Friday, March 07, 2008

Reading the Documents of Vatican II (Part 1)

I’m on a bit of a Vatican II kick, partly because of a recent comment left by an anonymous visitor and partly because Call to Action Minnesota is bringing Richard R. Gaillardetz (pictured at left) to the Twin Cities next month.

Gaillardetz is a leading theologian in the field of ecclesiology, and the topic of his April 19 presentation will be “Rethinking Hierarchy: Becoming a Community of Conversation.”

In preparation for Gaillardetz’s visit, I’ve began reading his 2006 book, The Church in the Making, part of an eight volume series by Paulist Press entitled “Rediscovering Vatican II.”

Following is the first of three excerpts from the preface of The Church in the Making, in which Gaillardetz explores various frameworks for interpreting council documents.


[The documents of Vatican II] effected a profound shift in [Roman] Catholicism’s self-understanding. The nature and extent of this shift has been much debated in the decades since the council. Recently, Pope Benedict XVI has identified a conflict between two different manners of interpreting the teaching of the council. He characterizes the first approach as presupposing a “hermeneutics of discontinuity and rupture.” In this view, this interpretive stance highlights a marked discontinuity between earlier Catholic tradition and what was effected at Vatican II. . . . The pope rejects this hermeneutical perspective and advocates instead a “hermeneutics of reform.” This approach focuses less on Vatican II as an ecclesial event and more on the authoritative status of the final form of the council documents themselves. It is these documents, in their final form, and not a larger textual history or a vague appeal to “the spirit of the council” that should command the assent of Catholics.

. . . The pope is certainly right to be concerned that studies of the council not exaggerate the elements of discontinuity found in council teaching. Yet one might wonder whether these two hermeneutical approaches can be so easily opposed to one another. Would not an adequate hermeneutics of the council need to attend to both continuity and discontinuity? Moreover, it seems to me that it would run counter to the great Catholic tradition to reduce the impact of an ecumenical council to its formal documents. Ecclesiologically, councils derive their authority not from the juridical force of their documents but from their status as ecclesial events manifesting, in concentrated form, the reality and faith witness of the church as communion.

The great Catholic insight which governs the interpretation of scripture holds true for council documents as well. Catholics (and many mainline Protestants!) reject a fundamentalist absolutizing of written biblical text. They recall that Jesus did not come to leave a written text, but to create a community of disciples. The scriptural texts emerged out of the lived faith witness of the people of Israel and the apostolic community. Catholics believe that scripture cannot be adequately interpreted apart from an awareness of both the faith experience that gave rise to the biblical testimony (sometimes called by biblical scholars “the meaning behind the text”) and the ways in which the biblical texts have been received, interpreted, and implemented in the life of the church (biblical scholars refer to this as “the meaning in front of the text”).

Just as scripture and tradition cannot be opposed to one another but are inextricably linked, so too one cannot oppose to one another (1) the dynamic ecclesial event which is a council itself conjoined with the dynamic process by which that council is received in the life of the church and (2) the official promulgation of the council’s teaching in its final documents.

Australian theologian Ormond Rush has provided the most balanced hermeneutical framework to date for interpreting council documents, one which avoids a false absolutizing of either continuity or discontinuity, Rush distinguishes between a “macro-rupture,” a fundamental severance with the great tradition of the church, and a “micro-rupture,” which reflects a genuine innovation or shift that must be considered discontinuous with some aspect of the previous tradition but which can also be read as “rejuvenating that broader tradition.” I agree with Rush that we need to affirm the genuine micro-raptures evident in the conciliar documents that constituted a break, particularly with the baroque or post-Tridentine Catholicism of the previous four centuries, while remaining in continuity with a more ancient tradition.

Excerpted from The Church in the Making by Richard R. Gaillardetz (New York: Paulist Press, 2006).

For Part 2 of “Reading the Documents of Vatican II,” click
here. For Part 3, click here.

Recommended Off-site Links:
The Ordinary Universal Magisterium: Unresolved Questions by Richard R. Gaillardetz (
Theological Studies, No. 3. September 2002, pp. 147-171).
Infallibilty and the Ordination of Women by Richard R. Gaillardetz (
Louvain Studies 21 (1996) pp. 3-24).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Truth About “Spirit of Vatican II” Finally Revealed!
Libertas Ecclesiae
The Shrinking Catholic Tent


Anonymous said...

I agree that there needs to be balance. I think Benedict would also. The contention that the magisterium believes that only one of these interpretations of the council should be employed introduces a false premise.

The magisterium, by its nature would naturally be focussed on one methodology over another.

The problem in practice comes when individual parishes within a local community (a diocese)reject the notion that they remain part of a local diocese or the broader church.

When individual parishes decide that their expression is somehow a purer and richer expression of 'the people of God' (ignoring that they are only a part of the expression of the people of God) and reject anything that would suggest authority of another, even to the extent of failure to test their activity against the practice and teaching of a broader community, Are they not themselves failing to keep balance within the tension describes here?

When individual parishes decide for themselves that they no longer need a priest for Mass, or that they do not need the Eucharist, as given by Christ and handed down by the church (particularly for Sunday worship), They, in fact, are separating themselves from the very tension you invite in your well written article.

It seems that the unfortunate circumstances at St Stephen's began long ago. And for the people who helped cause the rift to now say they were not given a chance, after intentionally avoiding scrutiny for so long, is disingenuous.

I pray for a community that is feeling the pain of its own history.

Being in the place where the tension between recognizing the blessings and challenges of reform that indeed exist within the councils teaching and also recognizing the value struggling to maintain a traditional authenticity can be extremely uncomfortable.

The excellent people at St Stephen's, it would seem, are now at a point in there history where they need to choose if they want to engage in a new conversation, or simply go away.

I would hope that they would choose the path toward healing

Anonymous said...

Unlike the corpus of Sacred Scripture, for which we have:

* a large but incomplete body of text in several languages, and

* limited access to the historic, social, temporal and community context

There is much less of a problem with the text produced by, and the context surrounding, the 1st & 2nd Vatican Councils.

Anybody with $5 can go into a used book store and pick up a copy of the most common, English language translation of the V2 documents. For the Catholic reader, fair-minded, attempting to "think with the Church," and who knows how to crack the cover of a Bible, it possible to read the Council documents and come to some understanding of them. There is not THAT much need for a detailed exegesis of the Council documents; there is a real danger, however, of eisegesis and anachronism in reading, digesting and applying any text.

Put a different way, the problem in study of the V2 documents is not that the reader becomes a shallow literalist, parroting the Magisterium's interpretation. The danger is that reader picks out the parts of the documents that, say, over-emphasize points of correspondence between a description of the whole People of God and the various roles within it, on one hand, and the reader's favorite political theories on the other (to name one particular problem we Americans have).

Curious, isn't it, that may of those most likely to agitate for change in the Church were 18 years old in 1967? It seems that all things, including the Church, are seen through the lens of that experience, though the persons involved are now nearly 60 years old. Well, that's anachronism for you.

Anonymous said...

It has been my realization for several years that the *real* "revolution" in the Roman Catholic Church in the 20th century was *not* Vatican II. Rather, it was the sacramental and liturgical revolutions of none other than the Hammer of the Modernists, Pius X, who would probably not recognize himself as a revolutionary - but he was. By making sung liturgy and, monumentally more importantly, regular reception of Communion (and, if necessary to do so, penance), he set the groundwork for the sacramental empowerment of the laity to have a more fully active Church as People of God.

Vatican II must be understood in light of this and in the context of the body blows so many of the faithful took (and some themselves committed) during the 75-year bloody festival of total war and state power in the seventy-five year period from 1914 to 1989.

Sacrosanctum Concilium wasn't about "power to the people" in liturgical terms (but unfortunately, many academics are biased to see everything through addled spectacles of materialist power). To treat the liturgical reforms of Vatican II in that way is to seriously confuse incidentals for substance. It's not genuinely progressive, but a comfortable substitute for the real thing. Dorothy Day, among many others, understood this. Getting hung up on having liturgy done "our way" is not really the Gospel call.

It's also, interestingly, inhospitable. Strangers and visitors (who, being Catholic, are usually too reserved to speak up even if asked) can be quite at sea in these "innovative" liturgical communities.* Instead, the community becomes a demi-gnostic clique that is very wedded to How We Do Things Here(TM). It's deeply at odds with the fundamental points of Vatican II; but, until you get distance from it, it will be virtually impossible to see how that is so.

*In fact, it was feedback from visitors such as these a decade agao that started to clue me in on how one can be "progressive" on the surface but quite subversive of deeper progressive goals in subtext.

kevin57 said...

I think that the cautions about St. Stephen's and other parish communities of this nature running the danger of becoming insular congregationalists has merit, but for all the griping about this type of Catholicism, I would like to hear these same posters excoriate groups like the Society of Pius X. They rejected and scorned Vatican II in part and in whole. Strange, even though they made up only a miniscule fraction of the Church universal, they are practically begged by the Holy See to be reconciled...and the Vatican literally bends over backwards to accommodate them.

Curious, too, that that they are NOT obliged to take an oath that they accept the liturgical and other reforms of Vatican II. Hmmmmm.

Anonymous said...


Some of my comments here and elsewhere can also apply to traditionalists - I carry no brief for traditionalist liturgy and champion the Liturgical Movement and the conciliar reforms. I just don't overinterpret the liturgical reforms the way some progressives mistakenly do.

The Vatican has not really bent backwards to accommodate traditionalists as you may think - if you read their websites, you will understand how underaccommodated they feel compared to liturgical progressives.

Everyone wants to be a victim, and point out how the other side is a "pet" of Rome, et cet.

Finally, there *is* a difference in the Roman tradition between continuing ritual that was long licit and innovating newly illicit ritual - to that limited extent, the situations would never be comparable.

Anonymous said...

If there was a massive walkout at St Agnes when they were asked to comply to the General Instruction I think we would have heard about it and had something to say.

The tendency to literally thumb their nose at the hierarchy is not uniquely progressive- although on the other side it tends to manifest itself in different ways.

Instead of trying to eliminate the rle of the priest from liturgy and all aspects of parish life they prefer an approach that publicly criticizes the priest (or bishop)in that he is 'doing it wrong.'

In practice, neither is particularly helpful.

And I have never heard of anyone 'obliging an oath' regarding liturgical reforms.

If you can demonstrate where one of these other parishes has gotten so far off the mark that parishioners are walking away from the Sunday Mass in favor of their own prayer service I will gladly 'excoriate' them with the same offer of prayers and hope that they would choose the path toward healing.

Unknown said...

kevin57 said...

....I would like to hear these same posters excoriate groups like the Society of Pius X. They rejected and scorned Vatican II in part and in whole. Strange, even though they made up only a miniscule fraction of the Church universal, they are practically begged by the Holy See to be reconciled...and the Vatican literally bends over backwards to accommodate them.

The Church "bends over backwards" to accommodate the SSPX because their bishops have been excommunicated. Their parishioners have not been excommunicated and in a case of an emergency, a Catholic in good standing with Rome may attend Mass and receive Holy Communion at an SSPX parish.

The Vatican would like to have those parishioners back and have their bishops regain communion with the Church.

To my knowledge, the only "progressives" who have been excommunicated are women who have participated in priestly "ordination" ceremonies and a few individual priests who have disobeyed direct instructions from their Bishop. That hasn't happened very often.

The "ordainers" in those ceremonies are usually bishops of the "Old Catholic Church" that can claim apostolic succession for at least some of their bishops.
They are already "out of communion" with the Roman Catholic Church.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Ray,

Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. Your perspective is always welcome here.

Just a point of clarification: the first Roman Catholic Womenpriests were not ordained by a bishop of the Old Catholic Church but by a number of Roman Catholic bishops in Europe.

Last August, after attending a Roman Catholic Womenpriests ordination here in Minneapolis, I posted photos and a commentary on The Wild Reed. In this post I noted the words of Bishop Patricia Fresen who, in a March 2007 interview, said:

“We believe that the sacrament we have received, the sacrament of orders, is valid because it has been passed onto us by some male bishops, who we cannot name for their protection. These men are willing to pass on what we call the ‘apostolic succession’.”

During her homily in Minneapolis, Bishop Fresen said: “We are blessed to live in a time when there is a great paradigm shift in human consciousness. We have come to understand that racism, classism, and sexism are some of the terrible forms of human discrimination that must be eradicated. And one of the aims of ordaining women is to claim justice for women who have been discriminated against in our beloved Church.

“When we are in Christ Jesus, we find our human dignity and equality. And racism and sexism, and classism, and all those other dreadful ‘isms’ lose their meaning. It is baptism that is the great equalizer because it is when we are baptized that we become ‘in Christ Jesus.’ We are the Body of Christ. We are Church.”

To read more about this ordination in Minneapolis and the Roman Catholic Womenpriest movement, click here.

Also, for my interview with Rev. Robert Caruso of Cornerstone Old Catholic Church in St. Paul, click here.

In this interview, Robert outlines very clearly the similarities and differences between Old Catholicism and Roman Catholicism.



Anonymous said...

If those women who presented themselves for ordination as deacons, priests and bishops truly believe they have been set apart for ministry in the Roman Catholic Church, they ought to have the full courage of their convictions, call Chancery Office of the local diocese, and ask for deployment according to the ministry they believe they have received.

Those male, Roman Catholic bishops who have participated in such ordinations should likewise have the courage of their convictions and come out into the open. If they truly believe they are exercising their ministry for the good of the Church, why be shy about it?

It is plain to me that all these folks, in spite of their good intentions and sincere beliefs, have simply broken the unity of the Roman Catholic Church by their actions. They've redefined priestly ministry in a way that the Church doesn't think it is able to do. In effect they've formed their own church or ecclesial community. That new community may be Roman Catholic in some appearances, but is not Roman Catholic in fact.

If the Holy Spirit is doing a new thing, then that "new thing" is being done over and over and over. See for examples. Isn't unity one of the marks of the Church? I'm afraid "unity" is being redefined, too.

I presume people's good will and good intentions, but these reform movements are a dime a dozen and are frought with chaos and dissension. I don't think the Holy Spirit is involved at all, no matter how much people say He (sorry, It) is.