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History, unchanging truth, and Vatican II

The “pastorality of doctrine” approach, of which one can hear echoes in some interventions at Synod 2018, is a form of Neo-Modernism because it expresses merely an instrumentalist view of doctrine.

pope john xxiii leads the opening session of the second vatican council in st. peter's basilica at the vatican oct. 11
Pope John XXIII leads the opening session of the Second Vatican Council in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Oct. 11, 1962. (CNS photo/Giancarlo Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo)

One of the most contentious questions in the reception of the documents of the Second Vatican Council is that of the relationship between unchangeable and absolute truth, on the one hand, and the human expression of that truth in a variety of historically-conditioned forms of thought, on the other. In short: Given that they did not fall from heaven, how do we maintain the enduring validity of the statements of truth asserted in confessions, creeds, and dogmas, and, yes, the documents of Vatican II, while acknowledging their historical conditioning? The answers given to this question of unchanging truth and history reflect conflicting interpretations of Vatican II and its work-product, its sixteen documents.

Pope Benedict XVI identified two basic ways of interpreting the Vatican II documents: a difference that is at the root of the conflict over interpreting Vatican II. Are the Council’s documents justifiably interpreted as being in discontinuity and rupture with the Church’s living Tradition? Ironically, Neo-Modernists and Neo-Traditionalists both agree with this way of reading the documents; the former are “boosters” and the latter “knockers” of Vatican II.

Alternatively, should these documents be interpreted as being in continuity with the truths long asserted by the Church, even as we recognize that the Council was engaged in a creative retrieval of the authoritative sources of faith – Scripture and Tradition – so that Catholicism might move forward faithfully into the future, itself renewed so that it could convert the world as it is today?

This distinction between two ways of reading Vatican II’s documents is not a magician’s wand capable of answering every burning question about the proper interpretation of Vatican II. But perhaps an answer comes from within Vatican II itself. I would argue that the Council’s own framework of interpretation – its own approach to the question of truth and history – is inspired by the such nouveaux théologiens as Yves Congar (1904-1995) and Henri de Lubac (1896-1991), which seems to have been recognized by John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Congar, de Lubac, John Paul II (the pope who created both men cardinals), and Benedict XVI represent a creative retrieval of the authoritative sources, of reform and renewal in continuity with the Church’s living Tradition.

In this connection, it’s worth noting that Pope John XXIII invoked the distinction between truth and its historically conditioned formulations in his opening address at Vatican II, Gaudet Mater Ecclesia [Mother Church Rejoices]. That address has been read by many as a clear indication that the Pope wanted the considerations begun by the nouveaux théologiens to be given continued study. As he said in Gaudet Mater Ecclesia,

What is needed is that this certain and unchangeable doctrine, to which loyal submission is due, be investigated and presented in the way demanded by our times. For the deposit of faith, the truths contained in our sacred teaching, are one thing, while the mode in which they are expressed, but with the same meaning and the same judgment [“eodem sensu eademque sententia”], is another thing.

The subordinate clause I’ve cited in its Latin original is part of a larger passage from Vatican I’s dogmatic constitution on faith and reason, Dei Filius, which is also cited by Leo XIII in his 1899 Encyclical, Testem benevolentiae Nostrae; and this formula is itself taken from the Commonitórium primum 23 of Vincent of Lérins:

Therefore, let there be growth and abundant progress in understanding, knowledge, and wisdom, in each and all, in individuals and in the whole Church, at all times and in the progress of ages, but only within the proper limits, i.e., within the same dogma, the same meaning, the same judgment (in eodem scilicet dogmate, eodem sensu eademque sententia).

According to this “Lerinian” interpretation of dogma (and of Vatican II), linguistic formulations or expressions of truth can vary in our attempt to deepen our understanding, as long as they maintain the same meaning and mediate the same judgment of truth.

The documents of Vatican II are, however, interpreted in another way, which I’ll call Neo-Traditionalism. The Neo-Traditionalists are anti-Modernists to the degree that they don’t acknowledge that theological Modernism had actually identified a real problem in upholding the permanence of meaning and truth. So the Neo-Traditionalists absolutize continuity of dogmatic truth without displaying any appreciation for the historical nature of those truths’ human expression.

Now the contention of the nouveaux théologiens, and arguably, of John XXII and of the Council is that, despite the untenable solutions of the Modernists, Modernism had been onto something of importance for the future of the Church. As the Dominican theologian Aidan Nichols put it succinctly, “though Modernism had been a false answer, it had set a real question…” and the question is about the relationship between abiding, permanent truth and its historically conditioned formulation. The false answer of the Modernism problem was rooted in their sense that the basic presupposition of the hermeneutics of continuity-in-renewal was no longer self-evident—“within the same dogma, the same meaning, the same judgment” (in eodem scilicet dogmate, eodem sensu eademque sententia).

Truth’s expressions are historically conditioned; they are never absolute, in the sense of wholly adequate and irreplaceable. The nouveaux théologiens acknowledge that point; hence their distinction between unchanging truth and its formulations. Where the Modernists and nouveaux théologiens differ is over the claim that inadequacy of expression implies inexpressibility of divine truth; hence, unlike the nouveaux théologiens, the Modernist reduces truth to its changing historical and linguistic expressions.

Thanks to a fixation on the historical-factual process, and the corresponding idea that truth-claims do not transcend the times but are entangled with the historical process in all sorts of way, a Neo-Modernism has surfaced in the so-called “new paradigm,” or “pastorality of doctrine” approach of Richard Gaillardetz and Christoph Theobald, SJ.

Theobald, for example, collapses the distinction between the substance of the deposit of faith and its formulation into a historical context, without attending to the “Lerinian” subordinate clause – eodem sensu eademque sententia – while also dismissing the notion that unchanging truths and their formulations may be distinguished within the deposit of faith. And Theobald does not hesitate to draw a dramatic conclusion: the substance of the deposit of faith as a whole is “subject to continual reinterpretation [and re-contextualization] according to the situation of those to whom it is transmitted.”

This “pastorality of doctrine” approach, of which one can hear echoes in some interventions at Synod 2018, is a form of Neo-Modernism because it expresses merely an instrumentalist view of doctrine, in which doctrines are not absolute truths, or objectively true affirmations; in fact, doctrines don’t make assertions about objective reality at all. This Neo-Modernism forfeits the distinction between faith (fides quae) and its content in statements of truth, propositions whose truth-status bear a relation to objective reality. Rather, for the Neo-Modernists, the content of faith is always derived from faith’s experience of God. So that content is only a product of theological reflection upon this faith, with doctrines mediating that experience in secondary formulations. In sum: there are no revealed truths.

The Lérinian way of interpreting Vatican II acknowledges that the various pronouncements made by the Church in any given era reflect the historical setting and situation of the moment. How, then, exactly, is a single and unitary revelation of revealed truths homogeneously expressed, according to the same meaning and the same judgment, given the undeniable fact of historical conditioning?

Yves Congar, for one, has argued that the distinction between the permanent meaning and truth of dogmas and their historically conditioned formulations, which can be subject to correction, modification, and complementary restatement, summarizes the meaning of the Second Vatican Council. Here we find the crucial difference between not only the nouvelle théologie and modernism and the Neo Modernism of the “pastorality of doctrine” approach, but between the nouvelle théologie and Neo-Traditionalism. Modernism, Congar wrote, identified the theological problem posed by “variations in the representations and the intellectual construction of the affirmations of faith.” The nouvelle théologie solved this problem, he argued, by “distinguishing between an invariant of affirmations, and the variable usage of technical notions to translate essential truth in historic contexts differing culturally and philosophically.”

Given this distinction, the Church can avoid the trap dogmatic relativism, into which the Modernists and now the neo-Modernists (with their “new paradigm”) have fallen. The Lérinian way of interpreting Vatican II stands firmly against relativism about truth, and firmly for truth’s permanence.

(This essay was originally posted on October 19, 2018, as part of the “Letters from the Synod” series at First Things, and is reposted here by kind permission of the author.)

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About Eduardo Echeverria 31 Articles
Eduardo Echeverria is Professor of Philosophy and Systematic Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. He earned his doctorate in philosophy from the Free University in Amsterdam and his S.T.L. from the University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) in Rome.


  1. A few supportive footnotes, here…

    The clarity of Vincent of Lerins (5th century) is expanded in The Development of Christian Doctrine, by John Henry Cardinal Newman (19th century), who is remembered as the “Father of the Second Vatican Council.” For its part, however, the council itself seems at times to have cobbled together potentially conflicting views, toward an awkward reconciliation, in such possibly polar entries as these two:

    Gaudium et Spes: “Thus, the human race has passed from a rather static concept of reality to a more dynamic, evolutionary one” (an echo of the exploitable Teilhard de Chardin (?), and his “cosmogenesis” and “Noosphere”!).

    Constitution on Divine Revelation: “The Christian dispensation, therefore, is the new and definitive covenant, will never pass away, and we now await not further new public revelation [paradigm shift?] before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

    St. Augustine got it all in one sentence: “We can say things differently, but we can’t say different things.” And then there’s this: “Jesus Christ [the eternal alpha and the omega, both], the same yesterday, today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).

  2. Prof. Echeverria might make a fine reviewer for this book:

    The Disputed Teachings of Vatican II: Continuity and Reversal in Catholic Doctrine, by Thomas G. Guarino. (Eerdmans, 2018. ISBN 9780802874382)

  3. Much help in the article, succinctly describing the diverging theologies. Still, more help can be offered the non specialist reader by the addition of an example of how new formulations are given for unchaining truths. May I lean upon the author to compare and contrast one historically conditioned formulation of a truth of the deposit of faith to a formulation of that same truth in the historical formulation of our era?

  4. “Given that they did not fall from heaven…” But the content of our creeds, confessions and doctrines does come from One who came from heaven. Not being a theologian, I am not sure I understand the point here. Why do we have to call the (various) expressions of truth over time “historically-conditioned forms of thought”; why can we not just call these “expressions of truth”. It seems to me that by naming these various true expressions of unchanging truth “historically-conditioned” is to open the door to historically-conditioned truth. I think that Professor Echeverria misses the point. The quotation above from Gaudet Mater Ecclesia is a “forest for the trees” (or rather “tree in the forest”) problem. It does not take into account that the words “demanded by our times” will be harvested over and over again by the Modernist until the Church meets all his demands. Isn’t the problem that Vatican II tacitly invited all these demands with a big sign that said “All Are Welcome to Demand”? And so far we are only speaking about doctrine. Sacrosanctum Concilllium puts it this way about our worship: “For the liturgy is made up of unchangeable elements divinely instituted (must have fallen from heaven) and of elements subject to change” And boy, did they change! It is getting tiresome to hear “this is not what the council intended”. It’s like sending troops into a battle when you are confident of your new strategy and after the troops are annihilated you say “well, that’s not what we intended”. Try getting away with that.

  5. Did Pope John and Vatican II consider that the Nicene/Constantinople Creed, the Dogmatic Definition of the Council of Chalcedon the two natures in one person of Jesus Christ and other dogmas worked out in the fourth and fifth centuries were inadequate for the modern mentality and should be replaced by more understandable formulae for modern man? It doesn’t seem so, as they never attempted to change these or have the Creed removed from the Mass. It seems to me that any discipline has its own technical language and it is the job of catechesis and homiletics to explain the meaning of such dogmas to the faithful. Besides the historical contexts, there is also the unchangeable human nature which in its essence cannot change. Pope John didn’t seem to apply his suggestion to Sacred Scripture itself? Why not if after all it is historicallly conditioned? Why didn’t Mr. Echeverría leave the abstract level and give some real examples of what he is on about? Which dogmas are not understandable? Didn’t Pope John and Vatican II renounce any dogamtic definiton or condemnation of any errors? One wonders how the ture doctrine can be well explained without condemning the erors broought against it.
    Part of the effort directed by theologians towards the hermeneutics of councils is attempting to get a better idea of what the bishops present actually wanted to define and what they didn’t include in the definition. Previous Councils such as Trent and Vatican I are much easier to interpret, as their statements are divided into chapters and canons and there is little doubt about what they actually mean. Vatican II’s documents are too long and wolly so that they are easily open to many interpretations, plus they are supposed to be “pastoral”. What does Vatican II actually mean by a “pastoral council”? So, what is their dogmatic value or interpretation?

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