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Understanding the True Spirit of Vatican II

Anna Krestyn - published on 02/25/13

The Council’s purpose was to bring fresh life to Church's teachings while preserving them

On February 14, 2013, Pope Benedict XVI chose to speak in one of his last addresses to the clergy of the Diocese of Rome about the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). He recounted how he attended the Council as a young priest assistant to the Cardinal of Cologne. Recalling the enthusiasm and the hope of the Council Fathers that Vatican II would spark a great renewal in the Church, he also noted that little of the Council’s actual content was reflected to the world at the time: “The world interpreted the Council through the eyes of the media instead of seeing the true Council of the Fathers and their key vision of faith.”

But what, precisely, was this vision?

The Need for a Council

No one concerned with the authentic interpretation of the Second Vatican Council can ignore a consideration of the particular characteristics of the time in which it developed. One of the main reasons that Pope John XXIII opened Vatican II was to find a new language with which to engage the modern world. He saw that Christianity was being perceived as increasingly irrelevant to an increasingly empirical and scientific culture. The fact that the conventional methods of promoting catechesis proved ineffective in the modern era further exacerbated the problem, highlighting a need for a renewed fervor and an attention to innovative methods of engagement with those outside the Church – all while preaching the same message of Truth which the Church has held since her inception.  

The Council Fathers perceived a “split between the faith many profess and their daily lives,” which they said deserved to be “counted among the more serious errors of our age” (Gaudium et Spes, 43). They hoped for a Council that would prompt a deep renewal of the Church, making her capable of proclaiming the Christian message with all the force of doctrine but with fresh dynamism and a special attunement to the needs and problems of the men and women of the time.

“What is needed at the present time,” said Pope John XXIII at the opening address of the Council, “is a new enthusiasm, a new joy and serenity of mind in the unreserved acceptance by all of the entire Christian faith, without forfeiting that accuracy and precision in its presentation which characterised the proceedings of the Council of Trent and the First Vatican Council … What is needed is that this certain and immutable doctrine, to which the faithful owe obedience, be studied afresh and reformulated in contemporary terms. For this deposit of faith, or truths which are contained in our time-honored teaching is one thing; the manner in which these truths are set forth (with their meaning preserved intact) is something else.”

Despite the high hopes of the Council Fathers, the decades following the Second Vatican Council were rife with widespread confusion and, in many places, great abuses, most visibly in the liturgy.

In response to these pervasive misinterpretations, Bishop Athanasius Schneider, Auxiliary Bishop of Karaganda in Kazakhstan, gave an address in December 2010 to a conference of cardinals and bishops gathered in Rome entitled “Proposals for a Correct Reading of the Second Vatican Council.”

“For a correct interpretation,” he said, “it is necessary to take account of the intention manifested in the conciliar documents themselves and in the specific words of the conciliar Popes John XXIII and Paul VI … In the hermeneutical uproar of contrasting interpretations and in the confusion of pastoral and liturgical applications, the Council itself, united with the Pope, appears as the one authentic interpreter of the conciliar texts.”

Though careful reading of the conciliar documents make it very clear that the Council’s purpose was to bring fresh life to the teachings of the Church while preserving them in their full integrity, strong opposing currents to this interpretation have been in force and have only recently showed signs of waning. On one side, many liturgical abuses, pushes for ‘progressive’ steps such as the ordination of women to the priesthood, and other instances of ‘watering down’ doctrine have occurred in the name of the “spirit of Vatican II.” On the other side have been traditionalist Catholics who tend to see the Council and everything after it as lacking in orthodoxy, claiming that there never was a need for a Council in the first place. It has been the difficult task of the post-conciliar Popes to clarify the Council’s true message and purpose.

Benedict XVI and Vatican II

Benedict XVI made a valuable contribution to this work of clarifying and reintroducing the Council’s true message within the first year of his pontificate when he cited two opposing principles of interpretation in regard to the Council: the ‘hermeneutic of rupture’, and the ‘hermeneutic of reform’. “The problems in its implementation arose from the fact that two contrary hermeneutics came face to face and quarrelled with each other” (Christmas Message to the Roman Curia, December 22, 2005).

He explains that the hermeneutic of discontinuity, or rupture, asserts that the true spirit of the Council must go beyond the texts in order to make true progress. About this hermeneutic he says: “In a word:  it would be necessary not to follow the texts of the Council but its spirit. In this way, obviously, a vast margin was left open for the question on how this spirit should subsequently be defined and room was consequently made for every whim.”

In contrast, there stands also the hermeneutic of reform (later termed ‘the hermeneutic of continuity’ by Pope Benedict) – a renewal in the continuity of the one Church founded by Jesus Christ. In describing it, Pope Benedict referenced the words of John XXIII at the opening of the Council and Paul VI at its conclusion, in which they state clearly that the Council’s goal is to faithfully transmit the doctrine of the Church while attending to the possibility of new methods of its transmission.
Pope Benedict affirmed that “this commitment to expressing a specific truth in a new way demands new thinking on this truth and a new and vital relationship with it; it is also clear that new words can only develop if they come from an informed understanding of the truth expressed, and on the other hand, that a reflection on faith also requires that this faith be lived. In this regard, the programme that Pope John XXIII proposed was extremely demanding, indeed, just as the synthesis of fidelity and dynamic is demanding.”

Benedict has been a light to the Church in rising to the demands of this program throughout his pontificate, particularly in the area of the liturgy. For many years, he has drawn attention to the liturgy’s importance as a true measure of faith because it is the way we adore God, who is the absolute priority. He sees reform of the liturgy as a critical element of strengthening the faith in all other areas. He has also maintained that the crisis in the Church following Vatican II is rooted in confusion about the liturgy – namely, in the common perception that the liturgy defined by the Council breaks radically with the pre-conciliar liturgy. “In many places, celebrations were not faithful to the prescriptions of the new Missal,” he said in a letter from 2007 to all bishops, “but the latter actually was understood as authorising or even requiring creativity, which frequently led to deformations of the liturgy which were hard to bear. I am speaking from experience, since I too lived through that period with all its hopes and its confusion.”

 A striking moment of his nearly eight years as pope was the Motu Proprio he issued in 2007, Summorum Pontificum, which granted much greater freedom for celebration of the Mass according to the pre-conciliar Tridentine liturgy. His aim, however, was not simply to return to the liturgy of the past but to create conditions in which the two forms of the Roman rite, both the old and new, can coexist and be “mutually enriching.” In this way, he has offered the Church a prime example of what it means to initiate true reform, which he says is a “combination of continuity and discontinuity at different levels.”
The pope’s closing words for his priests on February 14 were ones of hope: “Fifty years later, the strength of the real Council has been revealed. Our task for the Year of Faith is to bring the real Second Vatican Council to life.”

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