Papal Mystery: Is Benedict Downplaying Vatican II by Decrees?

By Francis X. Rocca
Religion News Service
Saturday, July 21, 2007

VATICAN CITY -- In making two controversial decisions this month -- opening the door to wider celebration of the Latin Mass and asserting the Roman Catholic Church as the one true "church of Christ" -- the Vatican insisted that no essential Catholic belief or practice had been changed.

Pope Benedict XVI and other Vatican officials stressed their decisions' coherence with the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, the international assembly that ushered in a series of reforms during the 1960s.

But the pope also made clear his conservative understanding of the council, stressing its continuity with the church's traditions, rather than the innovative and even revolutionary spirit that many believe the council embodied.

Some observers thus view the recent decisions as an effort by Benedict to correct misunderstandings of Vatican II and its teachings -- an effort some say could undermine the council's legacy.

Indeed, the recent Vatican decisions touch on two of the most notable results of the 1960s council for American Catholics: celebrating the Mass in local languages and encouraging more open attitudes to different faiths.

On July 7, Benedict issued a papal decree making it easier for priests to celebrate the Tridentine Mass, or Latin Mass, which had been the traditional form of the liturgy until Vatican II made Mass in local languages the norm.

In a letter to bishops accompanying his decree, Benedict dismissed any "fear that the document detracts from the authority of the Second Vatican Council."

Rather, the pope affirmed the "spiritual richness and theological depth" of the Missal -- or text that guides the Mass -- approved in the council's wake, which "obviously is and continues to be the normal form."

But Benedict also noted that the newer Missal had been widely misunderstood as "authorizing or even requiring creativity, which frequently led to deformations of the liturgy which were hard to bear."

Three days after that decree, the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith decreed -- with Benedict's approval -- that the church established by Christ exists in its complete form only in the Catholic church, though other Christian denominations can be "instruments of salvation."

"The Second Vatican Council neither changed nor intended to change this doctrine," the Vatican explained, suggesting that any understanding to the contrary was due to "erroneous interpretation."

The release of the two decrees within such a short time of each other could be merely a coincidence. A high proportion of Vatican documents come out in the summer when the pope has more time to read them, said the Rev. Thomas D. Williams, an American who serves as dean of theology at Rome's Regina Apostolorum University.


CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company