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Hermeneutics and Continuity

If anyone spends long enough around the Catholic Church, he is bound to hear something concerning Vatican II and the changes that have stemmed from the decisions made at the council.  Some people are happy for these changes, some are still—forty-four years later—quite angry, and many, if not most, are almost entirely ignorant of what occurred at the council and how it has impacted the Church.  Regardless of where one stands, the divergence of opinions clearly demonstrates that there is a lack of consistent interpretation of Vatican II.  Though not something new to the Church, this contrariety of opinions is a very significant situation from which has come, and from which continues to come, much chaos and much damage in the form of liturgical and theological disunity.  How does such inconsistent and subsequently faulty interpretation occur?  Firstly, it comes from the frailty of the human authors of the documents.  As men, the theologians and clergy involved in the documents’ crafting were and are fallible and subject to error; more diabolically, and as a topic far beyond the scope of this essay, they are also subject to sinful behavior, including deliberate subversion of Church teaching and tradition.  Either sort of aberration from the requisite clarity of the exercise of the teaching authority entrusted to the Church’s bishops and pontiff results in harm—and such happened in the Second Vatican Council..  Due to this lack of clarity, not only is unintentional misinterpretation of the council’s teaching nigh unavoidable—the modern age having given the common man access to everything, all the time—but even more lamentably the door is opened wide for deliberate misinterpretation and consequent misapplication.  Thus, left in a state of confusion, it is to be asked: how may the Church and Her members reclaim clarity, unity, and all that has been woefully cast aside amidst the incoherence of radically divergent interpretations of the Second Vatican Council?  This question, which has been of growing importance as liturgical, theological, and catechetical abuse has continued to hold the reigns in far too many a diocese, has found an answer, in what His Holiness Benedict XVI termed “the hermeneutic of continuity.”

Before diving into the difficulties inevitable in the unpacking of this phrase, it should be prefaced by saying that Vatican II, though poorly worded, illumined much which had become obfuscated throughout time by a routine acceptance, rather than a willing embrace, of Catholic tradition.  As such, though many mistakenly or willfully took the documents of Vatican II as an impetus to rupture with the Church’s tradition, the council’s promulgations have given the members of the Church an opportunity to re-evaluate their understanding of the tradition to which they adhere and within which they are inexorably bound, as part of the Mystical Body of Christ.  In performing this re-evaluation, the concept of hermeneutics, particularly the hermeneutic of continuity, is invaluably helpful; not only so that Catholics, deprived of the traditions that misinterpretation of Vatican II stripped away, may reclaim their liturgical and theological heritage, but so that with such understanding they may better comprehend their present situation and advance further in the lifelong endeavor that is the pursuit of salvation.


So what is the hermeneutic of continuity?  First, what is a hermeneutic?  Simply put, it is a method of interpretation; consequently, hermeneutics is the study of the methods and means of interpretation.  This study is consequently applicable to all spheres and pursuits of human activity; traditionally it began with Sacred Scripture, but has expanded in time to literature, law, history, and gradually the entire human experience.  To present the history of the development of hermeneutics, as a study of the processes of interpretation, understanding, and application, would be a lengthy digression.  Summarily, the goal of the hermeneutical development has always been to provide a means by which someone may clearly understand what is being presented, what they are perceiving—in this way, it has always been, with varying degrees of accuracy, oriented by what could be considered the phenomenological perspective.

Unfortunately, however, many of those who study hermeneutics, in attempting to find a means to validly access, interpret, and understand the pastness of things—be they cultures, people, ideas, texts, or events—stray into advocating errors of two primary divergences: one, in attempting to displace the self, into the historical environment or spirit of that attempting to be understood; or two, in attempting to comprehend the events solely by how they relate to the individual, the subjective consciousness of the self.  For a clear example, consider an unspecified literary work of the Victorian era.  In either sort of error, each having many variations, there is a calcification of the object of understanding; the former being an attempt at rigid but inevitably impossible reconstruction—the self whom one attempts to displace into another’s experience being inexorable from its own sphere of experience—and the latter being a consistently fluctuating but invariably dominant projection of the self, by which the object of understanding is conformed to the truth given by the self.  The former error, in attempted interpretation of the Victorian literary piece, would consist in the interpreter trying to mentally reconstruct the historical situation in which the author wrote or in trying to reconstruct the psychological state of the author at the time of writing.  The latter error would be reading everything within the literary work only as it applies to the self and as the self can re-apply it: for instance, Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market, to the person who feels excluded because she is female, the treatment of Laura and Lizzie by the in which men exclude women.

Though one is far more likely to derive something useful from the historical displacement, and though one could see a valid application of the text’s meaning to a contemporary situation,  in neither method is there a full understanding of the text.  Furthermore, and what is part of the fundamental error that has skewed the hermeneutical process throughout the centuries, is that the application of that which is understood has been divorced, separated from the acts of understanding and interpretation; yet the end, the application of that which is derived, is always that which directs the interpretation and thus determines the understanding.  In other words, those who attempt to understanding anything must do so by studying the parts in terms of the whole and the whole by means of the parts for some end, with some goal that inevitably influences, guides, and determines the shape of one’s interpretation and understanding.

The effects of this divorce are quite obvious in many of the branches of literary interpretation and criticism popular in the 20th and 21st centuries: reader-response theory, deconstructionism, the new historical school, and feminist and gender studies are all exemplars of the sort of eisegetical imposition that can be made upon a text when the application of its meaning is unnaturally separated from the discovery of that meaning.  If the end in one’s interpretative process is simply to interpret, then what will direct one’s interpretation of it?  It can only be one’s personal interests, goals, and ambitions; thus, the result is what the present Holy Father also aptly termed a dictatorship of relativism, for the goal of interpretation, left subject to the whims of the individual agenda, is not the acquisition of truth, but a sophistry, the making of something lesser appear greater.  Without the goal of deriving the truth as something absolute and unchanging from a text, or an event, be it past or present, a critic may take a single part to determine the meaning of the whole of something; he may use his own situation, feelings, or experience to re-present the work of some author long dead in an entirely different light—as gender theorists love to do.  This sort of interpretation, this radically individualistic hermeneutic of rupture, is focused not on the thing itself, but on the individual’s own agenda or the external circumstances surrounding the thing.

In contrast to these peripheral methods is that which is truly phenomenological, that which observes the thing itself.  To return to the example of Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market, what is the thing, the text?  On the surface, it is the words; but all words are signs; and signs are those things that point to something else.  To what do the signs of a literary work point?  That question can only be answered by analyzing and examining an individual work, for each is unique, and some point to nothing beyond their literal and obvious meanings.  In the case of Rossetti’s magnum opus, the signs point to a Christological story in which poorly-considered curiosity and the promise of pleasure brings a fall from grace that is redeemed by genuine love and an uncompromising willingness for self-sacrifice.  Arriving at this understanding, however, requires an interpretation by means of what is called the hermeneutical circle, with which one examines the parts of a text in reference to the whole, and examines the whole in reference to the parts.  By repeatedly working out this dual-referentiality, the understanding continually advances forwards; and when the interpreter goes out of the sphere of the text itself and into the tradition behind the text, as well as his own experience, so long as he is conscious of the significance of each and so long as he continually validates their application by reference to the text, he may further his understanding in an entirely more profound way.  Indeed, such an interpretation and understanding of Goblin Market could not be made otherwise, for it is only by an internal, personal recognition of the objective goodness of self-sacrifice and by knowledge of the tradition of Christological allusion in poetry that the inference can be made; but once made, it helps, as part of the multi-layered mutually referential hermeneutic, to make clearer the meaning of the text itself.

The Second Vatican Council

Of the 16 documents of the Second Vatican Council—four constitutions, three declarations, and nine decrees—none is without some ambiguity; most are riddled with it.  Such a lack of clarity has made it easy for those who would deliberately seek a break with the Church’s consistent teaching, particularly regarding such issues as contraception, homosexuality, abortion, the ordination of women, and the clear distinction between the clergy and the laity.  However, despite the lack of clarity in the documents themselves, it is blatantly clear that the method of interpretation employed by these individuals is radically flawed, falling principally into the aforementioned relativistic error.  Just as gender-studies critics would read Goblin Market as a tale of liberation from masculine oppression, so too do radical feminists, amongst others, interpret the documents of Vatican II.  Refutation of these interpretations is not the goal of this essay; indeed, such a refutation would be futile, for the error is not merely in the faulty interpretation itself, but in the very method of interpretation they use, in the willful discontinuity which they perceive and upon which they insist.  Just as someone can refuse to see the Christological allegory in Rossetti’s work and thereby deny the poem’s greater significance, so too can one refuse to see the documents of Vatican II as dependent upon and within the fold of antecedent Church teaching, thereby denying their genuine significance.

This is why the concept behind Pope Benedict’s phrase, the hermeneutic of continuity, is so important.  It reminds the alacritous but perhaps undereducated laity that, unlike some self-contained didactic document (the existence of which is highly dubious, any document necessarily being produced within some particular context), any promulgation of the Holy See is merely a part within a much greater whole.  For someone to read and interpret Unitatis Redintegratio, the Vatican II decree on ecumenism, for instance, as a stand-alone document, and as solely indicative of the Church’s teaching on non-Catholic Christian churches would be tantamount to reading one act of a single Shakespearean play and from thence explicating all of dramatic convention.  Tragedy cannot be fully explained by the third act of Othello and ecumenism cannot be understood through either Unitatis Redintegratio nor Mortalium Animos, nor any single Church document.  The relationship between the Church and Her dissidents, between orthodox theology and heretical theology, does not fall into a categorical system whereby absolute damnation or salvation are determined; the law is not the sole determinant of justification, for the “law is always imperfect, not because it is imperfect in itself, but because, in comparison with the ordered world of law, human reality is necessarily imperfect and hence does not allow of any simple application of the former.” Indeed, if one is to consider justice—the giving of what is due to whom it is due—then judgment must always consider the particular imperfection of he who is being judged.  Such is the case with the Church’s relationship to the heretical Protestant denominations; at a time of genuine education, near the error, and with obstinacy in the face of the Truth, they are fully, mortally culpable for their heretical behavior.  Contrariwise, in a time, such as now, when the majority of Protestants are enormously ignorant of Catholic teaching, as well as having been brought up within the folds of heresy, they are not very culpable for their faults—indeed, the Catholic is more at fault for Protestantism today than the average Protestant, for being negligent in his evangelical duty.

In a way, this might seem discontinuous; it may seem as a promotion, or at least an acceptance, of the eternal law in which the Church participates being consistently ruptured by vagarious and erring human behavior.  Were the function, the end for which the Church exists, merely to enforce the eternal and divine law upon the world, then indeed, such evident difference in Church teaching would constitute discontinuity; but that is not the end for which the Church exists.  Rather, She exists to provide to souls the means to salvation; She illumines and aids man in his formation to fully conform to that law.  As such, Her teaching is continuous: what was said fourteen-hundred years ago was said for people fourteen-hundred years ago, and so may seem unusual to people today; but stripped of its accidents of composition, its temporally relevant metaphors, and everything which makes it comprehensible and beneficial to its intended particular audience, the essence is the same as that which She says today: the essence is always that which enables man’s salvation.  That does not mean that liturgical dance is in itself good; that does not mean that confession is optional; that does not mean that reception of the Holy Eucharist in one’s hand is appropriate; that does not mean that rock instruments are fitting to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass; but it does mean that these things are tolerable in cultures which have not had time to ingest the higher and better things, the things that are most fitting.  Likewise, it does not mean that abortion or contraception or active homosexuality or women’s ordination is acceptable, under any circumstances: for while the Church serves as a means to reconcile man’s imperfections with the eternal law, there are some crimes which are inexcusable, some imperfections which are more like cancers than cuts.

For this reason, one must never rush to make a judgment or a pronouncement concerning Church teaching.  Every single part, every single detail of the Church’s promulgated guidance is related and dependent upon the whole, which is dependent upon its end; each part must be read and interpreted in reference to the whole, and the whole can only be understood through its parts, and both can only be understood in relation to the function they serve: the salvation of man.  The Second Vatican Council and its apparent discontinuity cannot truly be understood without long, slow, patient learning, not only of the documents themselves but of the Church’s teaching from antiquity.  Furthermore, the Council should not, under any circumstances, be seen as a rupture, but instead an opportunity for regeneration, as an instigation which leads man into that learning.  Indeed, unprecedented opportunity for a truly educated laity has been given to the Church: the accessibility of Church teaching, of educational means, and the reduction of time spent in labor make it feasible for almost every Catholic to not only know his Church’s teachings, but the reasoning behind them.  Every apparent defeat of tradition, of the good, every step backwards from the truth is an opportunity to make that step again, and better.

Reason is a principle that operates in all men, whether or not they are conscious of it, and every man wants to be reasonable, regardless of how unreasonably he may act.  Against the tyranny of modernity, the dictatorship of relativism—the results of contemporary man’s irrational methods of interpretation—there must certainly be trust in faith, in the efficacious grace of God, but there must also be trust in the universality of reason.  Hermeneutics of rupture, of individuality, cannot simply be left alone, lest their irrational procedure become contumaciously ingrained into the moral and intellectual fiber of society.  In the words of Pope St. Pius X, from his encyclical Acerbo Nimis, “if faith languishes in our days, if among large numbers it has almost vanished, the reason is that the duty of catechetical teaching is either fulfilled very superficially or altogether neglected.”


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