Sunday, September 01, 2013

What is the hermeneutic of continuity?

Ever since the pontificate of Benedict XVI, the term "hermeneutic continuity" has been proposed as descriptive of an interpretation of the Second Vatican Council that stresses continuity between pre and post-Conciliar teachings. This "hermeneutic of continuity" is generally opposed to a "hermeneutic of rupture", which sees Vatican II in terms of a break or rupture with tradition. Progressive are generally "rupturists", while conservative, orthodox Catholics favor the hermeneutic of continuity proposed by Benedict XVI and enthusiastically embraced by those advocating a reform of the reform.

But what exactly is the hermeneutic of continuity? Is it as self-evident as the simple definition I gave above would lead us to believe? In fact it is not, and while I support the concept of the hermeneutic of continuity, I must firmly insist that we begin by understanding what the hermeneutic of continuity is exactly - and what it implies.

To say that the hermeneutic of continuity stresses continuity between pre and post-Conciliar teaching is not sufficient, because there is two ways one can interpret what this means, and as we shall see, much is riding on which approach one prefers.

Two ways of interpreting "hermeneutic of continuity":

1) The teaching of the Second Vatican Council is already in perfect continuity with Tradition, and in proposing a hermeneutic of continuity, we are being asking to realize and appropriate this truth. The hermeneutic of continuity is simply recognizing what the Council "really taught" as opposed to what liberals drew out of it. In this interpretation, discontinuity is a myth that must be dispelled by proper catechesis.

2) The teaching of the Second Vatican Council presents a departure from Catholic Tradition, and in proposing for a hermeneutic of continuity, we are being asked to look for a way to reconcile Conciliar teaching with pre-Conciliar teaching. The hermeneutic of continuity consists in new statements or actions on the part of the Magisterium, bishops and priests to bring the Vatican II documents into synthesis with prior Magisterial teaching. In this interpretation, discontinuity is a fact that must be rectified.

Look at these for a moment and notice how different the two approaches are. While both call for an interpretive schema that stresses continuity, the former denies the existence of objective discontinuity while the latter actually takes it for granted. It might be objected that the latter interpretation actually puts one in the camp of the rupturists, since it presumes that there is a true divergence between Conciliar teaching and Catholic tradition - an objective rupture. But it is important to point out that a true rupturist interpretation not only acknowledges the rupture, but celebrates it and works to further it. We, on the other hand, acknowledge the fact of a rupture, but work to rectify it, to close the gap, to bring all things into harmony inasmuch as is possible.

It is in the second sense that I, too, believe a hermeneutic of continuity is vitally important for restoration. But this does not consist of simply returning to the documents, uncovering the "riches" of the Council, or stressing what the Council "actually taught" as opposed to how it was "implemented." I have written elsewhere on how the Council Fathers noted many problems with the Conciliar documents from the outset; I have also demonstrated that the theory of a council "hijacked" by the media and other outside interests is not tenable. We need, desperately need, a hermeneutic of continuity, but it does not simply consist in rediscovering the documents or returning to what the Council "really taught." These are dead ends.

It would be worth asking: if there really is an objective discontinuity, a real rupture of sorts, what's the use in trying to "bring it into harmony" with tradition? Discontinuity, by definition, means there is no continuity, and if so, how can we speak of "reconciling" or synthesizing it?

In acknowledging an objective discontinuity, I do not mean to say that the break is so grave, the chasm so wide, that it cannot be crossed. The majority of the Council Fathers, even men of unimpeachable orthodoxy like Marcel Lefebvre, ultimately signed off on the Council documents, which indicates that they must have believed that the documents were compatible with Tradition in some sense, even if only "with great difficulty." Vocabulary was novel, the manner of speech was different from prior Councils, different angles or aspects of questions were explored which previously had not been, the ends of the Council were pastoral rather than dogmatic, and the very "mood" of the Council was profoundly different from previous Councils. All of these things taken together signify an objective "change of direction" in the Church's understanding of itself - but, as Vatican II itself and Paul VI himself noted, this orientation was fundamentally pastoral, which ultimately means discretionary. If the Church wanted to, they could go back to its pre-Conciliar orientation or even adopt a new one without any change in teaching. So, when we speak of harmonizing or bridging the gap, we mean not the attempt to put a square peg into a round hole, but rather effecting a true metanoia, a change of direction, within the Church, such that her fundamental orientation is realigned with Tradition.

But this means we must confess that the orientation is currently not aligned. In calling for a hermeneutic, we are implicitly acknowledging that there is a discontinuity that needs to be addressed. Or, as Chris Ferrara put it recently, "What kind of Council needs a 'hermeneutic' just to understand Catholic teaching?" If the hermeneutic of continuity is more than just "rediscovering the riches" of the Council, then it is in fact something extrinsic that needs to be applied. It is something akin to a syllabus, or an explanatory note followed up by a rigorous campaign of implementation - a dedicated, intentional effort on the part of the Magisterium to impose continuity on the Council by stating definitively how the documents are to be interpreted and bringing them into harmony with Tradition.

Can this be done? A recent statement of the SSPX opined that the Council could only be brought into harmony "with great difficulty." But to counter that with Cardinal Newman, "ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt." So, yes, we need a hermeneutic of continuity, but paradoxically, this hermeneutic of continuity must begin from the premise of acknowledging an objective discontinuity. Only if you acknowledge where you are can you even begin to think about where you ought to be going.


Beefy Levinson said...

"Only if you acknowledge where you are can you even begin to think about where you ought to be going."

True. Unfortunately, far too many careers and reputations hinge on making sure no one ever acknowledges where we are and how we got here.

Anonymous said...

"True. Unfortunately, far too many careers..."
Including the Pope's.

Titus said...

The problem, isn't it, is the ambiguity in the Concilar documents. So it's not merely a matter of saying, "Lumen gentium clearly teaches the same thing the Church has always taught," or "Lumen gentium clearly says something different than the Church has always taught," because Lumen gentium doesn't say much of anything clearly. It's almost all vague, philosophizing gibberish.

So there is, in a sense, a need both to acknowledge the possible continuity interpretation and to impose that interpretation. Rather than choosing one of the two approaches that Boniface suggests, it seems both are needed.

BONIFACE said...


Good point.

Approach 2 can work in tandem with approach 1, but approach 1 cannot stand without approach 2.

I am not Spartacus said...

Cui bono?

The Documents of the pastoral council were deliberately vague and deliberately ambiguous and were written in a discursive and not a definitive manner.

Cui bono?

Certainly not the Trads.

The Magisterium has had more than fifty years to teach definitively about V2 but the modern Papacy rarely takes definitive action and so the game continues and Popes continue to act in ways that none of the 260 Popes prior to V2 would have been caught dead acting.

V2 is dead and it is long past the point its stinking carcass be interred.

Lefebvre signed the documents simply as an act of loyalty to the Pope; he risked little as the documents were not definitive or dogmatic

Anonymous said...


Even though the council was legitimate, are you saying it should be scrapped? I thought all good catholics are supposed to adhere to its teachings or so says
the Catechism of the Catholic Church , as it states the infallibility of an ecumenical council. Have you had a change of heart recently?


I am not Spartacus said...

Dear Thomas. All Ecumenical Councils are, by their nature, infallible, but V2 chose to proclaim no infallible teachings and it is binding on me and thee to the extent that it is in continuity with the Church as she existed prior to V2.

That is, because I am adhering to all that came before V2, I can not see in what way I would be disobedient to any putative changes in doctrines for Catholic Doctrine does not change but develops; further, I do not know in what way I am not obedient to and/or in compliance with V2 for challenging V2 is not a sin but, rather, such actions have been described by the Magisterium as permissible.

I think the fact that the Council chose to act on a Pastoral Level is evidence of the action of The Holy Ghost in leading the Conciliar Fathers to chose not to proclaim any Dogmas.

ToS said...

Atucally, councils in some places can err. Not in canons for formal decrees. The council of Florence erred on Holy Orders for example. However it is highly imprudent and unnecessary to say VII erred.

Philosoraptor said...

That there has been a change in mood since the Council in Magisterial documents is granted, but this is not a problem: Understanding the Faith is one thing - how it is presented is another.

However, Boniface and Anselm seem to be arguing that Vatican II ruptured with earlier Tradition not in terms of mood and style, but in doctrine - that is, the teachings of the Council are contrary in some instances with earlier pronouncements. And THIS - has most definitely not been demonstrated. The claims of rupture (subsistit in, collegiality, ecumenism, religious liberty) are all rather easily reconciled with earlier Tradition - at least the first three. But even DH can be understood in continuity if one does the work.

Further, Magisterial pronouncements needing subsequent clarification is nothing new - Cf. Cardinal Newman on the Syllabus of Pius IX. So it's not surprising that there has been some confusion over the Council documents, particularly given how it was treated (remember, it was the first Council in the modern age) by reporters and studied.

Finally, I don't think the documents themselves are all that ambiguous, especially if one's sensus fidei is working well. Lumen Gentium on the power of the Supreme Pontiff is quite clear. "Subsistit in" now makes MORE explicit, not less, that the Church of Christ is the Catholic Church and She alone, and so forth.

I'd love to see some posts on this topic - heck, I'd even enjoy guest-posting a few if necessary!


BONIFACE said...


No, I do not suggest there was a rupture "in doctrine." What I stated was this:

"In acknowledging an objective discontinuity, I do not mean to say that the break is so grave, the chasm so wide, that it cannot be crossed. The majority of the Council Fathers, even men of unimpeachable orthodoxy like Marcel Lefebvre, ultimately signed off on the Council documents, which indicates that they must have believed that the documents were compatible with Tradition in some sense, even if only "with great difficulty.""

What I am saying is that there was an objective discontinuity, and it happened at the Council, not in the implementation - but it was not primarily doctrinal in the positive sense, but in the negative sense - refusal to condemn communism, refusal to issue statements with more clarification even though many Council Fathers requested it, etc. It did not change doctrine, but it insufficiently defined it in such a way that a real rupture of doctrine could be inferred from those who wished to.

With a sensus catholicus it is possible to reconcile these passages, but, as the SSPX said, "only with great difficulty." The most controversial issue at the Council was collegiality, which many of the Fathers said was freely invented. And by collegiality, I do not mean the doctrine that the bishops collectively have authority, but rather that (and this was the disputable point), that the Pope derives his authority from being at the head of the episcopal college, rather than his role as successor of Peter makes him de facto the head of that college. In the new view, the Pope's authority proceeds in a way from the episcopate. This is not stated, but this is how it is worded.

Anonymous said...


How does the "subsistit in" of the Council make *more explicit* the identity of The Church of Christ with the Catholic Church? Doesn't the "est" (of Pius XII, and many other pontiffs) express it better?



Anonymous said...

The late writer Michael Davies revealed that Prof. Hans Kung had openly admitted that some of the periti (experts) at VII had ensured that the Council Fathers would approve ambiguous texts which could later be interpreted 'creatively' in a manner never intended.