Reform within Continuity

A proper understanding of Vatican II has been paramount in Benedict’s pontificate.

From the very beginning of his pontificate Pope Benedict XVI has emphasized the importance of living out our Catholic faith under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the Magisterium of the Church in union with Christ Jesus. In his acceptance of the burden of the office, Pope Benedict stressed the fact that, as a successor of St. Peter, he is charged with fostering the unity of the Church.

In the first months of his reign the Pope insisted on a proper understanding of the reforms of Vatican II, showing how these reforms were in continuity with the teachings of the Church for the past two millennia on the rock-solid principles of divine and catholic faith. As he stated so forcefully, it is wrong to oppose the “spirit” of the Council to the texts of its teachings. For then:

…it would be necessary not to follow the texts of the Council but its spirit. In this way, obviously, a vast margin was left open for the question on how this spirit should subsequently be defined and room was consequently made for every whim. The nature of a council as such is therefore basically misunderstood. In this way, it is considered as a sort of constituent assembly that eliminates an old constitution and creates a new one. However, the constituent assembly needs a mandator and then confirmation by the mandator, in other words, the people the constitution must serve. The Fathers had no such mandate and no one had ever given them one; nor could anyone have given them one because the essential constitution of the Church comes from the Lord and was given to us so that we might attain eternal life and, starting from this perspective, be able to illuminate life in time and time itself. Through the Sacrament they have received, bishops are stewards of the Lord’s gift. They are “stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor. 4:1); as such, they must be found to be “faithful” and “wise” (cf. Luke 12:41-48). This requires them to administer the Lord’s gift in the right way, so that it is not left concealed in some hiding place but bears fruit, and the Lord may end by saying to the administrator: “Since you were dependable in a small matter I will put you in charge of larger affairs” (cf. Matt. 25:14-30; Luke 19:11-27).

These Gospel parables express the dynamic of fidelity required in the Lord’s service; and through them it becomes clear that, as in a council, the dynamic and fidelity must converge. The hermeneutic of discontinuity is countered by the hermeneutic of reform, as it was presented first by Pope John XXIII in his speech inaugurating the council on October 11, 1962, and later by Pope Paul VI in his discourse for the council’s conclusion on December 7, 1965.

It precisely this reform within continuity that led the Holy Father to issue Summorum Pontificum, thereby allowing priests to celebrate the extraordinary form of the Mass, and to encourage more accurate translations of the Novus Ordo Missal.

Through the five years of his pontificate Pope Benedict has never ceased to affirm how it is Christ who is the way, the truth, and the life. Popes, bishops, priests, deacons, religious, and all the faithful are only instruments, however unworthy, of Christ’s sanctifying, teaching, and governing mission from the Father in the Holy Spirit. On this fifth anniversary in gratitude let us pray “Ad multos annos, Sancte Pater!

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Fr. Matthew Lamb 0 Articles
Fr. Matthew Lamb, STL, Dr. Theol, is professor of theology and the chair of the Theology Department at Ave Maria University. He previously taught for many years at Boston College and, before that, Marquette University. His research interests include foundational, doctrinal, and systematic theologies. He has authored and edited several books, and has also published more than 140 articles in quarterlies, journals, and books.