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Vatican II teachings not optional

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WASHINGTON - The teachings of the Second Vatican Council are neither optional nor second-class, but must be seen in the proper context, the former prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said Sept. 26 as he opened a conference at The Catholic University of America in Washington.

The talk by Cardinal William J. Levada focused on three events that share an Oct. 11 date - the opening of Vatican II 50 years ago, the promulgation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church 20 years ago and the upcoming opening of the Year of Faith proclaimed by Pope Benedict XVI.

The cardinal, who retired in July after serving as prefect for seven years, was the first speaker at a Sept. 26-29 conference on "Reform and Renewal: Vatican II After Fifty Years."

He began his talk by recounting a conversation in which a colleague recalled asking high school students if they knew what Vatican II was. "The pope's summer residence?" one student suggested.

Cardinal Levada credited his audience at Catholic University with a much greater understanding of the 1962-65 council but said some confusion and misunderstandings remain, such as whether the council was doctrinal or pastoral in nature and whether its legacy should be seen in the letter of the council - the documents it produced - or in its spirit.

"Vatican II was by intention a pastoral council - it did not develop new dogmas to correct errors of the faith," he said, describing the council as "doctrinal in principle, but pastoral in its presentation."

On the letter-versus-spirit question, Cardinal Levada said it is "not legitimate to separate the spirit and letter of the council."

He talked about two responses to the council - one that reflected a flawed understanding of the continuity of church teaching and another that reflected a correct understanding.

In the former case, a Dominican provincial in the Netherland wrote to his colleagues urging the ordination of women and married men and lay-led eucharistic celebrations as a response to the priest shortage. That proposal, the cardinal said, was "contrary to church teaching and even heretical."

On the other hand, Pope Benedict's establishment of ordinariates that allow Anglicans to become Roman Catholics while retaining some of their Anglican heritage and traditions, including liturgical traditions, is a logical follow-up to the council, he said.

The cardinal said the ordinariates, made up of former Anglicans who "fully accept the Catholic faith," serve as a "concrete witness to help overcome fears that diverse expressions of faith are not allowed" in the Catholic Church. He said the new structure marks "a new relationship between the church and the modern era."

He said the situation remains murky for another group that may or may not unite with the Catholic Church in the near future - the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X, which rejects most of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

Pope Benedict launched a new series of doctrinal discussions with the society in 2009, lifting excommunications imposed on its four bishops and expressing his hopes they would return to full communion with the church. The talks are taking place under the guidance of the Vatican doctrinal congregation.

Asked during the question-and-answer period to disclose the contents of a "doctrinal preamble" that society leaders have been asked to sign, Cardinal Levada said he could not discuss "an ongoing dialogue that is private."

"But I can say this, there is division in that house about whether the council should be rejected or not," he said.

The Vatican has said the preamble, which has not been published, outlines principles and criteria necessary to guarantee fidelity to the church and its teaching.

"I pray for the successful conclusion of that dialogue," the cardinal said. "But it is not my responsibility anymore. I leave it to my successor."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2012