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

Friday, December 19, 2008

Cardinal Dulles and the hermeneutic of continuity

I was both saddened and encouraged to learn last week of the death of Avery Dulles, SJ, prince of the Church and de facto dean of America's Catholic theologians for quite some time. Requiescat in pace. He was the sort of man both the Church and our country needed, and left behind a substantial body of useful work. Now we no longer have his gentle, sage, and moderate voice, which he lost even before the end, which is sad. But we will have his intercession before the Throne—which I'm sure will have greater effect than his opponents realize.

Perhaps his most signal contribution to the contentious world of post-Vatican-II Catholic theology was his suave advocacy of what the present pope has termed "the hermeneutic of continuity," about which I've written more than once before. To a considerable extent, the Church in the developed world has become ideologically polarized:

Thus, while trads resent Rome for spoiling the oldie-goldie days of full pews and sound teaching, the progs resent Rome for failing to commit the Church to the liberal-Protestant agenda that their mythos still peddles as the wave of the future. Both sets of malcontents believe that the Second Vatican Council constituted a decisive break with the Church of the past; the main difference is that the trads, decrying the break, want the Council to become a dead letter while the progs, celebrating it as "the spirit of Vatican II," are impatient for the Church to complete what they take to be the Council's revolutionary work.

Such polarization is, in other words, facilitated by the hermeneutic of discontinuity. It has been the work of such churchmen as Wojtyla, Ratzinger, and Avery Dulles to offer a hermeneutic of continuity that is intellectually more challenging than ideology but, ultimately, the only one capable of upholding the catholicity of the Church over time as well as space.

A good example of how that works on concrete issues is this book edited by Scott Hahn. One of Dulles' last books, Magisterium: Teacher and Guardian of the Faith, an indispensable summary of the topic for non-specialists, is another example. Of course the objections raised to that book are motivated mostly by the hermeneutic of discontinuity. It is claimed that the Church's course of doctrinal development, by dropping or even reversing certain teachings, belies the Magisterium's claims to being infallible under certain conditions. Dulles did much in his earlier work to rebut that charge, but much remains to be done.

My "Development and Negation" (see sidebar link) series was a start. I'm trying to turn that into a pamphlet. I invite suggestions; I'm thinking "Catholic Truth Society."
blog comments powered by Disqus