2. The second principle of dogmatic hermeneutics concerns the rereading of the First Vatican Council in light of the whole tradition and the integration of that Council within this tradition as a whole. The texts of the First Vatican Council itself already pointed out this route. The introduction to the Dogmatic Constitution Pastor aeternus described it as the intention to interpret this teaching “secundum antiquam atque constantem universalis Ecclesiae fidem” and defend it against mistakes. Clear mention was made of the declarations of the previous Popes and of the preceding Councils. The First Vatican Council even appealed to the consensus between the Church in the East and the Church in the West. The Second Vatican Council reinforced especially this last point when it mentioned the legitimacy of the particular tradition of the Oriental Churches and recognized that they can rule themselves according to their own law.
Such indications express an important concept, valid for all Councils: the Church is the same in all centuries and in all Councils; this is why each Council is to be interpreted in the light of the whole tradition and of all the Councils. The Holy Spirit, Who guides the Church, particularly in its Councils, cannot contradict Himself. What was true in the first millennium cannot be untrue in the second. Therefore the older tradition should not be simply considered as a first phase of a further development. The other way round is also true: the later developments should be interpreted in the light of the wider older tradition. Therefore the First Vatican Council should be seen in the context of the older Councils. Thus the first millennium’s ecclesiology of communion, reaffirmed in its validity by the Second Vatican Council, constitutes the hermeneutical framework for the First Vatican Council.
In the meanwhile, especially after Cardinal Ratzinger’s conference in Graz, the normative importance of the first millennium has been widely recognized also in Catholic theology. But it is essential to understand it correctly. It is clear that it is not a question of simply going back to the first millennium or reverting to an “ecumenism of return.” Such a return to the first millennium is impossible, in any case, for historical reasons: divergent views already existed in the first millennium, and so it cannot offer us any miraculous solution. Moreover, significant developments have taken place in the second millennium not only in the Catholic Church but also within the Eastern Churches. Why should we suppose that the Spirit guided the Church only in the first millennium? And did not the first millennium already contain the foundations of what developed in the second, which is true of the Eastern tradition also?
Therefore today, at the dawn of the third millennium, we cannot turn back the clock of history; but we can interpret the different events of the second millennium in the light of the first one in order to open the door to the third millennium. The Second Vatican Council had already initiated the interpretation of the First Vatican Council within the wider horizon of communio ecclesiology.
A corresponding reception on the part of the Churches in the East has not happened so far. Such a reception would not imply a mechanical acceptance or a submission of the East to the Latin tradition: it would entail a lively and creative process of appropriation into one’s own tradition. This would enrich the tradition of the Eastern Church and give it a greater degree of unity and independence that is currently lacking. Also, the Latin tradition would be freed from the constraints in which it found itself in the second millennium. The Church as a whole – as the Pope has expressed many times – would start breathing with two lungs again. This implies that integrating the other tradition and vice versa could lead to different forms and expressions in the exercise of the Petrine ministry, as occurred in the first millennium and as occurs today in the Oriental Churches in full communion with Rome.
To be continued …