The essay is entitled, "The 'Hermeneutic of Reform' and Religious Freedom," and was featured in an April, 2011, post by Sandro Magister in the ongoing debate being hosted on his site between partisans of rival interpretations of Vatican II. So far Magister has featured the Bologna School on the left, and traditionalists on the right. Fr. Rhonheimer regards himself as a defender of the Pope somewhere in the middle.
Fr. Rhonheimer, a Swiss priest of Opus Dei, is a professor of ethics and political philosophy at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, in Rome. In this essay, he takes up a trope employed by Pope Benedict XVI in a memorable address to the Roman curia on December 22, 2005, on how to interpret Vatican II. In opposition to the "hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture," the Holy Father posited, not a "hermeneutic of continuity," but, as Rhonheimer stresses, a "hermeneutic of reform" (emphasis added):
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”.Now, these are hot-button terms that precipitously invite knee-jerk responses, which would hardly be profitable. What is called for is a careful and judicious analysis of both what the Holy Father and what Rhonheimer intend in their respective statements.
Unfortunately it's late tonight, and I don't have time to continue this post at the moment. I will say that I have read Rhomheimer's piece twice and found it provocative and insightful as well as a trifle incautious in different respects. In any case, I think his discussion comes close to the heart of the ongoing debate between the representatives of the CDF and SSPX at the Vatican over the last year. All-in-all, this is a healthy debate for the Church to be having right now, even if it is a bit beneath the radar of the Catholic media and largely unreported. It is not hard to see, even from reading Rhonheimer's essay, how the parties involved could easily be talking past one another and failing to 'engage' in certain respects. Some aspects of the debate seem impenetrably confused and nearly intractable. Yet the issues are critically important and touch the heart of our Catholic commitments.
I plan to contribute my two cents worth on Rhonheimer's essay in the days to come; and I hope some of you will do so as well. As Sandro Magister suggests, this is not a debate that is going to be concluding any time soon; and, from his vantage point as a Internet host of debates on the issue, he writes: "It is to be expected that the best minds, among the traditionalists, will take up the challenge and continue the discussion."
One thing that is refreshingly clear in Rhonheimer's essay is the blunt admission that Vatican II broke with earlier Church teaching on the issue of religious liberty: that, in a profound sense, its position represents a "discontinuity," or, as Sandro Magister puts it, an "indisputable innovation." Rhonheimer is not exactly breaking new ground here, since Pope Benedict's address of 2005 suggested as much. The claim, of course, is that the innovation represents "renewal in continuity" (emphasis added), and that there are two distinct levels on which the dialectical hermeneutic of reform unfolds: (1) a perennial dogmatic level of unchanging principle and (2) a transitory historical level of changing cultural applications. "It is precisely in this combination of continuity and discontinuity at different levels," says Benedict in his address, "that the very nature of true reform consists." The claim, then, is that the break with earlier Church teaching is not on the first level of dogma and principle, but on the second level of historical application. Tidy. So far so good.
Yet Rhonheimer also suggests that one cannot "take refuge behind the argument that the condemnations of [political liberalism and religious liberty by] Pius IX were not doctrinal condemnations but only disciplinary." Why? Because Pius IX clearly regarded the question as doctrinal in nature and rejected as heretical the view that the Church does not have the right to the help of its "secular arm" (the state) in safeguarding the faith of the political community. Rhonheimer writes:
In effect, for Pius IX what was in danger was the very safeguarding of the essence of the Church, of its claim to be the only truth and cause of salvation. So for him, recognizing the freedom of religion meant denying these truths; it equally meant religious indifferentism and relativism. It is precisely in this that the greatness of this pope resides as well, who, on the basis of the theological positions of his time -- the historical character of which he was nonetheless unable to discern -- certainly acted in a spirit of heroic fidelity to the faith, and stood firm as a rock in the tempest of an unbridled relativism.Now this is a bit of a sticky wicket. What is this, "damning with ebullient praise"? Pius IX reveals his "greatness" and "heroic fidelity to the faith" by standing "firm as a rock" in defense of a principle he (mistakenly) took to be settled doctrine and whose historical character he was "unable to discern"? And contemporary teaching on religious freedom, thanks to the mistaken assumption of Pius IX, does not count as a rupture on the level of perennial doctrinal principle, but merely on the historical level? So you do what you gotta do, it seems; but no longer quite so tidy.
I have a colleague who offers a more convenient and forthright solution: his way of smoothing over such unpleasant discontinuities is to pull out a list of relative levels of magisterial infallibility and to suggest that some earlier teachings, such as Pius IX's teaching on religious freedom, do not rise to the level of irreformable dogma and may therefore be dismissed as revisable. This, in effect, is what Rhonheimer also supposes. Whatever its merits, however, this approach is confronted by a number of other challenges that are not easily ignored.
In the first place, the chief canon of interpretation for magisterial documents is, as Peter A. Kwasniewski writes, in "Dignitatis Humanae: Interpretive Principles," Latin Mass: A Journal of Catholic Culture and Tradition, Vol. 18, No. 1 (Winter 2009), n. 4: "anything that has been repeatedly taught by the popes at a high level of authority and as pertaining to the essence of the Faith cannot, in principle, be contradicted by any later pronouncement." And traditionalists have typically made a cottage industry of endlessly republishing the repeatedly reiterated teachings of Catholic tradition on the social Kingship of Christ (see, e.g., Michael Davies, "The Reign of Christ the King"), or the Church's traditional rejection of the right to practice religious error (e.g., this random post comparing Dignitatis Humanae with pre-Vatican II teaching). The problem is that not merely Pius IX, but the whole tradition of Catholic social teaching since Constantine seems to have assumed that this was a matter of settled doctrine.
In the second place, it should nearly go without saying that the strategy of dismissing earlier teaching on the basis of questioning its sufficient level of magisterial infallibility is notoriously a major cottage industry, in turn, of liberal dissidents like Charlie Curran and like-minded doctrinal renegades. Not a promising association, certainly. While it does not follow logically from either of these considerations that the application of earlier doctrine is not in some way revisable, they do raise the bar considerably for anyone wishing to change our understanding of the traditional teaching.
It is simply not yet clear to me how the revisions suggested by Rhonheimer can be leveraged by the principles he claims to discern beneath the relative historical husks of earlier magisterial teaching. He suggests that "the rejection of religious indifferentism and relativism" is the abiding kernel of normative truth beneath the earlier teaching. Yet I do not see how such a view avoids being entirely compatible with a completely privatized, toothless, and emasculated Catholic faith. One could reject "religious indifferentism and relativism" personally, and go on to deny that the Catholic Faith has any business in the public square -- just as Catholic politicians like Nancy Pelosi, John Kerry, and the other usual suspects, who maintain that they are "privately opposed" to abortion as Catholics, while publicly defending a woman's "right to choose."
While the shift from state-backed Catholicism to state-backed pluralism in a liberal democracy describes an historical fait accompli, just how this fact serves to inform a normative "correction" in Catholic social teaching remains far from clear. Historical fact is one thing. Normative doctrinal principle is another.
Rhonheimer says that there is no "timeless dogmatic Catholic doctrine on the State." Fair enough. But then, by what standard does he claim that the teaching of Vatican II represents "a correction of [Church] teaching on the mission and function of the State" in the "clear break here in the teaching of Vatican II, which once and for all abandoned a historical burden"? (emphasis added) Does he think that earlier Catholic teaching erred by presupposing an historically relative doctrine of the state, while supposing that Vatican II successfully avoided presupposing one? He says that the Council's teaching is "a doctrine on the State's responsibility to encourage, in a neutral and impartial way, the creation of the necessary conditions in the public and moral order within which religious freedom can flourish and citizens can fulfill their religious duties." But does he not see that this "rejection of state religion," in a highly romanticized and indulgent gesture of embracing religious and ideological pluralism, is itself an expression of state religion -- the state religion of democratic liberalism which, given the cultural drift since the 1960s, increasingly threatens the religious liberties of Catholics themselves?
If the 20th century doctrine on religious liberty was truly a "correction" of earlier teaching, the only possible way this can be properly understood is in the sense of a navigational "correction" at sea -- a momentary adjustment after being blown off course in a gale -- not a "correction" of our heading, our port of destination, or our port of departure. It cannot be a correction of the perennial principle of the Social Kingship of Christ, but only a correction of our assessment of how that principle may or not be capable of being implemented in terms of the practical exigencies of changing times. What strikes me as beyond question is the perennial normativity in Catholic teaching of an often impracticable ideal: Christus vincit, Christus regnat, Christus imperat. This is fact: Christ conquers, Christ reigns, Christ rules. He is King. He has conquered death, but His kingship is not merely a "spiritual" one. He is also returning -- C.S. Lewis says He will "invade" -- to claim His rightful Kingship over all the earth.
What makes this an "impracticable ideal" is not that it is anything less than fact, but that we occupy at present a probative post-lapsarian period in history between the creation of the pre-Fallen world and the eschaton, when Christ will return. This post-lapsarian period is marked by a Great Rebellion against the reign of Christ -- a rebellion He has purposed to allow for a time, though not forever. In the fullness of time, when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead, "He will rule [the nations] with a rod of iron, tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty," and will be revealed as "King of kings and Lord of lords" (Rev. 19:11-16); and then once again every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Phil. 2:10-11; cf. Rom. 14:10).
I sometimes think that this spiritual antithesis -- its reality and its gravity -- was nearly lost sight of by Catholic theologians like Jacques Maritain and Fr. John Courtney Murray, S.J. following the Second World War, when nearly everyone placed such high hopes in the victorious American experiment in liberal democracy. It may have seemed reasonable then -- back in the halcyon days of the Kennedy presidency; back during the happy ascendancy of Catholic public image; back during the Camelot romance of Catholics with religious pluralism and the paradigm of Protestant denominationalism -- to hope for a post-Constantinian, secular ethos in which Catholics could go on forever with their non-Catholic co-religionists sharing basic civil liberties with the rest of the benign secular political community. Maritain, in his book, Man and the State, even proposed a "secular democratic faith" (emphasis added) that could be shared by Catholics and non-Catholics alike as a basis for their public commonweal.
But what these breakfast optimists did not anticipate was the unraveling of that political community and its ensuing polarization into entrenched positions in open culture wars that have led, not only to the effective privatization and marginalization of Catholic faith and practice, but to increasingly volatile attacks on the religious liberties of Catholics themselves. In other words, the dream of a happy pluralism of mutually tolerant diverse religions and ideologies has burst like a soap bubble and given way to the dawning realization of a yawning spiritual abyss separating uncompromising and irreconcilable foes locked in all-out spiritual warfare. Even Maritain (in The Peasant of Garonne) and Fr. Murray saw this in their darker moments in their latter years.
This does not mean that Catholics should abandon their efforts to use every means at their disposal in Western liberal democracies to roll back, or at least to thwart, the tide of the Culture of Death. Indeed, they should redouble their efforts to secure their religious liberties and the natural rights of everyone. But it does mean that they should entertain no illusions whatsoever about their détente with the secular democratic faith, about their aggiornamento since the sixties, constituting any sort of definitive normative "correction" in Catholic teaching concerning the state.
In this respect, Rhonheimer's analysis seems a trifle dated. Just as those Catholics holding forth for the Social Kingship of Christ after the fashion of Pius IX seem dated to those still wistfully enamored of the prospects of harmonious pluralism in a liberal democracy (like Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, Joseph Bottum, and George Weigel) -- so apologists for a liberal democracy seem a bit dated to those who no longer see liberal democracy as the bastion of religious freedom it may have once appeared to be. And the claim that Christ's rule over the hearts of individuals in a pluralistic democracy more fully shows forth the Kingship of Christ than the public profession of confessional Catholic states of years past, looks like little more than making a virtue of hamstrung necessity.
In this light, Pope Benedict's allusion to the ethos of martyrdom and persecution in the early Church seems pastorally appropriate -- not because it in any way justifies democratic liberalism, but because it anticipates where democratic liberalism now seems to be headed. It may be that the Holy Father here appreciates, as others do not, just how far and how fast down that precipitous path we have slid towards a world like that inhabited by the early Christians under the Imperial Roman persecutions of Nero or Diocletian. The Church and her values are no longer esteemed, respected, or (at times) even tolerated by the state and the rest of the world. Catholics and other traditional Christians are much closer to the Church of the early Christian martyrs than they are to the Church of Popes Gregory VII or Innocent III, who dominated the secular monarchs of Europe.
Yet this fact does not in the least justify Rhonheimer's suggestion that the Vatican II interpretation of religious liberty serves as a "corrective" of the traditional Catholic doctrine concerning the "rights of truth" and the confessional state. Whatever the contingencies and exigencies of this probative interim period of history, these do not alter the plain fact that Heaven is not a pluralistic democracy but a "confessional kingdom," a fact whose implications we often unwittingly overlook when we pray: "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." I am therefore unable to accept Rhonheimer's suggestion that the only abiding substance of earlier Catholic social teaching on religious freedom is "the rejection of religious indifferentism and relativism." Christ's kingship would seems to entail a trifle more than that.
Having said that, I think the basic distinction between a perennial dogmatic level of unchanging principle and a transitory historical level of changing cultural applications is basically sound. I would just want to be a bit more straightforward about the rationale for the latter: the reason why nobody seriously proposes a constitutional amendment declaring Christ King in the U.S. Congress is not because of any flaw in the perennial doctrine of a confessional government, but because the current revolt of the masses against Christ's reign would now render powerless any individuals interested in implementing such a proposal.
There is nothing in principle about the "separation of church and state" that would prevent the state from acknowledging God or Jesus Christ. The state is not the Church, true. Caesar is not God. But that does not mean that Caesar does not owe God obedience. And certainly there is nothing in principle preventing Caesar from publicly acknowledging Christ as King, as Constantine did after his conversion when he made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, and as numerous Catholic monarchs and rulers have done throughout history. We still have "In God we trust" on our coinage; we still have an official senate chaplain, whose office at one time in our history was overtly Christian; as was, not so long ago, the office of our state land grant universities, which used to require compulsory Christian chapel attendance.
The problem is not that government "lacks the competence" to declare Christ King (pace George Weigel), any more than a state university, a private college, a family, an individual, or even a child, lacks the competence to profess that Christ is King. It is not something that requires either a theology degree or the overlooking of proper distinctions between church and state (and school, family, and the individual). It is something, however, which assumes faith in Christ and a willingness to allow Him to extend His reign over every facet of life and every human institution (including the state), and that is something that can no longer be assumed in our time. That is why a public profession of faith by the state is now an "impracticable ideal." When the members of Congress one day stand before their King at the final Tribunal, I don't imagine their current protestations of "separation of church and state" will carry much weight (even in their own minds) against a public acknowledgement of Christ as King.
The situation, then, is this: (1) the question of religious liberty in the years of confessional Catholic states concerned principally the status of non-conformists to Church teaching; (2) the question during the Camelot years of the Kennedy administration concerned the liberty of Catholics to practice their Faith without infringing upon the rights of non-Catholics; (3) the question today concerns whether the state will permit the Church to survive at all. The meaning of the question of "religious liberty," therefore, has undergone a significant shift. In short, the progression has been from (a) a confessional state in which the bishops say: "Do not undermine Catholic faith and morals in our land or the state may hurt you"; to (b) a pluralistic liberal democracy in which the bishops tell the state: "Do not hurt us, and we will do nothing to question your authority"; to (c) an anti-Catholic state in which the bishops plead with the state: "Please, oh, please, don't hurt us!"
By way of conclusion, just one more comment. Partisans of the view espoused by Rhonheimer sometimes attempt to bolster their defense of a non-confessional state and religious pluralism by attacking traditionalist groups such as the SSPX, as though their views of religious liberty were somehow different from the views of Pius IX, Pius X, Pius XI, etc. In fact, they are not. There is an irony, therefore, when they write as though they stand to gain some advantage by making a whipping boy of such traditionalists. Sandro Magister writes, for example: "For Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and his followers, this innovation [of Dignitatis Humanae] -- together with the others introduced by the Council -- led to nothing less than schism." Again, he writes: "The Lefebvrists persist in their schism, despite the lifting of the excommunication of their four bishops, done by Benedict XVI in 2009." For his part, Rhonheimer refers to "these traditionalists, for whom 'tradition as such' and 'the ecclesial traditions' are clearly more important than the apostolic Tradition ...."
It is perhaps incidental to our discussion here that this attribution of "schism" to the SSPX has been repeatedly denied by Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos, President of the Ecclesia Dei Commission until 2009, Cardinal Edward Cassidy, Emeritus President of the Pontifical council for Christian Unity, and Monsignor Camille Perl, Secretary of the Ecclesia Dei Commision, and others. The Canonical status of Society priests is properly "validly but not licitly ordained." But the larger point here is that the views of these traditionalists, currently engaged with the CDF in seeing whether they may be granted a licit canonical structure for operating within the Church, differ not at all from the views considered settled Church doctrine in the time of Pio Nono. And it is disingenuous to suggest, as Rhonheimer does, that they -- any more than the popes of the late 19th century -- elevate "ecclesial traditions" above the "apostolic Tradition."
The bottom line, in my view, is that the traditional doctrine of the Social Kingship of Christ is longer practicable at this time, given the realities of our current historical situation, but that it remains irreformably normative. We find ourselves living, thus, under foreign occupation. Lord Jesus, Holy Mighty One, Holy Immortal One, invade quickly.