November 2012 Print

Courrier de Rome: The Key to Understanding Vatican II

Professor Roberto De Mattei

We bring to your attention the publication of a new book on the Second Vatican Council, a work of historical character by Prof. Roberto De Mattei, renowned for his studies on the history of the Church and for defending Christianity especially in our time, which in many ways operates for the destruction of the true Religion and of the Catholic Church.

The book has raised a certain interest among Catholics, interest that has been enhanced by some criticism of the book by some represen­tatives of the so-called conservative Catholic world. Some were astonished that, this time, to the criticism of the modernists were added those of the conservatives, but this is quite normal since both these objections, although different in their content, stem from the assumption that the Council must not be criticized. The Author, instead, on the basis of the examination of the historical facts leading to the Council, occurring during its course, and in the course of its application, reaches the unavoidable conclusion that there is ground for criticism.

The same thing happened to other studies that have come to light in the past three years: think for instance of the works of Monsignor Brunero Gherardini (in particular, The Ecumenical Council Vatican II: A Much Needed Discussion, and Quod et Tradidi Vobis: The Tradition, Life and Youth of the Church), where the theological aspect of the Council and the true meaning of Tradition are examined in depth. So it is not by chance that, like Msgr. Gherardini, De Mattei also concludes with a request to the Holy Father to finally enlighten us about the misunderstandings and the deviations that the Council and the post-conciliar period have produced.

What should make us ponder is the fact that neither of these authors belongs to the Catholic sector conveniently labeled “traditionalist,” but rather to the conservative one. From this latter group we have often heard voices stigmatizing the excesses and the abuses characterizing the post-conciliar era, though avoiding any correlation to the responsibility of the same Council, because of an erroneous defense of elements that a priori had been accepted as positive: the documents of the Council. Here is why today’s critical reactions seem so strange. Since the Council’s documents and the ones that have ratified their application have proven to be in open contrast with what the Church has always taught and has always practiced, the voices in defense of the “conservation” of the patrimony of the Church so much endangered have been very few and in general very weak, exception made for those who, from the beginning, have denounced the conciliar drift: the Catholics faithful to Tradition, who for this very reason have been labeled with the title of “fundamentalists” and have had to endure ostracism and exclusion de facto from the normal life of the Church, to the point of excommunication: it is the case of Msgr. Lefebvre and of the four newly ordained bishops of the Society of Saint Pius X. Nowadays, the conservatives strive to defend the status quo, even though faced with innumerable perplexities and the not few problems that from it still derive regarding Tradition, while at the same time they violently stigmatize even those among them who dare to criticize the problematic works, to say the least, of the Council. A strange sense of “conservation,” put into effect in a discriminatory and biased way: only what is useful must be preserved, independently from its real Catholic value.

To get an idea of what the book we are referring to covers and how it does it, we reproduce here the following excerpts.

1. Vatican II: A Council Different from All Others

The history of the Catholic Church is at the center of universal history because of the primary role that the Church plays in the guidance of souls and in the building of civilization. In this perspective, the importance of the ecumenical Councils in universal history is not surprising, since they constitute one of the highest expressions of the social life of the Church. If the Church has a relationship with human history, an ecumenical Council will have with the same history a relationship equal to the one it has with the Church.

Councils are said to be ecumenical, or general, when, under the direction of the Pope or of his representatives, they gather bishops coming from the entire ecumene, that is from the whole inhabited world.…In the Councils the voice of the Pope and of the bishops of the whole world with him united rises over historical vicissitudes: this solemn voice makes the history of the Church and, with it, the history of the world.

In the history of the Church there have taken place twenty-one Councils recognized by the Church as ecumenical, or general. The last one was the Second Vatican Council, opened in Rome in St. Peter’s Basilica by John XXIII on October 11, 1962, and closed in the same place, after four sessions, by Paul VI on December 8, 1965. Since the Council of Nicaea, which, after the Council of Jerusalem, was the first one to be treated by historians, up to Vatican II, every Council has been the subject of historical debate. Each one of such assemblies not only made history, but eventually had its own historians, and each one of these injected in his work his own viewpoint and interpretation. Quite differently than the previous Councils, however, Vatican II poses to historians a new problem. Councils do exert, under the Pope and with the Pope, a solemn Magisterium in matters of faith and morals and hold themselves out to be supreme judges and legislators concerning the laws of the Church. The Second Vatican Council has not promulgated laws, nor deliberated authoritatively in matters of faith and morals. The lack of dogmatic definitions has inevitably opened the discussion on the nature of the documents and on the method of their application during the time so-called “post-Council.” The problem of the correlation between the Council and the “post-Council” is therefore the core of the ongoing hermeneutical debate.

2. The Two Hermeneutics of the Council

The discussion on the Second Vatican Council, even in its complexity and in the development of the diverse opinions, substantially can be summarized in two main lines of interpretation: the one of “continuity” of the Council with the preceding tradition, and the one of its “discontinuity” with the past of the Church. The first line has been adopted by the ecclesial hierarchy since the pontificate of John Paul II and has been formulated with clarity and conviction by Benedict XVI especially in his speech to the Roman Curia on December 22, 2005. This is a theological approach to the Second Vatican Council, judged by the 16 texts, of unequal doctrinal value, produced by it. The collective body of these texts, according to the supreme authority of the Church, expresses a Magisterium not infallible but authentic, that must be read in continuity with the documents preceding it and following it, that is to say “in the light of Tradition.”

Benedict XVI several times went back on this issue; in his talk to the participants of the Plenary Congregation for the Clergy on March 16, 2009, he reasserted, for example, the necessity to relate “to the uninterrupted ecclesial tradition” and to “promote among the priests, especially those of the new generations, a correct reception of the texts of the Ecumenical Council Vatican II, interpreted in the light of the whole doctrinal heritage of the Church.” The only way to make Vatican II credible—has always maintained Card. Ratzinger and so does now Benedict XVI—is to present it as part of the whole and unique tradition of the Church and its faith.

The second line of interpretation fosters not a theological, but a historical hermeneutical approach. Its most significant expression comes from the so-called “school of Bologna” which, under the direction of Prof. Giuseppe Alberigo, has produced an impressive History of Vatican II, widespread in various languages, which constitutes a reference work, even if questioned and questionable, that cannot be ignored. According to this school, Vatican II, beyond the documents that it produced, has been first of all an historical “event” that, as such, has meant an undeniable discontinuity with the past: it has aroused hopes, triggered polemics and discussions, and opened, after all, a new epoch.

An event is a situation that represents a radical break with the past, “a fact that, once happened, changes something in the present and in the future.” The Second Vatican Council presents, according to Alberigo, its own very distinctive characteristics: the way it was convoked, the absence in the program of an established historical goal, the nearly total rejection of the preliminary documents and formulations prearranged by the preparatory committees, the elaboration by the assembly of the general orientations and of the same texts of the decisions taken, the perception of the Council by public opinion as a crucial event, followed and lived with extraordinary intensity. “For all these reasons,” writes the historian from Bologna, “the hermeneutics of Vatican II depends, principally and most of all, on the element ‘event’ of the Council.” The identity of the Council is determined, in this perspective, not only by the institutional doctrinal documents and by the canonical norms following the Council, but mainly by the actual working of the assembly and by the reception of this event by the community of the faithful.

The thesis of “discontinuity” is supported also by the so-called “traditionalist” community that harbors a large but heterogeneous range of opinions. The most important work we have so far is the one of Prof. Romano Amerio, Iota Unum, which does not develop the subject on the historical basis, but on the theological and mainly philosophical one. Though ignored by the “progressive” publishers, it is also a reference work that cannot be disregarded.

3. Reception and Application of the Council

The hermeneutical contrast about Vatican II is linked to two different views about the context in which the Council took place and its historical consequences. Cardinal Ratzinger recalls that, on the eve of the opening of the works, on October 12, 1962, Cardinal Frings, president of the Episcopal Conference of Germany, invited him to relate to the German-speaking bishops the theological problems that the conciliar Fathers were about to face in the following months. Looking for an introduction which could emphasize some connections to the very nature of the Councils, the then Prof. Joseph Ratzinger found a work by Eusebius of Caesarea, who was a member of the Council of Nicaea in 325 and who summarized his impression about the gathering of his time with these words:

“From all the churches of Europe, Africa and all Asia the greatest servants of God had convened. And one and only one Church, as if expanded by the grace of God to the dimension of the world, included people from Syria, Cilicia, Phoenicia, Arabia and Palestine as well as from Egypt, Thebes, Africa and Mesopotamia. There was also a Bishop from Persia. This choir was not lacking a Scythian. Pontus and Galicia, Cappadocia and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia had invited chosen men. But also some Thracians, Macedonians, Achaeans, and some from Epirus and other people from places even farther than that: also a famous Spanish man was among the participants of this assembly.”

Behind these enthusiastic words, Fr. Joseph Ratzinger commented to the German Bishops, you can see the description of Pentecost given by St. Luke in the Acts of the Apostles. Eusebius’ thought was that Nicaea had been a true Pentecost. This was likewise the thought of Pope John XXIII and of the conciliar Fathers about Vatican II: it would be a new Pentecost. The school of Bologna remained faithful to the model Council-Pentecost and sees in Pope John XXIII the unheeded prophet of a new era in the history of the Church. Today Benedict XVI is instead the most distinguished representative of those who, facing the self-destruc­tive post-conciliar reality, have revised, over the years, their opinion regarding the Council, proposing to read it in light of Tradition. Having been through the affairs of the Council and the long years of the post-Council as a protagonist, Joseph Ratzinger, now on the Papal See under the name of Benedict XVI, again applied to Vatican II, but in a quite different way, the image of the Council of Nicaea. In his previously mentioned speech of December 22, 2005, the newly-elected Pope, after stating that undeniably the reception of the Council had been a difficult one, evoked the very image of the Church given by St. Basil after the Council of 325: he compares the Church to a naval battle taking place in the middle of the night under a heavy storm, describing “the hoarse cry of those who in discord fight with each other, the incomprehensible chatting, the confusing noise of continuous uproars.”

The metaphor that Benedict XVI applies to the post-conciliar Church, forty years after the end of the Council, is then the one of a naval battle, through the darkness, in a stormy sea. But already twenty years after the closing of the Council, in his The Ratzinger Report the then Cardinal Ratzinger thought “unquestionable” that “the last twenty years” had been definitely unfavorable to the Catholic Church.

“The results that came after the Council seem to be cruelly opposed to everyone’s expectations, starting from those of John XXIII and Paul VI. Christians are again a minority, more than ever since the end of antiquity. The Pope and the Fathers of the Council expected a new catholic unity, yet we advanced instead toward a dissent that—using the words of Paul VI—seemed to go from self-criticism to self-destruction. We were expecting a new enthusiasm; instead we ended up too often in boredom and discouragement. We were expecting a leap forward, instead we found ourselves facing a progressive process of decadence that has been developing mainly under the sign of a recall to an alleged ‘spirit of the Council’ thus discrediting it.…The Church since the Council is a large construction site; but it is a building site where the design has been lost and each keeps on building according to his own taste.”

The causes of this deep crisis, according to Cardinal Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, are to be found in a bad application of the Council due to an erroneous interpretation of its documents. It is therefore a hermeneutical conflict.

“The problems of the reception originated from the fact that two opposite hermeneutics came to oppose each other and got into a confrontation. The one caused confusion, the other, silently but always more visibly, bore fruits. On one side there is an interpretation which I would call ‘hermeneutics of discontinuity and of rupture’; it could often take advantage of the support of the mass media, and also of part of modern theology. On the other side, there is the ‘hermeneutics of reformation,’ of the renewal within the continuity of the one body-Church that God gave us; it is an organism growing in time and developing, even though it remains always the same, the only body of the People of God on the way.”

We need to point out that there is a fundamental difference between the situations of crisis subsequent the Council of Nicaea and the one after the Second Vatican Council. The crisis after Nicaea did not erupt as a consequence of a hermeneutical conflict over the canons of the Council of 325, but as an open reaction to such decrees. Facing this reactionary movement, the Emperor Constantine modified his policy toward Arianism, favoring this way the expansion of the crisis. The conflict involved those who supported the Council of Nicaea and its adversaries, both radical and moderate, without ever bringing into question the meaning of the Nicene Creed.

4. “Pastoral” or “Doctrinal” Council?

The formula of the Council by the light of Tradition, or, if so preferred, of the “hermeneutic of continuity,” doubtlessly offers an authoritative indication to the faithful for clarifying the problem of the right understanding of the texts of the Council, but it leaves open a basic problem: given that the correct interpretation is the one of continuity, it remains to be understood why after the Second Vatican Council happened what had never happened after any other of the Councils in history, namely that two (or more) divergent hermeneutics stood opposite each other and, using the same words as the Pope, “fought” against each other. Furthermore, if the post-conciliar time must be interpreted in terms of “crisis,” we must ask ourselves whether an erroneous reception of the texts can influence so heavily the historic development and become a reason sufficient and proportionate to explain the extent and the depth of the crisis itself.

The existence of a plurality of hermeneutics, moreover, confirms a certain ambiguity or ambivalence of the documents. When a hermeneutical criterion external to a document must be invoked to interpret the very same document, it is obvious, indeed, that the document is not sufficiently clear per se: it needs to be interpreted and, being susceptible to interpretation, can become the object of historical and theological criticism.

The most logical development of this hermeneutical principle is the one proposed by an eminent expert of ecclesiology, Monsignor Brunero Gherardini. According to the Roman theologian, Vatican II, being a Council that defined itself as “pastoral,” lacked a “defining” doctrinal character. The fact that Vatican II cannot claim the qualification of being dogmatic, but is identified by its “pastorality,” does not mean of course that it lacks a doctrine of its own. The Second Vatican Council certainly has its own specific teaching, not lacking authority, but, as Gherardini writes, “its doctrines, irreducible to previous definitions, are neither infallible nor unchangeable, therefore neither are they binding; if anyone should deny them he would not be for this reason formally a heretic. If anyone should impose them as infallible and unchangeable, he would go against the Council itself.” If Vatican II is eminently pastoral in nature, it is licit to recognize its dogmatic quality only where it restates as truths of faith dogmas already defined in previous Councils; “instead, the doctrines proper to it can in no way be considered dogmatic because they lack the inescapable defining formality and consequently the related voluntas definiendi (will to define).” To those objecting that, in principle, there is no impediment for a pastoral Council to define dogmas, one can answer that, besides the self-proclaimed pastoral quality of the Second Vatican Council, its own acts and the standard of its documents are in any case proof that it did not want to define any dogma, since in none of them can be found unequivocally the manifestation of the will to define. Paul VI himself, at the closing of the Council, declared that, in it, “The Magisterium of the Church…did not want to make extraordinary dogmatic pronouncements,” and, in less formal occasions, he restated that the Council had as one of its goals “the one of not giving new solemn dogmatic definitions.” If a Council is to have only the authority given to it by the Pope, the pontifical statements of John XXIII and Paul VI, precedent and subsequent to the promulgation of the acts of the Council, erase any possible doubt in this regard. The “pastoral” character of the Second Vatican Council is also underlined by the school of Bologna, even if interpreted from a different viewpoint. The “pastoral” qualification of the Council lessens indeed the importance of its own acts and documents and contributes to make out of the “event” a hermeneutical canon. If we admit the “novelty” of a pastoral Council, we must recognize, with Alberigo, that “the most significant novelty of Vatican II does not reside in its formulations, but rather in the fact itself of having been convoked and celebrated.” Historian Joseph Komonchak points out that the convocation of the Council “was a surprise, a break with the normality of the Church, in a way even independent from what Pope John had in mind for the Council.” The texts promulgated of course are part of the event, but the “event” consists of a set of elements including, next to the letter of the documents, also the portrayals of it transmitted and enhanced by the media that covered the affair. Some sociologists, like Melissa Wilde and Massimo Introvigne, accept the category of “event” exactly because of the depiction given to it by the media and of the “self-description” of it that the Council Fathers already had during its progress. Also Gilles Routhier underlined how the hermeneutics of the Council cannot ignore its representation by the media and how the Council was perceived by the faithful. Catholics, who for the most part have not read the conciliar texts, have come to know the Council via the representation of it given to them by the media. Fr. John W. O’Malley goes deeper into this analysis by stating that the problem does not pertain only to the way the documents were presented, even before the end of the Council, but it touches the proper nature of the documents in regard, not to the contents, but to their form. The American Jesuit proposed the figure of Erasmus of Rotterdam as “key” to interpret Vatican II, which he defined an “Erasmian” Council. The major concordances between Erasmus and Vatican II, in terms of contents, regard the root theme of “reconciliation,” but the “most significant similarity between Erasmus and Vatican II is their language, their vocabulary, and the style of their speech.”

The “novelty” of the Council, much more than in the contents of its documents, is to be found therefore in their form, according to the indications of Gaudium et Spes and of the same John XXIII in his opening discourse: “One thing is the deposit or the truths of the faith, another is the way in which they are expressed, keeping always the same meaning and their deep sense.” The professions of Faith and Canons are replaced by a “literary genre” called by Father O’Malley “epideictic.” It was that way of writing that,” according to the Jesuit historian, “marked a definitive break with previous Councils.”

Expressing oneself in different terms than in the past means accepting a cultural transformation deeper than what it may seem. The style of speech reveals in fact, even before the ideas, the deep tendencies of the soul of the writer. “Style is the ultimate expression of the meaning, it is meaning not ornament, it is also the hermeneutical means par excellence.”

The pastoral aspect is, normally, accidental and secondary with respect to the doctrinal one, but at the moment it becomes a substantial and primary dimension, the way in which the doctrine is formulated becomes itself doctrine, more important than the one that, objectively, it expresses.

The leaders of the Council, continues O’Malley, “were well aware that Vatican II, by proclaiming itself a pastoral Council, for this very reason was also a teaching Council….The conversational style of the Council was the means, but the means forwarded the message....This means that Vatican II, the ‘pastoral Council,’ has a teaching, a ‘doctrine,’ that has been for us for the most part difficult to formulate, as in this case doctrine and spirit are the two faces of the same coin.” The choice of a language “style” for speaking to one’s contemporaries reveals a certain way of being and thinking; in this sense we have to admit that the literary genre and the pastoral style of Vatican II not only express the organic unity of the event, but implicitly carry forward a coherent doctrine.

Under this aspect the Council undoubtedly marked a deep change in the life of the Church. The contemporaries sensed its epoch-making character. “They were talking,” Komomchak recalls, “of a historical turning point; the end of the counter reformation or of the Tridentine era, the end of the Middle Ages, the end of the Constantinian era.” “Simply,” points out Melissa Wilde, “Vatican II represents the most significant example of institutionalized religious change since the Reformation.”

5. Primacy of the Praxis and Reform of the Church

Like every “event,” Vatican II must be considered within the historical setting in which it took place: the Sixties, which were the years when the so-called “real socialism”—that is communism in power—reached the vertex of its historical parabola. The intellectual influence of Marxism, as it was presented in those years, was strong in all circles, including the Catholic ones. It is not difficult to catch in the “supremacy of the pastoral view” that came through during the years of the Council, the theological transposition of the “supremacy of the praxis” stated by Marx in his Thesis on Feuerbach, with these words: “It is in the praxis that man must show the truth, that is to say the reality and the power, the practical nature of his thought,” and “philosophers only interpreted the world in different ways; but now is the time to change it.” The praxis, that is the historical result of political action, according to Marx, is the supreme criterion of the truth of ideas, because action implicitly includes a doctrine, even without stating it.

The gloss of Marx on Feuerbach, according to which philosophers do not need to know the world but need to transform it, could be paraphrased by a conciliar gloss according to which the duty of pastors and theologians is not to understand and pass on the doctrine of the Church, but to transform history through it. “Since the end of the first session,” writes Cardinal Agostino Bea, “I have repeatedly affirmed that the fruits of the Council are to be found principally, rather than in the texts on paper, within the experiences made by the participants and, by consequence, also by the Christian people who followed the Council. This is especially true in the ecumenical field.” Liberation theology carried out this principle to its extreme consequences.

During the post-Council, the historical praxis became a “locus theologicus,” according to which, “theology is not to be qualified as a pure science, but always as a moment of a historical process.” The connection truth-history was reformulated by underlining the historical dimension of theology, which took into itself the historical praxis under the form of “critical theory of the Christian and ecclesiastical praxis.” The theology of praxis was postulated as “the coherent application of the theology of the signs of the times (ST) as outlined by the Council above all in the pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes (GS).” The “Ortho-praxis” became the criterion of verification of theology, judged according to its capability to change historically the world. “The theology that came to be developed in the reception of Vatican II is therefore characterized by its peculiar historicism,” writes Msgr. Bruno Forte, echoing the Manifesto of Le Saulchoir according to which “the theologian does not have and cannot have any hope of meeting his datum outside of history….” It is in this perspective that we must read key words of the times of the Council such as “pastoral,” “aggiornamento (updating),” “signs of the times.”

The formula of the “aggiornamento,” according to which men do not have to conform to the sacred teachings, but the latter must conform to men, according to O’Malley, inverts the axiom of Cardinal Egidio da Viterbo in his opening talk of the Lateran Council V (1512): “Homines per sacra immutari fas est, non sacra per homine [The law is that men should change according to the sacred things, not the sacred things to men—Note the misprint in the original].” “No previous council has ever used the equivalent of aggiornamento as a leitmotiv, as a general principle rather than a rare exception, with the consequence that from certain standpoints the Church should be the one to change to meet the times, not the times to meet the Church.”

The pastoral dimension thus becomes a hermeneutical key to recognize the “historicity of the Church” and to interpret Christian truth historically. Coherent with this perspective, Giuseppe Alberigo, who wanted to make the school of Bologna the continuation of the one of Le Saulchoir, in his History of Vatican II does not limit himself to writing a historical work: he entrusts to history the task of the “ecclesiological reform” hoped for by the “nouvelle théologie” [the new theology] and, before then, by modernism.

6. “Rewriting” the History of the Council

From our standpoint, our purpose is to distinguish accurately between the theological dimension of the documents and the one more strictly “factual,” related to historical occurrences. Distinction does not mean, of course, “separation.” Every historian of the Church carries in his work the background of a theological and ecclesiological point of view and, even before this, of his own “theology of history.” Rather, I would say that the historical reconstruction of the conciliar “iter [course]” of the Council is indispensable to understanding the sense and the meaning of those documents of the Church that theologians help us to read in their theological dimension. The theologian reads the documents in their doctrinal significance and discusses them. The historian pieces together the events, even without limiting himself to the mere factual dimension, but catches the events at their roots and their cultural and ideal consequences. The task of the historian is not to unscramble the past, nor to re-compose it as a chronological sequence, but to catch the orientation of the process and its binding connections in order to achieve an “integral” comprehension of the events.

The hermeneutics of continuity rightly reaffirms the primacy of the Magisterium but runs the risk of eliminating, not only a wrong theological point of view, but also the event itself under discussion. The consequence of this work of removal of the event is that today no serious alternative exists to the school of Bologna, to which we must recognize the merit of offering a first reconstruction, even though biased, of the facts of the event.

According to many supporters of the hermeneutics of continuity, the historical elimination of the conciliar “event” is necessary in order to separate the Council from the post-Council and to isolate the latter as a pathology developed on a healthy body.

We must ask nonetheless if by erasing the Council-event we will be able eventually to comprehend in depth what happened in the post-Council. The Second Vatican Council was, indeed, an event that did not end with its solemn final session, but solidified with its application and historical reception. Something happened after the Council as a coherent consequence of it. In this sense we cannot confute Alberigo when he affirms that the reconstruction of what happened between January 25th, 1959, and December 8th, 1965, constitutes a necessary premise for a serious reflection on Vatican II. The history of the Council, therefore, must be rewritten, or at least completed. It is in this spirit that I propose a history of the Council “never written,” not so much for the novelty of the accounts and episodes emerging from it, but more for the new reconstruction and interpretation of the facts that is thereby offered. The true historian is not the researcher who “digs up” new documents, nor the “reporter” who bundles up the ones already known, but the one who, on the base of the published or unpublished documentation available to him, is able to put it in order, to understand it, to narrate it, by framing the facts in a philosophy of history which is, for the Catholic historian, first of all a theology of history.

The following pages are dedicated to the reconstruction of the “fact” without aspiring to create an artificial dichotomy between the documents and the event, but rather trying to show the impossibility of separating the doctrine from the facts that generate it. This is not therefore a work of theological reflection, but of historical narration, written in the spirit with which Cardinal Sforza Pallavicino faced the Council of Trent: “The most sublime among human things is Religion,” he wrote, “through which we deal with Heaven, we gain Heaven. Therefore those stories that have Religion as subject are as much above the others in the matter as the sky is above the earth.”

Translation of a book review posted on the website Intra multiplices Una Vox (