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Treasures Old and New: Vatican II is to be Understood and Interpreted within a Hermeneutic of Continuity

By Deacon Keith Fournier
December 5th, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

In discussing the Second Vatican Council much has been made about the difference between those who view that Council and its teaching through either a hermeneutic of continuity or a hermeneutic of rupture.

CHESAPEAKE, VA (Catholic Online) - I recently attended a forum where a theology Professor gave an address on Vatican II to a group of Deacons. It was meant to be a tribute, in light of the Councils' fiftieth anniversary, to the importance of the Council. For the most part, his thoughts were insightful and well presented.

However, in the question and answer session which followed his talk, something emerged which points to a serious challenge faced by the Catholic Church as she engages both her mission of the New Evangelization (ad intra) as well as her task of leading a new missionary age (ad extra).

I use the Latin terms for "from within" (ad intra) and "from without" (ad extra) intentionally. Such phrases often accompany theological discourse and debate. The question and answer session following the talk was no exception.  What became clear was that terms - and what one means by them - really matter.

The term "New Evangelization" was coined by Blessed John Paul II and has been embraced as a foundation for the pastoral work of Pope Benedict XVI. It refers, among other things, to the evangelistic and catechetical work so desperately needed within the whole Catholic Church.

It acknowledges the fact that many people in the pews need to encounter the Risen Lord. They then need to hear the fullness of the Gospel as taught authentically and authoritatively by the teaching office (the magisterium) of the Catholic Church. Finally, they need to embrace that teaching in a way which is reflected in a unity of life. 

Sadly, we must acknowledge that there are many sacramentalized Catholics who have not been evangelized. Further, there are many Catholics who do not really know what their own Church teaches. Much of our "catechesis" - instruction in the faith- since the Second Vatican Council - has been inadequate.

Thus, the Catholic Church has committed its resources to reawakening the faithful through an encounter with the Risen Jesus Christ. Further, the Church seeks to re-evangelize and re-catechize the faithful so that that they can consciously choose to live their lives as Catholic Christians in the heart of the Church  for the sake of the world into which they have been sent on mission.

I use the phrase "New Missionary Age" to refer to the unchangeable task of the Catholic Church, through her members, to bring the whole world into a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. That is to lead to incorporation into the Church, which is His Body. 

The Declaration of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued in 200 and entitled "Dominus Iesus: On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church"  stated this with simple clarity. Here is just one sentence:

"It must therefore be firmly believed as a truth of Catholic faith that the universal salvific will of the One and Triune God is offered and accomplished once for all in the mystery of the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the Son of God." 

The Prefect of that Congregation, the author of this document, was Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. He is now Pope Benedict XVI. His continual reminder to the faithful of the missionary vocation of the Church "ad extra" is one of the hallmarks of his papal Magisterium.

The speaker and I had an interesting discussion concerning the importance of that letter and what it really says. We strongly disagreed. I may return to that disagreement in a future article. In this one I want to zero in on another term he used, this one was an Italian word. 

The speaker enthusiastically used the term "aggiornamento" when referring the Second Vatican Council. The word was used by Blessed John XXIII as he charged the Council Fathers in their important work. Loosely translated, the word means to bring something up to date. We would both agree on that.

However, as to what that term means as it relates to the teaching of that Council in the light of the two millennia of the Church history - and its relationship to the teachings of past Councils - now that is where our discussion revealed a strong disagreement.  It also led to a lively discussion and debate.

This all relates to another theological term, "hermeneutic". A hermeneutic is a lens through which we view or interpret something of importance. In discussing the Second Vatican Council much has been made about the difference between those who view that Council and its teaching through either a hermeneutic of continuity, seeing proper reform in light of that continuity, or a hermeneutic of rupture.

In other words, was the Council a break with past teaching, something entirely new, or was it a continuation, a freshening, of the trajectory of the truth as taught by the Church from its beginnings? Clearly, on many issues related to this hermeneutic the speaker and I hold very different positions. It was clear as specific" hot button" issues began to be discussed in that forum.

There is one final word which came up in this encounter. This one a French word, ressourcement. It means a return to the sources. I told my colleague that I believed that the Second Vatican Council, as properly understood, should also be seen as a return to the sources - the Scriptures, the  Patristic writings and past Councils - in order to update the trajectory of truth.

I offered an opinion that the task of a contemporary Catholic theologian is beautifully explained in a passage from Matthew's Gospel, "Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old."   (Matt. 13:52)

Well, my colleague and I had a punchy discussion. He views himself as a "progressive" and apparently viewed me, his interlocutor, as what he called a "traditionalist". I told him I prefer the noun "Catholic" without any descriptive labels. I am not a "traditionalist" though I do love the Tradition. I added that if he wanted to use adjectives, he could just call me a "dynamically orthodox", happy to be Catholic, Catholic.

I thought of the speaker recently when I read comments given by Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller, the current Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.  He was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI to this important post, to the chagrin of some "traditionalists" and the disappointment of some "progressivists". His appointment is proving to be one more confirmation of the wisdom of this Pope.

The Archbishop gave some insightful remarks recently upon the presentation of Volume VII of the German edition of Joseph Ratzinger's "Opera Omnia", a systematic theological collection of the works the now Pope Benedict XVI has written on the meaning of the Second Vatican Council. I hope my colleague read this address. The Prefect suggested an interesting connection between some "progressivists" and some "traditionalists".

Rather than give my own interpretation of his remarks, I offer a lengthy quote from Gianna Valente's article on the presentation in the November 30, 2012 edition of La Stampa entitled "The custodian of faith on the "heretical interpretations" of the Council"

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The custodian of faith on the "heretical interpretations" of the Council

Gianna Valente

Those who consider the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II, to be a break from Church Tradition, offer a "heretical interpretation" of this great ecclesiastical event. And this doctrinal error is not made only by modernist innovators: it is also committed by neo-traditionalists who believe that Vatican II supposedly turned its back on the "traditional Church".

The suggestion that the traditionalist position may have "heretical" elements was made yesterday evening by Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller, current Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

His remarks came during the presentation of volume VII of the German edition of Joseph Ratzinger's "Opera Omnia", a systematic collection of all the works which the theologian-turned-Pope dedicated to the Council and the documents that came out of it.

The presentation took place in a very evocative place: the Teutonic College of Santa Maria dell'Anima which was expert-theologian Joseph Ratzinger's logistical base during the Council sessions.

During his presentation, the head of the doctrinal dicastery, clearly stated that the only orthodox interpretation of the Second Vatican Council is that which sees it as an opportunity for reform and renewal, in continuity with the one subject-Church which the Lord has given us.

Müller sees this as the only hermeneutic that respects "the indissoluble unity between the Holy Scriptures, the complete and integral Tradition and the Magisterium, which finds its highest expression in the Council, presided over by St. Peter's Successor, as visible head of the Church."

Archbishop Müller contrasted this "singular orthodox interpretation" with a "heretical interpretation" which he identified with "the hermeneutics of a split, both on the progressivist front and the traditionalist front." According to Müller, what they both share in common is a rejection of the Council:

"progressivists want to leave it behind them, as if it were just a phase that should be abandoned in order to move towards a different Church; traditionalists do not want to move towards such a Church, as if it represented the winter of the Catholica."

In his speech, the former bishop of Regensburg described the contribution of Joseph Ratzinger, first as a theologian during the actual Council meetings (as a theological advisor to Cardinal Joseph Frings also) and then during the long and turbulent reception phase of the conciliar teachings. "It was a time of great expectation. Something big had to happen," Benedict XVI wrote in the preface to the German volume presented by Müller.

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