The Interpretation of Vatican Council II

Source: FSSPX News


Last December 22, Pope Benedict XVI gave a crucial speech on the interpretation of Vatican II. At first glance, this text seems to take into account the objections of traditionalists. But a more thorough analysis reveals in the current pope’s thought a strong attachment to the most serious errors of the council, as well as a desire to anchor Vatican II in the Church as a key element of a “new tradition”.

The speech of December 22, 2005, of capital importance for understanding the current evolution of ideas in the Church, was preceded by several interesting acts.

On November 9, by a Motu Proprio, the pope suppressed the decision taken by Paul VI in 1969 according a large measure of autonomy to the Franciscans of Assisi. They used this autonomy to immerse themselves in liturgical and pastoral innovation. From now on, they must once again defer to the local bishop and must follow the canonical and liturgical norms.

On December 1, there was the letter from the Congregation for Divine Worship that, “in the name of the Holy Father”, reminded the “Neo-Catechumenal Way”, this movement that had the strong support of John-Paul II, of their obligations. The most remarkable point was the directive to “not use Eucharistic Prayer II exclusively, but to use the others contained in the missal as well”.

On December 8, the fortieth anniversary of the close of Vatican II, the pope made a decisive gesture…he did nothing. In a situation where John-Paul II would have certainly arranged a triumphalist gathering to celebrate the success of the council, Benedict XVI dedicated the main part of his sermon to the Blessed Virgin, even though he did devote his introduction to Vatican II.

But these acts, although eliciting much interest from observers, are far from having the importance of the speech of December 22.

 A “game-plan” speech

The occasion for this speech is a tradition begun by John-Paul II: every year, just before Christmas, the pope receives the Curia to exchange Christmas wishes, taking advantage of the gathering to sum up the past year.

A little less than half the speech was thus devoted to reviewing the events of the 2005: the death of John-Paul II, World Youth Day, the Synod on the Eucharist and, of course, the election of Benedict XVI.

We can note in this review, the severe censure of the pope with regard to one of the essential theses of the promoters of the liturgical reform: “In the period of liturgical reform, Mass and adoration outside it were often seen as in opposition to one another:  it was thought that the Eucharistic Bread had not been given to us to be contemplated, but to be eaten, as a widespread objection claimed at that time. The experience of the prayer of the Church has already shown how nonsensical this antithesis was.” Benedict XVI continued his reproach of this derisive critique of Catholic Eucharistic tradition.

But the “nuclear heart” of the speech was a return to Vatican II. This text deserves our attention, for it clarifies the thinking of Benedict XVI on a crucial subject.

A key text

The analysis is thorough and the thought expressed is quite dense. We can sense that Josef Ratzinger put considerable effort into it and expressed in it a reflection which is close to his heart, one that represents without doubt a major axis in his thinking and life.

In comparison with John-Paul II’s writing, which was diffuse and somewhat complicated, Benedict XVI is enjoyable to read, even if the precision of the speech requires close attention. The reproaches often made with regard to German philosophy of being unreadable because of obscure neologisms are not to warranted here.

The ideas of the pope are in the same line as the book The Ratzinger Report (cf. Fr. Loic Duverger, “Le retournement”, Fideliter no. 169). The two major advantages of the present text are first a synthetic character, and above all the fact that it is no longer the writing of the theologian Ratzinger, but an act of Pope Benedict XVI.

 A desire to clarify

The Sovereign Pontiff, and this is what’s interesting about his intervention, takes head-on the question of the exact status of the council, which has poisoned the Church for forty years. We sense that he is hoping, through this effort of clarification, to clear the road for the Church. The questions which seem to us essential for the unraveling of the crisis are dealt with squarely, and we notice with interest that the pope is at least somewhat aware of the objections made by the traditional movement.

Moreover, we cannot but underscore the praiseworthy intention of the pope to identify himself with Catholic Tradition, to want to follow this path. As we shall see, he doesn’t really succeed, but the simple fact of wanting to is already progress.

Also (and this is an established fact), Benedict XVI has the courage to vigorously condemn certain errors.

Nevertheless, we must not take this text for something it is not: the end of the crisis in the Church. The pope proceeds like a surgeon coming to a wounded man. There is blood everywhere, his clothing is torn, etc. The doctor begins by clearing and cleaning the wound, so that the real problem can be seen. Such is the work accomplished by Benedict XVI in this speech of December 22.

But, at this moment, the wound appears in all its seriousness, and now begins the much more long and complicated stage of healing. In the same way, in the second part of his speech, as we shall see later in our Appendix, Benedict XVI shows himself to be attached to certain of the most serious errors of Vatican II.

The desire to identify Vatican II with Tradition

The pope’s intention in this text is quite clear: to show that the council can and must be understood as being, despite certain appearances to the contrary, in conformity with Catholic Tradition, in conformity with all the councils.

To try to thoroughly demonstrate this point, Benedict XVI takes up a number of connected themes. Some are somewhat brief: for example, only a phrase evokes the “relationship between the Church and the faith of Israel”, which is nevertheless an important theme of Vatican II and of the thinking of Benedict XVI.

Others are presented in a more developed manner: religious liberty and the relationship between the Church and the world. The heart of his thesis is a distinction on the way of interpreting the texts of the Council. This speech of December 22 is of such importance and density that it requires several penetrating theological studies.

Here, we are only going to consider the theme of the “wrong” interpretation of the council, which allows us to grasp the main interest of this attempt by Benedict XVI to resolve the problem of Vatican II, but also its limits and incoherence.

A crisis after the council

 In his analysis, the pope begins by frankly admitting the existence of the post-conciliar crisis: “No one can deny that in vast areas of the Church the implementation of the Council has been somewhat difficult.”

He returns to this theme several times, for example when he points out the error of those who think the opening to the world would eliminate all difficulties: they “had underestimated the inner tensions as well as the contradictions inherent in the modern epoch”, as well as “the perilous frailty of human nature”.

This in such a way that, even when the pope wants to recognize the council’s good fruit, he is forced to use circumlocutions and nuances on top of nuances: “Today, we see that although the good seed developed slowly, it is nonetheless growing.”

The two hermeneutics

In order to explain this crisis, Benedict XVI opposes two interpretations (he uses a more scholarly term “hermeneutic”) of this event. One, the wrong interpretation or hermeneutic, “caused confusion”. The other, the correct one, “bore and is bearing fruit”.

The pope undertakes a methodical critique of this “wrong” interpretation, an interpretation of “discontinuity and rupture”. Supported by “the mass media, and also one trend of modern theology”, this interpretation posits that the true council is not found in the texts ratified between 1962 and 1965, but in the “impulses toward the new that are contained in the texts”.

This interpretation postulates that we can only be faithful to the council in bypassing its letter, which is the fruit of punctilious compromises and which only imperfectly reflects the reality of the conciliar event.

Benedict XVI concludes sternly: “The hermeneutic of discontinuity risks ending up in a break between the pre- and post-conciliar Churches.

The essential constitution of the Church

At this point in his exposition and critique of the “wrong” interpretation of Vatican II, the pope takes up a new argument, which is quite interesting. This interpretation, he says, considers the council “as a sort of constituent assembly that eliminates an old constitution and creates a new one.” He objects, “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”.

The argument, we repeat, is striking: a change in the constitution of the Church by the council is impossible, firstly because the Fathers did not have any such mandate; secondly, because no one gave it to them; thirdly, because no one could have given it to them. In short, in the Church, the Revolution (even a “conciliar” one) is illicit in principle and without normative value.

The “authorized” interpretation

To this doctrine of “discontinuity”, to this revolution “in tiara and cope”, to this “wrong” interpretation of Vatican II, Benedict XVI opposes the “true” interpretation, that of “reform”.

According to the Sovereign Pontiff, in the process of “reform” (whose perfect example is the council), “the principles express the permanent aspect [of Tradition], since they remain as an undercurrent, motivating decisions from within, while the “practical forms, the contingent matters”, the punctilious ecclesial decisions, “depend on the historical situation and are therefore subject to change”.

This “correct interpretation”, intellectually quite dubious (that’s the least we can say), deserves in-depth analyses. We give an example of one such in our Appendix. But let us try here to deepen our analysis of the “wrong interpretation”.

The pope, it is true, does not use the words “good” or “bad”, “right” or “wrong” to describe these interpretations. They nevertheless convey his meaning. Is this distinction between a “good” and “bad” interpretation the only one relevant to our situation?

Concerning a council, is not the pertinent distinction between the “authorized” and “wild” interpretations? And are not the “authorized” interpreters of Vatican II the popes?

Benedict XVI is aware of this objection because he cites, to support his “good” interpretation, a speech by John XXIII and one by Paul VI.

The interpretation of Paul VI

Let’s pass over John XXIII, whose thinking on Vatican II is not especially clear. The fragment cited by the current pope demonstrates this: there exists, in fact, two versions of this fragment, one in Italian, which is obviously more progressive, the other in Latin, which is more traditional. Indeed, on two different occasions, John XXIII used the two versions.

On the other hand, for Paul VI, we have the benefit of an abundance of speeches. Can we exonerate Paul VI of an interpretation of Vatican II as a rupture, at least partially, with the Church’s past?

Benedict XVI sees this difficulty. He says of the closing speech of the Council by Paul VI, that in it the pope gives another reason “a hermeneutic of discontinuity can seem convincing”. Speaking of the council, he affirms that, “some kind of discontinuity might emerge. Indeed, a discontinuity had been revealed”, in such a way that the continuity is “easy to miss…at a first glance”, an “apparent discontinuity” being more obvious.

Actually, a good deal more than the current sovereign pontiff wants to admit, Paul VI took the perspective of a certain discontinuity between the pre- and post-conciliar Churches. We shall cite three characteristic examples.

A certain intention of rupture

We have seen that, according to Benedict XVI, a council cannot modify the constitution of the Church. Moreover, we know that Josef Ratzinger deplores, in the liturgical reform, the rupture which took place there.

But how then should we interpret the phrase of Paul VI on January 13, 1965, if not in terms of constitutional and liturgical rupture: “The new religious pedagogy that the present liturgical renewal wants to establish fits, so as to almost take the place of a central engine, into the great movement inscribed in the constitutional principles of the Church, and made easier and more urgent by the progress of the human culture”?

Ten years later the “Lefebvre affair” erupted. There also, on two major occasions, Paul VI was going to opt for a form of rupture.

On June 29, 1975, writing to Archbishop Lefebvre, Paul VI spoke these extraordinary and significant words: “the Second Vatican Council has no less authority, it is even in certain aspects more important than that of Nicea.”

That a pastoral council would be more important than the council which defined the dogma of the divinity of Christ signifies that this council is, in reality, the foundation of a new Church.

This new form of Church is going to be characterized one year later by Bishop Benelli, Substitute of the Secretariat of State, in a letter where he notes that for the seminarians of Econe, “there is nothing desperate in their case: if they are of good will and seriously prepared for a priestly ministry in true fidelity to the conciliar Church, we will undertake to find the best solution.”

It belongs to Benedict XVI to tell us if this vision of Vatican II was an authorized interpretation, or if it was only the wild interpretation of the theologian Montini.

To the distinction “authorized/wild”, we must add another, even more important: that of “true” and “false” interpretation.

True and false interpretation

For, after all, an interpretation is not supposed to be an “imaginative creation”; on the contrary, it should arise from the text itself in a logical and spontaneous way. The true interpretation of Vatican II is that which “springs” from its texts, read in their obvious sense.

Moreover, it is characteristic of the problems posed by the text of the council that, forty years after its promulgation, a pope must dedicate such a theological effort to try and explain its meaning.

In fact, it is enough to cite reliable observers to realize that the dominant impression of the council was that of a rupture. Whether one speaks of Cardinal Suenens affirming that “Vatican II was 1789 in the Church”, or of Fr. Congar underscoring that at the council “the Church had its October Revolution”, or of Cardinal Ratzinger confessing that “Vatican II was an anti-Syllabus”, the list is long of first-class witnesses who perceived it thus.

There also, it is necessary that the current pope tell us clearly where such a dominant impression comes from, if not from the texts themselves.

The real debate is finally underway

Without forgetting the most fundamental fact: the objective analysis of the texts of the council shows, on certain points, a discontinuity with the constant teaching of the Church.

The debate is underway, and it is fitting to thank the pope for having started it so clearly. It is necessary however, in this debate which must be undertaken out of love for the Church, to boldly confront the real.

Actually, we think that in objective reality, “the hermeneutic of rupture” is to be found not only in the media and some of the theologians but is first of all, at least in certain respects, to be found in Vatican II itself, in the letter of its texts. The debate must necessarily shed light on this crucial point.


Suresnes, le 21 janvier 2006.


Appendix: the question of religious liberty

To explain and illustrate his “hermeneutic of reform”, the pope proposed several themes. The notion that he developed the most is that of religious liberty or, as he said “liberty of religion”.

One can well understand, through this example, how Benedict XVI tried to directly address several of our objections, while at the same time defending one of the gravest errors of Vatican II.

The logic of the pope

His analysis goes as follows. In the 19th century, “freedom of religion was thought of as an expression of the incapacity of man to find the Truth” and as “an exaltation of relativism”, “raised in an illegitimate way to the level of metaphysics”. It was the spirit of the “radical phase of the French Revolution”.

Faced with this grave error, which asserts that man is not “capable of knowing the truth about God”, the Church, under Pius IX, rightly produced “severe condemnations”.

But then, “the modern era underwent developments”, a maturation occurred and, from a metaphysical principle, freedom of religion regained its just place as a social and historical necessity, connected to human coexistence in the context of a plurality of religions. This is the “model of the American Revolution”.

Principles of Vatican II

Vatican II also, “recognizing and making her own through the Decree on Religious Liberty an essential principle of the modern state, took up again the most profound patrimony of the Church”, in such a way as to find herself “in full harmony with the teachings of Jesus Himself”.

In fact, the Council intended to show that religious liberty not only flows from a social and political necessity, but is rooted in the “intrinsic reality of the truth, which cannot be imposed from the outside, but must be adopted by man solely through the mechanism of conviction”.

“Example” of the martyrs

To illustrate and support his assertion, the pope uses “the example” of the martyrs. According to him, the Roman Empire imposed a state religion. The first Christians, adoring only Jesus, logically refused to adore the pagan gods and thus, “through this, clearly rejected the religion of the state”.

The martyrs of the early Church died for their faith in God who revealed Himself in Jesus Christ and, in so doing, died also for their liberty of conscience and for their freedom to profess their faith, a profession which cannot be imposed by any state”.

Weak reasoning

The weakness of the current pope’s reasoning seems obvious to anyone who has studied the question even a little, notably through the work by Archbishop Lefebvre, Religious Liberty Questioned (Angelus Press).

To assert that the condemnation of religious liberty in the 19th century was only based on its relativist foundation, and not on its very nature, is a counter-truth as much historically as doctrinally.

Speaking only of Pius IX regarding religious liberty would mean forgetting, before him, Pius VI, Pius VII or Gregory XVI. It is an even more serious evasion of numerous teachings on this subject of Leo XIII, Benedict XV, Pius XI (Quas Primas) and Pius XII.

To affirm that, from now on, the conception which prevails is no longer metaphysical relativism, but a simple assertion of necessities in a pluralistic world is to take refuge in an imaginary world. In reality, the more secularism spreads, the more this legal desire to put God out of all social life grows.

It is moreover, quite characteristic, for the pope, to refer to an “essential principle of the modern state” in this regard. If it were only a question of the assertion of a necessity, he would speak more prosaically of a “customary practice of the modern state”.

However, concerning the coexistence of diverse religions in the same country, the doctrine of the tolerance, pushed in its consequences by Pie XII December 6, 1953, only twelve years before the Decree on Religious Liberty, was amply sufficient. If the Council opted for the “principle of the freedom of religion”, it is because it wanted to join this “essential principle of the modern state”.

Falsified debate

To speak exclusively, in the question of religious liberty, of the “knowledge of the truth” is to falsify the debate. Everyone agrees, and always did, with this principle of the Code of Canon Law: “No one can be constrained to embrace the Catholic Faith against his will.” But in reality, the issue at stake is knowing if anyone can be prevented from spreading a false religious doctrine. This is not the same thing: that someone be prevented from acting never meant that he is forced to act.

To reject in principle any notion of state religion, and to make no allusion to the duty of societies to honor God, comes down to consigning to oblivion a constant teaching of the Church, including the Decree on Religious Liberty, which recalls this duty (even if it is somewhat hypocritical, because it was a last-minute addition by Paul VI to “break” the persistent opposition to this text): “[Religious liberty] leaves intact the traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of societies with regard to the true religion and the one Church of Christ.”

To make no distinction between the true religion and false ones is to eliminate up front a crucial distinction, for the rights of truth are essentially different from the “rights” of error. As Pius XII said: “What does not correspond to the truth and the moral law has no objective right to existence, to propaganda, nor to action.”

Finally, to call to the support of religious liberty i.e. to the support of the refusal to recognize the social reign of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Christian martyrs who died precisely for the “Lord Jesus”, is to denature all of history, all Catholic doctrine, all reality. One cannot, on such a faulty foundation, construct a “hermeneutic of reform” of any value.