by Massimo Introvigne
1. I begin with an error extraneous to the matter in dispute, but which demonstrates the haste with which the piece was composed. I am not "a representative of the Italian government with the OSCE," since Italy has an excellent ambassador with the OSCE in Vienna and does not need any more representatives. I am instead a representative of the OSCE – that is, of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe as an institution and in its entirety – for the fight against racism, xenophobia, and discrimination against Christians and the members of other religions. The difference is not of little consequence, even though it has nothing to do with the Council.
2. I disregard the accusation of not visiting the libraries where the proceedings and texts on the Council are found – I believe that I cited a good number of them in works of mine that de Mattei knows and cites – because this too is not directly relevant. Those who read de Mattei's book, in fact, realize that it contains three different things: an historical reconstruction, sociological considerations, and – precisely while he repeats that he is not a theologian – evaluations that it is difficult not to call theological, and that concern every Catholic believer who wants to follow the Magisterium. Many of these theological evaluations are moreover not original to de Mattei, but are derived from the works of Msgr. Brunero Gherardini.
3. From the historical point of view, in the various criticisms of his book that I have published I have limited myself to observing that de Mattei gives more emphasis to the presentations in the conciliar assembly than to the work of the commissions. I have found this criticism in other reviews of his book. I am not, it is true, an historian, and this is not my main criticism, but I note that there are historians who, independently of me, also formulate it in the same terms. An example illustrates the problems of this method, and it is not selected at random, because it concerns one of the conciliar texts that de Mattei considers the hardest to reconcile with the previous Magisterium, the declaration on religious freedom "Dignitatis Humanae" (1965). Both the book and the congregation for the doctrine of the faith in its long and important letter to Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre "Liberté religieuse. Réponse aux 'dubia' présentés par S.E. Mgr. Lefebvre" of March 9, 1987 (which de Mattei does not cite) reconstruct the conciliar process of "Dignitatis Humanae." But while de Mattei bases himself on the presentations in the assembly, the congregation extensively cites the "Relatio de texto praevio," the "Relatio de texto emendato," and the responses to the "modi" of the competent conciliar commission.
It is interesting to note that, digging with different shovels in the extremely rich deposit of the "Acta Synodalia" of the Council, one arrives at opposite results. While de Mattei, from presentations by both ultra-progressive and conservative fathers, gathers the conclusion that "Dignitatis Humanae" proclaims, in contrast with the entire previous Magisterium, a right to error, the congregation for the doctrine of the faith insists on the response of the commission to the second "general modi," where it says that in the declaration "on no part is it affirmed nor is it licit to affirm (this is an evident matter) that there is a right to spread error. If persons then spread error, it is not the exercise of a right, but its abuse" (letter "Liberté religieuse" of March 9, 1987, p.9).
4. My main criticism is exquisitely sociological, a terrain on which de Mattei recognizes that I have some competence, and also cites my works. All of the work of de Mattei is aimed at proving a fundamental thesis, which is by nature not only historical, but at least "also" sociological: that the conciliar event, precisely as a global event, is a whole that includes – without it being possible to separate them – the discussions in the assembly, the action of the lobbies, the presentation to the media during and after the Council, the consequences and the documents. If it is so, separating the documents from the event and from the consequences of the Council – that is, from the postcouncil dominated by the hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture – is both illegitimate and impossible. The documents are part of the event, and outside of the event they lose their meaning.
This, as pointed out, is for the author the limit of the program of a hermeneutic of continuity attributed to Benedict XVI: moreover erroneously, because in the famous speech of 2005 Benedict XVI did not speak of a "hermeneutic of continuity," but of a "hermeneutic of renewal in continuity," and the difference is anything but irrelevant. It is true that the expression "hermeneutic of continuity" is found in note 6 of the apostolic exhortation "Sacramentum Caritatis" of 2007 and in the May 12, 2010 speech to the participants in the theological conference of the congregation of the clergy, which I remember well because I was a speaker at that conference, but in both cases the context and the reference to the speech of 2005 allow us to understand in the same sense the meaning of the word "continuity," which always makes reference to a "renewal" as well. For those who uphold the (presumed) hermeneutic of continuity, de Mattei writes, "the historical removal of the conciliar 'event' is necessary to separate the Council from the post-Council and to isolate the latter as a pathology developed in a healthy body" (p. 23). But this operation is not legitimate if "Vatican Council II was, in fact, an event that did not conclude with its solemn final session, but cemented itself with its historical application and reception. Something happened after the Council as a coherent result of it. In this sense, one cannot disagree with Alberigo" (ibid.) and with the progressive "school of Bologna." The whole book combats what the author calls "an artificial dichotomy between the texts and the event" (ibid.) and seeks to "demonstrate the impossibility of separating the doctrine from the events that generate it" (ibid.).
In reality, the documents can always be not only distinct (de Mattei also admits this) but, in effect, separate from the discussions that preceded them. No jurist would think of contrasting a law with the statements in the assembly of Parliament that voted for it by those who spoke out in favor of or against its text. The preparatory work can be a point of reference for interpretation, but it never outweighs the text of the law. Sociology does not in any way affirm that it is impossible to make a logical distinction between a text and its context. If the text were absorbed and assimilated by the context, which, applying the method of the book, could be affirmed of any document, it would lose its specific meaning, and we would find ourselves in a sort of structuralism where every statement is taken apart and deconstructed in a game of perpetual references where nothing has any authority anymore. Applying sociology to history helps to explain the documents. It doesn't help anymore if it rips them to pieces.
If I may allow myself, without malice, an argument "ad hominem," de Mattei – who gives great emphasis to the question of biblical exegesis – attacks as modernist the entire historical-critical method, affirming repeatedly that ultimately it is not decisive to know how and by whom the sacred text was redacted, but what matters is the theological and spiritual core of its teaching. Not even the most "ultramontane" – an expression that de Mattei actually uses in a positive sense (cf. for example p. 229) – supporter of the pontifical Magisterium would think of putting the teachings of the pontiffs or of a Council on the same level as Sacred Scripture. In any case the expression, of no less than the conciliar constitution "Dei Verbum" (no. 10), according to which "sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God's most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others," perhaps allows a prudent analogy. Benedict XVI affirms in the apostolic exhortation "Verbum Domini," at no. 30, that "approaches to the sacred text that prescind from faith," as much as they may elaborate the historical elements, "might suggest interesting elements [. . .] but would inevitably prove merely preliminary and structurally incomplete efforts."
Analogously, and always without exaggerating the scope of the analogy, we can say that the historical reconstructions of the discussions that preceded the approval of the Council documents "might suggest interesting elements," but that an approach based on these discussions is only "preliminary," and if we stop only at the historical elements, remains "incomplete." Once the conciliar text has been approved and promulgated by the pontiff, it becomes Magisterium to be read on one's knees, as Cardinal Giuseppe Siri (1906-1989) used to say, not by accident criticized by the book for his acquiescence to the popes of the Council. Seeking to disqualify the magisterial text by referring to the discussions before its approval means falling into the same methodological error that is decried in those exegetes for whom the historical elements and the context prevail over the theological meaning of the text.
5. I come to the theological assessments of de Mattei. Neither of us is a theologian, but we are laymen who for years have been interested in the Magisterium of the Church, about which we have some information that might make our opinions not irrelevant. In the footsteps of Msgr. Gherardini, de Mattei – who in the end thinks that some documents of the Council contain affirmations that are not only ambiguous or in need of interpretation, but heterodox, even if he does not want to say so too explicitly – ensconces himself behind the non-dogmatic and non-infallible character of the unpleasant documents, affirming that, if they are not infallible, they are "fallible," and therefore can be rejected.
De Mattei affirms that this would be the position of the Council itself and of the pope who concluded it, the servant of God Paul VI, and so any discussion would be closed. But in reality pope Montini not only did not teach, but explicitly condemned the position according to which, not being dogmatic nor having proposed infallible definitions, the Council could be rejected. "There are those who ask," explained the servant of God Paul VI, "what may be the authority, the theological status, that the Council wanted to attribute to its teachings, knowing that it avoided making solemn dogmatic definitions, invoking the infallibility of the ecclesiastical magisterium. And the response is known to those who remember the conciliar declaration of March 6, 1964, repeated on November 16, 1964: given the pastoral character of the Council, it avoided pronouncing in an extraordinary way dogmas endowed with the note of infallibility; but it nonetheless equipped its teachings with the authority of the ordinary supreme magisterium, the ordinary and thus clearly authentic magisterium of which must be accepted docilely and sincerely by all of the faithful, according to the mind of the Council on the nature and aims of the individual documents" (General audience of Wednesday, January 12, 1966).
No one – and certainly not this author – maintains that all the documents of Vatican II are infallible. But the problem is whether, except for the few infallible pronouncements, all of the remaining Magisterium of the Church can be declared "fallible" and rejected, or if instead when it is "clearly authentic" it must not, as the servant of God Paul VI asks, be "accepted docilely" by the faithful.
De Mattei now affirms that interpreting the Council is not up to him or his critics, but to the Magisterium. I agree. But, for example, on "Dignitatis Humanae" the Magisterium of Benedict XVI assured us of its substantial continuity with the previous teachings, and invited us to accept its message with trust already in the 2005 speech on the two hermeneutics of the Council. He repeated this in the Message for the World Day of Peace of 2011. Then in the speech to the diplomatic corps on January 10, 2011. Then in the message to the plenary assembly of the pontifical academy of social sciences, published on May 4, 2011. How many times does the pope have to speak before those who say they want to follow him with filial obedience will agree with him?
6. But, de Mattei objects with an argument that once again is not historical, but theological, and has very important sociological implications, above the Magisterium stands Tradition, and it is necessary to follow the Magisterium of the Council and that of the postconciliar popes only to the extent to which they are consistent with Tradition, which is precisely the core of the latest books by Msgr. Gherardini.
From a point of view that, I insist, is both theological and sociological, there is a contrast here between two models of the functioning of the religious institution called the Catholic Church. For the first, it is the Magisterium that says on an ongoing basis what Tradition is and how it must be understood at a given moment in history. For the second, it is Tradition that on an ongoing basis allows one to say if the Magisterium (ordinary and not infallible) must be followed, in that it reiterates the traditional teaching, or indeed – as is claimed to be the case here with many of the documents of Vatican II and of the postconciliar Magisterium – if it subverts Tradition and therefore must be rejected.
If one examines the question from an exclusively theoretical point of view, an essential element is at risk of being lost. Who speaks in the name of tradition? No believer runs into Tradition walking around on the street. He encounters persons who represent themselves as qualified to tell him what Tradition is and what it is not. These persons belong to two groups. There are the historians and theologians, who speak in the name of scientific knowledge. And there are the pope and the bishops, who speak in the name of an institutional authority.
If one moves – as de Mattei seems to propose – from a model in which it is the Magisterium that says what Tradition is to a model where, purportedly, it is Tradition that says what really is the Magisterium and must be followed, we are apparently moving from a primacy of the Magisterium to a primacy of Tradition. But this is a naive representation of the use of authority, which ignores sociology at its peril and falls into what English-speaking sociologists, borrowing an expression from the scholars of logic, call the "naturalistic fallacy." In reality, we are moving from the primacy of the pope and the bishops to the primacy of the theologians and historians. Thus, with all the best intentions and perhaps while abhorring Protestantism, we are leaving the specifically Catholic model and unknowingly entering a different model, which closely resembles the Protestant one.
The problem is not, ultimately, the role of Tradition. All Catholics, or almost all, recognize it. The problem is that there is no normative handbook for all entitled "Tradition," given once and for all: and if there were, it would need interpretation, exactly like Sacred Scripture. In order for the faithful to know what they must consider Tradition today, someone needs to tell them this authoritatively. This could be the pope and the bishops in communion with him, which is the Catholic solution. Or it could be theologians, historians, those who claim to be the wisest, shout the loudest, or get the most publicity. This second response is widespread, mainly among the progressives, but it takes us out of the way of functioning that is distinctive of the Catholic Church.
"Tertium non datur." The third version would be the one according to which what Tradition is is so clear that even the people of God, even the ordinary believer is able to understand when the Magisterium is saying something nontraditional. But this presumed appeal to the "sensus fidelium" is another example of the naturalistic fallacy. The people will always form their ideas about Tradition on the basis of someone who speaks with authority. As Cardinal Ratzinger wrote in his autobiography, when it is said that the power of the Church must pass from the Magisterium to the people, the truth is that some are trying to make it pass from the Magisterium to the theologians. Whether these theologians are progressives or traditionalists, the blueprint of a radical subversion of the Catholic way of using authority does not change.
7. One must be careful not to fall into what, objectively and without wanting to analyze anyone's intentions, seems to me a deception. It is claimed that there are only two opposite ways of interpreting the Council: either as the "school of Bologna" interprets it, as a new beginning in discontinuity and rupture with the previous Magisterium, or as de Mattei and Msgr. Gherardini interpret it, as a collection of texts that must be accepted only when they reaffirm the previous Magisterium and not when they introduce new elements.
It is not so. Benedict XVI – not some malicious critic of de Mattei – calls the first position "erroneous progressivism" and the second "anti-conciliarism" (Meeting with the clergy of the Dioceses of Belluno-Feltre and Treviso, Auronzo di Cadore, July 24, 2007). The pope does not think that these are two symmetrical errors. In effect, they are the same error. Both positions think that some teachings – anything but secondary – of Vatican II are incompatible with the previous Magisterium: "fortunately," according to the progressives, and "disgracefully" and to the disaster of the Church according to the anti-conciliarists.
The position of Benedict XVI – which is therefore also different, at least on the issue of religious freedom, from that of Martin Rhonheimer – in the speech of December 22, 2005 is that the "discontinuity" with the previous Magisterium is only "apparent," or concerns instances of application, to situations that change, of principles that have not changed nor could change. To the "apparent" discontinuity is not opposed a simple and mechanical "continuity" – and for this reason Benedict XVI carefully avoids speaking of a "hermeneutic of continuity" – but a "renewal in continuity, which is something different. The position of the "renewal in continuity," of which I am a convinced supporter, is precisely the one that is in danger of not emerging in the raucous debate between progressives and anti-conciliarists.