Thursday, September 5, 2013

Correctly Interpreting Second Vatican Council

JohannesPaul2-portrait (1)In the year 2000 Pope John Paul II complained about misleading interpretations of Second Vatican Council which tried to highlight discontinuity with the past;

The Church has always known the rules for a correct hermeneutic of the contents of dogma. They are rules inscribed within the texture of faith and not outside it. To read the council supposing that it involves a rupture with the past-whereas in reality it situates itself in the line of the abiding faith-is decisively misleading. That which has been believed 'by all, always, and in every place' is the authentic newness that permits every epoch to feel itself enlightened by the word of God's revelation in Jesus Christ. (Pope John Paul II, 2000)[i]

Earlier in 1985 Pope John Paul II called and Extraordinary Synod of Bishops to discuss the interpretation of Second Council. Avery Cardinal Dulles has summarized the six principles adopted by this 1985 Synod as follows:

1. Each passage and document of the council must be interpreted in the context of all the others, so that the integral teaching of the council may be rightly grasped.

2. The four constitutions of the council (those on liturgy, church, revelation and church in the modern world) are the hermeneutical key to the other documents—namely, the council’s nine decrees and three declarations.

3. The pastoral import of the documents ought not to be separated from, or set in opposition to, their doctrinal content.

4. No opposition may be made between the spirit and the letter of Vatican II.

5. The council must be interpreted in continuity with the great tradition of the church, including earlier councils.

6. Vatican II should be accepted as illuminating the problems of our own day. (Dulles, America Magazine, 2/24/2003)

A trend which is hopefully now ‘out of fashion’, led some interpreters to compare list of attributes of the Church before the council to the same attributes of the Church after the council. Their point attempted to propose that the Church after the council is revolutionarily different, if not a completely different Church. Clearly the Church in Ireland in the 1200’s was quite different from that in Germany in the 1500’s or from that in France in the late 1800’s, but no one would say a different Church. The principles of the 1985 Synod would appear to rule out this interpretation of Second Vatican Council.

In 2008 Avery Cardinal Dulles wrote an essay on the Vatican II Constitution Lumen Gentium .[ii] Cardinal Dulles comments on certain modern views of the Council which attempt to popularize a radical interpretation of the Council's impact on Ecclesiology (the doctrine of the Church). The following chart is adapted from his essay, (p. 25).

Before the Council

After the Council

The Church is regarded as an institution founded by Christ with definite and immutable structures.

The Church as a pilgrim community constantly restructuring itself to suit the times.

The Church is regarded as necessary for salvation.

The Church is regarded as one of many places in which people could live a life of grace.

The Catholic Church saw herself as the sole legitimate Church.

The Church is regarded herself as one of many realizations of the Church of Christ, all imperfect.

The Church is saw herself as a divinely instituted monarchy in which all authority descended from the pope.

The Church is regarded as the People of God that governed itself through consensus.

Cardinal Dulles maintains; "All of these generalizations, I maintain, are false. They overlook the nuances both in the preconciliar period and in Vatican II." (p.25)

He notes, "Any aggiornamento that was accomplished was intrinsically connected with the principal of resourcement. “Every renewal of the Church," for the council, "essentially consists in an increase of fidelity to her own calling" (UR 6). (p. 26). As noted above, in 1985 Pope John Paul II convened an extraordinary assembly of the Synod of Bishop because he was concerned about misinterpretations of Vatican II. The final report of the Synod taught that the teachings of the council should be interpreted "in continuity with the great tradition of the Church" and which includes previous councils and popes. (p. 26)

As Pope Benedict XVI has noted the reform intended by Second Vatican Council was not a radical break with the past.


[i] From an address in Italian John Paul II, "Udienza al convegno internazionale di studio," in Il Concilio Vaticano II: Recezione e attualita, ed. Rino Fisichella (Rome: San Paolo, 2000), 739, as quoted in Dulles, p. 26.

[ii] Dulles, Avery Cardinal "Nature, Mission, and Structure of the Church" in Matthew L. Lamb and Matthew Levering, eds. Vatican II: Renewal Within Tradition. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

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