Friday, February 20, 2009

A Timely Re-Read on a Critique of a Particular, and Popular, Hermeneutic of Vatican II

It is quite evident that there is a mounting debate over the implementation and interpretation of the Second Vatican Council -- and necessary it is. Whatever other issues might be raised, the reactions surrounding the lifting of the SSPX bishops' excommunications, and most recently the article on Fr. Tim Finigan and his parish, exhibit this clear subtext.

I shall perhaps write more upon this topic very shortly, but for the time being, it seemed to me that a timely re-read and re-posting of a few excerpts from Archbishop Agostino Marchetto's own thought on the issue of problematic hermeneutical approaches to Vatican II may well be in order as it provides a good context to understand some of the different debates which are brewing just beneath the surface of so much recent ink.

In view of that, the expected release this year of his "magnum opus" on this subject in English translation, The Second Vatican Ecumenical Council: A Counterpoint for the History of the Council, perhaps could not be more timely, and may help bring the necessary debate out in the full light of day.

Hermeneutic interpretations of Vatican Council II

by Agostino Marchetto


Vatican II was colossal. The official proceedings alone fill 62 large volumes that provide a solid foundation for a correct assessment and interpretation. But many began to weave their interpretive web before the publication of the indispensable proceedings issued by the council's ruling bodies, basing themselves instead upon private writings (personal diaries), contemporary newspaper reports and columns, although these were sometimes exceptional. I think, for example, of those of P. Caprile.

This already brings into question their judgment, their crosswise criticism, because even a superficial reading reveals discrepancies and a variety of attributions and "merits" (for some positions that in the end were "victorious"), an incomplete understanding with respect to the complexity of synodal affairs (a canvas of regulations, "pressure," movements, "battles" against "conservatism" or the curia, or in defense of tradition or of the avant-garde, the teaching of the Magisterium, or pastoral-ecumenical interpretations of John XXIII).

This naturally does not mean a rejection of material from diaries, as, for example, E. Manieu did with Congar's conciliar diaries. Among other things, these bring flavor and constitute "ingredients" that go into the whole, but they must be subordinated to the official proceedings without sliding toward a fragmentary history, in the style of a news account or an encyclopedia, with dispersion, dissection, vivisection, or excoriation of the Council itself....

The underlying problem with the use of diaries is, for many, connected to the effort to diminish the importance of the final conciliar documents (the "spirit" of the Council! But it is, instead, the spirit of this corpus), a synthesis of Tradition and renewal (aggiornamento), to assert research "guided" beforehand, which appeared ideological from the beginning. This focused solely on the innovative aspects, on discontinuity with Tradition. We find the most striking testimony in the volume "L'evento e le decisioni. Studi delle dinamiche del Concilio Vaticano II [The Event and the Decisions: Studies on the Dynamics of Vatican Council II]", edited by Maria Teresa Fattori and Alberto Melloni.

The focus on discontinuity is also the result of the current general historiographical tendency that (after and against Braudel and the Annales) privileges, in historical interpretation, "the event," understood as discontinuity and a traumatic transformation. So then, in the Church, if this "event" is not so much an important fact, but a rupture, an absolute novelty, the emergence "in casu" of a new Church, a Copernican revolution, in short the transition to a different form of Catholicism – losing its unmistakable characteristics – this perspective cannot and must not be accepted, precisely because of the uniqueness of Catholic identity. The aforementioned volume, consequently, criticizes the conciliar "hermeneutics" of men who are certainly not "closed" toward Vatican II or opposed to it, such as Jedin, Kasper, Ratzinger, and Poulat himself. It thus emerges that what was an extreme, radical position (opposed to "consensus") in the heart of the conciliar majority (there was also extremism in the minority, which would later be manifested with the schism of Archbishop Lefebvre), succeeded, after the Council, almost in monopolizing the interpretation until now, rejecting any alternative approach, sometimes with the barbed accusation that these are anti-conciliar (see G. Dossetti, "Il Vaticano II. Frammenti di una riflessione [Vatican II: Fragments of a Reflection]").


We must first say immediately that for us, this situation is not good, because it presents an imbalance, an almost monotonous interpretation, failing to follow the idea of embrace as already presented.

The "Bologna group"

In fact, that group of scholars from Bologna – let's call them that – led by Prof. G. Alberigo and ably assisted by an affiliated team of authors (including, but not limited to, some from the Louvain), who find themselves fundamentally united in a single line of thought, succeeded, through a wealth of means, industriousness, and generous friendships, in monopolizing and imposing an off-kilter – in our opinion – interpretation, thanks especially to the publication of a "Storia del Concilio Vaticano II [History of Vatican Council II]," published by Peeters/Il Mulino, in five volumes, already released in Italian and nearly ready for final publication in French, English, Spanish, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Japanese. The gravity of the resulting situation can be grasped by reading the presentation of my research in the volumes of the work already cited (pp. 93-165). To be specific, I will review some of my criticisms of the "Conclusione e alle prime esperienze di ricezione [Conclusion and the first experiences of implementation]" written by G. Alberigo in volume V.


Nevertheless, in this last chapter as well Alberigo continues to advance his well-known points of view, which to us are highly deserving of criticism because they are clearly compromised by his ideology. We will leave aside a number of questions, important as they are, and consider that the author presents Vatican II "above all as an event," and after this as "the totality of its decisions." It is here that we must object to this prioritization. If, then, "event" is understood as seen today by secular historiography, which we have already considered – in the sense, that is, of a rupture with respect to the past – we cannot accept such a characterization (see our note on "L'evento e le decisioni [The event and the decisions" in A. H. C., 1998, pp. 131-142, and in "Apollinaris," 1998, pp. 325-337).

The event is then presented, rightly, with its connection to "aggiornamento," but it is passed through the filter of Chenu and of the "pastoral focus," but here again with further recourse to this theologian, and the mention of the disagreement with his "approach to research" on the part of the late Mons. Maccarrone.

Pastoral focus and aggiornamento, for Alberigo, created "together the premises for overcoming the hegemony of theology, understood as the isolation of the doctrinal dimension of the faith and its abstract conceptualization, and also of legalism," with rather serious assertions: "The faith and the church no longer appear as commensurate with doctrine, which does not even constitute the most important dimension of these. Adherence to doctrine, and above all to a single doctrinal formulation, cannot be the ultimate criterion for discerning membership in the Unam Sanctam."


Alberigo then takes up his well-known thoughts on the "primary importance of the action of the Spirit, and not of the pope or of the church and its doctrinal universe" concerning the Council, on the Church's social doctrine, on the "steering" of the Council, on the manner of confronting the "profane" sciences, and, with theological reflection of Protestant origin, on the "acceptance of history." He speaks of "an organic relationship between history and salvation," with the transcendence of "the dichotomy between profane history and sacred history.


And what do we say in this regard? We repeat, first of all, that we do not accept the perspective of separating the event from the conciliar decisions, and we reiterate that this is, for us, a great event, not a rupture, a revolution, the creation almost of a new Church, the rejection of the great Council of Trent and Vatican Council I, or of any previous ecumenical Council. There was certainly a change of direction, but to use a traffic metaphor, this was not a "U-turn." There was, in short, an "aggiornamento," and this term explains the event well, with the combination of "nova et vetera," of fidelity and openness, as demonstrated moreover by the texts approved at the Council - all the texts.


(Originally posted by Sandro Magister)

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