Patrick Archbold is co-founder of Creative Minority Report, a Catholic website that puts a refreshing spin on the intersection of religion, culture, and politics. When not writing, Patrick is director of information technology at a large international logistics company in New York.
I used to be a big fan of the “Hermeneutic of Reform in Continuity,” or, as commonly shortened, the “hermeneutic of continuity.” But I think that perhaps its day has passed.
For those unfamiliar, a hermeneutic is a certain way of interpreting a text. It is a lens, if you will, which allows you to interpret a text beyond just the words on the page.
Pope Benedict XVI famously contrasted "a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture" with "a hermeneutic of reform in continuity." The Pope criticized "a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture," which views the documents of Vatican II as a break from all that had come before, as if Church teaching was being created anew. The Pope rejected this interpretation and instead called for "a hermeneutic of reform in continuity." In short, we must view the letter of the documents in light of and in continuity with all the magisterial teaching that came before it.
Of course, that a hermeneutic is necessary to properly understand the documents of Vatican II is the cause of many of the debates of the last fifty years. Moreover, it is truly necessary to have such a hermeneutic because certain few passages of several documents, read at face value, seem potentially to be in contradiction to previous teaching.
That a hermeneutic of continuity is necessary to properly interpret the documents of Vatican II, its use is necessary and proper, even if lamentable.
But I think it is fair to say that such hermeneutics are merely a Band-Aid to a self-inflicted wound, a wound of ambiguity.
But the common usage of ‘hermeneutic of continuity’ extends its use beyond just an interpretive lens of the council.
Today, it has become a crutch and a cudgel It is a crutch in that the hierarchy of the Church no longer feels obligated to clarity in its communications, but regularly unitizes and embraces ambiguity out of laziness or even possibly sometimes with more nefarious motives. The bottom line is there is no understood obligation on the part of the magisterium to teach and communicate in the clearest and most unambiguous way possible.
Rather, too much communication in recent years has gone beyond mere ambiguity approaching clear contradiction, leaving it up to those few still concerned with continuity to develop a lens suitable to a proper catholic understanding. If you have to squint, turn your head left 45 degrees, and stand on one foot to view a modern church communication as Catholic, well then you had better do it bub. In this way, the ‘hermeneutic of continuity’ is a rhetorical cudgel used to beat anyone who dares to notice any discontinuity.
Why is it now our obligation to assume even the most contradictory utterances and writings are in conformity with immutable Catholic teaching but no longer their obligation to clearly demonstrate that continuity?
I know it may seem antediluvian to suggest this, but read Pascendi Dominici Gregis, or the encyclicals of Leo XII, read any of great encyclicals of the centuries prior to 1960, is any hermeneutic necessary to understand them? Are copious context and a rose-colored lens necessary to view them in continuity with all that came before? No, they are plainly and obviously Catholic with many references to Popes and documents before them to establish clearly in the mind of the reader that what is being taught has always and everywhere been taught.
But is unfortunately rare today that modern Church teaching and communications refer or quote, in any meaningful way, Church documents prior to 1960. It seems obvious to me that this is purposeful, as the clarity of those documents does not serve the resolute ambiguity now so desired.
The unconverted person looking in from the outside could be forgiven for assuming that a 2,000 yr. old Church that is afraid to quote itself beyond the last 50 years is either unworthy of belief or unworthy of its beliefs.
For me the ideal would be that Church documents and Papal encyclicals should be written in a way that is so plain and so clear and with copious references to all that came before it, that its authorship should be next to impossible to discern.
I fear that the ‘hermeneutic of continuity’ has become the preferred tool of well-meaning eggheads and not so well-meaning heretics, while the rest of us puzzle over what the Church truly teaches these days.
What we need today is clear and unambiguous teaching at all levels of the hierarchy that does not rely on hermeneutics, but rather relies on clarity, and shuns ambiguity. We need clarity with clearly demonstrated continuity in all communications.
This clarity is all the more important in an age when the latest papal off-the-cuffisms or encyclical are treated by the media with equal weight and are water-cooler fodder on the other side of the planet minutes after they are uttered or published. We are constantly being told the Church needs to adapt to the modern world. This is one adaptation that is long overdue.