March 2013 Print

Continuity or Discontinuity?

By Roberto de Mattei

The time has come, perhaps, to step outside the hermeneutical box in which Vatican II specialists have been confined. All who approach the historiographical discussion of the Council by highlighting, albeit from different viewpoints, the elements of its objective deviations from the preceding era are hastily labeled partisans of the “hermeneutic of discontinuity,” in opposition to the magisterium of Benedict XVI and his predecessors. Such, for example, is Msgr. Agostino Marchetto’s chief criterion of judgment in his recent book Il Concilio Ecumenico Vaticano II: Per la sua corretta ermeneutica,1 as it had been in his previous study, Il Concilio Ecumenico Vaticano II: Contrapunto per la sua storia.2

In these two books, Msgr. Marchetto does the work, not so much of an historian, but of a reviewer scrutinizing everything that has been published over the last decade about Vatican II. This is not necessarily a limitation. The limitation is his resorting to accusations of “discontinuism” against the reviewed authors, thereby hiding behind a presumed teaching authority on the subject in order to conceal the substantive weakness of his argumentation. But Benedict XVI in his speech to the Roman Curia of December 22, 2005, stated that the hermeneutic of discontinuity is not in opposition to a simple hermeneutic of continuity, but to a “hermeneutic of reform” the very nature of which consists in “this combination of continuity and discontinuity at different levels.” It may well be that acknowledgment of the existence of different levels of continuity and discontinuity should henceforth be the starting point.

The continuity or discontinuity of Vatican II in relation to the Church as it was before can be considered under two aspects: (1) the historical and human dimension of the Church, and (2) its ontological dimension, which is expressed by the immutability of its Tradition. It is a distinction that corresponds to the twofold nature of the Church, human and divine, and which makes for a much richer and more nuanced discussion than Msgr. Marchetto and other authors would like. The first level of study belongs to the historian, whose criterion of truth consists in the verification and evaluation of facts. The second level belongs to the theologian, the pastor, and in the last instance the Sovereign Pontiff, supreme guardian of the truths of faith and morals. It involves two distinct levels, yet linked and interdependent, as are soul and body in the human being. But it is only after the historical reconstruction, and not before, that the pastors may step in to formulate their theological and moral judgments.

The two levels, historical and hermeneutical, cannot be conflated, unless one were to concede that history coincides with its interpretation. This means that the Second Vatican Council must be studied not only on the theological level, but first of all on the historical level as an event. The theologian brings his mind to bear on the documents; the historian, without neglecting the texts, focuses his attention in particular on their origin, their consequences, and their context. The historian and the theologian both seek the truth, which is the same, but they reach it by different, not opposite, paths.

Historical Work

It seems that Cardinal Ruini entrusted Msgr. Marchetto the duty of opposing the historical work of ultra-progressive stripe coming from Giuseppe Alberigo and his “Bologna School.” But in order to counter Alberigo’s and fellow-scholars’ tendentious history it is not enough simply to assert that the conciliar documents have to be read as being in continuity with, and not as breaking off from, Tradition. For instance, when in 1619 Paolo Sarpi wrote a heterodox history of the Council of Trent, he wasn’t challenged with the dogmatic canons of Trent, but with a different history, the famous history of the Council of Trent written at the behest of Pope Innocent X by Cardinal Pietro Sforza Pallavicino (1656-1657). History is challenged with history, not theology. That is why Msgr. Marchetto’s criticism of my own study, Il Concilio Vaticano II: Una storia mai scritta3 missed the mark. I am in fact neither a “discontinuist,” as Marchetto insists on repeating, nor a “continuist,” because I judge this label to be as unmeaningful as the first.

I am simply an historian who intends to tell truthfully and objectively what happened, not only during the three years the Council was held, from October 11, 1962, to December 8, 1965, but also during the years preceding it and immediately following it, the so-called postcouncil. I take as my own the wish Cardinal Ruini expressed on June 22, 2005, concerning Msgr. Marchetto’s endeavor (“It is about time historiography produced a new reconstruction of Vatican II that is also, finally, a factual history”), but I do believe that it is counterproductive to hide historical truth behind the veil of a “hermeneutic of continuity” poorly understood. My reading of the Council diverges radically from that which the School of Bologna historian Giuseppe Ruggieri proposes in his recent work Ritrovare il Concilio [Recovering the Council] (Einaudi, 2012), but I cannot disagree with him when he affirms that the duty of the historian consists in “knowing from the primary sources what really happened and understanding the import of what really happened,” and when he explains why the Second Vatican Council cannot be equated with its decisions (pp. 7-11).

I have already had occasion to write as much: Councils can promulgate dogmas, truths, canons, which emanate from the Council but which are not the Council. The Council is distinct from its decisions which, only when they are promulgated infallibly, become an integral part of Tradition (Apologia della Tradizione: Proscritto a Il Concilio Vaticano II, una Storia mai scritta). How can it be denied that Vatican II has a “specificity” in relation to other historical events, and that it constituted in many respects a “revolution”? Testimonials to that effect were expressed on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Council and reported by Avvenire, as well as that of the Canadian sociologist Charles Taylor, who remembered the event with these words: “It was like the fall of Jericho” (Avvenire, July 26, 2012).

Pastoral Dimension

The chief novelty of Vatican II was its pastoral nature. Cardinal Walter Brandmüller gave a good explanation of it. Councils, beneath and together with the Pope, exercise the solemn teaching authority in matters of faith and morals, and they stand as supreme judges and legislators in matters of law and discipline in the Church; but Vatican II, unlike previous Councils, “did not exercise jurisdiction, nor legislate, nor deliberate about questions of faith in a definitive manner. It was rather a new kind of council insofar as it defined itself as a pastoral council intending to explain to the contemporary world the doctrine and teaching of the Gospel in a more appealing and instructive way. In particular, it pronounced no anathemas....On the contrary, the fear of uttering both doctrinal censures and dogmatic definitions resulted in the emergence from the Council of statements of which the degree of authority and hence the binding character were extremely varied....The conciliar documents command different levels of acceptance by Catholics. This is also something completely new in the history of the Councils.”4 The studies of Msgr. Brunero Gherardini remain the fundamental reference point for an evaluation of the degree of assent required by its teachings characterized as pastoral—a surprising characteristic, for in the twenty preceding ecumenical councils, the form has always been doctrinal and normative. As Enrico Maria Radaelli observed in his thorough study of the language of Vatican II, “doctrinal definition”5 is the “natural form of the Church’s language.”6

Pastorality was not only a “fact,” that is to say, the natural explanation of the dogmatic content of the Council adapted to its time, since that had always been the case. Neither Vatican Council I nor the Council of Trent was devoid of a pastoral dimension. “Pastorality” was, on the other hand, elevated to the level of an alternative principle to “dogmatism,” implying a priority of the former over the latter. The pastoral dimension, of itself accidental and secondary in relation to the doctrinal dimension, became primary in fact, effecting a revolution in language and mentality. An author not belonging to the School of Bologna, Fr. John O’Malley of Georgetown University, defined Vatican II as a “language-event,” explaining that in place of professions of faith and canons was substituted a “literary genre” he identifies as “panegyric-epideictic,” that is, the “art of persuasion.”7

The Church discarded its dogmatic habit in order to don a new pastoral, persuasive one, no longer binding and defining. But expressing oneself with a different vocabulary from that of the past means accomplishing a deeper cultural transformation than is apparent. Style of discourse and the way in which things are presented in fact reveal a way of being and thinking: “Style,” O’Malley reminds us, “is the ultimate expression of meaning. It does not adorn meaning but is meaning.”8 One might add that revolution in language does not only consist in changing the meanings of words, but also in omitting certain terms and notions. Numerous examples could be given: the assertion that hell is empty, which the Council did not do, is certainly a rash, if not heretical, proposition. Omitting or limiting as much as possible any reference to hell as the Council did avoids the formulation of any erroneous statements, but constitutes an omission that paves the way for an error worse than an empty hell: the idea that hell does not exist because no one talks about it. When something is ignored, it is as if it did not exist. But this language did not prove to be adapted for effectively expressing the religious and moral message of the gospel. By declining to teach the whole truth with authority, the Church has also declined to choose between yes and no, between black and white, thereby opening up broad zones of ambiguity.

It is not by chance that the chief characteristic of the conciliar documents is ambiguity. Romano Amerio was the first to spotlight the “amphibological” character of the conciliar texts, that is, their fundamental ambiguity, which enables them to be read either in continuity or discontinuity with previous Tradition. An ambiguous document can be explained in the sense of continuity, as Benedict XVI strives to do, or in the sense of discontinuity, as the progressive theologians do, but it never has the limpidity and clarity possessed by the great Council documents from Nicaea to Vatican I, to which one can refer without error.

According to the School of Bologna, the pastoral dimension must be considered as a doctrinal novelty implicit in the opening speech of John XXIII who presented the Council as “a step forward toward a doctrinal penetration and a formation of consciousness.” Ruggieri declared that it was question of a “new doctrinal orientation consisting especially in the reinterpretation of the vital substance of the Gospel in the language required by the present history of men and women....” The apparently merely verbal rupture was in reality, according to the Bolognese, a doctrinal rupture, because for them the way one speaks and acts is doctrine becoming praxis. How can we not see in this conviction, which was then that of Dossetti, and which is the conviction today of his successors through Alberigo, the transcription within the bosom of the Church of the Gramscian category of praxis in fashion during the 1960s?

Praxis was the way the Church related to the world; and the Church in fact changed over the years, abandoning, for example, ...the Latin language, a style of preaching based on apologetics, and its definitional, juridical style.9 Vatican II did not deliberate in an explicit, solemn manner about their suppression, and yet the wind from the Council swept away these three pillars of Catholic communication, replacing them with a new way of expression and of speaking to the faithful. Once the primacy of praxis was accepted, then came adoption of modern communications methods as veritable ecclesiastical categories.

The adoption of the language of communication proper to the world compelled the Church to submit to its rules. This explains the role of the “paracouncil,” to which responsibility was assigned for consequences that resulted from the conciliar event itself.10 The error of the School of Bologna is not to highlight the scope of the pastoral revolution, which “continuist” theologians and historians try to minimize, but to present it as a “new Pentecost” for the Church while passing over in silence its catastrophic results. Their error does not lie in their historical reconstruction, generally correct, but in the pretention, typical of modernist immanentism, to make of history a theological locus.

“Listening to the Word of God” becomes for them listening to the Word being revealed in historical becoming. For Ruggieri, the truest expression of this historical hermeneutic would be the Constitution Dei Verbum, while in its introduction and No. 2, “it does not separate revelation from the event of its being heard, and thus introduces history itself as a constitutive element of the auto-communication.” The most direct expression of this historical hermeneutic is certainly Gaudium et Spes, for in the drafting of this constitution the fundamental orientation was that of an appreciative look at history as the place in which the call of God actually occurs, an explicit recognition that “the Church herself knows how richly she has profited by the history and development of humanity” (GS, 44).

The road to be taken is not the one indicated by Giuseppe Ruggieri, nor that indicated by Msgr. Marchetto, but by a return to the grand historiographical tradition of the Church. Contemporary Biblical hermeneutics postulates the utilization of the historical-critical discipline for the analysis of the human dimension of Sacred Scripture, and for bringing out its truths above and beyond simple apologetics. But if, as contemporary exegetes affirm, the royal road to studying Sacred Scripture is the historical-critical method, it is hard to understand why the same type of study should not be applied to an historical event like Vatican II. One is amazed to see on the one hand the attempt to demythologize Scripture pursued to the point of denying central dogmas of the Catholic faith, and on the other the attempt to divinize Vatican II by making it a “superdogma” that admits of no critique nor revision of any kind.

In 2012, Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, president emeritus of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences, sponsored a few study seminars on Vatican II, assembling specialists of differing perspectives. These sessions were a good opportunity to remove from Vatican II the veil of “untouchability” that has prevented serious inquiry, and made of it the object of a calm analysis aiming to place it within the context of Church history, not as the first nor the last, but as the twenty-first ecumenical council of the Church. It is to be wished that the Year of Faith inaugurated by Benedict XVI will contribute to this work of historical revisionism, so important for understanding the causes of the contemporary moral and religious crisis.

Translated from the Courrier de Rome, November 2012, version of an article first published in Il Foglio, October 9, 2012.

1 The Second Vatican Ecumenical Council: For a Correct Interpretation (Rome: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2012).

2 The Second Vatican Ecumenical Council: A Counterpoint for the History of the Council (Rome: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2005).

3 Lindau, 2011. The English translation has been published: The Second Vatican Council (an unwritten story), tr. Patrick T. Brannan et al., ed. Michael J. Miller (Loreto Publications, 2012).

4 Walter Cardinal Brandmüller, “Il Vaticano II nel contesto della storia conciliare [Vatican II in the Context of the History of the Ecumenical Councils]” in Le ‘chiavi’ di Benedetto XVI per interpretare il Vaticano II [Pope Benedict XVI’s Keys for Interpreting Vatican II] (Siena: Cantagalli, 2012), pp. 54-55. 

5 “la forme définitoire.”

6 Il domani–terribile o radioso–del dogma [The Tomorrows–Terrible or Radiant–of Dogma] (Edizione Aurea Domus, 2013).

7 John W. O’Malley, What Happened at Vatican II? (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008), pp. 47-52.

8 Ibid., p. 49.

9 La Bella addormentata: Perché dopo il Vaticano II la Chiesa è entrata in crisi, Perchè si risveglierà [Sleeping Beauty: Why the Church Fell into a Crisis after Vatican II and Why She’ll Wake Up].

10 Don Enrico Finotti, Vaticano II 50 anni dopo [Vatican II fifty years later] (Fede & Cultura, 2012), pp. 81-104.