The Greatest Commandment: Did a Council and Two Popes Teach Error?

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The arguments over Vatican II have gone on for half a century. The one thing most theologians agree on is that the documents of Vatican II — while at times purposefully vague or difficult to reconcile with tradition — can, provided the correct interpretive context, be understood in an orthodox fashion.

It is from this basis that we hear repeated Pope Emeritus Benedict’s insistence on the so-called “hermeneutic of continuity.” This was perhaps best explained in his Christmas address to the Roman Curia in 2005:

The last event of this year on which I wish to reflect here is the celebration of the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council 40 years ago. This memory prompts the question: What has been the result of the Council? Was it well received? What, in the acceptance of the Council, was good and what was inadequate or mistaken? What still remains to be done? No one can deny that in vast areas of the Church the implementation of the Council has been somewhat difficult, even without wishing to apply to what occurred in these years the description that St Basil, the great Doctor of the Church, made of the Church’s situation after the Council of Nicea:  he compares her situation to a naval battle in the darkness of the storm, saying among other things:  “The raucous shouting of those who through disagreement rise up against one another, the incomprehensible chatter, the confused din of uninterrupted clamouring, has now filled almost the whole of the Church, falsifying through excess or failure the right doctrine of the faith…” (De Spiritu Sancto, XXX, 77; PG 32, 213 A; SCh 17 ff., p. 524).

We do not want to apply precisely this dramatic description to the situation of the post-conciliar period, yet something from all that occurred is nevertheless reflected in it. The question arises:  Why has the implementation of the Council, in large parts of the Church, thus far been so difficult?

Well, it all depends on the correct interpretation of the Council or – as we would say today – on its proper hermeneutics, the correct key to its interpretation and application. The problems in its implementation arose from the fact that two contrary hermeneutics came face to face and quarrelled with each other. One caused confusion, the other, silently but more and more visibly, bore and is bearing fruit.

On the one hand, there is an interpretation that I would call “a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture”; it has frequently availed itself of the sympathies of the mass media, and also one trend of modern theology. On the other, there is the “hermeneutic of reform”, of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us. She is a subject which increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God.

The hermeneutic of discontinuity risks ending in a split between the pre-conciliar Church and the post-conciliar Church. It asserts that the texts of the Council as such do not yet express the true spirit of the Council. It claims that they are the result of compromises in which, to reach unanimity, it was found necessary to keep and reconfirm many old things that are now pointless. However, the true spirit of the Council is not to be found in these compromises but instead in the impulses toward the new that are contained in the texts.

[…]

The hermeneutic of discontinuity is countered by the hermeneutic of reform, as it was presented first by Pope John XXIII in his Speech inaugurating the Council on 11 October 1962 and later by Pope Paul VI in his Discourse for the Council’s conclusion on 7 December 1965.

Here I shall cite only John XXIII’s well-known words, which unequivocally express this hermeneutic when he says that the Council wishes “to transmit the doctrine, pure and integral, without any attenuation or distortion”. And he continues:  “Our duty is not only to guard this precious treasure, as if we were concerned only with antiquity, but to dedicate ourselves with an earnest will and without fear to that work which our era demands of us…”. It is necessary that “adherence to all the teaching of the Church in its entirety and preciseness…” be presented in “faithful and perfect conformity to the authentic doctrine, which, however, should be studied and expounded through the methods of research and through the literary forms of modern thought. The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another…”, retaining the same meaning and message (The Documents of Vatican II, Walter M. Abbott, S.J., p. 715).

Considering the threat of such a split — and the stated desire of Pope St. John XXIII to preserve doctrine “pure and integral” — it is understandable that Pope Benedict worked so diligently to connect the threads between what came before the council and what resulted from it.

But there are certain problems that can’t be wished away.

Bishop Athanasius Schneider has called for some of these problems to be seriously examined and addressed. He is not alone in his concerns, or in his desire for a new “syllabus of errors” in reference to Vatican II.

A more troubling concern, however, has recently arisen. In a brief editorial at Rorate Caeli this morning, Dr. John Lamont — a member of the theology and philosophy faculty at Australian Catholic University — examines this recently-discovered distortion:

Those who wish to apply a ‘hermeneutic of continuity’ to Vatican II, or who deny that there can be any opposition or rupture between the documents of that council and Catholic tradition, or who claim that the assertion that the authentic teachings of Vatican II formally contradict the tradition of the Church is false, might consider the following passage from the council’s pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes:

Gaudium et Spes 24: ‘Quapropter dilectio Dei et proximi primum et maximum mandatum est.’

For non-Latinists, this claim (it is a complete sentence in the conciliar document) can be translated as follows: ‘For love of God and of neighbour is the first and greatest commandment‘. No Latin is needed to realise that this is a flat contradiction of the teaching of Christ. There is a deliberate allusion in Gaudium et Spes 24 to the wording of the divine teaching it is contradicting, as can be seen from looking at the Vulgate text of that teaching:

Matthew 22:35-39: “Et interrogavit eum unus ex eis legis doctor, temptans eum; ‘Magister, quod est mandatum magnum in lege? Ait illi Iesus: ‘diliges Dominum Deum tuum ex toto corde tuo, et in tota anima tua, et in tota mente tua. Hoc est maximum et primum mandatum. Secundum autem simile est huic: diliges proximum tuum, sicut teipsum.'”

This text from Gaudium et Spes suffices to prove that the teachings of the Second Vatican Council are not without error, and that fidelity to Christ’s teaching requires that parts of it be rejected. It is also a fruitful starting point for reflection and investigation into the ideology and motivations of the progressive leadership of that council, and into the degree to which the Council Fathers as a whole accepted their responsibility for preserving the divine deposit of faith. (This text was pointed out to me by a Catholic professor of theology who must remain anonymous.)

As a reminder, for those of you who (like me) aren’t conversant in Latin, here is the cited passage from Matthew (22:34-40):

But the Pharisees hearing that he had silenced the Sadducees, came together: And one of them, a doctor of the law, asking him, tempting him: Master, which is the greatest commandment in the law? Jesus said to him: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. And the second is like to this: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments dependeth the whole law and the prophets.

There is no question which commandment is first, or why. Love of neighbor is “like to this” because it flows from it. We love our neighbor because we love God first, who created and desires the good of our neighbor. Without the greatest commandment, the second is meaningless. Together, they form the basis of Christian life – but they are not equal in importance or priority.

This is an absolutely critical distinction.

Unfortunately, this error did not begin and end with the Pastoral Constitution on the Church. It appears again, in 1965, in Paul VI’s Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, Apostolicam Actuositatem, #8:

The greatest commandment in the law is to love God with one’s whole heart and one’s neighbor as oneself (cf. Matt. 22:37-40). Christ made this commandment of love of neighbor His own and enriched it with a new meaning. For He wanted to equate Himself with His brethren as the object of this love when He said, “As long as you did it for one of these, the least of My brethren, you did it for Me” (Matt. 25:40).

Most recently, we see it — this time in an evolved and even more alarming formulation — in the apostolic exhortation of Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium:

160. The Lord’s missionary mandate includes a call to growth in faith: “Teach them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt28:20). Hence it is clear that that the first proclamation also calls for ongoing formation and maturation. Evangelization aims at a process of growth which entails taking seriously each person and God’s plan for his or her life. All of us need to grow in Christ. Evangelization should stimulate a desire for this growth, so that each of us can say wholeheartedly: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20).

161. It would not be right to see this call to growth exclusively or primarily in terms of doctrinal formation. It has to do with “observing” all that the Lord has shown us as the way of responding to his love. Along with the virtues, this means above all the new commandment, the first and the greatest of the commandments, and the one that best identifies us as Christ’s disciples: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 15:12).

Where Gaudium et Spes conflates these first and second commandments, Evangelii Gaudium replaces the first with the second. This shift in emphasis from love of God to love of neighbor, if put into practice, would become a sort of idolatry. A worship of man before God. Which is perhaps why I find myself somewhat concerned when I read statements like this:

Pope Francis said he wished for the same on the part of the Church community in Rome so that it may be more attentive, caring and considerate towards the poor and vulnerable and recognize in them the face of our Lord. How I wish, he said, that Christians could kneel in veneration when a poor person enters the church.

How are we to interpret these things? Can we chalk these up to a simple — albeit recurring and evolving — mistake? And perhaps more importantly, how might we faithful go about expressing our concerns in a way that we might have reasonable hope that this be corrected?

I am forced to admit that I don’t have any helpful answers. For the time being, it seems that the first priority should be to agree that this is a problem. Lacking consensus on this most fundamental point will make any attempt at redress far more difficult.

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