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A March 10 letter to Catholic bishops from Benedict XVI explains why he decided to seek reconciliation with the schismatic Society of St. Pius X. The Vatican lifted the excommunication of four bishops illicitly ordained by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1988. The letter reveals the pain the pope felt at the controversy unleashed when it was quickly learned, one of the men (for most of his life among the Lefebvrists, it seems) was (among other cretinous opinions) a denier of the Holocaust.

Benedict’s pain shows throughout the entire letter, but especially here: “It has saddened me that even Catholics, who should in fact know better, have seen fit to strike at me with a ready-to-pounce hostility.” Nevertheless, Benedict finds comfort among his “Jewish friends who have quickly helped to clear away misunderstandings and restore the atmosphere of friendship and trust that had prevailed during the pontificate of John Paul II and, God be thanked, continues to prevail in mine.”

The real pain, though, is the fact of schism, and not so much Benedict’s own hurt feelings, which come out only in that one sentence. But like St. Paul’s epistle to the Galatians (which the pope quotes at the end of his own missive), this letter bleeds . Divisions in the Church hurt this pope, as they did Paul in his day. No surprise, then, that Benedict would conclude this personal account of his Petrine ministry to his fellow bishops with these verses from Galatians:

You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another in love. For the whole law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love one another as yourself.’ But if you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will end up being devoured by each other.

It was to avoid just this dismal scenario that Benedict decided to lift the excommunications, as he explains. What especially bears emphasizing is this passage from his letter:

To say it once again: As long as the doctrinal issues are not resolved, the Fraternity [of Pius X] has no canonical status in the Church; and its ministers, even if they are free from ecclesiastical censure, do not exercise any legitimate ministry in the Church . . . . [It is] clear that the problems now under discussion are essentially doctrinal in nature, especially those concerning the acceptance of the Second Vatican Council and the post-conciliar Magisterium of the popes . . . . One cannot freeze the magisterial authority of the Church at the year 1962¯this must be made quite clear to the Fraternity.

But the Lefebvrists are hardly the only faction in the Roman Church “biting and devouring” the Body of Christ. Benedict also directs these pointed words at those “ready-to-pounce” Catholics who style themselves professional defenders of Vatican II: “But to some of those who pose as great defenders of the Council, one must keep in mind that Vatican II contains within itself the whole doctrinal history of the Church. Whoever claims obedience to the Council must accept as well the faith of centuries and not cut down the roots that are the very source of life for the tree.”

Throughout the letter, the pope subjects himself to a searching examination of conscience: he admits numerous mishaps on his and the Vatican’s part; he implicitly criticizes the dicastery in charge of negotiating with the Fraternity by placing all future dealings with the schismatics in the hands of the Congregation for the Defense of the Faith (since now, the pope says, all remaining issues are doctrinal, not liturgical); and he even wonders aloud if his pastoral solicitude is not drawing attention away from making the Christian faith more credible in an unbelieving world.

I sincerely hope that Benedict’s frank examination will lead to a similar searching on the part of all Catholics, very much including those who began the schism in the first place by letting themselves be ordained illicitly. But their numbers would never have grown to such an extent were it not for the woes that came in the wake of the Vatican II Council, caused not, I insist, by the Council itself but by its interpretation.

Legitimate controversy, of course, continues to range over its meaning, and will likely continue to do so. Specifically, did Vatican II represent a rupture with the Church’s past, or was it instead a seamless transition from one era to another? But that way of posing the question to my mind is too pat. Church history is far too complex to fit into these neat binary categories.

As the debate is usually framed, we are confined to but four positions. First, according to the standard schema, there are only two stances on the question of whether Vatican II broke with Catholic tradition (yes or no). Then, right after that, there are two further subsidiary positions one must take, to affirm or decry the initial conclusion (good or bad). Thus, one option holds that Vatican II seamlessly continues the Church’s past, and should be praised for keeping the faith. (The late Avery Cardinal Dulles is often taken as the premier defender of this position, although his actual conclusion is more subtle.)

The second position equally concedes Vatican II’s continuity with the Church’s past, but is for that reason to be lamented. (Hans Küng comes close to that view; indeed he wrote his book The Church while the Council was still in session to offer an alternative to Lumen gentium , the Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, which he thought was too hidebound in its attachment to the past).

A third position holds that Vatican II represents a break with the Church’s past and should be praised for doing so. (John O’Malley’s recent book What Happened at Vatican II likes this posture.)

Finally, a fourth position agrees with the disruption thesis and loudly complains about it. (Such is the basis for the Lefebvrist schism.)

But surely the reality is more complicated than these too-neat options can allow. Why cannot Vatican II be seen as both continuous with and yet also a departure from the Church’s ancient tradition? Isn’t that true, after all, of all the major and historic councils? Doesn’t a more nuanced assessment do less violence to the historical record than the procrustean options outlined above? Although Benedict is famous in the world press for holding to what he calls the “hermeneutics of continuity,” his own position is actually far subtler than such a tagline would indicate (which is partly why in lifting the excommunications he was so readily misunderstood).

In fact, in the very speech he gave to the Roman Curia, December 22, 2005, that made the “hermeneutics of continuity” so famous as a phrase, he openly admitted that Vatican II represents a rupture of some kind (why else the controversy?). But for him it was a rupture that paradoxically revealed the Church’s fidelity to her truest identity: A discontinuity was revealed, he said to the Curia, “but [it was one] in which, after the various distinctions between concrete historical situations and their requirements had been made, the continuity of principles proved not to have been abandoned.”

To those stuck in the usual two categories provided by secular journalism, the pope will sound here like he is trying to have it both ways. But for Benedict, unless we can accurately categorize the various changes brought about by the Council in different terms, we will continue to misinterpret it. In other words, the issue of continuity vs. discontinuity only gets us to the beginning of the debate, not to its end.

So what category would work better? How best should the Council be understood? For Benedict the key term is reform : “It is precisely in this combination of continuity and discontinuity at different levels that the very nature of true reform consists” [all emphases are added]. In other words, to refuse to admit any disjunction with the Church’s past would not only distort the historical record (which shows clear instances of both continuity and discontinuity in the conciliar documents), but also would inevitably block reform, which requires not a convoluted combination between continuity and discontinuity but rather, in the pope’s own words, “innovation in continuity.”

Among these undeniable innovations, Benedict above all stressed Vatican II’s Decree on Religious Liberty ( Dignitatis Humanae ). Frankly admitting that Vatican II broke with the “fortress mentality” set in motion by Pius IX’s open hostility to the modern world and by his condemnation of religious liberty in his Syllabus of Errors (1864), Benedict explained the reasons for the Council’s departure from that teaching:

In the 19th century under Pius IX, the clash between the Church’s faith and a radical liberalism . . . had elicited from the Church a bitter and radical condemnation of this spirit of the modern age . . . . In the meantime, however, the modern age had also experienced developments. People came to realize that the American Revolution was offering a model of a modern state that differed from the theoretical model with radical tendencies that had emerged during the second phase of the French Revolution.

In other words, circumstances change, and the Church must change with them¯ but not her identity . Granted, discerning the difference between the need to change in order to fit changed circumstances, and the simultaneous need to preserve the Church’s perennial identity, is not easy. The case of religious liberty is ideal for seeing this discernment at work, especially since it is the one that most bothers the Lefebvrist schismatics. But in taking up this issue, the pope is blunt about the v olte-face effected by the Council:

With [its] Decree on Religious Freedom the Second Vatican Council, by recognizing and making its own an essential principle of the modern state , has recovered the deepest patrimony of the Church. By so doing she can be conscious of being in full harmony with the teaching of Jesus himself, as well as with the Church of the martyrs of all time. The ancient Church naturally prayed for the emperors and political leaders out of duty; but while she prayed for the emperors, she refused to worship them and thereby clearly rejected the religion of the state. The martyrs of the early Church died for their faith in that God who was revealed in Jesus Christ, and for this very reason they also died for freedom of conscience and the freedom to profess one’s own faith-a profession that no state can impose but which, instead, can only be claimed with God’s grace in freedom of conscience.

No one doubts (least of all Benedict) that Vatican II’s embrace of what he calls “the essential principle of the modern state” has led to a resurgence of relativism inside the Church. But for the pope, this is not the fault of the Council but of a category mistake arising from the fact that the liberal democratic state must be neutral to religious truth claims while the Church cannot be. Many liberal Catholic theologians, however, took Dignitatis Humanae as a license to attribute equal saving significance to other world religions: If the state must be neutral to religious truth claims, so must we!

Obviously, that was not the intent of Vatican II, which in fact grounded its affirmation of religious liberty by drawing on the resources of its own ecclesial tradition, basing its teaching on revelation itself. Far from rejecting the Council’s teaching, Benedict’s decades-long attack on relativism is rooted in the Council:

Thus, for example, if religious freedom were to be considered an expression of the human inability to discover the truth and thus become a canonization of relativism, then this social and historical necessity [to be tolerant] is raised inappropriately to the metaphysical level and thus is stripped of its true meaning. Consequently, it cannot be accepted by those who believe that the human person is capable of knowing the truth about God and¯on the basis of the inner dignity of the truth¯is bound to [accept] this knowledge. It is quite different, on the other hand, to perceive religious freedom as . . . an intrinsic consequence of the truth that cannot be externally imposed but which the person must adopt only through the process of conviction.

The same principle of innovation-in-continuity applies to the Church’s bond with Judaism. No one disputes that Vatican II brought about a revolution in relations. Here binary categories (perhaps just this once) can be applied, since the vast majority of Catholics admit that a deep and irrevocable sea-change has occurred in their relationship to Jews, and approve of it. The lonely Lefebvrist schismatics sulk in notorious dissent¯precisely because of their purblind refusal to distinguish rapprochement from relativism. But for the pope, changed circumstances forced the bishops at Vatican II to reassess long-held presuppositions. And by drawing on her ancient charters (especially Romans 9-11), the Church was able to distance herself from prior hostility and launch a dialogue of mutual respect unheard of in church history. This change the pope explicitly affirms. In words that I hope will throw a reconciling light on the recent controversy over his attempts to heal the Lefebvrist schism, the pope says: “In particular, before the recent crimes of the Nazi regime and, in general, with a retrospective look at a long and difficult history, it was necessary to evaluate and define in a new way the relationship between the Church and the faith of Israel.”

During the past few weeks, while the enormous and heated controversy over the Church’s canonical connection to the Lefebvrist schism was playing itself out in the world media, I kept thinking back to this curial address of Benedict, delivered a mere eight months after his election to the papacy which he clearly meant to be his papacy’s manifesto. Anyone who reads this address will realize that there is no going back for this pope. The innovations of the Council are real, and they are here to stay. If either liberal Catholics or revanchist Lefebvrists think Benedict is about to revoke Vatican II in his effort to heal a schism, then they are clearly laboring under a mad delusion¯one nearly as demented as the mirage entertained by those loons who are willing to grant more historical authenticity to the czarist forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion than they are to Dignitatis Humanae . Good luck with that.

But I quote the pope at such length not merely to set forth an accurate account of his own views of Vatican II, and to exonerate him of baseless charges that he wants to return the Church to moribund ways that are impossible to revive. I also want to wean everyone, and not just journalists and deluded schismatics, from tiresome and jejune binary categories that have too long hampered a proper interpretation and application of Vatican II. When reading Benedict, time and again, I am reminded of Cardinal Newman. His too was a mind subtle enough to be able to say that his whole life was a struggle against the liberal principle in religion (meaning, that all religions are the same merely because all make equally unverifiable truth-claims), and yet also to say: “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”

Holding together these two axioms is admittedly a difficult challenge, but an inevitable one, automatically entailed in the concept of a definitive revelation that is also essentially historical, historical both in content and in consequences for world history. It was just this very dilemma that led Newman, while still in the Church of England, to see that the very concept of a historical revelation directly entails an infallible interpreter of that revelation. Otherwise, one will either have a Heraclitean flux and no identity, or a Parmenidean rigidity that can’t meet the challenge of ceaseless change on the historical stage. As he said, with his typically deathless prose, a year before converting to Rome:

The most obvious answer, then, to the question, why we yield to the authority of the Church in the questions and developments of faith, is, that some authority there must be if there is a revelation given, and other authority there is none but she. A revelation is not given if there be no authority to decide what it is that is given . . . . If Christianity is both social and dogmatic, and intended for all ages, it must humanly speaking have an infallible expounder. Else you will secure unity of form at the loss of unity of doctrine, or unity of doctrine at the loss of unity of form; you will have to choose between a comprehension of opinions and a resolution into parties, between latitudinarian and sectarian error. You may be tolerant or intolerant of contrarieties of thought, but contrarieties you will have. By the Church of England a hollow uniformity is preferred to an infallible chair; and by the sects of England an interminable division. Germany and Geneva began with persecution and have ended in scepticism. The doctrine of infallibility is a less violent hypothesis than this sacrifice either of faith or of charity. It secures the object, while it gives definiteness and force to the matter, of Revelation.


Edward T. Oakes, S.J., teaches theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, the seminary of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

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