Vatican II: the ordeal of the Church

Par P. Serafino M. Lanzetta

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Recently, the debate over the correct interpretation of the Vatican II Council has been revived. It is true that each council runs into the issue of being understood and even often creates new issues without necessarily solving existing ones. The mystery always involves a tension between what is said and what is indescribable. It is enough to remember that the consubstantiality of the Son with the Father, affirmed against Arius by the Council of Nicaea (325) was not clearly stated until sixty years later at the Council of Constantinople (381), at a time when the divinity of the Holy Spirit was also defined. Presently, about sixty years after the Vatican II Council, we have not yet seen any clarification of the doctrine of the faith, but instead an increasing lack of clarity. The Declaration of Abu Dhabi (4 February 2019) pretends to establish with absolute certitude that God wants the plurality of religions in the same manner He wants the diversity of colors, sexes, races, and languages. Like Pope Francis said on the flight back after signing the document: “From a Catholic point of view, this document did not go one millimeter beyond the Second Vatican Council.” There is rather a “symbolic” link with the “spirit of the Council” and as it is found in the “Declaration on human fraternity.” And yet, it is indeed a link, and this is certainly not the only one that exists between Vatican II and the Church of today. Therefore this shows that between the Council of Nicaea and Vatican II there is a difference which we must take into consideration.

This strange council, unceasingly having to be interpreted

The hermeneutic of continuity and of the reform gave us the hope we would be able to read the new teaching of Vatican II in continuity with the previous magisterium, in the name of the basic principle of any council which implies that if it does follow canonical requirements, it receives the assistance of the Holy Spirit. In this way, if orthodoxy is not immediately perceptible, we have to look for it. In the mean time, yet, there is already an issue there which is in no way secondary. To be needing the hermeneutic to solve the problem of continuity is already a problem in itself. In claris non fit interpretatio, says a well known maxim,meaning it is because the continuity needs to be demonstrated by the interpretation, that an hermeneutic is required. In the present state of things, the continuity [of Vatican II in relation to Tradition] is not evident but must be demonstrated or rather interpreted. As soon as we have recourse to hermeneutic, we enter in an ever-increasing process of interpretation in the continuity, a process which once started never ceases. For, as long as there will be interpretation, there will be a never-ending process of interpretation, and therefore there will be the possibility that any interpretation be confirmed or denied as it appears adequate or detrimental to the eye of the next interpreter.

Hermeneutic is a never-ending process; such is the one of modernity which sets man down as one who exist and keeps him within the limits of his present existence, here and now. This can be seen in the Council as it tries to dialogue with the modern world, which itself implies in its turn an existential process difficult to resolve in hermeneutic circles. If we rely on hermeneutic alone to solve the problem of continuity, we are taking the risk to find ourselves locked into a system which supposes continuity (or, to the contrary, rupture) but which in fact does not succeed in finding it. Particularly today, it doesn’t seem like we found it at all, nearly sixty years after Vatican II.

There is no need of an hermeneutic which would guarantee us the continuity, but there’s need of a first principle which would tell us if the hermeneutic that is being used is valid or not, and this principle is the Faith of the Church. It is not surprising that so long after Vatican II, we are still discussing according to the hermeneutic of continuity, about the continuity of a council in relation to previous ones and with the Faith of the Church, while Faith itself has left us many years ago already and does not show any signs of returning any time soon.

From the moment it was put forward, the hermeneutic of continuity seemed to have a few flaws; recently, it seems that even Joseph Ratzinger has furthered himself from it. In his notes relating to the cases of sexual abuse in the Church (published only in Italian in the Corriere della sera, 11 April 2019), the Second Vatican Council finds itself to be put into questions several times. With more theological freedom and no longer acting in an official way, Benedict XVI denounces a sort of biblicism which origin can be traced to Dei Verbum, as the main doctrinal source of the moral crisis in the Church. In the fight engaged during the Council, there was an attempt to seek freedom from the natural foundation of moral law in order to base moral exclusively on the Bible. The influence of the Constitution on divine Revelation which did not want to mention the role of Traditio constitutiva, even though Paul VI oversaw the writing, is found again in the formulation of the decree Optatam Totius 16 [on the formation to the priesthood], which in fact was later rejected with despise as “too scholarly” because it was based on natural law. The harmful effects of such a “repositioning” did not take long before being noticed and are still under our very eyes. In the same notes from Ratzinger, we also find a denunciation of the so-called “conciliarity” which had become the determining factor of what was truly acceptable and admissible, to the point of bringing some bishops to refute Catholic Tradition. In the various post-conciliar documents which seek to correct this tendency by providing a proper interpretation of the doctrine, we never seriously examined the problem of fundamental theology as inaugurated by the principle of “conciliarity”. In fact, “conciliarity” is the open door to all other abuses and to a spirit which freely adds to the text and takes away from it, and most particularly takes away from the Church. This was addressed during the Synod of the bishops in 1985, but the discussion never reached a clear declaration to refute “conciliarity”.

New doctrines, but all “pastoral”

The hermeneutic problem of Vatican II will never stop if we don’t address a central and radical question which the clear comprehension of the doctrines and their magistral interpretation depend upon. Vatican II introduced itself as a council with an admirable pastoral goal. But of course, all previous councils were pastoral as long as they affirmed the truth of the Faith and fought errors. Vatican II chose a new method for this pastoral goal: the “pastoral method” which became a true program of action. In repeated declarations, though without ever giving a definition of what was understood in the term “pastoral”, Vatican II presented itself differently from other councils. This is the “pastoral council which, more than any other council, proposed new doctrines, but chose to neither define new dogma nor reiterate any dogma in a definitive way (except maybe the sacramental nature of the episcopate, but in this regard there is no unanimity). The “pastorality” had for a plan the absence of any condemnations and definitions of the Faith, offering instead a “new wayto teach for the present time: a “new way” which has influenced the formation of new doctrines and vice-versa. This flaw is still felt with all its violence today when doctrine is left to the side for pastoral reason, which actually cannot be done without teaching in fact a new doctrine.

The “pastoral method (and it truly was a method) played a major role in the Council. It directed the conciliar agenda. It established what was to be debated, and it directed the reformulation of various central schemas because they were deemed “non pastoral”. This lead to the neglect of widespread doctrines because they were still contested (as for example the ones on limbo and the material insufficiency of Scriptures, repeated by the ordinary magisterium of the catechisms) and to embrace the teaching of “new doctrines which had not been theologically debated in any way (as for example the episcopal collegiality and the restoration of the permanent diaconate of married men). Indeed, what was “pastoral” reached the rank of constitution with Gaudium et Spes (we were used to constitutions only relating to faith), a document so pitiful it even had Karl Rahner so worried, he advised Cardinal Döpfner to declare at the very beginning the imperfection of the text, mainly because of the fact that the created order did not seem to have God for an end. And yet, Rahner was the promotor of a “transcendental” pastoral process.

In this way, the Council carries in itself a problem of interpretation, self inflicted, which did not start by a false interpretation at the time of the reception of the Council but before that, during the discussion in the conciliar hall. To understand the degree of theological meaning of the conciliar doctrines has not been easy, even for the conciliar Fathers who many times asked the Secretariat of the Council for clarifications. At that time, the “pastorality” thus was included in the writings of the new schema on the Church. For many of the conciliar Fathers, the mystery of the Church (in its visible aspect) did not stop at a historic and hierarchical manifestation (its visible aspect), to the point that they were in acceptance with the non-coextensivity of the mystic Body of Christ with the Roman Catholic Church. Can we say that there were then two juxtaposed Churches? A “Church of Christ” on one side and “the Catholic Church” on the other? This risk did not come from the vagueness in the wording of the “subsistit in” but, fundamentally from the renunciation to the doctrine of members of the Church (switching from de membris to de populo) so not to offend the Protestants, imperfect members. Today, it seems that almost everyone belongs to the Church. If we were to ask the question “Were the Council’s Fathers holding that the mystic Body of Christ is the Catholic Church?”, how would most people answer? Many Council’s Fathers answered no, and this is how we ended up where we are.

The spirit of the Council, relative rule of an absolute measure

The spirit of the Council” was then born within the Council itself. It hovers over Vatican II and its documents; it is often the reflection of a “pastoral spirit” which is hard to define, which builds or demolishes in the name of “conciliarity”, which often simply meant the theological sentiment of the moment, the one who had the most influence because his voice was the loudest, not only in the press but also in the Council hall and in the doctrinal commission. An hermeneutic which does not understand this fondamental question ends up being overwhelmed by an issue still unresolved today: Vatican II is treated as an “absolute” of the Faith, as if it was the very identity of the Christian, like the master-key in the “post-conciliar Church. The Church is divided because She depends on the Council and not the other way around. This leads to an other issue.

First, the Council being considered as absolute authority in regards to the Faith, then the Pope as absolute authority in regards to the Church, when the two are in fact two sides of the same medal; it is the same error of making absolute one and then the other, forgetting that the Church comes first, then the Pope and his pontifical magisterium, then the Council and its conciliar magisterium. The present error to consider the pope as an absolute master results from the idea that the Council be ab-solutus and this is due to the fact that “the spirit of the Council”, truly the spirit of an “event” which was above the texts and most of all the context, has been introduced as the determining criteria serving as the rule of the measure. Is it a coincidence if those who seek to impose Francis’ magisterium are continuously calling on Vatican II, and accusing whoever criticize Francis to reject Vatican II? The fact is, the link between Francis and Vatican II is more symbolic, and according to the spirit rather than the letter. Conciliar and post-conciliar popes are made saints (or will be rapidly) while the Church languishes, deep in a quiet desert.

Fr. Serafino M. Lanzetta