25 January 2009 was the fiftieth anniversary of the convocation of the Second Vatican Council by Blessed Pope John XXIII. A primary aim of the Council was reconciliation and to underline this Pope Benedict XVI published the decree lifting the excommunication of four SSPX bishops on 21 January. A storm of protest broke which only emphasised the difficulty of reception which the Council has faced over the past half century. By what criteria should Traditional Catholics view the Council? Monsignor Ignacio Barreiro guides us through these tricky waters.
The commitment to interpret the contemporary Magisterium in the light of Tradition takes a new urgency after the publication on 12 March of the ‘Letter of Pope Benedict XVI to the Bishops of the Catholic Church Concerning the Remission of the Excommunication of the Four Bishops Consecrated by Archbishop Lefebvre&lrquo;. In this letter we encounter the pain that the Holy Father has suffered and which has been caused by those within the Church who refuse to interpret the contemporary Magisterium in the light of the Tradition. These same persons consider the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) to be a radical fringe that should be excluded and persecuted.
In this letter we find clearly spelt out the main problem that affects the Church: “In our days, when in vast areas of the world the faith is in danger of dying out like a flame which no longer has fuel, the overriding priority is to make God present in this world and to show men and women the way to God. Not just any god, but the God who spoke on Sinai; to that God whose face we recognise in a love which presses ‘to the end&lrquo; (cf. Jn 13:1) – in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. The real problem at this moment of our history is that God is disappearing from the human horizon, and, with the dimming of the light which comes from God, humanity is losing its bearings, with increasingly evident destructive effects.”
So we have to ask ourselves how can we launch again the missionary efforts of the Church? The Church has a universal vocation to bring salvation to all men, so we cannot accept that it be reduced to a small flock. The missionary weakness of the Church is not a new concern. The waning of the Faith in Europe has oppressed the hearts of many great Church members since the nineteenth century.
This grave preoccupation was at the origin of the Second Vatican Council. Blessed John XXIII at the inaugural session of the Council on 11 October 1962 requested that the traditional doctrine of the Church should be “deepened and presented in accordance to the requirements of our times.” This was because it seemed to many within the Church that the message of Christ was not reaching society due to the form of its presentation. The tone of that speech was optimistic, Pope John had high hopes that a new springtime of the Church would be launched. Forty years after the closure of the Council the cry from the heart of Benedict XVI and a serious look at the statistics of the Church show no reason to be optimistic from the human point of view. But we keep our supernatural hope that the Lord will come to the assistance of his Church.
Ambiguity in Council documents
Trying to find a response to the question of how we should interpret the contemporary Magisterium in the light of Tradition is a fundamental question because there cannot be ambiguities in the Faith which we proclaim. So this doctrinal clarification is crucial to the relaunch of our missionary efforts. As Benedict XVI states: “in vast areas of the Church the implementation of the Council has been somewhat difficult” (Address to the Curia of 22 December 2005). These difficulties have diverse roots. In the first place we have the ambiguity contained in some of the documents of the Council. In the second place we have the problems that arise from a hermeneutic of discontinuity that cuts the roots of the tree of Tradition.
It is an accepted fact that the documents of the Council have a degree of ambiguity, which has lead to erroneous or malicious interpretations. The concern for the ambiguities and interpretative difficulties of the documents have been denounced by men who could not be precisely described as Traditionalist, like Giuseppe Alberigo and Franco Magistretti in the introduction to their work, Constitutionis Dogmaticae Lemen Gentium, Synopsis Historica (Istituto per la Scienze Religiose, Bologna, 1975, p. VII). We can provide more than one example.
For instance, the description of the Church as the People of God has served as a launching pad for the promotion of the concept of the Church of the People: a Church that comes from the people and is presented as an alternative to the ‘official&lrquo; Church. Lumen Gentium, n. 8, teaches that “this Church constituted and organised in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him, although many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure. These elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward catholic unity.” An article published in La Civiltà Cattolica three years ago demonstrates that the large number of articles dedicated to the interpretation of this word, together with several interventions of the Magisterium on this issue, clearly demonstrate that there is no agreement as to the meaning of “subsists” and also implicitly indicate that the understanding of this word is far from easy. There is no doubt that a correct interpretation of the word in accordance with Tradition leads us to identify the Church of Christ with the Catholic Church.
We have several fundamental hermeneutical elements that we have to consider. In the first place the indefectibility of the Church. This property of the Church has a two fold meaning: that the Church will remain the institution of salvation founded by Christ until the end of the world, and also that the Church will be assured an essential immutability of her teaching, her constitution and her liturgy.
Afterwards we have to consider the infallibility of the Church, the impossibility of her falling into error. The Dogmatic Constitution, Pastor Aeternus, of the First Vatican Council, when defining Papal Infallibility also defines the Infallibility of the Church: “The Roman Pontiff when he speaks ex cathedra... operates with that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer wished that His church be instructed in defining doctrine on faith and morals” (D. 3074). The primary object of Infallibility are the formally revealed truths of Christian doctrine concerning faith and morals. The secondary object of Infallibility are truths of faith and morals which are not formally revealed but which are closely connected with the teaching of Revelation.
In this second category we can mention two examples: theological conclusions derived from a formally revealed truth by aid of natural truth of reason; and natural truths of reason which are intimately connected with truths of Revelation.
In the conference that Cardinal Ratzinger gave in Santiago de Chile on 13 July 1988 we have some fundamental interpretative elements. The first principle is that the documents of the Second Vatican Council and the affirmations of the post-conciliar Magisterium have to be accepted with “a religious submission of mind and will which must be shown in a special way to the authentic Magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme Magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, and the judgements made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will” (Lumen Gentium 25). But as Cardinal Ratzinger notes, these documents have to be accepted “according to the proper authority of each document.” And as he notes, it “is the plain fact that not all documents of the Council have the same authority.”
The Cardinal makes the very insightful point that, “One of the basic discoveries of the theology of ecumenism is that schisms can take place only when certain truths and certain values of the Christian faith are no longer lived and loved within the Church.” There is no doubt that in the post conciliar period vast sectors of the Church seemed moved by a desire for novelties in different ways, but most noticeably in the liturgy. As Benedict XVI notes in his letter to the bishops accompanying the Motu Proprio, ‘Summorum Pontificum&lrquo;: “in many places celebrations were not faithful to the prescriptions of the new Missal, 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.”
In his address in Santiaog de Chile, Cardinal Ratzinger anticipates his denunciation of the hermeneutics of discontinuity, stating that “There are many accounts of it [the Second Vatican Council] which give the impression that, from Vatican II onward, everything has been changed, and that what preceded it has no value or, at best, has value only in the light of Vatican II.” The Cardinal then adds a fundamental consideration: “The Second Vatican Council has not been treated as a part of the entire living Tradition of the Church, but as an end of Tradition, a new start from zero. The truth is that this particular Council defined no dogma at all, and deliberately chose to remain on a modest level, as a merely pastoral council; and yet many treat it as though it had made itself into a sort of super dogma which takes away the importance of all the rest.” As a consequence the Cardinal notes that “All this leads a great number of people to ask themselves if the Church of today is really the same as that of yesterday, or if they have changed it for something else without telling people. The one way in which Vatican II can be made plausible is to present it as it is; one part of the unbroken, the unique Tradition of the Church and of her faith.”
We have to avoid all possible risks of relativism. In his homily on 18 April 2005 on the day before he was elected to the See of Peter, Cardinal Ratzinger made an exhaustive analysis of these risks. He underlined the extent to which relativism has entered into the Church and how different schools of thought are influencing Catholics. He mentioned several examples: “Marxism to liberalism, even to libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism.” He underlined that, “Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labelled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be ‘tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine&lrquo;, seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognise anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one&lrquo;s own ego and desires.”
This concern to avoid relativism leads us to be on our guard against the risks of indifferentism. In ecumenism this is an important concern if we are really dedicated to seeking the return of other Christian groups to a full union with the Catholic Church.
In his address to the officers of the Roman Curia of 22 December 2005, Benedict XVI provided us with fundamental tools of interpretation. He showed how the Second Vatican Council documents had to be interpreted within a hermeneutic of continuity “of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us. She is a subject which increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God.” This should be done “in such a way that…will transmit the doctrine, pure and integral, without any attenuation or distortion,” as was the intention of Blessed John XXIII.
On the other hand, this correct approach is opposed by the hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture that, “asserts that the texts of the Council as such do not yet express the true spirit of the Council. It claims that they are the result of compromises in which, to reach unanimity, it was found necessary to keep and reconfirm many old things that are now pointless. However, the true spirit of the Council is not to be found in these compromises but instead in the impulses toward the new that are contained in the texts.”
The Holy Father in his recent letter of 12 March reiterates this point: “But some of those who put themselves forward as great defenders of the Council also need to be reminded that Vatican II embraces the entire doctrinal history of the Church. Anyone who wishes to be obedient to the Council has to accept the faith professed over the centuries, and cannot sever the roots from which the tree draws its life.” At the same time it is evident, as he also says, that “The Church&lrquo;s teaching authority cannot be frozen in the year 1962.”
Here we must analyse both the use of “the literary forms of modern thought” and the development of doctrine. It is of basic common sense that the Faith should be presented using the language of the persons whom we wish to evangelise. But the use of literary forms of modern thought is fraught with various dangers. First, several basic concepts of the Faith are totally tied to an Aristotelian Thomistic philosophy so that it would be tantamount to impossible to express them in contemporary terms. The most obvious example is the concept of Transubstantiation.
Another example, is found in the Nicean Creed when we proclaim that Jesus Christ is consubstantial with the Father. This philosophy has a permanent value and that is the reason why formation in it is mandated in priestly training ( c. 251). For the same reason, the study of St Thomas Aquinas is required during theological formation (c. 252. §3). This philosophical approach and the teachings of St Thomas Aquinas should also serve as an hermeneutical tool to interpret the contemporary Magisterium.
Another problem is the excessive concern to adapt to present conditions. We live in a culture that is being manipulated to reject the Faith. So really we are not called to adapt to this hostile culture, but to challenge it with the strength of the Faith.
The development of doctrine is where the test of Tradition comes into play. When there is a doctrinal development we have to be assured that it does not affect the essential immutability of the constant teaching of the Church. We have to be certain that there is no rupture with the past and it is a perfectly homogeneous development. Here we have to be rigorous in the application of the basic principle of non-contradiction. Regrettably I do not have space to study the great contributions to this topic of Cardinal John Henry Newman or of Fr Francisco Marín-Sola, OP in his fundamental work, The Homogeneous Evolution of Catholic Dogma.
Our main concern is to preserve what is true and to transmit it in an active way: hence, we preserve the truth-interpreting contemporary Magisterium in accordance with Tradition – a Tradition that has grown through the centuries in the Church through the action of the Holy Spirit and the fidelity of many great men of the Church.
When there is ambiguity in a document we must always favour the interpretation that is in accordance with Tradition. We have to apply in this process the principles of indefectibility and infallibility of the Church within a perfect application of the principles of the hermeneutic of continuity which does not admit any substantial changes in the Faith. As the Church can not commit errors in matters of faith and morals, the interpretation of a document of the Church should always lead us to an orthodox answer that would refuse any novelty in relation to what the Church has taught in the past. If the history of the Church has shown us that it has been protected from errors in matters of faith and morals in the past, we have a well-founded hope that it will remain under the same protection in the future.
So we have to welcome the valuable concern of Benedict XVI to arrive at a clear and precise interpretation of the contemporary Magisterium. Hopefully this authoritative interpretation will launch anew the missionary effort of the Church.
[Taken from "Mass of Ages" May 2009, The Latin Mass Society's quarterly magazine]