Tradition, Continuity, and Vatican II

In common Catholic parlance the adjectives “conservative” or “traditional” usually describe individuals, parishes, clerics, liturgies, and theologies that resemble “the old days,” before Catholic practice changed dramatically after the Second Vatican Council. Both can be polarizing terms that mark where one stands in the ongoing Culture Wars, both in the Church and in society.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, well aware of the Zeitgeist, observes in Principles of Catholic Theology that modernity drew its first breaths when it broke from tradition: “Tradition comes to be regarded as a binding of man to the past; it is to be opposed by his orientation to the future.” Pitting reason against tradition, modern man “becomes the creator not only of himself but also of a world constructed according to his own designs; he forms himself and reality anew in the unconditioned transparency of his own rationality.

No surprise, then, that Benedict XVI avoided the adjectives “traditional” and “conservative” in his 2005 address on the proper interpretation of Vatican II, the most important speech of his pontificate. Instead, describing the proper hermeneutic for understanding the council, he wrote of “the ‘hermeneutic of reform,’ of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us.” From this sentence the word “continuity” has emerged as a key to Benedict’s pontificate. It has been repeated by journalists, bloggers, theologians, and even by Msgr. Guido Marini, the master of ceremonies for papal liturgies, who called it “a word very dear to our present Holy Father.” “Continuity” is also a one-word summation of the main goal of Benedict’s pontificate: to resituate the intended reforms of the council in continuity with the Church of all ages.

Yet an effort to avoid polemics is a mere surface reason for Benedict’s choice of the word. By insisting that Vatican II be interpreted in continuity with the Church of all ages, the pope is saying that the council is part of the Church’s Tradition (with a capital “T”), that is, part of the Church’s authoritative interpretation of divine revelation. Vatican II, therefore, is not a “rupture” in the Church’s Tradition (interpretation of God’s word) or traditions (ecclesial practices descended from the Apostles) resulting in a completely new way of believing, as Professor Hans Küng on the Left and the followers of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre on the Right maintain. For Benedict, Vatican II is a legitimate development in the Church’s ongoing understanding of Christ and His saving message for the world.

Benedict’s speech, as important and insightful as it is, did not close the door on “the hermeneutic of discontinuity.” The arguments of Küng, Lefebvre, and their followers stem from new ideas that circulated during the council, were incorporated into conciliar documents, or emerged after the council in its “spirit.” The critical question facing Benedict is how exactly to read the new facets of theology that Vatican II introduced. In other words, how can the “hermeneutic of continuity” be applied to specific issues that still galvanize the Left and contort the Right?

Benedict the theologian provided an example in his 1968 “Commentary on Dei Verbum,” published in English in Volume III of Herbert Vorgrimler’s Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II. In his commentary Ratzinger describes the raucous debates between the council’s “so-called conservative group” and “progressive school” over three critical doctrinal issues: the status of tradition, the inerrancy of Scripture, and the historicity of the Gospels. The debate dragged on for years and produced numerous drafts with many compromises until, in the council’s last session in 1965, Dei Verbum, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, was approved with 2344 votes in favor and only 6 opposed.

To this date theologians debate the proper interpretation of these issues, particularly the inerrancy of Scripture. Ratzinger proposes that such difficulties can only be understood in continuity with previous councils, “a continuity that is not a rigid external identification with what had gone before, but a preservation of the old, established in the midst of progress.” He continues:

It so happens that Chapters I and II of the text, in particular, can only be properly understood if constantly compared with the parallel text of Vatican I and Trent…. [T]his Constitution is a relecture of the corresponding texts of Vatican I and Trent, in which what was written then is interpreted in terms of the present, thus giving a new rendering of both its essentials and insufficiencies.

Ratzinger then proceeds to analyze Dei Verbum in precisely this way, heaping praise where merited, and criticizing ideas that were expressed inadequately – and adding others not mentioned at all. He thus provides a theological method for the followers of Küng and Lefebvre: he “re-lectures” – that is, rereads – the present text in continuity with the past, and he shows that one can legitimately criticize aspects of the conciliar documents while still accepting their teaching. Praise, legitimate criticism, and fruitful development become possible only when the documents are read in continuity with the Church’s Tradition. In a vacuum they only invite confusion on both Left and Right.

The Church’s Tradition stems from Christ Himself. Benedict’s hermeneutic of continuity reminds us that the “Church, both before and after the Council, was and is the same Church.”

David G. Bonagura Jr. an adjunct professor at St. Joseph’s Seminary and is the 2023-2024 Cardinal Newman Society Fellow for Eucharistic Education. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism and Staying with the Catholic Church, and the translator of Jerome’s Tears: Letters to Friends in Mourning.