Bishop Athanasius Schneider on interpreting Vatican II

DSC01443Last May, I attended the Rome Life Forum, a gathering of more than 100 pro-life leaders from around the world.  One of the speakers was Bishop Athanasius Schneider, Auxiliary Bishop the of Archdiocese of Maria Santissima in Astana, Kazakhstan.

During the conference, I had the pleasure of sitting next to him at lunch one day. He was most interested to hear I was an Ordinariate member and asked me many questions about our Divine Worship.  Do we receive on the tongue? Worship ad orientem, that kind of thing.

He’s an impressive man.  Of German descent, he grew up in the Soviet Union and for years his parents were imprisoned in the gulags. He told a story about how there were no priests when he was growing up, so no Eucharist, but every Sunday, his father and mother would worship privately in their home in communion with a Holy Mass being said elsewhere in the world.   He speaks at least a half dozen languages well—can switch easily from English to French as he did at our table, to German, to Italian, to Spanish and I imagine he speaks Russian as well.

So, with interest, I read this op ed of his submitted to Rorate-Caeli on the proper interpretation of the Second Vatican Council.  I think one can easily extrapolate from this talk to the proper interpretation of Amoris Laetitia or any other papal document or pronouncement.

He writes:

There must be created in the Church a serene climate of a doctrinal discussion regarding those statements of Vatican II which are ambiguous or which have caused erroneous interpretations. In such a doctrinal discussion there is nothing scandalous, but on the contrary, it will be a contribution in order to maintain and explain in a more sure and integral manner the deposit of the immutable faith of the Church.

One must not highlight so much  a certain council, absolutizing it or equating it in fact with the oral (Sacred Tradition) or written (Sacred Scripture) Word of God. Vatican II itself said rightly (cf. Verbum Dei, 10), that the Magisterium (Pope, Councils, ordinary and universal Magisterium) is not above the Word of God, but beneath it, subject to it, and being only the servant of it (of the oral Word of God = Sacred Tradition and of the written Word of God = Sacred Scripture).

From an objective point of view, the statements of the Magisterium (Popes and councils) of definitive character, have more value and more weight compared with the statements of pastoral character, which have naturally a changeable and temporary quality depending on historical circumstances or responding to pastoral situations of a certain period of time, as it is the case with the major part of the statements of Vatican II.

The original and valuable contribution of the Vatican II consists in the universal call to holiness of all members of the Church (chap. 5 of Lumen gentium), in the doctrine about the central role of Our Lady in the life of the Church (chap. 8 of Lumen gentium), in the importance of the lay faithful in maintaining, defending and promoting the Catholic faith and in their duty to evangelize and sanctify the temporal realities according to the perennial sense of the Church (chap. 4 of Lumen gentium), in the primacy of the adoration of God in the life of the Church and in the celebration of the liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium, nn. 2; 5-10). The rest one can consider to a certain extent secondary, temporary and, in the future, probably forgettable, as it was the case with some non-definitive, pastoral and disciplinary statements of various ecumenical councils in the past.

The following issues – Our Lady, sanctification of the personal life of the faithful with the sanctification of the world according to the perennial sense of the Church and the primacy of the adoration of God – are the most urgent aspects which have to be lived in our days. Therein Vatican II has a prophetical role which, unfortunately, is not yet realized in a satisfactory manner.

Interestingly,  Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, who has been given the role of the interpreter of Amoris Laetitia takes an opposite view to how one interprets this document vis a vis Scripture and Tradition.  From One Peter Five’s Maike Hickson a year ago:.

Austrian Catholic website reports that on 7 July, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn published an interview in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, in which he said that Amoris Laetitia is a binding doctrinal document. From now on, says Schönborn, all the previous magisterial texts concerning marriage and the family “have to be read in the light of Amoris Laetitia.”

Schönborn also said in this interview – a fuller excerpt of this text has now been published in English in the Jesuit journal Civiltà Cattolica – that it is “obvious” that Amoris Laetitia is an act of the Magisterium since it is an Apostolic Exhortation. reports:

All previous magisterial statements concerning marriage and the family now have to be read in the light of Amoris Laetitia, Schönborn stressed, and just as today the First Vatican Council (1869-1870) must be interpreted in the light of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).

I’m uneasy with that approach, especially if the idea is that new stuff always trumps old stuff, even the plain meaning of the words of our Lord Jesus Christ.   New stuff can shed light on old stuff—the way the Nicene Creed sheds light on Scripture, to reveal the doctrine of the Trinity, but the Creed does not abrogate Scripture or contradict it, only brings Revelation into a greater clarity.

When we were preparing to come into the Church, papal infallibility and ecclesiology were two areas where we needed catechesis, especially to banish any vestiges of “Branch Theory” that were still kicking around.  I was able to come to accept papal infallibility under the modest Vatican I definition and to see the Pope as a sign of unity for the Church and as the guarantor of the deposit of faith.  In other words his job is not to come up with novelties, but to defend what the Church has always believed.

In a recent interview, Cardinal Muller, recently deposed as Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith gave the following interview, now translated into English on Rorate-Caeli:

 “Perhaps Cardinal Schònborn has a vision contrary to mine, but perhaps he has a position contrary also to what he had before, seeing as he has changed it.  I think that the words of Jesus Christ must always be the foundation of the Church’s doctrine.  And nobody – until yesterday – could say that this was not true. It is clear: we have the irreversible revelation of Christ. And the Church has been entrusted with the depositum fidei, i.e. the entire content of revealed truth. The Magisterium does not have the authority to correct Jesus Christ.  It is He, if anyone, Who corrects us. And we are obliged to obey Him; we must be faithful to the doctrine of the apostles, clearly developed in the spirit of the Church.”

I find those words reassuring.  “It is He, if anyone, Who corrects us ….”



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