While writing my self-published manuscript, New Things and Old: Re-Implementing Vatican II, I came to the realization that Vatican II had its own emphases and omissions and could only be understood in light of past Magisterial teaching and the sources of the Tradition, for if taken by themselves the documents could lead even orthodox Catholics to formulate or embrace ideas or reach conclusions that were erroneous and run contrary to Catholic teaching.
This tendency was addressed by Pope Benedict XVI, who spoke of “two hermeneutics” or methods for how Vatican II should be interpreted and understood – the “hermeneutic of continuity and reform” and the “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture”.
The “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture” was (and still is) employed by not only “liberals” in the Church, but also certain “traditionalists” -- the former believing that there were radical changes and for the better, while the latter believing there were novel and revolutionary teachings and for the worse.
The “hermeneutic of continuity and reform”, on the other hand, is used by “orthodox” Catholics, who see Vatican II as merely developing certain doctrines but teaching nothing contrary to what was officially taught before.
However, what has happened and continues to happen is that in certain areas, orthodox Catholics unwittingly and thus innocently apply the wrong hermeneutic, believing that certain previous Magisterial statements contradict Vatican II and therefore must not have been infallible as they are “in error”. In doing so, they make the same mistake that certain traditionalists do.
One of the most common areas that this has occurred in is ecumenism. Let us take for example an excerpt from The Catholic Challenge, written by my former theology professor, Dr. Alan Schreck. Dr. Schreck states in pages 203-204, “After the Protestant Reformation, it was common for Catholics and Protestants to think of each other as ‘heretics’ (those who believed false doctrine)”. But, he joyfully goes on to exclaim, “what a radical departure from such a posture is the teaching of the Second Vatican Council!” which declared that “‘All those justified by faith through baptism are incorporated into Christ. They therefore have the right to be honored by the title of Christian, and are properly regarded as brothers in the Lord by the sons of the Catholic Church’ (UR [Unitatis Redintegratio], no. 2)”. He goes on to say, “Not only [this], but at Vatican II the Catholic church officially recognized for the first time the bodies to which these Christians belong as ‘churches and (ecclesial) communities,’” the terms, it later becomes clear, Dr. Schreck sees as synonymous and interchangeable and pointing to the same thing. However, if we examine Dr. Schreck’s commentary, we will discover that he employed the wrong hermeneutic, for by using the hermeneutic of continuity, you come up with the following:
Regarding the term “heretic”, we must begin by first finding out what it means and how it has been used by the Church. The word comes from the Greek airesos, meaning “sect”, and was used by St. Peter in Scripture to refer to splinter groups such as the Gnostics. (2Peter 2:1) From “heresy” comes “heretic”, and the term has been used since the beginning to refer to “the formal denial or doubt by a baptized person of any revealed truth of the Catholic faith”. [Attwater, Donald, ed. A Catholic Dictionary. New York: MacMillan Company, 1951]
A distinction, however, has long been made between “formal” and “material” heresy. St. Thomas in his Summa Theologica (II-II q.11, a.1) states that when “the heretical tenets [arise from] ignorance of the true creed, erroneous judgment, imperfect apprehension and comprehension of dogmas”, then “such heresy is merely objective, or material”, for “one of the necessary conditions of sinfulness -- free choice -- is wanting”. However, when “the will … freely incline[s] the intellect to adhere to tenets declared false by the [Magisterium]”, as in the case of “intellectual pride [or] the allurements of political or ecclesiastical power”, then the heresy is “freely willed” and thus it is “formal” and “carries with it varying degree[s] of guilt”.
The Reformers have always been accused of formal heresy, but not necessarily Protestants who were born into those communions, as the Catholic Dictionary witnesses to: “It can hardly be doubted that the vast majority of non-Catholic Christians are in good faith and labouring under invincible ignorance. It is amusing to note, in this age when many people [anti-Catholic Protestants] boast that they are heretics and resent any stigma of orthodoxy, that the Church refuses them both the name and the odium attaching to it” [emphasis mine].
At times the Magisterial documents before Vatican II did refer to Protestants as “heretics”. However, these documents refrained from using the term “heretic” when addressing Protestants in a fraternal spirit of invitation and dialogue, using them only when addressing the Catholic faithful alone and when the negative connotations attached to the term were fitting, such as when referring to non-Catholic Christians in certain anti-Catholic activities of theirs. In fact, some Popes before Vatican II used the term later adopted by Vatican II -- “separated brethren” or “separated children”, as Pope Pius XI did in Mortalium Animos [paragraph 12] and as Pope Pius XII did in Orientalis Ecclesiae. [paragraph 38] That the more negative terms are no longer seen can be attributed to the fact that since Vatican II, the Magisterium has so seldom spoken negatively about anyone or any movement (the wisdom of which could be debated).
However, that is not to say the Magisterium never does. Pope John Paul II, when speaking negatively and critically about the proselytizing of Catholics in Latin America by Protestant groups, refers to them as “sects” (which is what “heresy” literally means) [Ad Limina Address to the Bishops’ Conference of Brazil, September 5, 1995]. Cardinal Ratzinger also used the same term in The Ratzinger Report to refer to certain proselytizing Protestant groups. [pages 117-118] The fact remains that Protestants are still “material heretics” and the communions they belong to “heretical”, even if the Magisterium generally opts not to use the terms.
As we can see, this apparent “radical departure” spoken of by Dr. Schreck did not really take place at Vatican II and still does not exist. If the quotation he gave seems like a “radical departure” to him, it is first of all because he knows not the Catholic Tradition, and secondly because he failed to look into the footnotes made by the Vatican II Fathers, who were very careful to root any teaching that could be seen as revolutionary in the sources of Tradition. This, however, is beyond our scope.
In our next article, we will examine the issue of giving the title “Church” to the Eastern Orthodox and Protestant communions.