PrayTell has already posted an excerpt on the liturgy constitution from the book What Happened at Vatican II by John W. O’Malley, SJ. Fr. O’Malley is a leading expert on Vatican II, and I recommend his book very highly. Here I excerpt from and summarize another section of the book. It  deals with the issue of the “spirit of Vatican II” and whether a corrective ‘hermeneutic of continuity’ is needed to interpret Vatican II more faithfully.

The second chapter of What Happened at Vatican II, still setting the context for the book’s main topic, is “The Long Nineteenth Century.” Fr. O’Malley is referring to a defensive mindset on the part of the Catholic Church stretching from the eighteenth century Enlightenment(s) to well into the twentieth century. This makes for a “nineteenth century” which lasted nearly 200 years. Think of the Popes prohibiting railroads and gas lamps in the Papal States, the Syllabus of Errors, the condemnation of modernists, and the silencing of progressive theologians (who were later vindicated) on the eve of Vatican II.

In one section of Chapter 2, “Genre, Form, Content, Values: ‘The Spirit of the Council’,” Fr. O’Malley points out the striking contrast between the language of Vatican II and that of preceding councils. This is relevant for current arguments about whether Vatican II should be read, relative to preceding teachings and traditions, with a ‘hermeneutic of continuity’ or with a ‘hermeneutic of rupture.’ The ‘hermeneutic of continuity’ view, advocated with nuance by Pope Benedict XVI, says that it is a misinterpretation to view Vatican II as a rupture in the life of the Church. The aspect of innovation in Vatican II is now downplayed. This ‘continuity’ view calls for a return to the actual letter and true spirit of the Council, prescinding from all the mistakes and misinterpretations (and silliness and liturgical abuses etc.) of the last 45 years. The umbrella term for what went wrong in interpretation is the “spirit of Vatican II,” a spirit which allegedly went beyond what the Council intended and wrongly introduced ruptures in Catholic thought and practice. As a conservative friend of mine says about Vatican II, “The spirit killeth but the letter giveth life.”

Fr. O’Malley’s analysis of the genre, form, and content of the documents of Vatican II poses, I think, a formidable challenge to the ‘hermeneutic of continuity’ view. Perhaps Fr. O’Malley downplays slightly the traditional language in the Council’s documents and overstates slightly the aspect of innovation. But his analysis makes it abundantly clear that something new and unprecedented really happened at Vatican II. The ‘hermeneutic of continuity’ folks will have to account for all this innovation. They will have to demonstrate that they are reading the entirety of the Council, not just a few favored passages taken out of context.

First, I let Fr. O’Malley speak in his own words to describe the difference in language between Vatican II and what preceded it. Second, I summarize the five categories of innovation in vocabulary he identifies in Vatican II. Then I give the last word again to Fr. O’Malley.

Through the centuries councils have made use of a range of literary genres, most of which have borrowed from the discourse of Roman antiquity. The genres in large measure were, or closely resembled, laws and judicial sentences…

Two fundamental assumptions were in play. First, councils were judicial bodies that heard cases and rendered judgment, with anybody found guilty duly punished. Second, they were legislative bodies that issued ordinances, to which were attached, as with any law, penalties for failure to comply. …

Among the many literary forms used by councils through the centuries were confessions of faith, historical narratives, bulls and letters, judicial sentences against ecclesiastical criminals, constitutions, and various kinds of “decrees.” …

[T]he councils from Nicaea to Vatican I had a characteristic style of discourse. … It consisted of words of threat and intimidation, words of surveillance and punishment, words of a superior speaking to an inferior – or to an enemy. It consisted of power-words. …

The language projected an image of the church as a stern master, and the image in turn promoted the reality and helped it self-fulfill. … But Vatican II eschewed such language. It issued no canons, no anathemas, no verdicts of “guilty as charged.” In so speaking it marked a significant break with past councils. …

Vatican II … largely eschewed Scholastic language. It thus moved from the dialectic of winning an argument to the dialogue of finding common ground. … It moved from grand conceptual schemes or summae with hundreds of logically interconnected parts to the humble acceptance of mystery. In so doing it largely abandoned the Scholastic framework that had dominated Catholic theology since the thirteenth century. …

The shift affected not one or two documents of the council but, with varying degrees of consistency, all of them. It modified the existing value system. It implicitly said, for instance, that it is more valuable to work together as neighbors than to fight over differences, as we have up to now been doing. …

The style of discourse the council adopted … can be precisely identified. … It is what the [ancient] Roman authors called the ars laudandi, the panegyric. … Panegyric is the painting of an idealized portrait in order to excite admiration and appropriation. … It is rightly described as “pastoral” because it was meant to make Christian ideals appealing. …

New ways of speaking? The implications are profound. To learn a new language so as genuinely to live within it entails an inner transformation. Much more is at stake than learning new words for one’s old concepts. To properly speak a new language means to enter fully into the values and sensibilities of a culture different from one’s own and to appropriate them.

Fr. O’Malley then examines the vocabulary of the Vatican II documents. He notes that “[w]ords of alienation, exclusion, enmity, words of threat and intimidation, words of surveillance and punishment” are absent. The church is never described as a monarchy, or the members of the church as subjects. In all this, the words of Vatican II are untypical of the conventional vocabulary of councils. Fr. O’Malley helpfully organizes the change of vocabulary into five categories, acknowledging that the categories at times blur into each other. Here is a brief summary of Fr. O’Malley’s categorization which simply lists the categories without providing his commentary of the significance of the vocabulary.

First, there are horizontal words, or even equality words. Examples are “people of God,” “brothers and sisters,” “priesthood of all believers.” And of course there is the term “collegiality.”

Second, there are reciprocity words – “cooperation,” “partnership,” “collaboration,” “dialogue,” “conversation.”

Third, there are humility words – the church is a “pilgrim” on a journey, and those in authority are “servants.”

Fourth, there are “change” words. Though the word “change” scarcely appears, there are words like “development,” “progress,” and even “evolution.”

Fifth, there are interiority words which emphasize not just external behavior or confession of truth, but inner conversion. Examples are “charism,” “conscience,” and the “call to holiness.” The opening words of Gaudium et spes show lively attentiveness to the inner sentiments of people, their “joy and hope, grief and anguish.”

All this is new. Of course there are conventional words in Vatican II emphasizing the authority of the Church, the truth of the Church’s teachings, and the obligation of Church members to assent and obey. Fr. O’Malley shows that these passages are now placed within an entirely new larger context, which cannot help but lend them new connotations.

Fr. O’Malley concludes Chapter 2:

When both genre and vocabulary are taken into account they convey a remarkably consistent message. The message is that a model-shift has occurred, or better, is struggling to occur. Genre together with its appropriate vocabulary also imbues Vatican II with a coherence lacking in previous councils. …

This coherence was immediately recognized by commentators on the council and was often expressed in the vague term “spirit of the council.” “Spirit” here meant an overriding vision that transcended the particulars of the documents and had to be taken into account in interpreting the council. … Through an examination of “the letter” (form and vocabulary) it is possible to arrive at “the spirit.”

Excerpted and summarized from John W. O’Malley,  What Happened at Vatican II (Cambridge MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008), 43-52.