Proposals for a Correct Reading of the Second Vatican Council
The primacy of the worship of God as the basis of all true pastoral theology.
I. The theological foundation of pastoral theology
To speak correctly of pastoral theory and practice, it is necessary first to be conscious of their foundation and their theological aim. The aim of the Church is the aim of the Incarnation: “propter nostram salutem.” This is how the faith and the prayer of the Church are expressed: “Qui propter nos homines et propter nostram salutem descendit de caelis et incarnatus est.... et homo factus est.” This salvation means the salvation of the soul for eternal life. The purpose of the Church’s whole juridical and pastoral order also consists of this salvation, as the last canon of the Code of Canon Law tells us: “prae oculis habita salute animarum, quae in Ecclesia suprema semper lex esse debet.” (can. 1752)
The content of the salvation of the human soul consists of holiness, of renewal and indeed perfection of the original human dignity in Christ. God has created man according to His image and His likeness (Gen. 1:26) and this work is marvelous, as the Church says in the liturgy. “Deus, qui humanae substantiae dignitatem mirabiliter condidisti”. But more marvelous yet is the renewal and the perfecting of this image that has come by the work of the Redemption: “mirabilius reformasti”. Renewal, new perfection, holiness consist of the unimaginable grace of man’s participation in the Divine nature itself: “Divinitatis esse consortes”. This participation in the divine nature means being adopted sons of God, being sons in the Only Son, Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ, the only Son of God by nature, made himself the first-born of many brothers by His true incarnation: “primogenitus in multis fratribus” (Rm 1:29). By means of His redemptive sacrifice Christ offers man the grace of Divine life. The same Divine life in the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is present in the humanity of the Son of God: “in ipso inhabitat omnis plenitudo divinitatis corporaliter”, in Him all of divinity dwells bodily (Col 2:9). Christ incarnate is full of grace and truth (Jn 1:14). The Holy Spirit shares the grace of Divine sonship and all the other necessary graces of holiness from this font of Divine life by means of the Church, which is the Mystical Body of Christ, in the liturgy of the sacraments. Thus we can better understand what the Second Vatican Council taught:
Liturgia est culmen ad quod actio Ecclesiae tendit et simul fons unde omnis eius virtus emanat. (Sacrosanctum Concilium 10)
The liturgy is the summit toward which the action of the Church tends, and, at the same time, the fountain from which all her energy flows. Apostolic work, in fact, is ordered so that all who have become sons of God by means of faith and baptism may join in assembly, praise God in the Church, and take part in the sacrifice and at the table of the Lord. (SC 10).
II. A pastoral vademecum of the Second Vatican Council
In the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium, in the context of the discourse on the primacy of worship and adoration that is to be rendered to God, the Council presents a solid synthesis of a sound and theologically valid pastoral theology, a sort of pastoral vademecum with the following seven characteristics:
The Church announces the good tidings of salvation to those who do not believe, so that all men may know the true God and Jesus Christ whom He has sent, and may be converted from their ways, doing penance [Jn. 17:3; Lk. 24:17; Ac 2:38]. To believers also the Church must ever preach faith and penance, she must prepare them for the sacraments, teach them to observe all that Christ has commanded [Mt. 28:20], and invite them to all the works of charity, piety, and the apostolate. For all these works make it clear that Christ's faithful, though not of this world, are to be the light of the world and to glorify the Father before men. (SC, 9).
From this brief synthesis given to us by the Council we can establish the following seven essential notes of pastoral theory and practice.
1. The duty to proclaim the Gospel to all non-believers (SC, 9).
Such a proclamation must be explicit: that is, faith in Jesus Christ, to which one arrives by the grace of conversion and repentance. Therefore there is no room for a theory and a practice of so-called “anonymous Christianity”, there is no acceptance of alternative ways of salvation other than the way of Christ: Christ is the one Mediator between God and men. This is what the Council teaches in the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, saying:
The Church, now sojourning on earth as an exile, is necessary for salvation. Christ, present to us in His Body, which is the Church, is the one Mediator and the unique way of salvation. (n. 14)
In paragraph n. 8 of the same Dogmatic Constitution, the Council says: “Unicus Mediator Christus” (see also ibid., n. 28). Human beings who are saved in eternity are saved by their acceptance of the merits of the one Mediator, Jesus Christ, in their earthly life (ibid., n. 49). The Second Vatican Council teaches, presenting the following quotation from the Council of Trent: “per Filium eius Iesum Christum, Dominum nostrum, qui solus noster Redemptor et Salvator est” (ibid., n. 50). In the Declaration on Religious Liberty the Council teaches that every man is redeemed by Christ the Savior and is called to Divine sonship, which can be received only by means of the grace of faith (Dignitatis humanae, n. 10).
Pope Paul VI, in his address at the opening of the second session of the Council in 1963, taught: “Jesus Christ is the only and the highest Teacher and Pastor, and the one Mediator between God and men.” (Sacrosanctum Oecumenicum Concilium Vaticanum II. Constitutiones, Decreta, Declarationes, Città del Vaticano 1966, p. 905). The same Pope repeated at the Council the following year: “Jesus Christ is the one Mediator and Redeemer” (ibid., p. 989). The teaching of the Council continues: “Now, since he who does not believe is already judged, the words of Christ are at one and the same time words of judgment and of grace, of death and of life.” (Ad gentes, n. 8). Missionary activity is a sacred duty of the Church, because it is the will of God Himself who insists upon the necessity of faith in Christ and of baptism for eternal life (ibid., n. 7).
2. The duty of proclaiming the faith to the faithful (SC, n. 9)
The primary task of the Church consists in taking care that the faith of the faithful grow and be protected from the danger of error: therefore this means to take care for the purity, the completeness, and the vitality of faith. Already in his address at the opening of the Second Vatican Council, Blessed Pope John XXIII declared unequivocally, in a yet more effective way, how the principal duty of the Council was to be the protection and the promotion of the doctrine of the faith: “ut sacrum christianae doctrinae depositum efficaciore ratione custodiatur atque proponatur” (loc. cit., p. 861). The Blessed Pontiff continues, maintaining how, in the exercise of this her duty in our time, the Church may never take her eyes away from the sacred patrimony of the truth, received by Tradition. The Council must transmit Catholic doctrine in its integrity, without diminishing it and without distorting it: “integram, non imminutam, non detortam tradere vult doctrinam catholicam.” Pope John very realistically observes how this may not be appreciated by everyone. It is therefore necessary, says the Pope, that the whole of Christian doctrine be received in our days by all, without omitting a single part: “oportet ut universa doctrina christiana, nulla parte inde detracta, his temporibus nostris ob omnibus accipiatur.” (ibid., 864)
In receiving and promoting the entire doctrine of the faith, we must follow a way that is accurate as to its form and concepts, following the example of the Council of Trent and the First Vatican Council, as as Pope John XIII reaffirms. In the Declaration on Religious Liberty the Council admonishes the faithful to “let them be about their task of spreading the light of life with all confidence and apostolic courage, even to the shedding of their blood.” (DH, n. 14) Furthermore they have “a grave obligation... ever more fully to understand the truth received from Him, faithfully to proclaim it, and vigorously to defend it.” (ibid.) In the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, the Council exhorts: “Love and good will, to be sure, must in no way render us indifferent to truth and goodness. Indeed love itself impels the disciples of Christ to speak the saving truth to all men.” (n. 28). Pope Paul VI, in the address at the opening of the second session of the Second Vatican Council affirmed: “The foundation for renewal of the Church must be a more exacting study and a richer promotion of Divine truth.” (loc. cit., p. 913)
In the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity the Council expresses itself in these terms: “In our own times, new problems are arising and very serious errors are circulating which tend to undermine the foundations of religion, the moral order, and human society itself.” (Apostolicam actuositatem, n. 6). In the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, the Council observed how grave moral errors were being spread, already then, and exhorted all Christians to defend and promote the natural dignity and the high, sacred value of the matrimonial state (n. 47). The Council, in the same document, reproves immoral customs in relation to marriage and to the virtue of chastity, saying that “polygamy, the plague of divorce, so-called free love and other disfigurements have an obscuring effect” on the dignity of marriage and the family. “In addition, married love is too often profaned by excessive self-love, the worship of pleasure and illicit practices against human generation. Moreover, serious disturbances are caused in families by modern economic conditions, by influences at once social and psychological, and by the demands of civil society.” (ibid.) The Council gives an unequivocal teaching on marital chastity: “Relying on these principles, sons of the Church may not undertake methods of birth control which are found blameworthy by the teaching authority of the Church in its unfolding of the divine law. (Pius XI, Casti Connubii). All should be persuaded that human life and the task of transmitting it are not realities bound up with this world alone. Hence they cannot be measured or perceived only in terms of it, but always have a bearing on the eternal destiny of men.” (ibid., n. 51).
In the Decree on Missionary Activity, the Council exhorts that every form of indifferentism, syncretism, confusion be excluded (AG, 15). In the Constitution Gaudium et Spes, the Council rejects a purely worldly and anti-religious humanism (n. 56). The same conciliar document speaks of atheistic humanism which not only threatens the faith, but even exercises a negative and globalizing influence on all the spheres of social life:
Growing numbers of people are abandoning religion in practice. Unlike former days, the denial of God or of religion, or the abandonment of them, are no longer unusual and individual occurrences. For today it is not rare for such things to be presented as requirements of scientific progress or of a certain new humanism. In numerous places these views are voiced not only in the teachings of philosophers, but on every side they influence literature, the arts, the interpretation of the humanities and of history and civil laws themselves. As a consequence, many people are shaken. (ibid., 7).
Pope Paul VI, in his homily at the last public session of the Second Vatican Council, affirms that the Council is proposing to the people of our time a theocentric and theological doctrine about human nature and the world (loc. cit., pp. 1064-1065). In the homily given at the seventh public session of the Second Vatican Council, October 28, 1965, Pope Paul VI explains that despite the general pastoral nature of the council, it intends to propose the perennial and authentic doctrine of the Church, excluding doctrinal relativism; the Council is fulfilling a work that does not historicize, does not relativize, according to the metamorphoses of secular culture, the nature of the Church, always the same and faithful to herself as Christ willed her and as authentic tradition perfected her, but makes her better suited to carry out her mission of doing good in the renewed conditions of human society. (loc. cit., pp. 1039-1040).
In his speech given the same year, 1965, on the occasion of the eighth public session of the Council, Pope Paul VI criticized the behavior of those who incorrectly and abusively misinterpret the intention of Blessed Pope John XXIII on the Church's pastoral adaptation to the new needs of our time (“aggiornamento”). Furthermore, the Pope expounds the spirit of the Council in this regard and puts everyone on guard against doctrinal and juridical relativism, stating that Pope John XXIII certainly did not want to attribute to this programmatic word the meaning that some are trying to give it, as if it were to agree to ‘relativize’ everything in the Church according to the spirit of the world today: dogmas, laws, structures, traditions, whereas the sense of the Church's doctrinal and structural stability was so alive and firm in him as to make it the cornerstone of his thought and of his work. Aggiornamento will mean from now forward, for us, wise penetration of the spirit of the Council celebrated and faithful application of its norms issued in happy and holy wise. (loc. cit., pp. 1053-1054).
In the original Latin text, Paul VI does not use the word “aggiornamento” but the word “accommodatio”. The famous expression “aggiornamento” of Blessed John XXIII has become legendary by now. In his original intention, this expression has nothing to do with a doctrinal, legal, or liturgical relativism.
The new pastoral and benevolent attitude of patient understanding and of dialogue with society outside the Church does not involve doctrinal relativism. Pope Paul VI defends the Council from such a possible accusation in the aforementioned homily during the seventh public session: “This attitude ... was strongly and continuously operating in the Council, to the point of suggesting the suspicion to some that a tolerant and overpowering relativism toward the outside world, to fleeting history, to cultural fashion, to temporary needs, to the thoughts of others, had dominated persons and acts of the ecumenical synod, at the expense of the fidelity owed to tradition and to the detriment of the religious orientation of the council. We do not believe that this misfortune should be imputed to it, in its real and deep intentions, and in its authentic manifestations” (loc. cit., p. 1067). Here, Paul VI is defending only the real and deep intentions and authentic manifestations of the Council, not entering into the merits of persons.
The Council expressly rejects any kind of religious syncretism in missionary activity and requires that the particular traditions of peoples be enlightened by the light of the Gospel, always leaving intact the primacy of the Chair of Peter (AG, 22).
3. The duty of preaching repentance to the faithful (SC, n. 9)
One cannot speak of a true pastoral doctrine and practice without the essential element of repentance in the life of the Church and of the faithful. Every true renewal of the Church in history took place with the spirit and the practice of Christian penitence. The Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium n. 8 states that the Church must continually advance on the road of penitence and of renewal. Then it says that the faithful have to conquer in themselves the reign of sin by self-denial with a holy life (ibid., n. 36). In missionary activity the children of the Church must not be ashamed of the scandal of the Cross (AG, n. 24).
We can understand the true spirit of this conciliar teaching about the necessity of penance better if we consider the fact that, on July 1, 1962, the Feast of the Most Precious Blood, in view of the imminent opening of the Council, Blessed Pope John XXIII dedicated an entire encyclical to the necessity of penitence under the title “Paenitentiam agere”. It deals with a pressing invitation to the Catholic world and an exhortation to a more intense prayer, and a penitence beseeching Grace upon the coming Council. The Pope indicated the thought and the practice of the Church, as in the example of preceding councils, recalling the need for interior and exterior penitence as a cooperation with the Divine redemption. Concretely Pope John XXIII recommended in each diocese a penitential intercessory event, explaining how with the works of mercy and of penance all the faithful seek to beseech God almighty and implore of him that true renewal of the Christian spirit which is one of the principal aims of the council. (n. II, 2)
The Pope continues:
In fact, Our predecessor Pius XI of venerable memory rightly observed: «Prayer and penance are the two means set at the disposition of God in our era to redirect to Him poor humanity which is wandering without a guide; it is they that take away and repair the first cause and principle of our confusion, which is the rebellion of man against God.» (Encyclical Caritate Christi compulsi)” (ibid.)
John XXIII directed the following ardent exhortation to the bishops: “Venerable brothers, make every effort without delay by every means that is in your power, so that the Christians entrusted to your care may purify their spirit with penance and arouse themselves to greater fervor of piety.” (n. II, 3)
The spirit of penitence and expiation must always animate every true renewal of the Church, as Pope John XXIII hoped would be produced by the Second Vatican Council. This attitude protects the Church from the spirit of worldly activism. As the Pope taught in the end of his encyclical:
What a wonderful, what a heartening spectacle of religious fervor it will be to see the countless armies of Christians throughout the world devoting themselves to assiduous prayer and voluntary self-denial in response to Our appeals! This is the sort of religious fervor with which the Church's sons and daughters should be imbued. May their example be an inspiration to those who are so immersed in the affairs of this world as to be neglectful of their duties towards God. (ibid.)
In the following words we can grasp that true spirit that animated the Pope of the Council and certainly the pars maior et sanior of the Conciliar Fathers:
They must repudiate it [worldly hedonism] with all the energy and courage displayed by the martyrs and those heroic men and women who have been the glory of the Church in every age of her history. If everyone does this, each in his own station in life, he will be enabled to play his individual part in making this Second Ecumenical Vatican Council, which is especially concerned with the refurbishing of Christian morality, an outstanding success. (ibid., n. II, 2).
4. The duty to prepare the faithful for the sacraments (SC, n. 9) The Council, in the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, teaches that the sacraments are the principal means by which all the faithful of every state and condition are called by the Lord to the perfection of holiness (n. 11). The principal end of the sacraments consists, according to Sacrosanctum Concilium n. 59, in the sanctification of men, the edification of the Mystical Body of Christ, and in the worship due to be rendered to God. Rarely in the history of the Church has the supreme Magisterium so insisted on the importance and the centrality of the sacred liturgy, and particularly of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, as the Second Vatican Council in fact has done. The fact that the first document of the Council to be debated and approved was dedicated to the liturgy, that is, to Divine worship, is meaningful and manifests this clear message of the primacy of God: God and the worship of adoration which the Church renders to Him must occupy the first place in all the life and activity of the Church. Sacrosanctum Concilium teaches us: “Sacra Liturgia est precipue cultus divinae maiestatis” (n. 33), and by this the worship of the Divine majesty must be the summit of all the activity of the Church: “Liturgia est culmen ad quod actio Ecclesiae tendit et simul fons unde omnis eius virus emanat” (n. 10).
The sacred liturgy is primarily and necessarily the true font of the Christian spirit, says the Decree on the Formation of Priests (Optatam totius, n. 16). The purpose of all the sacraments is found, in turn, in the eucharistic mystery, maintains the Decree on the Life and Ministry of Priests, quoting St. Thomas Aquinas: “Eucharistia est omnium sacramentorum finis” (Summa Theologica, III, q. 73 a.3 c) and adds: “In Sanctissima enim Eucharistia totum bonum spirituale Ecclesiae continetur” (St. Thomas, Summa Theologica, III, q. 65, a. 3, ad 1), (Presbyterorum Ordinis, n. 5). The same document says again that the Eucharist is the source and summit of all evangelization, and with all the more reason, the Eucharist is the source and summit of all the pastoral life of the Church. In Sacrosanctum Concilium we find this synthesis: “Particularly from the Eucharist, Grace is derived in us, as from a spring, and the sanctification of men and the glorification of God in Christ toward which all the other activities of the Church converge as toward their end, are obtained from it with the greatest efficacy.” (n. 10).
5. The duty to teach the faithful all the commandments of God (SC, n. 9)
Another element of pastoral activity is this: “To believers also the Church must ... teach them to observe all that Christ has commanded” (SC, n. 9). The Pastors of the Church therefore have the duty to teach the Divine laws and commandments in all their integrity. In the Declaration on Religious Liberty the Council states: “the highest norm of human life is the divine law – eternal, objective and universal – whereby God orders, directs and governs the entire universe and all the ways of the human community” (DH, n. 3). The Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes maintains: “Man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged.” (n. 16) The same pastoral document states: “Spouses should be aware that they cannot proceed arbitrarily, but must always be governed according to a conscience dutifully conformed to the divine law itself, and should be submissive toward the Church's teaching office, which authentically interprets that law in the light of the Gospel.” (Gaudium et Spes, n. 50)
The Council continues, saying: “This split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age.” (ibid., n. 43) Such an error has become even more manifest in recent years in which one observes the phenomenon of people who, while professing to be Catholics, at the same time support laws contrary to the natural law and to the Divine law, and openly contradict the Magisterium of the Church. These words of the Council echo now: “Let there be no false opposition between professional and social activities on the one part, and religious life on the other.” (GS, n. 43) Moral, domestic, professional, scientific, social life must be guided by the faith and so ordered to the glory of God. (ibid.) Let us observe again, in these teachings of the Council, the importance of the primacy of the will of God and of His glory in the life of every one of the faithful and in all the Church. The Council affirms this not only in a document on the liturgy, but in the pastoral document par excellence: the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes.
6. The duty of promoting the apostolate of the lay faithful (SC, n. 9).
Another essential point of pastoral life is this: “To believers also the Church must ever … invite them to all the works of charity, piety, and the apostolate.” (SC, n. 9) In this point lies the great historic contribution of the Second Vatican Council to elevating the dignity and the specific role of the lay faithful in the life and activity of the Church. One can say that this is an organic development and a crowning of the Magisterium of Pope Paul VI regarding the question of the lay faithful. The Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium gives us a formidable synthesis on the question of the lay faithful in the Church and in the world, with a solid theological foundation and a clear pastoral direction, saying:
Moreover, let the laity also by their combined efforts remedy the customs and conditions of the world, if they are an inducement to sin, so that they all may be conformed to the norms of justice and may favor the practice of virtue rather than hinder it. By so doing they will imbue culture and human activity with genuine moral values; they will better prepare the field of the world for the seed of the Word of God; and at the same time they will open wider the doors of the Church by which the message of peace may enter the world. Because of the very economy of salvation the faithful should learn how to distinguish carefully between those rights and duties which are theirs as members of the Church, and those which they have as members of human society. Let them strive to reconcile the two, remembering that in every temporal affair they must be guided by a Christian conscience, since even in secular business there is no human activity which can be withdrawn from God's dominion. In our own time, however, it is most urgent that this distinction and also this harmony should shine forth more clearly than ever in the lives of the faithful, so that the mission of the Church may correspond more fully to the special conditions of the world today. For it must be admitted that the temporal sphere is governed by its own principles, since it is rightly concerned with the interests of this world. But that ominous doctrine which attempts to build a society with no regard whatever for religion, and which attacks and destroys the religious liberty of its citizens, is rightly to be rejected. (n. 36)
Here the Council condemns secularism without using the word, citing Leo XIII (Encyclical Immortale Dei, Nov. 1, 1885: ASS 18 (1885), pp. 166ff. Idem, Encyclical Sapientiae Christianae, Jan. 10, 1890: ASS 22 (1889-90), pp. 387ff. Pius XII, Discourse Alla vostra filiale, March 23, 1958: AAS 50 (1958), p. 220), who said that “the legitimate healthy laicity of the State is one of the principles of Catholic doctrine.” (ibid.) The Pope continued, saying: “the life of individuals, the life of families, the life of greater and smaller collectivities, will be nourished by the doctrine of Jesus Christ, which is the love of God and, in God, the love of neighbor.” This doctrine finds in its essential elements a clear echo both in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church and in the Pastoral Constitution of the Second Vatican Council.
On the proper vocation of the laity, the Council says: “It is proper to the laity to seek the kingdom of God, dealing with temporal things and ordering them according to God.” (Lumen Gentium, n. 31) In the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, the Council speaks of the idolatry of temporal things because of an excessive confidence in the progress of the natural sciences and of technology. (AA, n. 7) The Council continues, affirming that matrimonial and familial life is the place where the Christian religion permeates all the organization of life and transforms it more every day. At the same time, the Christian family proclaims in a clear voice the present power of the kingdom of God and the hope of eternal life. In this way, with its example and with its witness, it accuses the world of sin and illuminates those who seek the truth (ibid.) We can observe here how current is this expression of the Council: the Christian and Catholic family is a living accusation to the world, accusing the world of sin.
The particular form of the apostolate of the laity consists in the witness of the life of faith, hope, and charity: it excludes, therefore, an apostolate of activism and of worldly interests. We can locate within the Decree on the Laity a brief vademecum of the lay apostolate, where the Council teaches that the internal form of the lay apostle must be conformation to the suffering Christ, and that the purpose of his apostolate is the eternal salvation of the people of the world. The Council says: “They should all remember that they can reach all men and contribute to the salvation of the whole world by public worship and prayer as well as by penance and voluntary acceptance of the labors and hardships of life whereby they become like the suffering Christ (cf. 2 Cor. 4:10; Col. 1:24).” (AA, n. 16). Often the lay apostle puts even his life in danger due to his fidelity, says the Council. (ibid., n. 17)
7. The duty of promoting the vocation of all to holiness (SC, n. 9)
The final essential note of pastoral activity in the Church consists of promoting the vocation of all to holiness, saying that the followers of Christ, being not of this world, must be yet the light of the world. (SC, n. 9) More specifically, the Council deals with this theme in the fifth chapter of the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, nn. 39-42: “De universali vocatione ad sanctitatem in Ecclesia”. In this one can see the truly historic and most specific contribution of the Second Vatican Council. Holiness consists fundamentally in the imitation of Christ, of Christ poor and humble, of Christ who carries the Cross, says the Constitution Lumen Gentium, n. 41. The imitation of Christ reaches its peak in martyrdom, in the courageous witness of Christ before men. (ibid., n. 42). The Council says: “All must be ready to confess Christ before men and follow Him on the way of the Cross during persecutions, which are never lacking to the Church.” (ibid.)
III. The authentic intention and purpose of the Second Vatican Council
For a correct reading of the texts of the Second Vatican Council, it is necessary to take account also of the specific characteristics of the time in which it developed. In the homily of Pope Paul VI during the last general congregation of the Second Vatican Council on Dec. 7, 1965, the Pontiff gives the following description of the historical period in which the Second Vatican Council was celebrated:
it is necessary to remember the time in which it was realized: a time which everyone admits is orientated toward the conquest of the kingdom of earth rather than of that of heaven; a time in which forgetfulness of God has become habitual, and seems, quite wrongly, to be prompted by the progress of science; a time in which the fundamental act of the human person, more conscious now of himself and of his liberty, tends to pronounce in favor of his own absolute autonomy, in emancipation from every transcendent law; a time in which secularism seems the legitimate consequence of modern thought and the highest wisdom in the temporal ordering of society; a time, moreover, in which the soul of man has plumbed the depths of irrationality and desolation; a time, finally, which is characterized by upheavals and a hitherto unknown decline even in the great world religions. It was at such a time as this that our council was held to the honor of God. (loc. cit., pp. 1063-1064).
According to an expression of Blessed Pope John XXIII in the speech given at the final general congregation of the first session of the Council, December 7, 1962, the one purpose of the Council and the one hope and confidence of the Pope and the Council Fathers consists in this: “To make ever more known to the men of our time the Gospel of Christ, that it be practiced willingly and that it penetrate deeply into every aspect of society.” (loc. cit., pp. 881-882). Can there be a more authentic and more Catholic pastoral principle and method than this?
In the address for the closing of the first session of the Second Vatican Council, Dec., 8, 1962, Pope John XXIII presented the true purpose of the Council and its desired spiritual fruits in this way: “So that the Holy Church, firm in faith, strengthened in hope, and more ardent in love, may flourish with a new and youthful vigor, and, fortified by most holy laws, be more effective and more resolute in fulfilling the Kingdom of Christ.” (Handwritten letter to the bishops of Germany, January 11, 1962)...Now the Kingdom of Christ on earth will be enlarged with new growth. Now the good tidings of the redemption of man will resound louder and sweeter in the world; thereby the supreme rights of almighty God, the bonds of fraternal charity among men, the peace that was promised on this earth to men of good will shall be confirmed.” (loc. cit., p. 891). According to the intention and desire of the holy pontiff John XXIII the Second Vatican Council was to contribute strongly to the following end: “that in the whole human family the fruits of faith, hope, and charity may grow most abundantly.” According of the words of John XXIII, in this consists the singular importance and dignity of the Council (ibid.)
IV. The challenge of contrasting interpretations
For a correct interpretation it is necessary to take account of the intention manifested in the conciliar documents themselves and in the specific words of the conciliar Popes John XXIII and Paul VI. Finally, it is necessary to discover the thread leading through all the work of the Council, which is the salus animarum, that is, the pastoral intention. This, in turn, depends on and is subordinate to the promotion of Divine worship and the glory of God, that is, it depends on the primacy of God. This primacy of God in the life and all the activity of the Church is shown unequivocally in the fact that the Constitution on the Liturgy intentionally and chronologically occupies the first place in the vast work of the Council. The seven essential notes for pastoral theory and practice are found exactly in the Constitution that deals with the worship of God and the sanctification of men, in n. 9 of Sacrosanctum Concilium, and they are: 1. The urgency to preach Christ to non-believers so that they may be converted; 2. The greatest care about preaching the doctrine of the faith; 3. The essential role of penitence in the life of the Church; 4. The sacraments as principal means of salvation and sanctification, where the Eucharist occupies the central and culminating place; 5. The integrity of moral doctrine; 6. The apostolate of the lay faithful in the Church and in human society; 7. The universal vocation to holiness.
The characteristic of rupture in the interpretation of the conciliar texts is shown in the most stereotypical and widespread way in the thesis of an anthropocentric, secularizing, or naturalistic shift by the Second Vatican Council in regard to the preceding ecclesial tradition. One of the most well-known manifestations of such a confused interpretation was, e.g., the so-called Theology of Liberation and the subsequent devastating pastoral practice. The contrast between that theology of liberation and its practice, and the Council, appears evident in the following conciliar teaching: “the proper mission that Christ has entrusted to His Church is not of the political, economic, or social order: in fact, the end that he has set is in the order of religion.” (GS, 42). The same document then says that the nature and the mission of the Church are not tied to any particular political, economic, or social system. (ibid.) The Constitution Gaudium et Spes quotes the following words of Pius XII:
An interpretation of rupture of doctrinally lesser weight is shown in the pastoral-liturgical field. One can cite under this topic the loss of the sacred and sublime character of the liturgy and the introduction of more anthropocentric gestural elements. This phenomenon makes itself evident in three liturgical practices well known and widespread in nearly all the parishes of the Catholic world: the nearly total disappearance of the use of the Latin language, the reception of the Eucharistic Body of Christ directly on the hand and standing, and the celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice in the modality of a closed circle in which priest and people continually look each other in the face. This manner of praying, that is: not all facing in the same direction, which is a more natural bodily and symbolic expression with respect to the truth of everyone being spiritually turned toward God in public worship, contradicts the practice that Jesus Himself and His Apostles observed in public prayer at the temple or in the synagogue. Moreover, it contradicts the unanimous testimony of the Fathers and all the prior tradition of the Eastern and Western Church. These three pastoral and liturgical practices, in noisy rupture with the laws of prayer maintained by generations of faithful Catholics for nearly a millennium, find no support in the conciliar texts, but rather contradict either a specific text of the Council (on the Latin language, see Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 36, § 1; 54), or the “mens”, the true intention of the conciliar Fathers, as can be verified in the Acts of the Council.
Its divine Founder, Jesus Christ, has not given it any mandate or fixed any end of the cultural order. The goal which Christ assigns to it is strictly religious. . . The Church must lead men to God, in order that they may be given over to him without reserve.... The Church can never lose sight of the strictly religious, supernatural goal. The meaning of all its activities, down to the last canon of its Code, can only cooperate directly or indirectly in this goal. (Pius XII, Address to the International Union of Institutes of Archeology, History and History of Art, March 9, 1956: AAS 48 (1965), p. 212)
In the hermeneutical uproar of contrasting interpretations and in the confusion of pastoral and liturgical applications, the Council itself united with the Pope appears as the one authentic interpreter of the conciliar texts. One could make an analogy with the confused hermeneutical climate of the first centuries of the Church, provoked by arbitrary biblical and doctrinal interpretations on the part of heterodox groups. In his famous work De praescriptione haereticorum Tertullian was able to set against the heretics of various orientations the fact that only the Church is the legitimate owner of the faith, of the word of God, and of tradition. With that in the disputes on true interpretation, the Church can drive the heretics “a limine fori”. Only the Church can say, according to Tertullian: “Ego sum heres Apostolorum” (Praescr., 37, 3). Speaking analogically, only the supreme Magisterium of the Pope or of a future Ecumenical Council will be able to say: “Ego sum heres Concilii Vaticani II”.
In the decades past there have existed, and exist to this day, groupings within the Church that commit an enormous abuse of the pastoral character of the Council and of its texts, written according to that pastoral intention, since the Council did not wish to present its own definitive or irreformable teachings. From the pastoral nature of the Council’s texts it is evident that its texts are, on principle, open to further completion and to greater doctrinal clarification. Taking account of the experience of several decades since then, of interpretations doctrinally and pastorally confused, and contrary to the continuity, over two millennia, of doctrine and prayer of the faith, the necessity and the urgency rise for a specific and authoritative intervention by the pontifical Magisterium for an authentic interpretation of the conciliar texts with completions and doctrinal clarifications: a type of “Syllabus errorum circa interpretationem Concilii Vaticani II”. There is need for a new Syllabus, this time directed not so much against errors coming from outside the Church, but against errors spread within the Church on the part of those who maintain a thesis of discontinuity and rupture with its doctrinal, liturgical, and pastoral application. Such a Syllabus would consist of two parts: a part marking errors and a positive part with propositions of doctrinal clarification, completion, and precision.
Two groupings that maintain the theory of rupture are evident. One such grouping tries to protestantize the life of the Church doctrinally, liturgically, and pastorally. On the other side are some traditionalist groups that, in the name of tradition, reject the Council, and avoid submission to the supreme living Magisterium of the Church, the visible Head of the Church, submitting for now only to the invisible Head of the Church, waiting for better times.
During the Council, Pope Paul VI explained the meaning of true renewal of the Church in this way:
“We think that the new psychology of the Church should develop along this line: clergy and faithful will find a wonderful spiritual work, to be discovered through the renewal of life and activity according to Christ the Lord; and We invite Our Brothers and Our Sons to this work: let those who love Christ and the Church be with us in professing more clearly the meaning of the truth, proper to the doctrinal tradition that Christ and the Apostles inaugurated; and with that the meaning of the discipline of the church and of the profound and cordial union, which makes us all confident and united, as members of one body.” (Paul VI, Address at the eighth public session of the Second Vatican Council, Nov. 18, 1965, loc. cit., p. 1054)
Pope Paul VI, explaining the mens of the Council, affirmed in his speech during the eighth public session: “So that all may be strengthened in this spiritual renewal, we propose to the Church to recall fully the words and example of Our last two Predecessors, Pius XII and John XXIII, to whom the Church herself and all the world are indebted; and to that end, we direct that the processes of beatification of those Supreme Pontiffs, most excellent and devout and dear to us, be begun canonically. In this way, the desire expressed by both the one and the other will be seconded, in a sense, by countless voices; in this way the patrimony of their spiritual heritage will be secured for history; and it will prevent that any motive other than the veneration of true sanctity – that is, the glory of God and the edification of His Church – would recompose their authentic and dear image for our veneration and for that of future ages.” (Paul VI, Address at the eighth public session of the Second Vatican Council, Nov. 18, 1965, loc. cit., p. 1054)
In substance, there were two impediments against the true intention of the Council and its Magisterium bearing abundant and lasting fruits. One was found outside the Church, in the violent process of cultural and social revolution in the 1960s, which, like every powerful social phenomenon, penetrated within the Church, contaminating vast ranges of people and institutions with its spirit of rupture. The other impediment showed itself in the lack of wise and intrepid Pastors of the Church who would be ready to defend the purity and integrity of the faith and of the liturgical and pastoral life, not letting themselves be influenced either by praise or by fear (“nec laudibus, nec timore”).
The Council of Trent stated in one of its last decrees on the general reform of the Church: “The holy synod, shaken by such grave evils that burden the Church, cannot fail to recall that the most necessary thing for the Church of God is... to choose the best and most suited pastors; with all the more reason, inasmuch as our Lord Jesus Christ will call negligent pastors, unmindful of their duty, to account for the blood of those sheep who might perish because of bad governance.” (Sessio XXIV, Decretum de reformatione, can. 1) The Council continues: “Thus to all who for any reason have received from the Holy See any right to intervene in the promotion of future prelates, and to those who take part in other ways... the holy Council exhorts them and admonishes them to recall foremost that they can do nothing more useful to the glory of God and to the salvation of peoples, than to dedicate themselves to choose good and suitable pastors to govern the Church.” (ibid.)
Thus there truly is the need for a conciliar Syllabus with doctrinal value, and moreover there is need to increase the number of holy, courageous pastors, profoundly rooted in the tradition of the Church, free from any type of mentality of rupture whether in the field of doctrine or of liturgy. In fact, these two elements constitute the indispensable condition so that doctrinal, liturgical, and pastoral confusion may diminish notably and the pastoral work of the Second Vatican Council may bear many and lasting fruits in the spirit of tradition, which joins us with the spirit that reigns at all times, everywhere, and in all true children of the Catholic Church, which is the one and the true Church of God on the earth.
Athanasius Schneider (born Anton Schneider on 7 April 1961) is a Roman Catholic bishop who is the auxiliary bishop of Karaganda, Kazakhstan and titular bishop of Celerina. He is a member of the Canons Regular of the Holy Cross of Coimbra.
AA: Apostolicam actuositatem AG: Ad gentes DH: Dignitatis humanae GS: Gaudium et spes SC: Sacrosanctum Concilium
English translation by Richard Chonak.
The source text in Italian was provided courtesy of L’Espresso newspaper at:
Englsh translations of the conciliar decrees and constitutions were taken from vatican.va.
© Libreria Editrice Vaticana 2013
This item 10151 digitally provided courtesy of CatholicCulture.org