration lists three such blocks. The first and oldest is the “traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the 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 the teaching of Paul VI, John XXIII, Pope Pius XII, Pope Pius XI and Pope Leo XIII. The thirdblock is the own teaching of Dignitatis Humanae “on religious freedom”.
The three above mentioned blocks differ not only in their backstories, but in subject as well. They are not, therefore, at least in principle, successive versions of one teaching on the same issue. In theory, their clash could occur only per accidens, leaving no occasion for a head-on collision.
In practice however, this crucial collision cannot be exluded, because even the separate elements of doctrinal blocks may contain components insubstantial disagreement with the components of another block. The more so because the subjects of the three blocks: a moral obligation to the true religion, the inviolable rights of the person, and the constitutional order of society and religious freedom from coercion in civil society are adjoined to each other, if not interfering with one another outright.
In its core Dignitatis Humanae affirms that what the Council pronounced on the doctrine of religious freedom leaves the older teaching on religious obligation intact on the one hand, while on the other, develops newer doctrine on the rights of the person and of the social order. The principle of harmony, visible on the level of principles in doctrinal statements, is thus sustained on the level of the relationship between the historical doctrinal blocks of the Magisterium.
This harmony, however, is to be grasped not only in the doctrinal core of the document, where it has only been declared, not explained. To make it a reality, it must be read amongst the succeeding, complementary theses completing the core of the conciliar document.
And here we stumble on not a mean difficulty: the Declaration on Religious Freedom neither summarizes aforementioned traditional Catholic doctrinewithin its doctrinal part nor refers to it in 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. This undoubtedly makes the correct reading of the document very difficult, especially because due to the peculiar cultural revolution inpost-concilar Catholicism we read this and other documents of Vatican II without the long memory or awareness that the Council fathers had - who certainly knew better than we do the Catholic doctrines expressed in Quanta cura by Pius IX, Syllabus, Immortale Dei by Pope Leo XIII, and Pius XI'sQuas Primas.
The harmony declared in DH 1 is not so much the conclusion as the criterion for further reading. This reading, for the sake of all clarity, should set alongside together, one the one hand, the less authoritative explanations of Dignitatis Humanae concerning religious freedom, and on the other, existing beyond this declaration traditional Catholic doctrine concerning the moral obligations of individuals and societies.
We need to make one more reservation. Seeking harmony between the two historical threads of the Magisterium does not mean an attack on theposition and importance of any of them. On the contrary, harmony can only be achieved by granting both their 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 fundamental discontinuity - rupture - is not the same as proclaiming complete identity between the two tiers of doctrine or a readyharmony between them. This harmony must certainly be found in the "hard" tier of doctrinal statements, but not necessarily in a "soft" tier of theirsupplementary teachings or disciplines. In this second tier the harmony, already existent in the sphere of "hard" doctrine, is the work of hermeneutics. It is revealed by careful drawing out, in the realm of "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, the hermeneutic of reform is neither a denial of novelty by artificially perpetuating the integrum of certain exposition ofCatholic doctrine nor is it a consent to wholly new structures that are only generally fit with the abstract essence of Christianity. The hermeneutic ofreform remains faithful to the substance of Divine Revelation, in which continuity and growth are but functions of the same life. The principle of continuity leads to general acceptance and concreet attitude to the real heritage. The principle of growth recommends man to keep the same proportions of received truth, instead of attempting to cofine it to the identical size of its expression.
So one should not be trapped by the scruples which demand reconciliation amongst all things from all over the history, despite ruptures and discontinuities even in the superficial layers which can scandalize. Of course, any manifestation of a deep rootedness of a new teaching and everymoment of its sprouting (whether closer or further from Tradition) must be disclosed. Yet, one ought not to breed illusions that in the past, in any place and at any time, what was taught in the name of the Church was materially and literally the same thing. There is also room for change in orthodoxy understood in the Catholic manner: In the sphere of firm doctrine, this change may be making explicit, désenveloppement, of what had hitherto been allowed at best implicitly. In the layer of soft supplement it may also be purification and correction.
Of course, the chief principle in this work is not to force doctrinal consistency, but to achieve everywhere compatibility with revealed Truth. In 1967, one of the leading theologians of Vatican II, Father Yves Congar OP, wrote that the most important elements in the Council were two dogmaticconstitutions, 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, innovation may arise in Tradition - in the realm of doctrinal content and pastoral foundations, only where it is merely the articulation of something already present in the Church, but not yet spoken.
However, an actual return to the true teachings of Vatican II requires a thorough examination of conscience concerning what went wrong in the Council's aftermath. It is practically impossible to see the "true Council" without abandoning this what resulted from its faulty understanding.
The best way to see this today in the example of the liturgy. The fact that Benedict XVI presented as the right path the coexistence between the two forms of the Roman Rite (the old and the new), is also a sign that something was lost in the progress of liturgical reform, something important that the practice of the Old Rite can and should restore in the life of the 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 the Councilhad broken with hitherto teachings on the Church. Emphasizing this alleged rupture not only cut us off from the rich ecclesiology of Pius XII in Mysticicorporis, but also from the stream of spirituality "rooted in Christ," e.g., that which had been practiced by the once well-regarded Father ColumbaMarmion OSB. And yet before the Council it was dreamt that such things might become daily bread of Catholics. Yet, somewhere it was lost. The focus came to bear on impressive - and superficial - oppositions. For example, when in 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 Council expressed 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 no break; it is a development.
Also, in light of the teachings of Vatican II, the identification of the Church of Christ with the Catholic Church is established; she is the entity that holdsthe fullness of the means of salvation. However, and this is truly a development, this identification does not exclude the existence of ecclesial elementsoutside the Catholic Church, though without the Catholic fullness. In the Magisterium of the past, there was neither confirmation nor denial of the latter,but there was tendency to believe that there may be many true Catholics beyond the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church. The Council teachesthat such the actual Catholicity extends not only to individuals, but also to the structures of sanctification that are present in the separated churches andcommunities.
Such important words and points at issue are in the Council documents much more numerous; and it was worthwhile to consider them more deeply throughout recent years.
Finding the true sense of the "novelty" in the last Council has nothing to do with cancellation of the substance of traditional teaching. Instead, it would deprive such innovation of its supposedly revolutionary nature - revolutionary with regard to Tradition, but downright servile towards the dictatorshipof 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, not to brighten anyone's day or to find a place in the worldly establishments,but to continue what she has done for centuries: the search for a better understanding of her mission, unique and indispensible for the world.
At the threshold of the Year of Faith, in October 2012, Pope Benedict XVI called the faithful to return to the documents of 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 understanding the true intentions of Vatican IImay be more difficult today than half a century ago. Nevertheless, it is only truth that liberates.
So it is high time for another reading of Vatican II - to read the Council beyond the all too real - and not always fortunate - dependence on situations,individuals and communities, beyond private ideas of influential theologians. Now it must be read in the light of the previous Magisterium, the keythemes and interpretations given officially in the Council hall.
The pastoral goal of Vatican II does not deprive it of the doctrinal importance. Although the Council did not use the opportunity to pronounce solemn,dogmatic definitions, in many places it spoke on the doctrine of faith and morals. In these instances, the Council did not merely repeat the wording ofthe previous Magisterium, but further developed the Church doctrine.
The concreet historical circumstances, in which the documents of the Council were created, may well have had their impact on the fact that especially new elements of the doctrine were not always presented with the due distance to the current spirit of the world. Such disance would make easier understanding properly their meaning, rooted through Tradition in the deposit of faith.
In the midst of the Council itself, but in particular in the post-conciliar phase, the interpretation of “hermeneutics of rupture” influenced a great deal understanding and implementation of Vatican II. As far as it was capable of eliciting faulty or biased reception, even in those passages where distinctwording was disregarded ("the spirit of the Council" over the letter), the more devastating an effect this harmful interpretation of Vatican II influenced the understanding of doctrinal developments. Those areas not sufficiently protected against the imposition of false understandings were particularly mutilated. Interpretation according to the "hermeneutics of rupture" has become the criterion for many people of the Church.
For several decades following the Council, any reference to Vatican II was infested with ambiguity. Whenever the Council was invoked or selectedspeeches were cited, the recipient (and sometimes the sender) often did not receive the message in the original sense of the Second Vatican Council.The lens of the "hermeneutics of rupture" colored everything. In the 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 was much easier to readthese developments (and the entire Council) as opposed to the earlier doctrine and often as subordinated to private theological ideas. In such conditions, even repeated many times references to the Council's teachings made by bl. John Paul II often took on a very different meaning from that intended. When the Pope called the Church to "read Vatican II in the light of Tradition", some understood him as wishing to deprive the Council of itsdoctrinal developments. Others understood it as mechanical adding to these developments the references taken from the pre-conciliar “prehistory”. In this way, the Council became prisoner to the dialectic strategies of "immutable teachings" and the "new Pentecost".
In reference to the numerous endeavours of his predecessor who was the patron of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Benedict XVI reminded us all from the very beginning of his pontificate of the need to respect the "hermeneutic of reform, of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church."It is not a proposal of compromise, attempting to strike a balance between conservatism and progressivism. From the very beginning, whatever the shifts in the struggle between the two factions, it was the only proper position in reading each new formulation within the Tradition.
One could say that this hermeneutic of reform - also known as the hermeneutic of continuity - satisfies the hunger for Tradition. It restores to theCatholic multitudes a sense of rootedness in Truth by its historical manifestation in Tradition, also from before the Council. The sense was strongly impaired by the "hermeneutic of rupture", which generally had either depreciated or entirely cancelled the prior history of the Church, all in the name ofabstract reference to "sources" or to the modernist apotheosis of the "spirit of the times".
However, Benedict's hermeneutic of reform is not just the satisfaction of hunger for tradition (already unbearable due to decades of neglect), but it is, at least in the same degree, an invitation to to enter the 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 in joy and peace, a renewed adherence to the teachings of the Church in all its fullness and accuracy - such thatshines constant in the acts of the Councils of Trent and Vatican I - the Christian, Catholic, and Apostolic spirit throughout the world expects to seeprogress in the exploration of doctrine and a brighter formation of conscience - all in complete fidelity to the authentic doctrine " 2.
Understood in this way, the object of the hermeneutic of reform is not so much reducing the Council to the wordings known from the earlier Tradition, but finding in the doctrinal developments made by the Council Catholic answers to real difficulties connected with the current form of the 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 itself of time 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 to be helpful for us, but to 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 - concerning the human weaknesses in the wordings of the Council's texts. At the same time, we should be alert to human weakness in 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 decades in which statements of Vatican II were erroneously treated as the comprehensive"bible" of Catholic doctrine - current interpretation can no longer rely in any way on spontaneous or natural associations with the previousMagisterium. At the same time thsi previous Magisterium is sometimes literally indispensable to a proper understanding of the Council's developmnets. One must remember that these doctrinal references, often mentioned but vaguely or briefly in the documents of Vatican II, are today generally completely unknown even to persons obliged to the Council's teaching in the pastoral field. This results not only in a one-sided vision of Catholic doctrine, but also disharmony in the comprehension of those things, which were exposed by Vatican II.
Therefore, the Council ought no longer to be read "in light of Tradition" - which would suggest that the Council and Tradition are two separate worlds- but within Tradition.
Is there now room in the Church to consider the Second Vatican Council in this way? Yes, but it is apart from the warring of "Councilites" and "Anti-Councilites". They have long been living in paradoxical symbiosis. Both agreed long ago that the Council and Tradition were incompatible. Someclaimed that on the side of the Council, and others on the side of Tradition. And now, both have lost interest in Vatican II. For some it is no longerattractive since it has long been overdrawn, while others await the day when the Church may annul the “robber council”. Neither the one nor the otherwould aid us in finding what really is in those texts, nor would we discover what the Church truly teaches with their help.
The Church will store in its memory the output of Vatican II - as well as all the documents of the preceding teaching should be there should be contained with due veneration therein. However, only some statements and only some doctrinal structures - those spoken with a particular authorisation - exceed together with Credo the frontiere of the time of their birth and stay shining like guarded in the Chruch eternal truths, separated from emotionsand interests of the moment of their discovery. This is the mystery of Tradition.
In closing, a brief note pro domo mea. On the occasion of the Year of Faith (and responding to appeals from Pope Benedict XVI and John Paul II inNovo Millennio Ineunte), we at Christianitas decided to look at what is really in the documents of Vatican II, and whether everything has already been said. We discovered with amazement that the conciliar documents have been never published in Poland in edition that would include all footnotes,references, etc., all elements which would allow one to trace the evolution of the particular texts. Therefore, we do not know till now, what the itinerary of the Fathers thought regarding e.g. the declaration on religious freedom, the constitutions Gaudium et Spes or Lumen Gentium. We do not know what was the course of the discussions in the hall, or in what direction the interpretations of Council commissions were going, etc. These things are vital, because for several years there was much noise and the hermeneutics of rupture, which interpreted the Council contrary to earlier tradition and often in the spirit of conformity to the world and infidelity to the Gospel. The time is right to start reading the documents together with their context, not according to the outdated journalism of the Council's era.