On the interpretation of Vatican II The hermeneutic of reform, a task for theology
For a number of years, the hermeneutic of Vatican Council II did not seem to be a problem. Everyone was fully in agreement in saying that Vatican II introduced a novelty into the Catholic tradition, at least into the recent tradition: a novelty of style and a novelty on the level of the content of the teaching of the Church. [...]
So there was only one point of contention: could the Council be considered the surpassing of the historical experience of Catholicism of the Counter-Reformation that had marked the modern West? In other words, was the emergence of a new historical figure of Catholicism permissible and thinkable?
The answers to this question differed radically. For the traditionalists, [...] the teaching of Vatican II, in their view, broke with tradition, and therefore it had to be opposed with unflagging fidelity to the forms that Catholicism had known in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. [...]
It is in this way, for example, that the liturgical reform is interpreted in the letter that accompanies the "Brief critical examination of the Novus Ordo Missae" addressed to Paul VI by cardinals Ottaviani and Bacci on September 25, 1969. In this document, it is observed that "the new Ordo Missae, if the new elements are considered, distances itself in an astonishing way, on the whole as in the details, from the theology of the holy Mass as it was formulated in the 20th session of the Council of Trent . . ." [...]
The idea that Vatican II appears as a rupture in tradition is a leitmotif in traditionalist literature. [...] It is clearly found in a text by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre dated November 21, 1974, a text of rare violence, published just a few days after the apostolic visit ordered by the commission of cardinals instituted by Paul VI to deal with the problem posed by the Society of Saint Pius X, a text that foreshadows the first rupture, represented by the suspension a divinis that would take place on July 22, 1976. [...]
FROM RUPTURE TO CONTINUITY
The hermeneutic of rupture practiced widely in the traditionalist camp, beginning above all in 1974 and in an even more radical way after 1976, nonetheless had to be reconsidered by Archbishop Lefebvre himself.
In effect, shortly after the inauguration of the pontificate of John Paul II, hoping in the possibility of an agreement with the new pope, who seemed to him to express a judgment on communism similar to his own, Lefebvre made new overtures toward the Vatican.
The contacts began just a month after the election of the new pope on October 16, 1978. He was already receiving Archbishop Lefebvre on November 18. [...] The first phase of negotiations lasted from November 30, 1978, to February 19, 1981. [...] It culminated with a proposed draft agreement sent by Archbishop Lefebvre to John Paul II on October 16, 1980, and the rejection of this draft in its initial form. In the draft, Archbishop Lefebvre wrote that he was willing to accept "the Council in the light of tradition."
As far as I know, this was the very first attempt at compromise on the part of traditionalists that was based on a hermeneutical approach radically different from the one they had practiced until then with regard to the Council. [...]
In effect, from Vatican II on, Archbishop Lefebvre had made efforts to demonstrate that the teaching of Vatican II was in rupture with tradition. After that, however, he would want to demonstrate that, interpreted "in the light of the whole of holy tradition," it does not represent any novelty. In this case, it is no longer the Council that interprets the previous pontifical documents, their level of authority being lower, but it is these documents that interpret the Council and determine the impact of its teaching. [...]
BUT THERE ARE SOME WHO OPT FOR THE "SEDE VACANTE"
Archbishop Lefebvre's openness to discussions with the Vatican created turmoil within the traditionalist group, which was full of strong tension at the time. [...] The strategy of dialogue and reconciliation elaborated by Archbishop Lefebvre and based on a new hermeneutical approach to the Council, a hermeneutic of continuity understood in his way, [...] could not be accepted by the most radical, like the Dominican Michel Louis Guérard des Lauriers, formerly a professor at the Lateran and one of the main architects of the "Brief critical examination of the Novus Ordo Missae" addressed to Paul VI by the cardinals Ottaviani and Bacci, who, until then, had been closely connected to Archbishop Lefebvre.
During this period of negotiation between Rome and Archbishop Lefebvre, des Lauriers formulated for the first time the "sedevacantist" thesis that was destined for a prolific future. Consecrated bishop in 1981 by the former archbishop of Hué, in such a way as to ensure the continuity of apostolic succession, he sketched out in an interview the line of demarcation between himself and Archbishop Lefebvre. For the sedevacantists, the Council and the post-conciliar reforms must continue to be interpreted as acts of rupture with respect to tradition, following a strict hermeneutic of discontinuity. For them, in effect, the rupture is clear in that, according to their thesis, beginning with the election of Roncalli the popes have been devoid of papal authority, because they are popes only "materialiter," and not "formaliter." For them – as for the U.S.-based movement "True Catholic Church," which organized a new conclave in 1998, electing Earl Pulvermacher, a former disciple of Archbishop Lefebvre, with the name of Pius XIII – since Vatican II there has been a new Church, a modernist Church, which is no longer in line with the tradition and the apostolic succession.
RATZINGER TAKES THE FIELD
If persons close to Archbishop Lefebvre continued on the path of interpreting the Council as a moment of rupture, he however, as we have seen, maintained during this period an ambivalence, on the one hand rejecting Vatican II, [...] but on the other hand hoping in a reconciliation, the condition of which was the acceptance of the Council in the light of tradition, understood in his way.
A second phase of negotiations took place between 1981 and 1987, and in charge of it was the new prefect of the congregation for the doctrine of the faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. [...]
In the first letter he sent to Archbishop Lefebvre, dated December 23, 1982, Cardinal Ratzinger told him that the pope was ready to appoint an apostolic visitor for the Society of Saint Pius X, on the condition that he sign a four-point declaration.
The first point concerns the interpretation of Vatican II. The congregation for the doctrine of the faith submitted to Archbishop Lefebvre a detailed text, which, "having been long studied by the Apostolic See," could not be an object of modifications on the part of Archbishop Lefebvre. [...]
In its essential part, the text reproduced the "Declaratio" proposed by Archbishop Lefebvre two years earlier. [...] But in his response, sent to Pope John Paul II on April 5, 1983, Lefebvre refused to sign the declaration. [...] In addition to demanding the reform of the new "Ordo Missae," in such a way as to make it consistent with Catholic doctrine, and calling for permission to celebrate the Mass according to the liturgical books promulgated by John XXIII in 1962, it asked for "a reform of the statements or expressions of the Council that are contrary to the official magisterium of the Church, especially in the declaration on religious freedom, in the declaration on the Church and the world, in the decree on the non-Christian religions, etc."
Here one sees in an even more explicit way what Archbishop Lefebvre means by the interpretation of Vatican II in the light of tradition: it is the pontifical teaching of past centuries that must correct conciliar doctrine.
This position, which he would maintain until the rupture that took place in 1988, could not be accepted by Rome. In his response of July 20, 1983, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote: [...]
"With regard to liturgical questions, it must be noted that – as a function of the different levels of authority of the conciliar texts – the criticism of some of their expressions, composed according to the general rules of adherence to the magisterium, is not ruled out. In the same way, you can express the desire for a declaration or explanatory treatment of this or that point.
"But you cannot affirm the incompatibility of the conciliar texts – which are magisterial texts – with the magisterium and tradition. It is possible for you to say that personally you do not see the compatibility, and therefore ask the Apostolic See for explanations. But if, on the contrary, you affirm the impossibility of such explanations, you profoundly oppose the fundamental structure of the Catholic faith, that obedience and humility of the ecclesiastical faith to which you refer at the end of your letter when you evoke the faith that was taught to you during your childhood and in the Eternal City.
"On this point, moreover, an observation previously made in regard to the liturgy applies: private authorities, even if they were experts at the Council like Fr. Congar and Fr. Murray whom you cite, are not the authority charged with interpretation. The only interpretation that is authentic and endowed with authority is the one given by the magisterium, which is thus the interpreter of its own texts: the conciliar texts are not, in fact, the writings of an expert or of another or of anyone who may have contributed to their genesis, they are documents of the magisterium."
As one will have noticed, the response of Cardinal Ratzinger is intricate and full of nuances. It opens the door to a reinterpretation of the conciliar texts on the part of the magisterium. [...]
On April 17, 1985, in the wake of the discussion that the cardinal had had with Archbishop Lefebvre on January 20 of that same year, the latter took a new step toward the former. In a letter, asserting that the prefect of the congregation for the doctrine of the faith had accepted that the proposed declaration submitted to him in 1982 could be modified, Archbishop Lefebvre advanced a new formulation:
"We have always accepted and declare that we accept the texts of the Council according to the criterion of tradition, meaning according to the traditional magisterium of the Church. [...] But maintaining the declaration on religious freedom is contrary to the magisterium of the Church, we ask for a total revision of this text. We also see as indispensable substantial revisions to the documents on the Church in the world, non-Christian religions, ecumenism, and clarifications in many texts that lend themselves to confusion."
As we can guess, this proposal also could not be accepted [by Rome]. Cardinal Ratzinger responded to Lefebvre on May 29, 1985, that [...] "You can express the desire for a declaration or an explanatory treatment of this or that point, but you cannot affirm the incompatibility of the conciliar texts – which are magisterial texts – with the magisterium and tradition." In other words, the conciliar texts could not be corrected or disavowed, but it was legitimate to ask for complementary explanations that could clarify their meaning or give them a new interpretation.
A new phase was then opened up in the conversations: on November 6, 1985, during the extraordinary assembly of the synod of bishops on Vatican Council II, Archbishop Lefebvre sent 39 "dubia," objections, on religious freedom to the congregation for the doctrine of the faith. For him this meant, by means of interpretation, hoping for a revision of the teaching of the declaration on religious freedom of Vatican II. The response to the "dubia," extensive and highly detailed, would however not be given until March 9, 1987. But in the meantime, the interreligious encounter in Assisi on October 27, 1986 had provoked a real and proper scandal in traditionalist circles. For Archbishop Lefebvre, that response could not be satisfying.
AND IT'S RUPTURE AGAIN
It was then that Archbishop Lefebvre returned to a more intransigent position, after a period of more than eight years during which he had played the card of the hermeneutic of continuity, seeking thereby to reinterpret the Council on the basis of the previous pontifical texts.
At this point he reconnected with the hermeneutic of discontinuity he had practiced between 1974 and 1978, and sympathized for the first time with the sedevacantist position. He said: "It is possible that we are obliged to believe that this pope is not the pope." [...] He announced that he would consecrate bishops in order to give tradition a posterity, since Rome was in darkness. [...] on July 14, 1987, he was again received by Cardinal Ratzinger. In the account of the discussions that he provides, Bernard Tissier de Mallerais attributes these words to Archbishop Lefebvre:
"If there is schism, it has much more to do with the Vatican, with Assisi and the response to our 'dubia.' It is the rupture of the Church with its traditional magisterium. The Church opposed to its past and its tradition is not the Catholic Church. This is why we are indifferent about being excommunicated by this liberal, ecumenical, revolutionary Church."
It was from this moment on that he undertook his journey toward the constitution of a schismatic Church, which would take place beginning in 1988. He was no longer so far away from the sedevacantist thesis that he had always criticized:
"I see myself constrained by divine Providence to transmit the grace of the Catholic episcopacy that I have received, so that the Church and the Catholic priesthood may continue to subsist for the glory of God and the salvation of souls [...] I trust that without delay the See of Peter will be occupied by a perfectly Catholic successor of Peter, into whose hands you will be able to deposit the grace of your episcopacy, so that he may confirm it."
He would have even stronger words during his address to the priests of the Society of Saint Pius X: "Rome is in apostasy. These are not, these are not frivolous words that I am saying to you. It is the truth. Rome is in apostasy." [...]
Right before the irreparable happened, in a last attempt aimed at avoiding schism, last-minute negotiations took place with Cardinal Ratzinger. On the doctrinal level, the protocol initially signed by Archbishop Lefebvre, before he retracted his signature the following day, involved two articles of the following tenor:
"2. We declare that we accept the doctrine contained in number 25 of the dogmatic constitution 'Lumen Gentium' of Vatican Council II on the ecclesiastical magisterium and the adherence that is due to it.
"3. With regard to some points taught by Vatican Council II or concerning the successive reforms of liturgy and law, and which seem to us difficult to reconcile with tradition, we commit ourselves to having a positive attitude of study and communication with the Apostolic See, avoiding all polemics."
This threw open the door to an interpretation of Vatican II that did not require a formal and all-embracing adherence, as had instead happened previously.
THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
It is at the margin of the controversy described so far that there has developed [after 1985], in the theological community and in ecclesial circles, a debate over the hermeneutic of Vatican II. [...] With the exception of the statements of Cardinal Ratzinger, references to Archbishop Lefebvre are practically absent. [...] And yet it seems to me that it is in the context of the discussions between the Holy See and the Lefebvrist current that the debate over the hermeneutic of Vatican II must be read, and the categories of hermeneutic of continuity, of discontinuity, and of reform must be interpreted. [...]
It would take until 2005 for this debate to be stirred up again. [...] This time, Cardinal Ratzinger was at the head of the Church, following his election as pope in April. [...] In spite of a rather critical judgment on the new pontiff, a meeting was organized between Benedict XVI and Lefebvre's successor, Bishop Bernard Fellay. It would take place on August 29, 2005, just four months after the election of the new pope, at his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo. In his account of this in an interview the following September 13, Bishop Fellay specified that the Society of Saint Pius X had formulated three requests: to grant "full freedom to the Tridentine Mass, to silence the reproof of schism by burying the claims of excommunication, and to find a Church structure for the family of the tradition." [...]
It is at the end of 2005, the first year of his pontificate and the fortieth anniversary of Vatican II, as Benedict XVI would specify in the introduction to his talk, that his lecture on the hermeneutic of the Council in the presence of members of the curia is situated.
The lecture on hermeneutics came before two acts of openness in the direction of the Society: the motu proprio "Summorum Pontificum" of July 2, 2007, and the revocation of the excommunication of Lefebvrist bishops of January 21, 2009. These two acts of openness, as we know, were part of the requests made to the pope during the meeting of the previous month of August. The lecture on hermeneutics was also a preparation, presenting their principles and methods, for the responses of the congregation for the doctrine of the faith to questions concerning certain aspects of the doctrine on the Church, of June 29, 2007. [...]
At the time when he delivered his address to the curia, Benedict XVI never made any allusion to the Society of Saint Pius X or to the traditionalists. So it was believed that the address of Benedict XVI was aimed at "The History of Vatican II" produced [by the progressive school of Bologna] under the direction of G. Alberigo. Some passages could have given this impression, but it was not plausible that this was the point of the address or its main subject. [...]
Moreover, what has often been remembered from the treatment is that the pope opposed to the hermeneutic of rupture a hermeneutic of continuity. Now, an attentive reading of the text leads to another conclusion. [...] What Benedict XVI has opposed to the hermeneutic of rupture is "a hermeneutic of reform in the continuity of the one subject-Church." [...]
THE HERMENEUTIC OF REFORM
It is in this treatment that Benedict XVI makes reference to the French revolution and to liberalism, and reaches the conclusion that all of this "had provoked on the part of the Church, in the 19th century, under Pius IX, severe and radical condemnations of that spirit of the modern age." Here we find again precisely the usual references of the traditionalists, and Benedict XVI puts himself very clearly on their terrain, making use of their references and directly addressing their questions. [...]
As a result, he placed at the center of his proposal the main issues of contention that opposed the traditionalists to Vatican II. And he reached the conclusion:
"It is clear that in all of these sectors, which as a whole form a single question, there could emerge a certain form of discontinuity [...] in which nonetheless [...] it appeared that the continuity of principles must not be abandoned. [...] It is precisely in this whole of continuity and discontinuity at different levels that the nature of true reform consists." [...]
The pope then dedicates himself, on the basis of the example of the question of religious freedom, to showing in what this hermeneutic of reform consists.
As we have seen, the presentation of the Council as a rupture in relation to tradition is a motif fully in evidence in the traditionalist orbit. [...] On the basis of this "topos" – the Council understood as rupture with tradition – the idea was developed of presenting the Council in continuity with the whole of tradition, and the proposal of a hermeneutic of continuity was developed.
Cardinal Ratzinger, when he was prefect of the congregation for the doctrine of the faith, contributed to this development. We can think that this was an effort aimed at fostering reconciliation between Rome and Lefebvre. But Cardinal Ratzinger's proposal, supported by a profound conception of tradition, was received through a hermeneutical pirouette that consisted in interpreting the Council on the basis of the pontifical texts of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, and not the other way around.
The effort, with the objective of affirming that, in the end, the Council said nothing that was not already known, was revisited in various ways: the monumental thesis of Fr. Basile Valuet [on religious freedom] offers an example, but it is not alone. [...] This manner of conceiving the hermeneutic of continuity, a gentle way of maintaining one's opposition to the Council (see Brunero Gherardini), nonetheless agrees poorly with [...] Benedict XVI's proposal to enact a hermeneutic of reform.
As a matter of fact, it is a whole conception of the Council and of its authority that is implicated in this manner of understanding the hermeneutic of continuity. [...] The proposal of a hermeneutic of continuity is used as a means to rescale, trivialize, diminish, or even dismiss the Council and its teaching, without having to lose face. [...]
But John XXIII, Paul VI, and Benedict XVI have a much richer conception of tradition, [...] which cannot be conceived of as simple repetition. Benedict XVI's proposal of a hermeneutic of reform – because it is precisely this that he puts at the forefront, and not the hermeneutic of continuity, as is often said – [...] deserves to be taken seriously.
Today it can represent a true task for theology, which cannot content itself with a hermeneutic referred to as being of continuity that refers to a repetitive and weakened conception of tradition, which Benedict XVI does not share and serves only as an operation to dismantle Vatican Council II.
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