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Meeting with the Doctrinal Commissions of Africa
(Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, 1 July 2009)

William Card. Levada



At the beginning of these days together, I want to greet my brother bishops, Presidents of the Doctrinal Commissions of the African Episcopal Conferences, in my own name and in the name of the officials of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith who accompany me.  I express our common gratitude for the presence and welcome given to us by Cardinal Polycarp Pengo, Archbishop of Dar-es-Salaam.  I hope and pray that our days together will be fruitful for the great work to which we bishops have been called by the Lord – the work of teaching and preaching the faith, of “handing on what we ourselves have received” (cf. DV 7).

1. The Bishop as authentic teacher of the faith

Let me say at the beginning of our time together what I know will be obvious to all.  The work of the Doctrinal Commission is not principally one of teaching and preaching.  That is the task of all of the bishops to whom, as their successors, the Apostles “gave their own position of teaching authority;” as the Council says, quoting St. Irenaeus.  Rather the Commissions have a position of service to our brother bishops, assisting them in this important but delicate work.  And this service is a true “diakonia,” done in the spirit of the Lord Jesus himself, who view of authority is not to “lord it over those” in their charge, not “to be served,” but to be the servant “diakonos” of all (Mk 10,45).

Our Congregation is very conscious that these words apply especially to our own work, in which we exercise authority in the name of the Pope, in order assist his ministry to the universal Church.  The Council was clear in calling for reform of the Holy Office, in order to clarify its task of promoting and safeguarding the doctrine of the faith as a service, a “diakonia”, to the Holy Father and to the universal Church.

The Bishop today cannot but be grateful for the assistance of his brother bishops in helping him carry out this first and most important of his responsibilities.  We recall our own ordination as bishops: before the hands of our consecrating “apostle” were imposed upon our heads, the rite called for him to ask us to give public testimony about what we were about to undertake.  The ordaining bishop asked us, “Do you resolve to preach the Gospel of Christ with constancy and fidelity?”  “Do you resolve to guard the deposit of faith, entire and incorrupt, as handed down by the Apostles and preserved in the Church everywhere and at all times?”  This high responsibility has not grown easier today, in the face of challenges from without, like a secularizing culture and mass media, and from within, like confusing theological opinions and conflicting interpretations of tradition, including the tradition of the Second Vatican Council.

At the conclusion of the Pauline Year, let us acknowledge the example of the great Apostle of the Gentiles, tireless preacher of faith in Christ Jesus.  In his moving farewell address to his brother bishops and priests at Miletus, near Ephesus, cited in Acts 20, Paul offers two descriptions of the specific task of the bishop: “give testimony to the Gospel of God’s grace” and “announce the entire will of God” (vv. 24, 27).  The Holy Father, in a talk he gave to the new bishops some nine years ago when he was Prefect of the Congregation, remarked that this formulation “is particularly helpful.  It speaks about communicating the entire will of God, without reserve, in all its grandeur.”  So the Cardinal continued, “We Christians today must once again believe in a way that is much more understanding, more joyful, more optimistic: Yes – he said – it is beautiful to know the will of God.  It is beautiful to know God and to be known by Him…  Only if we return to see from the inside how precious our faith is, how joyful when lived authentically, as the first Christians did among the pagans of antiquity – only if we return to being truly content with the faith, then we will spontaneously see that the most important thing of all is to defend this precious pearl in all its splendor – only then will we recognize that the highest priority of our mission is our work on behalf of this treasure.”

Of course the bishop has multiple tasks, but they all have their foundation in our faith.  For example, the bishop is clearly called to promote unity and peace among the faithful.  The peace of the Christian community is an important good and requires at times tolerating a coworker with ambiguous ideas in order not to create greater damage, such as that which might occur through the mass media, perhaps creating confusion and conflict among the faithful.  But as Cardinal Ratzinger remarked as well, “We must also recognize that there is a false peace.  If we continually let things go by, a feeling of arbitrariness can arise.  If we want to avoid problems and keep everything tranquil, without this ‘quiet’ having any content, then we risk becoming inconsistent and even empty.

“With every falsification of the faith that is not corrected, there remains an interior element of poison in the organism of the Church…”  St. Gregory the Great in his Pastoral Rule interpreted in this sense the rather obscure figure of speech used by Our Lord: “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another” (Mk 9,50).  Salt disturbs the peace; it burns and destroys.  It seems to be opposed to peace.  But both things need to be kept together: peace, which tolerates the other, and also salt, which brings out the taste and even prevents things from decomposing…  The bishop must be a man of peace, but he must also have salt in himself.  He also has to be ready for conflict, where the true good is in question, so that his salt does not become insipid, so that we do not become objects of contempt and trampled under foot.

This mission of the bishop – to proclaim the truth of the Gospel and the doctrine of the faith, and also to correct errors – can seem in the eyes of some in the world today as limiting human freedom.  But the opposite is the reality.  The bishop’s first duty is to guarantee that pastoral care, preaching, formation programs, catechesis and theological research are based on the sound foundation of Catholic faith.  In this way he also defends the faith of simple people, who have a right to the true and genuine faith of the Church.  Quoting Cardinal Ratzinger again, “their faith is the good of the Church that more than anything else deserves to be defended.  This is what the Lord himself said:  ‘If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea’ (Mk 9,42).  The expression ‘the little ones’ is a designation for the faithful of Christ, and their scandal [the stumbling block]… is the undermining and destruction of their faith.  These very words of the Lord help us to understand the greatness of our responsibility – the greatness of the good that we must protect.”

As the Constitution on the Church Lumen gentium, 25, teaches, the Bishops are authentic teachers, with the authority of Christ, who preach the faith that must be believed and applied to the moral life of the people entrusted to their care.  But because the Church is one, the Bishop teaches rightly, as Card. Ratzinger affirmed, “only when he teaches synchronically and diachronically together with the whole Church, when he teaches in harmony with the voice of the Successor of Peter.”

In today’s Church, when in many places it has become common to challenge the voice of the Magisterium, the voice of the Bishop as authentic teacher is recognized as such only with difficulty.  Thus the work of the Doctrinal Commission becomes even more important: it can assist the Bishop in the discernment of the one voice with which the authentic teacher preaches the one faith.  And it can help him identify and respond to voices of dissent, often through the collegial teaching of the bishops of the Episcopal Conference.

2. A Constructive Relationship between the Congregation and the Doctrinal Commissions of the Episcopal Conferences

With its teachings on the College of Bishops as successor to the Apostolic College, and the consequent teachings about affective and effective collegiality, the Second Vatican Council issued in a new era in the organization of local churches into Episcopal Conferences, at the national, and even international level.  The Council also asked for a reform of the Holy Office, resulting in a newly-formed Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as noted above.  Among the first acts of the new Congregation was the invitation to Episcopal Conferences to form, where these were not already in place, Doctrinal Commissions.

Origins of the Initiative

In order to assist these Doctrinal Commissions clarify their work and competence, and to encourage greater collaboration between them and the Congregation, the 1982 Plenary meeting of the Cardinals and Bishop of the Congregation, under its new Prefect Cardinal Ratzinger, recommended meetings between the Congregation Superiors and the Presidents of the Doctrinal Commissions.  In 1984 the first of a series of such meetings in the various regions of the world took place.

Six such gatherings have taken place in the last twenty-five years: two in Latin America (Bogotá, 1984, and Guadalajara, 1996), one here in Africa (Kinshasa, 1987), one in Europe (Vienna, 1989), one in Asia (Hong Kong, 1993), and one for North America and Oceania (San Francisco, 1999). These meetings brought the superiors, along with some officials, of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith together with the bishop Presidents (and sometimes members) of the various Doctrinal Commissions of particular regions and cultures. Prominent among the matters discussed in these exchanges between the Doctrinal Commissions and the Congregation were the distinctive theological problems of the particular geographical region in which the meeting was being held.

It may be useful to note that the local Episcopal Conferences have become increasingly more engaged in the preparation for and realization of these encounters. Early on, the Congregation requested from the various Episcopal Conferences a written report on the situation of their Doctrinal Commissions and on the measures which might be taken to foster a more constructive relationship with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Subsequently, at the Hong Kong, Guadalajara and San Francisco meetings, various bishops were invited to present papers on particular theological topics in their geographical region or on documents of the Congregation.

Bogotá (1984)

At the first such gathering in Bogotá, Cardinal Ratzinger’s presentation was a broadly programmatic, one under the title, “The Principal Problems of Contemporary Theology from the Perspective of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.” This important text surveyed the theological situation worldwide, with particular attention to the main theological problems in North America, Africa and Latin America.

The principal themes of the discussions of the Bogotá meeting were the following: (a) the relation between the pastoral governance of the bishops and the pastoral activities of religious communities; (b) theological method in the theology of liberation; (c) the erosion of moral conscience in society, the problem of abortion, and the dissolution of the family;  (d) the activity of Protestant groups and ecumenical centers; (e) the new ecclesial movements (especially the Neocatechumenate and the charismatic groups); (f) the content of catechetical texts, particularly in regard to their incorporation of radical themes from the theology of liberation; (g) the difference between the Eucharist and the celebration of the Word presided over by a lay person.

Kinshasa (1987)

Three years later, in 1987, the second meeting gathered the Doctrinal Commissions of the African continent at Kinshasa. At the start of this session, in his presentation entitled “Doctrinal Principles of Inculturation,” Cardinal Ratzinger first stressed that the purpose of these meetings between the CDF and the Doctrinal Commissions of various regions in the Church is to foster collaboration and express collegiality among the bishops and with the Holy See. He proceeded to outline the proper methodology for Christian inculturation in Africa, stressing the necessity and urgency of a true evangelization of culture and the dimensions of an authentic African inculturation of the Christian faith.

Pursuing the themes of this introductory presentation, the meeting addressed the issues of inculturation, the relation between inter-religious dialogue and mission, and the nature and finality of Doctrinal Commissions.  In the discussion of inculturation, attention was called to the necessity of rooting Christianity in the culture itself and in the various occasions of ordinary life like initiation, marriage and funerals. With regard to mission and inter-religious dialogue – especially in the encounter with Islam and with traditional African religions – the priority of evangelization was stressed, without prejudice to the values of dialogue in which truth is sought and a climate of mutual listening created, both so necessary for evangelization itself.

Vienna (1989)

In 1989, the European Doctrinal Commissions came together with the representatives of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at Vienna.  In his opening address to the participants, “The Difficulties of Faith in Europe Today,” Cardinal Ratzinger spoke about problems concerning faith, especially the attenuation of the reasonableness of faith’s world-view, in particular with regard to the doctrine of creation. He also analyzed the eclipse of  metaphysics in Christology and other areas of theology, as well as the problem of the reinterpretation of Christian eschatological hope in the direction of a this-worldly utopia.

The discussions at Vienna pursued the themes of Cardinal Ratzinger’s opening presentation: difficulties concerning faith, the range of moral challenges facing the Church (e.g., contraception, abortion, growing support for euthanasia, and the plague of divorce), the renewed diffusion of Enlightenment values and ideology, the distortion of the relationship between conscience and freedom, the spread of New Age religiosity and with it  the growing interest in the esoteric and the occult, and finally the place of women in the Church. Several lines of response to these challenges were indicated: the necessity of an anthropology inspired by the encyclical Redemptor hominis of Pope John Paul II, deepening of dialogue between faith and the natural sciences, and courageous witness to the faith. Underscored in this discussion were the responsibility and duty of the bishops as teachers of the faith, and the role of the Doctrinal Commissions in providing assistance to the bishops in facing these challenges.

Hong Kong (1993)

Hong Kong was the site of the meeting between the CDF and the Doctrinal Commissions of Asia in 1993.  Cardinal Ratzinger’s significant introductory presentation on that occasion was entitled, “Christ, Faith and the Challenge of Culture.”  The intention of his presentation was “to consider the right and capacity of Christian faith to communicate itself to other cultures, to assimilate them and to impart itself to them.” This widely read text went on to treat culture and inculturation, faith and culture, and Christian faith and non-Christian religions in the current historical situation.

These themes were amply reflected in the ensuing discussions at Hong Kong. In the Asian context, particular attention was given to the focus on experience which tends to relativize the understanding of the Catholic faith. Christology presents special challenges in inter-religious dialogue where some theological tendencies in Catholic circles risk compromising the doctrine of the uniqueness and universality of Christ’s role in salvation. Other topics examined at the Hong Kong meeting were sexual morality, the place of the family, the divide between rich and poor, corruption in public life, human rights, and the separation of Church and state.

Guadalajara (1996)

The superiors of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith returned to Latin America for a second meeting with the region’s Doctrine Commissions in 1996.  In his introductory presentation, “Faith and Theology Today,”  Cardinal Ratzinger addressed the crisis of liberation theology, the prominence of relativism in philosophical thought, the relation between orthodoxy and orthopraxis, the problems of New Age religiosity, and the tasks of Catholic theology in current circumstances.  The Cardinal’s presentation, delivered in the particular Latin American pastoral context, provided the stimulus for much of the theological discussion at Guadalajara: the crisis of liberation theology,  the dominance of relativism in philosophy,  the challenges of the so-called “teologia india” (the attempt to connect Catholic doctrinal themes with indigenous religious traditions of the Latin American continent), the proliferation of fundamentalist sects and new religious movements, the diffusion of New Age religiosity, ethical problems concerning respect for life from conception to natural death as well as civil legislation contrary to moral values in this area.

San Francisco (1999)

At the Vallombrosa Center – a retreat house within the Archdiocese of San Francisco in the United States – the CDF held its most recent meeting with representatives of Doctrinal Commissions, in this case, those of North America and Oceania.  If I may be permitted a personal note,  I was personally privileged to be the host of this meeting, as the Archbishop of San Francisco.  At the Vallombrosa meeting, in addition to the bishops of Canada and the United States, there were bishops from all over the Pacific rim, including Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands – participants from a remarkable geographical and cultural range.

Cardinal Ratzinger’s address was entitled “Deus locutus est nobis in Filio: Some Reflections on Subjectivity, Christology and the Church.” Quoting Christoph Cardinal Schönborn’s description of theology today – molta teologia, poco Dio” (a lot of theology, but little about God) – Cardinal Ratzinger described the present situation as one in which “there is more theologizing than ever, but it seems that increasingly little of it dares to speak about God.”  He went on to examine the problem of relativism in the theological and cultural contexts, the influence of anthropocentrism in faith and theology, the uniqueness of salvation in Christ and in the Church, and the authentic interpretation of the phrase subsistit in of the Second Vatican Council (LG 8).  The presentations and discussion at San Francisco stressed the role of doctrinal unity in expressing and supporting ecclesial communion as much in the local Church as in the universal Church, and thus in presenting a powerful witness of the faith in the diverse cultures in which the Church finds herself. Discussion ranged over a variety of important topics: the authority of the Magisterium in the Church, the significance of the Profession of Faith, the ecclesial vocation of the theologian, the necessity of dialogue between bishops and theologians, the implications of feminism for Catholic thought, and the pastoral care of persons with homosexual tendencies.

A few preliminary conclusions are in order. It is no surprise that the issues discussed at these meetings are the distinctive theological themes which we have come to associate with the thought of Joseph Ratzinger as theologian and prefect of the CDF, and now, as Pope Benedict XVI. Four such themes are particularly noteworthy in the presentations we have been considering today: the challenge to faith and theology—indeed to the possibility of truth itself—posed by relativistic patterns of thought in philosophy and in the wider culture; the necessity of an authentic conception of inculturation which understands the culture-transforming role of the proclamation of the Gospel; the urgency of an uncompromising proclamation of the uniqueness and universality of the role of Christ and the Church, in catechesis and evangelization, and the place of the Magisterium as the servant and guardian of ecclesial communion.

As I mentioned before, not long after the close of the Second Vatican Council, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued its 1967 instruction requesting that each Episcopal Conference establish a doctrinal commission.  A follow-up circular letter of 10 July 1968 offered additional recommendations for the better functioning of these Doctrinal Commissions. Over twenty years later, on 23 November 1990, Cardinal Ratzinger sent a circular letter to the presidents of Episcopal Conferences which, drawing upon their experiences with this structure, sought to recall and clarify the nature and role of  their Doctrinal Commissions.  This brings me to the third and final part of my presentation, in which I hope to show how the doctrinal unity of the Ecclesia Christi is maintained through the collaboration and interaction of structures of teaching authority at the level both of the particular church and of the universal Church. For this purpose, I will address three points: the theological foundation of Doctrinal Commissions; the contemporary urgency of the pastoral responsibility to serve the truth; and, some specific functions of Doctrinal Commissions in the exercise of this responsibility.

3. The role of the Doctrinal Commissions

The Theological Foundation of the Doctrinal Commissions’ service to the Church

At the outset of this third part of my address, I would begin by noting the parallel that exists between the role of a Doctrinal Commission in a specific Bishops’ Conference and that of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in service of the Successor of Peter.  According to the Apostolic Constitution of Pope John Paul II, Pastor Bonus, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has “the function of promoting and safeguarding doctrine on faith and morals throughout the Catholic world” (§48). In carrying out this purpose, in the words of its Regulations for Doctrinal Examination, the Congregation “renders a service to the truth, by protecting the right of the People of God to receive the Gospel message in its purity and entirety” (art. 1).

This service of the truth is part of the pastoral responsibility of all bishops “who have the duty and right to exercise vigilance, whether individually or gathered in particular Councils or Episcopal Conferences, in order that the faith and morals of the members of the faithful entrusted to their care not suffer harm” (art. 2).  It is precisely at this point that the role of the Doctrinal Commission of an Episcopal Conference enters in. These commissions formalize in an institutional manner an indispensable assistance provided to the conference and to individual bishops in their pastoral responsibilities to promote and safeguard the doctrine of the faith – nothing less than the service of the truth.  This task is in the first place one that should be undertaken at the local level, by the bishops themselves and by the Episcopal Conferences, with the aid of the Doctrinal Commissions.  Naturally, it is the special responsibility of the Holy See to intervene especially in those cases in which the matters under consideration involve more than one Episcopal Conference, questions of an international character.

The above-mentioned documents encouraged the Episcopal Conferences to establish Doctrinal Commissions (made up exclusively of bishops, but with theologians or other experts available as consultants). In special circumstances, when it is not feasible for an Episcopal Conference to create an independent Doctrinal Commission, for example because of size, this indispensable role can be assumed by another commission or even by an individual bishop.  Just as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is an organ of the Apostolic See in service of the universal Church, so the individual Doctrinal Commission is a body entirely responsible to the conference of bishops. “Doctrinal Commissions are responsible to and act by the mandate of the Episcopal Conferences” and are consultative bodies “instituted to aid the Episcopal Conference itself and the individual Bishops in their solicitude for the teaching of the faith” (Circular Letter, 1990, art. 3).  Furthermore, “the Doctrinal Commission is not to make public statements in the name of the entire Conference unless it has explicit authorization to do so” (art. 6).

Collegiality and collaboration, in service of the truth, are thus the fundamental values at work in the existence and nature of Doctrinal Commissions. The communion of the Ecclesia Christi – especially as this involves a communion in faith and a unity in truth – requires a concrete, working collaboration between the Holy See and the bishops of the world on doctrinal matters. Since the safeguarding and promotion of the doctrine of the faith are the concern of the entire Church, it is essential for the bishops to collaborate with the Roman Pontiff with whom they exercise the apostolic office in a collegial manner.  It is only in the light of this theological foundation that the nature of Doctrinal Commissions can be properly understood.

The Contemporary Urgency of the Pastoral Responsibility to Serve the Truth

The urgency of the pastoral responsibility to serve the truth is especially evident in the current circumstances in which the Church everywhere finds herself.  As Pope Benedict XVI has stated, many of the challenges which the Church faces at the beginning of its third millennium arise from confusion and ignorance of the most fundamental elements of Catholic faith.

In his homily for the mass for the inauguration of his pontificate, the Holy Father stated: “My program of governance is not to do my own will, not to pursue my own ideas, but to listen, together with the whole Church, to the word and will of the Lord, to be guided by Him, so that He himself will lead the Church at this hour of our history.”  The Pope and the Bishops are  the servants of the saving truth of the Gospel that is Christ’s gift to the Church. Indeed, as Pope Benedict has often said in his writings, Christ himself is this gift of truth. The truth of our faith is not a solely an intellectual content, expressed in formulas and creeds – important and necessary as these are – but  is more fully the living Word of God, given as a transforming personal gift of the Blessed Trinity, to be cherished, pondered and adored in the community of his holy people that is the Church.

This truth is a saving truth. In the mirror of the truth of the Gospel which is Christ himself, we see revealed the truth about ourselves, about our relations with others, about the societies and cultures we inhabit – indeed, about every aspect of our existence as human beings called to enjoy the communion of the life of the Blessed Trinity, but still bound by the constraints of our creatureliness and sinfulness. The authentic proclamation of the truth is not only a matter of doctrinal precision but also one of pastoral urgency. The pastors and teachers of the Church must proclaim the full truth about Christ for the sake of the salvation of the faithful.

Precisely at this point we can see why, as Pope Benedict has reminded us, one of the great dangers of modern times is the prevailing atmosphere of relativism which recognizes nothing “as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.” This atmosphere undermines or even blocks the communication of the truth that is Christ and with it the possession of “a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church.”  Relativism is harmful not just as a theoretical philosophical position, but because it prevents people from embracing the truth that would otherwise save and transform them. Friendship with Christ “opens us up to all that is good and gives us a criterion by which to distinguish the true from the false, and deceit from truth.”  For in the truth of Christ, we discover “the measure of true humanism.”

To highlight the urgency of the Bishop’s pastoral responsibility to promote and safeguard the doctrine of the faith is also to underline the work of the Doctrinal Commission to support and assist  the Bishop in this task. So now I want to offer some concrete ways the Doctrinal Commission can fulfill this service.

4. Some Concrete Functions of the Doctrinal Commission

In Dei Verbum (n. 8) we read that “the tradition that comes from the apostles makes progress in the Church, with the help of the Holy Spirit.”  In other words, it is a living tradition.  And in n. 10 of the same Constitution, we read that “the task of giving an authentic interpretation of the word of God… has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone.”

With the faithful of every time we are the heirs of this living tradition, and the Council itself gives us the best description of it: “What was handed on by the apostles comprises everything that serves to make the people of God live their lives in holiness and increase their faith.  In this way the Church, in its doctrine, life and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that it itself is, all that it believes” (DV n. 8).

In his splendid opening address at the Second Vatican Council, Pope John XXIII laid out the vision of this living tradition by referring to the history of the Church councils, its twenty ecumenical councils, its countless Provincial and Regional councils.  These councils, he said, “clearly attest to the vitality of the Catholic Church.”  He went on to identify the principal goal of the Council: “that the sacred deposit of Catholic doctrine be guarded and taught in the most effective way.”

This vast goal of the Council – to present the revelation given to us in Christ, and handed down through the centuries from the Apostles to modern times, to engage the forces of contemporary civilization with the proposal of faith – this goal was not finished with the council, but only just begun.  So the task announced by the Council, of “giving an authentic interpretation of the word of God” entrusted to us, the living Magisterium, stands as the framework also for the work of the Doctrinal Commission, in the service of our brother bishops, in the service of the truth.

I want to indicate some criteria for our work: I will call them “formal” criteria and “material” criteria (the latter referring to the doctrinal content of our faith).  The Council already announced general “formal” criteria: “This Magisterium is not superior to the word of God, but is rather its servant.  It teaches only what has been handed on to it.… It listens to this devoutly, guards it reverently and expounds it faithfully.  All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed it draws from this sole deposit of faith” (n. 10).  If these criteria seem too peaceful, the Council cannot be called naïve in proposing them; after all, as Pope John noted, it had the history of twenty centuries of councils combating heresies in its focus.

But these criteria also need to be applied in “real time,” so to speak.  It may be helpful to remind ourselves of Pope Benedict XVI’s speech to the Roman Curia at the end of his first year, when he developed a sharpened, additional set of criteria in the light of the post-conciliar developments.  He asked the question, “Why has the implementation of the Council, in large parts of the Church, thus far been so difficult?”

The Pope answers by saying that the correct interpretation, or “hermeneutics,” of the Council is the key.  “The problems in its implementation arose from the fact that two contrary hermeneutics came face to face and quarreled with each other.  One caused confusion, the other, silently but more and more visibly, bore and is bearing fruit.”

“On the one hand,” he says, “ there is an interpretation of the Council that I would call ‘a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture.’…  On the other, there is the ‘hermeneutic of reform,’ of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us.  She is a subject which increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God.”

“The hermeneutic of discontinuity risks ending in a split between the pre-conciliar Church and the post-conciliar Church.  It asserts that the texts of the Council as such do not yet express the true spirit of the Council.…  The hermeneutic of discontinuity is countered by the hermeneutic of reform” in continuity.

The Pope’ much lengthier evaluation of these two tendencies of interpretation, indeed of their clash, is illuminating, especially for the work of Doctrinal Commissions.  I call it a further development of the “formal” criteria given by the Council itself.

The “material” criteria, or those dealing with the doctrinal content of the faith, are many.  The various teachings of the Church over this post-conciliar period embrace papal encyclicals and other teachings, documents of our Doctrinal Congregation and of other papal departments.  As a good example of the ongoing interpretation of the Council itself, I call attention to the Synods of Bishops, and the Apostolic Exhortations of the post-conciliar Magisterium which present their recommendations.  These Synods and Exhortations have covered practically the whole range of the subjects treated by the Council itself in thematic form.

The most important “material” criterion of interpretation, in my view, is the Catechism of the Catholic Church, published in 1992.  A catechism of the Vatican Council for the universal Church was called for in a recommendation of the 1985 Extraordinary Synod of Bishops to mark the twentieth anniversary of the close of the Council.  Its great achievement has been to draw together in one teaching document the vast Tradition of the Catholic Church, together with the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, which sought to represent that Tradition in the light of our contemporary situation.

For every Bishop this Catechism is a precious aid to his teaching mission.  By ensuring that it stands at the basis of every formation program for the apostolic mission of the Church – for the formation of priests and deacons, for catechists and theologians – he can ensure the unity of faith in a common language of doctrine that will serve the catholic universality of the Church today.

For both Bishops and Doctrinal Commissions, the Catechism is particularly useful as a criterion of correct teaching and preaching.  As a theological document with a catechetical aim, it does not intend to restrict the speculation of theologians to its formulae.  Rather, it serves as an important criterion of evaluation of theological and catechetical teaching: if any teaching contradicts the formulas of the Catechism, it can be supposed that such teaching will need to be corrected.

In undertaking their role to assist the bishops and bishops’ conferences in their pastoral responsibility to the truth, Doctrinal Commissions can make use of the great resource which the Holy See provides to the universal Church through its teaching documents. These documents – often inspired by conversations with and letters from the bishops of the world – strive to respond to the range of specialized challenges which confront the understanding and  communication of the faith in present circumstances throughout the world.  In the first place, of course, there are the encyclicals and teaching that comes from the Holy Father himself. Then there are documents published by the major dicasteries, especially those of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.  An important function of the Doctrinal Commissions is to assist in the reception and promulgation of these important teaching document by the faithful, even assisting bishops by providing useful homily and article texts to present and explain these documents.

Doctrinal Commissions should endeavor to collaborate with the media as well as with Catholic publishing houses to ensure the communication of the Church’s teaching on faith and morals.  A helpful service that could be provided by Doctrinal Commissions would be to assist local bishops in evaluating works published under Catholic auspices with a view to their receiving the necessary ecclesiastical permission.

Related to this last point, two articles of the Congregation’s 1990 circular letter on Doctrinal Commissions, concern the important task of promoting the work of theology by fostering “good mutual relations with theologians, teachers in universities and seminaries, indeed with all experts in the ecclesiastical disciplines” (art.8).  In addition, “The Doctrinal Commissions are established likewise to provide assistance to each Bishop also called in the task of monitoring and evaluating the theological books published in his territory. This task of vigilance is and has to remain properly that of the individual Bishop. It is a necessary task so that no harm may come to that sound teaching which the faithful have a right to receive” (art. 9). The 1990 document of the Congregation Donum veritatis: On the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian, is indispensable for bishops and Doctrinal Commissions to articulate properly the responsibility of theologians to teach in harmony with the Church, and to know how to evaluate the problem of dissent.

Among the more important functions of the Doctrinal Commission of an Episcopal Conference, according to the 1990 circular letter, is its collaboration with other commissions of the conference, especially those with competence in education, catechetics, liturgy and ecumenism. “The Doctrinal Commission offers them its own competent judgment on all that has doctrinal relevance in these areas. Normally, the other commissions of the Conference should not publish important documents without first having the benefit of the doctrinal commission’s judgment in what pertains to its competence” (art. 11).

The 1990 circular letter states that the Doctrinal Commissions foster collegiality and ecclesial communion by finding “expeditious ways to exchange information and experiences” with one another, particularly when they share the same language and region (art. 12). In addition,  there should be “an increase in reciprocal communications between the Doctrinal Commissions and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith…. The ‘ad limina’ visits, as well as special meetings between the Congregation and the individual commissions” can be of particular service in this regard (art. 13). Finally, “it would be very helpful if the president of the Doctrinal Commission would send at least an annual report to the Congregation on the commission’s work and on the major doctrinal difficulties faced in the country. Also welcome would be its suggestions as to what action might be opportune for the Holy See to take regarding such difficulties” (art. 14).


The role of the Doctrinal Commissions is to assist their Episcopal Conferences and the individual bishops of their regions to foster, with clarity and without compromise, the embrace and proclamation of the Truth that saves and transforms human beings and human societies. May the Holy Spirit, whom the good Lord promise to send to guide the Apostles and their successors, always continue to provide us the Pentecost fire of his truth and his love.