Certain doctrinal criticisms of the current pontificate show a gradual but increasingly clear-cut separation from the Second Vatican Council — not from a certain interpretation of some texts, but from the Council texts themselves. Some interpretations that insist on contrasting Pope Francis with his immediate predecessors thus end up openly criticizing even St John Paul II and Benedict XVI, or by passing over in silence some fundamental aspects of their ministry that represent evident developments of the latest Council.
The prophecy of dialogue
One example of this was the recent 25th anniversary of the encyclical Ut unum sint, in which Pope St John Paul II stated that ecumenical commitment and dialogue with non-Catholics are a priority of the Church. This anniversary has been ignored by those who today propose a reductive interpretation of tradition, closed to that “dialogue of love,” beyond the doctrinal, which was promoted by the Polish Pope in obedience to our Lord's ardent desire for unity.
The prophecy of forgiveness
Equally overlooked was another important anniversary: the request for jubilee forgiveness strongly desired by St John Paul II on 12 March twenty years ago. The prophetic power of this Pontiff who asked forgiveness for the sins committed by the children of the Church was overflowing. And when one speaks of “children” the popes are also included. As we know, those who ask forgiveness for mistakes made put themselves in a risky situation of scrutiny. Saint John Paul II prophetically chose the path of truth. The Church cannot and must not be afraid of the truth. The then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, underlined the “novelty of this gesture,” a “public act of repentance of the Church for the sins of the past and today,” a “mea culpa of the Pope in the name of the Church,” a truly “new gesture, but nevertheless in profound continuity with the history of the Church, and with its self-awareness.”
The Inquisition and violence: a growing consciousness
Many dark stories have been stirred up about the inquisition, burnings and various forms of intolerance of the Church throughout history, exaggerating, falsifying, slandering and decontextualizing in order to erase from memory the great and decisive contributions of Christianity to humanity. And historians have often restored the truth in the face of so many myths and distortions of reality. But this does not prevent us from making a serious examination of conscience in order “to recognize past wrongs,” as John Paul II affirmed, and “reawaken our consciences to the compromises of the present.” From this came the request for forgiveness, in 2000, “for the divisions which have occurred among Christians, for the violence some have used in the service of the truth and for the distrustful and hostile attitudes sometimes taken towards the followers of other religions.” “With the passage of time,” he said in 2004, “the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, perceives with ever clearer awareness what she needs in order to conform” to the Gospel, which rejects the intolerant and violent methods that have disfigured her face in history.
The Galileo case
A particularly significant case was that of Galileo Galilei, the great Italian scientist. A Catholic who, said John Paul II, “suffered a lot - we cannot hide it - from men and ecclesial bodies”. Pope St. John Paul II examined the story “in light of the historical context of the time” and “the mentality of the time”. The Church, though founded by Christ, “remains nevertheless made up of limited men and women linked to their cultural epoch." She too “learns by experience,” and the history of Galileo “allowed a more just maturation and understanding of Her authority." The understanding of the truth grows - it is not given once and for all.
A Copernican revolution
Saint John Paul II recalls that “the geocentric representation of the world was commonly accepted in the culture of the time as fully consistent with the teaching of the Bible, in which some expressions, taken literally, seemed to constitute statements of geocentrism”. The problem posed by the theologians of the time was therefore that of the compatibility of heliocentrism and Scripture. Thus, new science, with the methods and the freedom of research that it presupposed, forced theologians to question their criteria for interpreting Scripture. Most were unable to do so. Paradoxically, Galileo, a sincere believer, showed himself on this point “more discerning than his theologian adversaries” who had fallen into error trying to defend the faith. “The upheaval caused by the Copernican system” thus had “repercussions on the interpretation of the Bible.” Galileo, not a theologian, but a Catholic scientist, “introduces the principle of interpretation of sacred books, beyond even the literal sense, but in accordance with the intent and the type of exposition proper to each of them” according to their literary genres. This position was confirmed by Pius XII in 1943 with the Encyclical Divino afflante Spiritu.
The theory of evolution
A similar growth in the Church's awareness occurred with the theory of evolution which seemed to contradict the principle of creation. A first opening was that of Pius XII with the Encyclical Humani generis of 1950 (its 70th anniversary will be on 12 August). St. John Paul II affirmed that “creation places itself in the light of evolution as an event that extends over time - as a creatio continua - in which God becomes visible to the eyes of the believer as the Creator of Heaven and earth”. Pope Francis underlines that “when we read the story of Creation in Genesis, we risk imagining that God was a magician, complete with an all-powerful magic wand. But that was not so. He created beings and he let them develop according to the internal laws with which He endowed each one, that they might develop, and reach their fullness (…) The Big Bang theory, which is proposed today as the origin of the world, does not contradict the intervention of a divine creator but depends on it. Evolution in nature does not conflict with the notion of Creation, because evolution presupposes the creation of beings who evolve.”
The development of the concept of freedom
In the New Testament, but not only there, can be found very profound calls to freedom that have changed history; but they are discovered slowly. Pope Boniface VIII, with the Bull Unam sanctam of 1302, reaffirmed the superiority of spiritual authority over temporal authority. It was a different era.
Almost 700 years later, John Paul II, speaking in Strasbourg before the European Parliament, observed that medieval Christianity still did not distinguish “between the proper spheres of faith and that of civil life”. The consequence of this vision was the “integralist temptation to exclude those who did not profess the true faith from the temporal community”. Even as late as 1791, in a letter to the French bishops, Pius VI criticized the Constitution passed by the National Assembly that “established as a principle of natural law that a person living in Society must be completely free. That is, he or she must not be disturbed by anyone, and can freely think as he or she likes, and write and even publish in print anything in matters of Religion."
And in 1832, Gregory XVI's Encyclical Mirari vos spoke of freedom of conscience as a “most poisonous error” and “delirium”; while Pius IX in the 1864 Syllabus condemns among “the principal errors of our age” the idea that it is no longer appropriate “that the Catholic religion should be considered the only religion of the State, excluding all other religions, never minding what one wants” and the fact that “in some Catholic countries it has been established by law that those who go there are entitled to have public worship proper to each one." The Second Vatican Council, with its Declarations Dignitatis humanae, On Religious Freedom; and Nostra aetate, on the Relation of the Church with non-Christian Religions, makes a leap forward that recalls the Council of Jerusalem of the first Christian community that opened the Church to all humanity. Faced with these challenges, Saint John Paul II affirmed that “the pastor must show that he is ready for authentic boldness”.
When does tradition stop?
In 1988 the schism of the Lefebvrian traditionalists was confirmed. They rejected the developments brought about by Vatican Council II, saying that a new Church had been created. Benedict XVI used a strong image when he exhorted them to not "freeze the Church’s teaching authority... in the year 1962.” Something similar had already happened in 1870, when the so-called “old Catholics” condemned the First Vatican Council on account of the dogma of papal infallibility.
The Catholic Church has journeyed through more than twenty Councils in history. Each time there was someone who did not accept the new developments. Pius IX in 1854 proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. But a great saint, Bernard of Clairvaux, though one of the most ardent propagators of Marian devotion, expressed his opposition to this truth some centuries earlier. “I am very concerned, since many of you have decided to change the conditions of important events, such as introducing this feast unknown to the Church, certainly not approved by Reason, and not even justified by ancient Tradition. Are we really more erudite and pious than our ancient fathers?” This was in the 12th century. The Church, since then, has introduced other unknown feasts that probably would have scandalized many of the faithful who lived in previous centuries.
The way of Jesus: new and old things
Jesus said that He did not come to abolish the Law, “but to fullfill it” (Mt 5:17). He taught us not to break “even the smallest of these precepts” (Mt 5:19). Yet He was accused of violating the Mosaic Law, such as the Sabbath rest or the prohibition of associating with public sinners. And the apostles took the great leap: they abolished the sacred obligation of circumcision, dating back even to Abraham and in force for 2000 years, and opened the door to the pagans - something unthinkable at that time. “Behold,” says the Lord, “I make all things new” (Rev 21, 5). It is the “new wine” of evangelical love that always suffers the risk of being put in the “old wineskins” of our religious insecurity, which so often silences the living God who never stops speaking to us. It is the wisdom of the “disciple of the kingdom of heaven” who seeks the fullness of the Law and justice that surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, bringing out “new and old things from his treasure” (Mt 13:52). Not new things only, nor only old things.
(This is a working translation from the original Italian text)