Interpreting all things in continuity

Faithful Catholics have a Scylla and Charybdis to navigate in today’s fractious debates concerning interpretations of the Second Vatican Council.  Both dangers concern interpretations of the Council that see it as a rupture.  One one side are those who see this rupture as a good thing; on the other are those who see the rupture as a bad thing.

We Catholics of Anglican patrimony must not fall prey to either of these dangers.

It’s time to remind ourselves of Pope Benedict XVI’s Christmas greetings to the Roman Curia of 2005 in which he spoke of the proper interpretation of the Second Vatican Council.

Pope Benedict said:

The question arises:  Why has the implementation of the Council, in large parts of the Church, thus far been so difficult?

Well, it all depends on the correct interpretation of the Council or – as we would say today – on its proper hermeneutics, the correct key to its interpretation and application. The problems in its implementation arose from the fact that two contrary hermeneutics came face to face and quarrelled with each other. One caused confusion, the other, silently but more and more visibly, bore and is bearing fruit.

On the one hand, there is an interpretation that I would call “a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture”; it has frequently availed itself of the sympathies of the mass media, and also one trend of modern theology. On the other, there is the “hermeneutic of reform”, of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us. She is a subject which increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God.

The hermeneutic of discontinuity risks ending in a split between the pre-conciliar Church and the post-conciliar Church. It asserts that the texts of the Council as such do not yet express the true spirit of the Council. It claims that they are the result of compromises in which, to reach unanimity, it was found necessary to keep and reconfirm many old things that are now pointless. However, the true spirit of the Council is not to be found in these compromises but instead in the impulses toward the new that are contained in the texts.

Sadly, there are many who say this idea of a “hermeneutic of reform in continuity” died with Pope Benedict’s resignation. There does seem to be an absence from the Catholic square of those advocating this position.  That means apologists have entered the vacuum who combat the progressivists by arguing the opposite side of the coin—that indeed the Second Vatican Council represented rupture—and that’s a bad thing.

If a faithful Catholic is offered a choice between modernism/progressivism or traditionalism, as if rupture is the only choice, then it is a no-brainer that traditionalism will prevail.   While we Catholics of Anglican tradition know the pitfalls of the progressivist position all too well, some of us may not be as familiar with the pitfalls of a traditionalist position.

This excerpt of a 2011 talk by Cardinal William Levada, then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, encapsulates the problem with making the “rupture” choice.  He was referring to Benedict XVI’s 2005 address.

The Holy Father stressed that a necessary, just and prudent reform of the Church had to be undertaken, but always in full continuity with the perennial Tradition of the Church. Reform in and of the Church is to maintain the integrity of the faith, as it adheres to the Risen Lord, freeing that faith from accretions and social and historical entanglements that are foreign to it. Any interpretation of the Second Vatican Council that attributes discontinuity to it, whether of a progressive kind, hoping for even further changes in the light of the dubious so-called “spirit of the Council”, which in fact too often comes from the “spirit of the age,” or of a conservative kind, denying the Council’s validity and its right to undertake a process of purification, then should both be rejected. Both the Council and the life of the Church must always be considered in full continuity and fidelity with the divine project for the Church as given to her by the Risen Lord.

We have to keep this in mind.  We have a living Magisterium in the Catholic Church and we have a Pope who is a sign of unity in the Church.  That is not a ticket to progressivism or some idea that the Pope is an oracle of the Holy Spirit and consequently every utterance on a plane or in a private conversation demands our assent even if it seems to contradict prior Church teaching.  It means everything has to be interpreted in light of the tradition of the Church, cum et sub Petro.   We saw among some of our former Anglican brothers and sisters the belief that they held a true Catholic faith without all the “papal accretions” as if the pure doctrine of the Church could be found at one point in history and is frozen in amber.  We also saw the stubbornness of the people holding that position.  Well, multiple variations of the “frozen in amber” crowd exists among Catholics.

We also learned that we can’t call ourselves capital “C” Catholic without being in communion with the Bishop of Rome.

When we became Catholic, we gave up trying to be our own Pope and experienced a great peace and freedom in doing so.  But in the present confusion and anger many Catholics are feeling, there are  temptations to rash judgment, rebellion and division.  Then the temptation to become one’s own pope rises up and we risk getting on the highway to sedevacantism—to the idea the Chair (sede) of St. Peter has been empty (vacante)  since we had a true Pope—back dated that to the appropriate papacy.

Don’t go there.  Stay docile to the teaching of our Ordinaries and of the Catholic Church in line with Her tradition and constant teaching, without imposing an ideological traditionalist or progressivist lens.   If you are upset and confused, turn to deepening your prayer life, availing yourselves of the sacraments, and reading sound devotional material.  If you can’t read social media without getting upset, avoid it until you can read things without it disturbing your peace.

2 thoughts on “Interpreting all things in continuity

  1. This article is very well researched and well written, concisely hitting the proverbial nail on the head.

    The one footnote that I would add is that sacred tradition is not merely what two or three generations before us did in their observance and handing on of the faith. Rather, sacred tradition goes back to apostolic times. Where mutations have occurred over the centuries, undoing the effects of those mutations to recover a purer expression of our faith — which is what the Second Vatican Council sought to do — constitutes fidelity to that tradition rather than the hermeneutic of rupture that Traditionalists wrongly attribute to the reforms.

    Of course, nobody can deny that there were many abuses undertaken in a supposed, but completely misunderstood, “Spirit of Vatican II” that really were grave rupture from the authentic tradition.



  2. Pingback: Ross Douthat’s recent column and an interesting debate that follows | Anglicanorum Coetibus Society Blog

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