Traditionalist Sleight of Hand

Recently within certain circles a debate has arisen as to whether the Second Vatican Council is actually in continuity with sacred Tradition.  The debate stems from an address given by Pope Benedict to the Roman Curia on December 22, 2005, in which he spoke famously of the “hermeneutic of continuity.”  It is contended by some that at that time the Holy Father actually invited the debate.

In that address the Holy Father rejected the modernist idea that the Council was a kind of constitutional convention that changed the nature of the Church, and that the actual texts of the Council were compromises between conservatives and liberals, which had to be interpreted according to their innovative spirit.  (This is the origin of the amorphous “spirit of Vatican II”.)  This notion constitutes the “hermeneutic of rupture,” and is corrected by the “hermeneutic of continuity,” which simply means that the Second Vatican Council is not a break from Tradition, but a pastoral adaptation of the perennial principles of Apostolic Tradition according to the circumstances of our times.  The starting point is that the Council must be interpreted in continuity with the Church’s perennial dogmatic teaching.  It should be noted that traditionalists accept the modernist interpretation of the Council, that is, both modernists and traditionalists hold that the Council is a break with Tradition.  Modernists do so because they do not believe in objective revelation; traditionalists because they believe that the Council betrayed objective revelation.

In this post I am following up on my “White Propaganda” contribution that generated a few comments about this debate.  It seems that the work of the Holy See to regularize the Society of St. Pius X has had the effect of lending a certain amount of credibility to anticonciliar intuitions, and that given the Holy See’s openness to the return of the SSPX, the Holy Father himself must share some of these sympathies.  I will address these contentions more directly in my next post.  In this one I merely wish to refute the contention that back in 2005 Pope Benedict invited this debate.

This exercise in the art of illusion consists in a cunning interpretation of the pope’s exhortation in his December 22, 2005, address to the Roman Curia:

There is no doubt that the wearing dispute between modern reason and the Christian faith, which had begun negatively with the Galileo case, went through many phases, but with the Second Vatican Council the time came when broad new thinking was required.

Its content was certainly only roughly traced in the conciliar texts, but this determined its essential direction, so that the dialogue between reason and faith, particularly important today, found its bearings on the basis of the Second Vatican Council.

This dialogue must now be developed with great openmindedness but also with that clear discernment that the world rightly expects of us in this very moment. Thus, today we can look with gratitude at the Second Vatican Council:  if we interpret and implement it guided by a right hermeneutic, it can be and can become increasingly powerful for the ever necessary renewal of the Church.

If one reads this plainly but carefully he will see that the Holy Father is stating something very simple and very pro-Vatcian II:  The modern conflict between faith and reason culminated at the time of the Council in the need for “broad new thinking.”  The conciliar texts went a long way to accomplish this, but the development of this thinking continues as a “dialogue between reason and faith,” established on the basis of the Council.  This dialogue between faith and reason, roughly outlined by the Council, must continue and be “developed” with “openmindedness,” but also with clear discernment.  But it is certainly the Second Vatican Council, interpreted and implemented, “guided by the right hermeneutic,” (the hermeneutic of continuity) that is at the heart of the “ever necessary renewal of the Church.”

So how does this observation that that the dialogue between faith and reason must continue on the basis of the Council, rightly interpreted according the hermeneutic of continuity, become an “invitation to debate” the very possibility of interpreting the Council according to a hermeneutic of continuity?  It is academic sleight of hand, fast-talking lawyering.  See, for example, Roberto De Mattei, “A Council Can Also Make Mistakes”:

The speech to the Roman curia by Benedict XVI on December 22, 2005, opened a debate on Vatican Council II as exemplified recently by the books of Msgr. Brunero Gherardini and the important conference of the Franciscans of the Immaculate, held in Rome between December 16 and 18, 2010, in addition to my study “Il Concilio Vaticano II. Una storia mai scritta [Vatican Council II. A history never written]” (Lindau, Torino 2010).

The pope’s call to interpret the documents of Vatican II according to a “hermeneutic of continuity” has in fact offered a decisive stimulus to developing the debate on the Council in a manner different from that of the “school of Bologna,” which has presented it in terms of fracture and discontinuity with the bimillennial tradition of the Church.

At first glance, De Mattei seems to be supporting the hermeneutic of continuity against “the School of Bologna.” But a careful reading indicates otherwise.  He says that the pope’s call for interpretation of the Council according to a hermeneutic of continuity “has in fact offered a decisive stimulus to developing the debate on the Council in a manner different from the “school of Bologna” (emphasis mine).  He actually says nothing in support of the hermeneutic of continuity.  The “school of Bologna” is the Italian theological school of the progressive “spirit of Vatican II,” and De Mattei says that papal assertion of the hermeneutic of continuity is invitation to oppose the progressivists of that school (as though it was not something acceptable to do before hand).  Is he suggesting that there is no middle way between the school of Bologna and the school of De Mattei?  The pope does not appear to be supporting either the progressivist or the traditionalist school.

What is clear is that De Mattei further uses the observation of the Holy Father, that the dialogue of reason and faith guided by the right interpretation of the Council should continue, as a pretext to challenge the “hermeneutic of continuity” itself.  De Mattei’s reference to Monsignor Brunero Gherardini as being at the forefront of the debate “opened” by the papal address of December 22, 2005, makes his intentions clear, as Gherardini expressly and repeatedly challenges the possibility of the hermeneutic of continuity.  In fact, Basil Valuet in “Perché non sono d’accordo con Gherardini, De Mattei, Rhonheimer” charges Gherardini with rejecting “some formal teachings of Vatican II (“Lumen Gentium” [LG], “Nostra Aetate”, “Gaudium et Spes” [GS] and “Dignitatis Humanae” [DH]).”  At the same time, Valuet sees that De Mattei is not simply countering the position of the School of Bologna, but uses a faulty historical analysis to support Gherardini’s thesis that one must follow Tradition before the magisterium.

Indeed, later on in “A Council Can Also Make Mistakes” De Mattei states the following:

The criticism of Marchetto and Introvigne seems to have a single purpose: to close off preemptively that debate which Benedict XVI has opened with an invitation to develop it. […]

Marchetto and Introvigne criticize De Mattei for challenging the hermeneutic of continuity itself.  De Mattei thinks the pope welcomes a challenge to his interpretation of the Council and De Mattei does so on the basis of a specious interpretation of the pope’s statement.

Unfortunately, it now is just generally assumed by the anticonciliar enthusiasts that the pope really did invite theologians, historians, bloggers and armchair prognosticators to challenge him on the very existence and possibility of interpreting the Second Vatican Council according to a hermeneutic of continuity.

Note that the question answered here is not whether the traditionalists are right in challenging the hermeneutic of continuity.  That will be answered in the next post. The question here is simply whether the Holy Father has really invited or encouraged the debate over the possibility of an interpretation of the Council based on a hermeneutic of continuity.  He has not.


21 thoughts on “Traditionalist Sleight of Hand

  1. from Bill Foley

    My comment is simply a thank you to you for being a true, loyal son of the Church.

    When Saint Teresa of Avila died, the expressed the explicit desire to be considered a true, loyal daughter of the Church, which she certainly was!

    I was on a military pilgrimage to Rome in 1965 when I was blessed to be in a general audience with Pope Paul VI. On that day I vowed to God and asked him for the grace to always be loyal to the papal magisterium. Every day I ask God to give me the grace to love the Vicar of Christ and to be faithfully obedient to his mind and heart. I also thank God for this continual grace.

    You, Father, have also been blessed with this great grace; therefore, I urge you to pray for it every day and to thank God for it.

    If you get a chance, Father, look up Cardinal Gilroy in the EWTN document library. He wrote a marvelous three-page article on the Vicar of Christ. You can also find three incomparable essays by Father Joseph Costanzo regarding the papal magisterium at this same site.

    Once again, Father, thank you for being such a true, loyal son of the Church

  2. Ave Maria!
    Feb. 14th – Sts. Cyril and Methodius. Things don’t change much do they. 🙂

    In order to fulfill this mission, Cyril and Methodius took the step of adapting the Greek alphabet into a script for the Slavonic language. The result was the “Cyrillic” alphabet, which was first used to translate the Bible and liturgical books. It also became the primary means of written communication for large portions of the world, including modern day Russia.

    The two labored in Moravia for four years until 868, achieving greater success than the German missionaries. Their Byzantine origins and use of the vernacular language caused some German church officials to regard them with suspicion. However, after being summoned to Rome they met with Pope Adrian II who warmly approved of their methods.

    In Christ,

    PS. Fr.Angelo, I get such a chuckle out of the pictures you choose and always wonder where you come up with these! Respectfully, Marian

  3. from Bill Foley

    I would like to add some facts regarding Saints Cyril and Methodius and the language of the Mass. The Pope approved the Mass in the Slavonic language; however, a subsequent Vicar of Christ changed the language to Latin; however, another subsequent Supreme Pontiff allowed the Slavic people to once again have the Mass in Slavonic. The lesson here is not the language of the Mass but humble obedience to Christ’s Vican on earth.

  4. Ave Maria –

    I am not sure what your source is but here are a few that don’t quite agree with your facts –

    107.Adrian II (867-72)
    108.John VIII (872-82)

    Though for the moment, in deference to German opposition, the pope prohibited the use of the Slavonic tongue in the liturgy, he insisted on the immediate restoration of Methodius. After his orders were obeyed, John bade the archbishop come to Rome, as fresh accusations had been brought against him. A careful examination convinced John of the orthodoxy of Methodius, who was sent back to Moravia with permission to use the Slavonic tongue in the liturgy.

    After three years he was liberated at the command of Pope John VIII and reinstated as Archbishop of Moravia. He zealously endeavoured to spread the Faith among the Bohemians, and also among the Poles in Northern Moravia. Soon, however, he was summoned to Rome again in consequence of the allegations of the German priest Wiching, who impugned his orthodoxy, and objected to the use of Slavonic in the liturgy. But John VIII, after an inquiry, sanctioned the Slavonic Liturgy, decreeing, however, that in the Mass the Gospel should be read first in Latin and then in Slavonic.

    At that time the pope intervened and Methodius returned to his diocese in triumph at the same time the Germans were forced to recognize Moravian independence. There was a loss involved — to appease the Germans a little, the pope told Methodius he could no longer celebrate liturgy in the vernacular.

    In 879 Methodius was summoned to Rome to answer German charges he had not obeyed this restriction. This worked against the Germans because it gave Methodius a chance to explain how important it was to celebrate the liturgy in the tongue people understood. Instead of condemning him, the pope gave him permission to use Slavonic in the Mass, in Scripture reading, and in the office. He also made him head of the hierarchy in Moravia.

    I agree with you, though, about obedience to the Pope. Sadly, some place a higher priority on what they feel the Mass should be rather than following the guidance of the Pope(s).

    In Christ,

  5. What we need is to pray for the grace of love, faith and hope inorder that we will be filled by that same Holy Spirit who taught and guided our Vicar of Christ. …That same spirit who would renew the face of the earth and enkindle in our hearts the piercing love and mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ who is the same before, now and forever and ever..

  6. “The question here is simply whether the Holy Father has really invited or encouraged the debate over the possibility of an interpretation of the Council based on a hermeneutic of continuity. He has not.”

    I too thank you for being a true, loyal son of the Church.

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  11. If I understand correctly, the author of “Traditionalist Sleight of Hand” is a Franciscan Friar of the Immaculate. Reading the lecture held by Monsignor Gherardini at a conference sponsored by his own Order in Rome might give a better insight on what he so breezily defines “sleight of hand.”. Here is the URL: – or follow the link below. Title of the lecture: On the Pastoral Nature of Vatican II.

    Luciana Cuppo

  12. Luciana,

    Would you be so kind as to indicate what is it that is so breezy about my contention? I don’t think an argument from authority is sufficient here. Mons. Gherardini questions the existence of a hermeneutic of continuity and contends that he does so at the pope’s invitation. My argument is rather modest. The pope did not propose the hermeneutic of continuity as a question, but as an answer. If you think to the contrary, I would be interested in your reasoning.

    • Dear Frangelo,

      Thanks for your comment. I would suggest that you first READ what Gherardini has to say and THEN comment about it. This is no argument from authority; I’ll be delighted to discuss with you Gherardini’s views AFTER you read his writing.
      As to the Pope proposing the hermeneutic of continuity as an answer, my reasoning is simple: where is the continuity? In the documents of Vatican II, sometimes you see it and sometimes you don’t. And the Pope has never defined precisely what is continuous and what is not.
      I’ll be more specific after you do some reading; if you insist on saying that “Monsignor Gherardini questions the existence of a hermeneutic ofcontinuity and contends that he does so at the pope’s invitation”, you are obviously poorly informed.

      Luciana Cuppo .

  13. Luciana,

    The argument of this post—the only argument of this post—which you characterized as having been so “breezily” made, is simply that Pope Benedict’s December 22, 2005 to the Roman Curia is not a mandate for a debate about the existence of hermeneutic of continuity. I provide evidence in the post. I merely asked you what was so breezy about the argumentation.

    That Pope Benedict invited such a debate is the position of the September 24, 2011 open letter to the Holy Father of which Mons. Gherardini is the principle signatory. This point is made over and over again by Prof. Roberto de Mattei, one of Mons. Gherardini’s close collaborators in this debate.

    Mons. Gherardini affirms many times that the Pope needs to do more than simply declare that the Council is in continuity with Tradition. (See, for example the original open letter and the book in which it was published: The Ecumenical Vatican Council II: A Much Needed Discussion, [Frigento: Casa Mariana Editrice], 2009). He argues that the pope must demonstrate what he has declaimed. Apparently, following Mons. Gherardini, this is your position as well.

    Contrary to your contention, in a specific manner the Holy Father does indicate on which points the Council is continuity of with Tradition (December, 22, 2005). For example:

    In this process of innovation in continuity we must learn to understand more practically than before that the Church’s decisions on contingent matters – for example, certain practical forms of liberalism or a free interpretation of the Bible – should necessarily be contingent themselves, precisely because they refer to a specific reality that is changeable in itself. It was necessary to learn to recognize that in these decisions it is only the principles that express the permanent aspect, since they remain as an undercurrent, motivating decisions from within.


    The Second Vatican Council, recognizing and making its own an essential principle of the modern State with the Decree on Religious Freedom, 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 (cf. Mt 22: 21), 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 (cf. I Tm 2: 2); but while she prayed for the emperors, she refused to worship them and thereby clearly rejected the religion of the State.

    Obviously this is not a complete analysis of the controversies concerning the alleged rupture of the Council with Tradition, but it does show that the Holy Father’s premise of continuity is not only general and abstract.

    In any case, the Holy Father’s “position” is not merely a theological opinion to be submitted to examination by “scientific theologians.” I do not dispute the necessity and convenience of a theological debate conducted at the appropriate level in respect to difficult phrases expressed in the conciliar documents. But the premise, according to Pope Benedict, must be one of continuity, not rupture.

    The doctrinal preamble presented to the SSPX and which apparently Bishop Fellay has signed, more than likely expresses the standard profession of faith required of those with ecclesiastical positions, namely,

    . . . I adhere with religious submission of will and intellect to the teachings which either the Roman Pontiff or the College of Bishops enunciate when they exercise their authentic Magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim these teachings by a definitive act.

    Papal teaching does not need to be demonstrably infallible in order for it to be binding. There is no second magisterium of scholars who must be satisfied by the Holy Father’s reasoning. Furthermore, this debate has not been conducted primarily on an academic level. It has been a propaganda war, waged in popular publications and by means of a politically motivated open letter. One does not need to be a theologian to defend papal authority in the matter.

  14. I posted a reply earlier this morning. Should I assume that it is in moderation or am I being too impatient? Please advise and thanks.

    Luciana Cuppo

    • Luciana,

      There is no comment waiting to be approved. I am on a mobile device at the moment, but as far as i can see there is nothing pending. Comments here only go to moderation if there are more than a couple of links. I am not sure what happened.

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