The Second Vatican Council, when properly understood, continues to play a vital role in transmitting the pure truths of the faith in a way that is needed for our time, said Cardinal William J. Levada.
The former prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith noted that “the Church’s magisterium, which has the final judgment on the correct interpretation of the Council, has also been active in the work of interpretation and application of the Council over the past 50 years.”
Cardinal Levada delivered the Sept. 26 keynote address at a symposium held at the Catholic University of America to mark the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council.
He discussed the council in light of the Year of Faith announced by Pope Benedict to coincide with the council’s anniversary, as well as the 20th anniversary of the promulgation of the catechism.
The Second Vatican Council was an ecumenical council, the cardinal explained, continuing in a long tradition of bishops gathering together to address “both the doctrinal and disciplinary issues required by their time.”
Through these councils, our faith is “safeguarded and illumined,” he said, noting that the councils exhibit the work of “doctrinal development,” explaining the meaning of Scripture and Church doctrines in continuity with the Tradition of the Church.
The cardinal acknowledged that Vatican II was a “pastoral” council because it did not aim at correcting “errors of faith” through the formulation of new dogma. However, this does not mean that the council’s teaching are not “doctrinal,” he said.
“Rather than pastoral or doctrinal, we should say of the Council that it was pastoral and doctrinal,” he said, explaining that the bishops’ work is “doctrinal in its principles and pastoral in its applications.”
He pointed to claims by breakaway traditionalist group, the Society of St. Pius X, that the council’s teachings can be rejected because it was “merely pastoral.”
However, like all of Apostolic Tradition, the council “finds its authentic, authoritative interpretation,” not in the judgment of individuals but in that of “the Church’s Magisterium, according to the promise of Christ to the Apostles,” he said.
Therefore, this teaching of the pope and bishops should not be viewed as “second-class” teaching that is “optional” and unnecessary for Catholics to accept, he said.
Furthermore, Cardinal Levada noted, it is important to recognize that the “letter,” or texts of the council, cannot be separated from the “spirit” of the council.
Pope Benedict has explained that the Second Vatican Council must be interpreted according to the “proper hermeneutic.” He cautioned that some have viewed the council according to “a hermeneutic of discontinuity,” as if its teachings were ruptured from the Tradition of the Church.
This view holds that the council’s texts do not express its true spirit, which embraces a “newness” that must progress and develop, going beyond the text of the council.
As an example of this, the cardinal pointed to calls for the ordination of women and married men, as well as laity-led Masses, to address the shortage of priests.
While this interpretation has drawn the support of the mass media and some theologians, it is not an accurate understanding of the council, he said.
In contrast, he continued, Pope Benedict has taught about a “hermeneutic of reform,” which is “renewal in the continuity” of a Church that “increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same.”
This type of understanding is seen in the apostolic constitution “Anglicanorum Coetibus,” said Cardinal Levada. This document was Pope Benedict’s response to the requests of Anglicans to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church while maintaining some of their own rituals, prayers and practices, he said.
In keeping with the major Second Vatican Council theme of “the ecumenical quest for Church unity,” the Holy Father allowed for the establishment of Ordinariates for former Anglicans, showing an “openness to new structures that preserve historic spiritual and liturgical traditions within the communion of full Church unity,” he explained.
Another example of this hermeneutic of “reform and renewal in continuity” is the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the cardinal said, noting that Oct. 11 also marks the 20th anniversary of this catechism’s promulgation by Pope John Paul II.
This new catechism was deemed necessary, he explained, because confusion had arisen after the council “about what had changed and what had stayed the same in Church teaching,” and there was a need for the council documents to “be integrated with the entire deposit of faith of the Apostolic Tradition.”
The result, he said, was a clear reference for authentic Church teaching, incorporating Scripture and the words of theologians and saints, along with the teachings of the council.
“It is the panorama of faith that the Catechism proposes, in its content and in its invitation to encounter the person of Jesus through faith,” Cardinal Levada explained.