The Key to Interpreting Vatican II Print
Written by Sherry   
Sunday, 25 November 2007 07:52
I've spent the past two days doing new research on the Church's teaching regarding ecumenism that is not related directly to some impeding deadline - a rare treat. And going for a brisk long walk in a local park that I had not discovered before but is remarkably lush for our "alpine desert" - full of large ponds, streams and rivulets, marshes and waterfalls.

You might think that someone from my background would naturally be drawn to it but I've spent the last 20 years attempting to grasp the Catholic faith in itself - not primarily in its relationship with other Christians. And I suppose I have always associated ecumenism with highly technical and esoteric discussions between main line Protestant and Catholic theologians, discussions that seemed oblivious to the fact that the most vibrant and largest Christian movements of the 20th century weren't part of the discussion at all.

I knew that I needed to get around to the Church's teaching on ecumenism but the struggle was always to find a block of time that allows me to do the research and carefully think through what the Church is proposing. (When I last tackled something like this, I spent ten 12 hour days searching out, reading, and compiling all magisterial teaching about evangelization.) But a combination of things: evangelical and pastoral grass-roots ecumenical opportunities opening (with the Orthodox to my surprise!) and encountering a number of traditionalist Catholics who are throwing out baby and bathwater (and large parts of conciliar and papal teaching since 1962)has made it seem more urgent.

What has been especially hard is summing up what the Church teaches on the topic in way that is both faithful and clear enough for a blog.

I'd like to begin here: with something noted by Cardinal Avery Dulles in an article he wrote for America on Vatican II: the Myth and the Reality.

"To overcome polarization and bring about greater consensus, Pope John Paul II convened an extraordinary assembly of the Synod of Bishops in 1985, the 20th anniversary of the close of the council.

This synod in its final report came up with six agreed principles for sound interpretation, which may be paraphrased 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 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.

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

(Sherry's note: Dei Verbum (on revelation) and Lumen Gentium (on the church) are Dogmatic Constitutions and the consensus seems to be that they are the most solemn and important of these four constitutions that are the "key" to understanding the Council. Sacrosanctum Concilium (on the liturgy) is simply called a "Constitution" and Gaudium et Spes is, famously, a "Pastoral Constitution".

Some conservative Catholics have tended to regard Gaudium et Spes with great distrust and to assert that because it is called "pastoral" it wasn't as authoritative as the "dogmatic" constitutions. But it seems quite clear now that the decision to call it a "Constitution" is an indicator that G & S is also key to a accurate interpretation of the Council. The four documents have been set apart - intentionally - to provide a hermeneutic in light of which all the other V2 decrees and declarations are to be read and understood.

And if someone out there can help me grasp the difference between a decree and a declaration, I'd be most grateful. I can't seem to find anything that explains the distinction being made.)