What Archbishop Müller Said About the SSPX and “Continuity”

The publication of the latest volume of Ratzinger’s Collected Works fuels debate about the Council.

What Archbishop Müller Said About the SSPX and “Continuity”

Volume VII of Joseph Ratzinger’s Collected Works, an anthology of his writings on the Second Vatican Council, was recently published in German. On November 28, 2012, the editor of the Opera Omnia, Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller, who is now also prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, presented this latest volume in the series at the Teutonic College of Santa Maria dell’Anima in Rome. This was the place where German and Austrian Council Fathers used to confer regularly with theologians and periti, including then-Father Ratzinger, at special meetings organized by Cardinal Frings of Cologne. An Italian version of Archbishop Müller’s speech appeared in the edition of L’Osservatore Romano dated November 29. 

Although the speech ostensibly outlined the contents of Volume VII and quoted a few familiar passages from a Vatican II document, it elicited several sharply critical responses from traditional Catholics, including an unsigned, six-part analysis by a theologian from the Society of St. Pius X and an essay by historian Roberto de Mattei. What under other circumstances might have been a routine publishing event proved to be an informal but revealing moment in the ongoing theological discussions between the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Society of St. Pius X. 

Presentation of Volume VII

The two main themes of Archbishop Müller’s speech are stated in the first two paragraphs of the speech: “Joseph Ratzinger, from the time when he was a theologian, helped to shape the Council and accompanied it in all its phases…. The Council is an integral part of the history of the Church, and therefore it can be correctly understood only if this two-thousand-year context is considered.” 

The subtitle of Volume VII, Formulation—Transmission—Interpretation, marks the phases in Ratzinger’s Council-related work. The young professor of theology participated in the Preparatory Commissions for the Council as a theological advisor to Cardinal Frings. During a meeting at the Teutonic College in October 1962, Ratzinger criticized a conciliar schema (draft document) for describing the “sources” of Revelation in the plural; he argued that it is more theologically correct to speak of a single divine wellspring from which both Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture flow. Cardinal Frings adopted this critique and presented it at a General Assembly. Father Ratzinger was then appointed to two Conciliar Commissions and continued to help improve what eventually became the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation Dei Verbum

During and immediately after the sessions of Vatican II, Ratzinger provided “first-hand” reports on the proceedings in books, articles, lectures, and interviews, thus “stimulating debate” and facilitating “the reception” of the results of the Council. In the years between 1966 and 2003 he also wrote commentaries of all four Dogmatic Constitutions, based on their original, officially approved Latin texts, which most clearly express the will of the Council Fathers. Archbishop Müller comments: “Anyone who wants to understand the Council must consider attentively all the Constitutions, Decrees, and Declarations, because they alone, in their unity, represent the valid heritage of the Council.” 

Finally, while serving as prefect of the CDF and now as Pope, Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI has written about how the Second Vatican Council should be interpreted and implemented. Two paragraphs from the section of Archbishop Müller’s presentation entitled “Hermeneutic of renewal in continuity” started a controversy; an English translation of them follows: 

In his Address to the Roman Curia on December 22, 2005, which sparked considerable interest, Benedict XVI emphasizes “the hermeneutic of reform in continuity” as opposed to a “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture.” Joseph Ratzinger thus takes up a position in line with his statements in 1966. This interpretation [i.e. the first-mentioned hermeneutic] is the only one possible according to the principles of Catholic theology, in other words, considering the indissoluble whole made up of Sacred Scripture, the complete and integral Tradition, and the Magisterium, the highest expression of which is the Council presided over by the Successor of St. Peter as Head of the visible Church. Besides this sole orthodox interpretation there is unfortunately a heretical interpretation, that is, the hermeneutic of rupture, both on the progressive side and on the traditionalist side. Both sides have in common their rejection of the Council; the progressives in wanting to leave it behind, as if it were a temporary phase to abandon in order to get to another church, and the traditionalists in not wanting to arrive at the Council, as if it were the winter of the Catholic Church.

“Continuity” signifies permanent correspondence with the origin, not an adaption of whatever has been, which also can set us on the wrong path. The oft-quoted watchword aggiornamento (“updating”) therefore does not mean “secularization” of the faith, which would lead to its dissolution, but rather the origin proclaimed again and again in new eras, the starting point from which salvation is given to mankind; aggiornamento therefore signifies “making present” the message of Jesus Christ. 

A historian’s response

On December 5, Roman historian Roberto de Mattei posted an article in Italian entitled “The Prefect of the CDF against Benedict XVI?” at the website www.conciliovaticanosecondo.it, which is devoted to discussion of Vatican II. In it he accuses Archbishop Müller of declaring “Vatican Council II as the sole and absolute dogma of our times…based on an entirely personal reading of the famous address of Benedict XVI to the Roman Curia on December 22, 2005.” Professor de Mattei faults the current prefect of the CDF for pretending that there is a “connection of absolute continuity between the current position of the Pope and the one that Father Joseph Ratzinger adopted as a young theologian.… Archbishop Müller says nothing about the theological development made over the course of fifty years by Cardinal Ratzinger.” The historian cites an extensive passage from a speech given by Ratzinger to the Chilean Bishops Conference in July 1988 in which he criticizes those who view Vatican II as “an end of Tradition, a new start from zero.” De Mattei concludes with the argument, “The Second Vatican Council is not a ‘package deal’ to be accepted or rejected in toto. Gaudium et Spes, for example, appears today to be an outdated document, pervaded with the nineteenth- and twentieth-century myth of progress.” 

With all due respect to an eminent historian of Vatican II, the professor seems to have misinterpreted Archbishop Müller’s remarks about “the hermeneutic of reform in continuity” as the only possible interpretation according to the principles of Catholic theology. The prefect of the CDF was not saying that Vatican II is the sole hermeneutic by which to interpret the Catholic faith and the world, the only lens through which we can legitimately look at them. He was saying, precisely, that when interpreting the Second Vatican Council and its documents, the hermeneutic of reform in continuity is the only authentically Catholic interpretation. 

A syntactical ambiguity in Archbishop Müller’s speech may have caused this misunderstanding. The disputed sentence ends with the clause: “the highest expression of which is the Council presided over by the Successor of St. Peter as Head of the visible Church.” The relative pronoun “which” refers back to “Magisterium”; indeed, the clause is ecclesiological “boilerplate,” a description of one form of the Magisterium that has become common parlance in post-conciliar discussion of teaching authority in the Church. The sentence also allows a second ingenious interpretation, however: “which” could conceivably refer back to “the indissoluble whole” (that is, Scripture, Tradition, Magisterium). This grammatically less likely reading would dangerously imply that an Ecumenical Council “trumps” everything else in the Church. That is obviously not true; even an Ecumenical Council is bound by the truths of Scripture and by the authority of Tradition and cannot remake them in its own image. 

Professor de Mattei is quite right about one thing, nonetheless: the current prefect of the CDF offered in his presentation speech an idiosyncratic reading of the Holy Father’s Address to the Roman Curia at Christmastime 2005, in which the Pope also articulated the concept of “the hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture.” The following unedited quotation from that address makes it crystal clear that this unorthodox interpretation of Vatican II can only be the one favored by ultra-progressives and innovators. 

The hermeneutic of discontinuity risks ending in a split between the pre-conciliar Church and the post-conciliar Church. It asserts that the texts of the Council as such do not yet express the true spirit of the Council. It claims that they are the result of compromises in which, to reach unanimity, it was found necessary to keep and reconfirm many old things that are now pointless. However, the true spirit of the Council is not to be found in these compromises but instead in the impulses toward the new that are contained in the texts.

These innovations alone were supposed to represent the true spirit of the Council, and starting from and in conformity with them, it would be possible to move ahead. Precisely because the texts would only imperfectly reflect the true spirit of the Council and its newness, it would be necessary to go courageously beyond the texts and make room for the newness in which the Council’s deepest intention would be expressed, even if it were still vague.

In a word: 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 hermeneutic of rupture described in these three paragraphs plainly cannot be attributed to the Society of St. Pius X or to other Catholic groups that questioned the new pastoral teachings or liturgical disciplines introduced by Vatican II. Therefore when Archbishop Müller talks about a hermeneutic of rupture “on the traditionalist side” he has ceased presenting the published works of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI and has begun to editorialize. 

Of course the Holy Father himself recognizes that misunderstandings of Vatican II teaching come from various, even diametrically opposed quarters. In his homily on the first day of the Year of Faith he remarked, “Reference to the [conciliar] documents saves us from extremes of anachronistic nostalgia and running too far ahead.” Benedict XVI recommends the hermeneutic of continuity to those on both extremes, but he does not apply the expression “hermeneutic of rupture” to traditional Catholics. 

An SSPX response

The six-part response by an SSPX theologian to the presentation speech by Archbishop Müller contains a humorous subtitle that sums up its attitude: “Outside the Vatican II Council, no salvation?” Like Professor de Mattei, the SSPX theologian assumes that Archbishop Müller is “dogmatizing” the Council, based on the extremely broad (albeit improbable) reading of the CDF prefect’s sentence about the Second Vatican Council as “the highest expression” of the Church. The anonymous author then summarizes his take on the Prefect’s argument in the form of a syllogism: 

— (Major) Whoever does not accept the integral magisterium of the Church is heretical.

 (Minor) But the SSPX refuses Vatican II, part of the integral Church teaching.

 (Conclusion) Therefore, the SSPX is heretical.

“Needless to say,” the SSPX author begins, “this declaration of Archbishop Müller is not an official statement coming in the extraordinary form of, say, a decree or an anathema.” He gently complains that this “is not the first time that Rome is ‘using’ the SSPX” as a foil for “the arch-modernists.” (Indeed, Cardinal Kurt Koch repeatedly has likened the doctrinal position of the Society of St. Pius X to that of Martin Luther.) 

The SSPX theologian and his General Superior, Bishop Bernard Fellay, agree completely that in principle “This interpretation (of a magisterial act in continuity with the past) is the only one possible according to the principles of Catholic theology, in consideration of the indissoluble link between Sacred Scripture, the complete and integral Tradition and the Magisterium.” The problem is that, in the particulars, Rome sees continuity in teaching where the SSPX sees discontinuity. If “continuity” exists only subjectively, in the minds of those currently in authority in the Church, then this logically leads to the position that “The message of Revelation is of no importance; what counts is to get along.” 


Although it proclaimed no dogmas, the Second Vatican Council was a teaching event: it taught that there is more to Catholic theology than Thomism, more to the Catholic Church than the Western Tradition, and more to Christian life on earth than the visible Catholic Church. 

Despite the latest round of misunderstandings in published statements by members of the CDF and the SSPX, it should be clear that they agree that:

 The documents of Vatican II require interpretation in light of the Church’s entire Tradition.

 The documents of Vatican II have often been interpreted erroneously. 

 The solution to differences of opinion about interpreting the documents of Vatican II can come only from the highest authority of the Catholic Church.


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About Michael J. Miller 127 Articles
Michael J. Miller Michael J. Miller translated Priesthood and Diaconate by Gerhard Ludwig Müller for Ignatius Press and Eucharist and Divorce: A Change in Doctrine? for the Pontifical John Paul II Institute.