Hermeneutic of the Hermeneutic of Continuity
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Reflections on the implications and final consequences of the hermeneutic of continuity
The pontificate of Benedict XVI has been marked by certain fundamental events, provoking reactions which were not always fully foreseeable or easily measurable: suffice it to mention the polemics which followed the Motu Proprio “Summorum Pontificum.” This act, which brought an openly hostile reaction in general, was likewise an opportunity for some to discover the true liturgical patrimony of the Church, and by the same token to discover an ecclesiology and a theological system not only different from but also incompatible with that elaborated over the last fifty years and summarily imposed upon the “People of God.”
Among these decisions characterizing the pontificate of Benedict XVI, the most significant seems to us the principle of the “hermeneutic of continuity,”1 which is expressed most systematically in the famous address to the Roman Curia of December 22, 2005. This discourse was not followed by any striking or newsworthy reactions as in other cases, but it gave rise to a movement of thought and of opposing positions which is still developing and which merits our attention.
The following reflections are an effort to analyze in a very succinct manner the claims of this principle of the hermeneutic of continuity, and in particular to consider it in the context of the unprecedented situation of the Church today, in order to trace out all of its implications.
A true principle alongside an unproven hypothesis
Forty years after the close of the Council, Benedict XVI acknowledges that certain deeply problematic situations have followed in the wake of that historical event. He immediately defines this difficulty as a problem of how the Council was received, tied to a problem of interpretation (hermeneutic) of the Council texts themselves: too often, he affirms, the Council has been interpreted and therefore applied in rupture with the constant Tradition of the Church, contrary to the objective meaning of the Council texts and contrary to the intention of the Council Fathers themselves. The hermeneutic of continuity is therefore presented as the way to an authentic interpretation of the Council, in accordance with its real intention and above all in perfect harmony with Tradition.
The statement of Benedict XVI has the advantage of underlining a fundamental principle, namely, that there can be no rupture but only continuity in the magisterial teaching of the Church: what the Church has always taught can neither be superseded nor set aside but constitutes Her patrimony, which one may neither reject nor modify in its fundamental content.
Let us point out right away that the truth affirmed by Benedict XVI is in one sense extremely simple, and that it belongs to rudiments of the faith and to the fundamental principles defining the very nature of the Church. Consequently, the fact that he judged it necessary to make this truth a guiding light of his pontificate is in itself a first very significant admission of the doctrinal crisis in the Church. By issuing this solemn reminder of a very simple, elementary truth which has been set aside in common teaching and practice, the Pope is inevitably giving an objective indication of the gravity of the present situation.
Here, the normal grandiloquent commemorative speeches on the Council give place to a reminder of elementary principles: this fact constitutes a first admission that something went wrong.
Clearly, moreover, the very fact of asserting that there must be no rupture in the teaching of the Church has inspired a desire in some people, and in priests in particular, to look more closely at the Church’s Tradition and past, which has led in many cases to the progressive discovery of a patrimony which to them was absolutely new and of which these priests feel they were cheated: such is doubtless the most positive effect of the hermeneutic of continuity.
Nevertheless, the hermeneutic of continuity is a double-edged sword, not so much in its abstract, intrinsic value as in its concrete application: it claims that the Council texts are in perfect continuity with the constant Tradition of the Church, and when it highlights some grave, objective problem of rupture, it systematically reduces the problem to one of interpretation of the Council itself, to some deviation which occurred after the Council. The absolute fidelity of the Council to the preceding Magisterium seems to remain an indisputable given. Thus the “fault” would be placed on some heterodox line of thinking incompatible with Catholic doctrine and foreign to the Council, but which paradoxically managed to direct a good deal of the Council’s application and concrete results.2
Diving now into our subject matter, we mean to situate the hermeneutic of continuity in its historical context as we try to grasp all of its elements: without entering into detail as to the specific content of the Council, which has already been abundantly treated, we will show that the hermeneutic of continuity postulates a series of elements which do not save the Council but rather indirectly prove its failure.
1 It is for the sake of convenience that we use the expression “hermeneutic of continuity,” insofar as it is certainly the most commonly employed to describe the type of hermeneutic indicated by the Pope, in contrast with the hermeneutic “of discontinuity or rupture.” More precisely, the Pope speaks of a “hermeneutic of reform.”
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