George Weigel’s new book To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II (Basic Books, 2022) is a tour de force in its study of the hermeneutics—that is, the manner of interpretation—of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).
Weigel knows that the Church is at a crossroads, between two forks in the road: the liberal/progressive and conservative/neo-traditionalist. There is a conflict of interpretations here that had an effect within the Council itself and its ongoing reception in the last sixty years. And, in many ways, this conflict has been exacerbated by the pontificate of Francis, as I have argued at length in my book, Pope Francis: The Legacy of Vatican II (Lectio, 2019; 2nd edition). Since there is no mention of Pope Francis in Weigel’s book, evidently his writings, unlike the authoritative writings of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, are not taken as a subordinate criteria or hermeneutical key contributing to the deepening of our understanding and implementation of the vision of Vatican II and its documents.
Weigel does three things that mark his book as a watershed study of the hermeneutics of Vatican II. One, he explains the necessity of the Second Vatican Council. “Pope John XXIII announced his intention to summon the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican . . . to address the challenge of proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ amid the civilizational crisis of a modernity that had cut itself loose from some of its deeper cultural roots.” What is the nature of the crisis to which Weigel refers?
This was fundamentally a challenge, Weigel argues, “in the order of ideas and culture.” In particular, there was the rejection of the worldview of biblical Christianity, the nature of man, his origin and destiny, and this rejection had serious historical consequences. Gradually, immanentism dominated the culture—the world is self-sufficient, autonomous, denying the essential dependence of the world on God. But: “When God is forgotten, however, the creature itself grows unintelligible” (Gaudium et Spes, no. 36). Human nature has now been rendered unintelligible—hence, for example, transgenderism.
Furthermore, there is the decline of the ecclesiastically unified culture—the Old Christendom. Secularization contributed to this decline with the result that cultural life, political and economic life, now broke loose from the Church’s unifying grasp. Over time, science, art, ethics, and the faith of the individual followed suit.
In reaction to this decline, the Church sometimes slipped into the mode of a citadel or fortress mentality. Therefore, says Weigel, “the Church itself needed renewal and reform.” Over time, the Church, Weigel adds, “With Leo XIII, [opened] a new Catholic era: an era in which the Church would engage modernity in an effort to convert it—and perhaps, thereby, help the modern world realize some of its aspirations to freedom, justice, solidarity, and prosperity.” In sum, this new Catholic era called for a renewal of the Catholic mind, that is, a renewal refining “the intellectual tools needed to offer the world a new Christian and indeed Christocentric humanism in response to the defective ideas of the human person.” What was required was a New Christendom: the sanctified laity in the transformation of the full spectrum of the culture, indeed, of the fallen world through the redemptive work of Christ. Explains Weigel, “[T]he Church [is called] to proclaim the Gospel, convert the world to Christ, and sanctify the human condition.” He adds, “The Christocentric Church must always be an evangelical Church, a Church permanently in mission.” (Hence, the title of Weigel’s book.)
The Second Vatican Council focused not only on the dynamics of the hermeneutics of reform and renewal in the life of the Church but also on the development in her understanding of the truth. “[T]he Church, in her teaching, life and worship, perpetuates and hands on to all generations all that she herself is, all that she believes. … For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. … For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her.” (Dei Verbum, no. 8)
Accordingly, Vatican II’s hermeneutics are, arguably, a form of retrieval theology, or ressourcement, meaning thereby a style of theological discernment and argument looking back to the authoritative sources of faith, Scripture, and tradition, in order to move faithfully forward. Moving faithfully forward involves “aggiornamento,” the meaning of which is best captured in Vatican II’s claim: “We must therefore recognize and understand the world in which we live, its explanations, its longings, and its often-dramatic characteristics.” Significantly, as the late French Lutheran theologian Oscar Cullman rightly stressed, “aggiornamento should be a consequence, not a starting point,” of renewal, of ressourcement. Indeed, he adds, aggiornamento should not be understood as an “isolated motive for renewal.” Therefore, in the interplay between ressourcement and aggiornamento, the former has normative priority.
Weigel makes clear that St. John XXIII’s original intention for calling Vatican II was Vincentian in inspiration. This refers to the fifth-century theologian St. Vincent of Lérins’ account of doctrinal development in the Commonitorium. Regarding the enduring importance of Vincent’s thought at Vatican II, it is important to note that he influenced St. John XXIII in the opening address to Vatican II, Gaudet Mater Ecclesia. St. John argues, like Vincent, that the Church must “transmit whole and entire and without distortion Catholic doctrine.” He adds: “As all sincere promoters of Christian, Catholic, and apostolic faith strongly desire, what is needed is that this doctrine be more fully and more profoundly known and that minds be more fully imbued and formed by it” (emphasis added).
Importantly, in this connection, John XXIII depends on Vincent, as well as the First Vatican Council (1869-1870), by implicitly distinguishing between propositional truths of faith and their linguistic and conceptual formulations in reflecting on the sense in which a doctrine, already confirmed and defined, is more fully known and deeply understood. Weigel cites John XXIII:
For the deposit of faith, the truths contained in our venerable doctrine, are one thing; the fashion in which they are expressed, but with the same meaning and the same judgment [eodem sensu eademque sententia], is another thing.
The subordinate clause, which I have cited in its Latin original, is part of a larger passage from Vatican I’s Dogmatic Constitution on Faith and Reason, Dei Filius (1869-70), which is earlier invoked by Pius IX in the bull of 1854, Ineffabilis Deus (and also cited by Leo XIII in his 1899 Encyclical, Testem benevolentiae Nostrae). And this formula in Dei Filius is itself taken from the Commonitorium of St. Vincent of Lérins, as I cited above:
Therefore, let there be growth and abundant progress in understanding, knowledge, and wisdom, in each and all, in individuals and in the whole Church, at all times and in the progress of ages, but only within the proper limits, i.e., within the same dogma, the same meaning, the same judgment” [in eodem scilicet dogmate, eodem sensu eademque sententia].
The Vincentian project is not at all about changing the truths of the Catholic faith, but rather about communicating those truths “in a vocabulary that the people of the late twentieth century could hear and engage.” Weigel concludes, then, about John XXIII’s original intention:
What was needed was a fresh presentation of the truths of the Catholic faith, fashioned so that those truths could be grasped as lifelines: as answers to the great questions of contemporary human life; as demonstrations that human beings were not merely congealed stardust and that humanity’s destiny was not oblivion.
The master key to interpreting the conciliar documents
Secondly, what marks Weigel’s book as a watershed study of Vatican II is that he identities the master key to the interpretation of the sixteen documents of Vatican II that was forged by the bishops of the Extraordinary Synod of 1985, on the twentieth anniversary of the close of Vatican II. John Paul II convened an extraordinary assembly of the Synod of Bishops with the aim of encouraging a deeper reception and implementation of the Council. The Synod set forth in the document, A Message to the People of God and The Final Report, a proper framework, that is, six hermeneutical principles, for soundly interpreting the conciliar texts: the four constitutions, nine declarations, and three decrees are interpreted in light of the master key.
I have elsewhere discussed the various types of Vatican II interpretations (see my book Revelation, History, and Truth: A Hermeneutics of Dogma.) Here, I will briefly explain the principles, what Weigel calls the master key, for interpreting Vatican II texts:
- The theological interpretation of the conciliar doctrine must show attention to all the documents, in themselves and in their close inter-relationship, in such a way that the integral meaning of the Council’s affirmations – often very complex – might be understood and expressed.
- The four “constitutions” of the Council (those on liturgy, the Church, revelation, and the Church in the modern world) are the hermeneutical key to the other documents – namely, the Council’s nine decrees and three declarations.
- The pastoral import of the documents ought not to be separated from, or set in opposition to, their doctrinal content.
- No opposition may be made between the spirit and the letter of Vatican II.
- The Council must be interpreted in continuity with the great tradition of the Church, including earlier councils. The Church is one and the same throughout all the councils.
- Vatican II should be accepted as illuminating the problems of our own day.
Weigel correctly argues that all would-be interpreters of Vatican II, who make claims about what the Council actually teaches, should adhere to these principles. These hermeneutical principles are important, particularly in our time, since we are living in an ecclesial culture where there is not only a conflict of interpretations of the Council, but also amnesia about the Extraordinary Synod’s master key as well as the authoritative writings of John Paul II and Benedict XVI about the interpretation of Vatican II.
The hermeneutical norm of the first and second principles is twofold: one, intratextuality, meaning thereby interpreting the meaning of a particular passage within the context of the whole document; and two, intertextuality, meaning thereby interpreting any specific document in the context of the whole body of documents, particularly attending to the authoritative priority of the constitutions. In short, an integral understanding of the council texts is required.
The third principle states the unity and interdependence of the doctrinal and pastoral dimensions of the council documents. The Catechism of the Catholic Church expresses this principle:
There is an organic connection between our spiritual life and the dogmas. Dogmas are lights along the path of faith; they illuminate it and make it secure. Conversely, if our life is upright, our intellect and heart will be open to welcome the light shed by the dogmas of faith” (no. 89).
This third principle is particularly important today where some Catholic theologians, such as French theologian, Christoph Theobald, S.J., advances a so-called “pastoral orientation of doctrine.” That orientation is historicist in perspective. It collapses the dogmatic distinction of unchanging truth and its formulations into a historical context, meaning thereby, as Theobald puts it, “subject to continual reinterpretation according to the situation of those to whom it is transmitted.” Thus, rather than the unity and interdependence, some interpreters of Vatican II have wrongly made, as Aidan Nichols, OP, rightly notes, “the superordinate criterion in judging the conciliar texts the ‘signs of the time’.”
By contrast, the documents of Vatican II are interpreted in another way, which I will call Neo-Traditionalism. The Neo-Traditionalists are anti-Modernists to the degree that they do not acknowledge that theological Modernism had actually identified a real problem in upholding the permanence of meaning and truth. Therefore, the Neo-Traditionalists absolutize continuity of dogmatic truth without displaying any appreciation for the historical nature of those truths’ human expression. As the late Jaroslav Pelikan once wrote: “Tradition without history has homogenized all the stages of development into one statically defined truth.”
The fourth principle pertains to the relationship between the “spirit” of Vatican II and its “texts,” that is, the “letter.” On a predominant—but incorrect—view of this relationship, the “spirit” of the Council pertains, according to the liberal view, to the deep motivating forces of the council, its reforming energy, the conciliar consciousness of the Church where the content of Christianity is always up for discussion in light of the “signs of the time.” Weigel cites Benedict XVI on this matter. “‘A council was not a ‘constituent assembly’ called to write a new constitution. No council ever has such a mandate, and Vatican II certainly didn’t, ‘because the essential constitution of the Church comes from the Lord and was given to us so that we might attain eternal life and . . . be able to illuminate life in time and time itself.’”
This predominant view runs the risk of undermining the normative status and authority of the Council’s final texts. Contrary to this view, the true spirit of the Council is, according to Weigel, “[T]he Church [is called] to proclaim the Gospel, convert the world to Christ, and sanctify the human condition.” Thus, the unity between the “letter” and the “spirit” must be understood in light of the hermeneutical circle. In the words of Walter Cardinal Kasper, “Every individual statement can ultimately only be understood in the light of the whole, just as, conversely, the spirit of the whole only emerges from a conscientious interpretation of individual texts.” So, we can’t play off the “spirit of the council against its actual texts.” He adds,
The spirit of the whole, and hence the meaning of an individual text, can only be discovered by pursuing the textual history in detail, and from this extracting the council’s intention. And this intention was the renewal of the whole tradition, and that means the renewal, for our time, of the whole of what is Catholic. . . . Vatican II itself belongs within the tradition of all previous councils, and it is this tradition which it wished to renew. The council must therefore be interpreted in the context of that tradition.
This assertion brings us to the fifth principle of the master key: all the Vatican II texts must be seen in the light of the standpoint of Tradition as a whole. This is the superordinate criterion in interpreting and assessing these texts. Finally, the sixth principle is that Vatican II illuminates contemporary problems.
According to Weigel, the subordinate criteria in interpreting the texts of Vatican II is the authoritative writings of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Benedict’s reference to the hermeneutic of reform and renewal in the continuity of the Church takes seriously “John XXIII’s original intention for Vatican II.” Weigel rightly notes that both men “gratefully accepted as a living heritage the abiding and constituting truths that Christ had given the Church. [They] sought to find a ‘new and vital relationships’ to those truths in a synthesis of fidelity and dynamism that would help resolve the ‘great dispute’ about the human person that ‘marks the modern epoch’.”
Instructive interpretation of other texts
Thirdly, Weigel gives us an instructive interpretation of the constitutions, declarations, and decrees of Vatican II in light of the master key and the authoritative writings, both pre-papal and papal, of Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II and Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI.
He argues that this interpretation “requires another kind of exercise in ressourcement: a ‘return to the sources’ of Vatican II, to Pope John XXIII’s statement of purpose [original intention] for the Council, and to the Council’s principal documents.” Finally, this retrieval, ressourcement, calling for the necessary renewal and revitalization of the Church and its evangelical mission, its vital legacy, stands on the first principle formulated by Benedict: “The Church, both before and after Vatican II, was and is the same Church, one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, journeying on through time.”
In concluding, Weigel brings us back to the conflict of interpretations between the progressives and neo-traditionalists. They do not grasp the Vincentian inspiration of Vatican II, and hence John XXIII’s original intention. Therefore, they remain mired in the hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture, “understanding neither the Church nor the Council.”
I heartily recommend Weigel’s book for helping us through the quagmire of contemporary debates about the meaning of the Second Vatican Council.
To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II
By George Weigel
Basic Books, 2022
Hardcover, 353 pages
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