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Documents of the Second Vatican Council

Notes on Interpretation

Daniel J. Castellano


The documents of Vatican II were intended to be intelligible to modern man, so the language found in them often departs from the “Catholic speak” we find in pre-Conciliar magisterial documents and Catholic literature. Even when traditional terms are used, they are sometimes given a modern colloquial meaning rather than the traditional definition. As the Council does not issue formal definitions of faith or disciplinary canons, there is generally no need for theologically or juridically precise technical language. When interpreting the documents, we should not try to impose a greater degree of technical rigor or precision than the Council Fathers intended.

At the same time, it would be a mistake not to give due attention to the specific wording used in Council documents, since frequently much effort and compromise went into the development of this wording. Although the documents are lengthy and more discursive in comparison with those of previous councils, their various statements and expressions are not written in vain, but are intended to convey teachings or declarations which a majority of the Council fathers thought important enough to be expressed with the authority of an ecumenical synod.

Since the documents are generally the product of compromise and synthesis, it is not appropriate to interpret them piecemeal, according to the intentions of the author of each part. The intentions of one party expressed in one place may be countered or circumscribed by the desires of another party expressed elsewhere. It will not suffice, then, to determine “original intent” through accounts of Council proceedings or biographies of the leading protagonists. As with complex secular legislation, the only thing binding is the finished product, which is often a synthesis that does not endorse the preferred interpretation of any particular faction.

The authoritative status of the documents also affects our interpretation of them. Since there is no doctrine of faith defined (except perhaps incidentally in two places), most of the Council’s decrees are not immutable or irreformable. Yet at the same time, it would be incongruous with Christ’s promise to his Church if the decrees of a near-unanimous universal council should contain anything expressly contrary to the faith. At any rate, there were sufficiently many conservative bishops to vote against anything that they understood to be contrary to Scripture or Tradition. Thus any interpretation that involves pitting the Council against solemnly defined pre-Conciliar teaching should be viewed with extreme skepticism. The Council itself repeatedly refers to its duty to preserve established teaching, and nowhere does it propose that it has the authority to reject the perennial teaching of the Church.

Still, we must not think that the Conciliar documents, being “merely pastoral,” ought to be taken lightly or regarded as adding nothing substantial to Church teaching. On the contrary, the documents repeatedly express an emphatic desire to substantively change the Church’s approach to the modern world, and this is often done by introducing teachings that were generally neglected or ignored in the pre-Conciliar Church. Moreover, these new approaches to understanding the Church in relation to the modern world are not proposed as tentative or experimental measures, but as a definitive program not to be reversed.

The subsequent encyclicals by Pope John Paul II have borne out this interpretation of the Council’s mission. Although this pontiff took great care to repudiate many of the abusive interpretations of the Council, favoring instead a hermeneutic of continuity, at the same time he would not relegate the Council to a failed historical experiment. Quite the contrary, he saw himself and all Catholics as bound to realize the Council’s mission in all its future endeavors. Practically every subsequent magisterial act has made some reference to the Council, which may give the misleading impression that the pre-Conciliar Church is to be ignored or repudiated. This is not the case; rather, this repeated appeal to Vatican II shows only that the Council’s approach to modern problems is to remain normative. We should make use of the treasury of papal encyclicals in order to understand the definitive meaning of the Council, as a synthesis of Tradition and a modern approach to the world.

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© 2012 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved. http://www.arcaneknowledge.org