Vatican II: Official Norms
In his recent article in America (2/24), Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., very helpfully called our attention to six norms for interpreting the Second Vatican Council that were issued as part of the final report of the Synod of Bishops in 1985, the 20th anniversary of the conclusion of the council. Cardinal Dulles supplied an accurate paraphrase of those norms, which ran as follows:
1. Each passage and document of the council must be interpreted in the context of all the others, so that the integral teaching of the council may be rightly grasped.
2. The four constitutions of the council (those on liturgy, church, revelation and church in the modern world) are the hermeneutical key to the other document—namely, the council’s nine decrees and three declarations.
3. The pastoral import of the documents ought not to be separated from, or set in opposition to, their doctrinal content.
4. No opposition may be made between the spirit and the letter of the council.
5. The council must be interpreted in continuity with the great tradition of the church, including other councils.
6. Vatican II should be accepted as illuminating the problems of our day.
I would like to comment on these norms as a professional historian who is also a believer. I do so in order to contribute to the discussion, the debate, about the interpretation of Vatican II that has continued to exercise theologians and historians even after the issuance of these norms and that was clearly manifested in the different approaches Cardinal Dulles and I took to the problem in that same issue of America.
If I examine the norms from the perspective of a historian, I have to say that they strike me as resoundingly sound. I cannot imagine a practicing historian having any difficulty with them. If I look at them as a believing Catholic, I have the same reaction, perhaps even stronger, especially regarding Norm 5, which insists on the continuity of the council with “the great tradition of the church.” As they stand, then, they supply excellent guidelines for interpreting the council—indeed, for interpreting almost any official church document from any period.
I respectfully submit, however, that they need to be complemented by two further norms, norms with which I think any historian would agree and, I should hope, any theologian. My first norm is a complement to Norm 5. It would go something like this: “While always keeping in mind the fundamental continuity in the great tradition of the church, interpreters must also take due account of how the council is discontinuous with previous practices, teachings and traditions.”
My second norm is a specification of Norm 4. It would read: “In order to understand the relationship between the spirit and the letter of the council, due attention must be given to the style and literary forms in which the teaching of the council finds expression.”
Let me now elaborate on each of these norms in turn.
As I indicated in my article that appeared in tandem with Cardinal Dulles’s, I believe this is the fundamental issue facing all historians as they go about their task of interpreting the past—discerning the continuities within discontinuities and vice versa. It is also the basic issue facing theologians, especially in dealing with Vatican II. Did not John Courtney Murray, S.J., at one point say that “development of doctrine was the issue under all the issues at Vatican II”? I take “development” as indicating both continuity and discontinuity.
As a principle of historical method, the continuities in history must, I believe, always and invariably be given the benefit of the doubt as being stronger than the discontinuities, even when we deal with what Thomas Kuhn taught us to call paradigm shifts. A thousand examples spring to mind. The American Revolution was a true revolution. It established a new nation and set it on a new and independent path. Yet after it occurred, the citizens of the new republic continued to speak English, to read English books and, indeed, to found their nation on principles largely derived from their English experience. I need not go on.
Not only in fact but in theory this principle of continuity has to obtain in the church and obtain in an even more profound way. The mission is to preach the word that was received from the mouth of Christ and the Apostles. If that continuity is not maintained, forget it! I cannot imagine any theologian, any historian, any believer disagreeing with that principle.
All that having been said, change happens. That is, along with continuity in history, along with continuity in our own persons, there is discontinuity. One of the great continuities in history lies precisely in that it is discontinuous—things keep changing. One of my specialities is the history of the early Society of Jesus. I have often told people that as he drew his last breath, St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder, could have said, “Ah, me, I am not dying in the Society I joined”—the organization, with all its continuity, had changed so much in the 15 years since it began.
Not to take account of the discontinuities, then, inevitably results in distortion. The distortion is greater in proportion to the magnitude of the discontinuities. But whatever that magnitude, or lack of it, a hermeneutical grid that admits only continuity is by definition inadequate and distorting. If there is only continuity, then nothing happened. If Vatican II is to be interpreted only insofar as it was continuous with the past, it turns out to be an expensive four-year ecclesiastical jamboree. That is why I believe another norm, complementary to Norm 5, needs to be added.
I might mention that in historical writing about the history of Christianity, Catholic historians since the 16th century have by and large shown themselves to be different from others by wearing lenses that magnify the continuities and seem sometimes almost to black out the discontinuities. Although that is not so true now as it was up to a generation or two ago, it has not entirely disappeared. There seems to be an almost endemic Catholic resistance to admitting change. Why is it, for instance, that the word never appears as such in the documents of Vatican II? Some of my colleagues call this one-sidedness “the typical Catholic ploy,” a severe allergy to admitting the reality of change and even to using the word regarding the church. We prefer soft synonyms like renewal and aggiornamento. When this resistance to change is applied to the church, it results in what R. G. Collingwood called substantialism—the bark of the church sails through the sea of history, unaffected by it.
To put it bluntly, the council made changes. I believe there is evidence that the changes the council articulated were in many regards major, not mere tinkering with the system. I have elsewhere elaborated on what I think these were, and this is not the place to repeat them. This article is not about substance but about method. Here, then, I am not dealing directly with the degree to which the council was continuous or discontinuous within the tradition, but with further refinement of norms to help us soberly and evenhandedly assess that degree. I am dealing with method. If we want to improve our method, to Norm 5 on continuity we need to add another one, on discontinuity.
My second norm relates to the spirit/letter issue dealt with in No. 4 of the synod document. The document does not specify what is meant by that vague word spirit, but perhaps we can take it to mean something like the overall orientation, the general thrust, the animating motivations, the general configuration. Maybe even something as simple as “the point.” Put in question form: What, in the big picture, was Vatican II all about? Perhaps if we have an answer to that question, we are getting close to the “spirit.” Once we have caught the spirit, we will be better able to interpret individual passages and expressions. Sound principle, Norm 4!
But Norm 4 does not solve the problem because the problem is precisely determining what the “spirit of Vatican II” was or is. That is to a large extent what the debate is about. How do we begin to understand the spirit? Well, there are all the tried and true measures that historians and theologians have been applying for the past 40 years, such as study of the 53 folio volumes of the official documentation the council produced, to get behind the words of the decrees to the thinking that led to them. But whatever the measures, they have not produced consensus. All of them seem to have asked, what did the council say? They have not asked, how did the council say it?
The most obvious fact about the decrees of Vatican II is that they speak a language different from that of all previous councils. In a course I teach on “Two Great Councils; Trent and Vatican II,” my students are immediately struck by the difference in language and style of the two councils, and they soon see that simply comparing passage to passage will not do as a way of understanding their likeness and difference. If you lay these two councils side by side, you cannot miss how different the rhetoric is.
In Vatican II we are dealing, in other words, with a different literary genre. I think I can identify it as an almost certainly unwitting embodiment of the epideictic genre described in classical treatises on rhetoric going back at least to Cicero and Quintilian. But that is too technical an argument to pursue here. Let’s just say that the style of the documents of Vatican II more closely resembles the style of the homilies and treatises of the fathers of the church than it does the style of the canons of the Council of Trent. In fact, the literary genre of the canon is absent from Vatican II, and this is unique or almost unique in the history of ecumenical councils. If the genre has changed, maybe we need to take that into account in our attempts to interpret the council and especially to get at its “spirit.” We need to make an adjustment in our method.
Anybody who in the past 50 years has read an academically respectable book or heard an academically respectable lecture about Scripture knows that in order to understand that complex collection of texts one needs to take due account, among other things, of literary genres. The story of Job is not to be interpreted in the same way as the Gospel of Mark. They are different genres. If you do not take this into account, you get all mixed up. I have learned from exegetes, as well as from my colleagues in the historical profession, that I will not understand what a document is saying unless I pay as much attention to form as to content.
I have been astounded over the years that I have never (or almost never) heard this point made about the documents of Vatican II. Can they really be understood if we do not self-consciously and with full deliberation take the “new” genre (or genres) into account? Vatican II engaged in a new language-game for a council. Vatican II, it seems to me, was in that regard as much a language event as an ecclesiastical or historical event. Perhaps another way of saying we must not separate the letter of Vatican II from the spirit is to say we must not separate the content from the language—from the style.
I think a case can be made that proof-texting can, with many cautions, be used to interpret councils up to Vatican II. I think that method may be viable because of the genre of the canon, which almost invites it. A canon is, in and of itself, free-standing. It is a short statement in technical language that can be lifted out of the list without too much distortion. But proof-texting does not work for Vatican II, and hence the necessity of dealing with its “spirit” as the matrix for interpreting its letter—or, better, its many letters, for, as Cardinal Dulles reminded us, the documents of Vatican II are committee documents and sometimes deliberately ambiguous. The new wine of Vatican II cannot be understood through the old wineskins. In other words, besides asking what the council said we need to ask how it said it. I therefore submit that as a specification of Norm 4, which deals with letter and spirit, we need a further norm that deals with content and literary genres.
I see an intrinsic relationship between the two norms I am suggesting. In speaking in a style different from previous councils, Vatican II in effect redefined the very nature of a council. Until Vatican II, councils conceived of themselves as legislative and judicial bodies. They made laws for the church, and they pronounced judgment on persons and issues. In that first function they were highly prescriptive; in the latter they threatened and punished. In Vatican II the first function is present but not dominant, the second almost wholly absent. This may be for the better or for the worse, but it is certainly different. In that regard it makes Vatican II notably discontinuous with previous councils.