Yesterday an English transcript of one of the pope's radio addresses was published in which the pope reflects upon what it was like to be a young periti at the Council. This was an especially telling address because the pope offered a pretty substantial criticism of Nostra Aetate, the Declaration on the Church and Its Relation to Non-Christian Religions. Many have championed this document as occasioning a shift in the Church's ecclesiology towards a position where non-Christian religions are viewed favorably and Catholics are to only focus on building good will with other religions, not condemning their errors and trying to convert their adherents; this view has caused much mischief, especially in our missions. Consequently, Traditionalists have seen Nostra Aetate as one of the biggest issues with the Council, some attacking the document itself as presenting a false vision of Catholic missiology, others citing the document's disastrous implementation.
This is a phenomenal statement. Benedict XVI is here acknowledging that Nostra Aetate, besides being "extraordinarily dense", has a very profound "weakness" - that it speaks too positively of other religions and does not look at them critically, which is the approach the Church had always taken "from the outset."
I can attest from experience that this is in fact the principal weakness in NA, and it is a weakness that is not only confusing to Catholics (who see the positive language as an affirmation of these other religions), but it is scandalous to Protestants who already suspect the modern Church of being syncretist. When I was reading through some of the statements of the Church on Islam and non-Christian religions with a Protestant friend of mine, he looked at the words of NA and said kind of skeptically, "I can see the value in examining issues where different religions are in agreement, but this language speaks so positively of other religions that it almost endorses them." I had to explain that technically the document wasn't technically endorsing other religions, but agreed that the language was way too positive and uncritical - it did almost sound like it was endorsing Islam, Buddhism, etc. We see now that Benedict himself feels the same way - it is not a good idea, theologically or pastorally, to dwell only on the positive aspects of non-Christian religions without also looking at their "sick and distorted" elements as well.
Benedict goes on to say that the implementation of this document was very flawed and that the Council Fathers had no intention of creating a "different Church." He states:
"The Council Fathers neither could nor wished to create a new or different Church. They had neither the authority nor the mandate to do so. It was only in their capacity as bishops that they were now Council Fathers with a vote and decision-making powers, that is to say, on the basis of the Sacrament and in the Church of the Sacrament. For this reason they neither could nor wished to create a different faith or a new Church, but rather to understand these more deeply and hence truly to “renew them”. This is why a hermeneutic of rupture is absurd and is contrary to the spirit and the will of the Council Fathers."
There is a great kernel of wisdom here as well. The Council Fathers gathered together did not constitute a sort of "Super Magisterium" or "Uber-Council" that had fantastical, far-reaching powers to utterly reorganize Catholic doctrine and life. They were only Council Fathers by virtue of being bishops gathered as one, and their power, even collectively, is essentially nothing other than the authority of the episcopate, whose authority is not to rebuild or redefine the Church's identity, either in its dogma or practice - but rather, to defend and hand on the Faith intact to the next generation. This is the "renewal" the Council Fathers were charged with. Anything beyond renewing and re-handing on the Faith of Ages was outside the purview of the Council's authority. Once again, Benedict reaffirms that the hermeneutic of rupture that sees Vatican II as the start of a totally new era and direction for the Church is "absurd."
The Pope's statements are available online here
I do want to point out that the pope's critique of Nostra Aetate reminds us that the Vatican II documents are not perfect, and that they did not fall from heaven. Are they authoritative? Yes. Are they infallible? We have to be precise here, because, unless you are talking about the Bible, only statements are infallible, not entire documents. Documents are authoritative, but that does not mean that each and every phrase within a document possesses the charism of infallibility. For example, when we speak of the infallible declaration of the pope on, say, the Immaculate Conception, we are not talking about the entire 1854 document Ineffabilis Deus. We are talking primarily about the statement towards the end of the document that begins "We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine...etc." The statement - the definition - is what is properly ex cathedra infallible in this case. The document Ineffabilis Deus is like the authoritative vessel that holds the infallible statement.
Nostra Aetate contains no such infallible statements, and though it is an authoritative teaching of the Church, is not flawless. Even an authoritative document can be flawed in what it omits, the tone of voice it is written in, the things it presupposes, the manner in which it presents its teaching, etc. In this case, Benedict has clearly stated his belief that Nostra Aetate suffers from a skewered presentation that sees other religions only in the positive light, as well as from its omission of any criticisms of the flaws in these other systems.
He also criticized the promulgation of the Novus Ordo liturgy, saying that it "introduced a breach into the history of the liturgy whose consequences could only be tragic" and stated that he was "dismayed by the prohibition of the old missal, since nothing of the sort had ever happened in the entire history of the liturgy" (see Milestones, pg. 146-149).
What's the point of all this? It is that our Holy Father seems to take a more balanced view of the meaning and authority of the documents of Vatican II than has been common. His candor is refreshing. There is nothing wrong with suggesting that some of the documents and actions of the Council have serious issues that need to be addressed; Gaudium et Spes is too worldly, time-bound and optimistic about human progress; Nostra Aetate omits important critiques of other religions and casts them in too positive a light; the promulgation of the Novus Ordo was novel and had tragic consequences. All of this is the opinion of our pope, and he reflects the truth that, as we get further in time from the Council, now past fifty years, we should start expecting a more even-handed and critical assessment of its successes and failures. The pope is not afraid to admit that there were failures (some of them in the structure and outlook of the documents themselves), and that acknowledging these failures does not call into question the authority of the documents or make us schismatics or make us disloyal or mean we don't accept the Council. It simply means the documents aren't perfect, and the pope himself has said so on numerous occasions.