The Catholic Church is dogmatically bound to the First and Second Vatican Councils, which she cannot give up; also the Orthodox Churches are de facto bound by their critique of, and opposition to, these dogmas. Rereading and re-reception are not an escamotage [slight of hand]. It means to interpret the teaching of the First Vatican Council on the primacy and infallibility of the Pope according to the “normal” and common rules of dogmatic hermeneutics. According to these rules, dogmas should be abided by in the sense in which the Church once declared them. But in the Catholic view, this does not imply an irrational and fundamentalist compliance with a formula. In fact, according to the First Vatican Council, faith and understanding belong together. Catholic teaching therefore recognizes a progressive deepening in the understanding of the truth that was revealed once and for all. There is a history of dogmas in the sense of a history of understanding and interpretation, and there are corresponding theological rules of interpretation. In this context, Ratzinger speaks of a rereading, Congar and others speak of a re-reception of the First Vatican Council.
The concept of reception, which has often been neglected in the past, is fundamental for Catholic theology, particularly for ecumenical theology and the hermeneutics of dogmas. Such reception and re-reception do not mean questioning the validity of the affirmations of a Council; rather, they mean its acceptance on the part of the ecclesial community. This is not a merely passive and mechanical acceptance; rather, it is a living and creative process of appropriation and is therefore concerned with interpretation …
1. A first rule for such a rereading and re-reception of the Petrine ministry is the integration of the concept of primacy in the whole context of ecclesiology. This rule was formulated by the First Vatican Council itself. It affirmed that the mysteries of faith are to be interpreted “e mysteriorum ipsorum nexu inter se,” that is, according to the internal context binding them together. The Second Vatican Council has expressed the same idea with the help of the doctrine of the hierarchy of truths. Therefore no dogma should be considered as isolated but should be interpreted taking into account the whole doctrine of the faith. Especially it should be interpreted on the basis, in the context, and in the light of the basic Catholic dogmas on Christology and the Holy Trinity.
This integration of the primacy had already been suggested by the First Vatican Council. The Council describes the meaning of primacy in the Proemium to the Constitution Pastor aeternus. It affirms that, according to God’s will, all faithful should be kept together in the Church through the bond of faith and love. It then mentions the famous quotation that is now at the basis of today’s ecumenical commitment, “ut omnes unum essent.” Finally, it refers to Bishop Cyprian: “ut episcopatus ipse unus et indivisus esset,” Peter was called to be “perpetuum utriusque unitatis principium ac visibile fundamentum.” An article recently published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith presents again this formulation in its fundamental importance for a theological interpretation of the juridical declarations on the doctrine of primacy. Thus, the unity of the Church is the raison d’etre and the context of interpretation of the Petrine ministry.
Because of the outbreak of the Franco-German War, the First Vatican Council was not able to proceed with the integreation of primacy into the whole ecclesiological context. This process remained uncompleted, since it only managed to define the primacy and infallibility of the Pope. This led later to unilateral and unbalanced interpretations. Nonetheless Vatican I had affirmed that the primacy does not cancel but confirms, strengthens, and defends the direct authority of the bishops. Pope Pius IX explicitly highlighted this when he confirmed the declaration of the German bishops against the dispatch of Bismarck. In this way, Pius IX defended himself against extreme interpretations and defended the position of the bishop as the ordinary pastor of his diocese. Even the formula considered scandalous in the ecumenical perspective, that the Pope is infallible “ex sese, non autem ex consensu Ecclesiae,” had already been interpreted during the Council by the speaker of the Doctrinal Commission in a purely juridical sense, in the sense that definitions did not require juridical ratification from a higher source, but, in theological terms, it is not a question of an infallibility that is separate from the faith of the Church.
The Second Vatican Council took up the question and took a second step towards the integration of primacy into the whole doctrine of the Church as well as into the whole collegiality of the episcopal ministry. This Council also reaffirmed the importance of the local Church, of the sacramental understanding of the episcopal ministry, and, above all, of the understanding of the Church as communio. This has revived synodal elements, especially at the level of synods and bishops’ conferences.
Nevertheless, the Second Vatican Council was not able to reconcile fully the new elements – which in reality correspond to the oldest tradition – with the statements of the First Vatican Council. Many issues have remained unconnected. Sometimes there is mention of the existence of two different ecclesiologies in the texts of the Council. This has led, since the Second Vatican Council, to a controversy on interpretation, to some degree continuing even today. In this sense, the Second Vatican Council, too, has remained an uncompleted Council. The integration of the Petrine ministry in the whole of ecclesiology, the relation between the universal and the local dimensions of the Church, the applicability of the principle of subsidiarity, and other questions raise theological and practical questions that have not yet been definitively resolved.
When one takes seriously that the Petrine ministry is constitutive within the Church and that all other ministries have to be in communion with it though they are not derived from it but have their own sacramental root, then a one-sided pyramidal conception of the Church is overcome and a communal one prevails, where the different institutions and ministries have their respective irreplaceable roles and are in an interplay with each other. Such a communal view, which makes room for the freedom of the Spirit, could result from a fuller reception of the Second Vatican Council.
To be continued . . .