June 2010 Print

A Dark Cloud in the Conciliar Sky

Côme de Prévigny


In his bestseller, The Ecumenical Vatican Council II: A Much Needed Discussion, Msgr. Gherardini studies the question of the value of the Council’s magisterium and its interpretation. While his approach to the doctrinal problems differs from that of Society publications, he practically reaches the same conclusions. Msgr. Gherardini’s contribution has the advantage of opening the debate in the heart of Rome and, therefore, the Church.


At the end of January, the great liberal figures of the “Wojtylian era,” from Cardinal Martini to Msgr. Sorrentino, sponsored the creation of a new Web site in Italy: Viva il Concilio!–an acclamation to sing the wonders of a “superdogma,” as if it were necessary to close ranks to ward off an ineluctable threat: Vatican II, during which the aula resounded with thousands of voices nearly a half a century ago, today sees its aura tarnished. At the same time, after three printings in the language of Dante, one of the most eminent theologians of the Lateran, Msgr. Brunero Gherardini, brought out the French [and English] edition of his latest work: The Ecumenical Vatican Council II: A Much Needed Discussion.1

Msgr. Gherardini’s Initiative

Neither a man of power nor curial prelate, this Tuscan professor, a native of Prato, has spent decades training priests in ecclesiology and ecumenism. Professor emeritus of Theology at the Pontifical Lateran University and a canon of St. Peter’s Basilica, he has become an acknowledged and consulted specialist in the Lutheran Reformation, ecclesiology, and Mariology. The book published by this heir of the Classical School at the age of 85 might be perceived as a synthesis of the hundreds of publications this eminent Roman academician, initiated in Thomist theology and quite traditional definitions, had published during his ecclesiastical career. Such is manifestly not the goal of its 260 pages. Rather, at the time when the doctrinal discussions between the Holy See and the Society of St. Pius X are underway, they appear as a response to Pope Benedict XVI’s famous speech to the Curia of December 22, 2005. The Pope, in what constituted a veritable opening program for his new pontificate, made the “hermeneutic of continuity” its key theme. For him it was a matter of bringing to an end the post-conciliar crisis and of placing the Council in the wake of Tradition.

Msgr. Gherardini states his willingness to follow this approach. Moreover, he gives us to understand that this is the interpretation he has patiently applied in his teaching by trying to reconcile the conciliar documents with the antecedent magisterium. But, without rejecting it, he shows that such a procedure is clearly not evident. He shares the accumulated doubts to which the application of this method of interpretation has given rise, and with the use of precise definitions, he underscores the real dissonance existing between a great number of texts, from Dignitatis Humanae 2 to Lumen Gentium,3 and Tradition. After 50 years of teaching, he states:

I must confess, however, that the following problem has never ceased to present itself to me: namely, if in reality the Church’s Tradition had been entirely protected in the last Council and if, therefore, the hermeneutic of developing continuity could be utilized and show its undeniable worth. (p. 88)

Consequently, his study, marked by great restraint and an unmatchable deference, does not devolve into hollow praise. After four years of Benedict XVI’s pontificate, he even gives expression to a sense of alarm and concludes his book with an appeal to the Holy Father. “After almost a half century of such language, of such incense offered with ‘three double swings,’ of such intemperate celebrations–uncalled for and counterproductive–it seems to me that the time has finally arrived to turn the page” (p. 22).

A Rereading of the Council

Before methodically looking at the conciliar documents that seem to him, in an emblematic way, particularly problematic, Monsignor Gherardini first takes care to dismantle the supposedly “defining” character of Vatican II which would make of it a third Testament. The prelate recalls the necessity of placing the Council in its context and of bearing in mind the intentions that Popes John XXIII and Paul VI had assigned to it: a pastoral objective that dispelled any desire to proclaim definitions of faith:

But when a Council presents itself, its contents, and the very reason for its documents under the category of the pastoral, deliberately qualifying itself as being pastoral in character, then it excludes in this fashion any intent of a defining nature. Therefore, it cannot demand the status of a dogmatic Council, nor can anyone confer this status upon it. This holds even if within it there resound some appeals to dogmas of the past and its documents may contain certain theological formulations. Theological is not necessarily synonymous with dogmatic. (pp. 29-30)

From now on, it is no longer the members of the SSPX who advance the argument of the Council’s pastorality, but one of the most eminent deans of the Roman faculty.

In the same way, the professor of ecclesiology does not want to distinguish too sharply between the Council and what followed. According to him, the one effectively fueled the other by its omissions, gaps, and ambiguities, and by what was contrary to the anterior Magisterium:

It is not by chance that the spirit of the Council was spoken of. The Council had liberally spread this spirit by its confidence in man and his progress, by calling attention to social-political-cultural experimentation: something which was already taking place in much of the Church and which exploded in an almost uncontrollable manner afterwards through its invitation to dialogue and collaborate with everyone for a world more suited for man, through its open irenicism to every brewing opposition, through its imposing silence on all bearers of bad tidings. (p. 88)

At this point, Msgr. Gherardini launches into a thorough study of the major documents on the liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium), religious freedom (Dignitatis Humanae), ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio), and the definition of the Church (Lumen Gentium). The professor does not conduct a trial. Rather, he emphasizes what he considers to be the essential contributions of Vatican II and even what he considers to be the benefits (?) of certain constitutions like Lumen Gentium. He brings out, though, the particularly devastating role of the experts, in the front ranks of which he names Karl Rahner, who brought with them what he calls the “revolutionary aspirations of Vatican II.” The conclusion is clear: The Church cannot abide flagrant contradiction between magisterial texts. The pope must organize conferences and initiate an in-depth study of the Council in order to give it a reading in conformity with the true notion of Tradition, which he takes the time to clarify by making reference to the definition of St. Vincent of Lerins.

Silence about the Resistance

The work is short, but even so the dozens of historical and theological pages relative to the Council and the post-council never mention the Coetus Internationalis Patrum or the Society of Saint Pius X. The name of Archbishop Lefebvre is not mentioned once. Someone zealous for justice might take offense at such omissions. At one point, the reader might almost perceive a disavowal, notably when the author alludes to the polemical character of certain publications of the Courrier de Rome, which is widely known to be the work of an eminent member of the Ecône foundation. Nevertheless, this distance remains a posture, and the silence conceals, it seems to me, the praise the theologian, sure that we are defending truth rather than a particular cause, did not want to confer publicly. His appeal must equally reach those who would have bristled at the mention of a valorous but officially condemned society. An adroit allusion seems, moreover, like a wink at the attentive reader. In the chapter on the liturgy, one of the references the theologian cites is by a certain “D. Bonneterre,” published by “Éditions Fideliter” in 1980…4

For Monsignor Gherardini’s approach, if it does not confront Vatican II directly, and if, consequently, it is independent of that of the Society of St. Pius X, reaches the same conclusions: faced with a council that cannot be annulled nor easily reduced to the level of a conciliable, it is necessary that Rome reappropriate its doctrinal authority in order to clarify, define, and even condemn. It is necessary that the authority of the Church annotate these documents with notae previae–and posteriorae as needed–which will be like buttresses stabilizing the disequilibrium of a vault clearly seeming to crumble. Sure of his dismantling of the dogmatic character of Vatican II, Msgr. Gherardini in his appeal calls for frankness in addressing the contradictions that crop out everywhere:

If the conclusion proves that continuity , whether in part or on the whole, is not real, then it would be necessary to say so with serenity and frankness in response to the need for clarity. This need has been felt and this response desired for nearly half a century. (p. 299)

In his preface to the book, the Most Reverend Mario Oliveri, Bishop of Albenga-Imperia, near Genoa, corroborates this idea:

…if it were to emerge from a Catholic, theological hermeneutic that some passages, or some statements or assertions of the Council, not only say things which are nove [the same thing said in a new way], but also say things where are nova [different things] with respect to the perennial Tradition of the Church, one would not be presented with a homogenous development of the Magisterium: in such a case there would be a teaching which is not unchangeable, and certainly not infallible. (p. 10)

Msgr. Marcel Lefebvre

In a 1987 interview, Archbishop Lefebvre had already called for the correction of these contradictions and even errors. He was asked this question:

The only solution to the Lefebvre “case” acceptable to you would seem to be a public disavowal of Vatican II by the Sovereign Pontiff. But can you see the pope one Sunday morning showing up at St. Peter’s Square and announcing to the faithful that after more than twenty years, it turns out that the Council was mistaken and that at least two decrees voted for by the majority of the Fathers and ratified by the pope must be abrogated?

He answered:

Come now! At Rome, they would be able to find a more discreet way of going about it… .The pope could assert that a few documents of Vatican II need to be better interpreted in light of Tradition, so that it has become necessary to change a few sentences to render them more in conformity with the magisterium of preceding popes. It would have to be stated clearly that error can only be “tolerated,” but that it can have no “rights”; and that State neutrality about matters religious neither can nor should exist.

At the end of January, Monsignor Babini, the bishop emeritus of Grosseto, did not hesitate to pay homage to the founder of Ecône:

Monsignor Lefebvre was right in his ideological choices. He was certainly a great and wise churchman whom I always liked. The “Lefebvrists” are not at all schismatic. John Paul II saw himself obliged to excommunicate them, but he did so with tears in his eyes. But, I repeat, if only there were in the Catholic Church, today so progressive, serious and courageous men like the great man that was Monsignor Lefebvre…whose memory is in the process of being re-evaluated. It suffices to consider those who come out of his seminaries–well-prepared, courageous priests–while from ours, often empty, it is not always [men like those] who come out!

The Traditionalists’ Temptation

The mere opening of doctrinal conversations and the agreement to discuss the Council have, it seems, loosened tongues and brightened private opinions. The temptation occasioned by such a discourse, as eminent as it is rare, which shatters the taboo of a divinized council, would be for us to lay down the cross confided to us by our Lord. Christ Himself could have interrupted His way to Golgotha after the first fall. But, before these positions have been adopted by the Church’s authorities, let us recall that they are the fruit of the exactingness of those who have gone before us. What would be left at present had we been satisfied with the meager liturgical compromises the indults constituted 20 years ago?

The principle [of “Living Tradition”] is not up for debate. It could, however, lend itself to a breaking down of the sacred deposit of the contained truths in its Tradition. In the context like that which reigned during and after Vatican II where only the “new” appeared as true and where the “new” presented itself and is presented with the aspect of the immanentistic and fundamentally atheistic attitude of our times, doctrine is nothing more than a great illusion. Tradition remains mortally wounded and agonizes, that is, if it is not already dead in consequence of positions radically irreconcilable with its past. It is not sufficient, therefore, to define it as living if it no longer has any life. (p. 155)


Msgr. Bruno Gherardini, 85, a renowned theologian of the Roman School, resides at the Vatican as a Canon of St. Peter’s Basilica. He is the secretary for the Pontifical Academy of Theology, professor emeritus at the Pontifical Lateran University, and editor of Divinitas, a respected Roman journal of theology.


1 The English version has also been published: The Ecumenical Vatican Council II: A Much Needed Discussion (Casa Mariana Editrice, 2010). Quotations of the work are from this edition.

2 The Declaration on Religious Freedom: On the Right of the Person and of Communities to Social and Civil Freedom in Matters Religious, December 7, 1965.

3 The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, November 21, 1964.

4 The reference is to Fr. Didier Bonneterre [FSSPX], The Liturgical Movement (1980; Angelus Press, 2002)–Ed.