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Online Edition:
November 2012
Vol. XVIII, No. 8

Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI on the Hermeneutic of Reform

by Susan Benofy

In his famous address to the Curia in December 2005, Pope Benedict XVI attributed the difficulty of implementing the Second Vatican Council to the fact that “two contrary hermeneutics came face to face and quarreled with each other.” One, “the hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture,” caused confusion. The other, the “hermeneutic of reform,” is bearing fruit. These “hermeneutics” have been much discussed. It often seems to be assumed that the idea of interpreting the Council in continuity with the past originated with the present Holy Father. In fact, though he coined the term, he does not claim the idea as his own. He said in that same address:

The hermeneutic of discontinuity is countered by the hermeneutic of reform, as it was presented first by Pope John XXIII in his Speech inaugurating the Council on 11 October 1962 and later by Pope Paul VI in his Discourse for the Council’s conclusion on December 7, 1965.

Other talks and writings of these two popes on the Council also demonstrate this hermeneutic of reform. They both present the Council and its teachings in continuity with the earlier councils and the entire history of Church teachings — and both explain that the main purpose of the Council was to clarify the teachings and express them in a way that would be most effective for the evangelization of the world today.

The following quotations from their works will show how prominent the idea of continuity was in the teaching of both Pope John XXIII — who called the Council and presided over its first session, and Pope Paul VI — who presided over the later sessions and the initial post-conciliar reforms.

Pope John XXIII

Today the Church is witnessing a crisis under way within society. While humanity is on the edge of a new era, tasks of immense gravity await the Church, as in the most tragic periods of its history. It is a question in fact of bringing the modern world into contact with the vivifying and perennial energies of the Gospel, a world which exalts itself with its conquests in the technical and scientific fields but which brings also the consequences of a temporal order which some have wished to reorganize excluding God.

Humanae Salutis
Apostolic Constitution Convoking the Second Vatican Council
December 25, 1961

The Vatican Council presents itself to catholicity and to humanity in the steadfastness of the apostolic creed proclaimed by an immense assembly, with the experience of a doctrinal illustration which is almost universal, and in a vision of the whole [of Catholic teaching], responding more to the spirit of modern times.

And this will be a happy testimony of the teaching of Christ recalled by the Church in the special tradition. Particularly of the First Vatican Council, of the Council of Trent, the Fourth Lateran Council, the eminent glory of Innocent III (1215); in the tradition of all the councils that marked the triumph of truth which has been profoundly examined and made to penetrate energetically the social body.

Pentecost Address
St. Peter’s Basilica, June 10, 1962

In calling this vast assembly of bishops, the latest and humble successor to the Prince of Apostles who is addressing you intended to assert once again the magisterium [teaching authority], which is unfailing and perdures until the end of time, in order that this magisterium, taking into account the errors, the requirements, and the opportunities of our time, might be presented in exceptional form to all men throughout the world.

The greatest concern of the Ecumenical Council is this: that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously.

That is, the Twenty-first Ecumenical Council, which will draw upon the effective and important wealth of juridical, liturgical, apostolic, and administrative experi- ences, wishes to transmit the doctrine, pure and integral, without any attenuation or distortion, which throughout twenty centuries, notwithstanding difficulties and contrasts, has become the common patrimony of men.

But from the renewed, serene, and tranquil adherence to all the teaching of the Church in its entirety and preciseness, as it still shines forth in the Acts of the Council of Trent and First Vatican Council, the Christian, Catholic, and apostolic spirit of the whole world expects a step forward toward a doctrinal penetration and a formation of consciousness in faithful and perfect conformity to the authentic doctrine, which, however, should be studied and expounded through the methods of research and through the literary forms of modern thought. The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another. And it is the latter that must be taken into great consideration with patience if necessary, everything being measured in the forms and proportions of a magisterium which is predominantly pastoral in character.

Opening Address
Second Vatican Council
October 11, 1962

Pope Paul VI

This council hands over to posterity not only the image of the Church but also the patrimony of her doctrine and of her commandments, the “deposit” received from Christ and meditated upon through centuries, lived and expressed now and clarified in so many of its parts, settled and arranged in its integrity. The deposit, that is, which lives on by the divine power of truth and of grace which constitutes it, and is, therefore, able to vivify anyone who receives it and nourishes with it his own human existence.

Address at Last General Session
Second Vatican Council
December 7, 1965

The heritage of the council is constituted by the documents which were promulgated at the various conclusive moments of its discussions and decisions. These documents are of a varied nature: constitutions (four), decrees (nine), and declarations (three); but together they form a body of doctrine and laws which must give the Church that renewal for which the council has been promoted. To know, study, and apply these documents is the duty and the fortune of the post-conciliar period.

We must pay attention to this point: the teachings of the council do not constitute an organic and complete system of Catholic doctrine. That is much wider, as everyone knows, and is not questioned or substantially modified by the council.…

We must not sever the teachings of the council from the doctrinal patrimony of the church, but on the contrary discern how they find their place there, how they are consistent with it and how they give to it witness, growth, explanation, and application.

They would be mistaken, therefore, who might think the council represents a severance, a break — or as some believe, a liberation — from the traditional teaching of the Church.

For indeed the “Spirit of the Council” intends to be the Spirit of Truth (Jn 16:13). January 12, 1966

Some dare to raise doubts regarding the untouchable truths of our faith with an unthinkable and inadmissible levity as audacious as it is offensive to the deposit of the true faith….

Often they plead credentials of reference to the recently held council, as if the council authorized a questioning of the truths of the faith, even though the one who first convened it, Pope John XXIII, proclaimed at its opening that “what matters most to the ecumenical council is … that the sacred deposit of the Christian faith be safeguarded…”

September 7, 1966

Regarding the value and interpretation to be given to these same teachings, it is necessary to avoid considering them as detached from the rest of the doctrinal patrimony of the Church, as if there could exist any separation or opposition between the two.

On the contrary, everything that is taught by the Second Vatican Council is harmoniously joined with the preceding ecclesiastical teaching, of which it is no more than the continuation, the explanation, and the growth. It is in fact for this purpose too that the council was called…

Address to Theologians
September 21, 1966

In a talk on “Building the Church with Christ,” Pope Paul VI considers continuity in terms of building according to a previous design. The talk begins with a reference to the statement of Christ “I will build my Church” (Mt 16:18). The pope says that in this, the Church is “depicted as a building under construction”:

The word [i.e., “I will build”] indicates permanent action on the part of the Lord in regard to His Church. It indicates the dynamic character which the life of the Church, depicted as a building under construction, assumes. It indicates a continual development which is fore-ordained for it by the very concept of the work — which must be accomplished according to a concrete, visible, well-planned design of which Christ is the architect, and not left to the judgment of capricious workmen. The Church must be constructed. It is always an incomplete building which prolongs in temporal history its determined plan of accomplishment.

[W]e cannot give in to the temptation of believing that innovations derived from the doctrines and decrees of the council give the go-ahead for any kind of arbitrary change or justify frivolous and irresponsible undertakings out of keeping with the design which must be followed in building. We must be profoundly convinced that we cannot demolish the Church of yesterday to construct a new one today.

We cannot forget or call into question what the Church has been teaching as authoritative until now in order to substitute personal and arbitrary theories and new concepts for secure doctrine. We cannot borrow from the current, changing and secular opinions of our time a criterion for the thought and action of the Church community, as if such opinions were the “consensus of the faithful” (sensus fidelium), or witnesses to Christian truth which the faithful, guided by the teaching authority (magisterium) of the Church, have the ability and the obligation to profess.

We cannot solve difficult questions or weaken exacting laws by adapting changes based on history and subjective interpretations, discarding as ancient and obsolete the dogmatic canons, that is to say, the clear, stable and authoritative canons of the Church’s teaching, and evading the unchanging demands of the word of God and of its strict traditional expression.

We must instead continue the construction of the Church by conforming its new additions to the design pre-established by Christ and by building with trust and loyalty on the structure already in existence.

November 16, 1966

Quotations from addresses of Pope Paul VI from Pope Paul says…: Translations of Pope Paul’s Addresses, Issued by the US Catholic Conference, The Rev. Francis J. Ripley, editor. (Glasgow: John S. Burns & Sons, 1968).

Translations of statements of Pope John XXIII by National Catholic Welfare Conference.

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