January 2012 Print

Vatican II: A Debate That Has Not Taken Place


This book is a sequel to The Ecumenical Council Vatican II: A Debate to Be Opened, that appeared in Italian in 2009, and has since been translated into French, English, German, Portuguese, and Spanish. In this new work, Msgr. Brunero Gherardini, canon of the Vatican Archbasilica and director of the international theological periodical Divinitas, does not content himself with deploring the fact that the debate on Vatican Council II has not taken place, but even goes so far as to show why it would be more indispensable than ever today. And above all, he indicates how this debate could be opened, giving the reader the first elements of a rigorous analysis, far from sterile invectives and blind ovations. With the amiable authorization of Courrier de Rome, we here publish in advance some particularly enlightening texts on the “spirit of the Council” and on its “counter-spirit.” Bishop Gherardini shows that it is not only the post-Council that is responsible for today’s crisis in the Church, but the Council itself whose spirit contained the seed of this “counter-spirit” (gegen-Geist) that Benedict XVI denounces, attributing it to the post-council alone. The former professor of the pontifical University of the Lateran indicates in what he is close to and in what he distances himself from the hermeneutics proposed by him who was then Cardinal Ratzinger in his interview on the Faith with Vittorio Messori (Fayard, 1985):

“My two publications have two things in common with the Ratzinger hermeneutics; they point out and refuse the gegen-Geist (the counter-spirit of the Council), that is to say, this absurd judgment of Vatican II that has disregarded more than twenty centuries of history and imposed a way of seeing things that is radically different from all ecclesiastical Tradition and from its integral content.

“My two works do not say that this gegen-Geist has erased, or tried to erase, the true ‘spirit’ of the Council. They even ask the paradoxical and provocative question of whether the authentic ‘spirit’ of the Council is not after all allied with the ‘counter-spirit.’ (p. 24)

“Thus, as regards traditional values, the ‘spirit of the Council’ was in itself a gegen-Geist, before this was even spread by the commentators involved. The ‘spirit of the Council’ had generally put the Council in opposition even with all that the Church had up till then accredited as its daily bread, especially the Councils of Trent and Vatican I. One cannot but be struck by the presence of several sentences, scattered here and there in certain documents, especially in the strategic paragraphs of the introduced innovation, with the single goal of ensuring between yesterday and today a correspondence that in fact does not exist.” (p. 30)

“We must not imagine that there has been a general overturning. Vatican II did not innovate upon all of the truths contained in the Credo and defined by the preceding Councils. The problem is not in the quantity, but in the quality. It is not for nothing that we speak of ‘spirit’ and ‘counter-spirit’ within the Council.

Energy against Thomism

“The rupture, before bearing upon specific matters, bore upon the fundamental inspiration. Certain ostracism had been decreed, but not towards one or another of the revealed truths proposed as such by the Church. This new ostracism attacked a certain way of presenting these truths. It thus attacked a theological method, that of scholasticism, that is no longer tolerated. With a particular energy against Thomism, considered by many as outdated and now very far from the sensibility and problems of modern man.

“One did not realize, nor did not want to believe, that rejecting St. Thomas Aquinas and his method would entail a doctrinal collapse. The ostracism had begun by making itself subtle, penetrating and all-encompassing. It threw no one out the door, or any theological theory, and still less certain dogmas. What it evinced was the mentality that in its time had defined and promulgated these dogmas.

“It was thus a true rupture because it was strongly wished for, as a necessary condition, as the only way that would allow an answer to hopes and questions that had up till then—since the Enlightenment, that is—remained unanswered.

“I ask myself if truly all the conciliar Fathers realized that they were objectively in the process of tearing themselves away from this multi-century mentality that until then had expressed the fundamental motivation of life, of prayer, of the teaching and government of the Church.

“In all, they proposed again the modernist mentality, that against which St. Pius X had taken up a very clear position, expressing his intention of ‘instaurare omnia in Christo,’ restoring all things in Christ (Eph. 1:10). It was thus clearly a manifestation of gegen-Geist.” (pp. 31-32)

Spirit of the Council

“All the same, it is difficult to ignore that all began precisely with Vatican Council II. Someone has observed that Vatican Council II could be compared to Aeolus’ goatskin (which in the Greek legend holds all the contrary winds). It is since Vatican II that this hurricane that we call ‘the spirit of the Council’ has been let loose, a spirit in which I have without trouble recognized the presence of ‘against.’ Yes, ‘against’:

  • against the spirituality that guided the Church from its origin until 1963;
  • against its dogmas, reinterpreted not theologically, but in a historicist way;
  • against its Tradition, suppressed as a source of Revelation and reinterpreted as the acceptance of what one meets on one’s way, above all in the modern cultural pluralism, be it homogenous or no in relation to its ontological status.
  • “If we wish only to blame the post-Council, so be it, for it is not at all free of wrongs. But also, we must not forget that it is the natural son of the Council, and that it is in the Council that it has found the principles upon which it has then founded its most devastating contents, to the point of exhausting them.

    “We must however say a few words concerning one aspect of the conciliar aggiornamento. This is particularly important to me because it is a part of the Tridentine tradition and because it is in conformity with the sacramental reality of the priest. It is of him that I wish now to speak.

    “As much in Lumen Gentium 28/1, that says textually: ‘The priests...are consecrated to preach the Gospel,’ as in Presbyterorum Ordinis 13/2, which voluntarily places the ministry of the Word at the highest place in the priest’s functions, we see a clear modification of the Tridentine tradition, according to which the priest is ‘ad conficiendam eucharistiam.’ He is, of course, destined to other finalities, but all are placed after that of the Eucharistic sacrifice.

    “But in the Vatican II texts, all that is not in relation to the ministry of the Word becomes secondary, forgetting the condition of the priest as a mystical continuation of Christ, and thus the Christic basis of sacrificer and glorifier of the Father, which reflects on the priest [13] and forms his first characteristic.

    “Consequently, how can it be coherent to declare that such a radical overturning of the Tridentine tradition is also perfectly coherent with the preceding magisterium, and constitutes the material of infallible, irreformable and dogmatic validity? I candidly admit that I do not understand.” (pp. 82-83)

    Level of Innovations

    Then, Msgr. Gherardini offers to the theologian who would accept to “open the debate” a work method, and he invites him to begin with distinguishing four levels in the conciliar documents:

    “It seems to me that to begin, and always after having considered all the implications, a good critic should consider Vatican Council II on four distinct levels:

    a. the generic level of the ecumenical council as an ecumenical council;

    b. the specific level as pastoral;

    c. the level of reference to other councils;

    d. the level of innovations.” (p. 84)

    “The Vatican Council…presents a fourth level, that of its innovations. If we look not at each teaching, but at the spirit that conceived and produced them all, we could maintain that the Council was entirely on a ‘fourth’ level, or that all can be found on this level. The ‘against’ that I mentioned earlier places Vatican Council II, whether we like it or not, on the level of innovation; and even of a singular innovation, the most radical, that which, before looking at things, took on a “Garibaldi,” that is, a revolutionary allure; and let us say that before coming concretely to surprising and manifest ruptures, the ‘against’ was a loud and decided no to the fundamental inspiration of the former magisterium. The innovations that were successively decided were the logical consequence.

    “A reader who would not necessarily be a specialist, but who would have a few historico-theological notions, will be able to distinguish between them with no trouble. Let us take a formal point of view, the new concept of constitutio: it is at this new point that it engendered copies of constitutions in which the constitutive mode disappeared behind an improper and vague language, voluntarily deprived of definitory intentions, and often replaced by profane language; and that, at the invitation of Pope Roncalli, repeated afterwards by his successors. What is more, this concept opened the doors of the ‘constitutive’ even to foreign elements. You must read Gaudium et Spes attentively and without preformed ideas: one might ask, in sum, what link there can be between the vast majority of themes treated, not only in the second part, but also in the first part of this text, with the nature and the specific apostolic activity of the Church. The novelty places the Church on the level of the States and their institutions; it makes of the Church an intervening party among others, and robs her not so much of her function as the conscious critic of history, but rather of her nature as ‘sacramentum Christi’ and of the responsibility that follows from this as regards eternal salvation. The Church thus becomes an entity in dialogue with other entities. The Church promotes dialogue to realize ends that are indeed lofty—progress, peace—that turn her away from her specific task which is to preach the Gospel, to actualize and apply the merits of the Redemption, and to propagate the reign of God: in all, all that has to do with the life of grace until the moment of Parousia.” (pp. 87-88)