Academic journal article Theological Studies

Toward a Comprehensive Interpretation of the Council and Its Documents

Academic journal article Theological Studies

Toward a Comprehensive Interpretation of the Council and Its Documents

Article excerpt

THE 1985 EXTRAORDINARY SYNOD OF BISHOPS, 20 years after the close of Vatican II, proposed several hermeneutical principles that remain valuable for guiding discussion 50 years after the council's opening. (1) Since this synod, reflection has continued as to the appropriate hermeneutics for interpreting the council and its texts. The literature provides rich reflection on the range of issues at stake. Leaving aside one-dimensional approaches that, for example, exaggerate exclusively either "continuity" or "discontinuity," or either "spirit" or "letter," the major contributors to the hermeneutical debate, among many others, include Joseph Ratzinger, and now as Benedict XVI, Walter Kasper, Karl Lehmann, Giuseppe Alberigo, Hermann Pottmeyer, Giuseppe Ruggieri, Joseph Komonchak, Peter Htinermann, Gilles Routhier, Alberto Melloni, John O'Malley, Christoph Theobald, and Massimo Faggioli. (2) Different emphases are placed by these commentators on the three elements of (1) the conciliar process, (2) the conciliar documents, and (3) the reception of the council and its documents. Some take a more historical perspective, others a more theological perspective.

The framework proposed here attempts to bring together many of these insights under six hermeneutical principles. Each principle is formulated in terms of a dialectic, where the two terms of the dialectic are to be seen as mutually interpretative and existing in creative tension. (3) There is a certain overlap in the issues at stake in the dialectics. This overlap gives the framework a coherence. Furthermore, the overlap highlights how one principle alone, or just one term within a dialectic, can give a narrow view of the issues, and requires the other term or the other dialectics for mutual correction, for the sake of a more comprehensive and credible interpretation of the council and its documents 50 years on. At the beginning of the following six sections on each principle, a thesis states the central affirmations of the principle.


Principle One: The documents of Vatican II must be interpreted in the light of the historical event (the council) that produced them; and the historical event must be interpreted in the light of the official documents that it promulgated. (4)

When referring to "Vatican II," a distinction can be made between "the council" as a multidimensional historical process and "the documents" it promulgated. A related distinction, used by the 1985 Synod of Bishops, is that between the "spirit" and the "letter" of the council. However, with both dialectics, as with all that follow, care must be taken not to set up the distinction as a dichotomy, pitting one pole against the other. They are mutually interpretive and require the careful interrelating of not only a hermeneutics of the authors and a hermeneutics of the texts, but also a hermeneutics of the receivers (the ones who are interpreting and applying the council and its documents from the later perspectives of forever-changing contexts). (5) Several hermeneutical points can be selected as significant if an interpretation of "the council" and its "16 documents" is to be comprehensive, and if it is to avoid setting the "spirit" and "letter" of the council in opposition.

First, the documents, in one sense, constitute a "fixed" criterion, a collection of documents that long outlives those who authored them. Without falling into a Romantic hermeneutic privileging "authorial intention," (6) they could be legitimately termed expressions of "the mind of the council," in the sense that, after much hard work and vigorous debate, they were voted on and promulgated by the overwhelming majority of the bishops of the world. (7)

Second, while they constitute a "fixed" criterion once set in writing, the documents are nevertheless "finished in their unfinishedness." (8) They "overflow" the context of their original production and reception; there is a surplus of meaning that future generations might legitimately discover in the texts, meanings, however, that might very well go beyond what the bishops explicitly intended. …

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