How to get Vatican II back on track: a bishop's prescription

How to get Vatican II back on track: a bishop's prescription

Bishop R. Walker Nickless (Sioux City, Iowa)

We now find ourselves 44 years since the close of the Second Vatican Council. Many questions still need to be asked and answered. Have we understood the Council within the context of the entire history of the Church? Have we understood the documents well? Have we truly appropriated and implemented them? Is the current state of the Church what the Council intended? What went right? What went wrong? Where is the promised 'New Pentecost'?

Pope Benedict XVI reflected on these important questions in an address to the Roman Curia in December 2005:

'The question arises: Why has the implementation of the Council, in large parts of the Church, thus far been so difficult? Well, it all depends on the correct interpretation of the Council or - as we would say today - on its proper hermeneutics, the correct key to its interpretation and application.

'The problems in its implementation arose from the fact that two contrary hermeneutics came face to face and quarrelled with each other. One caused confusion, the other, silently but more and more visibly, bore and is bearing fruit.

'On the one hand, there is an interpretation that I would call 'a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture' [which] has frequently availed itself of the sympathies of the mass media, and also one trend of modern theology. On the other, there is the 'hermeneutic of reform,' of renewal in the continuity of the one subject - Church - which the Lord has given to us ...

'The hermeneutic of discontinuity risks ending in a split between the pre-conciliar Church and the post-conciliar Church. It asserts that the texts of the Council as such do not yet express the true spirit of the Council.'

It is crucial that we all grasp that the hermeneutic or interpretation of discontinuity or rupture, which many think is the settled and even official position, is not the true meaning of the Council.

This interpretation sees the pre-conciliar and post-conciliar Church almost as two different churches. It sees the Second Vatican Council as a radical break with the past.

There can be no split, however, between the Church and her faith before and after the Council. We must stop speaking of the 'Pre-Vatican II' and 'Post-Vatican II' Church, and stop seeing various characteristics of the Church as 'pre' and 'post' Vatican II. Instead, we must evaluate them according to their intrinsic value and pastoral effectiveness in this day and age.

Therefore, we must heed the Holy Father's point that one interpretation, the 'hermeneutic of reform,' is valid, and has borne and is bearing fruit. This hermeneutic takes seriously and keeps together the two poles of identity (the ancient deposit of faith and life) and engagement with the world (teaching it more efficaciously).

Lastly, the Holy Father, going into greater detail later in the address, explains that the 'spirit of Vatican II' must be found only in the letter of the documents themselves. The so-called 'spirit' of the Council has no authoritative interpretation. It is a ghost or demon that must be exorcised if we are to proceed with the Lord's work.

There was a great excitement immediately after the Council: excitement for innovation, change, freedom, renewed dynamism. There was a great desire to implement the Council immediately, with the best of intentions.

However, this era of change and freedom took place during a most tumultuous time. The 1960s and 1970s brought about a wholesale change within our culture and society, so that it seemed that everything was 'up for grabs.' And the Church seemed to be going the same way as society, suggesting that nothing was certain or solid. If the Church could change some things, it could change anything and everything.

It seems to me that in many areas of the Church's life the 'hermeneutic of discontinuity' has triumphed.


It has manifested itself in a sort of dualism, an either/or mentality and insistence in various areas of the Church's life: either fidelity to doctrine or social justice work, either Latin or English, either our personal conscience or the authority of the Church, either chant or contemporary music, either tradition or progress, either liturgy or popular piety, either conservative or liberal, either Mass or Adoration, either the Magisterium or theologians, either ecumenism or evangelisation, either rubrics or personalisation, either the Catechism or 'experience'; and the list goes on and on!

We have always been a 'both/ and' people: intrinsically traditional and conservative in what pertains to the faith, and creative in pastoral ministry and engaging the world.

The 'hermeneutic of discontinuity' is a false interpretation and implementation of the Council and the Catholic Faith. It emphasises the 'engagement with the world' to the exclusion of the deposit of faith. This has wreaked havoc on the Church, systematically dismantling the Catholic Faith to please the world, watering down what is distinctively Catholic, and ironically becoming completely irrelevant and impotent for the mission of the Church in the world.

Our urgent need at this time is to reclaim and strengthen our understanding of the deposit of faith. We must have a distinctive identity and culture as Catholics, if we would effectively communicate the Gospel. We cannot give what we do not have; we cannot fulfil our mission to evangelise, if we ourselves are not evangelised.

These are extracts from a pastoral letter by Bishop R. Walker Nickless of Sioux City, Iowa. The letter, titled 'Ecclesia Semper Reformanda' (The Church is Always in Need of Renewal), was published in October 2009.

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