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

Friday, December 22, 2006

The travails of the hermeneut of continuity

Over at The Undercroft, a blog by a trad Catholic who calls himself "moretben," and who barely maintains communion with the Church today, but only given the alternatives, one finds a post called More Hermeneutico-whatsit. Its content, as well as that of the combox that follows, is essentially a set of complaints about the sort of thing I happen to spend much of my time online doing. I've often encountered and responded to pretty much the same complaints elsewhere in the blogosphere. But since today is the first anniversary of an important address given by Pope Benedict XVI to the Curia on this nest of topics, I thought I'd take this occasion to sum up the issues.

The following quotation supplies what His Holiness said that is germane. It's worth reading the lengthy passage in full so as to forestall the misunderstandings and rhetorical distortions that often plague discussion of these topics.

The last event of this year on which I wish to reflect here is the celebration of the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council 40 years ago. This memory prompts the question: What has been the result of the Council? Was it well received? What, in the acceptance of the Council, was good and what was inadequate or mistaken? What still remains to be done? No one can deny that in vast areas of the Church the implementation of the Council has been somewhat difficult, even without wishing to apply to what occurred in these years the description that St Basil, the great Doctor of the Church, made of the Church's situation after the Council of Nicea: he compares her situation to a naval battle in the darkness of the storm, saying among other things: "The raucous shouting of those who through disagreement rise up against one another, the incomprehensible chatter, the confused din of uninterrupted clamouring, has now filled almost the whole of the Church, falsifying through excess or failure the right doctrine of the faith..." (De Spiritu Sancto, XXX, 77; PG 32, 213 A; SCh 17 ff., p. 524).

We do not want to apply precisely this dramatic description to the situation of the post-conciliar period, yet something from all that occurred is nevertheless reflected in it. The question arises: Why has the implementation of the Council, in large parts of the Church, thus far been so difficult?

Well, it all depends on the correct interpretation of the Council or - as we would say today - on its proper hermeneutics, the correct key to its interpretation and application. The problems in its implementation arose from the fact that two contrary hermeneutics came face to face and quarrelled with each other. One caused confusion, the other, silently but more and more visibly, bore and is bearing fruit.

On the one hand, 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 nature of a Council as such is therefore basically misunderstood. In this way, it is considered as a sort of constituent that eliminates an old constitution and creates a new one. However, the Constituent Assembly needs a mandator and then confirmation by the mandator, in other words, the people the constitution must serve. The Fathers had no such mandate and no one had ever given them one; nor could anyone have given them one because the essential constitution of the Church comes from the Lord and was given to us so that we might attain eternal life and, starting from this perspective, be able to illuminate life in time and time itself.

Through the Sacrament they have received, Bishops are stewards of the Lord's gift. They are "stewards of the mysteries of God" (I Cor 4: 1); as such, they must be found to be "faithful" and "wise" (cf. Lk 12: 41-48). This requires them to administer the Lord's gift in the right way, so that it is not left concealed in some hiding place but bears fruit, and the Lord may end by saying to the administrator: "Since you were dependable in a small matter I will put you in charge of larger affairs" (cf. Mt 25: 14-30; Lk 19: 11-27).

These Gospel parables express the dynamic of fidelity required in the Lord's service; and through them it becomes clear that, as in a Council, the dynamic and fidelity must converge.

The hermeneutic of discontinuity is countered by the hermeneutic of reform, as it was presented first by Pope John XXIII in his Speech inaugurating the Council on 11 October 1962 and later by Pope Paul VI in his Discourse for the Council's conclusion on 7 December 1965.

Here I shall cite only John XXIII's well-known words, which unequivocally express this hermeneutic when he says that the Council wishes "to transmit the doctrine, pure and integral, without any attenuation or distortion". And he continues: "Our duty is not only to guard this precious treasure, as if we were concerned only with antiquity, but to dedicate ourselves with an earnest will and without fear to that work which our era demands of us...". It is necessary that "adherence to all the teaching of the Church in its entirety and preciseness..." be presented in "faithful and perfect conformity to the authentic doctrine, which, however, should be studied and expounded through the methods of research and through the literary forms of modern thought. The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another...", retaining the same meaning and message (The Documents of Vatican II, Walter M. Abbott, S.J., p. 715).

It is clear that this commitment to expressing a specific truth in a new way demands new thinking on this truth and a new and vital relationship with it; it is also clear that new words can only develop if they come from an informed understanding of the truth expressed, and on the other hand, that a reflection on faith also requires that this faith be lived. In this regard, the programme that Pope John XXIII proposed was extremely demanding, indeed, just as the synthesis of fidelity and dynamic is demanding.

However, wherever this interpretation guided the implementation of the Council, new life developed and new fruit ripened. Forty years after the Council, we can show that the positive is far greater and livelier than it appeared to be in the turbulent years around 1968. Today, we see that although the good seed developed slowly, it is nonetheless growing; and our deep gratitude for the work done by the Council is likewise growing.

Now it is just that "hermeneutic of reform," sometimes also called "the hermeneutic of continuity," that is so important for the defense of the Faith today as well as the correct implementation of the Council, which has admittedly been spotty because of the very sort of thing the Holy Father was lamenting. Catholicism can be credible today only if Vatican II did not, as trads and progs seem to think, represent a decisive break with the Church of the past, but rather undertook a Spirit-inspired program of reform that speaks to the needs of today without repudiating anything definitively taught by the Church in the past or otherwise jettisoning integral elements of Tradition. The job of the hermeneut of continuity is to show just that.

And that's what I spend a lot of time doing online. An important part of that work is to show that the development of Catholic doctrine does not negate anything taught in the past that was presented as calling for the assent of faith, i.e., whatever was thus infallibly taught by the ordinary or extraordinary magisterium. That was the purpose of my essay "Development and Negation," which discusses several of the standard topics on which the Church is charged with undermining her own teaching authority by negating doctrines taught in the past. (You can access the essay by clicking the link in the left sidebar.) Another important part of said work is to show that, despite the many depradations and divisions that have marked Catholic life since the Council, continuity of both doctrine and practice is still maintained in certain quarters of the Church and is not doomed to extinction. Over the past year, I've argued to that effect that in the comboxes of numerous blogs.

Now here's what "moretben" says (I've added the emphasis):

This whole “Hermeneutic of XYZ” business originates, of course, with that famous address the Holy Father gave to the Roman Curia almost exactly a year ago (I say “famous” in the sense that every Catholic blogger of traditionalist and conservative stripe has been over it with a toothcomb in the intervening year; beyond this and its immediate audience, I suspect it might as well have been played on a dog-whistle). It has been adopted as a kind of “mission statement” by conservative Catholics, something that provides both a key to the upheavals of the recent past, and a modus operandi for the future.

But does it? Almost every post on this blog that deals directly with the crisis in the Church is an exercise in elaborating a single idea – that Catholic belief and Catholic practice have become dangerously bifurcated as a consequence of an unbalanced ecclesiology, the origins of which are to be sought far further back than the Second Vatican Council. The hermeneutic of Continuity sets out to draw things back together by insisting that they were never legitimately loosened, far less separated, in the first place: that the discontinuities actually experienced by real live Catholics – those who approved, those who disapproved and the majority who remain absolutely indifferent because they "follow the Pope" – are the consequence of misunderstandings, misinterpretations, misapplications. In other words, another theoretical apparatus is proposed, to cover practical discontinuities that remain self-evident nevertheless to very nearly every adult in every diocese of the Catholic world.

To return to the burden of Tony’s post, then: this “Hermeneutic of Continuity” - can you touch it? Can you smell it? Can you sing or pray it? Can you make an icon of it? Will it lodge in the imagination of a five-year-old? Will it enable her to grow up understanding why we have to drive past four Catholic churches to attend a Mass thirty miles away?

So long as the answer to any of these questions is “no”, I’m afraid it’s of absolutely no earthly use.

The gravamen of those remarks can be summed up thus: unless and until the hermeneuts of continuity succeed in getting the conclusions of their theory actually embodied in the piety of ordinary Catholics across the board, then that theory is useless.

I'm afraid that holds us to an impossible standard. The apologetic side of the hermeneutic of continuity (HC) is to rebut charges of inconsistency in principle, and I have noticed that the point is often conceded. In my experience both on and offline, critics of HC, whether Catholic trads, Catholic progs, or Orthodox believers, typically concede that it succeeds in exhibiting overall theoretical consistency in Church's development of doctrine. But the number of Catholics who act accordingly is, of course, another matter. Hermeneuts of continuity do not have an inquisitorial police to ensure that the clergy and committed laity make on-the-ground practice in the parishes conform to theory. We can only aid what the previous and present popes have been trying to do. That takes time. In many ways, we're still "the resistance" on the ground.

The critics, needless to say, are unimpressed. Some even complain that the very intellectual sophistication of HC apologetic is evidence against its authenticity. As one commenter on moretben's post puts it:

It now appears to require a doctorate in modernist analytical 'philosophy' to be a Catholic. The sheer weight of the intellectual apparatus-of-continuity is astonishing, a true wonder to behold. But is this the cross we are to carry?

Well, I happen to hold such a doctorate, but I reject the label 'modernist', which serves at most to make the little band to which I belong seem guilty by association with the Modernists of a century ago. We are not. We reject their approach to doctrine, even as we accept Cardinal Newman's and Cardinal Congar's, as does Joseph Ratzinger, a cardinal turned pope. But aside from that, one doesn't need such a degree "to be Catholic." Such a degree is useful for equipping one to explain, intellectually, why one can and should be the sort of Catholic the Pope wants to see more of. People who aren't equipped to follow the resulting explanations are invited simply to accept what they are meant to support. It's no good pressing the questions if one can't or won't do the work of understanding the answers.

In most quarters, however, that is not the problem. What prevents the substance of the Pope's message from getting through to a lot of ordinary Catholics, and hence being embodied in practice, is a clergy which, in many cases, is still being guided by the hermeneutic of discontinuity that set in during the 1960s and 70s. That's the problem the Pope was addressing above. The confusion and infidelity fostered by such clergy present a very serious problem for the Vatican. By way of solution, there are three possible approaches: do nothing; do a thorough and nasty housecleaning; or, as I put it in a previous post, "wait for the hopeless older set to die off, while replacing them with a younger set by attracted by such integrity and beauty as can be routed around the corrupt middle management." The Vatican under John Paul II and Benedict XVI has opted for the third, which I agree is better than the alternatives. But in the meantime, progress is slow, spotty, and incremental, so that the evils that the progress is meant to overcome continue to flourish. That's what moretben and his friends complain about, and that's why they think the approach "of no earthly use."

Such an all-or-nothing stance, I'm afraid, signifies of the sort of absolutism that typically motivates Catholic traditionalism. It has no tolerance for human messiness. I guess that's why I'm not a trad.
blog comments powered by Disqus