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Benedict XVI Is to Reinterpret the Second Vatican Council

Sandro Magister

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Editor's note: The Roman Catholic view of the Early Church Councils differs from the Orthodox view in fundamental ways (the notion of developing doctrine is not found in Orthodoxy; the Orthodox don't recognize Roman councils like Vatican I or II as universal, for example). Nevertheless, the article is valuable for its clear explication of the Roman view and self-understanding, as well as its indications on upcoming changes in concerning Vatican II.

Forty years after the event, the president of the Pontifical Committee for Historic Sciences, Walter Brandmüller, clears up some historical issues. On December 8th, the Pope will give his assessment.

ROMA, December 5 2005 -- Benedict XVI's homily during the December 8th mass in Saint Peter's, exactly forty years after the end of the Second Vatican Council, is eagerly awaited.

There are conflicting interpretations within the Church of this event and its consequences. One wide-spread idea is that Vatican II marked a "new beginning" in Church history, and that thanks to it -- its "spirit" more than the words of its actual texts -- the dogmas, laws, structures and traditions of the Church entered a phase of permanent reform. However, Joseph Ratzinger has shown on a number of occasions that he does not share this reading of the facts. And so has -- amongst others -- his cardinal vicar for the diocese of Rome, Camillo Ruini.

Only last June Ruini declared: "It is time for history to produce a new reconstruction of Vatican II -- one that finally tells a true story".

The target of the cardinal's criticisms was the account of Vatican II produced by the "Bologna school" with the help of an international team. This version was translated into a number of languages and was widely read on all continents, but was judged by Ruini and Ratzinger himself to be "extremely weak and lacking any real consensus in the body of the church".

However, it is not expected that Benedict XVI's homily on December 8th will address the issue from a historic point-of-view.

This perspective was already covered several days ago in a short but dense writ by the president of the Pontifical Committee for Historic Sciences, the current pope's fellow countryman monsignor Walter Brandmüller.

Published in the November 29th issue of the Italian bishops' conference's daily newspaper "Avvenire", Brandmüller's article underlines the "totally unprecedented" elements which distinguish Vatican II from other Councils coming before it.

He highlights the "very different level of obligation" of its documents, and its "fear of passing doctrinal condemnations and dogmatic definitions".

He explains how a schism like that of Lefebvre could have stemmed from the Council, and why some people called for a new Council only shortly after this one's conclusion.

But more than this, Brandmüller demonstrates the lack of historic -- as well as theological -- justification in interpreting Vatican II as -- in the worlds of Ratzinger -- "a totally new beginning, as though this were the superdogma that makes everything else irrelevant".

In addition to being president of the pontifical Committee for Historic Sciences since 1998, and professor emeritus of the University of Augsburg, Brandmüller is also the editor of "Annuarium Historiae Conciliorum", the most influential international scientific magazine on the history of Councils, which he founded in 1969 with Remigius Bäumer, and runs the publishing group "Konziliengeschichte".

Below is his article as it appeared in "Avvenire" on November 29th 2005. It is the perfect preface to what Benedict XVI will say in his homily on December 8th.

Vatican II in the History of Church Councils

Walter Brandmüller

The II Vatican Council (1962-1965) was the Council of superlatives. Never before in the history of the Church had a Council been prepared with such intensity. Of course, Vatican I (1868-1870) was well-prepared, and the theological quality of its plans was actually better. But the number of proposals and inputs sent in from around the world, and their incorporation in Vatican II, exceeded anything previously seen.

Vatican II gave visible proof of being the Council of superlatives even simply with the enormous number of 2,440 bishops who entered Saint Peter's basilica. While Vatican I, with its 642 fathers, had found room in the right transept of the basilica, this time the Council's meeting hall was the entire central nave. In less than one century, the Church had become truly global. Never before had it happened, as it did in 1962, that one thousand journalists from all over the world had registered for the Council. Thus Vatican II also became the best-known Council of all times, becoming a first-rate global media event. Finally, of the 1,135 pages which cover the decrees of all twenty ecumenical Councils, Vatican II in itself takes up 315, well over one quarter.

Other distinguishing attributes of this Council are less obvious. Councils fulfill supreme magisterial, legislative and judicial functions "under and with the pope", who holds these duties even without the Council. However, not all Councils exercise all of these powers. While the first Council of Lyons (1245) formulated laws and acted as a court, with the excommunication and deposition of emperor Frederick II, Vatican I did not pronounce judgments or codify laws, instead concentrating exclusively on issues of doctrine. The Council of Vienne (1311-1312), on the other hand, judged, passed laws and made decisions of faith issues, as did the 15th-century Councils.

By contrast, Vatican II did not pass sentences, nor pass laws, nor did it deliberate in any definite way on questions of faith. It really became a new type of Council -- a "pastoral" Council with the purpose of bringing the Bible and the modern world closer together.

Specifically, it did not express doctrinal condemnations, as John XXIII emphasized in his opening speech: "The Church has always opposed heresy, and has often condemned it very harshly," while this time "the Church prefers to make use of the healing powers of pardon," because "it believes this to be better suited to the needs of this era, and because it prefers to show the validity of its doctrines rather than expressing condemnation." Nevertheless, with historic hindsight it is clear that Vatican II would have been wiser to follow the lead of Pius XII, finding the courage to expressly condemn communism.

The fear to pronounce doctrinal condemnations and dogmatic definitions actually led to wide contradictions amongst the texts produced in the Council. Thus the dogmatic constitution "Lumen Gentium" on the Church and "Dei Verbum" on divine revelations have all the characteristics and style of doctrinal documents, but without any concrete definitions. And according to the canon law expert Klaus Mörsdorf, the declaration "Dignitis Humanae" on religious freedom "takes a position without having a clear legal standpoint". The documents of Vatican II therefore have a very different level of obligation, and this too is a new feature in Council history.

Comparing II Vatican Council with the first Council of Nicaea (325), the Council of Trent (1545-1563) and Vatican I, and bearing in mind their respective consequences, it becomes clear that a schism took place after both Vatican Councils. First, in 1871, there were the "old Catholics" protesting against the definitions of the primacy and the infallibility of the pope; then in 1988 there were Archbishop Lefebvre and his supporters. As ideologically opposed as these two movements appear, they both represent the rejection of legitimate developments in the doctrine and life of the Church -- a rejection based on a distorted relationship with history. After the Nicaean Council began religious battles that were to grow in bitterness and violence for over a century until the Nicaean doctrine was imposed at the Council of Chalcedon (451). This comparison can also be drawn with the Council of Trent, which produced an extraordinary growth spurt in the missionary, religious and cultural life of those parts of Europe that had remained Catholic -- the "miracle of Trent" of which Hubert Jedin spoke. This growth did not come suddenly, however: after the Council ended, more than a century passed before its dogmatic and reforming decrees would show results on a significant scale.

Practically every Council, including Vatican II, has unique elements in its structure, development and content; what they all have in common is the collegial wielding of supreme doctrinal and pastoral authority. From the content perspective it is the presentation, interpretation and application of traditions to which each Council makes its specific contribution. This obviously does not mean an addition of new content to the faith of the Church, nor an elimination of doctrine that until that point was fundamental. Rather, it s a process of development, clarification and distinction, which takes place with the help of the Holy Spirit. Through this process every Council with its definitive doctrinal announcement takes its place as an integral part of the greater tradition of the Church. This is why Councils always look forwards, to a doctrinal announcement that is wider, clearer and more in touch with the times, and never backwards. A Council cannot contradict its predecessors; it can only integrate, clarify and move forwards. The situation is different when the Council is a legislative organ: legislation can and must always fit into the concrete needs of a given historical situation, and so -- always within the framework set by the faith, it is subject to change.

All of this also applies to Vatican II. It is no more or less than a Council amongst many others, next to and after others, not above or beyond them but within the series of general Councils of the Church. This is based on the concept that at the heart of the Counciliar institution is the essence of tradition. This genuinely Catholic concept is reflected in this definition from the II Nicaean Council (787): "Since this is the way things are, we have in a certain way chosen the higher road and followed the doctrines of our fathers, inspired by God and the traditions of the Catholic Church, which as we know has its origins in the Holy Spirit which lives within it". The last of this Council's four condemnations is particularly important: "Anyone who rejects the entire ecclesiastic tradition, be it written or not, shall be excommunicated".

Vatican II is no different in recognizing its place within the foundations of tradition. The number of references to tradition in Vatican II texts is noteworthy. The Council widely embraced tradition, quoting previous Councils and especially the Council of Florence (1439-1442), Trent and Vatican I, the encyclicals of numerous popes, the Church Fathers and great theologians, first and foremost Thomas Aquinas.

Speaking with Chilean bishops in Santiago in 1988, cardinal Joseph Ratzinger spoke of an "obscure singling out of Vatican II", saying:

"Some descriptions give the impression that everything was different after Vatican II, and that nothing that came before it could still be considered relevant, or could be relevant only in the light of Vatican II. Vatican II is not treated as a part of the greater living tradition of the Church, but as a totally new beginning. Even though it did not issue a single dogma and wanted to be considered a humble pastoral Council, some recount it as though it had been a kind of superdogma which makes everything else irrelevant". But "we can render Vatican II worthy of more faith if we call it what it was: a part of the single and whole tradition of the Church and its faith".

In the years after the Council it was en vogue to compare the Church to a building site on which there were demolitions, new constructions and reconstructions. Very often in sermons, God's order to Abraham to leave his country was interpreted as an exhortation to the Church to abandon its past and traditions.

On the contrary: it must be clearly stated that trying to interpret II Vatican Council outside of tradition would go against the essence of faith. It is tradition, not the spirit of the times, which defines the scope of its interpretation. Of course the situation of the times must be considered -- there are current problems which need answers. But these can only come from divine revelation, through the Church. This tradition represents the criterion against which any new answer must be conformed, if it is to be true and valid.

Against this backdrop, the fashionable distinction between "pre-Vatican II" and "post-Vatican II" is of dubitable theological and historic basis. A Council is never a point of origin or destination against which the history of the Church or salvation can be measured. A Council is a link in a chain, the end of which no one knows except the Lord of the Church and of history. A Council can never break the continuity in the actions of the Spirit.

Continuity implies continuation. So will there be a Vatican III? It comes as no surprise that a request for this has been put forward -- actually from opposing sides.

Some believe that a new Council should meet to finally carry out the democratization of the Church, allowing those who after a failed marriage find a new partner access to the sacraments, opening the door to marriage for priests and female clergy, and bringing about the reunification of divided Christians.

Others think that the confusion and crises of the tumultuous post-Vatican II period necessitate urgently a Vatican II to reestablish order and provide guidance.

One thing is certain: this possible new Council -- perhaps in Nairobi or Moscow, Nairobean or Muscovite -- would find its place within the framework of tradition and would be just one part in this venerable series.

Vatican II was neither the beginning nor the end of Council history, and we have to grasp this before we can speak of the future.

Read the entire article on the Chiesa website (new window will open).

Posted: 09-Dec-05



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