Skip to main content

Traditionalist Sleight of Hand

Recently within certain circles a debate has arisen as to whether the Second Vatican Council is actually in continuity with sacred Tradition.  The debate stems from an address given by Pope Benedict to the Roman Curia on December 22, 2005, in which he spoke famously of the “hermeneutic of continuity.”  It is contended by some that at that time the Holy Father actually invited the debate.

In that address the Holy Father rejected the modernist idea that the Council was a kind of constitutional convention that changed the nature of the Church, and that the actual texts of the Council were compromises between conservatives and liberals, which had to be interpreted according to their innovative spirit.  (This is the origin of the amorphous “spirit of Vatican II”.)  This notion constitutes the “hermeneutic of rupture,” and is corrected by the “hermeneutic of continuity,” which simply means that the Second Vatican Council is not a break from Tradition, but a pastoral adaptation of the perennial principles of Apostolic Tradition according to the circumstances of our times.  The starting point is that the Council must be interpreted in continuity with the Church’s perennial dogmatic teaching.  It should be noted that traditionalists accept the modernist interpretation of the Council, that is, both modernists and traditionalists hold that the Council is a break with Tradition.  Modernists do so because they do not believe in objective revelation; traditionalists because they believe that the Council betrayed objective revelation.

In this post I am following up on my “White Propaganda” contribution that generated a few comments about this debate.  It seems that the work of the Holy See to regularize the Society of St. Pius X has had the effect of lending a certain amount of credibility to anticonciliar intuitions, and that given the Holy See’s openness to the return of the SSPX, the Holy Father himself must share some of these sympathies.  I will address these contentions more directly in my next post.  In this one I merely wish to refute the contention that back in 2005 Pope Benedict invited this debate.

This exercise in the art of illusion consists in a cunning interpretation of the pope’s exhortation in his December 22, 2005, address to the Roman Curia:

There is no doubt that the wearing dispute between modern reason and the Christian faith, which had begun negatively with the Galileo case, went through many phases, but with the Second Vatican Council the time came when broad new thinking was required.

Its content was certainly only roughly traced in the conciliar texts, but this determined its essential direction, so that the dialogue between reason and faith, particularly important today, found its bearings on the basis of the Second Vatican Council.

This dialogue must now be developed with great openmindedness but also with that clear discernment that the world rightly expects of us in this very moment. Thus, today we can look with gratitude at the Second Vatican Council:  if we interpret and implement it guided by a right hermeneutic, it can be and can become increasingly powerful for the ever necessary renewal of the Church.

If one reads this plainly but carefully he will see that the Holy Father is stating something very simple and very pro-Vatcian II:  The modern conflict between faith and reason culminated at the time of the Council in the need for “broad new thinking.”  The conciliar texts went a long way to accomplish this, but the development of this thinking continues as a “dialogue between reason and faith,” established on the basis of the Council.  This dialogue between faith and reason, roughly outlined by the Council, must continue and be “developed” with “openmindedness,” but also with clear discernment.  But it is certainly the Second Vatican Council, interpreted and implemented, “guided by the right hermeneutic,” (the hermeneutic of continuity) that is at the heart of the “ever necessary renewal of the Church.”

So how does this observation that that the dialogue between faith and reason must continue on the basis of the Council, rightly interpreted according the hermeneutic of continuity, become an “invitation to debate” the very possibility of interpreting the Council according to a hermeneutic of continuity?  It is academic sleight of hand, fast-talking lawyering.  See, for example, Roberto De Mattei, “A Council Can Also Make Mistakes”:

The speech to the Roman curia by Benedict XVI on December 22, 2005, opened a debate on Vatican Council II as exemplified recently by the books of Msgr. Brunero Gherardini and the important conference of the Franciscans of the Immaculate, held in Rome between December 16 and 18, 2010, in addition to my study “Il Concilio Vaticano II. Una storia mai scritta [Vatican Council II. A history never written]” (Lindau, Torino 2010).

The pope’s call to interpret the documents of Vatican II according to a “hermeneutic of continuity” has in fact offered a decisive stimulus to developing the debate on the Council in a manner different from that of the “school of Bologna,” which has presented it in terms of fracture and discontinuity with the bimillennial tradition of the Church.

At first glance, De Mattei seems to be supporting the hermeneutic of continuity against “the School of Bologna.” But a careful reading indicates otherwise.  He says that the pope’s call for interpretation of the Council according to a hermeneutic of continuity “has in fact offered a decisive stimulus to developing the debate on the Council in a manner different from the “school of Bologna” (emphasis mine).  He actually says nothing in support of the hermeneutic of continuity.  The “school of Bologna” is the Italian theological school of the progressive “spirit of Vatican II,” and De Mattei says that papal assertion of the hermeneutic of continuity is invitation to oppose the progressivists of that school (as though it was not something acceptable to do before hand).  Is he suggesting that there is no middle way between the school of Bologna and the school of De Mattei?  The pope does not appear to be supporting either the progressivist or the traditionalist school.

What is clear is that De Mattei further uses the observation of the Holy Father, that the dialogue of reason and faith guided by the right interpretation of the Council should continue, as a pretext to challenge the “hermeneutic of continuity” itself.  De Mattei’s reference to Monsignor Brunero Gherardini as being at the forefront of the debate “opened” by the papal address of December 22, 2005, makes his intentions clear, as Gherardini expressly and repeatedly challenges the possibility of the hermeneutic of continuity.  In fact, Basil Valuet in “Perché non sono d’accordo con Gherardini, De Mattei, Rhonheimer” charges Gherardini with rejecting “some formal teachings of Vatican II (“Lumen Gentium” [LG], “Nostra Aetate”, “Gaudium et Spes” [GS] and “Dignitatis Humanae” [DH]).”  At the same time, Valuet sees that De Mattei is not simply countering the position of the School of Bologna, but uses a faulty historical analysis to support Gherardini’s thesis that one must follow Tradition before the magisterium.

Indeed, later on in “A Council Can Also Make Mistakes” De Mattei states the following:

The criticism of Marchetto and Introvigne seems to have a single purpose: to close off preemptively that debate which Benedict XVI has opened with an invitation to develop it. […]

Marchetto and Introvigne criticize De Mattei for challenging the hermeneutic of continuity itself.  De Mattei thinks the pope welcomes a challenge to his interpretation of the Council and De Mattei does so on the basis of a specious interpretation of the pope’s statement.

Unfortunately, it now is just generally assumed by the anticonciliar enthusiasts that the pope really did invite theologians, historians, bloggers and armchair prognosticators to challenge him on the very existence and possibility of interpreting the Second Vatican Council according to a hermeneutic of continuity.

Note that the question answered here is not whether the traditionalists are right in challenging the hermeneutic of continuity.  That will be answered in the next post. The question here is simply whether the Holy Father has really invited or encouraged the debate over the possibility of an interpretation of the Council based on a hermeneutic of continuity.  He has not.

Filed under: Church, Religion Tagged: Hermeneutic of Continuity, Monsignor Brunero Gherardini, Pope Benedict, Roberto De Mattei, Second Vatican Council
Go to Source

Fr Angelo

Author Fr Angelo

I am Franciscan Friar of the Immaculate, and a priest for more than twenty years. I am now studying in Rome for my licentiate in Theology.

More posts by Fr Angelo

Join the discussion 5 Comments

  • Tantumblogo says:

    I generally agree with most all you say, Fr. Geiger, but I think you’re reaching here. You’re parsing on a very small turn of text, the degree of importance of which you cannot assess. You do not know that Roberto de Mattei used that turn of phrase specifically to reject the concept of interpreting Vatican II in the light of Tradition. Simply because De Mattei refers to Gherardini does not imply a rejection of the hermeneutic of continuity. You haven’t established clearly enough the link to support your claim.

    What many traditionalists ask is, can Vatican II be interpreted in the light of Tradition, and if so, please explain how certain statements from Dignitatus Humanae and other conciliar documents can be, or are to to be, interpreted in the light of Tradition. I’ve read Gherardini’s book, and my impression was that he was pleading for clarification, not rejecting the idea that the most recent council can be interpreted in the light of Tradition (although, he does ask very pointed questions, and does at time seem to cast doubt on the possibility of of that continuity, but this to me is primarily to support his request for clarification).

    You’re hanging a great many assumptions on a turn of phrase that could have lost something of its meaning, or had its meaning subtly changed, in translation. But since the Franciscans of the Immaculate arranged to have Gherardini’s text translated from Italian into English (I pray they do so with De Mattei’s, as well!), perhaps you can read the Italian or have a good sense of the original.

    I don’t think I have to guess what conclusion you will reach in your next post. I think alot of people who strive to be faithful, who really care a great deal about the Church, are gravely stricken in their hearts with the present condition of Holy Mother Church. They want to know why things are the way they are. There is no question there were grave problems, mostly unseen, prior to Vatican II, but many feel that the council released forces that have run amok and gravely wounded the Church. Why is that? Is it coincidence, or was it some thing(s) in the council itself? I don’t know.

    I’m a convert. I love the traditional Mass. As still something of an outsider, I look at certain statements from Vatican II, and statements from the Council of Trent or other councils, and I have difficulty reconciling them. Or, I struggle to understand how they can be interpreted without seriously undermining what had been previously revealed as Truth. I think many people struggle with that. I want to understand how these things can be aligned – how can beliefs about religious liberty and primacy of conscience be aligned with previously statements of the Magisterium? In some cases, there has been no Magisterial clarification, simply statements that the last council stands on its own.

  • Fr Angelo says:


    Please note that the argument of my present post is narrow. It answers only one question: Did or did not the pope invite this debate? Both Gherardini and De Mattei have claimed that he has, precisely by his statements in the 2005 address. The point is not rhetorical. They do not merely claim that the address provoked the debate, or that the Holy Father opened a door. They claim that their musings are a response to his invitation.

    I made this point several times in the text.

  • Joanne says:

    I agree with you Father Angelo because you are with the Pope 100%. End of story.

  • Tantumblogo says:

    Thank you for your patient reply, Father. I’ll wait and see your follow-up before commenting further.

  • Joannie says:

    I feel there are two ways to look at this event. Blessed John XXIII called the Council with the intent on presenting the UNCHANGING TEACHINGS of the Church in a NEW way. His intention was not to simply throw out the beliefs and teachings of the last 2000 years. The false “spirit of Vatican II” with its theologians did that themselves after the Council. What the Pope said the day after his election on April 20 2005 is to me more important. He stated to the Cardinals that he intended to follow the teachings of Vatican in “accordance with the Church’s Tradition which is why you here more Latin being used more Sacred Music, returning to the vestments and things past popes have used, as well as his way of the Altar arrangements and giving out Holy Communion.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.