Complete this phrase: “The Hermeneutic of…”?

Sandro Magister has been giving a bit of attention on his blog to the Traditionalist attack on Vatican II. The relevant posts are

1) The Disappointed Have Spoken. The Vatican responds
2) Who’s Betraying Tradition. The Grand Dispute
3) The Church Is Infallible, But Not Vatican II

The issues discussed in these posts are of the utmost signficance. The backdrop is Benedict XVI’s 2005 Christmas address to the Roman Curia, in which he famously refuted the “hermeneutic of discontinuity” as a interpretive approach to the Second Vatican Council.

Of the three posts above, the most important (as I see it) is the essay included in the second post (“Who’s betraying tradition”) by Fr Martin Rhonheimer entitled “THE “HERMENEUTIC OF REFORM” AND RELIGIOUS FREEDOM” and the appended notes by the same author “CONTINUITY AND DISCONTINUITY: WHAT OF THE INFALLIBILITY OF THE MAGISTERIUM?”

As everyone by now knows, one of the reasons that I became Catholic was the continuity of the Catholic Church. I was more than a little surprised, when I became Catholic, to find that there were two camps in the Church who argued for (what Benedict aptly termed) an “hermeneutic of discontinuity”. Ironically, these two camps are mortal enemies: they are the Traditionalists (of various stripes from the sede vacantists to good, loyal sons of the Pope) and the Liberals (the “Spirit of Vatican II” crowd – an aging but still influential mob). Both agree that Vatican II represented a break in the continuity of the Church’s teaching.

Pope Benedict rejected this “hermeneutic of discontinuity”. But as Fr Rhonheimer points out, it is very significant that the alternative proposed by the Pope was NOT an “hermeneutic of CONTINUITY”. (Do a google search on that term and you find “About 281,000 results”, but Pope Benedict never used this phrase). Fr Rhonheimer writes:

The warning was enthusiastically taken up by Catholics faithful to the Pope, with the opinion spreading that, in his speech, Benedict had opposed the “hermeneutic of discontinuity” with a “hermeneutic of continuity”. […] This understanding, however, is unfounded. In the Pope’s address, there is no such opposition between a “hermeneutic of discontinuity” and a “hermeneutic of continuity”. Rather, as he explained: “In contrast with the hermeneutic of discontinuity is a hermeneutic of reform…” And in what lies the “nature of true reform”? According to the Holy Father, “in the interplay, on different levels, between continuity and discontinuity”.

Fr Rhonheimer points out:

“Continuity”, therefore, is not the only hermeneutical category for understanding the Second Vatican Council. The category of “reform” is also necessary, a category which includes elements of both continuity and discontinuity. But as Benedict emphasized, the continuity and discontinuity are “on different levels”. It is important, therefore, to identify and distinguish these levels correctly.

He claims that a

search for a false continuity that would ultimately distort a genuine continuity and, with it, the nature of the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church.

This is a very important essay. The use of the test case of the Church’s teaching on Religious Freedom is very pertinent, and offers a concrete example of how the teaching of the Catholic Church is actually open to reform when it is discovered that a traditional position of the Church’s magisterium is in fact “trumped” by a more ancient and more authentic Tradition. He argues that although the relationship of Church and State that had become “traditional” under the Constantinian model of “Christendom” in the Middle Ages is indeed venerable, Pope Benedict claimed that there is a more “authentic” continuity between the teaching of Vatican II on this matter and the apostolic, pre-Constantinian Church that needs to be honoured above this “traditional” position.

On the contrary, it would seem that at its origin Christianity even adopted a rather different position. It was born and developed in a pagan environment; it was conceived, on the basis of the Gospel and the example of Jesus Christ, as founded essentially on the separation between religion and politics, and it did not ask the Roman empire for the freedom to be able to develop without obstacles. In recognizing and making its own through its decree on religious freedom an “essential principle of the modern state,” Benedict XVI affirms in his speech, Vatican Council II “has recovered the deepest patrimony of the Church. By so doing she can be conscious of being in full harmony with the teaching of Jesus himself (cf. Mt 22: 21), as well as with the Church of the martyrs of all time.”

This essay has great importance for understanding the way in which “reform” works in the Catholic Church. It acknowledges a certain “time-boundedness” in every teaching of the Magisterium. Of course, the “infallible” teaching of the Church cannot be rejected in a manner of “discontinuity”, but “reform” always seeks to bring to light once again the true Tradition of the Church over the time-bound pronouncements of the past. It is simply not true to say that the teaching of the Church is “irreformable”. The nature of true “reform”, however, must always be grounded in the true Tradition of the Church.

Tricky stuff. But Fr Rhonheimer’s contribution to the discussion is very significant. In my humble opinion, of course. I would be interested in your humble opinions. However, before you comment on this post, please take the time to read Fr Rhonheimer’s essay and appendix in full first.

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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3 Responses to Complete this phrase: “The Hermeneutic of…”?

  1. RJ says:

    Just about to read Rhonheimer’s essay, but I thought I’d comment first on the terminological point of ‘hermeneutic of reform’ over ‘hermeneutic of continuity’. The latter expression does actually get used by Pope Benedict in ‘Sacramentum Caritatis’ 3, footnote 6:

    “The difficulties and even the occasional abuses which were noted, it was affirmed, cannot overshadow the benefits and the validity of the liturgical renewal, whose riches are yet to be fully explored. Concretely, the changes which the Council called for need to be understood within the overall unity of the historical development of the rite itself, without the introduction of artificial discontinuities.(6)

    (Footnote 6): “I am referring here to the need for a hermeneutic of continuity also with regard to the correct interpretation of the liturgical development which followed the Second Vatican Council: cf. Benedict XVI, Address to the Roman Curia (22 December 2005): AAS 98 (2006), 44-45”

    I’m not making any point about the substance here – obviously there’s no opposition between the ideas the Holy Father is expressing by the phrases ‘hermeneutic of reform’ and ‘hermeneutic of continuity’. But it would be unfortunate if people got the impression that the latter phrase was somehow illegitimate in reference to Benedict’s thought. He himself obviously doesn’t think so.

    • Schütz says:

      Thank you for that! How very easy it is to overlook a footnote! But obviously this gives us an insight into the “hermeneutic of Benedict XVI”!

  2. RJ says:

    I suppose everyone admits some degree of continuity of Vatican II with the Church prior to the Council, and some degree of discontinuity.

    The differences are on the question of how deep the discontinuity goes – mere matters of discipline, changes in perspective and fully coherent development of doctrine, as might happen in any Council? Abandonment and contradiction of previous authoritative (albeit non-infallible) doctrine? Or even abandonment and contradiction of doctrine ‘infallibly’ taught (this view entailing either the ultra-liberal rejection of infallibility altogether, or the ultra-traditionalist condemnation of Vatican II as heretical)?

    It seems to me that Fr Rhonheimer’s interpretation of the depth of discontinuity regarding religious liberty falls in the second category – some of the doctrine authoritatively taught by the nineteenth-century popes on the matter (e.g. on Church-state relations) was simply mistaken, he maintains.

    In this, I think he goes further than Pope Benedict’s 2005 speech to the Roman Curia, and basically expresses the standard moderate-liberal interpretation of the Council, which I would characterize as a form of the ‘hermeneutic of discontinuity’, (albeit not so radical a discontinuity as a hermeneutic which sees ‘infallible’ teaching being rejected by Vatican II). Thus, although of course he makes many valid and useful points, I don’t see his essay as making a profound contribution to a resolution of the issue.

    Even ultra-liberals see themselves as the ones in fundamental ‘continuity’ with the deepest and earliest meaning of Christianity; a real ‘hermeneutic of continuity’, however, is concerned with saying this continuity has never truly been broken in any substantial way, even in the darkest ages of the nineteenth century. (The degree of continuity we maintain correlates with the degree of trust we can place in the non-infallible magisterium, past and present.)

    Of course, in the long run we can deal with the reversal of non-infallible teaching, and sometimes, from its very nature as non-infallible, such reversal occurs. However, I think a theologian should very thoroughly explore other explanations before concluding that such reversal has taken place in some particular instance. This is what the ‘hermeneutic of continuity’ inclines one to.

    I think there are ways of showing a much deeper degree of continuity between the nineteenth-century popes and Vatican II than Fr Rhonheimer maintains. In this, I’ve found Fr Brian Harrison’s book, ‘Religious Liberty and Contraception’ very helpful. (The ‘contraception’ part comes into it because he’s engaged in refuting a supposed precedent from a Vatican II ‘reversal’ on religious liberty, for a hoped-for ‘reversal’ on contraception, but most of the book is engaged in a very close exegesis of pre-conciliar and conciliar texts on religious liberty specifically.)

    Fr Rhonheimer’s essay neglects one of the keys to the matter, paragraph 7 of ‘Dignitatis Humanae’, where the Council speaks of the inherent limits of religious liberty, and the possible right and duty of the state to intervene when religious liberty is abused to the detriment of the rights of others. The pre-conciliar popes concentrated on these ‘limits’; the conciliar teaching, without denying the limits, provides a very substantial counterweight – in continuity, as Pope Benedict says, with the principle of freedom that the martyrs of the early Church expressed by their actions.

    The ‘Catechism’ takes up the point, seemingly with a specific intention of demonstrating the continuity of Vatican II with previous teaching:

    (2108) The right to religious liberty is neither a moral license to adhere to error, nor a supposed right to error, but rather a natural right of the human person to civil liberty, i.e., immunity, within just limits, from external constraint in religious matters by political authorities. This natural right ought to be acknowledged in the juridical order of society in such a way that it constitutes a civil right.

    (2109) The right to religious liberty can of itself be neither unlimited nor limited only by a “public order” conceived in a positivist or naturalist manner. The “due limits” which are inherent in it must be determined for each social situation by political prudence, according to the requirements of the common good, and ratified by the civil authority in accordance with “legal principles which are in conformity with the objective moral order.”

    Footnote references are made not only to ‘Dignitatis Humanae’, but to Pius VI, Quod aliquantum 10; Pius IX, Quanta cura 3; and Leo XIII, Libertas praestantissimum 18.

    The references to ‘political prudence’ and ‘the common good’ enable us to appreciate how, whereas the doctrinal principles of the matter (including on Church-state relations) have never actually been reversed, we can nonetheless firmly reject aspects of past practice as in hindsight neither truly prudent nor truly in accordance with the common good. The discontinuity is on the level of practice and application, not doctrine.

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