The pope’s speech to the Roman Curia of December 22, 2005 with commentary by a progressive Dominican

Source: FSSPX News


On January 24, 2006, La Libre Belgique published the following commentary on the speech by Benedict XVI to the Roman Curia (see DICI no. 128 and no. 129), written by Father Ignace Berten. The insight provided by this Dominican is doubly interesting: one can clearly see the opposition the pope must face from the progressives, but also certain weaknesses in his hermeneutic of “novelty in continuity” that these same progressives do not fail to reveal and exploit.

The real question is certainly this: is the new way of defining, since Vatican II, the relations “between the Church and the modern state” on the one hand and “between the Christian faith and world religions” on the other only a circumstantial change or does this really constitute an essential evolution? And from now on, how far can the Church, without denying her Faith, take into consideration “the present challenges of society and culture” which Father Berten lists so revealingly?

Vatican II: the battle of interpretations by Father Ignace Berten, O.P.

An important element of the Roman Curia is engaging in polemics over the real meaning of Vatican II… “which is to have said nothing new compared with what has always been said”. Benedict XVI supports them.

The Catholic Church just celebrated the 40th anniversary of Vatican Council II. This anniversary was the occasion for remembering and reexamining. Many publications have recently dedicated entire issues to this subject. In particular, there was the monumental “History of Vatican Council II” published by an international team under the direction of Giuseppe Alberigo of Bologna1 . In fact, this history has for several months been the object of a vigorous debate, which started in Rome.

In June 2005, Msgr. Agostino Marchetto published a book through the Vatican publishing house entitled, “Ecumenical Council Vatican II – Counterpoint of its History”2 Without a doubt, this is the expression of an important sector of the Roman Curia concerning the meaning of Vatican II. “The intention of this volume, says Mgr. Marchetto, is to finally achieve a history of Vatican Council II which gets past the significant repackaging - and we understand then the word "counterpoint" used in the title – established up to now on this matter, from an ideological vision imposed in a monopolistic way”3. Presenting the book to the press, on June 17, Cardinal Ruini affirmed that it was responding to the need to write a history of Vatican II “not from a partisan point of view, but according to the truth”, explicitly stating that this partisan history was that which was developed by the five volume “History of Vatican Council II”. Ruini concluded his presentation stating: “The interpretation of the Council as a rupture and as a new beginning has seen its last days. This interpretation is very weak today and does not have a valid foundation in the body of the Church. It is time that historiography produces a new reconstruction of Vatican II which is also, finally, the true history.”4

The terms in which Marchetto and Ruini criticized the predominant interpretation of Vatican II in the name of historical truth are expressed, essentially, in the opposition between rupture and continuity and between the spirit of the Council and its letter.

Against the school of Bologna represented by Alberigo5, they affirm, on the one hand, that the text must be interpreted as it is and that the hermeneutic that pretends to read the text in the light of the debates that led to it is an ideological manipulation. It is evident that the texts of the Council are a compromise. The editors of the texts, in the course of their various versions and revisions, systematically sought to achieve the greatest consensus possible among the conciliar fathers, at the risk of sometimes almost contradictory propositions: the texts therefore give rise to different interpretations depending on which tendency, present in the text itself, one chooses to accentuate (the emphasis is ours, here and below). It follows then, using good historical methodology, that when a large majority of the Council Fathers rejected a text and demanded a new one or refused a certain formulation, this is indicative of the understanding of the meaning of the text. This is the hermeneutic that Marcheetto, Ruini and others reject.

They affirm, elsewhere, continuity as opposed to rupture. Fundamentally, Vatican II said nothing new regarding what has always been said. In an article recently published, Walter Brandmüller, President of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences, wrote the following: “Councils always look ahead, with a view to a wider, clearer, more contemporary doctrinal expression, and never look backward. A Council cannot contradict its predecessors; it can only integrate, clarify and push ahead.”6 What serious historian can thus affirm that there has never been a contradiction? The Council of Florence, in 1442, declared that the Church “firmly believes, professes and preaches that none of those who are to be found outside the Catholic Church, not only the pagans, but also the Jews or heretics and schismatics can partake in eternal life, but will go “into the eternal fire, prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt. 25:41), unless before the end of their life they have been incorporated into her.” It is evident that Vatican II declared the opposite. The historical examples could be multiplied.

In his speech to the Roman Curia on December 22, 2005, Benedict XVI spoke out clearly on the interpretation of Vatican II. He posed the question “of the true interpretation of the Council or – as we would say today- of its true hermeneutic, of the true key to reading and applying it”. He took exception to the opposition set up between the spirit and the texts of the Council: “It would be necessary to follow not the texts, but its spirit”. And he opposed a “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture” and a “hermeneutic of reform”. The hermeneutic of rupture, he said, could count on the “sympathy of the mass media, and also a sector of modern theology”. What was desired by John XXIII and Paul VI and by the Council Fathers themselves was reform, not rupture. Benedict XVI indeed said that on certain important points there was however discontinuity, principally in three domains: “a new definition of the relations between faith and modern sciences was required”; “it was necessary to define in a new way the relations between the Church and the modern State”; there needed to be “a new definition of the relations between the Christian faith and world religions”.

Discontinuity, although “the continuity of principles was not abandoned (sic)”.

It is indeed evident that the Council never presumed to change the heart or the essence of the tradition of the Faith, but it called into question (this too is evident) the expression which it took in the course of history, on certain important points, which Benedict XVI recognized. No serious theologian or Church historian ever spoke of Vatican II simply in terms of rupture or discontinuity: Everyone has a hermeneutic of tradition which manifests both continuity with regard to the Gospel and the ancient Faith of the Church and historical discontinuities. To speak, as did Benedict XVI, in a black-and-white manner of partisan theologians “of discontinuity and rupture” is to directly enter in a partisan way into a polemical argument based on a caricature.

From here on, it seems legitimate to me to say that in this speech, in the heart of this current controversy, Benedict XVI is in fact siding with the Marchetto-Ruini-Brandmüller school. By playing off the opposition between the letter and spirit of the Council and the opposition between continuity and rupture, he completely discounts a widespread interpretation in the Church, motivated however by some solid historical and theological arguments. He thus presupposes that the distinction between “the essential constitution of the Church (which) comes to us from the Lord” and what is a contingent historical expression is manifest once and for all. In the name of this distinction touted as manifest, it is possible to affirm, as is currently done, that what belongs directly to that which “comes to us from the Lord” is : the ordained ministry exclusive of women, the divorced and remarried excluded from Eucharistic communion and, in the ethical domain, the intrinsic evil of contraception, the personal character of the embryo from a single cell on, etc. In other words, it is the option of intransigent rigidity opposed to the current challenges of society and the culture.


1 “History of Vatican Council II”, under the direction of Giuseppe Alberigo and Etienne Fouilloux, for the French edition, Paris, Cerf, 5 volumes, 1987-2005.

2 Agostino Marchetto, "Il Concilio Ecumenico Vaticano II - Contrappunto per la sua storia", Rome, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2005. Msgr. Marchetto is currently Secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People.

3 Interview published by Cathobel, 2/22/05.

4 As cited in, 6/22/05.

5 This expression “school of Bologna” is a simplification: the history of the Council Vatican II is the fruit of the work of a wide international team of historians of the Church, among whom were several Belgians: Jan Grootaers, Joseph Famerée, Claude Soetens.

6 Walter Brandmüller, “Il Vaticano II nella storia dei Concili”, Avvenire, 11/29/05. (L’“Avvenire” is the journal of the Italian Bishops Conference)