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Benedict's Hermeneutic of Continuity

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles ) | Jan 30, 2009

With respect to the implementation of both the Second Vatican Council and the ordinary form of the Roman Rite, Benedict XVI has repeatedly called for a “hermeneutic of continuity” rather than the too prevalent “hermeneutic of rupture”. In discussions here at CatholicCulture.org, I’ve found that the word “hermeneutic” confuses people. To some, it even sounds vaguely suspicious. But what Benedict is expressing here has always been a key element in the proper interpretation of ecclesiastical texts.

Hermeneutics

Hermeneutics is the branch of theology which deals with the principles of Biblical exegesis. “Ouch,” you say? Well, exegesis is “a critical explanation or interpretation of a Biblical text.” You can do exegesis properly only if you follow the correct rules of interpretation. In other words, the correct hermeneutical approach is essential to a proper understanding of the truth the Holy Spirit wishes to convey in any given Scriptural passage or, indeed, in the Bible as a whole.

For example, it is essential to the full understanding of the Old Testament to employ the interpretive principle (hermeneutic) that many things in the OT text are types or prefigurements of Christ and His fulfillment of Scripture in the New Testament. If you were to approach the OT with the (false) hermeneutic that only the literal or historical meaning is valid, you would lose a great deal of the meaning of the text.

Another extremely important interpretive principle, which has always been taught by the Church and which was perhaps best enunciated by St. Augustine in his book On Christian Doctrine, is the principle that, when interpreting Scripture, one text cannot be preferred to another or played off against another. Since everything the Holy Spirit intends to teach in Scripture is true, all texts which relate to a given problem must be examined for what they say about it, and the correct understanding will necessarily be an understanding which permits every text to retain its full force—that is, the real truth will conform to everything that has been revealed. Working against this “hermeneutic” is any tendency to interpret Scripture according to the “plain meaning” of a favorite text, while ignoring other texts which provide additional light on the same subject.

By the analogy of Faith, we apply this same principle of interpretation not only to Scripture but to everything God has revealed. Because the Magisterium of the Church teaches with the same authority as Sacred Scripture (after all, the same Holy Spirit inspires and guarantees both), a Catholic can properly understand a Christian teaching only if he takes into account everything that both Scripture and the Magisterium have said on a subject. Any understanding which fastens on what Scripture says to the exclusion of the Magisterium (as Protestants typically do) or which fastens on this or that statement of the Magisterium in preference to others (as Traditionalists typically do) is doomed to be incorrect. The proper interpretation will always be the one which allows for the truth of all the relevant Scriptural and Magisterial texts.

This principle is unalterably opposed to any interpretive technique which severs one or more Magisterial texts (or one or more passages of Scripture) from other texts. Such a technique is, in fact, a “hermeneutic of rupture”. The right principle is a “hermeneutic of continuity”, and this principle lies at the heart of what it means to be a Catholic, what it means to think in a Catholic way.

A Culture of Rupture

For over two centuries now, Western intellectual life has been dominated increasingly by a “hermeneutic of rupture”, a broad principle of interpretation of the Good which dismisses tradition and opts instead for the latest ideas, as if by the very fact of coming later in time, these ideas must be superior—a misconception arising largely from the Western notion of “progress”. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this hermeneutic of rupture tended to be imported into Catholic theology by those who fell victim to Modernism. Modernism essentially finds religious truth in the current lived experience of Christians (with an unerring emphasis on those “intellectually elite” Christians who have been infected by the growing secularization of Western culture). While Modernism was formally suppressed in the early twentieth century, it simmered below the surface wherever Catholic “intellectuals” had been secularized and, in the massive cultural “liberation” of the 1960’s, it emerged in full force within the Church even as its completely secular counterpart wrought massive changes in the surrounding culture.

The sessions of the Second Vatican Council were held just as these forces were being fully released. Pope John XXIII had recognized that the influence of Christianity on culture and, therefore, the strength of the Church had been declining in the West for half a millennium—and, frankly, that the “prisoner of the Vatican” or “siege” mentality had done nothing to reverse this trend. Accordingly, he wished to summon a council in the hope of effecting a deep renewal of the Church which would enable it to speak clearly and forcefully to the modern world. One can argue that both John XXIII and the Council Fathers misjudged the potential receptivity of the surrounding culture, but this hardly invalidates their efforts at renewal.

What is certain is that a great many within the Church were already infected with Modernism and too closely allied with larger secularizing trends. Some of these were present at the Council itself, and through their influence both as advisors to the bishops (periti) and as reporters to the general public, they sought to sway the Council’s deliberations in the direction they desired. After the close of the Council, undaunted by what the conciliar documents actually said, this same group of intellectuals was able to twist the Council to its own purposes, effecting in many ways a false renewal based on the so-called “spirit” of Vatican II.

In religious life (abandonment of habits, rules and charisms in favor of sociology), in catechesis (jettisoning Catholic doctrine in favor of modern feelings), in theology (reinterpreting theological tradition based on secular ideas and secular sins), in liturgy (celebrating the Novus Ordo as if it were not a continuation of what Catholics in former ages had meant by the Mass, but a radically new rite of community self-praise)—and in every other area from seminary training to diocesan administration—the Modernists and secularists rode the euphoric worldly wave of the surrounding culture to ever-increasing influence and ultimate dominance in Church affairs throughout the West, at least in most places short of the Vatican itself.

Thus had an ecclesiastical culture characterized by a “hermeneutic of rupture” come to characterize the daily experience of the vast majority of faithful Catholics throughout Europe and North America.

A Culture of Continuity

The degree to which one has internalized the Faith varies markedly from Catholic to Catholic. Across a spectrum from little knowledge and shallow spirituality all the way up to great knowledge and deep spirituality, the number of souls at each level invariably thins as we approach the higher end. Left in the hands of (one is tempted to say “ruptured”) intellectual and spiritual leaders for a generation or more, a great many Catholics have been betrayed into a relatively ignorant and secularized version of Catholic faith and worship, often without realizing what they might have had instead. Most of those who have been both more knowledgeable and more deeply spiritual have chosen to suffer the indignities pressed upon them, recognizing these misguided enthusiasms as a punishment for sin, an opportunity to join Christ in the Garden, and a spur to holiness. These have also worked mightily to contribute to the authentic renewal actually outlined in the Council documents. A few others have drifted into various Eastern churches, some in union with Rome, some not; or have left to join this or that conservative Protestant sect; or have broken into Traditionalist splinter groups which claim (erroneously) to preserve authentic Catholicism even while they further injure the Body of Christ.

For Pope John Paul II and for Benedict XVI the solution to all this has been precisely to recapture the renewal called for at the Second Vatican Council, to take the implementation of Vatican II out of the hands of those who have consistently advocated distortions in the name of the Council’s “spirit”, and to encourage true renewal according to the Council’s actual documents and their subsequent development in the teachings and directives of the Magisterium of the Church. For Benedict, one of the keys to doing this successfully is to emphasize that authentic renewal cannot be the product of a “hermeneutic of rupture”. Any new development in Catholic teaching, Catholic devotion, Catholic discipline and Catholic worship must be understood as a development which corroborates and confirms what has come before, even as it proposes a new and deeper insight, a more precise formulation, or an important emphasis that has either been overlooked or has special relevance to our current situation.

For example, insofar as Vatican II called the laity to holiness, this must be seen in the context of the sacrament of baptism and the proper hierarchy of the Church, not as a rebellion or replacement of clericalism with laicism. Insofar as Vatican II called for the reform of the liturgy, the results must be perceived and enacted not as something of merely human origin that sweeps away prior rites as so much detritus, but as a continuation of the work of God. Thus the Mass in every rite should be approached and celebrated in a manner which strengthens our understanding of God’s purposes in the Liturgy of the Word, which fosters our participation in Christ’s redemptive offering to the Father in the Liturgy of the Eucharist, and which incorporates us into the one body of Christ through Holy Communion. To take another example, insofar as new theological ideas are advanced, they have value not as novelties which replace “old-fashioned and pre-conciliar” notions, but only as fresh insights into Catholic doctrine which enable us to understand it more precisely or live it more fully.

Continuity Works Both Ways

This is the “hermeneutic of continuity”. It must give rise to a culture of continuity among Catholics which will bear fruit everywhere in the Church. I have already noted that it is nothing new; it is essential to Catholicism. All legitimate developments corroborate, confirm and enhance the authentic explications of the Faith that have come before. This does not mean that a widespread mistaken understanding in one period cannot be eventually refuted and rejected. Indeed, this should happen any time the Magisterium corrects a popular error. Nor does it mean that every theological manual in previous ages always expressed the Faith perfectly, so that anything which contradicts or replaces an earlier staple of theological thought must be judged to be false. Nor does it mean that Catholic disciplines—which are prudential enactments to foster holiness in each time, place and culture—cannot change. But it does mean that authentic Catholic doctrine can never develop in a way that contradicts itself, and that what the Church has officially regarded as good and true in the past cannot suddenly become bad or false.

Benedict has been at pains to argue that everyone who has been guilty of a “hermeneutic of rupture” must rethink and reevaluate everything according to a “hermeneutic of continuity”. This applies particularly to the project of recovering the true purpose of the Council, and it applies to all those who teach and act as if the Second Vatican Council (and all the reforms since that time) are a decisive break with the past, invalidating most of what came before. Benedict regards this change to a “hermeneutic of continuity” as the key to true renewal in the Church, and he also regards it as an important step toward re-incorporating into the Church’s life all those who have been profoundly alienated by the “hermeneutic of rupture”—an approach that has weakened the Church, imposed a painful religious experience on many serious Catholics, and wrought grave injustice by withholding from the laity the authentic doctrine and the reverent rubrically-correct liturgy to which, by virtue of their baptism, they have the right, not only as a matter of abstract justice, but under Canon Law.

As much as I have emphasized the harm caused by Modernists and secularists through their religious culture of rupture, it is absolutely critical to recognize that the cords of continuity bind in both directions. What I mean is this: Just as all new expressions of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church must be understood in light of the authentic traditions from which they spring, so must past teachings be understood in light of the official teachings that emerge later in time to further elucidate a doctrinal issue. And just as old liturgical forms must be valued for their role in fostering holiness, so must new liturgical forms be accepted as valid, coming as they do from that authority which alone can render liturgy fruitful through its sacramental power and its power to bind in heaven what it binds on earth.

I hope very much that this point will begin to seep in. While the errors associated with the “spirit” of Vatican II and their baneful influence on the Church ought to be obvious to just about everybody, there is a sort of reverse “hermeneutic of rupture” which afflicts Traditionalists. Often Traditionalists will argue that this or that action of the modern Magisterium can be rejected because it does not conform with “tradition”, or that this or that disciplinary measure is null and void because it is unjust, or that the teachings of the Second Vatican Council are not binding because Vatican II was a “pastoral” council or because Pope Paul VI stated that nothing in it was to be interpreted in a way that conflicts with past teachings.

But in fact, in its teachings, the Second Vatican Council is infallible just like any other ecumenical council. Moreover, the living Magisterium of the Church is the only Magisterium there is. It cannot be pitted against “past” magisteriums, for there are no past magisteriums, but only the one Magisterium operating through time. The Magisterium has the same authority today as when it impacted the life of the Church in earlier ages; it is one and the same. It goes without saying that any new doctrinal statement of the Magisterium must be interpreted in a manner which corroborates and enhances what has gone before, rather than contradicting it; but it also goes without saying that our understanding of past statements must be adjusted, improved or made more precise by what comes later. By emphasizing this continuity, Paul VI tried (with an unfortunate lack of success on all sides) to prevent a “hermeneutic of rupture” from taking hold in the first place.

Infallibility

The gift of infallibility exists because it would be otherwise impossible for Christ to fulfill His promise to be with His disciples always, even to the end of time (Mt 28:20). Or, as Cardinal Newman so deftly put it, it is impossible to conceive that there should be so great a difference in dispensation between the first Christians and ourselves that they had a living, infallible authority and we have not. Indeed, the difference would be so radical as to amount to a third covenant.

Now while each apostle, and each successor to the apostles (i.e., each bishop), has the authority to teach from Christ, the charism of infallibility is exercised through Peter and his successors alone (i.e., the popes). This understanding has been thoroughly reflected in the governance of the Church from the earliest times; it stems from the primacy of Peter recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, and above all from Christ’s promise to Peter that He would give him the keys to the kingdom of heaven (Mt 16:19) and would also ensure that Peter’s faith would not fail: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren” (Lk 22:31-32).

The Church is thus bound to obey Peter and his successors, but Christ’s promise to be with the Church would be null and void if the Pope could bind the whole Church to error. What all this means (as formulated precisely much later at Vatican I) is that whenever the pope teaches by virtue of his supreme authority to the whole Church on a matter of faith and morals, he is necessarily protected by the Holy Spirit from error: He is infallible.

Please note that the same is true of an ecumenical council, not because the bishops have this authority in themselves or by virtue of their numbers, but because what makes a council ecumenical is the promulgation of its decrees by the pope. A council is a particularly solemn teaching moment in the life of the Church, a collegial act which unites all (or most) of those given the power to teach by Christ with their Petrine head, who strengthens them with an unfailingly correct faith. When the Pope, through his act of official promulgation, makes his own a conciliar decree that teaches a matter of faith and morals to the whole Church, then once again it is an obvious exercise of his charism of infallibility.

Unfortunately, Traditionalists have trouble with the idea that Vatican II’s teaching on religious liberty is infallible, or that Vatican II’s insistence that the Church of Christ “subsists” in the Catholic Church is infallible. They have a tendency to suggest that we can ignore these particular magisterial statements because they do not accord with their understanding of certain past statements, which past statements they decidedly prefer. As I have already said, this is nothing more than the “hermeneutic of rupture” in reverse—the hermeneutic of rupture applied in the less common direction. It is equally dangerous, damaging and false. As Benedict XVI insists, the proper “hermeneutic of continuity” will find an understanding of the Church’s teaching on any given issue that respects the truth of all the Magisterial teachings on that issue, including those of Vatican II and beyond.

A Particular Contemporary Application

I have stressed this last point because of the current prominence in the news of the lifting of the excommunications of the leaders of the Traditionalist Society of St. Pius X. There is much speculation on what the Pope hopes to achieve by his generous action, and about whether doctrinal talks will proceed to a happy resolution that will bring about the Pope’s desire for unity. But make no mistake: Benedict has expressed what this means clearly and forcefully, on two separate occasions. First, in the decree lifting the excommunications, signed by the Prefect of the Congregation of Bishops at the Pope’s request, he stated unequivocally:

It is hoped that this step will be followed by the prompt accomplishment of full communion with the Church on the part of the entire Fraternity of Saint Pius X, thus testifying to true fidelity and true recognition of the Magisterium and of the authority of the Pope with the proof of visible unity. [January 21, 2009]

To emphasize the point, he said this again in explaining his action a few days later. Lifting the excommunications, he said, was an act of “paternal benevolence” aimed toward a specific desired result:

I hope that this gesture of mine will be followed by a prompt commitment on their part to take the further steps necessary to achieve full communion with the Church, thus showing true faithfulness to, and true recognition of, the Magisterium and authority of the Pope and of Vatican Council II. [Weekly audience of January 28, 2009]

The living Magisterium of the Church, personified in our times by Pope Benedict XVI, insists that its authority, as expressed also by the documents of the Second Vatican Council, be fully accepted as an essential mark of communion in the Church of Christ. May Benedict succeed in restoring a hermeneutic of continuity within the Church, on all sides, and in all directions.

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