Misdirections: Ten Sure-Fire Ways to Mix Up the Teachings of Vatican II

This is really important, really helpful. There is no better scholar of Vatican II than Fr. John O’Malley, SJ, though there are many great scholars of the great council. There is no one who has studied the event of the council so carefully and explained the meaning of the council’s documents so cogently. Think What Happened at Vatican II. (See Pray Tell‘s post on that here.)

America has just posted his article on how not not interpret Vatican II. Fr. O’Malley’s ten sure-fire ways to mix up the teachings of  Vatican II are:

  1. Insist Vatican II was only a pastoral council.
  2. Insist it was an occurrence in the life of the church, not an event.
  3. Banish the expression “spirit of the council.”
  4. Study the documents individually, without considering them part of an integral corpus.
  5. Study the final 16 documents in the order of hierarchical authority, not in the chronological order in which they were approved in the council.
  6. Pay no attention to the documents’ literary form.
  7. Stick to the final 16 documents and pay no attention to the historical context, the history of the texts or the controversies concerning them during the council.
  8. Outlaw the use of any “unofficial” sources, such as the diaries or correspondence of participants.
  9. Interpret the documents as expressions of continuity with the Catholic tradition.
  10. Make your assessment of the council into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In my lowest moments of tediousness and irritation with Pray Tell commenters, I suppose I could refer to the above as “ten ways to be a Pray Tell commenter.” But let it pass.

I’m confident that truth will win out, that something like O’Malley’s position will eventually carry the day. I’m not optimistic that this will happen soon. Power structures and those who inhabit them want to claim otherwise right now, and obviously that is very influential. But not long term – the sources won’t go away, and the most honest way of interpreting them will eventually emerge. Maybe not in my lifetime, but I suspect it will be. Who knows.

Read the article. Print it out. Save it for reference.

Did I say that this is really important?



  1. There are some good points in the article. Specifically, the need to read the Council (and Catholic Tradition) as an integral corpus (i.e. points 4 and 9). As I have argued here previously, one Holy Spirt is speaking through all of these, so they need to be considered together.

    However, I would have to reject point 10. What on Earth are Bishops (or possible future Councils) for, if not to assess the Council and decide how it is to be implemented and received?

  2. Thanks for posting this. I believe that this is really important, essential. And I also believe in the “slow work of God,” as Teilhard de Chardin reminded us. I may not always be patient with said work, but I do believe. Lord, help my unbelief. And keep the O’Malley piece handy.

  3. What do we do to resolve conflicts between the 10 antitheses of these misdirections? Example conflicts are:

    1. Statements of popes and bishops (contemporaries of the council) who stress the pastoral nature of the Council

    2. Statements of popes and bishops (contemporaries of the council) who stress the unity between the “spirit” and “letter” of the Council and its documents

    3. Statements of popes and bishops (contemporaries of the council) who stress the reception of the Council “in continuity”

    1. @Jeffrey Pinyan – comment #3:
      Jeffrey, I am trying to see the antitheses you are spotting here. To take your three examples:

      1) I think O’Malley is saying that the Council could well be “pastoral” in the style of its communications but nonetheless have teaching authority. What he is critiquing is a tendency to rank it below Councils like Vatican I simply because it didn’t issue anathemas. This tendency is strongest in schismatic groups who would dismiss all or part of Vatican II, but it also comes out in the work of many “conservative” writers.

      2) All I see in O’Malley’s critique of dismissing “spirit of the Council” is a simple point: no single document is self-interpreting. This is hardly a post-modern idea; it is very old (see Acts 8.30). O’Malley himself stresses the unity: “, the “spirit of the council,” while based solidly on the “letter” of the council’s documents, transcends any specific one of them”.

      There needs to be some sort of hermeneutical principle that we apply to the documents. O’Malley proposes a look at the ensemble of documents, at their history, at their language and at surrounding sources. Another option, of course, would for the pope to proclaim a hermeneutic by fiat: you will interpret them this way because I, divinely inspired, so instruct you.

      But he is a scholar by background, and perhaps loath to take such a step.

      3) As I have tried to show before on PTB, a simple-minded appeal to “continuity” is virtually meaningless — it is a shibboleth. Essentially, it means “interpret the Council the way I tell you to.” Pope Benedict doesn’t seem to fall into this trap, but some of his enthusiastic followers do.

      With the possible exception of (2) above — a tension between the appeal to authority and the appeal to reason — I’m not sure I’m following the problem you raise.

      1. @Jonathan Day – comment #4:
        1. John XXIII and Paul VI both made statements about the council which stressed its pastoral nature (without necessarily saying the council was exclusively pastoral):

        “The substance of the ancient doctrine of the Deposit of Faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another. And it is the latter that must be taken into great consideration with patience if necessary, everything being measured in the forms and proportions of a magisterium which is predominantly pastoral in character.” (John XXIII, October 11, 1962)

        “In view of the conciliar practice and the pastoral purpose of the present Council, this sacred Synod defines matters of faith or morals as binding on the Church only when the Synod itself openly declares so.” (Paul VI, quoted in Abbott’s The Documents of Vatican II p. 98)

        These are only two examples; other quotes from Paul VI, and remarks from participants at the council (e.g. Heenan, Butler, Graber), emphasize the pastoral character of the council. So we have the antitheses of #8 and #1 coming into tension with each other.

        2. The 1985 Synod of Bishops, addressing the event of the council, said that “it is not legitimate to separate the spirit and the letter of the Council.” One can distort the (true) notion that the spirit of the council transcends any one document, to come up with an implied “trajectory” on which the council set the Church in motion, which may come to overturn the letter of the Council, thus separating the letter from the spirit and pitting them against each other. (Antitheses of #3 and #8)

        3. That Synod also said “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.” See also remarks from John XXIII before the council, about its purpose being to restate, for modern man, the ancient doctrines contained in the deposit of faith. (Antitheses of #9 and #8)

    2. @Jeffrey Pinyan – comment #3:

      Regarding resolving the conflict around #3 “Statements of popes and bishops who stress the reception of the council in continuity. Pope Benedict himself said in his address to the Roman Curia Dec. 22, 2005 that what was required for Vatican II was a “hermeneutic of reform,” which he defined as a “combination of continuity and discontinuity at different levels….” I suppose the conflict might be with the discontinuity aspects of Vatican II, or for some a complete denial of any discontinuity.
      Is there any room for theologians or the laity to interepet the council or is it just the work of the pope and bishops?

  4. It all depends on whom we rely to guide us and which “authorities” we choose to follow. Obviously there are many ways to cook a chicken, but the chef has to decide the way he wants and he’s the authority in the kitchen. I would say the Pope and the Bishops are the legitimate authorities in the Church (after Christ of course) and academic theologians are there to assist them in exercising that authority but do not usurp it or set up a bogus authority of their own and then try to legitimize it by academic double speak that is self-serving–that sounds like a cult. In other words, the usurpation of legitimate authority seems to fall under the “spirit” that some in the Church use to promote their own agenda and that would be a negative spirit.
    As well, as a Council that was very positive, to use the term “rupture” which is entirely negative to describe what the Council wished to accomplish and its legitimate spirit, would be counter-productive and surely that has been proven true these past 50 years. “Reform in Continuity” as understood by Pope Benedict challenges the stereotypes of both extremes in the Church on the left and right and places the appropriate spirit of change and conversion that the Council sought on a positive footing rather than a negative one.

    1. @Fr. Allan J. McDonald – comment #5:
      Well, this is refreshing: “Reform in Continuity” as understood by Pope Benedict challenges the stereotypes of both extremes in the Church on the left and right and places the appropriate spirit of change and conversion that the Council sought on a positive footing rather than a negative one.

      Exactly the point that Rev. J. Komonchak has written and spoken on consistently. But your earlier statements question this paragraph:
      – “….to use the term “rupture” which is entirely negative to describe what the Council wished to accomplish and its legitimate spirit, would be counter-productive and surely that has been proven true these past 50 years”…..and yet as Fr. K has underlined B16 did speak about rupture and not as a negative – he framed it in his talk…..you are tweaking this to appeal to your hobbyhorses
      – “It all depends on whom we rely to guide us and which “authorities” we choose to follow”….again, VII moved us away from a top down, hierarchical model of church leadership. It reframed servant leadership vs. authoritarianism …again, you tweak to fit your appeal to your hobbyhorses.
      – “exercising that authority but do not usurp it or set up a bogus authority of their own and then try to legitimize it by academic double speak that is self-serving–that sounds like a cult.”….again, you have borrowed words to appeal to your hobbyhorses. This statement of yours is biased and extreme; trys to paint a picture of a *conspiracy* – legitimate, bogus, double speak, self-serving, cult…..what is funny about this list is those words could be found in 1950 about some of the periti and council fathers …how did that turn out. Actually, it fits some of the ROTR crowd e.g. Fr. Z.

  5. I suppose one could compose a counter-list of tendencies to avoid that exist on the other side of the pendulum’s arc. Such items are implied in O’Malley’s list. While not exhaustive, such a list could include:

    * Elevating the diaries, debates and drafts to a status that equals or supersedes the Council’s actual final texts

    * Interpreting the documents in a way that fails to take into account the hierarchy of Conciliar statements

    * Minimizing the continuity between the Council and its antecedents in the life of the church

    * Minimizing the contributions of all the Councils that came before Vatican II

    … and so on.

    1. @Jim Pauwels – comment #7:
      To pick up on what Todd said, Jim P, would make some clarifications.
      As a historian who has dabbled with publications of works, allow me to make a broad simplification in terms of what historians do:
      – some works are *narratives* – can best be described as timelines or chronologies that list the events of history (these have grown out of style these days but much of what we have in terms of VII are list of documents with brief narratives
      – some works are *historical interpretations* – can best be described as a historian’s effort to objectively interpret the events via key players, society, economics, customs, gov’t policies, etc. (think of it this way – if you were to set out and write a biography of a famous person you would need to find, read, and understand his/her notes, accomlishments, family/peers who interacted or commented on this person, etc. An interpretation is not just a list of events or documents – it has to start with the key players (O’Malley’s #7 & 8). *Good* histories/interpretations take these primary sources, compare and contrast, balance out, find trends/patterns to arrive (at best) at an objective interpretation of who this person is.

      So, when you say: *Elevating the diaries, debates and drafts to a status that equals or supersedes the Council’s actual final texts* would suggest that you have confused the task of an historian. You are correct in terms of *elevate* as more important* but then that would be seen by other experts as less than objective; poor interpretation; and rejected by a peer group. (e.g. five volume Alberigo history is recognized as one of the best objective interpretations of Vatican II by its own historical peer group.
      Yet, today we have a small group that attacks Alberigo based upon what:
      – not starting with or rejecting the diaries, debates, drafts (bad history)
      – if someone takes a specific diary or debate and overly highlights or focues on this, the historical peer group will label it…

  6. The real “authority” comes from, it must be said, the Holy Spirit. The Church has within her power to assess the needs of the Gospel, not the preservation of the institution. The former is the work of God. The latter, however well-intentioned, is a human fabrication.

    My issue is not that present-day bishops and popes reinterpret Vatican II, but that they tend to do it so poorly, and without an eye to the benefit of the Body.

  7. The real “authority” comes from, it must be said, the Holy Spirit. The Church has within her power to assess the needs of the Gospel, not the preservation of the institution. The former is the work of God. The latter, however well-intentioned, is a human fabrication.

    The Church is not merely an institution founded by humans. The Church is a work of God.

    Lumen Gentium: “18. … This Sacred Council, following closely in the footsteps of the First Vatican Council, with that Council teaches and declares that Jesus Christ, the eternal Shepherd, established His holy Church, having sent forth the apostles as He Himself had been sent by the Father; and He willed that their successors, namely the bishops, should be shepherds in His Church even to the consummation of the world. …

    20. That divine mission, entrusted by Christ to the apostles, will last until the end of the world, since the Gospel they are to teach is for all time the source of all life for the Church. And for this reason the apostles, appointed as rulers in this society, took care to appoint successors. …”

    1. @Samuel J. Howard – comment #10:
      “The Church is not merely an institution founded by humans. The Church is a work of God.”

      Quite true. But not everything done in the name of the Church is of God. Discernment is essential. We can assess the great harm done to the Gospel in the name of preserving the institution, rather than the forwarding of the Church accomplishing the mission of Christ.

      Infighting between curial departments and/or bishops was not instituted by God. Jesus was very explicit in calling out the practice of lording it over others.

  8. Continued…… and will label it as poor history.

    As Fr. Ruff says in the initial post, some have chosen to reject accepted historical methodologies; peer review; documented facts using their own B16 ROTR movement mantra (even tho some have stated that B16 did not state this…they have borrowed and skewed B16’s words and we live with what Jonathan has called a shibboleth ….*in continuity* which can be manipulated to fit anything or an appeal to B16/papal blessing (again, Jonathan has appropriately named this and shown it as a misinterpretation).

    First posted this link/article on an earlier topic – GIRM Compendium, #69. It was an attempt to respond to a number of comments that tried to take the works of Alberigo, Komonchak, O’Malley, others and say that these were my interpretations and had no more value than someone else’s opinions. This approach is what O’Malley is writing about – it makes history nothing more than gossip and opinions. Reject an approach that makes an ideological approach equal to an accepted historically researched, written, and accepted historical work.

    History is interpretation; it lives in the *gray*; but good history is nuanced; based upon research/documentation; reviewed by peers; it changes. History is a counterweight to ideology and narrow opinion that rarely uses nuance; research; or is open to peer review.

  9. Fr. John O’Malley has a book on the subject, called “What Happened At Vatican II” available since 2010. His new book, “Trent: What Happened At The Council” is also excellent reading!

  10. Never forget that Paul VI used the phrase “spirit of Vatican II” or “spirit of the Council” over 100 times (A. Melloni showed me the list). The Council was a great innovation in that it was presented as primarily pastoral; but that did not prevent it from publishing important dogmatic constitutions on Revelation and on the Church; or from correcting older doctrines in Nostra Aetate and Dignitatis Humanae. The people most interested in contesting the dogmatic authority of the Council are those who resent what these latter documents about the dignity of the Jews and of the human conscience.

  11. ” … your comments are vary difficult to parse gramatically and in formatting. It’s not clear all the time who you are quoting, who your pronouns refer to, etc.”

    Funny, but I find that to be true of MR3 on an almost daily basis. I suppose in casual conversation, one can always ask for a clarification. Wonder about that appearance of pelagianism or gnosticism in the MR3 and you might well get investigated for it.

    1. @Crystal Watson – comment #21:
      Thank you, Crystal, for pointing out the video of Fr O’Malley’s talk on Vatican II. In fact there were two lectures, and both are available here:

      news DOT vanderbilt DOT edu SLASH 2010 SLASH 10 SLASH video-what-happened-at-vatican-ii

      You know how to turn this into a URL. Unfortunately PTB tosses a comment with even one link into moderation.

      The second lecture is especially worth reading, because it provides a history of interpretations of the Council.

      In the first lecture, he presents what he calls a “litany” of the change in the Council’s style from what went before:

      from commands to invitations

      from monologue to dialogue

      from laws to ideals

      from threats to persuasion

      from ruling to serving

      from hostility to friendship

      from rivalry to partnership

      from suspicion to trust

      from withdrawal to engagement

      from passive acceptance to active participation

      from behaviour modification to conversion of heart

      [He goes on –-]

      What the Council was asking really was a kind of conversion and a shift in core values; a new heart …

      From the second lecture:

      The Council has very definite orientations … something beyond the specific to more general principles, more general orientations. This applies to Vatican II in a pre-eminent way. The Council has a coherence. It’s not just a grab-bag of ordinances. It has a coherence, and this is largely due to the intertextual character of the way the documents are put together.

      This entails a kind of shift in priorities, in emotional priorities or spiritual priorities. A shift in values. Not a shift in doctrine, not a shift in discipline, but a shift in values. A new attitude, if you will. A new change of mind, change of heart. I don’t want to exaggerate that, but that’s what the Council was aiming at and doing.

      To put it another way: he does a good job of defending the reality and value of “the spirit of the Council”. And he does this on historical rather than ideological grounds.

  12. This discussion reminds me of a famous musicology article – “The Council of Trent Revisited” by Craig Monson (2002). The article made waves in the musicology community – necessitating the revision of major textbooks and recognition of error in ‘old standard’ music history texts (such as the Reese and Atlas histories of Renaissance music).

    The “standard line” in question was the oft-repeated idea that Trent called for textual clarity in music. For example, countless books and articles would have statements like “Palestrina exemplified the council’s requirement for textual clarity in his straightforward polyphonic writing.” As Monson showed, this was supported in standard histories by an uncritical conflating of council debates and drafts with the finished, promulgated council texts. There was a draft which mentioned textual clarity; however, this requirement never made it into the official council documents.

    It’s funny, because the actual council documents were readily available in latin and translations. It took some real historical-critical effort to get the story wrong all of those years.

    I’m not saying that the historical studies and the delving into drafts and debates and journals are useless. But sometimes the academic search for the “real story” behind the plain text itself becomes too clever by half.

  13. Parts of Fr.’s litany appear somewhat sentimental to me. Certainly there are invitations in V2 but there are commands there as well. A cursory look at SC reveals many commands that cannot be confused with invitations including:

    14 Wherefore the sacred Council has decided to enact as follows …
    16 The study of sacred liturgy is to be ranked among the compulsory and major courses in seminaries and religious houses …
    17 (Clerics) … must learn how to observe the liturgical laws
    22.3 Therefore no other person, even if he be a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority.
    36.1 … the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites.
    53 … there is to be restored, after the Gospel and the homily, “the common prayer” or “the prayer of the faithful…

    An inviation found in the same document might include 52:

    …the homily … should not be omitted except for a serious reason.

  14. Daniel,
    these are commands only if you read them as commands, ie if you see this as a commanding legislative body.

    If you see the council as an inviting, trusting partner, the same words would be read as invitations to brothers to place liturgy coursework among a seminarians highest priorities or to preserve Latin as our common heritage.

    In an earlier, less genial age, the statements would read “if anyone uses a language other than Latin, let him be anathema.” By that standard, the commands you cite are less commanding, which is the point I think.

  15. Thanks, Jim….my first reaction was to wonder if he had read O’Malley’s book. From its conclusion, O”Malley makes these points:

    -“the first element in the style shift ws the substitution of a rhetorical form for the judicial and legislative forms that previous councils had. In this new style canons, anathemas, and verdicts of guilty-as-charged found no place. The Roman Synod of 1960 issued 755 canons; VII, ending just five years later, issued none.”

    “The council, of course, contains provisions for the implementation of its decisions and is concrete in detailing the hoped for outcomes; for example, SC lays down clear norms for liturgical revisions.”

    “VII was imbued with a literary unity unique among councils. It suggests that VII was *values expressive*. It used common words such as brothers/sisters; friendship; collaboration; freedom; dialogue, pilgrim; servant; development; evolution; charism; dignity; conscience; collegiality; people of God; etc. It suggests two different visions of Catholicism…” (then, the list from Jonathan Day above.

  16. To post #23, 24, 25

    The only problem with talking about Vatican II exclusively in the language of invitation as above, is that it implies we can take it or leave it. Is it, after all, a polite suggestion? Are we invited to change our approach to the modern world and the Medieval and Counter-Reformation eras of the Church, ect. ? Or are we commanded to?

    Surely, part of the point of this post’s article was that Vatican II is not just a pastoral council, but is rather authoratative in some important ways…

    How can an invitation be authoratative? How can we be commanded to dialogue? While the Council might be said to entail a decisive shift in emphasis, does that shift in emphasis also contain the same old demand to obey its (albeit) new spirit?

    1. @Jordan DeJonge – comment #27:
      Again, if you go back to O’Malley’s book and its conclusion, he states in response to your questions:

      “No institution can be simply open-ended. Sooner or later decision is required. The council majority never intended to deny or undermine the principle of hierarchical structure. It was only seeking modulation and balance. Thus was the council not only pastoral but also as a teaching council. Most importantly, it taught about the style of relationships that was to prevail in the church. Its discourse was the medium that conveyed this message e.g. it taught through its language, form, vocabulary. It implicitly called for a change in style i.e. less autocratic; more collaborative; listen to; find common ground; a style that eschews secret oaths, anonymous denunciations, and inquisitorial tactics.”

      Thus, the central theme of the council, its spirit, was the *call to holiness* but as ressourced and found in scripture, patristics, and not the more juridical vocabulary of earlier councils. So, how can an *invitation be authoratative*? Because the council emphasized a different theology – incarnational rather than eschatological; closer to the Eastern church than to Augustine; more inclined to reconciliation than to alienation. This call echoed and respected the goodness of creation as outlined in Dignitatis Humanae – you can not start with laws; with rules, with force….God’s incarnation is an invitation (not a set of rules). The *call* may or may not be answered (you can not force obedience or it is meaningless). This was the ultimate counter-cultural message of the council.

  17. Yes, essential to read his book or at least to watch the lectures. O’Malley is nuanced and more than careful in presenting his “litany”. I think Bill captures it well.

    Something very important to note: O’Malley is a historian. He isn’t making normative pronouncements or predictions; in fact, in the Q&A sessions, he steadfastly refused invitations to speak either normatively or predictively.

    Hence his statements about Vatican II are not about what should be said or done, but about what was said and done, and what the “mind of the group” was at the time.

    I think there is little question (and O’Malley agreed with this point in the lectures) that the dominant language from the Vatican, from many bishops, especially in the USA, and in many other settings, has moved away from the style of Vatican II; what now seems to be in vogue is a sort of “muscular Christianity”, a focus on drawing firm lines, criticising “feminisation” of the Church, attacking perceived problems in the culture. Matthew 21:12 is a favourite gospel story and Matthew 10:34 a favourite verse.

    This drift away from the style that O’Malley describes may be a good thing or a bad thing. I think it’s the latter, but O’Malley is silent on that score. The only place he speaks with authority is on history — what was said, the development of the documents, and the various forces at work during the Council. You can interpret Vatican II as O’Malley suggests (and I find his arguments convincing) and nonetheless opt for a Michael Voris-style Catholicism.

    I find it interesting that some point to the Council of Trent as a sort of antithesis to Vatican II, e.g. it issued anathemas where Vatican II did not. O’Malley shows that Trent was surprisingly moderate on some issues, e.g. it took a less directive stance on vernacular liturgy than did Vatican II!

    O’Malley has just published a book on the Council of Trent, (Trent, Harvard University Press) which should make for interesting reading.

  18. A bombshell? I think not.

    A crypto-Lefebvrist calls for the conciliar and magisterial documents of the last 50 years to be rewritten. He denounces the heresies of

    Ecclesiology, collegiality, single source of Revelation, ecumenism, syncretism, irenicism (especially toward Protestantism, Islamism, and Judaism), the modification of the ‘doctrine of replacement’ of the Synagogue with the Church into the ‘doctrine of the two parallel salvations,’ anthropocentrism, loss of the last things (and of both limbo and hell), of proper theodicy (leading to much atheism as a ‘flight from a bad Father’), of the meaning of sin and grace, liturgical de-dogmatization, aniconology, subversion of religious freedom, in addition to the ‘dislocation of the divine Monotriad’ by which freedom dethrones the truth.

    Well, I did learn a new word, “aniconology”. That’s something.

    Other than that, no news here. Same old, same old. Move along, please.

    1. @Jonathan Day – comment #32:
      Jonathan – talk about dismissive – here from the horse’s mouth:


      MO is, at times, to take some topic or series of comments at PTB and then provide an ideological rant. So, now along with *continuity in reform of the reform (properly understood, of course)”, we have now added – “dogmatizing of pastoral theology”….whatever that means. (a subset of the cohort who dismiss VII by labelling it a Pastoral Council. Really, if you don’t make dogma; then why have a council?)

      Low Lites: ( or, stream of unconsciousness)

      – “But because of the pastoral nature of the Council in so many areas and applying the Second Vatican Council early on (for the first 40 years or so) in a Pre-Vatican II way, especially the imposition of its pastoral sensibilities, we have seen a great polarization in the Church. Pope Benedict has begun the reform of the manner in which the reform of the Council was imposed on the Church in the 1960’s and 70’s especially as progressive theologians who inspired bishops to imposed in a pre-Vatican II sort a way the pastoral provisions of the Council in a dogmatized format. Pope Benedict’s “reform in continuity” pleases no one except those of us in the middle who know we cannot abandon the Second Vatican Council but we can abandon the dogmatism of pastoral theology imposed on the Church in a pre-Vatican II sort of way.”

      Double speak, anyone!! Do we need to redefine *heresy* given the list from the Chiesa writer?

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