“To an Authentic and Renewed Conversion”: Vatican II and the Year of Faith (Part 3)

Nancy B. Alston

“A Hermeneutic of Continuity and Reform”

According to Benedict XVI, the Second Vatican Council can only fulfill its potential for renewing the Church “if we interpret and implement it guided by a right hermeneutic” (Porta Fidei, No. 5). In an address to the Italian bishops’ conference in May of 2012, Benedict identified this “right hermeneutic” as “a hermeneutic of continuity and reform.” This double hermeneutic points to the essentially twofold nature of Vatican II and is the “key” to unlocking the Council’s inner dynamic.

The fundamental objective of the Council was to preserve and transmit Catholic doctrine “in continuity with the 2,000-year-old Tradition of the Church” (Benedict XVI). Pope John XXIII made this clear in his opening address to the Council on October 11, 1962, when he stated: “The greatest concern of the Ecumenical Council is this: that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously.” In accordance with this directive, the Council Fathers carefully examined, further developed, and handed on to succeeding generations – while preserving fully intact – the unchanging doctrine of the Faith in a series of authoritative documents called dogmatic constitutions. So the first key to properly understanding Vatican II is to realize that it was first and foremost a dogmatic (teaching) council of the Magisterium in faithful continuity with the Church’s 2,000-year tradition.

The second key term in the “right hermeneutic” for correctly understanding and implementing the Council is “reform.” At crucial moments throughout Church history, the Holy Spirit has inspired certain reforms in liturgical rubrics, canon law, Church governance, and pastoral discipline for the purpose of renewing the Church and helping her better fulfill her mission in the context of the times in which she finds herself. The Second Vatican Council was inspired by the Holy Spirit to address the needs of the Church in the modern world. While carefully preserving and handing on the deposit of faith, the Sacred Liturgy, the sacraments, and prayer in unbroken continuity with the Church’s ancient tradition, Vatican II introduced many liturgical, pastoral, and disciplinary reforms into the Church’s life to enable the Church to more effectively carry out her mission of teaching, governing, and sanctifying believers and of evangelizing non-believers in the context of the modern world. Thus the second key to properly understanding Vatican II is to keep the Council’s liturgical, pastoral, and disciplinary reforms within the framework of doctrinal and liturgical continuity.

Unfortunately, the Council’s full potential for renewing the Church has not yet been realized due to a general failure to interpret and implement it guided by a right hermeneutic. The application of a false “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture” has led to widespread confusion and error regarding Vatican II, with disastrous consequences for the faith of millions of Catholics. Pope Benedict reminded the Italian bishops that only by applying the proper “hermeneutic of continuity and reform,” by listening to and following the instructions of the Council, can the Church find ways to respond meaningfully to the challenges of the modern world.

Proclaiming the Faith Anew

Through the declaration and observance of the Year of Faith, Benedict XVI has reminded the Church of today to look to the Second Vatican Council as the “sure compass” by which to chart her course through the stormy and turbulent waters of our time. In his Wednesday audience at the Vatican on October 10, 2012, the eve of the opening of the Year of Faith, Pope Benedict stated: “The Second Vatican Council documents, to which we must return, freeing them from a mass of publications which instead of making them known have often concealed them, are a compass in our time too that permits the Bark of the Church to put out into the deep in the midst of storms or on calm and peaceful waves, to sail safely and to reach her destination.”

By summoning us “to an authentic and renewed conversion to the Lord, the one Savior of the world” during this Year of Faith, Pope Benedict XVI called us to return to the basic essentials of our Christian faith that the Second Vatican Council proclaimed anew to the modern world. Benedict said that “we should learn the simplest and most fundamental lesson of the Council: namely, that Christianity in its essence consists of faith in God which is Trinitarian Love, and in a personal and community encounter with Christ who orients and gives meaning to life. Everything else flows from this.” The pope further stated: “What is as important today as it was for the Council Fathers is that we see – once again, and clearly – that God is present, concerns us and responds to us. And when, instead, man lacks faith in God, the essential collapses because man loses his profound dignity.”

As an “eclipse of God” slowly darkens our modern age and “a profound crisis of faith” takes hold on it, as man becomes less and less aware of God’s existence and of his fundamental need for God, the basic truths of our Christian faith proclaimed by the Second Vatican Council – and proclaimed anew to the Church and the world in our time by Popes John Paul, Benedict, and Francis – shine ever more brilliantly: God exists. He is real. He loves us and He hears our prayers. Man is an essentially religious being made in the image and likeness of God, and only in relationship to God, his Creator, does man discover his true identity and dignity and grasp the real meaning and purpose of life. Only God can satisfy the deepest yearnings of the human heart, as Saint Augustine wrote: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” Faith in God is essential to the wellbeing of man and of society. Man cannot save himself by his own efforts. Christ is “God-with-us,” “the one Savior of the world,” the only hope for humanity. Salvation comes only from Christ through His Church. All Christians are called to sanctity of life (hence the “universal call to holiness”) and to find new ways of preaching the Gospel in our modern world (hence the “new evangelization”).

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