A Proper Understanding of Vatican II

If it seems like I keep beating this topic like a dirty rug, it’s because I am. This is a pretty big deal these days, and it’s something I think our bishops really need to zero-in on if they want to prevent problems in their dioceses. Pope Benedict XVI gave us the model for how to understand the Second Vatican Council (or Vatican II) in a way that prevents heresy, schism and rebellion. At the risk of sounding presumptuous, I’ll add to the good professor’s analysis with one more observation, that I think he would probably support in light of recent events. Mine will be the third option.

The word “hermeneutic” means: a method of interpretation. So, when it comes to Vatican II, there have developed three methods of interpretation (or three hermeneutics), of which only the first one is correct…

  1. Hermeneutic of Continuity
  2. Hermeneutic of Rupture
  3. Hermeneutic of Rejection

I’ll discuss these three hermeneutics below…

Hermeneutic of Continuity

The Hermeneutic of Continuity is the only correct way to interpret Vatican II. This is according to Pope Benedict XVI. To understand, think of the councils of the Church like a stack of books.

The first book, at the bottom of the stack, was the Council of Jerusalem recorded in the New Testament Book of Acts (AD 45). The second one up the stack was the Council of Nicea (AD 325). The third up the stack was the Council of Constantinople (AD 381), and so on. In our time, the last three councils, at the top of the stack, are the Council of Trent (AD 1545-63), Vatican I (AD 1870) and Vatican II (AD 1962-65). The Hermeneutic of Continuity demands that we take all of these councils together, as a whole, each one building on the last, and none of them interpreted in a vacuum.

Furthermore, both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Paul VI insisted that Vatican II was merely a pastoral council, that made no extraordinary infallible decrees. That means, as far as councils go, Vatican II is of a lower order, ranking below Trent and Vatican I.

This means whenever a Catholic runs across something in Vatican II that doesn’t make sense, or seems confusing, both Trent and Vatican I take precedence. By interpreting Vatican II this way, it eliminates apparent contradictions and reduces confusion. Thus, when the Catechism of the Catholic Church was composed under the pontificate of Pope St. John Paul II (AD 1992), while it relied heavily on the documents of Vatican II to pastorally explain things, it defaulted to Trent and Vatican I, in addition to many previous councils and the Bible, as the backbone of Catholic doctrine. In other words, the Catechism of the Catholic Church relies heavily on the Hermeneutic of Continuity.

Hermeneutic of Rupture

The Hermeneutic of Rupture is a phenomenon that developed during and immediately after the Second Vatican Council. Pope Benedict XVI attributed this phenomenon to reckless reporting on Vatican II by the mainstream media, which he sarcastically called the “Council of the Media,” that operated apart from the actual Second Vatican Council. I think, however, there is more to it than just that. I think there were players inside the Church who were more than willing, and eager, to utilize this way of thinking.

If the Hermeneutic of Continuity can be likened to a stack of books, meant to be taken together as a whole, then the Hermeneutic of Rupture can be compared to a waste bin, where all the previous books (councils) are discarded, so that only the latest one (in this case Vatican II) can be focused on exclusively and interpreted in a vacuum. The mindset of the Hermeneutic of Rupture is that whenever you have a Church council, the latest one nullifies all the previous councils. Thus, the term “rupture” means exactly what it sounds like — a break with the past.

This Hermeneutic developed as an outgrowth of liberalism and modernism. Many of the documents of Vatican II can be vague when interpreted in a vacuum, outside of historic Church tradition and previous councils. Some of them, in some places, even contradict these things. When put into the context of previous councils, as the Hermeneutic of Continuity demands, this isn’t a problem. However, under the Hermeneutic of Rupture where there is no context anymore, because the Church’s past has been virtually deleted, these vague and contradicting statements of Vatican II suddenly carry the weight of dogma.

The effect of this rupture is to believe the Church changed her teachings, so as to assert that the Church now teaches the opposite of what she once did. It is, in effect, to make a new Church, a new religion, and a new gospel.

Being so radical, one would think the Hermeneutic of Rupture would be limited to dissident theologians under censure from the Church. While it is true that many such theologians have been censured, others have been promoted to prominent positions of authority with the Church. I’m talking about priests, bishops, archbishops and cardinals here. Some might say even Pope Francis subscribes to the Hermeneutic of Rupture on some issues. This is why he is probably the most controversial pope in modern history. Some might say all of history.

Hermeneutic of Rejection

The Hermeneutic of Rejection developed in the decades following Vatican II, and is increasing in recent years. It is a knee-jerk reaction to the Hermeneutic of Rupture, essentially doing the same thing the Hermeneutic of Rupture does, but in reverse.

Again, it can be likened to a waste bin, but instead of the Church’s previous councils being thrown into it, the Hermeneutic of Rejection tosses Vatican II into the waste bin. It is, in effect, an acceptance of the Hermeneutic of Continuity up to Vatican I, followed with a rejection of Vatican II.

The Hermeneutic of Rejection is embraced by a growing number of Traditionalist Catholics, and every attempt to counter and restrain this movement causes it to only grow larger. Pope Benedict XVI had the best idea for dealing with it. His method was one of gentleness, embracing people who hold to this hermeneutic, by liberalizing usage of the 1962 Missal (Traditional Latin Mass), revoking the excommunications of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) bishops, and encouraging traditional reforms of the 1970 Missal (New Vernacular Mass). The idea was to remove all attacks against them, quelling their siege mentality, and then proving to them that the Hermeneutic of Continuity is a better way. It was starting to work in the areas where the bishops embraced Benedict’s plan.

Unfortunately, Pope Francis was elected, and with that Traditional Catholics were persecuted again, causing the Hermeneutic of Rejection to rise to new levels unseen before. To be fair, Pope Francis has been very generous to the SSPX, recognizing most of their sacraments as licit, but he has allowed diocesan bishops to persecute Traditionalists within their dioceses, almost as if to force them to flee to the SSPX. This has cause many Traditionalists to speculate that this is a trap, wherein the intent is to corral all the Traditionalists into one group (the SSPX), so as to excommunicate them all later.

Today, the Hermeneutic of Rejection threatens to become the dominant viewpoint of the majority of young Catholics. Popularity doesn’t make it right though. It’s not as wrong as the Hermeneutic of Rupture but it still needs to be corrected. It’s not as wrong because it only rejects one council, whereas the Hermeneutic of Rupture effectively nullifies twenty-one, if we count the Council of Jerusalem in AD 45. However, the current attack on Traditional Catholicism, by Pope Francis and his supporters, makes it difficult to reach those who subscribe to this hermeneutic. They are under siege, so any correction of their error will just be perceived as part of that siege. Quite honestly, who can blame them for thinking that? If I were in their camp, I would probably think the same thing.

The Only Way

The only way forward for the Catholic Church is the Hermeneutic of Continuity. The other two options are dead ends.

The Hermeneutic of Rupture creates a whole new religion, which can only result in heresy, schism and apostasy. A perfect example of this is the Synodal Way under exploration by the German Bishops Conference. Pope Francis has repeatedly warned them that their current trajectory along the Hermeneutic of Rupture is leading them toward schism with Rome.

The Hermeneutic of Rejection locks Catholic minds into the same dilemma as Eastern Orthodoxy. If we totally reject Vatican II, then how could the Church ever move on to another council in the future? Who’s to say if there ever is a Vatican III, or a Trent II, it will be accepted? Once you go down the road of rejecting one council, what’s stopping you from rejecting another? Those who embrace the Hermeneutic of Rejection run the risk of locking themselves into a pre-1962 mentality, wherein the Church cannot advance beyond what was considered acceptable in 1962. This is similar to the dilemma facing the Eastern Orthodox, who are locked into an AD 1054 mindset, unable to have another ecumenical council following the Great Schism between East and West.

Only the Hermeneutic of Continuity can save us from these two dead-end ideologies, and it requires courage because we now have two other hermeneutics working against it. Yet if we don’t follow the Hermeneutic of Continuity, we’re going to end up finding ourselves in schism with Holy Mother Church in one way or another.