You’ve heard about the “spirit of Vatican II,” yes? A conservative friend who thinks the Council has been hijacked by liberals likes to say that, when it comes to Vatican II, the spirit killeth but the letter giveth life. (The same guy has a little sign on his bulletin board saying Celebrate Uniformity.) He came to mind when I read about former Supreme Court Justice David Souter’s Harvard graduation speech. I don’t claim to know much about the interpretation of the U.S. constitution, but I sense that it would be very instructive to draw on that discussion when thinking about how to interpret the Vatican II liturgy constitution, Sacrosanctum concilium. The similarities between the two cases are striking. Think of the terms bandied about – originalists, what the framers really meant, living document, developmentalist interpretation, and so forth. “What the framers really intended” sometimes sounds suspiciously like “What I happen to want.”
Souter says about inherent interpretational difficulties:
[T]he Constitution contains values that may well exist in tension with each other, not in harmony.
[T]he Constitution is no simple contract, not because it uses a certain amount of open-ended language, but because its language grants and guarantees many good things, and good things that compete with each other and can never all be realized, altogether, all at once.
The Constitution is a pantheon of values, and a lot of hard cases are hard because the Constitution gives no simple rule of decision for the cases in which one of the values is truly at odds with another.
Pretty easy to do a mutatis mutandis and apply that to Sacrosanctum concilium. If the Council fathers had wanted to pre-program an interpretational nightmare for decades to come, they couldn’t have done much better than the final text of the liturgy constitution.
So, calling all legal scholars who are also liturgists. Can you help us make sense of things?
UPDATE: E.J. Dionne Jr., always a perceptive commentator on things political, reports on the speech here.