The Second Vatican Council: Difficulties of Its Interpretation

by Cardinal Walter Brandmüller

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Cardinal Walter Brandüller gave this outstanding address in the Summer of 2019 to the Scuola Ecclesia Mater, a sodality of Catholic faithful, both clerical and lay, dedicated to promoting the faith, doctrine and liturgy of the Catholic Church. Brandüller argues that the subsequent clarifications by the Magisterium under Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have made it impossible for any faithful Catholic to interpret the texts of the Second Vatican Council in a manner inconsistent with the doctrinal tradition of the Church. The text of the address was first published on the blog of Marco Tosatti, Stilum Curiae. We received our copy from the translator, Giuseppe Pellegrino.

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Address at Scuola Mater Ecclesiae, 2019

[Address Given by Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, former President of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences to the Ecclesia Mater School, Summer of 2019]

The fact that in the interpretation of conciliar documents differing opinions may be reached is certainly not a novelty for the history of the councils. Formulating truths of the faith means expressing the unspeakable mystery of divine truth in a human language. However, it is and remains a bold undertaking, one which Saint Augustine once compared to a child attempting to empty the sea with a bucket.

And in this undertaking even an ecumenical council cannot do much more than that child.

There is therefore nothing strange if even the infallible doctrinal affirmations of a council or a pope are able to define revealed truth – and thus delimit it with respect to error – but never grasp the fullness of divine truth.

This is the essential fact that we must not lose sight of in the face of the difficulties of interpretation presented to us by Vatican II. In order to illustrate them, we will limit ourselves to those conciliar texts that have been perceived as particularly difficult by so-called traditionalist circles.

First of all, however, it is good to take a look at the particularities that distinguish Vatican II from the preceding ecumenical councils.

In this regard, there is a premise to be laid down: to the historian of the council, Vatican II appears, under many aspects, to be above all a council of superlatives. We begin with the observation that in the history of the Church no other council was prepared for so intensely as was Vatican II. True, the council that preceded it was also very well prepared for when it opened on December 8, 1869. Probably the theological quality of the preparatory schemas was even superior to that of the council that followed it. It is however impossible to ignore that the number of ideas and proposals sent from all over the world, as well as the way in which they were elaborated, was greater than all that had been seen [in the history of councils] up until then.

The fact that Vatican II was a council of superlatives emerged conspicuously on October 11, 1962, when an immense number of bishops – two thousand four hundred forty – entered in procession into Saint Peter’s Basilica. If Vatican I, with its approximately 642 Fathers, found enough space in the right transept of the Basilica, now the entire central nave was transformed into the synodal aula. In the approximately one hundred intervening years between the two councils, the Church had become, as now emerged visibly in the most impressive way, a universal Church not only in name but also in fact. This reality was now reflected in the number of 2,440 Fathers and their countries of origin. In addition, for the first time in history a council was able to vote with the help of electronic technology, and the acoustical problems that had still bothered the participants at Vatican I were no longer even mentioned.

And while we are talking about modern means of communication: prior to then it had never happened, as it did in 1962, that about one thousand journalists from all over the world were accredited to the council. This made Vatican II the most well-known council of all time, a media event of the first degree.

It was also, however, a council of superlatives in a very particular way with regard to its results. Of the 1,135 pages that compose the compiled edition of decrees of all the councils generally held to be ecumenical, twenty-one in all, Vatican II alone has given us 315 pages, or well over a quarter of the total. Therefore, it certainly occupies a special place in the series of all the ecumenical councils, even if we are only using the most material and external criteria.

Apart from all this, there are however other particularities that distinguish Vatican II from the councils that preceded it, for example regarding the functions of an ecumenical council. The councils are supreme teachers, supreme legislators, supreme judges, under and with the pope, to whom these roles pertain even without a council. Not all councils have performed this function.

If, for example, the First Council of Lyons, in 1245, with the excommunication and deposition of the Emperor Frederick II acted as a court and moreover passed laws, by contrast Vatican I did not hold trials nor promulgate any laws but decided exclusively on doctrinal matters.

The Council of Vienne of 1311-12, instead, both passed judgment and issued laws, and also decided on doctrinal questions.

The same holds for the Council of Constance in 1414-18 and the Council of Basel-Ferrara-Florence of 1431-1439.

Vatican II instead did not pronounce any judgments, did not truly issue any laws, and it did not even take any definitive decisions on questions of faith.

Rather, it effectively gave shape to a new type of council, intending itself as a pastoral council, thus concerned with the care of souls, aimed at making known to the world of that time the teaching and instruction of the Gospel in a more attractive and orienting way. In particular, it did not express any doctrinal condemnation. John XXIII, in his discourse for the solemn opening of the council, spoke expressly: “There is no time in which the Church has not opposed these errors; she often condemned them, at times with the greatest severity. With regard to the present time, […] she prefers to use the medicine of mercy […]; she thinks that she ought to go to meet the needs of today, expressing more clearly the value of her teaching more than condemning.” Well, as we know fifty years after its conclusion, the council would have written a glorious page if, following in the footsteps of Pius XII, it had found the courage to make a repeated and clearly expressed condemnation of communism.

The fear of pronouncing doctrinal condemnations and dogmatic definitions, instead, made it so that at the end of the council there was the impression that some of the conciliar affirmations had a higher degree of authenticity, and thus a completely different binding character. Thus, for example, the Constitution Lumen Gentium on the Church and Dei Verbum on Divine Revelation undoubtedly have the nature and binding character of authentic doctrinal teachings – although here too nothing was defined in a binding way in a strict sense – while for example the Declaration on Religious Liberty Dignitatis Humanae “takes a position on these questions of the time without a clear normative content,” according to [German theologian] Klaus Mörsdorf [1909-1989]. In fact, this applies to disciplinary documents, which regulate pastoral practice. The binding character of the conciliar texts is thus of varying degrees.

Taking a further step, the question must then be asked about the relationship between Vatican II and the entire Tradition of the Church. We may find an answer by analyzing how much, or how little, the conciliar texts have drawn from the Tradition. In this sense, as an example, it is enough to examine the Constitution Lumen Gentium. It is sufficient to glance at the notes of the text. It can thus be seen that ten previous councils are quoted by the document. Among these, Vatican I is referred to 12 times, and Trent 16 times. From this it is already clear that, for example, any idea of “distancing from Trent” is absolutely excluded.

The relationship with Tradition appears even closer if we think of how, among the popes, Pius XII is cited 55 times, Leo XIII on 17 occasions, and Pius XI in 12 passages. To these are added Benedict XIV, Benedict XV, Pius IX, Pius X, Innocent I and Gelasius.

The most impressive aspect, however, is the presence of the Fathers in the texts of Lumen Gentium. The council refers to the teaching of the Fathers a full 44 times, including Augustine, Ignatius of Antioch, Cyprian, John Chrysostom and Irenaeus.

Furthermore, the great theologians and doctors of the Church are cited: Thomas Aquinas in 12 passages, along with seven other heavyweights.

This list alone is enough to illustrate how much the Fathers of Vatican II intended to place themselves in the current of the Tradition, integrated into that process of receiving and handing on that is the raison d’etre of the Church: “I received from the Lord what I in turn have handed on to you,” says the Apostle. It is evident that also under this aspect we cannot speak of a new beginning of the Church, or thus of a new Pentecost.

This leads to important consequences for the interpretation of the Council, and more precisely not of the “conciliar event” but rather of its texts. A central tangible concern of many of Benedict XVI’s statements was to highlight the close organic connection of Vatican II with the rest of the Tradition of the Church, thus showing that a hermeneutic that believes it sees a break with the Tradition in Vatican II is in error.

This “hermeneutic of rupture” is made both by those who see in Vatican II a distancing from the authentic faith, thus an error or even a heresy, and also by those by means of such a rupture with the past want to daringly make a courageous departure towards new shores.

However: the presumption of a rupture in the teaching and sacramental action of the Church is impossible, even if only for theological reasons. If we believe in the promise of Jesus Christ to remain with his Church until the end of time, to send the Holy Spirit who will lead us into the richness of truth, then it is absurd to think that the teaching of the Church, transmitted in an authentic way, can over time prove to be wrong on one point or another, or that an error that has always been rejected can at a certain moment be revealed to be true. Whoever maintains that this is possible would be the victim of that relativism which says that truth is essentially subject to change; that is, in reality truth does not exist at all.

Every council makes its specific contribution to this Tradition. Naturally a council’s contribution cannot consist of adding new content to the Church’s deposit of faith. And even less can a council eliminate teachings of the faith handed down thus far. Rather, what is accomplished here is a process of development, clarification and discernment, with the help of the Holy Spirit, a process that leads each council, with its definitive doctrinal declarations, to enter as an integral part in the overall Tradition of the Church. From this point of view, the councils always open forward, looking toward a more complete, clear, and current doctrinal proclamation; they do not go backwards. A council will never contradict those that have preceded it, but it can integrate, specify, and continue.

Things are different, however, for the council as an organ of legislation. The latter can – and certainly must – confront, but always within the limits indicated by the faith, the concrete needs of a particular historical situation and, from this point of view, is in principle subject to change.

From these observations one thing ought to emerge clearly: all that has been said also applies to Vatican II. It too is nothing more – but also nothing less – than a council among, alongside, and after the others. It is not above and not even outside, but falls within the series of ecumenical councils of the Church.

That this is so results not least of all from the self-understanding of almost all the councils. It is enough to recall their respective affirmations, as well as those of the first Fathers of the Church, on the question. They recognize in the Tradition the very nature of councils.

Already Vincent of Lerins († prior to 450) reflects expressly on this in his Commonitorium: “To what has the Church aspired by means of her conciliar decrees, if not to ensure that what was believed before the council was afterwards believed with greater diligence; that what was previously announced without vigor would afterwards be announced with greater intensity; that what she previously celebrated with absolute certainty would afterwards be adored with greater zeal? This, I maintain, and nothing else, the Church, shaken by the innovations of the heretics, has always obtained by means her conciliar decrees: that which previously she had received from the “ancestors” only by means of tradition, she has now deposited in writing also for “posterity.” She has done so by synthesizing much in a few words and, often, for the purpose of a clearer understanding, expressing the unchanging content of the faith with new definitions” (Commonitorium, ch. 36).

This authentically Catholic conviction finds expression in the definition of the Second Council of Nicea in 787, which states: “Therefore, proceeding on the royal pathway and following in all and for all the divinely inspired authority of our Holy Fathers and the tradition of the Catholic Church, recognizing, in fact, that the Holy Spirit dwells in her, we define…”; and then there follow the central principles of the conciliar decree. The last of the four anathemas of that council is also particularly important: “If anyone rejects any ecclesiastical tradition, whether written or non-written, let him be anathema.”

In holding a council, the Church realizes her most profound nature. The Church – and therefore the council – hands on by living and lives by handing on. Tradition is the true realization of her essence.

The decisive element of the interpretative horizon is the authentic transmission of the Faith, not the spirit of the time. This absolutely cannot mean rigidity and immobility. The way the Church keeps her eyes fixed on today must not become less. It is the present questions that demand an answer. But the elements that compose the answer can only come from Divine Revelation, offered once and for all, which the Church hands on authentically down the centuries. This transmission thus constitutes the criterion to which every new response ought to refer if it wants to be true and valid.

It is necessary to take into account these fundamental considerations even in the interpretation of the most disputed conciliar texts.

These are mainly the Declarations Nostra Aetate and Dignitatis Humanae, which have raised objections by the Fraternity of Saint Pius X. This latter accuses the council of having erred in the faith. To this, however, we must respond decisively.

It is quite clear that when a conciliar text formulated in 1965, which at the time was intended to start from the situation in which it was created and on the basis of the intention of its affirmations, is proclaimed in the world of today, it must necessarily be contemplated in the present interpretative horizon.

Let us take, for example, Nostra Aetate. Whoever today accuses this text of religious indifferentism must read it in the light of Dominus Iesus, which would categorically rule out any misunderstanding in the sense of indifferentism or syncretism. With ever new impulses, the post-conciliar magisterium by means of its clarifications has removed the basis for any erroneous interpretation of the conciliar texts either in the traditionalist sense or in the progressivist sense.

After these fundamental observations, I would now like to explain another interpretative principle that results from the historicity of every text. Just as all texts – and thus also all magisterial texts – arise from a particular historical situation and are determined by the concrete situation of their conception, they are also proclaimed with a precise intention in a precise historical moment.

We must not lose sight of this principle today when we set about interpreting one of these texts.

We must also take into account the fact that the hermeneutical horizon that has been so determined shifts and is modified in proportion to the chronological distance which the present interpreter has from the moment in which the text was created. This means that past interpretations, depending on how chronologically distant they are, may become to a greater or lesser extent claims that are now only of historical interest. This awareness is particularly important when we consider texts of the magisterial and pastoral ministry of the Church.

One could immediately object that the truth, especially the truth of divine revelation, is an eternal and immutable truth, which cannot undergo alterations. Certainly the truth is not subject to discussion. “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass,” says the Lord.

It is, however, equally true that the recognition of this eternal truth by man, who is subject to historical change, is itself subject to change, just like the man who recognizes it. That is to say: depending on the historical moment, one or another aspect of eternal truth is grasped, recognized, and understood in a new and deeper way.

Precisely for this reason, even a conciliar text, if contemplated in its spiritual and cultural context, etc., and in the light of our time, may be understood in a new, more profound, and clearer way.

To the extent that we take this concept into account in our efforts to understand the teachings of Vatican II today and for today, we will succeed in overcoming various conflicts that arise in its regard.

Naturally the interpretation of the council is the competence of theological debate, which has always dealt with it. In fact, the results of this debate finally found space in the documents of the post-conciliar magisterium.

In light of what has been said, it would be a serious error not to take this principle into account in the interpretation of the council for the present time and to act as if time had stopped in 1965.

I would like to illustrate what has been said with three examples that seem to me to be particularly characteristic.

In this regard, immediately what stands out is the Declaration Nostra Aetate on the relationship between the Church and non-Christian religions and the Decree Unitatis Redintegratio on ecumenism. For a long time these two documents have been subjected to criticism by so-called traditionalist circles. Both of these documents are accused of lacking clarity and decisiveness in upholding the truth in relation to syncretism, relativism, and indifferentism. At the time of the approval of the texts it was difficult to foresee that they would offer footholds for similar criticisms.

It had been the experience of the totalitarianism of the first half of the 20th century and of the persecutions experienced together that reminded Jews and Christians – Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox – of the fundamental things that they held in common. The commitment to overcoming the ancient hostilities between them and to working towards a new coexistence was generally perceived as a duty imposed by the Lord. Read in this spirit and in this background, the two documents gave a very strong impetus to this commitment.

But then a page turned. Only a few decades after the conclusion of the council, a theological vision of non-Christian religions developed, above all in the Anglo-Saxon world, which spoke of different paths of salvation for man, more or less equivalent, and that thus placed the Christian mission into doubt. The proclamation of the Church, it was said, should be carried out in such a way so as to make a Muslim become a better Muslim, and so forth. It was the Englishman John Hick, who spread this type of idea more or less beginning in 1980. In fact, against this new background one or the other formulation of Nostra Aetate could be misunderstood. Furthermore, Nostra Aetate “speaks of religion only in a positive way and ignores the sick and disturbed forms of religion, which from a historical and theological point of view have a wide scope” (Benedict XVI, vol. VII/1, Preface).

At this point it is necessary to recall in a particular way the passage of Nostra Aetate which refers to Islam. The text is not only accused of indifferentism. It must be observed first of all, in this regard, that the decree certainly “cum aestimatione quoque muslimos respicit” [also regards Muslims with esteem], but absolutely not Islam. It is not referring to its teaching, but to the people who follow it. The fact that in subsequent formulations behind equal or similar words a very different understanding is hidden is evident for the Islamologist of today. At this point of the document, which intends to prepare the way for a peaceful dialogue, the rigid standard of dogmatic terminology should not be applied, although a commitment in this sense would have been desirable. In fact, the text was published in 1965.

For our current understanding, the problem assumes instead an entirely different aspect: it is Islam that has profoundly changed in the last half-century, as is demonstrated by the degree of Islamic aggression and hostility towards the “Christian” West. Against the background of the experience of the decades since 9-11, a decree of this kind should say something else.

For the purposes of a serious conciliar hermeneutic, there is no point in raging and arguing against the 1965 text: the decree now has only a historical interest.

It was then the magisterium, with the Declaration Dominus Iesus [in 2000], that removed the basis for any indifferentism and indicated in an unequivocal way Jesus Christ as the one way to eternal salvation and the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church of Jesus Christ as the only community of salvation for every man.

Something similar has happened through the various clarifications of the meaning of the famous phrase “subsistit in.” If in the ecumenical discourse there had been affirmations that could give rise to the impression that the Catholic Church was only one among many aspects of the Church of Jesus Christ, the interpretation of “subsistit in” confirmed by Dominus Iesus has eliminated any misunderstanding. Another scandalum for many is the Declaration Dignitatis Humanae on religious freedom. This too has been accused of indifferentism, betrayal of the truth of the faith, and contradiction of Blessed Pius IX’s Syllabus Errorum.

The fact that this is not the case appears evident if the interpretative principles formulated above are applied: the two documents were created in a different historical context and had to respond to different situations.

The Syllabus Errorum – just like Gregory XVI’s Mirari Vos which preceded it – was aimed at the philosophical refutation of the claim of the absoluteness of truth, especially of revealed truth, by means of indifferentism and relativism. Pius IX emphasized that error has no rights with respect to the truth.

Dignitatis Humanae instead comes from a completely different situation, created by the totalitarianisms of the 20th century which, by means of ideological constraint, denigrated the freedom of the individual, of the person. Furthermore, the Fathers of Vatican II had before their eyes the political reality of their own time, which in different conditions, though not in lesser measure, threatened the liberty of the person. For this reason, the central point of Dignitatis Humanae was not the – undisputed – untouchability of the truth, but rather the freedom of the person from every external constraint with regard to religious conviction.

In this regard, it is good to assure those who support the “absolute a-historicity of the truth” that no theologian or philosopher endowed with good sense would speak of the mutability or inconstancy of the truth. What changes rather, what is subjected to mutation, is the recognition, the awareness of truth by man, which totally changes. Here the Profession of Faith of the People of God occupies a place of excellence, which Paul VI proclaimed in the culminating moment of the post-conciliar crisis.

In synthesis: The Syllabus defended the truth; Vatican II defended the liberty of the person.

It is difficult to discern a contradiction between the two documents if they are contemplated in their historical context and understood according to what the intentions of their affirmations were at the time of their composition.

Furthermore, for the purpose of a correct interpretation, today all of the post-conciliar magisterium must be taken into account.

Finally, mention should be made of the worldly optimism, evidently somewhat naïve, which animated the council fathers during the drafting of Gaudium et Spes.

As soon as the council was over it became clear that this “world” was undergoing an ever more rapid process of secularization which pushed the Christian faith, and religion in general, to the margins of society.

It was therefore necessary to redefine the relationship between the Church and “this world” – as John calls it – and to complete and interpret the conciliar text, for example in the sense of the speeches of Benedict XVI during his visit to Germany.

This means however that a current interpretation of the council which brings out the essence of the conciliar teaching making it fertile for the faith and the teaching of the Church of the present, must read its texts in the light of all of the post-conciliar magisterium and understand its documents as the actualization of the council.

As highlighted at the beginning: Vatican II is not the first nor will it be the last council. This means that its magisterial declarations must be examined in the light of Tradition, that is to say, interpreted in such a way as to be able to identify, with respect to it, an extension, a deepening, or even a clarification, but not a contradiction.

Handing over – “tradition” – does not imply the simple delivery of a well-sealed package so much as an organic, vital process, which Vincent of Lerins compares to the progressive transformation of the person from a baby to a man: it is always that same person who undergoes the phases of development.

This applies to the areas of doctrine and the sacramental-hierarchical structure of the Church, but not for her pastoral action, whose efficacy continues to be determined by the needs of the contingent situations of the world that surrounds her. Naturally here too any contradiction between praxis and dogma is to be excluded.

It is a “process of active reception” which must also be carried out on the basis of unity in the heart of the Church. In fact, there are also cases – not in the sphere of truths of the faith, but in the moral sphere – in which what was prohibited yesterday may be appropriate today.

If, for example, prior to Vatican II the absolute ban on cremating the dead laid down the consequence of excommunication for any Catholic who chose cremation, in a time in which cremation has lost its aspect of protest against faith in the resurrection of the dead it was possible to lift such a ban.

This applies in a similar way in the case of the ban on interest in the 15th-16th century, when the Franciscans and Dominicans – more precisely in Florence – challenged each other in bitter duels from the pulpits, where the contenders accused each other of heresy over the question of permitting the charging of interest, and threatened the opponent with burning in the flames of hell. It was a moral problem, born with the changes of economic reforms, and then it became obsolete once more.

We must go slowly, therefore, also in the debate over Vatican II and its interpretation, which in turn must take place against the background of the situation that has changed over time. In this regard, the magisterium of the post-conciliar popes has made important contributions, which however have not been sufficiently taken into account in the present debate.

Furthermore, in this discussion, it is good to recall the admonition to patience and modesty made by Saint Paul to Timothy (2 Tim 4:1 ff.).

Unfortunately these discussions continue to assume forms that are not in accord with brotherly love. It ought to be possible to reconcile zeal for the truth with the correctness of love of neighbor. In particular, it would be opportune to avoid that “hermeneutic of suspicion” that accuses the interlocutor from the outset of having heretical conceptions.

In synthesis: The difficulties in interpretation of the conciliar texts do not derive only from their content. It is necessary to increasingly hold in consideration the way in which our discussions develop in this regard.

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