Vatican II - Voice of The Church
Vatican II - Voice of The Church

The Continuing Challenge of the Second Vatican Council

The Hermenuetics of the Conciliar Statements

By Walter Kasper

1. The three phases of development after the council

For many people at the time, the Second Vatican Council was a positively breathtaking spiritual event. Today, twenty years later, many find the conciliar texts completely alien, if they are familiar with them at all. The interest and hope which the council awakened has often turned into disappointment--indeed into a fear that the renewal which the council began is not going to be maintained and will come to nothing. In the meantime, a discussion about the importance, interpretation and consequences of Vatican II has flared up again. The impetus for this discussion was provided by some highly pointed remarks made by the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and more especially by the convening of an extraordinary synod of bishops devoted to the reception and interpretation of the last council. The resulting debate has taken us into a third phase of post-conciliar development 'a phase which will probably decide what the future is going to be'.

The first phase in the reception was what H. J. Pottmeyer called 'the phase of exuberance'. This was dominated by the immediate impression that the council was a liberating event. For many people Vatican II seemed to be a complete new beginning and the starting point for an ongoing conciliar drive. It was as if a fuse had been lit. This soon made the conciliar texts themselves appear superseded. Even the official liturgical renewal, for example, sometimes went beyond what the council had explicitly said--for instance in the extent to which the vernacular is used. The theological discussion, even more, soon left the council's texts behind. Even as balanced a theologian as Yves Congar (who was himself very considerably involved in drawing up Lumen Gentium, the Constitution on the Church) could write: 'The positions of the Second Vatican Council now seem to have been superseded in some respects.' 'The spirit of the council' was frequently invoked, and there were warnings about a 'conciliar scholasticism', tied to the conciliar texts.

Almost inevitably, this first phase was replaced by a phase of disappointment. This disappointment had many reasons. There is no doubt that all legitimate expectations were not fulfilled. This is particularly true of collegiality, and the view of the church as communio. But it was not only in the church that there was a radical change of climate at the end of the sixties and the beginning of the seventies. The climate of society as a whole changed as well. Moreover, the dynamic of what was new was often unsupported by the necessary religious and spiritual power. The crisis showed itself, for example, in the dramatic decline in priestly and religious vocations, in a widespread breakdown of penitential practice (particularly the sacrament of penance) and, not least, in a marked decline in church attendance--contrary to what had been expected with the liturgical renewal. The council had thrown open the door to the world of today, and to the other churches and religions; but this often led to a diffusion of what was specifically Catholic, and to an identity crisis. The progressive reformers now complained about the inertia of the church as an institution. The conservatives talked about the signs of dissolution. Protest and contention developed on the one side, attempts at restoration on the other. Both finally led to a paralysing stalemate and to a fruitless kind of trench warfare.

The official initiative in setting a new round of discussions going brings movement into the church again, and must therefore in principle be welcomed. At all events, it shows that the last council is still very much on the agenda. Its reception and implementation is by no means finished. In some ways it is only beginning.

2. The need for a hermeneutic of the conciliar statements

Where is this new phase going to take us? We hear not only about expectations, but about grave misgivings as well. We can distinguish three main trends. First, there is a desire to go beyond the resolutions of the council. Second, there is an attempt to stop the movement which got under way with the council, because of a fear that Roman Catholic identity is in danger. The third trend urges a strict application of the council, under the motto: 'Only the council, but the whole council!'

If we are to arrive at a satisfactory answer, two things must be borne in mind. On the one hand, it is a fundamental conviction of faith that councils are an event brought about by the divine Spirit who guides the church. Consequently the results are a guiding principle which is binding on the church. This obligation exists even though the Second Vatican Council deliberately promulgated no infallible - i.e. fully binding - decisions. It would be quite wrong if we tried to play off the Council's pastoral intention and language against its doctrinal significance (which was frequently explicitly formulated and continually emphasized), and overlooked the fact that its texts imply 'a serious claim on the conscience of the Catholic Christian' (Joseph Ratzinger's words). The church can therefore only move into the future on the basis of the last council's resolutions, and by implementing them conscientiously. A restoration in the sense of a return to conditions as they were before the council would contradict the very principles of that pre-conciliar period itself, according to which councils are the supreme authority in the church. Any such restoration would plunge the church into a foundational crisis compared with which the present state of affairs is a trifle.

On the other hand one must be realistic enough to see that not all valid councils in the history of the church were fruitful ones. Here people continually draw attention to the Fifth Lateran Council, which met in 1512-1517, just before the beginning of the Reformation, without being able to make any effective contribution to reform which would have prevented the approaching catastrophe. The divine Spirit works through human beings, and they can frustrate his workings. So the last word has not yet been spoken about the historical importance of the Second Vatican Council either. Whether this council will count in the end as one of the highlights of church history will depend on the people who translate its words into terms of real life.

What is at issue for Catholic theology, therefore, is not the council in itself. What is in question is the interpretation and reception of the council. The dispute is about this and this alone. For opinions differ about the reception of the council hitherto, and about the events of post-conciliar development. Where one person talks about renewal, another sees only breakdown, crisis and loss of identity. As long as the dispute is pursued within the limits set by Christian truth and love, a dispute of this kind is part of the church's life which, like all life, exists in tension. In the previous history of the church as well, almost all Councils led to crisis and upheaval. So the present situation is by no means unique. It is to some degree normal.

The problem can be solved only if we come to an agreement about the principles which are to determine the interpretation and implementation of the council. As we saw, a third phase in the council's reception is beginning. After the first, wholly positive, exuberant

phase, this third phase must be one of authentic, integral interpretation and implementation of the council and its work of renewal. The task with which theology is thereby presented is to work out a hermeneutic for the Second Vatican Council.

3. The difficulties of a conciliar hermeneutic

A hermeneutic of the Second Vatican Council initially comes up against considerable difficulties. One of the main reasons for this is that, in the case of this particular council, at least one important principle for interpreting conciliar texts is denied us. Where the previous councils were concerned, the principle was that its statements had to be understood in the context of the errors condemned, and with this condemnation in mind. But Vatican II deliberately avoided any new condemnation. Its intentionally positive presentation of the truth distinguishes this council especially from the narrow anti-modernist mentality of the beginning of our century. So in this case, the principle that the council has to be understood in the light of the opposite position, falls to the ground.

This, in its turn, gives rise to a second difficulty. Pope John XXIII explicitly gave the council a pastoral purpose and direction. The council did not renounce anything in previous dogmatic tradition. On the contrary, it took up and renewed the doctrine of the church as it had been passed down. In addition, it gave some new doctrinal stresses made some important binding statements: the sacramentality and collegiality of the episcopal office, the universality of salvation, and others. But it did not issue any new interpretation of dogma in the sense of an ultimately binding dogmatic definition. Following the opening address of Pope John XXIII, which caused such a stir, the council also made a clear distinction between the underlying foundation of faith, which is permanently binding, and its mode of expression. This pastoral language is to some extent a novelty, compared with previous councils. In the case of earlier councils we are familiar with either dogmatic or disciplinary (i.e., canon law) provisions. In both these fields there are generally recognized principles of interpretation among experts. But when the pastoral character is in question, there is not as yet any agreement even as to what should be understood by this, in any detailed sense; even less is there any consensus about an appropriate hermeneutic.

Then there is a third difficulty. It has frequently been pointed out that in the Vatican II texts 'conservative' and 'progressive' statements are often found side by side, with no attempt at reconciliation. People talk about purely formal compromises. For example, Vatican I's doctrine about the primacy and infallibility of the pope is not merely retained. It is reiterated several times, and is in this way emphasized and endorsed. But it is integrated into the doctrine about the church as a whole, and the responsibility of all believers, as well as into the doctrine about the collegiality of the bishops. Yet how this integration is supposed to be conceived and practised in individual cases is by no means clarified in the conciliar texts. So some people have talked about a juxtaposition, a double viewpoint, a dialectic, if not actually a contradiction between two ecclesiologies, in the conciliar texts – a traditional hierarchical ecclesiology and a new, better communio ecclesiology, renewed in the spirit of the ancient church. So both conservatives and progressives can find support in individual conciliar statements. And this lends all the more urgency to the question about generally applicable rules of interpretation.

4. The hermeneutics of the doctrinal statements

The solution of these difficulties emerges, at least for the council's doctrinal statements, if we do not merely quote individual statements as such, but look at the conciliar process out of which they emerged - that is, if we study the textual history of the last council. If we make this effort, we shall discover quite quickly that to ask whether the council should be interpreted in a 'conservative' or a 'progressive' sense is to ask the wrong question. The council's aggiornamento had its roots in what preceded it, a renewal from the biblical, patristic and scholastic sources. The 'progressives' at the council were in reality the representatives of the greater and wider tradition, as distinct from its neo-scholastic levelling and simplification. The concern of the 'conservative' minority at the council, on the other hand, was to see to it that recent tradition (represented especially by Vatican I) was not passed over and forgotten, in the course of this renewal from the earlier sources. This is a fundamentally legitimate concern, according to the Catholic view of tradition; and in the end the majority quite rightly accepted it. Admittedly, the harmonization between earlier and later tradition is often not completely successful; for '“ like most previous councils '“ Vatican II solved its task, not with the help of a comprehensive theory, but by pegging out the limits of the church's position. In this sense it was completely in the conciliar tradition for a juxtaposition to remain. As in the case of every council, the theoretical mediation of these positions is a task for the theology that comes afterwards.

This suggests a second insight. The council itself, like all other councils, wished to preserve tradition. Otherwise it would have lost its raison d'etre. But—again like all other previous councils—it did not wish simply to reiterate tradition. It wished to actualize it and give it a living interpretation, in the light of the changed situation of the time. It did not intend to develop any new doctrine, but it did wish to renew the old. The theological language is aimed at and related to men and women in the situation of today, and may be termed pastoral. The word pastoral is therefore used in contrast to a rigid dogmatism, but it is not an antithesis to 'dogmatic'. On the contrary: 'pastoral' means bringing out the enduring relevance of dogma. Just because a dogma is true, it must and can be continually given a new and living impact, and has to be interpreted pastorally.

These reflections show that the methods and language of the last Council are not in every respect new, compared with previous councils. That is important for the question of how far its statements are binding, as well as for their interpretation. The general rules of conciliar hermeneutics can therefore quite well be applied to this Council also, by analogy. But there are also a number of more particular principles for the hermeneutics of this council's doctrinal statements.

We may formulate the first of these principles as follows: the texts of the Second Vatican Council must be understood and put into practice as a whole. It will not do simply to stress certain statements or aspects only, in isolation. It is precisely the tension existing between individual statements which brings out the pastoral point of the council.

This links up with a second interpretative principle: the letter and the spirit of the council must be understood as a unity. This is in fact a simple rule of every hermeneutics, and is generally termed the hermeneutical circle. Every individual statement can ultimately only be understood in the light of the spirit of the whole, just as, conversely, the spirit of the whole only emerges from a conscientious interpretation of individual texts. We can therefore neither make a legalistically literal exegesis of the conciliar texts without allowing ourselves to be moved by their spirit; nor must we enthusiastically play off 'the spirit of the council' against its actual texts. So faithfulness to the texts which stops at that is never sufficient. On the contrary, it leads into a cul-de-sac, because one can all too often confront one text with another. The spirit of the whole, and hence the meaning of an individual text, can only be discovered by pursuing the textual history in detail, and from this extracting the council's intention. And this intention was the renewal of the whole tradition, and that means the renewal, for our time, of the whole of what is Catholic.

From this a third principle of interpretation emerges. According to its own intention, the Second Vatican Council must be understood, like every other council, in the light of the wider tradition of the church. It is therefore absurd to distinguish between the pre-conciliar and the post-conciliar church in such a way to suggest that the post-conciliar church is a new church; or as if, after a long, dark age in church history, the last Council had at long last rediscovered the original gospel. On the contrary, Vatican II itself belongs within the tradition of all previous Councils, and it is this tradition which it wished to renew. The council must therefore be interpreted in the context of that tradition, particularly the Trinitarian and Christological confessions of the ancient church.

Finally, we must mention a fourth interpretative principle: the continuity of what is Catholic is understood by the last council as a unity between tradition and a living, relevant interpretation in the light of the current situation. This principle was already at work in previous councils (even if only implicitly), when these councils lent tradition a precise, articulated form, in the light of some specific error. But what then took place in particular cases, was thought about explicitly by the last council, and was given a universal reference: for the council talks about a relation to the 'signs of the time'. This means: historical origins must be adopted responsibly today against the horizon of the future.

5. The hermeneutics of pastoral statements

The interpretation of the last council's pastoral statements is more difficult than the interpretation of its statements about doctrine. It is true that, basically, everything the council says, including its doctrinal utterances, are meant pastorally. But there are also pastoral statements in the narrower and more specialized sense. We find these particularly in Gaudium et spes, which bears the name 'Pastoral Constitution'.

The very genre 'Pastoral Constitution' is a novelty in conciliar history. The degree to which it is binding, its method, and its interpretation are therefore controversial in a particular way, and are not yet fully clarified in every respect. On the other hand, this constitution was not prepared by any pre-conciliar commissions. It therefore grew out of the conciliar process itself more than any of the other constitutions. It expresses the 'spirit' of the last council particularly clearly. The council also deliberately gave it the solemn character of a constitution and did not reduce it to the rank of a mere message or declaration, as was suggested. This meant that this constitution has had a correspondingly profound effect since the council, an influence which also made itself felt in liberation theology. And rightly so. For what use is all our orthodoxy if it does not bear fruit in practical life? If we were to speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but had not love, we should be sounding brass and tinkling cymbals.

The last council therefore rightly adhered to the doctrine of the Council of Trent and Vatican I, saying that in questions of faith and morals it is both possible and necessary for the church to speak in binding form. In addition, it also maintained that it was its task to explain authoritatively, and to endorse, the principles of the moral order, which spring from the nature of human beings themselves. This is the fundamental claim of the church: and on its basis the council deliberately intended to make binding doctrinal statements in the Pastoral Constitution also. This is clearly demonstrated by the textual history.

But where practical morality is concerned, general principles are not enough. Clear directives are necessary. And yet the particular situation is never merely a special case within, or subordinate to, a general rule. The specific situation also contains something additional—a surplus—compared with the general rule. So traditional doctrine also says that practical directives cannot simply be deduced in the abstract from general principles. They presuppose an evaluation of the particular situation into which the general principles have to be translated. This is where the difficulties begin. And it is these difficulties with which moral theology especially (but pastoral theology too) is having to struggle at present. For in evaluating the particular personal, cultural, social or political situation, the church has no particular spiritual authority and competence. Here it is dependent on human experience, human judgment and the relevant human sciences.

The council took this fact into account, and decided that in judging practical situations within the limits of the common faith, different political, social and cultural options are open to Catholics.

These principles, confirmed by the council itself, have consequences for the interpretation of the pastoral statements (taken in the narrower sense) of the council. In these pastoral statements a clear distinction has to be made between the different levels of a statement and their varying degree of obligation. To be more precise: a distinction has to be made between the generally binding, doctrinal foundation, the description of the situation, and the application of the general principles to the pastoral situation described. In the description of the situation, the council had to fall back on recognitions of a secular kind, for which it possessed no special ecclesiastical teaching authority. The binding nature of these situational definitions is therefore dependent on the validity of the arguments which are brought into play. Their authority is therefore essentially different and, above all, less than the authority of the doctrinal statements themselves. This in its turn has consequences for the application of generally binding statements about faith and morals to the specific situation. The obedience required here cannot be simply the obedience of faith, in the sense of fides divina et catholica. And yet this does not by any means relegate such statements to the sector of what is not obligatory at all, and a matter of pure choice. Nor are they solely disciplinary. Catholics are required to enter into such statements with a religiously motivated inner assent, and to go along with them. But this assent and response includes co-responsibility, spiritually and morally. The possibility that here the individual Christian, after a mature examination of conscience may arrive at a different judgment from that of the Church's magisterium, is in line with the best theological tradition.

It was Karl Rahner in particular who demanded an existential hermeneutics of this kind, a hermeneutics which in no way excludes what is generally essential, but which puts this into practice existentially - which means in a way that is unique in every case. The challenge of the last council still exists, as we can see from a glance at the present discussion in moral theology. In the Pastoral Constitution especially, the council has left us a rich inheritance, although admittedly this is certainly still awaiting its full development.

6. New challenges

In the last twenty years the challenge of the council has if anything increased. For in the meantime the external and internal circumstances of its reception have changed profoundly, and have become considerably more difficult. Changes in the third world and in the young churches are the most striking. The church's centre of gravity is increasingly shifting away from Europe to the churches in the southern hemisphere. In the face of the enormous social problems of these regions, the option for a church of the poor is moving more and more clearly into the foreground – and rightly so. A hermeneutics of the conciliar statements which will meet this situation is an urgent requirement rightly put forward by liberation theology, even though this requirement has not yet been satisfactorily met.

In Western Europe and North America (and I shall confine myself to these regions, for reasons of competence) there was a kind of cultural revolution soon after the council. This led to a serious breach with tradition, and to a re-ideologization of Western society, above all among the intellectuals and in the modern mass media. It became obvious that material superfluity was largely matched by spiritual emptiness. New social and economic problems (especially mass unemployment), which were unknown in the prosperous years of the council, contributed to the situation. The result is a widespread indifference towards questions of faith, a profound lack of confidence about fundamental anthropological values, and—in the ethical sector—a lack of orientation to which we may even give the name of crisis.

These shocks and tremors found their way with surprising rapidity into the church as well, and led to a crisis of Catholic identity. The contours of what is Catholic have largely speaking become blurred. The situation in the churches of Western Europe and North America has meanwhile begun to stabilize again; but in spite of that, the more profound problems involved in this post-conciliar upheaval and erosion have by no means been dealt with. In spite of many encouraging new beginnings and movements in the spiritual field, there is a general lack of drive, perspective and hope. Of impatient and hectic activism we have more than enough; but this is no substitute for genuine new vigour. It is more of a hindrance.

The subject to which theology and the church have to devote themselves in this situation is above all the human presuppositions for faith (praeambula fidei), and the ways of arriving at faith. Ultimately, what is at stake is the question of God. In the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes, the council said some essential things here, and also some new ones. But all the same, as a whole the council's interest was too much confined to the church. It paid less attention to the real foundation and content of faith, which is God, than it did to the Church's mediation of faith. In this respect especially, Vatican II is a challenge. It challenges us, in complete faithfulness to the tradition to which the council testified, to go beyond the actual conciliar texts themselves and—in the face of modern atheism—to develop anew the message about the triune God, the God of Jesus, in its meaning for the salvation of men and women and the world.

Ultimately speaking, the whole labour of the council, the post-conciliar reforms and the dispute about them, will have been worth while only if more faith, hope and love grows out of them. This and this alone is the final criterion for every conciliar hermeneutics. For this alone meets the pastoral concern of this council, properly understood. At the moment, down-to-earth observers of the church's life may have serious and well-founded doubts as to whether the council really achieved this goal. But I myself have no doubt that the council's hour is still to come, and that its seed will spring up and bear rich fruit in the field of history.

[This article is a reproduction of chapter 9 from Theology and Church, Walter Kasper, SCM Press, London, 1989 ET]