March 2006 - A Question of Interpretation

Having been, as young Fr. Ratzinger, the talented expert of Cardinal Frings during Vatican II, Benedict XVI may be rightly considered as one of the key architects of this Council. The address to the Roman Curia, delivered by the Holy Father on December 22, 2005, gives us an authorized interpretation of the Council, forty years after its closing.

Dear Friends and Benefactors,

Having been, as young Fr. Ratzinger, the talented expert of Cardinal Frings during Vatican II, Benedict XVI may be rightly considered as one of the key architects of this Council. The address to the Roman Curia, delivered by the Holy Father on December 22, 2005, gives us an authorized interpretation of the Council, forty years after its closing.

The Pope defends a subject that is dear to him and that he exposed at length in his book Entretiens sur la foi, published in 1985. For him, what is important is to remain faithful to the "true Council" and to be firmly grounded in this fidelity to avoid slipping towards "progressism" or sinking into "traditionalism." In order to better grasp the Pope's thought on this crucial subject, it is useful to present briefly his thought when he was a Cardinal, by quoting his own words, reported in that book.

First of all, he clearly affirms that the Council was not convened to change the contents of the Faith but simply "to present it in an effective way:" "The intention of the Pope who had the initiative of Vatican II, John XXIII, and of he who faithfully continued it, Paul VI, was not at all to bring under discussion the depositum fidei that both of them regarded as beyond any discussion." This is why, to Cardinal Ratzinger, it seems futile and even erroneous to claim that there is "before" or "after" Vatican II: "The Council did not intend at all to divide in two the times of the Church." Those who try to invent an opposition do so in the name of a so-called "spirit of the Council" that does not exist in the conciliar texts: "Already at the time of the sessions [of the Council], then more and more during the period that followed, a 'spirit of the Council' was opposed" which, actually, is truly an 'anti-spirit'". The Cardinal strongly and loudly affirms that it is necessary to return to the "reality of Vatican II" in order to be able to solve the crisis that the Church is undergoing today. He stresses, however, that "the true time of Vatican II has not yet come, and it has not even started to be received in an authentic way." This last sentence is extremely important because it really expresses the Cardinal's profound thought on this subject. Far from being at the origin of the present crisis of the Church, a crisis that he does not deny at all, the Council is presented as the suitable remedy that should be applied. But it is necessary to avoid any fantasy in its interpretation. On the contrary, it is a question of sticking accurately to its texts which are nothing else than the perpetuation of the Tradition of the Church: "It is impossible for a Catholic to be in favor of Vatican II and against the councils of Trent and Vatican I. Whoever accepts Vatican II as it clearly expressed and understood itself, affirms at the same time the whole Tradition of the Catholic Church. (...) In the same manner, it is impossible to side with the council of Trent and Vatican I. Whoever denies Vatican II denies also the authority that supports the two other councils."

This thought, developed in his 1985 book, constitutes, in fact, the foundation of the address pronounced last December. A quarter century has passed, but the thought remains the same. Covered now with a supreme authority, it is expressed with greater strength and authority.

The Pope, indeed, affirms now even more clearly that the Council was not convened to change the Church and particularly its constitution: "The Fathers had no such mandate and no one had ever given them one; nor could anyone have given them one because the essential constitution of the Church comes from the Lord (...) ".

Then, Benedict XVI criticizes the error propagated by those who claim to follow "the hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture," which would be an interpretation of the Council in opposition to its very texts: "The hermeneutic of discontinuity risks ending in a split between the pre-conciliar Church and the post-conciliar Church. It 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. These innovations alone were supposed to represent the true spirit of the Council, and starting from and in conformity with them, it would be possible to move ahead. Precisely because the texts would only imperfectly reflect the true spirit of the Council and its newness, it would be necessary to go courageously beyond the texts and make room for the newness in which the Council's deepest intention would be expressed, even if it were still vague. 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." The Pope protests against this dangerous interpretation which is, according to him, an attack against the very nature of the Church and its divine constitution.

He opposes to this "hermeneutic of discontinuity," that risks destroying the Church, the "hermeneutic of reform," which would make possible, according to him, to unite the doctrines of the councils of Trent, Vatican I and Vatican II in a homogeneous whole that constitutes what is called, from now on, the "living Tradition" of the Church.

The thought of the Holy Father regarding the crisis of the Church remains the same as he expressed as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Let us summarize it: the Council, far from being the source of the present crisis or the cause of its acceleration, is in fact its solution. But due to a bad interpretation or to a savage refusal to accept it. It can not yet deliver all its expected fruits. The hour has come to faithfully receive this Council by adhering to its letter in order to allow ourselves to be impregnated with its spirit.

It is quite certain that, in spite of its clear condemnation of the present deviation of modern theology, we cannot make this particular analysis ours. Its erroneous initial postulate obscures a fundamental question, which consists in asking whether the Council itself is not a serious rupture with the past of the Church and its doctrines. Also, the question of the Pope regarding the reception of the Council is false and, objectively, a trap into which we refuse to fall. Nothing is more dangerous, indeed, than to ask the wrong questions, because they divert the intellects from the truth.

We reject this false problem of the interpretation of the Council and prefer to keep the doctrine of Christ, Who taught us to judge a tree by its fruits. All the hermeneutics of the world will crash against this divine and salutary evidence.

In Christo Sacerdote et Maria,

Fr. Yves le Roux