I have just been reading parts of the debate at Vatican II on the sections of Dei Verbum dealing with Apostolic Tradition. Ratzinger summarizes the debate in his commentary, and now I have read translations of some of the actual speeches of the council fathers. Part of the debate is quite similar the discussion that has been going on in the comment thread of my post on unwritten Tradition. I have been defending there the account of Tradition developed by by Pope Benedict XVI long before he became pope. He understands Tradition as “the living process whereby the Holy Spirit introduces us to the fullness of truth and teaches us how to understand what previously we could still not grasp (cf. Jn 16:12-13),” and the “remembering” by which the Church “can come to recognize what it had not caught sight of previously and yet was already handed down in the original Word.” Aelianus and Thomas Cordatus have been objecting that Ratzinger’s account seems dangerously close to the modernist idea of continuing Revelation. They insist that Tradition must be the handing on of definite ideas, though not in set formulas.
Very similar objections were brought up by some of the council fathers in the debate on Dei Verbum. The peritus Ratzinger had given a speech which had influenced the 4th draft of the Document–especially Article 8–and several of the fathers objected to this. Here is Ratzinger’s summary:
The dynamic concept of tradition, with which the Council here develops its positive conception of traditio, was strongly attacked from two quite opposite directions. On the one hand, Cardinal Ruffini rejected it from his position of traditionally neoscholastic theology, but on the other, Cardinal Leger attacked it from an ecumenical standpoint. In spite of the sharp division in their general theological orientations, the arguments of these two Council fathers were astonishingly similar Ruffini firmly emphasized the idea of revelation being concluded with the death of the last Apostle, rejected the idea of including disciples of the Apostles among the origins of revelation, and opposed the idea of a living and growing revelation, for, in accordance with the text of Trent and Vatican I, he considered that this should be mentioned only in connection with a strong emphasis on the strict unchangeability of a revelation that had been concluded once and for all, with which he referred to an appropriate text by Vincent de Lerins, quoted at both Councils. In the concept of the schema, and especially in its emphasis on spiritual experience as a principle of the growing knowledge of revelation, he detected theological evolutionism, condemned as modernism by Pius XII. In another tone and with other reasons Cardinal Leger insisted on the same point, He found that the Schema, especially in its idea of progress, which seemed to refer not only to the knowledge of tradition, but tradition itself (Haec … Traditio … proficit), blurred the strict distinction between apostolic and post-apostolic tradition and endangered the strict transcendence of divine revelation when it was confronted with the statements and actions of the teaching office of the Church. The Cardinal was concerned that the Church should bind itself firmly to the final and unchangeable word of God, that does not grow, but can only be constantly assimilated afresh and cannot be manipulated by the Church. The Theological Commission considered the question carefully, but decided not to make any major alterations in the text. It pointed out that the clause ” … Traditio proficit” is explained by a second clause “crescit … tam rerum quam verborum perceptio“, i.e. the growth of tradition is a growth in understanding of the reality that was given at the beginning. (Commentary pp.186-187)
A key question here is the interpretation of John 16:12-13: “I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” The two sides interpret these verses in almost opposite senses. Ratzinger takes it to refer to the “livingness” of tradition through all the ages, Ruffini takes it to refer to the completion of the Revelation in the Apostolic Age. Here is a translation of a translation of Ruffini:
The Divine Revelation, which we must accept with that faith which we owe to God alone, was completed with the death of the last Apostle, which the historical tradition tells us was the Apostle John. For, on the night before His death, Jesus said to His Apostles gathered in the cenacle: “I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” These words are as clear as the sun. If the Holy Spirit will teach the Apostles all truth, then one cannot expect any more truths after the time of the Apostles which could be part of the depositum revelationis […] The draft says of Tradition that it lives and grows. These words the Council of Trent borrowed from Vincent of Lerins; but here in this draft the words of Trent are sadly mangled and abbreviated. Therefore I beg, for the love of truth, that the witness of Trent might be quoted in full: Hence, too, that meaning of the sacred dogmas is ever to be maintained which has once been declared by Holy mother Church, and there must never be any abandonment of this sense under the pretext or in the name of a more profound understanding. May understanding, knowledge and wisdom increase as ages and centuries roll along, and greatly and vigorously flourish, in each and all, in the individual and the whole Church: but this only in its own proper kind, that is to say, in the same doctrine, the same sense, and the same understanding. I will boldly speak my mind, venerable fathers […] the draft presented can scarcely be reconciled with the magnificent teaching of Trent. [For we read in the draft that] Tradition grows not only through contemplation […] but also through the interior experience of spiritual things. Such experience seems at least hardly distinguishable from the “religious sense” that the courageous defender of the Catholic Faith, Pope St. Pius X, condemned in his encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis.
Cardinal Ruffini’s rhetoric is magnificent, but it had hardly any effect on the final version of Dei Verbum, which left almost unchanged the passages to which he objected. Bl. Pope John Paul II saw this question, or rather the Ruffini-ite answer to it, as the main error of Archbishop Lefebvre. In the Motu Proprio Ecclesia Dei he has written:
The root of this schismatic act can be discerned in an incomplete and contradictory notion of Tradition. Incomplete, because it does not take sufficiently into account the living character of Tradition, which, as the Second Vatican Council clearly taught, “comes from the apostles and progresses in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. There is a growth in insight into the realities and words that are being passed on. This comes about in various ways. It comes through the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts. It comes from the intimate sense of spiritual realities which they experience. And it comes from the preaching of those who have received, along with their right of succession in the episcopate, the sure charism of truth”.