Pope Benedict XVI has deliberately timed the beginning of the “Year of Faith” next October to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). In his apostolic letter Porta Fidei (“Door of Faith”) introducing the Year of Faith, the Holy Father made his own the statement of Blessed John Paul II regarding the importance of Vatican II as ”a sure compass by which to take our bearings” in the new millennium.”
But then Pope Benedict further added: “I would also like to emphasize strongly what I had occasion to say concerning the Council a few months after my election as Successor of Peter: ‘if we interpret and implement it guided by a right hermeneutic, it can be and can become increasingly powerful for the ever necessary renewal of the Church.’”
What is a hermeneutic? And in this instance, what is the “right hermeneutic”?
A hermeneutic is a principle of interpretation. It’s how we look at or assess something.
Pope Benedict XVI has candidly admitted the difficulties that have hampered the implementation of Vatican II. And for him, the key to correctly understanding and implementing Vatican II lies in using the “proper hermeneutics.”
In other words, we must look at Vatican II through the appropriate lens.
The Holy Father has identified a “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture,” which would sever the Church in effect into two churches: the “pre-conciliar” Church and the “post-conciliar” Church. Following this model, the new, “post-conciliar” Church, claiming the mandate and so-called “spirit” of Vatican II, must revise Church teaching, practices, and structures to make them more compatible with the present age. This mindset for a time gained access to positions of authority, or at least power, in the Church.
Others, in reaction to the loss of faith and ecclesial disarray caused by the indiscriminate application of this approach, have gone to the opposite extreme, clinging to the “pre-conciliar” Church, which doesn’t seem so bad compared to what’s gone on in their experience of the post-conciliar Church.
In this sense, both the progressives and the traditionalists employ the same (but wrong) hermeneutic. They both see Vatican II as creating, in some sense, a new Church. The difference is their reaction: The progressives see that as a good thing, as a vehicle for getting rid of what they don’t like and bringing in new ideas that are more in keeping with their own ideology and agendas. Meanwhile, the traditionalist minority consider such a break with the past an unmitigated disaster.
What the Pope is asking of us is to use a “hermeneutic of reform” in understanding Vatican II, recognizing the conciliar documents as ”normative texts of the Magisterium, within the Church’s Tradition.” This is the “right hermeneutic” that eschews both a “creative” and a “suspicious” approach to the Council. He calls us to embrace the necessary continuity of the Church and her traditional teaching, while at the same time recognizing the ongoing need for a renewal ordered to the salvation of the whole world–starting with us!
I rejoice that the Holy Father has validated the experience of those of us who have tried to uphold and live this proper understanding of Vatican II amidst this confusion. And of course his overarching message is to call all of us to a greater love for and fidelity to the Church.
This tension of continuity/discontinuity is present in our own lives. After all, Jesus Christ is “the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8), and at the same time He continually makes “all things new” (Rev. 21:5). The Christian life is about living this paradox. The gift of faith, the faith of the Church that most of us received as baptized infants, reflects the continuity of our Christian vocation.
Yet at the same time, in our own personal journey of faith, the Lord continually makes all things new, and He calls us to a dynamic relationship with Him right here and now.