The German Pope never claimed that between the old and the new Catholic teachings on religious liberty there was perfect continuity. But he said the reform was not a “rupture.”
by Massimo Introvigne.
Article 2 of 4. Read article 1.
In 1992, the Holy See issued the “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” the second universal catechism in the Church’s history and a very important document, which both summarizes and authoritatively interprets the Second Vatican Council. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was the main “author” of that document.
Its paragraph 2108 states that, “The right to religious liberty is neither a moral license to adhere to error, nor a supposed right to error, but rather a natural right of the human person to civil liberty, i.e., immunity, within just limits, from external constraint in religious matters by political authorities.” There are three footnotes, referring respectively to the encyclical “Libertas” by Leo XIII, to Pius XII, and to Vatican II’s “Dignitatis Humanae.”
The Catechism, thus, canonized the opinion shared by several leading Catholic scholars that the right to religious liberty of the Council is not a positive right—this would be the “supposed right to error” they cannot accept—but a negative right, i.e. an “immunity” from the constraints of the State, which has no business in interfering in matters religious.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith headed by Cardinal Ratzinger issued in 2000 the declaration “Dominus Jesus,” perhaps its most famous—and most controversial—document. While not directly dealing with religious liberty, it assured the faithful that nothing had essentially changed in the traditional Catholic doctrine that there is only one true Church.
In 2002, the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith published a “Doctrinal Note
on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life.” Its no. 8 “recall[s] a truth which today is often not perceived or formulated correctly in public opinion: the right to freedom of conscience and, in a special way, to religious freedom, taught in the Declaration ‘Dignitatis Humanae’ of the Second Vatican Council, is based on the ontological dignity of the human person and not on a non-existent equality among religions or cultural systems of human creation.
Reflecting on this question, Paul VI taught that ‘in no way does the Council base this right to religious freedom on the fact that all religions and all teachings, including those that are erroneous, would have more or less equal value; it is based rather on the dignity of the human person, which demands that he [sic] not be subjected to external limitations which tend to constrain the conscience in its search for the true religion or in adhering to it.’
The teaching on freedom of conscience and on religious freedom does not therefore contradict the condemnation of indifferentism and religious relativism by Catholic doctrine; on the contrary, it is fully in accord with it.” [This is the official English text of the “Doctrinal Note”: the quality of the English language leaves something to be desired.]
On December 22, 2005, Benedict XVI delivered his now famous speech to the Roman Curia on the interpretation of the Second Vatican Council. He started by noting that “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 [330–379], the great Doctor of the Church, made of the Church’s situation after the Council of Nicaea : he compares her situation to a naval battle in the darkness of the storm.”
“The question—continued Pope Benedict—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 quarreled 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. […] The hermeneutic of discontinuity risks ending in a split between the pre-conciliar Church and the post-conciliar Church.”
While condemning this “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture,” Benedict XVI did not oppose to it a simple “hermeneutic of continuity,” nor did he claim that between the old and the new Catholic teachings there is a perfect, linear continuity. This would be obviously false. Although he will later use the shortened form “hermeneutic of continuity” both in the endnote 6 to the apostolic exhortation “Sacramentum Caritatis” of 2007 and in his speech of March 12, 2010, to the participants in a theological conference of the Congregation for the Clergy, the 2005 text clarified that what Benedict presented as the correct hermeneutic of Vatican II was a “hermeneutic of reform in the continuity.”
In a reform there is some discontinuity—otherwise, there would be no reform—, but there is also a fundamental continuity—otherwise, it would not be the reform of an existing institution but the creation of a new body. “It is precisely in this combination of continuity and discontinuity at different levels, the Pope said, that the very nature of true reform consists of.”
In the same speech, Benedict XVI applied the “hermeneutic of reform in the continuity” precisely to the controversial question of religious liberty. The Pope admitted that there is “some kind of discontinuity” in the Catholic teaching about this issue from Pius IX to Vatican II. Once the correct hermeneutic is applied, however, he believed he could conclude that there was no radical rupture. He claimed the general principles taught by the Church had not changed. Their applications had changed, also as a consequence of new and different historical situations.