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Benedict XVI and the Proper Hermeneutics of Vatican II

by Dr. Eduardo Echeverria

The recent death of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI (1927-2022) has once again drawn attention to the question regarding the causes of the Second Vatican Council’s (1962-1965) mixed reception. Throughout the council’s sessions, Ratzinger reflected on its troubling reception, which he summarized in his book Theological Highlights of Vatican II (1966). He continued 10 years later in 1975 with an essay in his book Principles of Catholic Theology (1982), particularly addressing the question of the council’s proper reception. 

This followed famously with the 1985 Ratzinger Report and then on to his 2005 Christmas speech commemorating the 40th anniversary of Vatican II. Here Ratzinger addressed the crux of the issue regarding the council’s reception, namely, “Why has the implementation of the Council, in large parts of the Church, thus far been so difficult?” Ratzinger replies:

Well, it all depends on the correct interpretation of the Council or—as we would say today—on its proper hermeneutics, the correct key to its interpretation and application. The problems in its implementation arose from the fact that two contrary hermeneutics came face to face and quarreled with each other. One caused confusion, the other, silently but more and more visibly, bore and is bearing fruit.

These two contrary hermeneutics are interpretations that Benedict called, first, “a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture,” and second, “the hermeneutic of reform, of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us.”

The former hermeneutic presupposes a split between the pre-conciliar Church and the post-conciliar Church.” In the 1985 Ratzinger Report, Ratzinger made the same point. What Benedict called a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture is shared by both the progressive and so-called conservative wings—what I would now call the neo-traditionalists—of the Catholic Church. They both call for a retraction or revision of the Vatican II documents. They do so for different reasons, however.

According to Ratzinger, the progressive wing regards these documents to be “completely surpassed and, consequently, as a thing of the past, no longer relevant to the present.” They do so because they affirm an opposition between the letter and spirit of Vatican II documents. Ratzinger disagrees with this presupposition. He states in the Report, “The reading of the letter of the documents will enable us to discover their true spirit. If thus rediscovered in their truth, those great texts will make it possible for us to understand just what happened and to react with a new vigor.” On the progressive view, the texts represent an imperfect realization of the spirit of Vatican II, namely, its reforming energy, the conciliar consciousness of the Church where the content of Christianity and ways of realizing it is always up for discussion in light of the “signs of the time.” Hence, this view undermines the normative status of the letter of the Council’s final texts. In sum, as Ratzinger states in 1975, this hermeneutic of the Council “understands its dogmatic texts as mere preludes to a still unattained conciliar spirit.” Ratzinger adds:

Are we, then, to interpret the whole Council as a progressive movement that led step by step from a beginning that, in the ‘Dogmatic Constitution on the Church’ [Lumen Gentium], was only just emerging from traditionalism to the ‘Pastoral Constitution’ [Gaudium et spes] and its complementary texts [Declarations] on religious liberty [Dignitatis Humanae] and openness to other religions [Nostra Aetate]—an interpretation that makes these texts, too, become signposts pointing to an extended evolution that will permit no dallying but requires a tenacious pursuit of the direction the Council has finally discovered?

This hermeneutic of the Council led to not only ecclesiological relativism but also religious relativism. The former means that the Catholic Church is merely one among many churches. The latter holds that all religions are true in some sense and equally vehicles of salvation. Of course, both these positions contradict what the Council states in their normative texts. This turns the spirit of the Council against the texts, says Ratzinger, making it unnecessary to follow them, with “the spirit becoming a specter and leading to meaninglessness.”

The so-called conservative, or neo-traditionalist, wing, conversely, views Vatican II documents, according to Ratzinger, “as the cause of the present decadence of the Catholic Church and even judged [them] as an apostasy from Vatican I [1869-1870] and from the Council of Trent” [1545-1563]. They, too, presuppose a split between the pre-conciliar Church and the post-conciliar Church. The text of the pre-conciliar Church that rejects ecumenism is normative—Pius XI’s 1928 encyclical Mortalium Animos. Hence, Vatican II’s Unitatis Redintegratio, which affirms ecumenism, should be abandoned, according to neo-traditionalism.

Contrary to neo-traditionalism, there is an apparent inconsistency between these earlier and later documents but not a real contradiction. There is no change—in the sense of corruption—of the first principle of the Church’s ecclesiology. Furthermore, everything rejected by Pius XI—especially ecclesiological relativism—is also rejected by Vatican II.

The council made a courageous step forward toward the unity of all Christians, according to Ratzinger. Indeed, the movement towards ecumenism, he explains, “is the genuinely ecclesiological breakthrough of the Council,” and, significantly, is an important illustration of the hermeneutics of continuity and renewal. The Council found a way within “the logic of Catholicism for the ecclesial character of non-Catholic communities . . . without detriment to Catholic identity.”

The relationship between the one Church of Jesus Christ that subsists in the Catholic Church on the one hand and the plurality of churches on the other is the key issue. “The Catholic Church dares and must dare to take the paradoxical position of attributing to herself in a unique way the singular form, ‘the Church,’” says the then Cardinal Ratzinger, “despite and in the midst of the plurality she has accepted.” The council’s ecclesiology, indeed, affirms that the Church of Jesus Christ is a single reality, historically realized in a concrete, visible form, subsisting in the Catholic Church rather than an erroneous ecclesial relativism or pluralism—a multiple subsistence ecclesiology—in which the Catholic Church is one among many churches. Yet, the Council’s ecclesiology also recognizes elements of truth and sanctification outside the visible boundaries of the Church.

Thus, we must consider the historical context of the document, particularly if its statements are polemical and antithetical. All truth formulated for polemical reasons is partial—albeit true. This means that what these documents, such as Mortalium Animos, fail to say is not necessarily denied; furthermore, what they do say is true, albeit said insufficiently and imperfectly, less than balanced or comprehensive. What is said must be supplemented and hence interpreted with respect to the “full doctrine and the full life of the [Church],” as Yves Congar rightly stated. He adds, “Ambivalence, if there is any, will be resolved positively in the direction of orthodoxy.”

Aidan Nichols, OP, correctly explains:

[T]he doctrinal statements of a Council (which, obviously, are far more important for the Church of all ages) may be less than balanced or comprehensive and thus, by implication, need supplementation, whether from another Council or from other sources. . . . We must not ask for perfection from Councils, even in their doctrinal aspect. It is enough to know that, read according to a hermeneutic of continuity they will not lead us astray. An Ecumenical Council will never formally commit the Church to doctrinal error. It is, moreover, unfair to ask of Councils what they have not claimed to provide.

On the fiftieth anniversary of Vatican II, Benedict underscored the limits of Nostra Aetate because of its overly positive approach to religions, failing to adopt a critical stance. His position clearly distinguishes, as Nichols puts it, “criticizing incomplete or unbalanced formulations in the language of the Conciliar texts . . . from the claim that the Council fathers formally committed the Church to doctrinal error.” The former is within the limits of acceptable criticism, not making one a dissenter; the latter is not.

Ratzinger clearly sides with this hermeneutical position. He continues with a statement adumbrating the second hermeneutic he stated in 2005 by stressing that Vatican II did “nothing but reaffirm the continuity of Catholicism.” Of course, this claim is not inconsistent with “expressing a specific truth in a new way.” But this new expression, according to Vincent of Lérins, “must remain within the proper limits, i.e., the same dogma, the same meaning, the same judgment of truth” [eodem sensu eademque sententia]. Here, too, there is a reform and renewal that the Church engages in her “ever deepening and ever better understanding [of] the treasure of faith” that Christ himself entrusted to the one, unique Church. This means that “new thinking is demanded on a specific truth and a new and vital relationship with it.” Thus, there is a development of her fundamental teaching rather than a doctrinal change.

In the Ratzinger Report, Ratzinger urges us “to return to the authentic texts of the original Vatican II.” John Paul II convened the extraordinary Synod of 1985, on the 20th anniversary of the close of Vatican II. It laid down the master key for interpreting these texts. For example, the normative prioritizing of the four constitutions (liturgy, revelation, the Church, and culture) of the Council as the key to the other documents; attending to all the documents, in themselves and their close interrelationship; affirming the interrelationship between the pastoral import of the documents and their doctrinal content; no opposition between the spirit and letter of the texts; the hermeneutic of continuity and renewal; and the illuminating power of Vatican II for our contemporary problems.

God richly blessed the Church with this master of dogmatic and ecumenical theology. May we continue to deepen our thought and life on the writings of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI.  

by Dr. Eduardo Echeverria

Dr. Eduardo Echeverria

Dr. Eduardo Echeverria is professor of philosophy and theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary

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