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Debate over the two hermeneutics

Article publié le 9 Juin 2009 | imprimer ce texte imprimer ce texte

According to his  » hermeneutic of continuity », Pope Benedict has insisted on the uninterrupted connection between Vatican II and the Tradition, and the July, 2007 Responses of the CDF stated that the Council’s teaching did not change earlier doctrine on the nature of the Church. How could we explain the fact that such a recall has been unequally received and regarded as a flashback to a rejected doctrine of the past ?

[Hereafter is reproduced the interview published in the n. 100 of Catholica (Summer 2008), this text was revised and updated by the author]

According to his « hermeneutic of continuity », Pope Benedict has insisted on the uninterrupted connection between Vatican II and the Tradition, and the July, 2007 Responses of the CDF stated that the Council’s teaching did not change earlier doctrine on the nature of the Church. How could we explain the fact that such a recall has been unequally received and regarded as a flashback to a rejected doctrine of the past (a dark past) ?

1)  Perhaps it is because of my age and the fact that my experience of the Church spans a period of 33 years before Vatican II and the forty years since, that Pope Benedict’s address to the Roman Curia, 22nd December, 2005, appeared to me as a watershed. But what Pope Benedict said so incisively has been the unwavering papal magisterium.

Pope Benedict insisted that we rediscover a hermeneutic of continuity in order to understand Vatican II correctly. Is that not in line with the intention of Pope John XXIII when he said he intended the Council « to transmit the Church’s doctrine pure and integral », always with the same meaning and message ?  And Pope Paul VI testified that « it would not be true to think that Vatican II represents a separation from and a rupture or liberation from the Church’s teaching, nor does it authorise or promote a conformity with what is ephemeral » (Insegnamenti di Paolo VI, Vol IV, 1966, p 699).

So it caused no comment when, speaking to the cardinals who had elected him, Pope John Paul II said he would try to ensure that Vatican II would be interpreted authentically. This intention was given concrete shape with the extraordinary session of the Roman Synod of Bishops in 1985, whose final report insisted that « Vatican II is important but its teaching is to be understood in the context of previous councils. The Church is one and the same in all councils ». They also said that it is not legitimate to separate the spirit and the letter of the Council. (Jan P. Schotte: The Second Vatican Council and the Synod of Bishops, pp 60 – 61)

A comment of Cardinal Journet, illustrative of the process in the Council, fits into this context: « The present ecumenical synod is certainly going to confirm the doctrine of the previous one (i.e. the First Vatican Council) regarding the prerogatives of the Roman Pontiff. But it will also have as its principal object the task of describing and honouring the prerogatives of the episcopate. These prerogatives are traditional. »  (Charles Journet: Theology of the Church, pp 398-9) Again, speaking of the Council’s outreach to other Christians and to the world religions, Journet comments: « Although these grand perspectives are not new or unknown to theology, they have never been affirmed so plainly or so solemnly by the voice of the Church’s magisterium. » (ibid p 427) This is the « renewal in continuity », identified by Pope Benedict as the authentic hermeneutic of Vatican II. When it is applied, we then see that the Church develops yet always remains the same.

The reason for the uneven reception of this magisterial position of the Church by many Catholics is complex and multilayered. One reason is the hubris of some theologians who have constituted a parallel magisterium in the Church. I have heard some of them argue for this by referring to certain texts of St Thomas Aquinas in which a distinction appears between the « magisterium cathedrae pastoralis » and the « magisterium cathedrae magisterialis ». But St Thomas was also clear that the right to judge in matters of doctrine is the sole responsibility of the « officium praelationis ». The postconciliar « parallel magisterium » of theologians is in no way due to Vatican II but was aggravated by the dynamics of some conciliar procedures. The many theologians who acted as consultants to the bishops gained considerable power and in many cases were given world profile by the media. Many read and communicated the teaching of Vatican II with a hermeneutic of discontinuity.

Such a parallel magisterium set over against the divinely constituted magisterium of Pope and bishops is in fact a rejection of the authority of the Church. It is much more than a matter of personal difficulties of faith which a believer may honestly have; rather it rests on the philosophical liberalism which is widespread and which regards the validity of a judgement (about truth) as greater to the extent that it proceeds from the individual relying on his own powers; it puts freedom of thought over against the authority of the Tradition; freedom of judgement becomes more important than truth. The 1960s saw a worldwide rejection of authority and this infiltrated the Church, at a time when the manner in which some Council reforms were implemented locally and regionally gave the impression that the Church no longer wanted to exercise an authority that would bind people in conscience. The authority of the Church is rooted in the mission of Christ as an authority of representation and service. (cf 1 Cor 4,1ff; 12,7; Eph 4,12ff.)  It has its binding character from its origin in God and in its final goal, the glory of God and the salvation of human beings.

An historical perspective leads one to the further conclusion that the rejection by some Catholics of the doctrine on the nature of the Church in Tradition and in Vatican II is in fact a consequence of a resurgent form of Modernism. After its first phase, after being combated by St Pius X, it went underground not least in seminaries and universities; most Catholics thought it had disappeared until it re-emerged in the opportunities opened up around Vatican II. This time, it has affected a much wider range of people in the Church – obviously teachers and theologians but also, in popular form, priests in parishes and parishioners. This has created a climate in which the Church is no longer understood as « mystery », as the Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, described it, but rather as a human construct which must be shaped and reshaped by those who compose it in response to the needs of the times. Hence minds tend to be closed to revelation and to supernatural faith.

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