Vatican II Council: A Much Needed Discussion

A well-respected Vatican theologian affirms that the problems of Vatican II must be discussed.

We offer some excerpts from Msgr. Gherardini's book, The Ecumenical Second Vatican Council: A Much Needed Discussion, soon to be published in English. Published in Italy in 2009, this book has already been reprinted twice.

Biographical note

Msgr. Brunero Gherardini, a priest of the diocese of Prato (Italy), has been in the service of the Holy See since 1965, particularly as professor of ecclesiology and ecumenism at the Lateran Pontifical University until 1995. He is the author of about a hundred books and of several hundred articles in reviews, dealing with three concentric fields of research: the 16th century reform, ecclesiology and Mariology. Msgr. Gherardini is at present an archbasilica canon at St. Peter's and editor of the international theology review, Divinitas.

Translation note

The following excerpts have been translated from the book's French version by DICI (FSSPX.News).

On the Notion of “Living Tradition”

Excerpt from Chapter 7: “Tradition in Second Vatican Council”

Up to Vatican II, to clarify this point, the theologian had at his disposal a fairly precise elaboration of the concept of Tradition from which he could draw an argument to assess suitably his judgment.

I have already alluded to this elaboration in the first part of the present chapter, considering Tradition from various viewpoints, and calling it accordingly, apostolic, divino-apostolic, humano-apostolic, inherent, declarative and constitutive.

Now Vatican II, which made one exception for apostolic Tradition—yet without ever presenting it with the meaning henceforth considered as “traditional” of this qualification—systematically ignored all the others. On the other hand, we find in the Council a different qualification: living Tradition, which I will discuss later on.

We are confronted with a manner of expression, which, while desirous of simplifying the message, ends up by making it more complicated because of a too generic language, its amphibological use and its lack of specificity. And I am not talking about the fact that living could open the doors to all kinds of innovations which could be born of, or germinated from the old plant.


I make one last observation concerning the so-called living Tradition of the Church. Apparently it is an irreproachable expression, yet it is in fact ambiguous. It is irreproachable because the Church is a living reality and Tradition is its very life. It is ambiguous, because it allows the introduction into the Church of any novelty, even the least recommended, as expression of the Church’s life.

Dei Verbum speaks of the living Gospel, the living Magisterium and the living Tradition. Already this large array of usage does not plead in favor of the univocality of the concept.

In number 7, for instance, it affirms that: “in order to keep the Gospel forever whole and alive within the Church, the Apostles left bishops as their successors.”

In number 8, we read that: “the Holy Spirit, through whom the living (emphasis mine—[i.e., Msgr. Gherardini—Ed.]) voice of the Gospel resounds in the Church, and through her, in the world, leads unto all truth those who believe.”

Next, we find in number 10 the following statement: “The task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed down, has been entrusted exclusively to the living (emphasis mine) teaching office of the Church.”

A little further down, in number 12, it is recommended as a duty that “no less serious attention [must] be given to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture,” and “the living (emphasis mine) tradition of the whole Church must be taken into account.”

From all these statements we vaguely perceive a certain analogy in the use of the adjective “living”, but certainly not its true meaning, nor the reason for its use.

What guarantees the vitality of the Gospel—we know it well—is the Gospel: through it resounds the Word of the living God, which is the very Person of God speaking, and hence the expression of His very life. That there exists also a Magisterium is a truth of our faith, in the sense that anyone in charge of the Magisterium continues, thanks to the apostolic succession, the uninterrupted transmission of the teaching of Christ and of His Apostles.

In fact, this succession causes the teaching of Christ and of His Apostles to reach the Church at every period in time, because it is a living and vital element of the very existence of the Church. On the other hand, the concept of “living Tradition” is more nebulous.

The conciliar text does not oblige to abide only by it, but also by the analogy of the faith, i.e., the link which binds together in a reciprocal interdependence each of the revealed truths and makes of them an unbreakable unity.

The objective of the double obligation tends to trespass the limits of the written word, this word coming from the living Word, which constitutes the beginning of ecclesiastic Tradition.

But why is it said to be living? The Council does not say, or at least not with the requisite clarity. Probably because of the unity—at least substantial (hence the continuity)—between the first stage of Tradition which is apostolic, and the following stages beginning with that which was immediately post-apostolic, down to the others, concerned with the great historic periods of the Church, and eventually all the way to the present stage.

This is probably what is meant. But silence about this continuity also implies, and unfortunately so, the absence of any certitude on this issue. “Living” might certainly indicate a link between the various stages and avoid more or less serious ruptures, thus ensuring the living and vital continuity of Tradition. But the text remains silent on the subject. It merely states that Tradition is living.

Now it does not suffice to declare it to be living for it to be really so. The vital communication between its various phases must not only be proclaimed, it must first and foremost be proved, and in such a way that the proof coincides with the continuity—at least substantial—of its contents with that of the preceding phases.

Tradition is living not when it becomes integrated into some novelty, but when we discover in, or deduce from it some new aspect, which, had before escaped notice; or when some new understanding of its original contents enriches the present life of the Church.

This life does not progress by leaps and bounds unconnected with each other, but along the main line of the “quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus creditum est,” which Vatican I, following in the footsteps of Trent, expressed by referring to the meaning “quem tenuit ac tenet sancta Mater Ecclesia” (Denzinger 1507 and 3007).

The “always”, the “everywhere” and the “by all” are not concerned with an identity of words and hence of the statement as a whole, but really with the meaning that the Church, by means of her solemn and ordinary Magisterium, has always upheld, and still upholds now in her theological and dogmatic assertions.

The principle of the “living Tradition” was not the subject of any discussions. Yet, it is prone to pave the way to a falsification of the sacred deposit of the truths contained in Tradition.

In an atmosphere such as that prevalent during and after Vatican II, when only what was new appeared to be true, and when novelty was coming under the guise of the immanentist and fundamentally atheistic culture of our time, the doctrine of all times was but a vast graveyard.

Tradition has remained mortally wounded and is still agonizing today (unless it be already dead) because of stands taken which were radically irreconcilable with its past. So, it is not sufficient to define it as living, if there is not longer anything alive in it.

The truth is (and this is serious) that we speak of living Tradition only to rubber stamp any innovation presented as the natural development of truths officially handed down and received, even if the innovation has nothing in common with the said truths and is something far removed from a new shoot out of the old trunk.

As a matter of fact, Tradition is living only inasmuch as it is and continues to be the same apostolic Tradition, which presents itself anew—unaltered—, in and through the ecclesiastic Tradition.

The former carries in itself a rather passive meaning: it is what is handed down, equal to itself, included in its transmission, because the deposit must be kept unaltered.

The latter, on the contrary, displays a more active meaning as the official organ which ensures the faithful transmission of the deposit and finds, in this its end, the justification of the adjective “living.”

Hence, a data which would not have its roots in the contents handed down would not be a data of the living Tradition, even in the case—in itself and per se—absurd, that this data would be officially proposed.

A blatant example: it will never be possible for the transcendental theology of Rahner to be declared an element of the living Tradition, because it is in fact its tomb.

Something in the Council, and many things in the post-Council era have contributed to dig this grave.

The legitimacy of the adjective “living” with regard to the progress in the knowledge we may have of Tradition is unquestionable as we have already said. In this case, it belongs to the field of “dogmatic progress.”

As a matter of fact, the duty of the Church’s Magisterium is not only to present anew the apostolic Tradition, but also to study it thoroughly, to analyze and to explain it.

The living character of Tradition is then manifested not by measuring the apostolic contents in comparison with the level and the contents of the culture of such or such a historical period but by the fact that it initiates a transition from an implicit to an explicit statement of the contents.

In any case, the present call to living Tradition can be summed up as a genuine danger for the faith of each Christian and of the Christian community as a whole.

The changes already mentioned and those, which will be studied further down, will fully prove this.

Concerning Religious Liberty

Excerpt from Chapter 7: “The Great Problem of Religious Liberty”

So is it possible to inscribe Dignitatis Humanæ within the hermeneutics of continuity? If we are satisfied with an abstract proclamation, certainly so; but at the level of historic pertinence, I cannot see how it could be.

And the reason boils down to stating the obvious: the liberty proclaimed in the decree Dignitatis Humanæ, which does not concern one aspect of the human person, but his very essence and, together with it, all his individual and public activity since he is free from any political and religious conditioning, has very little in common with, for instance, Mirari vos by Gregory XVI, Quanta cura and the Syllabus appended by Blessed Pius IX, Immortale Dei by Leo XIII (especially with regard to all that pertains to the relationships between civil authority and the government of the Church), Pascendi dominici gregis by St. Pius X and the decree Lamentabili released shortly before by the Holy Office, or with Humani generis by Pius XII.

In fact, it is not a matter of a different language. The diversity is substantial and hence irreducible. The respective contents are different.

The content of the preceding Magisterium finds neither continuity nor development in that of Dignitatis Humanæ.

So, are there two Magisterii?

The question should not even be asked because, by its very nature, the Church’s Magisterium is one and indivisible: it is that created by Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Many are those who—given the climate of the present time—while reaffirming its unity and indivisibility, do not at all distinguish the danger of the split in two. The idea that today, as homage to the present changed circumstances, the Magisterium applies a principle in a way different from, or even counter to yesterday does not frighten them.

I could also declare myself in agreement, provided that the requisite and unquestionable condition of the “eodem sensu, eademque sententia” be always saved.

Unfortunately, everyone obviously seems to be going his own way, and this may well give the impression of a Magisterium split in two.

On Ecumenism

Excerpt from Chapter 8: “Ecumenism or Syncretism”

Yes truly, let us ask once more what is the Protestantism of Unitatis Redintegratio.

Left to this uncertainty, the post-council Church did not spare her attention to everyone, accepting the inclination of all men for the world, as if it were a “principle and foundation” (cf. Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius) of a new kind. She took charge of the world’s joys and hopes, as well as of its contradictions, and forgot the Apostle’s warning: “If I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ” (Gal. 1: 10).

They displayed the results obtained consequently to this agreement with the world, which, if it is not necessarily a betrayal of Christ, is always, when all is said and done, a rupture with the venerable Tradition. Volumes of the Enchiridion œcumenicum were filled with these ruptures, without any concern for the scandal, or at least the astonishment, to which these facts gave rise in the mind of any serious Catholic.

Only one single example, and “ab uno disce omnes” (Virgil Eneide, II, 65): the astonishing joint declaration concerning the Lutheran doctrine of “justification.” Anyone possessing minimal information knows that this doctrine is about original sin, its devastating effects on human nature, and its remission by grace alone, independently of any contribution on the part of man’s free will. It only admits a purely exterior application of the merits of Christ which supposedly cover sin, with the consequence that the justified person remains at the same time both sanctified and sinner, “simul iustus et peccator”).

I have recalled above that Luther (in 1537) would have been precisely disposed to any kind of concession towards “popery”; yet one single thing could not be questioned: the doctrine of justification by faith alone.

It took five centuries, but he won the day: the post-conciliar Church eventually proved him right, and carried his doctrine into the antechamber of the Faith.

A Plea to Pope Benedict XVI

The idea (which I dare now to submit to Your Holiness) has been in my mind for a long time. It is that a grandiose and if possible final clarification of the last council be given concerning each of its aspects and contents.

Indeed, it would seem logic, and it seems urgent to me, that these aspects and contents be studied in themselves and in the context of all the others, with a close examination of all the sources, and from the specific viewpoint of continuity with the preceding Church’s Magisterium, both solemn and ordinary. On the basis of a scientific and critic work—as vast and irreproachable as possible—in comparison with the traditional Magisterium of the Church, it will then be possible to draw matter for a sure and objective evaluation of Vatican II.

This will make it possible to answer the following questions (among many others):

  • What is the true nature of Vatican II?
  • What is the connection between its pastoral character (a notion which will need to be specified authoritatively) and its possible dogmatic character? Is the pastoral character reconcilable with the dogmatic character? Does it suppose it? Does it contradict it? Does it ignore it?
  • Is it truly possible to define the Second Vatican Council as “dogmatic”? And consequently, is it possible to refer to it as a dogmatic council? To base upon it new theological assertions? In which sense? And within which boundaries?
  • Is Vatican II an “event” in the sense given to the word by the professors of Bologna,[1] i.e., something which severs the bonds with the past and establishes a new era in every aspect? Or does all the past revive in it “eodem sensu eademque sententia”?

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1. Progressist historians of the Second Vatican Council grouped around Prof. Giuseppe Alberigo (Ed.)