Pope Francis offers his clearest interpretation yet of the Second Vatican Council
Pope Francis recently took Italy’s bishops to task for ignoring his call five years ago for a national synod and, in doing so, he offered the Church throughout the world the closest thing we’ve seen yet of what might be called his interpretation of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).
In an address to the national catechetical office of the Italian bishops’ conference on January 30, the pope urged them, as he did during a major Church gathering in Florence in 2015, to begin a process for a national synod.
Up till now, the bishops’ conference has basically ignored the pope’s directive. But other important elements of the Church in Italy have not. Several Catholic magazines, including the Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica, and a number of theologians have kept the idea of a synod alive.
It will be interesting to see if, even after Francis’ intervention on January 30, the Italian bishops will still ignore the pope’s request to plan a national synod.
That address was not just for the Italians. It’s also a signal sent to those churches that have already initiated a national synodal process (such as Germany and Australia) and others that are contemplating one.
But we no longer live in a Church where the national episcopal conferences do almost automatically what the pope asks or encourages them to do. And that’s not unique to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and its attitude towards Francis.
‘The Council is the Magisterium of the Church’
But, beyond the issue of national synods, there was something even more important in the pope’s recent address to the Italian bishops’ catechetical office. It was his comments on the Second Vatican Council.
During his pontificate, Francis has never outlined his interpretation of the Council in any systematic way.
However, at times he has stated his concerns over tendencies to reduce Vatican II to a matter of negotiation with those who see themselves as defenders of a strict – and self-labelled more faithful – version of the Catholic tradition.
“This is the Magisterium. The Council is the Magisterium of the Church,” the pope said on January 30.
“Either you are with the Church and therefore you follow the Council, and if you don’t follow the Council or you interpret it in your own away, as you desire, you do not stand with the Church,” he continued.
“The Council must not be negotiated… No: the Council is what it is,” he insisted.
He then made a comparison with the schism of the Old Catholic Church after Vatican I (1869-1870). (The Old Catholic Church had already existed before Vatican I, but it received new, high-profile members after their rejection of the council’s declarations on the papacy).
“And this problem that we are experiencing, of selectivity with respect to the Council, has been repeated throughout history with other Councils. It makes me think a lot about a group of bishops who, after Vatican I, left… to continue the ‘true doctrine’ that was not that of Vatican I,” the pope said.
Francis said their attitude was, “We are the true Catholics”. And, evidently, to prove they were wrong, the pope said: “Today they ordain women.”
More Catholic than Vatican II
Aside from this last remark, which will be seen as ecumenically insensitive, the 84-year-old pope’s larger point was that there are those who, even today, think of themselves as more Catholic than the Second Vatican Council.
“This strict attitude, to keep the faith without the magisterium of the Church, leads you to ruin,” he said.
“Please, no concessions to those who try to present a catechesis that does not align with the magisterium of the Church,” the pope warned the bishops.
This excursus on Vatican II was revealing for a number of reasons. It helped shed light on the difference between the way Francis and his predecessor, Benedict XVI, speak about the interpretation of Vatican II.
Both men have had the difficult task of trying to navigate a magisterial reception of the council.
On the one hand, they have had to steer away from the ultra-traditionalist who see Vatican II as too modern to be Catholic. And, on the other hand, they have had to keep a distance from the ultra-progressives who see Vatican II as too Catholic to be modern.
Benedict XVI and the traditionalists
In theory, that is partly what Benedict XVI tried to do with his famous speech to the Roman Curia just before Christmas in 2005. That address can be read as a disavowal of an interpretation of the council as a rupture with the traditions, something shared, ironically, by both the ultra-progressives and the Lefebvrists.
In practice, we know that Benedict XVI’s doctrinal policy was more favourable to the traditionalist interpretation of Vatican II.
Let us not forget the calamitous consequences this had on the liturgy. (It is interesting how the French bishops responded to a Vatican inquiry on the effects of the 2007 motu proprio Summorum Pontificum that liberalised the use of the pre-Vatican II liturgy.)
Compared to Benedict, Francis has shown a different interpretation of Vatican II on the basis of his vision of a Church in a multi-cultural and multi-religious world, rooted in a reality that he came to know quite well as a pastor.
In his 30 January address, Francis also revealed his opposition, not only to the mentality of resistance to Vatican II in the name of a false sense of orthodoxy, but also to negotiating with the traditionalists over the meaning of the council.
Such negotiations were an integral part of the doctrinal policy of Benedict XVI’s pontificate.
Francis quietly — but unequivocally — undid this policy when he abolished the “Ecclesia Dei” Commission in early 2019. John Paul II had created that entity in 1988 to deal with the schismatic Priestly Society of Pius X (SSPX) and had put Cardinal Ratzinger in charge of it.
Abolishing “Ecclesia Dei” is one of the most important changes Francis has made to the structure of the Roman Curia since becoming pope.
Francis and pastoral pragmatism
Francis is famously not a fan of the language of “non-negotiables” when it comes to moral issues, but that is a term he’d likely apply to the Second Vatican Council — it is not up for negotiation.
It’s from the pope’s firm defence of the council that we must interpret the steps he has taken to restructure the Catholic Church’s relations with SSPX traditionalists, especially since the Jubilee of Mercy.
Francis granted all SSPX priests faculties to celebrate the sacraments of reconciliation and matrimony. He did so as a matter of pastoral pragmatism.
It was not about recognising the equivalence between Vatican II and those who openly oppose or dismiss its teachings and proselytise on a false sense of orthodoxy.
This is a critical point for understanding the pontificate.
A careful reading of Francis’ pronouncements on Vatican II characterises him as clearly opposed to the anti-conciliar mentality of traditionalists.
But — perhaps in a less evident way — he is also opposed to the a-conciliar theological culture of radical-progressives for whom the council’s legitimacy rests not on what its documents say, but mostly in its differences and departures from the previous magisterial tradition.
On some issues, Francis has demonstrated that his interpretation of Vatican II can go beyond the letter of the documents (such as on inter-religious dialogue or family and marriage issues).
But on other matters, such as priestly ministry, it’s more complicated: Francis seems unwilling to adopt a dynamic interpretation of Vatican II similar to his interpretation of Nostra Aetate, for example.
The Jesuit pope’s centrist position
Recently, Francis decreed that the ministries of lector and acolyte would now to be open to women, in a stable and institutionalised form through a specific mandate. But in these last, almost eight years, he has said more than once that he is clearly opposed to the ordination of women.
Francis’ interpretation of Vatican II is very distant from Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke (for example), and much closer to Cardinal Walter Kasper. But not only to the Kasper who has become the target of Catholic conservatives since 2013, but also to the more “centrist” Kasper of the 1980s and 1990s.
In other words, the reasons Francis has shown some openings towards the traditionalists are not very different from his reasons for showing some openings towards Catholic progressives. They are rooted in pastoral pragmatism. They do not embrace a particular theological interpretation of the tradition.
The contraposition between the leadership of the US bishops conference and Francis is a key feature of the pontificate, but it should not suggest a theological liberalism that has never been part of the Jesuit pope’s mentality.
However, Francis’ problems come more from radical traditionalism than from liberal progressivism.
The verbal violence the rad-trads use to criticise Francis comes from frustration. They know that a reversal of the teachings of Vatican II and the post-conciliar period is unimaginable – or imaginable only at a huge cost from a doctrinal point of view and in terms of fidelity to the Gospel.
Traditionalists, it’s time to choose
Vatican II was the fruit of a theological-cultural order that is now in crisis, and that is why the Church needs a new global commentary of the council.
But Francis’ pontificate represents a time to choose — much more traditionalists than for progressives. The two groups’ criticisms of Vatican II are clearly not the same or equivalent.
One way to understand Francis’ election and pontificate is as a response to the neo-traditionalist surge that was emboldened by Benedict’s time as Bishop of Rome.
What Francis says and what he represents on the interpretation of Vatican II is more a correction than a completion of Benedict XVI’s course.
That last pontificate did nothing to moderate the radical rejection of Vatican II by the schismatic traditionalists and actually gave legitimacy to the anti-Vatican II Catholic traditionalists in communion with Rome.
The problem is that the split around interpretations of the council is much more serious today than it was during the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. There has since been a hardening of positions, especially on the conservative side.
Francis’ disavowal of the blessings given to the traditionalists’ agenda up until 2013 make him look more theologically progressive than he actually is.
As for what concerns the magisterial interpretation of Vatican II, this pontificate is actually more about undoing, rather than doing. And that, itself, is no small feat.
Massimo Faggioli is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University in Philadelphia. His most recent book is The Liminal Papacy of Pope Francis: Moving Toward Global Catholicity (Orbis Books).
By Massimo Faggioli. Reproduced with his permission and La Croix International.