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Eberhard Schockenhoff

Reconciliation with the Society of Saint Pius X?

The Controversy over the Authentic Interpretation of the Council


From: Stimmen der Zeit, 4/2010, P. 219-228
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    The full recognition of the Second Vatican Council turns out to be a hermeneutic balancing act in the talks between the Vatican and the Society of Saint Pius X. EBERHARD SCHOCKENHOFF, professor of moral theology at the University of Freiburg, points to the importance of freedom of conscience and freedom of religion and diagnosed a massive factional struggle.


In Rome religious discussions of a special kind have been taking place for a few weeks. Not the representatives of the major world religions come together to pray together for peace, but two delegations of very unequal weight: some theologians commissioned by Rome and the representatives of the movement of traditionalists, whose full reintegration into the Catholic Church is an important objective of Pope Benedict XVI's pontificate.

In the negotiations between the Vatican and a delegation of the Society of Saint Pius X, which are conducted in private, it is about the detailed conditions under which the Society could be ready to acknowledge unreservedly the Second Vatican Council. In preparation for these talks, in Rome papers have been drawn up that claim to contain an "authentic" interpretation of contentious conciliar statements, which will allow the SSPX to approve of the Vatican Council. Since the texts of the Council as a binding explanation of the Catholic faith cannot be called into question, their interpretation is to build a bridge for the traditionalist opponents of the Council over which they can move toward the Catholic Church and her faith.


A Balancing Act - Upgrading a Minority at the Second Vatican Council?

In terms of ecclesiastical politics such a strategy seems to be obvious. If there is any chance of success for the talks with the SSPX, it lies in shifting to the wide field of interpretation. By reinterpreting and readjusting the meaning of the text, and by pretending to undertake thus the necessary protection against post-conciliar abortive developments and misconceptions, one wants to wrest at least the verbal acknowledgment of freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, which are the core of the modern world and its culture of freedom, from an anti-modern protest movement in the guise of pre-conciliar Catholicism.

In terms of theology, however, such a hermeneutic balance act that is trying to square the circle is like playing with fire.



Both sides would get a dangerous problem of credibility if they diplomatically agreed on a formula according to which the party that until now denied freedom of conscience and religious freedom in future would proclaim the "authentic" meaning of what it has been denying most decidedly up to this day. The Catholic Church regards clarity in matters of faith as one of its particular strengths; in theologically controversial issues the teaching authority of the universal church usually insists that precise wordings are given that grasp the truths of faith without error, despite their analogous nature.

The effort to give an authentic interpretation fits into a long series of Rome's attempts to influence the history of reception of the Vatican Council according to the view of the then minority at the Vatican Council. In the post-conciliar doctrinal documents of the Catholic Church their concerns find a noticeably greater resonance than in the teachings of the Council. Through the process of an official interpretation a meaning is ascribed to central conciliar texts, different from the one that according to the will of the Council's majority is assigned to them.

This process is in itself not unusual. Since the Christological Councils of 4th and 5th century the history of the Councils knows numerous examples where the theological concerns of the initially defeated party regained more weight in the history of reception following in the wake of the respective council. But in the dispute over the correct understanding of the recent Vatican Council it is not only about a better balancing of contradictory views or about more or less successful individual formulations of the Catholic faith. Rather, what is at stake once again is the decision on the direction, the future path of the Church, which the Vatican Council wanted to make by opening to the modern world, by acknowledging the ecumenical commonalities with the Orthodox and Protestant Churches, and by declaring itself in favour of the dialogue with Judaism and world religions.

The process of a restrictive official interpretation of the Vatican Council is already evident by the selection of issues where post-conciliar Roman statements refer to conciliar documents. The Pastoral Constitution "Gaudium et Spes" (GS) is virtually never quoted, wheras the statements in the second part of the Constitution on the Church "Lumen gentium" (LG) are widely mentioned; they emphasize the hierarchical structure of the Church and the believers' duty to obey. That central texts of the Council are brushed against the grain and thus their intended meaning is changed can be recognized particularly well on the contentual level by means of two examples: the interpretation of the formula by which the Vatican Council explains the relationship of the Church of Jesus Christ to the Catholic Church ("subsistit in"), and the theological definition of the relationship between the universal Church and the individual local churches.

Even though these Roman interventions took place years ago, it is helpful to remind of them in order to grasp the scope of the present contentious issues.



In the light of recent attempts at correction the effort to reintegrate the SSPX into the church fits as another piece of the mosaic into an overall picture that shows a clear trend.


The Catholic Church as the Concrete Realization of the Church of Jesus Christ

In the statement that "the mystery of the Church is realized in the Catholic Church the Vatican Council wants to express the relationship of the Roman Catholic Church to the Church of Jesus Christ but says nothing about the question of whether and to what extent the Churches of the Reformation are churches. The discussions in the council hall and in the Preparatory Commission show that the wording "subsistit in" (cf. LG 8) was deliberately chosen instead of the exclusive statement of identity "est" in order to make room for the recognition of the ecclesial elements that exist also outside the Catholic Church.

The Council admits an open room for the theological interpretation in the question of how the ecclesial reality that is found outside the Catholic Church has to be understood. In the ecumenical theology of recent decades apart from the idea of a graduated churchliness the thesis was soon represented that there must be a structural context between the individual elements of sanctification which the Council recognized in the churches of the Reformation (Word of God, baptism, holy communion, the office of publicly preaching the gospel, common prayer tradition of Christianity as a whole), which produces a special way of being church.

According to the theory of the various patterns of churches, the Protestant Churches form a special type of church, which must - according to the model of a reconciled diversity of churches - have lasting significance also in their visible unity. There is until now no consensus on the issue of what role the visibility of church unity is to play, and how it can be reflected in the papacy and its concrete embodiment.

The declaration "Dominus Iesus", however, reads the "subsistit in" on the lines of an exclusive identity assertion ("est"), which has been rejected by the Council, in order to derive the conclusion that the Protestant Churches were not churches in the proper sense. With it the Council's intention has been shifted: It is no longer about positively to show the relationship between the Church of Jesus Christ and its concrete historical realization in the Roman Catholic Church, but rather negatively to deny that the Protestant churches have the ecclesiological quality of being church.



A similar reversal of the meaning can be seen in the commentary which was given by the letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith "on some aspects of the Church understood as Communion" (1992) about the relationship between the universal Church and local churches. Here, too, the chosen terminology already shows the leading interest. The Vatican Council speaks both of local churches ( "ecclesiae locales") and of particular churches ("ecclesiae particulares") (LG 23), and in LG 26 the legitimate local communities of believers ("legitimae fidelium congregationes locales") are mentioned, which are called "churches" in the New Testament, whereas the declaration of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith uses only the term "particular churches". On the factual level it changes the open [schwebend] basic structure of the communio-ecclesiology, according to which the universal church exists - as the Council says with a formula of the Church Father Cyprian - "in and out of" the local churches ("in et ex ecclesiis") (LG 23), into the relation of an ontological and historical priority of the universal Church to the local churches.

Most commentators understand the formula of the Council as a double negation: Neither is the universal church only a subsequent amalgamation of autonomous local churches in the style of the United Nations, nor are the local churches only subordinate administrative districts or embodiments of the universal Church. There is the logic of mutual representation between the universal church and the local or particular churches. The individual particular churches bear the image of the universal Church, wheras the latter, conversely, exists only in and out of the local churches {l}.

Compared with this, the aforementioned statement by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith makes a (factually possible) supplement and a (factually problematic) change. First, it complements the conciliar statement, according to which the universal Church exists "in and out of" the local churches, through the mirror-inverted addendum that, conversely, the local churches exist only "in and out of" the universal church. In LG 26 the Vatican Council formulates similarly but with a different objective that the Church of Christ is "truly present" ("vere adest") in the local churches. However, the meaning of the conciliar statement is changed and restricted by the thesis that the universal church was, "in the true sense of its mystery, a reality that is ontologically and temporally prior to every individual particular church." {2}. The Council wanted to emphasize the strict reciprocity, out of which the universal Church and the particular Churches are related to each other. The local churches bear the image of the universal Church, whereas the latter appears in individual local churches. The post-conciliar papal Magisterium replaces this reciprocal logic of reciprocal representation by a one-sided participation. According to this view the very essence of the Church is realized originally in the universal Church, whereas the individual local churches only in a derivative way participate in her.



In order to justify this thesis, the then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger referred on the one hand to the event of Pentecost, which is to substantiate the historical priority of the universal Church, and on the other hand to the pre-existence of the church. Both arguments met with opposition in the theological critique (most prominently by Cardinal Walter Kasper) {3}. Exegetes point out that in Galilee already at an early stage communities existed that were not missionized by disciples who came from Jerusalem; and at Pentecost it is not the universal Church that emerges but (according to St. Luke's account) the assembled Jewish Diaspora, which later through the guidance of the Holy Spirit develops into the church out of all nations {4}. The systematic reference to the pre-existence of the church says more about the present pope's Platonic image of the Church than about the relation of the universal Church and local churches. The theological statement on the pre-existence of the church does namely not mean a preliminary decision on the structural relationship between the universal Church and the local church, because the church as a whole, i.e. the constitutive togetherness of universal church and particular churches, must be thought of as pre-existent.

There is no denying that in some movements of the post-conciliar theology the Vatican Council's well-balanced definition of a dialectical relationship was disturbed - not least, because one did no longer regard the respective diocese or episcopal church as local church but the parish, an ecclesial base group or the actual Eucharistic assembly. It is nevertheless inappropriate to respond to the threat of a one-sided relationship by a corresponding one-sided relationship towards the other side. Due to the fierce criticism of its statement, the Congregation felt later obliged to a semiofficial clarification, which was apparently motivated above all by the exegetical objections {5}.


The Current Point of Contention: Freedom of Conscience and Religious Freedom

The danger of a similar reinterpretation is obvious, when one now seeks for an authentic interpretation of the doctrine on freedom of conscience and religious freedom, which makes it seem acceptable in the eyes of the members of SSPX. According to the Council's Declaration "Dignitatis Humanae" (DH) freedom of conscience and religious freedom are based on the dignity of the human person: "in accordance with their dignity as persons (have) the right and the obligation to seek the truth" (DH 2).

The Council expressly emphasizes that this right has its foundation not in the subjective disposition of the person, but in his very nature. Also those who do not fulfil their obligation to seek the truth and to adhere to it remain entitled to freedom of conscience and religious freedom. Moreover, it is emphasized that truth has to be looked for in a manner that is in compliance with the dignity of the person.



The Council specifically mentions the free scientific research, the help of the ecclesial Magisterium, and the dialogue and exchange of ideas in and outside the Church (cf. DH 3). Behind these explanations is the principle that truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth ("nisi vi ipsius veritatis") (DH 1). It is hard to imagine how from this standpoint of the Council a bridge building is possible to the view of the members of SSPX, who adhere to the thesis of the popes of the 19th century, according to which fallacy can claim no right beside truth.

The interpretation of freedom of conscience, which Cardinal Ratzinger has presented in several papers, could be helpful. According to it, the theory of conscience, especially the concept of "synderesis", i.e. the basic layer of the primal conscience, as well as the doctrine of freedom of conscience assume the Platonic Anamnesis idea of the remembrance of truth {6}. This is a revealing, but also an unusual interpretation, which in the crucial point is neither exactly in line with the traditional theological interpretation of the conscience nor with of the teachings of the Catholic Church. According to her the freedom of conscience and religious freedom are - as noted - based on "the dignity of the human person"; it does not exist due to the remembrance of the truth or to a familiarity with the inner goodness, which would be reawakened by the teachings of the Church's Magisterium or by the Church's missionary activity, but in man's ability to seek unhamperedly the truth. Even if such a Platonic-Augustinian conception of conscience, which takes its starting-point from every human being's orientation towards the archetypal fullness of truth that is historically revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, can open a legitimate theological way of thinking for the recognition of freedom of conscience and religious freedom, this path must not be equated with the reasons given by the Vatican Council. The starting points and the ontological premises of both argumentations are too different for that.

In Augustine's paradigm, which takes its starting point from the remembrance [Anamnese] of the Creator in the human mind, freedom of conscience and religious freedom can be granted to every human being, because s/he is already out of her/himself, due to an inner tendency of her/his nature, oriented towards the truth that meets her/him in the gospel and in the Magisterium of the Church. According to this view, the church can only concede religious freedom to people who are looking for God and worship God in other religions outside of Christianity, because she thinks that she understands these people better than these are able to understand themselves, and because she proclaims, by preaching the message of Christianity, that truth for which they have been waiting in the depths of their heart {7}.

The conciliar declaration "Dignitatis Humanae", however, understands freedom of conscience and religious freedom as a right that directly springs from the dignity that belongs to every human being; it is acknowledged without any presuppositions by the Church. She does in no way try to assess man's quest for truth by the truth claim of her own faith.



In other words, a theory of religious freedom that is inspired by Augustine and indebted to the Platonic thought of participation justifies religious freedom out of its objective, i.e. with regard to man's destination as creature, which is interpreted in the light of the Christian revelation. This theory sees other religions on their way to the full knowledge of the truth that is professed by Christianity, due to the biblical belief in Creation and the Revelation of the history of salvation. The conciliar declaration, however, acknowledges religious freedom as a human right, which is embodied in the common starting point that connects the religions and all people to each other: in the free, autonomous striving for truth, which is always also vulnerable to fallacy. Both perspectives can complement each other, as this is the case in the declaration (see the profession of Christ as the fullness of truth in DH 2 [?]), but if one perspective is reduced to the other one or is completely suppressed a false overall picture is the result.

The Platonic idea that every human knowledge of truth, due to its particularity and defectiveness, is only the deficient remembrance of the truth that has been seen archetypically in its unity and fulness obscures the fundamental shift in perspective from the "right to the truth" to the "right of the person" (Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde) which the Council took after long debates. Acccording to the traditional doctrine only the truth or the revealed true religion of the (Catholic) Christianity is allowed to require legal recognition and, by contrast, one has to render at best civil tolerance to the other religious communities for the sake of domestic peace, whereas the Council ascribes to the human person the right to religious freedom, which has its reason in the dignity of man. This right does not only protect the realised truth of faith, about which faith is judging from its inner perspective, but also the path to truth, which every man must go due to his dignity as a person, in responsibility to his conscience.

This model of understanding of the Council provides a better basis for the interreligious dialogue than the Platonic theory of remembrance. The latter can ascribe only a deficient mode of knowledge of truth to the other religions, whilst Christianity's revelation of salvation history is equated with its archetypical fulness. From the perspective of the Christian faith one's own truth-claim can therefore only be asserted at the cost of a depreciation of all other religions which, in comparison to this archetype of truth, fall behind as distant earthly likenesses. In contrast, the conciliar approach to the right of the person more adequately expresses the respect for others (both for the individual believer who adheres to another religion as well as for that other religious system), without abandoning in any way the truth claim of one's own faith.



Since the Council's Declaration "Dignitatis Humanae" takes its starting point from the right of the person, which in the same way applies to every human being, no matter which religion s/he belongs to or whether s/he adheres to a religious belief at all, it is able - in the act of recognition of religious freedom - to refrain from every outward assessment of other religions, whereas the Platonic idea of participation can see them only as more or less successful nuances of one's own truth. The Council is able to appreciate positively the plurality of religions, despite all their potential for conflict, because in it the uniqueness of all people and the value of their cultural identity is reflected, whereas the Platonic concept of unity sees tendentially in the diversity of human paths to knowledge of truth the danger of apostasy from the one truth.

In another context, Cardinal Ratzinger more succinctly summed up the broad conciliar substantiation of freedom of conscience and religious freedom of religion when he replied to a journalist's question, "How many roads lead to God?" "As many as there are people." {8} A formula of agreement that is to overcome the resistance of right-wing groups of traditionalists against the Catholic understanding of freedom of conscience and religious freedom must no longer fall short of the highly deferential recognition of the diverse paths to knowledge on which people seek the truth, and which is expressed by this papal dictum.


Factional Struggles

The current ecclesio-political conflict can be understood as a struggle for the jurisdiction over interpreting the Vatican Council, which Rome wants to decide in its favour by interventions of the magisterium. The leading element is here a narrow view of the necessary reception of a doctrine that has been presented by the Magisterium of the universal Church. According to Rome's understanding the reception has already taken place when the magisterium refers to this doctrine by its later opinions. But the process of reception of a doctrine is de facto a complex process. It reaches its goal only when this doctrine is embodied in the living faith of the whole Church, including her believers and her theologians.

The magisterium has certainly the right to intervene in a reception process that runs one-sidedly from its point of view. But such an intervention has only then a chance to control effectively this process if it for its part does not remain fixated upon the one-sidedness against which it is directed. When opinions of the magisterium instead of pointing out the inner width of the conciliar statements afterwards want to enforce more restrictive interpretations, theology is called upon to practise critical vigilance. What has to be regarded as the "authentic" interpretation of the Council must be the result of the interaction of all authorities that profess the faith; together they guarantee that the Church abides in the truth.



The Council mentions here in the first place, but not exclusively, the magisterium. Other instances with their own importance and ecclesial quality are the free theological research and the instinct of faith of the faithful. The papal magisterium would overtax itself if it wanted to anticipate by a one-sided declaration the result of the struggle for an authentic interpretation of the Council.

The best example of an in the end fruitless overtaxing of the magisterium is the definition of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council. Its scope is today generally defined in a narrow and precise sense, which is close to the understanding of the minority of bishops who were the losers at the Council. However, the maximalist interpretation of the papal teaching authority was not able to shape the later understanding of the church. According to this broader interpretation, also papal bulls as e.g. the "Syllabus of Errors," a compilation of alleged fallacies of modern liberalism, or the preceding encyclical "Quanta cura", which in 1864 condemned the freedom of conscience and religious freedom together with other civil rights, would have the rank of infallible "ex cathedra" statements of the magisterium (Pope Pius IX and many of his followers at the Council were personally convinced of that) {9}. In the church, however, not those teachings gained acceptance which the magisterium wanted to enforce in the 19th century and up to the crisis about Modernism at the beginning of the 20th century, but the teachings which were substantiated by the better theological reasons. In the end they gained acceptance by the exegetical findings and the research on the history of dogmas, to which the church opened after long controversy.


Transparency instead of Secret Diplomacy

What's more, one cannot play the Council's authority off against the authority of the papal magisterium. Unlike the medieval councils and unlike as also the Council of Trent, the two Vatican Councils of the 19th and 20th century are meetings of the world-wide episcopacy with and under the pope, its decrees were issued by the pope himself and thus brought into force.

That's why those who refuse to obey individual statements of the Council also refuse to obey the papal magisterium. If the SSPX, as already in its petition for the lifting of the excommunication, declares again only its consent to the statements of the Council on the hierarchical structure of the church and the infallibility of the pope but passes over in silence the contentual development of the Catholic faith in key areas as e.g. the understanding of Revelation and Church, and the relationship to the culture of freedom of the modern world, then this agreement is a title without value - to say it analogously to the bank crisis, the rotten paper of a "bad bank" -, which makes the Roman negotiators come off empty-handed.



It is already a strange, unusual event that Rome invites a group to negotiate about the authentic interpretation of those statements of faith, a group that refuses to obey the pope and the church in the attitude of obedience by faith, which is required of every believer. What is all the more disconcerting is that the outcome of these secret negotiations then shall be presented to the universal Church, namely the bishops, theologians and the faithful of the Church, as obligatory interpretation of those statements of the Council which are rejected by the SSPX until now.

Where it is about the Church's faith and its public proclamation, not secret diplomacy is required but the greatest possible transparency. About the authentic interpretation of the Council cannot be negotiated behind closed doors but only with the participation of a broad church public. According to the by the Council expressly confirmed understanding of the Catholic Church, the pope can admittedly exercise personally the teaching authority that he has as head of the college of bishops. He can anytime exercise at his sole discretion this competence which he owns as head of the college and does not need to involve the college of bishops.

Another question is, of course, whether he would not be well advised to bring representatives of the world-wide episcopacy and prominent theologians of the universal Church in the talks with the SSPX. In the case of successful negotiations this would increase the opportunity that the result really contributes to the reconciliation in the church instead of causing new concerns and ambiguities. In case of failure the Pope would be able to draw, with a broad acceptance within the church, a line under this chapter of a refused recognition of the Council, without fear of a loss of personal authority.



{1} See P. Hünermann, Theologischer Kommentar zur dogmatischen Konstitution über die Kirche Lumen gentium, in: Herders Theologischer Kommentar zum Zweiten Vatikanischen Konzil, volume 2 (Freiburg 22004) 265-563, especially 428 ff.

{2} Letter to the bishops of the Catholic Church on some aspects of the Church understood as Communion, of 2nd May 1992, p. 9.

{3} See W. Kasper, Das Verhältnis von Universalkirche u. Ortskirche. Freundschaftliche Auseinandersetzung mit der Kritik von Joseph Kardinal Ratzinger, in this journal 218 (2000) 795-804.

{4} See M. Theobald, Der römische Zentralismus u. die Jerusalemer Urgemeinde, in: ThQ 180 (2000) 225-228.

{5} See L'Osservatore Romano, 23 June 1993; German translation in: HerKorr 47 (1993) 406-411.

{6} See Gewissen u. Wahrheit, in: Fides quaerens intellectum (FS M. Seckler), edited by M. Kessler (Tübingen 1992) 293-309, especially 303 ff.

{7} See in the same place 305.

{8} J. Ratzinger, Salz der Erde. Christentum u. katholische Kirche an der Jahrtausendwende. Ein Gespräch mit P. Seewald (Stuttgart 1996) 35.

{9} See K. Schatz, Vaticanum I (1869-1870), volume 3 (Paderborn 1994) 333 ff.


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