Rorate Caeli

“The Hermeneutics of Benedict XVI” — Talk by Fr Alfredo Morselli

Transcript of a talk given on October 13, 2022, as part of the online conference "The Second Vatican Council. By its fruits we shall know it." (Translated for Rorate from the Italian original, here.)

Ave Maria! Dear Brothers, I have been asked to speak about the Hermeneutics of Benedict XVI, with reference to his address to the Roman Curia, December 22, 2005 (almost 17 years ago)[1]: Benedict XVI, 40 years after the closing of the Council, wondered about the reasons for a certain post-conciliar crisis.

Quoting St. Basil, the Pontiff, now emeritus but then reigning, said, "the confused noise of uninterrupted clamors has now filled almost the whole Church, distorting, by excess or by defect, the correct doctrine of the faith...." The Pontiff, wanting to reflect on all this, asked, "Why has the reception of the Council, in large parts of the Church, so far been so difficult?"

Let us keep in mind that that situation, compared to today, was rosy; compared to the post-conciliar crisis, described by Benedict XVI, today we have far more serious uninterrupted clamors that distort "by excess or by defect, the correct doctrine of the faith." I draw a summary list of them: 

• Amoris laetitia, which promotes the denial of moral absolutes and the clearance of adultery.
• By subverting the above principles, Humanae Vitae can only collapse as well.
• Inter-communion for non-Catholics is also cleared by means of tolerated customs.
• The blessing of same-sex couples, while condemned by the CDF, is practiced de facto and in Belgium also de jure[2]: Cardinal Jozef De Kesel with the Flemish bishops, i.e., the bishops of Dutch-speaking Belgium, published a liturgy on Sept. 20, 2022, that provides for the blessing of same-sex couples.
• War against the Tridentine Holy Mass and rancor toward so-called "traditionalists."

Francis recently said, "Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of some living people."[3] The problem, however, is not the dead faith of some living people, but the false faith of the zombies, the heresies of dead heretics who succeed from the tombs -- Jansenius, Berengar, Luther, and so on. When it is said, for example, that adulterous intercourse is permissible "when nothing else can be done," the "invincible concupiscence" of Jansenius is exhumed; when it is said that one living in a state of sin may yet grow in (sanctifying) grace, we have Luther's extrinsic forensic justification, his simul iustus et peccator. Ps 9:18 "Let the wicked return to hell, all peoples who forget God."

The Pope says again, "Backwardism is going back two steps because how it has always been done is [believed to be] better." Is it perhaps wrong to say, "How beautiful Rome was before the Lansquenets came," or "How beautiful was the music of Palestrina Victoria, Perosi, Bertolucci..." Wis 4:16 "The righteous deceased condemn the wicked still living."

We still have: Bishops winking at (and with) Freemasonry. Collapse of vocations...

But let's go back, when things were already very bad, yet far less than now. Benedict XVI asked, "Whose fault is this? Then, the Pontiff himself gave this answer: it is all the fault of a wrong interpretation, of a wrong reception of the Council. I reproduce the excerpts from the speech in which he explicates the above concepts:

"The question emerges: Why has the reception of the Council, in large parts of the Church, so far been so difficult? Well, it all depends on the right interpretation of the Council or - as we would say today - on its right hermeneutics, on the right key of reading and application. The problems of reception arose from the fact that two opposing hermeneutics confronted and quarreled with each other. One has caused confusion; the other, silently but increasingly visibly, has borne fruit.

"On the one hand there is an interpretation that I would like to call the 'hermeneutics of discontinuity and rupture'; it has not infrequently been able to avail itself of the sympathy of the mass media, and even of a part of modern theology. On the other hand, there is the 'hermeneutics of reform,' of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church, which the Lord has given us; it is a subject that grows over time and develops, yet always remains the same, the one subject of the People of God on the way.

"The hermeneutic of discontinuity runs the risk of ending up in a rupture between preconciliar and postconciliar Church. It asserts that the texts of the Council as such would still not be the true expression of the spirit of the Council. They would be the result of compromises in which, in order to reach unanimity, many old things that are now useless still had to be dragged behind and reconfirmed. It is not in these compromises, however, that the true spirit of the Council would be revealed, but instead in the impulses toward the new that are underlying the texts: only they would represent the true spirit of the Council, and starting from them and in accordance with them one would have to move forward. Precisely because the texts would only imperfectly reflect the true spirit of the Council and its newness, it would be necessary to boldly go beyond the texts, making room for the newness in which the Council's deepest, though still indistinct, intention would be expressed. In a word: it would be necessary to follow not the texts of the Council, but its spirit. In this way, of course, there remains a vast margin for the question as to how then this spirit is defined and, consequently, room is allowed for any extravagance."

At this point we have to ask another question: all this tragedy - is it really all and only the fault of an "interpretation"?

In trying to give an answer, I, who vigorously defend this thesis - albeit with ample distinctions - find myself between Scylla and Charybdis.

For on the one hand I find myself with the triumphalist hermeneutic breaking down: the triumphant wicked of Psalm 94:3: "Until when shall the wicked triumph, O Lord?" Finally, it's a whole other ecclesiology, a whole other Church... The same hatred towards the Tridentine Mass is due to the fact that behind the latter there would be a whole other ecclesiology. The Council is seen as a dividing line: the history of the Church seen as divided between before and after the Council - however, not the Council "of the texts," as the Pope says... In this context, Francis is seen as the prophet of this true realization - except that many progressives are disappointed, e.g., by the stop to the married clergy... because then the Holy Spirit exists...

On the other, I am confronted by an audience so shocked and incredulous that they say to me, in the face of the ruins, "But where is the continuity!?" And it corroborates the rupture: that is, on the one side there are those who say, "How beautiful that everything has changed!," and on the other side, "How ugly that everything has changed!"; in the middle stands Benedict XVI who says that, in essence, nothing has changed and that it's all a matter of hermeneutics.

Both positions say - some with joy, some with sorrow - "Everything has changed... After the Council the Church is all different."

Which of the three is right? Benedict XVI, the ultra-Conciliarists, the ultra-traditionalists? I will now try to answer this question.

Let us first ask what hermeneutics is: it is a cognitive process, a deeper contextualized knowledge of a certain reality: and since we are Thomists, the truth, the object of knowledge, is in the intellect, but it depends on the real: that is, knowledge is intentional, it does not stop in the mind and does not ultimately depend on it, but it tends to, touches, draws on, corresponds to, the real. The intellect and the thing known correspond in what we call truth (veritas est adaequatio rei et intellectus). So the hermeneutics of continuity, that is, the true and deeper contextualized knowledge of continuity, applies when continuity exists outside the mind, realiter.

The reality of the Church's continuity is guaranteed by the Spromises, "The gates of hell shall not prevail" (Mt. 16:18). If the Church changed in nature, that is, if it were another Church, if it were different from the one founded by Jesus Christ on Peter, the true Church would be finished. Continuity is in the mystery of the Church, well before any hermeneutics. Therefore, the true hermeneutic of continuity, difficult to accomplish but possible with the help of grace, is to find the true and unfailing thread of the Church's life and faith; it is the thread that is sometimes thin, disguised and covered with metastasis, but never interrupted in its objective continuity.

The aforesaid ugliness is caused not only by the external enemies of the Church (the persecutors), but also by internal enemies who have plotted and worked since Jansenism, and have passed on - through the centuries, in a diabolical relay race - the witness of the process of self-demolition. This process, therefore, did not begin only during and after the Council, but has older historical roots.

And now I touch on the second argument in defense of the continuity of the Church's life, on the basis of which one may found the hermeneutic. Many, who deny the possibility of this hermeneutic, make a logical error called post hoc ergo propter hoc. Since this crisis - never seen before - began after the Council and continues its course in the name of the Council, then it is due to the Council, it is a fruit of it. What is after is caused by what is before. This may of course be true, but it is not necessarily so. This simplistic way of reasoning is historically false: because if it were true, we would have to say, reasoning in the same blunt way, that since the Council came immediately after the time of Pius XII, the Council would be Pius XII's fault; and, again, if it were so, I would not want to go back to the time before the Council at all, because (again reasoning badly in this way), the Council must be the result of the pre-Council.

And so, for some, the solution to the crisis would basically be a kind of "Catholic Orthodoxy": just as the Orthodox recognize the first seven councils, we recognize 20 councils: we stop at Vatican I. And everything would be solved by going back to just saying the Mass of St. Pius V: "Let us rededicate all the churches, and let us start again from 1960." Practically, this vision resembles the song "Bella ciao": "One morning, I woke up, and found the modernist invader."

Let's ask some questions. The Bishops who made up the Council in the vast majority: by whom were they appointed; and the Cardinals, by whom were they chosen? By Pius XII. The Council's expert theologians, the ghostwriters of the documents, where did they study? In Catholic and ecclesiastical universities before the Council. What Mass did they say? All the periti, bishops, cardinals, they all said the Mass of St. Pius V. The enemies of Our Lady at the Council - those who prevented the definitions of the dogmas of Universal Mediation and Coredemption, definitions already matured to ripeness after Pius XII's encyclical Ad caeli Reginam: where and when did they study and by whom were they ordained and promoted?

Certainly Pius XII tried to condemn the errors of the Liturgical Movement, the Nouvelle Théologie, the New Morality (situation ethics); but he had failed. Why? Because there was already a submerged network of modernists, which before the council was doing its own thing. And Pius XII was working with Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange and had excellent collaborators.

In 1937, the book Une école de théologie came out of Le Saulchoir, by Dominican Marie-Dominique Chenu (1895-1990); the Holy Office, by decree of Feb. 4, 1942, placed it on the Index of Forbidden Books and the author submitted. When the Holy Office's condemnation appeared in 1942, the Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Suhard, received Fr. Chenu and said to him, "Don't worry, petit père (that's what he called him); in twenty years everyone will be talking like you."[4] Who had appointed Suhard as archbishop of Paris? Certainly not John XXIII or Paul VI, or even Francis. When did the first blessing of same-sex cohabitation take place? In Holland, on June 26, 1967? Was the priest punished or removed? No. All was silenced by the bishop, Bishop Jansen, ordained in 1956. This Bishop, where had he studied moral theology? Who had ordained him a bishop?

Let us now look at the question of the supernatural: here I must speak of De Lubac, a great theologian who cannot be called a modernist. However, he was the promoter of a misunderstanding that produced devastation; forgive me a broad-brush summary, due to time constraints: "Since we are all predestined in Christ, and thus in fact oriented to the supernatural end, undoubtedly gratuitous, what sense does it make to still speak of pure nature, and to insist on the natural end of man?" This objection was also taken up and assented to by the Venegono school of theology.

Unfortunately, the trivialization of the demands of nouvelle théologie produced a disaster. De Lubac, by deeming the concept of pure nature useless, provided a basis for future desacralization (certainly not intended or thought of by De Lubac himself); in fact, if nature is not saved, really and concretely, it no longer makes sense to speak of the supernatural, just as it makes no sense to speak of a second plane if there is no first. "Everything is supernatural" coincides with "everything is natural," with outcomes that De Lubac certainly did not think of and did not want: logically, pantheistic outcomes. Some words of St. Thomas can enlighten us on this point:

"...from the differences of these goods flow the differences of God's love for the creature. For there is a universal love, with which 'he loves all existing things,' as Scripture says; and by virtue of it natural existence is bestowed on all created things. Then there is a special love, which God uses to raise the reasonable creature, above the condition of nature, to the participation of the divine good. And in this last case it is said that God loves a person in an absolute sense: for by this love God undoubtedly wills to the creature that eternal good, which is himself."[5]

When Sacrosanctum Concilum describes liturgical action as sacred par excellence (§7), it wants to indicate that the liturgy is the place where - par excellence and to the highest degree - we experience that special love by which God wills to the reasonable creature that eternal good which is himself. When God sustains us while we eat, work, act, no doubt God loves us: but when God gives us himself, he loves us to the highest degree. Said the great Garrigou-Lagrange, in an attempt (historically in vain, but doctrinally perennially effective) to stop the misunderstandings of the nouvelle théologie: "Si non est natura proprie dicta, nec est supernaturale proprie dictum."[6] (If there is no 'nature' properly speaking, then neither is there 'the supernatural' properly speaking.)

Why, then, a sacred language, sacred song, sacred vestments, sacred furnishings, balustrade or iconostasis delimiting sacred space...? Not to keep the laity out or to keep them from understanding the Mass, but because, if the liturgy is the highest expression of the special love with which God gives himself directly, then to the mysteries - the fruit of a special love - must correspond, for the truth of things, a special language, special vestments, a special space, a special song, special gestures...

If there is no strong and robust ground floor, there can be no real second floor; everything is reduced to a single floor, so that in the end either everything is sacred, or there is no sacred because the profane is already sacred: sacred language, sacred robes, sacred music... it all vanishes, there is no need for it, because you just add a place at a table already sacred, and our cathedrals are reduced to restaurants, where the chef or maître de salle is the Bishop himself.

And this is where Karl Rahner's errors come from as well, including the nefarious theory of "anonymous Christianity," whereby everyone is a Christian without knowing it: because if they are all necessarily ordained to the supernatural end (this state is called by Rahner the "supernatural existential"), which is God, they all are Christians even if they do not know it.

And now let's take a look at the so-called St. Gallen Mafia, a group of Cardinals who allegedly influenced the resignation of Benedict XVI and the election of Bergoglio. Is Benedict XVI's resignation a fruit of the post-Council? No, Antonio Fogazzaro (1842-1911), perhaps the greatest genius of Italian modernism, had already prophesied it: in his novel The Saint (1905), Fogazzaro created key character, Don Clemente, who responds to fearful objections to a modernist offensive by saying one need not fear that the Fisherman (referring to St. Pius X) may spear a modernist minnow, for the day will come when the fisherman will realize that in that harpoon will be bishops and cardinals, and then the harpoon will fall from his hand[7].

What about Bergoglio's election, was it influenced by the St. Gallen Mafia? Would this be perhaps the first time, even if it were true[8], that modernist subjects tried to influence a conclave?

Fr. Brizio Casciola (1871-1957), a modernist priest who had an influence out of all proportion to his cultural worth, wrote a letter to the cardinals immediately after the death of St. Pius X, the gist of which is "Do not elect another like him."[9] He was not a modernist. And he was heard. The letter was written on August 25, 1915. St. Pius X had died on August 20, just four days earlier. And so, the fight against modernism, which was considered defeated by then, was suspended: Benedict XV dissolved the Sodalitium Pianum, an association recognized and approved by St. Pius X and which helped him in the fight against modernism; as a result, the heretical movement could work under the radar, as the modernists had made very clear. The Irish Jesuit modernist George Tyrrel, expelled from the order and excommunicated but who, it seems, died reconciled (1861-1909), wrote:

"When I look around, I am led to think that this wave of modernist resistance has reached the limit of its strength and has given all it can give for the moment. We must wait for the day when, through silent and secret work, we shall have gained a far greater part of the Church's army to the cause of Liberty."[10]

St. Pius X was well aware that his heroic struggle against modernism was not yet over, and that even some bishops had allowed themselves to be seduced by heresy: in his last address to the cardinals during the Consistory on May 27, 1914,[11] he said:

"It is not new to meet people who put forth doubts, and uncertainties about truths, and even obstinate assertions over manifest errors a hundred times condemned, and yet who persuade themselves that they have never departed from the Church, because they have sometimes performed Christian practices. Oh! how many sailors, how many pilots, and, God forbid, how many captains by making fidelity to profane novelties and the lying science of the age, instead of reaching port, have made shipwreck!"

The hermeneutic of rupture was there long before Benedict XVI pointed it out. St. Pius X, in the aforementioned address, said:

"Amidst so many dangers, in every contingency, I have not failed to make my voice heard to call out the errant, to point out the damage, and to trace out for Catholics the way forward. But my word, however clear and precise, was not well understood and interpreted always or by all. On the contrary, not a few, following the baleful example of the adversaries who scatter discord in the field of the Lord in order to bring confusion and disorder to it, did not hesitate to give it arbitrary interpretations, attributing to it a meaning quite contrary to that desired by the Pope and holding prudent silence as a sanction."

And Joseph Ratzinger, in 1985, declared, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith:

"I am amazed every time by the ability of theologians who manage to argue the exact opposite of what is written in clear documents of the Magisterium. Yet that reversal is presented, with skillful dialectical devices, as the 'true' meaning of the document in question."[12]

Where does the hermeneutics of rupture originate? That is, what is the origin of the misrepresentation of the Magisterium? Psalm 36:4 offers us the solution: "His words are wickedness and deceit; he refuses to understand in order to do good."[13] We said that hermeneutics is knowledge, and all knowledge depends on the will: to understand well, one must will well, and as popular wisdom says, "there is none so deaf as he who will not hear."

Vatican II was allowed to be misinterpreted not so much because of flaws in itself, which there are,[14] but because there was already an ecclesial social body of clergy and pseudo-Catholic intelligentsia who were ready and waiting for nothing more than to be able to distort and twist the Council texts to their liking. An arsonist who sets fire to a forest does not set all the trees on fire, but lights a few in strategic spots and gets help from the wind. St. Paul said to Timothy, "For the day will come when sound doctrine will no longer be endured, but, for the itching to hear something, men will surround themselves with teachers according to their own lusts..." (2 Tim 4:3). And the church body surrounded itself, during and after the Council, with teachers according to its lusts.

It is impossible to think that all of a sudden all seminaries revolutionized discipline and teaching; that religious orders abandoned the rule and the habit; that so-called Christians for Socialism were elected on the lists of the PCI; that Catholics for the "no" vote on the repeal of the divorce law, including Bausola and Carretto, found space in all the media. Certainly Fr. Giuseppe Dossetti and Raniero La Valle were proposing the Council in their own way, from the pages of Avvenire d'Italia and L'Osservatore Romano, but there was a whole world that wanted to hear it told this way. And the good guys were surprised and frightened, they were at their wit's end. But here it will be up to future historiographers to make a thorough analysis.

Having said that, in the end, let us try to answer the initial question: what then is this blessed hermeneutics of reform and continuity?

Hermeneutics of reform: The holiness of the Church is already there in Heaven perfectly, in Purgatory a little less perfectly; then there is a holiness present in many members of the militant Church: behold, this holiness must be extended to more and more members of the militant Church, until the Angels cry "His bride is ready." This is true reformation. Here is the Church sancta et semper reformanda.

Hermeneutics of continuity: I will give a concrete, existential practical definition: I imagine the faithful ask me, "Father, in conclusion, what are we to do, in all this confusion? I think Benedict XVI gave the answer, in his homily at the Holy Mass for the opening of the Year of Faith, Oct. 11, 2012. I extract some portions from it:

"What a life, a world without God, meant at the time of the Council could already be known from some tragic pages of history, but now unfortunately we see it every day around us. It is the emptiness that has spread. But it is precisely from the experience of this desert, from this emptiness that we can again discover the joy of believing, its vital importance for us as men and women. In the desert we rediscover the value of what is essential for living; thus in the contemporary world there are countless signs, often expressed in an implicit or negative form, of the thirst for God, for the ultimate meaning of life. And in the desert there is especially a need for people of faith who, by their very lives, show the way to the Promised Land and thus keep hope alive. Lived faith opens the heart to the Grace of God that liberates from pessimism.

"Today more than ever evangelizing means witnessing to a new life, transformed by God, and thus pointing the way. The First Reading told us about the wisdom of the traveler (cf. Sir 34:9-13): the journey is a metaphor for life, and the wise traveler is the one who has learned the art of living and can share it with his brothers and sisters-as happens to pilgrims along the Way of St. James, or on the other pilgrimage Ways that not surprisingly have come back into vogue in recent years. Why is it that so many people today feel the need to take these paths? Is it not because they find, or at least intuit, the meaning of our being in the world here?

"This then is how we can portray this Year of Faith: a pilgrimage in the deserts of the contemporary world, in which to take with them only what is essential: not stick, nor bag, nor bread, nor money, not two tunics - as the Lord says to the Apostles sending them on mission (cf. Lk. 9:3), but the Gospel and the faith of the Church, of which the documents of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council are luminous expressions, as is the Catechism of the Catholic Church, published 20 years ago."[15]

Moreover, with the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, Benedict XVI also put the Old Missal in our backpacks, so that we do not forget, as we cross the desert, what the Holy Mass is.

So let us confidently cross the desert of faith, with the backpack that the good Pope emeritus has prepared for us, like a mother who prepares the schoolbag for her little son going to school, putting everything necessary in it, from books to snacks. Let us keep the faith of the Church, concretely knowable in the unrevised Catechism of the Catholic Church. Let us defend the ancient Holy Mass, tooth and nail.

Let us rest in the Immaculate Heart of Mary, fervently awaiting her next unfailing triumph: and, if on this journey the brigands insult us with various titles - "Pharisees! Neo-Pelagians! Stone-throwers! Backwardists!," and what have you - precisely because we are sheltered in the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the most exalted fruit of Redemption (as Cardinal Caffarra said), let us, while we hear all these insults, say with the true St. Francis of the Fioretti: "Brother Leo, this is perfect joy."


[2] For further discussion see

[3] Address of the Holy Father Francis to the members of the Italian Association of Professors and Scholars of Liturgy, Clementine Hall Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022.

[4] Cf. Emilio Pannella O.P., "Two masters in a school of theology: Cordovani and Chenu," Social Life 40 (1983) 166-76.

[5] S. Th. Iª-IIae q. 110 a. 1 co.

[6] "De evolutionismo et de distinctione inter ordine naturale et ordine supernaturale," in AA.VV., El evolucionismo en filosofia y en teologia, Barcelona: Juan Flors, 1955, p. 277

[7] "...on the day when that fantastic spear of Abbot Marinier fishes, attached to a line, shouting laymen, priests, friars, bishops, cardinals perhaps even (as today; ed.), what will be, tell me, the fisherman, small or great, who will not drop into the water, frightened, the spear and everything?"; I consulted the work in e-book format, 2005/2, digitizing the Mondadori 1953 edition, good reliability, p. 24 and 26, bold editorial; text downloaded from:

[8] Even if it were true, it would certainly not be the first time that a certain progressive or modernist current has tried to influence a conclave.

[9] Cf. L. Bedeschi, Don Brizio's Letters to the Cardinals, Bologna: EDB, 1970, pp. 118-120.

[10] Letter to a Roman confidant dated 24-8-1908, quoted by E. Bonaiuti and quoted in part in J. Rivière, "Modernisme," DThC X, col. 2042, boldface and editorial translation.

[11] Published in Italian in AAS May 28, 1914, year VI, vol. VI, no. 8 pp. 260-262

[12] Vittorio Messori - Joseph Ratzinger, Report on the Faith, Milan 1985, pp 22-23

[13] The 1974 and 2008 CEI versions translate "refuses to understand and to do good," i.e., they coordinate the two hemistichs rather than considering the second a final subordinate to the first. Actually both the Masoretic Text (חָדַ֖ל לְהַשְׂכִּ֣יל לְהֵיטִֽיב), both the LXX (οὐκ ἐβουλήθη συνιέναι τοῦ ἀγαθῦναι) and the Vulgate (noluit intelligere ut bene ageret) opt for the latter solution.

[14] And a debated question, and I know that many do not accept these conclusions of mine; but I cannot here develop the argument.

[15] Benedict XVI, Homily at the Holy Mass for the Opening of the Year of Faith, Oct. 11, 2012; bold editorial.