Souter and Sacrosanctum – UPDATED 6-3-10

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.

And this:

[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.

And this:

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.



  1. Ooh–I know–as a biblical scholar, I suggest that we consider a set of hypothetical documents from which SC was compiled, each source document having its own unique community and flavor of theology from whence we can discern various levels within different strands so as to pit the “simplistic legalism of Q sub 1 against the enthusiast oligarchy of M sub 3″…

  2. I completely understand what you mean Father. I have often hear or read the suggestion that if the Mass was revised as SC really wanted, as opposed to what the Consilium did, then everything would fine. The challenge is that SC was a document with broad principals rather than detailed prescriptions. I think there are a number of ways that separate SC from the US Constitution. First of all there is voluminous material regarding its background, including its drafting process as well as the commentary that accompanied each point in the Constitution, explaining the ideas behind it. Next, the people who were involved in drafting the Constitution were also those who implemented it. I think that is a very unique result. By all indications, those who were involved in the reform of the Liturgy were very careful not to exceed the principles of SC. Finally, we often hear about spirit vs. letter. The people involved in the reform we not necessarily caught up in the chaos that sometimes characterized life in parishes. I think they proceeded with an authentic understanding of the letter and spirit of SC, not what they perceived it to be or what they thought it justified in terms of freedom and creativity. In areas that the reform exceeded the principles of SC, these were specifically authorized by Paul VI, who had the authority to do so.

  3. Father Anthony,

    The old saw about being careful what you ask for comes forcefully to mind. Guaranteed that legal scholar/liturgists can make sense of all this. Whether any two of them will make the _same_ sense of it is another question altogether.

    The tension between competing goods is a, if not _the_ classic problem in leadership studies. One way of dealing with it is to resist the temptation to make the same decision fit all circumstances at all times. Usually this is precluded by other factors anyway, but in the Catholic Church it can be a problem.

  4. The late Avery Cardinal Dulles considered this in 2003 (
    He notes that the 1985 Synod of Bishops gave us the legitimate tools to interpret the documents of the most recent council:

    a. No opposition may be made between the spirit and the letter of Vatican II.

    b. The council must be interpreted in continuity with the great tradition of the church, including earlier councils.

    Dulles also noted in this article the need for better quality liturgical translations.

    1. I don’t think the 1985 Synod gets enough recognition..

      “It is not licit to separate the pastoral character from the doctrinal vigor of the documents. In the same way, it is not legitimate to separate the spirit and the letter of the Council. Moreover, the Council must be understood in continuity with the great tradition of the Church, and at the same time we must receive light from the Council’s own doctrine for today’s Church and the men of our time. The Church is one and the same throughout all the councils.”

      “The false opposition between doctrinal and pastoral responsibilities must be avoided and overcome. In fact, the true intent of pastoral work consists in actualizing and making concrete the truth of salvation, which is in itself valid for all times. As true pastors, the bishops must point out the right way to the flock, strengthen the faith of the flock, keep dangers away from it.”

      “The active participation so happily increased after the Council does not consist only in external activity, but above all in interior and spiritual participation, in living and fruitful participation in the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ. … The Bishops should not merely correct abuses but should also clearly explain to everyone the theological foundation of the sacramental discipline and of the liturgy. Catecheses must once again become paths leading into liturgical life (mystagogical catecheses).”

  5. American’s conflict of values is not only in our constitution, its in our hearts according to the World Values Study. Most nations move from traditional values to secular values during industrialization; they move from survival values to self expressive values during the post industrial service/information economy.

    Protestant countries such as Scandinavia are particularly susceptive to both these changes. We should be very like them but we are not. We did not abandon traditional values (God, family, life, country) during industrialization, but we have steady moved to self expressive values since the sixties. We are like Catholic countries which have been far more resistance to secularization. In fact we are more like some very Catholic countries, Poland, Ireland, Mexico.

    We still belief in God and think God is important. However we find God in many different places, e.g. in the Bible, in our church, in our hearts. We believe in family, except we are expressing that in many different forms of family. We believe in life, but we are expressing that in may different forms, the unborn, the poor, the environment. We strongly believe in the Constitution and the rule of the law, but we have many different ideas of how that all works out.

    There is a strong conflict between wanting to have all these commonly held traditional values they keep our society together and at the same time let everyone express them in the ways they want.

  6. Jeffrey,

    Nothing in all of that precludes the possibility of equally qualified thinkers coming to different interpretations. In fact, it sort of invites it – note the comment about deliberate ambiguity. And that brings me back to the matter of getting the same interpretation from any two well-qualified legal scholar liturgists.

    Then again, I am of the crowd that would only rarely think that there’s only one possible correct interpretation of most anything.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *