The Extraordinary Synod of 1985

In 1985, on the twentieth anniversary of the close of Vatican II, John Paul II convened an extraordinary assembly of the Synod of Bishops with the aim of encouraging a deeper reception and implementation of the Council. The Synod set forth, in the document A Message to the People of God and The Final Report, a proper framework for interpreting the Conciliar texts. In particular, six hermeneutical principles for sound interpretation of these texts were set forth.

All would-be interpreters of Vatican II, who make claims about what the Council actually teaches, should adhere to these principles. These hermeneutical principles are important, particularly in our time, since we seem to be living in an ecclesial culture where some are suffering from amnesia about the invaluable contributions of John Paul II and Benedict XVI to the authoritative interpretation of Vatican II.

Massimo Faggioli, for one, claims that Pope Francis “perceives Vatican II as a matter not to be reinterpreted or restricted, but implemented.” Unlike his predecessors, adds Faggioli, Francis has “shown a full and unequivocal reception of Vatican II.” Another commentator, Richard Gaillardetz, claims that “Francis wishes to release Vatican II’s bold vision from captivity.”

I have elsewhere discussed the various types of Vatican II interpretations. Here, I will briefly explain the principles postulated by the 1985 synod for interpreting Vatican II texts:

         1. The theological interpretation of the Conciliar doctrine must show attention to all the documents, in themselves and in their close inter-relationship, in such a way that the integral meaning of the Council’s affirmations – often very complex – might be understood and expressed.

2. The four “constitutions” of the Council (those on liturgy, the Church, revelation, and the Church in the modern world) are the hermeneutical key to the other documents – 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 Vatican II.

5. The Council must be interpreted in continuity with the great tradition of the Church, including earlier councils. The Church is one and the same throughout all the councils.

6. Vatican II should be accepted as illuminating the problems of our own day.

The hermeneutical norm of the first and second principles is twofold: one, intratextuality, meaning thereby interpreting the meaning of a particular passage within the context of the whole document; and two, intertextuality, meaning thereby interpreting any specific document in the context of the whole body of documents, particularly attending to the authoritative priority of the constitutions. The third principle states the unity and interdependence of the doctrinal and pastoral dimensions of the council documents.

This third principle is particularly important today where some Catholic theologians, such as Gaillardetz and Christoph Theobald, S.J., advance a so-called “pastoral orientation of doctrine.” That orientation is historicist in perspective. It collapses the dogmatic distinction of unchanging truth and its formulations into a historical context, meaning thereby, as Theobald puts it, “subject to continual reinterpretation according to the situation of those to whom it is transmitted.”

This historicist turn in a pastoral-oriented model of doctrinal change results in a model in which both truth itself and its formulations are subject to reform and continual reinterpretation and re-contextualization.

This model of perpetual hermeneutics is such that, as Gaillardetz says, “doctrine changes when pastoral contexts shift and new insights emerge [because] particular doctrinal formulations no longer mediate the saving message of God’s transforming love.”

Both Gaillardetz and Theobald, then, historicize the meaning and truth of dogma by expanding the meaning of pastoral. In essence, this approach brings into question the meaning of doctrines as objectively true affirmations. Although I cannot argue the point here, this view leaves Christian orthodoxy defenseless against historicism.

The fourth principle pertains to the relationship between the “spirit” of Vatican II and its “texts,” that is, the “letter.” The former refers to the deep motivating force of the Council to revitalize the Church, biblical interpretation, and theology, by way of ressourcement and aggiornamento.

The Council did not take aggiornamento as an isolated motive for renewal. Kevin Vanhoozer rightly says, “Ressourcement describes a return to authoritative sources for the sake of revitalizing the present. . . .To retrieve is to look back creatively in order to move forward faithfully.” And this faithful movement forward cannot be done without affirming the normativity of the “letter” of the texts, of the literal sense of Vatican II documents, as the point of reference of Catholic theology and life.

This principle is a segue to the sixth principal, namely, Vatican II illuminates contemporary problems.

The fifth principle is also particularly important today given the “development” that some claim to find in the pastoral orientation of Amoris Laetitia. As Gerhard Cardinal Müller, for one, has stressed, the unclear passages in chapter eight of Pope Francis’s post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation (nos. 295-308) must be interpreted in continuity with the great tradition of the Church, including the documents of Vatican II, as well as earlier encyclicals, such as John Paul II’s Veritatis splendor.

Yes, Amoris Laetitia reaffirms or confirms definitive doctrine infallibly taught regarding marriage and family by the ordinary universal Magisterium of the Church. Much of what Francis says in Amoris Laetitia formally attests to truth already possessed and infallibly transmitted by the Church.

But that isn’t the case with respect to the possibility of opening up Communion to the divorced and civilly remarried, as some episcopal conferences throughout the world have claimed.

To discern whether this possibility is a legitimate or an illegitimate development must be decided, as always, in light of ecclesial warrants, such as Holy Scripture, Church councils, creeds and confessions, theological doctors of the Church, Christian faithful (sensus fidei), and the past normative exercise of the Magisterium.

Without those sources, there is no sure and stable guide to Catholic truth.

Eduardo J. Echeverria is Professor of Philosophy and Systematic Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit. His publications include Pope Francis: The Legacy of Vatican II Revised and Expanded Second Edition (Lectio Publishing, Hobe Sound, FL, 2019) and Revelation, History, and Truth: A Hermeneutics of Dogma. (2018). His new book is Are We Together? A Roman Catholic Analyzes Evangelical Protestants.