Sunday, March 15, 2009

Hermeneutics of rupture and continuity

Fr. Edward T. Oakes, S.J., "Benedict’s Vatican II Hermeneutic" (First Things, March 13, 2009), writes:
As the debate is usually framed, we are confined to but four positions. First, according to the standard schema, there are only two stances on the question of whether Vatican II broke with Catholic tradition (yes or no). Then, right after that, there are two further subsidiary positions one must take, to affirm or decry the initial conclusion (good or bad). Thus, one option holds that Vatican II seamlessly continues the Church’s past, and should be praised for keeping the faith. (The late Avery Cardinal Dulles is often taken as the premier defender of this position, although his actual conclusion is more subtle.)

The second position equally concedes Vatican II’s continuity with the Church’s past, but is for that reason to be lamented. (Hans Küng comes close to that view; indeed he wrote his book The Church while the Council was still in session to offer an alternative to Lumen gentium, the Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, which he thought was too hidebound in its attachment to the past).

A third position holds that Vatican II represents a break with the Church’s past and should be praised for doing so. (John O’Malley’s recent book What Happened at Vatican II likes this posture.)

Finally, a fourth position agrees with the disruption thesis and loudly complains about it. (Such is the basis for the Lefebvrist schism.)

But surely the reality is more complicated than these too-neat options can allow. Why cannot Vatican II be seen as both continuous with and yet also a departure from the Church’s ancient tradition? Isn’t that true, after all, of all the major and historic councils? Doesn’t a more nuanced assessment do less violence to the historical record than the procrustean options outlined above? Although Benedict is famous in the world press for holding to what he calls the “hermeneutics of continuity,” his own position is actually far subtler than such a tagline would indicate (which is partly why in lifting the excommunications he was so readily misunderstood).

In fact, in the very speech he gave to the Roman Curia, December 22, 2005, that made the “hermeneutics of continuity” so famous as a phrase, he openly admitted that Vatican II represents a rupture of some kind (why else the controversy?). But for him it was a rupture that paradoxically revealed the Church’s fidelity to her truest identity: A discontinuity was revealed, he said to the Curia, “but [it was one] in which, after the various distinctions between concrete historical situations and their requirements had been made, the continuity of principles proved not to have been abandoned.”

To those stuck in the usual two categories provided by secular journalism, the pope will sound here like he is trying to have it both ways. But for Benedict, unless we can accurately categorize the various changes brought about by the Council in different terms, we will continue to misinterpret it. In other words, the issue of continuity vs. discontinuity only gets us to the beginning of the debate, not to its end.
Fr. Zuhlsdorf, "A reflection on rupture" (WDTPRS, March 12, 2009), furnishes the following mental assignment:
Let me propose something to think about.

The Holy Father has made his pontificate in part a reflection on continuity.

This commitment to restore a proper interpretive principle is the fruit of decades of observation and reflection from a unique, privileged vantage point.

Will you stipulate now that "rupture", lack of "continuity" is a bad thing?

The obvious type of rupture and discontinuity is in the form of a break with the past. Progressivists see the Council, for example, as a break with the past, a new theological, ecclesiological starting point. They do great harm by working from this view. If you take insufficient positive consideration of the past, you work great harm.

Another type of rupture, less obvious, comes from those who defend the past while not taking sufficient account of present progress or the possibility of authentic development without substantive change in doctrine. Those who freeze the Church and deny the possibility of broadening our theological reflection do great harm. The world does in fact present new exigencies even if human nature doesn’t "mature" out of its perennial needs – as many progressivists falsely assume.

Rupture from the past. Rupture from the future.

Rupture from the future is easier to correct. Rupture from the past is the more dangerous.

After all, it is part of the warp and weft of the Church’s nature to tend toward the unchanging, to resist the effects of that which shifts and is never fixed, and to guide the wider world toward her Lord, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow.
Some of the combox comments are worth reading if you have the time.

[Hat tip to J.M. for the Fr. Oakes link.]

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