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Theological Notebook: Interpretations of Vatican II

I saw this the other day and wanted to post it. One of the controversial points of the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965 is its "intent" or, more commonly, its "spirit." In a curious but understandable parallel to U.S. constitutional controversy, there is a disagreement between those who, in broad terms, interpret the Council according to the "word" of the documents as they are (not unlike the "strict constructionists" of America), and those who appeal to the "intent" of the writers (and not unlike the "broad constructionists"). In the simplistic liberal/conservative paradigm, it has been the "conservatives" of the Church--Vatican centralizers, those who view themselves as Traditionalists--who have favoured the "strict" reading, and the "liberals" who constantly appeal to the "spirit" in which the bishops of the Council intended their work to be understood.

Naturally, with something as monumental as the Council, interpretation of the documents is rather critical. Ever since I was at Notre Dame, I've gone out of my way to try to talk to Council Fathers who were still alive in order to try to get it "from the horse's mouth" as to what they actually understood themselves to be doing. Of course, this is another situation that is too big and complex to fit into such an "either/or" that people today love to demand, and I've talked to and read Council Fathers who have been of either "camp." I do think, though, a significant number of the Fathers have been of the "intent" camp--enough that it seems a cautionary criticism to those of the "strict" or "word" reading. So it is for all those reasons that the following article--dealing with just this issue--grabbed my attention.


Vatican II: The Real Untold Story
Cardinal Ruini definitively scraps the interpretations of the last Council as a rupture and a “new beginning” for the Church. And he calls for its history to be written at last, not from a partisan stance, but “according to the truth”

by Sandro Magister

ROMA, June 22, 2005 – Forty years after its closing, Vatican Council II is still waiting for its story to be written “not from a partisan stance, but according to the truth.” Cardinal Camillo Ruini made this statement while presenting a newly issued book, published by Libreria Editrice Vaticana. The author is Bishop Agostino Marchetto – a scholar of Church history who later served in the Holy See’s diplomatic corps and is now the secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People – and it is entitled “The Ecumenical Council of Vatican II: A Counterpoint to Its History.” The presentation of the volume took place in Rome on June 17, in the “Pietro da Cortona” room of the Capitoline Museums.

Why “counterpoint”? Cardinal Ruini explained immediately. Marchetto’s book acts as a counterpoint, or indeed as the polar opposite, to the interpretation of Vatican II that until now has monopolized Catholic historiography throughout the world. It is the interpretation advanced by the five-volume “History of Vatican Council II” directed by Giuseppe Alberigo and published in six languages between 1995 and 2001. In Italy, it was published by il Mulino and edited by Alberto Melloni.

Ruini began by making a “somewhat joking” comparison between the history of Vatican II as recounted by Alberigo and the history of the Council of Trent written by Fr. Paolo Sarpi, which was published in London in 1619 and immediately placed on the index of prohibited books. This was a brilliant and successful reconstruction, but it was highly inflammatory and partisan. Seventeen years later, a reply came to Sarpi from Jesuit Fr. Pietro Sforza Pallavicino and his “Istoria,” which was much more extensively documented but no less passionate and partial. It would be three centuries before the Council of Trent would see its first balanced and thorough history, which was published by Hubert Jedin between 1949 and 1975. And Ruini called for precisely this: a “great and positive history” of Vatican Council II, preferably before another three centuries go by. The final pages of Marchetto’s book, he said, give some indications for producing this “new and different” history.

The central thesis of Alberigo and his “Bologna School,” founded by Fr. Giuseppe Dossetti in the 1960’s, is that the documents produced by Vatican Council II are not its primary elements. The main thing is the event itself. The real council is the “spirit” of the council. It cannot be reduced to the “letter” of its documents, and is incomparably superior to these.

And the “spirit” of the council is identified in John XXIII’s dream of a “new Pentecost” for the Church and the world. The “letter,” on the other hand, is taken to be the result of the reining of the council sessions accomplished by Paul VI, the pope who promulgated all of the conciliar documents. The gap between John XXIII and Paul VI is taken as being unbridgeable. It is almost as if the “letter” of pope Giovanni Battista Montini had suffocated and betrayed the “spirit” of pope Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli.

One of the other central theses is that Vatican II marked a fundamental rupture between the preceding, preconciliar ecclesial period and the postconciliar period that followed.

Cardinal Ruini challenged this vision at its core. Not only did Vatican II not signal a rupture understood as a “new beginning” in the history of the Church, but such a breaking off “is also theologically inadmissible.”

In support of the continuity of Vatican II with the Church’s great tradition, Ruini cited John XXIII first of all, and precisely the passage from his speech for the opening of the council on October 11, 1962, that Alberigo and the Bologna School invoke most frequently in defense of their theses.

He then cited Paul VI, who on November 18, 1965, clarified for the bishops gathered at the council that with the indicatory word “aggiornamento” [updating; renewal], John XXIII “did not mean what some have wished to interpret by it, almost as if it permitted relativizing everything within the Church (dogmas, laws, structures, traditions) according to the spirit of the world. His sense of the Church’s doctrinal and structural stability was so strong and vibrant that it played a key role in his thought and work.”

He then cited John Paul II, who in the year 2000, at a conference on the implementation of Vatican II, reemphasized that “to interpret the Council on the supposition that it marks a break with the past, when in reality it stands in continuity with the faith of all times, is a definite mistake.”

But even amid its continuity with tradition and with biblical and patristic sources, Ruini continued, Vatican II heralded new developments and openness.

At bottom of the council’s openness to modernity, he said, there is the positive assumption of the centrality of the human subject, or what he calls the “anthropological shift that characterized the historical development of the West, at least since humanism and the Renaissance.”

With this, Vatican II “put an end to alarmist interpretations of the modern age.” But above all, it brought the centrality of man back “into an ultimately Christological perspective”; a perspective “that has been dear to me since, in my earliest days, I was able to dedicate myself more fully to the study of theology.” In support of this outlook, Ruini cited the conciliar constitution “Gaudium et Spes,” section 22: “It is only in the incarnate Word that the mystery of man truly comes to light.” He also cited John Paul II’s encyclical “Dives in Misericordia,” section 1: “The more the Church's mission is centered upon man, the more it must be confirmed and actualized theocentrically, that is to say, be directed in Jesus Christ to the Father.”

Ruini also rejected the idea that Vatican Council II was centered upon the Church:

“Henri De Lubac [the great theologian, later a cardinal] rightly observed that, in spite of the predominant place that the Church occupies in the documents of Vatican II, there is no foundation to the suspicion that the council represents a further step along the Church’s way of adapting itself to the empiricist character of modern culture: in fact, Vatican II does speak of the Church, but this is above all in order to place new emphasis on its radical orientation to Christ, to eternal salvation, to the God who saves man.”

Another critical point is the role of the hierarchy. Ruini emphasized that “this exists for the sake of the people of God.” While the council was taking place, “the anti-authoritarian struggle of the second half of the 1960’s was yet to explode. So the council fathers did not feel the obligation to defend the authority of the hierarchy against an attack that had not yet come.” They dedicated themselves instead to “completing and balancing the work of Vatican Council I, placing alongside the affirmation of papal primacy an assertion of episcopal collegiality.” And with this, “they laid the foundations for an ecclesiological development that has already begun, and which must characterize the time that lies before us. We must create a sort of synthesis between the decentralized perspective of the college of bishops, which predominated during the first millennium, and the perspective that makes recourse to papal primacy, which marked the second millennium.”

Ruini took from Joseph Ratzinger’s autobiography a few passages covering the time when he was a peritus [expert consultant] at the council:

“During the discussion leading up to the constitution ‘Dei Verbum,’ Ratzinger wondered aloud which came first in the order of faith: the historical-critical exegesis of the biblical texts, or the tradition of the believing community. He responded that tradition came first. And the council agreed with him. The alternative would have been to have transformed the Church into a parliamentary democracy dominated by theologians and exegetes.”

In conclusion, Ruini again contested the contrast made between John XXIII and Paul VI, as seen in the history of Vatican II produced by Alberigo and the Bologna School.

And although this history continues to dominate the scene, he practically declared its doom:

“The interpretation of the council as a rupture and a new beginning is coming to an end. This interpretation is very feeble today, and has no real foothold within the body of the Church. It is time for historiography to produce a new reconstruction of Vatican II which will also be, finally, a true story.”
Tags: ecclesiology, historical, historiography, second vatican council, theological notebook
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