"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Monday, June 12, 2006

The parties of discontinuity and the vital center

There have been interesting discussions over the past week at Scott Carson's An Examined LIfe and Tom Kreitzberg's Disputations about something called "the hermeneutic of discontinuity." For those of you who don't study philosophy or theology formally, that phrase captures an attitude that I'm sure you've encountered: "Within living memory, the Church has changed her teachings on some very important matters. If you accepted the old teachings, that's a bad thing; if you think change was overdue, that's a good thing and allows for more that should come." I want here to explain what's at stake.

In a seminal article that now constitutes, in slightly revised form, a chapter in his new book Catholic Matters, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus observed:
Disputes in the Church are different from disputes in the arena of secular politics, although not so different as one might like to think. I venture the suggestion, however, that, in trying to understand the intra–Catholic disputes of the forty years since the Council, it is more helpful to think in terms of two parties: the party of discontinuity and the party of continuity. The party of discontinuity has both right–wing and left–wing branches, but they are united in their agreement that the Council represented a decisive break in the story of the Catholic Church. The one sees the Council as deviation or even apostasy; the other sees the Council as liberation or even revolution. Both see the Council as a break from what had gone before; both speak of a pre–Vatican II Church and a post–Vatican II Church, as though there are two churches; both are highly critical of the Church’s leadership, and of this pontificate in particular—the one because John Paul II has failed to restore what was, and the other because it thinks he is trying to do just that. Such are the two branches of the party of discontinuity. We might call them the discontinuants.
Read the whole article; better yet, read the book. I would change the above passage only by calling "the party of discontinuity" what it really is: two "parties of discontinuity." Why is that important, and what does it tell us?

The key difference between the "leftist" and "rightist" parties of discontinuity is easy to state: what the former celebrate and want to see more of, the latter mourn and want to roll back. I call the former 'progs', short for 'progressives'; the latter, 'trads', short for those "traditionalists" who believe that Vatican II, whether or not it was formally heretical, was a lousy idea that is best allowed to become a dead letter. Both progs and trads hold that something radical happened at Vatican II so that the Church of today cannot, without straining credulity, be viewed as doctrinally or spiritually continuous with the Church before Vatican II. Such is the product of what Pope Benedict calls "the hermenectic of discontinuity." We thus have not only a de facto and, in a few cases, a de jure schism from the center, but a schism consisting of two parties who want even less to do with each other than with Rome.

For the most part, the Pope has discussed the prog party of discontinuity. Thus, speaking about the hackneyed "spirit of Vatican II," he noted last Christmas:

....there is an interpretation that I would call "a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture"; it has frequently availed itself of the sympathies of the mass media, and also one trend of modern theology. 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. It claims that they are the result of compromises in which, to reach unanimity, it was found necessary to keep and reconfirm many old things that are now pointless. However, the true spirit of the Council is not to be found in these compromises but instead in the impulses toward the new that are contained in the texts.

These innovations alone were supposed to represent the true spirit of the Council, and starting from and in conformity with them, it would be possible to move ahead. Precisely because the texts would only imperfectly reflect the true spirit of the Council and its newness, it would be necessary to go courageously beyond the texts and make room for the newness in which the Council's deepest intention would be expressed, even if it were still vague.

In a word: it would be necessary not to follow the texts of the Council but its spirit. In this way, obviously, a vast margin was left open for the question on how this spirit should subsequently be defined and room was consequently made for every whim.

The Pope has not, to my knowledge, mentioned the fact that a great many trads agree with the progs about the texts and program of Vatican II. They share the hermeneutic of discontinuity, differing only as I have indicated above. The Pope has decided not to hang th discontinuity label on trad necks because he earnestly seeks reconciliation with schismatic trad groups such as the Society of St. Pius X, which is being maintained and grown by bishops whom the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre was excommunicated by Pope John Paul II for ordaining. Benedict is unlikely to achieve such reconciliation anytime soon. Influential elements within such groups want to reserve the right to dissent from this-or-that aspect of Vatican II, chiefly what it said about religious freedom and ecumenism. To the Pope, what such a condition implies for Church unity is unacceptable. As well it should be, I would add.

By contrast, the hermeneutic of "reform" sees the Church of today as doctrinally and spiritually continuous with that of the past. She is the same Church, with the same authority and faith as as before. But it is important to exhibit what that does and does not entail.

Admittedly, certain teachings have changed. The Church no longer teaches, as she did for over a millennium, that it is the duty of the state to impose Catholicism on civil society when that is politically feasible, thus making heresy and schism punishable crimes. The Church no longer teaches, as she had done ever since the 11th-century schism with the Orthodox and the 16th-century schism with Protestantism, that validly baptized Christians who are not in full communion with the Catholic Church should be presumed to be on the road to perdition. Instead, the Church now teaches that religious freedom, the freedom to believe and worship according to one's conscience, is a fundamental human right that she may not abridge any more than the state. She teaches that those who are born and/or raised in other Christian traditions may no longer be presumed culpable for their disunion with the Catholic Church. Both teachings place the pastoral emphasis on working with people where they are, not insisting that they be where they are not. That is as taken-for-granted by progs as it is scorned by trads. So far, good for the progs.

But that "leftist" party of discontinuity also makes a fundamental mistake. They consider such changes, in both content and scope, so significant as to offer logical precedent for the changes they want now: chiefly, in Church teaching sexuality and gender roles. That such changes are not in the offing is not merely the result of Roman stubbornness and will-to-power. In fact, the changes that have occurred are hardly unprecedented and no more radical than the older ones. And they are of such a kind as not to punch the tickets the progs hold in their hands.

Even before Vatican II—or Vatican I, for that matter—Church teaching had already undergone shifts of similar scope on such questions as slavery, usury, and the relationship between faith and science. Regarding all such changes, the key point for my purpose is that they do not negate any doctrine taught by the Church in the past that meet her own specified criteria for infallibility. I have shown as much in some detail with a series of posts condensed, at Pontifications, into a small treatise called Development and Negation. The Church has never claimed to be omniscient; she only claims to have taught infallibly under certain conditions. When her teachings change to reflect a deeper awareness of the truths of faith and morals, or their different applicability in new conditions, that is "development" of the Church's consciousness of truth, not negation of truths she had already taught with her full authority. Accordingly, the changes are reform, not rupture; continuity, not discontinuity, with what has been understood to belong to the "deposit" of faith. The teachings on women's ordination, contraception, and homosex, however, do belong to said deposit. At least, they do if recent popes are to be believed. But whether one believes them or not, the Church does not change what she claims to be irreformable teachings. To do so would, among other things, be to discredit the distinctive claim to authority made by her own "Magisterium."

The importance of that can hardly be overstressed. Neuhaus calls those who recognize and affirm such continuity not just the "party" of continuity but "the vital center" of the Church. The "center" is not a wishy-washy compromise of principle, but the product of a mature gift for distinguishing between what cannot change, what could but needn't change, and what must change. To walk such lines requires an adult faith—the lack of which, implies the Pope, is possibly the Church's biggest problem today.

The center holds.
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