(Mis)Interpreting Vatican II

(Mis)Interpreting Vatican II January 26, 2013

John O’Malley, SJ has a marvelous article at America Magazine on how not to understand Vatican II.  I refer you to the whole piece, but as a teaser I give you here his 10 principles to avoid:

1. Insist Vatican II was only a pastoral council.

2. Insist it was an occurrence in the life of the church, not an event.  (An “occurrence” is something that happens but has no lasting impact, an “event” does.)

3. Banish the expression “spirit of the council. (My favorite)

4. Study the documents individually, without considering them part of an integral corpus.

5. Study the final 16 documents in the order of hierarchical authority, not in the chronological order in which they were approved in the council.
(This one and the previous one were points I had never considered.)

6. Pay no attention to the documents’ literary form.

7. Stick to the final 16 documents and pay no attention to the historical context, the history of the texts or the controversies concerning them during the council.

8. Outlaw the use of any “unofficial” sources, such as the diaries or correspondence of participants.
(This is part of understanding the Spirit of the Council.)

9. Interpret the documents as expressions of continuity with the Catholic tradition.  (Kind of hard, in some cases.)

10. Make your assessment of the council into a self-fulfilling prophecy.


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  • I find his explanation of 3 completely baffling; the traditional distinction between letter and spirit in the Christian tradition is about correct understanding, not about “themes and orientations” or ” the bigger message” or “the dynamics of the whole”. The spirit is not “the bigger message” of the letter; nor is the spirit in this sense “grounded in” the letter while “transcending” it. They are necessarily opposed understandings: the letter kills, the spirit gives life. As Augustine pointed out, in the reading of Scripture this distinction plays out in two ways: first in the interpretation of the text, in the distinction between hyperliteral interpretations and interpretations that recognize figurative features of the text, and second in the mindset of the interpreter, in the distinction between carnal understanding and spiritual understanding. In each case the second is not grounded in the first at all: the first is simply incorrect and the second correct. (If on the other hand, O’Malley intends to reference the distinction between literal and spiritual senses of Scripture, which, given his vagueness, I suppose he also could mean, the distinction makes no sense here, because it is not a distinction between interpretations of texts but between the interpretation of the text and the interpretation of providential history as presented in the text.) The whole explanation seems to be just a complete mish-mash of equivocations. If this is the rational foundation for talking about the Spirit of the Council, the whole notion is logically incoherent.

    And indeed, he seems to conflate two clearly distinct functions for the phrase: indicating the etiology of the texts, at least as reconstructed from evidence (what we might also call the climate of the Council) and indicating the implicit meaning of conciliar documents The sense of a text and the climate in which it was born are not unrelated, but they are also not the same thing; in fact, the relation between the two is never even straightforward — it admits of considerable variation and always has to be worked out on a case-by-case basis. (And, it should be said, it is not at all clear how either of these are related to the usual meaning given to the phrase.)

  • Mark VA

    I find the negative principle number nine intriguing:

    “Interpret the documents as expressions of continuity with the Catholic tradition. As an emphasis in interpreting the documents of the council, this is correct and needs to be insisted upon. The problem arises when this principle is applied in a way that excludes all discontinuity, that is, all change.”

    The emphasis in some parts of our Church continues to be on strictly disallowing any discontinuity with anything that was done in the name of the “spirit of the Vatican Two Council”. Yet it seems that such a discontinuity must be allowed, at least in principle, if the Spirit of the Vatican Two Council is to be distinguished from something else called the “spirit of the Vatican Two Council”. Such liberality would in turn allow us to “…try the spirits if they be of God…”.

    At first I erroneously thought the ninth negative principle is self contradictory, then realized that this principle is fine, if applied in a continuous manner. This of course would include everything that was done in the post Vatican Two period.

  • Julia Smucker

    I often find O’Malley’s interpretation of Vatican II to be unnecessarily polemical, especially the way he defines “continuity” as total lack of change and “discontinuity” as any change at all. In light of this, it’s surprising that he commends a Ratzingerian “hermeneutic of reform”, which would seem to require a greater allowance for continuity in this reform (or reform in continuity with the Catholic tradition) than O’Malley appears willing to make.

  • Subsistent

    Based on the indications about Fr. O’Malley’s article here in Vox Nova, I’m probably in substantial agreement both with it and with Julia Smucker’s comment on it. But let’s not be too quick to neglect the basic literal sense of a Conciliar pronouncement for even the real “spirit” of the Council fathers. I’m thinking of the “(mis)interpretation” by the Council fathers themselves in the 15th-century Council of Florence regarding “No salvation outside the Church”: without going into detailed analysis, may I point out Thomist essayist Jacques Maritain’s straightforward take on this doctrine, which states (as did the old Baltimore Catechism) that to be saved, one must belong to the Catholic Church in some way. And altho the Catholic Church is a visible church, and altho visible membership is accordingly the normal (I don’t say the usual) way of being in that Church, it’s nonetheless possible for someone to be in the Church *invisibly*.
    “What matters here”, writes Maritain in his book *On the Church of Christ*, “is the declaration itself, not the manner in which one understood it in that epoch. That in actual fact the Fathers of the Council of Florence themselves understood it … of a *visible* belonging to the Church, this seems evident to me. The fact remains that the declaration itself does not at all say it.” (Note 1 to Chap. X, Joseph W. Evans’s translation).

  • Here in Germany, the “war of interpretation” Vat2, as I sometimes call it, is very lively and , ceased to be a debate, since both parties basically don’t talk to each other but about each other.

    I myself am pretty relaxed: according to all historians I know, the Second Vatican Council, being the 21st Ecumenical Council of the Church, took place not because of the Curia or the majority of the bishops, but because the Pope in his supreme authority wanted and ordered it.

    Now, another Pope is in charge . and I don’t see why he should not be allowed to have the final word on interpreting the Council, just because I may not like some results.

  • Wade

    Vatican II’s Constitution on the Church says in Chapter 3, “Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they nevertheless proclaim Christ’s doctrine infallibly whenever, even though dispersed through the world, but still maintaining the bond of communion among themselves and with the successor of Peter, and authentically teaching matters of faith and morals, they are in agreement on one position as definitively to be held.(40*) This is even more clearly verified when, gathered together in an ecumenical council, they are teachers and judges of faith and morals for the universal Church, whose definitions must be adhered to with the submission of faith.”

    If the ecumenical councils before it are infallible, like Vatican II’s Constitution says there are some things that are still the same.