Skip to main content

The Hermeneutics of Vatican II: Reception, Authority, and the Debate Over the Council's Interpretation

  • Kristin Colberg (a1)

This article engages the on-going debate over the interpretation of Vatican II's documents. It argues that a careful examination of this dispute reveals that it is not primarily concerned with the existence of “rupture” or “continuity” in the council's texts, but instead is driven by fundamental questions regarding the nature of reception and the character of ecclesial authority. The article outlines the distinctive notions of reception operative in the debate over Vatican II and the way in which such views shape their proponents' hermeneutics of interpretation. To that end, it illumines a determinative link between larger paradigms of ecclesiological structure and related approaches to reception. The final section explores Vatican II's own documents for the ways that they address the authentic nature of reception and the character of legitimate authority. Ultimately, this study argues that Vatican II's affirmation of a dynamic notion of reception points a way forward for its own interpretation and, more broadly, for advancing the Church's overall self-understanding.

Hide All

1 A good summary of some of the central aspects of this debate and its implications is found in Ormerod, Neil, “Vatican II—Continuity or Discontinuity? Toward an Ontology of Meaning,” Theological Studies 71 (2010): 609–36. The sense that the council, while maintaining deep continuity with tradition, introduces elements that are discontinuous with what came before it is most often associated with Alberigo, Giuseppe and Komanchak, Joseph A., ed., History of Vatican II, 5 vols., trans. O'Connell, Matthew J. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 19952006). Also critical to this perspective is Schultenover, David G., ed., Vatican II: Did Anything Happen? (New York: Continuum, 2007). The sense that there is no real rupture in Vatican II's documents is associated with Marchetto, Agostino, Il Concilio ecumenico Vaticano II: Contrappunto per la sua storia (Vatican City: Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 2005). This work has recently been published in English as The Second Vatican Ecumenical Council: A Counterpoint for the History of the Council (Scranton: University of Scranton Press, 2010).

2 Benedict XVI engaged issues related to the council's interpretation in his “Christmas Address” to the Roman Curia on December 22, 2005 where he argued the council should be approached from a “hermeneutic of reform” ( A helpful resource for understanding Benedict's position is Komonchak, Joseph, “Benedict XVI and the Interpretation of Vatican II,” in The Crisis of Authority in Catholic Modernity, ed. Lacey, Michael J. and Oakley, Francis (New York: Oxford, 2011) 93112.

3 Some notable exceptions here are Rush, Ormond, Still Interpreting Vatican II: Some Hermeneutical Principles (New York: Paulist Press, 2004); Thiel, John, Senses of Tradition: Continuity and Development in the Catholic Faith (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000); Routhier, Gilles, Vatican II: herméneutique et réception (Saint-Laurent, Québec: Fides, 2006) as well as his Reception in the Current Theological Debate,” The Jurist 57 (1997): 1752; Theobald, Christoph, La ré ception du concile Vatican II (Paris: Cerf, 2009).

4 This understanding of reception is rooted in Congar's well-known description of reception as “the process by means of which a church (body) truly takes over as its own a resolution that it did not originate in regard to its self, and acknowledges the measure it promulgates as a rule applicable to its own life.” See Congar, Yves, “Reception as an Ecclesial Reality” in Election and Consensus in the Church, ed. Alberigo, Giuseppe and Anton Weiler, Concilium, vol. 77 (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972), 4368 at 45. Another important treatment of the notion of reception is by Pottmeyer, Hermann, “The Reception of Doctrine” in The Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, ed. McBrien, Richard (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1995), 1081–82.

5 John Courtney Murray famously asserted that development was “the issue under the issues at Vatican II” in his article This Matter of Religious Freedom,” America 112 (January 9, 1965): 43 (his emphasis).

6 For a valuable examination of this centralizing trend see Schatz, Klaus, Papal Primacy: From Its Origins to the Present (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1996); Pottmetyer, Hermann, Unfehlbarkeit und Souveränität: Die päpstliche Unfehlbarkeit im System der ultramontanen Ekklesiologie des 19 Jahrhunderts (Mainz: Matthias Grünewald, 1975); Horst, Ulrich, Unfehlbarkeit und Geschichte: Studien zur Unfehlbarkeitsdiskussion von Melchior Cano bis zum I. Vatikanischen Konzil (Mainz: Matthias Grünewald, 1982); and Aubert, Roger, Vaticanum I (Mainz: Matthias Grünewald, 1965).

7 Alberigo, Giuseppe, “The Authority of the Church in the Documents of Vatican I and Vatican II,” in Authority in the Church and the Schillebeeckx Case, ed. Swidler, Leonard, (New York: Crossroad, 1982), 119–45, at 122.

8 Congar, , “Reception as an Ecclesiological Reality,” 60.

9 Ibid., 45.

10 Komonchak, Joseph, “Reception as an Epistemological Reality,” The Jurist 57 (1997): 180203, at 197.

11 Beinart, Wolfgang, “The Subjects of Ecclesial Reception,” The Jurist 57 (1997): 321–38, at 323.

12 In fact, Congar noted that the “the reception of a Council is identical with its effectiveness” (“Reception as an Ecclesiological Reality,” 48).

13 Newman, John Henry, The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman, ed. Dessain, Charles Stephen and Gornall, Thomas, 32 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon and Oxford University Press, 19732008), 25:175.

14 See Pottmeyer, Hermann, “A New Phase in the Development of Vatican II: Twenty Years of Interpretation of the Council,” in The Reception of Vatican II, ed. Alberigo, Giuseppe, Jossua, Jean-Pierre, and Komanchak, Joseph, trans. O'Connell, Matthew J. (Washington Catholic University of America Press, 1987), 2743.

15 Ibid., 27.

16 Much of the credit for highlighting the importance of the form or genre for interpreting Vatican II's documents belongs to John O'Malley who has brought this issue to the forefront of the discussion regarding the council's reception. He argues that Vatican II's style must be taken into account in interpreting its documents for in them form and content work together to convey the council's meaning. For a clear statement of his position, see “Genre, Form, Content” in Vatican II: Did Anything Happen?, 6783. For more on O'Malley's discussion of this, see also his essay “Vatican II: Historical Perspectives on its Uniqueness and Interpretation” in Vatican II, The Unfinished Agenda: A Look to the Future, ed. Richard, Lucien, Harrington, Daniel, and O'Malley, John W., (New York: Paulist, 1987), 2232; The Style of Vatican II,” America 188 (February 24, 2003): 2330; and What Happened at Vatican II (Cambridge: Harvard University, 2008).

17 Pottmeyer, Hermann, “A New Phase in the Development of Vatican II,” 27.

18 Ibid., 28–29.

19 Rahner, Karl, “Towards a Fundamental Theological Interpretation of Vatican II,” Theological Studies 40 (1979): 716–27.

20 Ibid., 717.

22 Alberigo, Giuseppe, “Preface,” in History of Vatican II, 1:xi–xv, at xii.

25 It is important to note that there is some distinction between Alberigo and Komanchak on this point. Alberigo only employs the categories “texts” (or “decisions”) and “event,” with the latter including what Komonchak speaks of as the “experience” of the council. Alberigo does not see the need for the same threefold distinction that Komonchak utilizes. Komanchak employs “event” and “experience” as distinct categories in that he feels that neither texts nor conciliar experience suffice for a determination of whether the council constitutes an “event” in the historiographical sense. Such a determination requires that the council be placed in a series of moments selected in terms of a plot. I am indebted to an anonymous reviewer for highlighting the significance of this distinction.

26 The volume of papers from this meeting is published as L'evento e le decisioni: Studi sulle dinamiche del concilio Vaticano II, ed. Fattori, Maria Teresa and Melloni, Alberto (Bologna: Il Mulino, 1997). Komonchak's address is also published as “Vatican II as an ‘Event,’” in Vatican II: Did Anything Happen? 2435. I have placed the key terms “event,” “experience,” and “final documents” in quotation marks following Komonchak's practice.

27 Komanchak, , “Vatican II as an ‘Event’,27; emphasis added to alert the reader that the notion of a council's final documents as objective and authoritative is critical to the present analysis of the debate over the council's interpretation.

28 Ibid., 31.

29 Ibid., 27.

30 Ibid., 28.

31 Ibid., 40.

32 Quoted in Ibid., 40. For the original see Lonergan, Bernard J.F., Method in Theology (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972), 192.

33 Komonchak, , “Vatican II as an ‘Event’,” 41.

34 Cited in Richard, Lucien, “Introduction” in Vatican II: The Unfinished Agenda, 1. The title of this volume itself reflects the sense that the council's work remains incomplete.

35 Sandro Magister recounts these events. See his “Vatican II: The Real Untold Story,” See also idem, “Vatican II: A Non-Neutral History,”“Vatican II: The Real Untold Story.”

38 Agostino Marchetto, “Hermeneutic Interpretations of Vatican II,”“Does not Alberigo realize that, in reality, he searches for his own opinions and convictions more that for those of the Second Vatican Council? We are deeply displeased.” (Non si accorge l'Alberigo che così egli cerca, in fondo, le sue opinioni e le sue convinzioni, più che il Concilio Vaticano II? Ne siamo profondamente dispiaciuti). Marchetto, , Il Concilio Ecumenico Vaticano II, 232. I am indebted to Anthony Pagliarini for his assistance with the Italian translations in this essay.

40 “Clearing the Record on Vatican II: Interview with Archbishop Agostino Marchetto,” Zenit (July 13, 2005),

41 Marchetto, , Il Concilio Ecumenico Vaticano II, 369.

42 Marchetto, “Hermeneutic Interpretations of Vatican II.”

43 Marchetto, , Il Concilio Ecumenico Vaticano II, 366.

44 For more on Ottaviani's views, see Ottaviani, Alfredo Cardinal and Bacci, Antonio Cardinal, The Ottaviani Intervention: Short Critical Study of the New Order of Mass, trans. and ed. Cekada, Anthony, (West Chester, OH: Philothea, 2010).

45 Vatican II's reaffirmation of the local church has been the subject of extensive scholarship in recent years. See, e.g., Tillard, Jean-Marie, L'é glise locale: Ecclésiologie de communion et catholicité (Paris: Cerf, 1995); de Lubac, Henri, The Motherhood of the Church: Followed by Particular Churches in the Universal Church, trans. Englund, Sergia (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1982); Beinert, Wolfgang, “Catholicity as a Property of the Church,” The Jurist 52 (1992): 455–83; Komonchak, Joseph, “The Local Church and the Church Catholic: The Contemporary Theological Problematic,” The Jurist 52 (1992): 416–47; Wood, Susan, “The Church as Communion,” in The Gift of the Church: A Textbook on Ecclesiology in Honor of Patrick Granfield, O.S.B., ed. Phan, Peter C. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 2000) 159–76; Granfeld, Patrick, “The Church Local and Universal: Realization of Communion,” The Jurist 49 (1989): 449–71; and Dulles, Avery, “The Church as Communion,” in New Perspectives on Historical Theology, ed. Nassif, Bradley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 130–45.

46 Here and elsewhere citations of Vatican II documents are from The Documents of Vatican II, ed. Austin Flannery, O.P. (Northport, N.Y.: Costello, 1996).

47 Routhier, Gilles, “Reception in the Current Theological Debate,” 31.

48 Lumen gentium 18 (my emphasis).

49 For more on the importance of recognizing the relationship between Vatican I and Vatican II as non-competitive, see Pottmeyer's, HermanTowards a Papacy in Communion (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1990).

50 Gasser, Vincent, The Gift of Infallibility: The Official Relatio on Infallibility of Bishop Vincent Gasser at Vatican Council I, trans. O'Connor, James T. (Boston: St. Paul Editions, 1986).

51 Lumen gentium 25, citing Gasser's text from Mansi, J.D., Sacrorum conciliorum, nova et amplissima collectio, ed. Petit, Louis and Martin, Jean Baptiste, 60 vols. (Paris: Hubert Welter, 18991927), 52:1213.

52 It is important to clarify that Gasser's relatio is not completely independent from Vatican I in that it was developed in the course of the council by Gasser as part of the Disputatio De fide. However, it remains that the relatio is an interpretation of the council's definition on papal infallibility that is not part of the final documents. This highlights the point that Vatican I's final texts are not seen as self-interpreting but that there are interpretive contexts in which its meaning gets mediated.

53 O'Malley, , What Happened at Vatican II, 8.

54 Another related extension of the council's deliberation on the relationship between center and periphery is seen in the exchange between Walter Kasper and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger on the relationship between the universal and local churches. See Kilian McDonnell, OSB, “The Kasper/Ratzinger Debate: The Universal Church and the Local Churches,” Theological Studies 63 (2002): 227–49.

55 My idea that reception cannot become “institutionalized,” comes, in a way, from Rahner. In his definition of prophecy in Sacramentum Mundi, Rahner notes that the prophet's message is meant to challenge established understandings and, as such, his or her “task cannot be, strictly speaking, institutionalized.” The same can be said of reception. Reception is not meant to be an operation bound by established understandings or institutional practices. Instead, it is a reality that often illumines previously unexpressed realities and expands current understandings. See Rahner, Karl, “Prophetism,” in Sacramentum Mundi: An Encyclopedia of Theology, ed. Rahner, Karl et al. , 6 vols., (New York: Herder & Herder, 1970), 5:110–13, at 111.

56 Walter Kasper develops this point in an interesting way in his article “Introduction to the Theme and Catholic Hermeneutics of the Dogmas of the First Vatican Council” in The Petrine Ministry: Catholics and Orthodox in Dialogue, ed. Kasper, Walter, trans. staff of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (New York: Newman Press, 2006), 723.

57 I would like to extend my sincerest thanks to Shawn Colberg, Robert Krieg, and Cyril O'Regan who all read this piece at various stages and provided invaluable insights.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

  • ISSN: 0360-9669
  • EISSN: 2050-8557
  • URL: /core/journals/horizons
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed