“Copernican Revolution”? Not!

Our friends at Rorate have published part of something from Messa in latino, speculation about the “Doctrinal Preamble” offered by the CDF to the SSPX during their meeting of 14 September, last.  I wrote about that here.

The speculation rises to a climax in an assertion that the “Doctrinal Preamble” might constitute a “Copernican Revolution” concerning the documents of the Second Vatican Council and subsequent Magisterial teaching.

Again, what Rorate posted from Messa in latino is a long piece of speculation about the hypothetical text of the “Doctrinal Preamble”.   From my reading of what they posted, if the speculation is correct, nothing new has been offered.

As much as I enjoy astronomical comparisons, the claim about a “Copernican Revolution” isn’t accurate.  It suggests something new and challenging has been offered.  Not quite.

First, the hypothetical “Doctrinal Preamble” is supposed to say that the SSPX must express concerns in a respectful manner.  That was already a point made in the conditions for further dialogue offered by the Holy See and accepted by the SSPX in 2008.  Nothing new there.

More importantly, the speculation on the hypothetical “Doctrinal Preamble” offered by Messa in latino and Rorate presents this (their translation and my emphases and comments):

In practice, it is asked of the Fraternity to sign the profession of faith which every Catholic must hold; it seems pretty feasible. But some could fear that this obligation of “religious assent of mind and intellect“, if applied to certain Conciliar teachings, could curtail, even if it would not nullify (under certain conditions, it is possible to dissent – but not loudly – from non-definitive teachings), the right of criticism to the Council. And here is the great innovation. [Ooops… no.]

As the official communiqué of the Holy See reports, the Preamble leaves “open to legitimate discussion the study and theological explanation of particular expressions and formulations present in the texts [Keep, now, your focus on the issue of “texts”.] of the Second Vatican Council and of the Magisterium that followed it.” Let it be noted that the object of this discussion, which is expressly recognized as “legitimate“, is not merely the interpretations of the documents, but the very texts of the latter: the “expressions or formulations” used in the conciliar documents. If the words used in the preamble, and thus in the official communiqué, have a sense, there is here a Copernican revolution in the approach to the Council: [No.] that is, the displacement from a mere exegetical level to a substantive one.

I suggest to that writer, and the readers here, a close review of the CDF’s 1990 Instruction Donum veritatis “On the ecclesial vocation of the theologian”.    Especially relevant are Donum veritatis 6, 21-22, 24, and 30-34.

One also needs an understanding of the levels of assent which Catholics must give to different levels of Magisterial teachings.  Catholics are, of course, bound to accept (and not dissent from) teachings which are definitive.  But there are other teachings which are not at that level.  Though they cannot simply be brushed aside, dissented from freely, they do not bind in the same way that defined or infallible teachings do.  There is some room.

For readers of English, I suggest the authoritative reading of Donum veritatis by the late Card. Dulles in his useful book Magisterium: Teaching and Guardian of the Faith. Every seminarian and parish priest should have this book.  Know a seminarian or priest?  Get him this book now.

I direct your attention to pp. 97-98:

If, in an exceptional case, one feels justified in dissenting, the next question is what to do about it.  One option is to remain silent, so as not to trouble other believers and cause division in the Church.  If can be assumed that if the Magisterium has erred, it will correct itself.  Many of the older textbooks recommend a silentium obsequiosum (reverent silence).  Donum veritatis speaks of situations in which the theologian will be called “to suffer for the truth, in silence and prayer, but with the certainty that if the truth is really at stake it will ultimately prevail.  [citing Dv 31; 123]  Today it is not uncommon to hold that dissenters who are qualified experts should make their disagreements known, with the aim of being corrected by colleagues or, alternatively, to “provoke a stimulus to the Magisterium to propose the teaching of the Church in greater depth and with a clearer presentation of the arguments.”  An expressed dissent can be private, if it is shared only with a relatively small group, or public, if shared with a wide audience.  According to Donum veritatis, theologians who have difficulty in accepting some doctrine would generally do well to enter privately into communication with a few colleagues, to see how they react, and perhaps also to make their difficulties discreetly known to hierarchical teachers, for the reasons mentioned above.  The development of doctrine has sometimes been assisted by expressions of dissatisfaction with previous deficient formulations.  This observation of the CDF is noteworthy, since it is relatively new for theologians to receive official encouragement to express their problems with current magisterial teaching.

Dulles goes on to address the situation of dissenters who take out ads, have press conferences, use the media to promote their own positions and, thereby, and usurp the authority of the divinely constituted Magisterium.

The point is that, if the speculation about the hypothetical “Doctrinal Preamble” is accurate, then there is nothing new in the proposition that theologians can offer differing views not only about the interpretation of documents of Vatican II and subsequent Magisterium, but also about the texts themselves.  That is not new.  It is already explained in Donum veritatis, which was issued by the CDF under then-Prefect, Card. Ratzinger.

Focus on the idea of dissent from texts and not just interpretation of texts and you will not go down the rabbit hole.

If the speculation about the hypothetical “Doctrinal Preamble” is accurate, the “Doctrinal Preamble” would not constitute a “Copernican Revolution”.

Furthermore, it is not helpful to suggest such a thing.

The suggestion that the “Doctrinal Preamble” might constitute a “Copernican Revolution” because the hypothetical “Doctrinal Preamble” might say that the SSPX can challenge texts, will simply incite liberals to claim that the Holy See has caved in to the Lefebvrists.   That would not be what is going on.

If the speculation about the “Doctrinal Preamble” is accurate, the Holy See has not caved in on the texts of the Second Vatican Council.  Donum veritatis laid out the possibility of and parameters of dissent in 1990.  The theologians of the SSPX can work with the divinely constituted Magisterium along the lines already laid down in 1990.

Certainly Card. Ratzinger had in mind primarily liberal dissenters when Donum veritatis was issued.  But he most certainly would have had some part of his attention focused on the SSPX, which had just broken with Rome two years before Donum veritatis was issued.

The CDF/SSPX “Doctrinal Preamble” is important.  But! … we still don’t have the text of the “Doctrinal Preamble”!  Speculation abounds.

We don’t want floating around, however, the claim that the Holy See or the Holy Father is making “Copernican” moves when it comes to dissent from documents, the texts, of a Council.

Donum veritatis of 1990 led the way.

Nihil novi sub sole.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Supertradmum says:

    The beauty of the Dulles quotation and reference to Donum veritatis remind us that this current Pope has been the champion of rational discourse. Thank God for such a balanced view of approaching these texts, some of which I have found difficult, especially in teaching situations. When one is dealing with honest theologians, one finds respect for the texts and an effort to understand how such fall into the Tradition and Teaching Magisterium of the Church. Pope Benedict is definitively the Man of the Hour for all this discussion. God bless him and our Church, and the SSPX. Hate the use of Copernicus reference here, as it doesn’t fit and seems to be typical media hyperbole.

    One can have an obedient heart and spirit and yet examine certain texts with a thinking eye.

  2. I dearly love the Catholic blogosphere. But every so often, there’s this sort of bubble-blowing and daydreaming that I associate with overwrought teenage girls’ ideas about plausible career directions for their favorite stars. If this were April 1, there would comedy gold in them thar pranks. [I wouldn’t be so hard on them.]

    I wish people would just breathe deeply, wait till they actually have a real text, and not work themselves up into such a state that even the Holy Bible wouldn’t be orthodox and beautiful enough to satisfy their expectations. Say a Rosary instead of pulling predictions out of your vestibule. [That’s better.]

  3. Speravi says:

    FYI: Rorate seems to have removed this post.

  4. Mike says:

    A highly ironic note: I have heard a reformed Rabbi refer to VII as a “Copernican Revolution” for the Catholic Church. Precisely the opposite meaning, of course.

  5. martin.c says:

    Indeed, nothing new under the sun. A great example is the debate that has been being published at Sandro Magister’s website regarding Dignitatis Humanae; it is true that it was something rather new to see all these academics publicly discussing the issue, but we all knew that DH is not “definitive” and that such discussion was possible and legitimate.

    If the SSPX is so sure that their interpretation of previous magisterial teaching is right and that certain “expressions or formulations” in DH are not compatible with it, then they can just join the debate.

  6. From the communique: “…leaving open to legitimate discussion the study and theological explanation of expressions and particular formulations present in the texts of the Second Vatican Council and of the Magisterium which followed.

    I would suggest that it would be useful for us to consider the “substance” of the Council , or put another way – the doctrine of the faith that the Council intended to articulate in the specific language it chose to employ – as distinct from its “texts.”

    I say this because it seems to me that the text itself is ultimately what is rightly being left open to scrutiny; i.e. the words and phrases that are found in the documents. The “expressions” and “formulations present in the text” are the text, aren’t they?

    I also think it’s noteworthy that, according to the communique, it is not just the expressions and formulations of the Council that are open to legitimate discussion, but also that of “the Magisterium which followed.”

    The one constant is the doctrine of the faith that the Council, and the Magisterium that followed, attempted to articulate. As Pope John XXIII said in his Opening Address to the Council, “The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another.”

    This, I believe, will be the way forward: Drawing necessary distinctions between that “substance” and the texts of the Council, engaging in legitimate discussion about the latter with the assumption going in being that while the Council may not have always used the best turn of phrase to articulate the faith, it absolutely did not, and indeed could not contradict it.

  7. Imrahil says:

    Dear @Louie Verrechio,

    well, distinguishing between the substance of the Council and its texts has been done before. This had the name “spirit of the Council”, or didn’t it…

    However, did I understand you right that you want to take the Council as infallible? Well: it isn’t, it didn’t want to be, and we wouldn’t have needed the Pius brothers to tell us so.

    [Just for explicit mentioning, this is no Council-criticism.]

  8. Imrahil,

    Thanks for your comments.

    well, distinguishing between the substance of the Council and its texts has been done before. This had the name “spirit of the Council”, or didn’t it…

    I can see how I may have caused confusion, but I think you’ve missed my point. The substance to which I am referring is that which John XIII called “the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith.” This substance, obviously, can stand on its own apart from the conciliar text that sought not to redefine it, but only to present it “through the literary forms of modern thought” as the Holy Father described it (again, in his Opening Address.)

    It is precisely because the “spirit” crowd wishes to treat VII as “substance” unto itself, taking precedence over and against the ancient doctrine, that we have faced so many difficulties. This substance, or doctrine of the faith as held by the Church at the time the Council met, must IMO be distinguished from the ambiguities in the conciliar texts so as to serve as the lens through which those texts are read and interpreted.

    This distinguishing between text and substance seems necessary to me as a means to the end of interpreting those texts rightly.

    However, did I understand you right that you want to take the Council as infallible?

    No, but I do contend that it’s one thing to say that the Council never sought to make infallible definitions, (which is true) but quite another to say that it may have materially erred by contradicting the sacred deposit of faith. It is not possible for a valid ecumenical council of the Church to so err, even if (as in the case of VII) that council never sought to define infallibly.

    Now, that is not to say that the Council always created texts that are admirable in their clarity. It most certainly didn’t .

  9. Oneros says:

    All of this seems to assume that questions of how the Church should, on a practical prudential level, approach other religions and/or the State…are matters of doctrine. I’m not at all sure that’s true. I’m not sure such questions should be parsed as “doctrine” we have to assent to anymore than we have to like liturgical changes or agree with how the Vatican handles its finances or how canon law handles various disciplinary situations.

    I think the big problem here (on both sides) is over-extended just what is magisterial.

  10. Sixupman says:

    Ferrara: logic and commonsense! Elements of the Curia, National Conferences and Diocesan Clergy have abandoned The Faith and, in some cases, Vows taken. In the latter case, I have heard and witnessed such in the form of scathing contempt of clergy of early times.

  11. Imrahil says:

    Dear @Louie Verrechio,

    is it indeed a teaching of the Church that a valid ecumenical Council cannot err in matters previously defined as of faith? I didn’t know about that one.

    But if this is so – well, this substance, as you say, the ancient deposit of faith, is what we theoretically know even without the Council, though with it we might know it easier. In a sense, another importance of the Council begins where it does teach new things (read: at least not hitherto taught in this clarity), and here it certainly claimed no infallibility and hence, by syllogism, could err.

    Interestingly, I wouldn’t even be so certain that they were not admirable in their clarity.

  12. robtbrown says:

    I agree with Fr Z that such an approach would not mark a change in official Church documents (cf Donum veritatis).

    I do, however, think it would be the beginning of a change in policy that one hopes would be diffused throughout the Church. For many years assent to VatII (or the Spirit of VatII) was considered more important than assent to Doctrine. Bishops, religious superiors, and those in charge of formation would tolerate someone in favor of women’s ordination, but don’t say anything against VatII.

  13. robtbrown says:

    Imrahil says:

    is it indeed a teaching of the Church that a valid ecumenical Council cannot err in matters previously defined as of faith? I didn’t know about that one.

    The pope promulgates Conciliar documents. The protection against error, therefore, is because the Council is in union with the pope.

    But if this is so – well, this substance, as you say, the ancient deposit of faith, is what we theoretically know even without the Council, though with it we might know it easier. In a sense, another importance of the Council begins where it does teach new things (read: at least not hitherto taught in this clarity), and here it certainly claimed no infallibility and hence, by syllogism, could err.

    The protection of doctrinal infallibility exists in a Council even when it is not speaking in solemn judgment. It is, IMHO, an example of the Ordinary Universal Magisterium.

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