In Defense of Pope Benedict XVI’s ‘Hermeneutic of Continuity’

COMMENTARY: Because the Church is the living Body of Christ, not a museum, its teaching develops and must develop. How do we determine whether that development is legitimate or not?

Pope Benedict XVI prepares to celebrate Ash Wednesday Mass at Santa Sabina Church in Rome, March 1, 2006.
Pope Benedict XVI prepares to celebrate Ash Wednesday Mass at Santa Sabina Church in Rome, March 1, 2006. (photo: giulio napolitano / Shutterstock)

“Hermeneutics” is a fancy word that means one’s “principle for interpretation,” i.e., how you interpret what you’re looking at.

Most phenomena are not self-explanatory. They have to be interpreted. “Hermeneutics” is the key to interpretation. Now, the keychain in my pocket holds 10 keys, which open locks from 20 feet to 214 miles away from me. But only one will open my front door.

So, using the right key — the right “hermeneutic” — is not a “power grab.” It’s essential.

“Hermeneutic” isn’t one of those words typically bandied about. I suspect it’s even infrequent on standardized tests (except, maybe, in philosophy). The Merriam-Webster Dictionary, which includes sections on the history of words, lists the first usage of “hermeneutic” in 1737, but it seems Pope Benedict XVI put the word into broader circulation with his contrast of the “hermeneutic of continuity” versus the “hermeneutic of rupture” as competing ways of interpreting the Second Vatican Council.

In the wake of his death, I want to make something very clear: While Benedict may have breathed new life into a rare word and shone its light on a contemporary problem roiling the Church, he did not invent the concept. Although the phrase “hermeneutic of continuity” might come from Benedict, the idea behind the concept goes back much further, arguably to the Bible.

Because the Church is the living Body of Christ, not a museum, its teaching develops and must develop. The hermeneutical question is: How do we determine whether that development is legitimate or not?

Let’s see how one of the oldest passages in the New Testament, touching on a central truth of our faith — the Resurrection — deals with the “hermeneutical question.”

Paul is talking about Jesus’ resurrection. He says it is so central to Christianity that, unless it’s true, it’s all a fraud and let’s go home (1 Corinthians 15:12-14).

But Paul wasn’t there. He wasn’t even among its first witnesses. He didn’t run to the tomb. He wasn’t in the Upper Room, cowering with the 11 apostles. He didn’t hear the two who ran back from Emmaus, claiming, “We have seen the Lord!”

Arguably Paul — who was still Saul — might have been among those from whom the other 11 were cowering. And he still hadn’t earned his first biblical press as cloak-keeper for Stephen’s assassins (Acts 7:58).

In First Corinthians 15:1-8, Paul makes clear his hermeneutic: What I am teaching is in continuity in six ways independent of him. First, that what I am preaching is “what I received” — not what I thought up, “experienced,” believe “the Spirit” is telling me, etc. Paul’s first proof is that what he is preaching stands in continuity with the Gospel the hearers previously received.

Next, it is in continuity with the Church, especially the Church’s core leadership: first, Peter (“Cephas”), next, “the Twelve” (the apostles, i.e., those of whom the bishops are successors), 500 of the faithful, James, and “all the apostles.” Paul’s experience of the Risen Christ knocking him off his high horse on the road to Damascus is listed in last place, not just because he is born out, of course, but because his experience in itself cannot be testimony contrary to the continuity of the received tradition of the Gospel and five previous witnesses.

That hermeneutic of continuity is found throughout the Church’s history. Vincent of Lérins, a Father of the Church from the fifth century, had this to say about the hermeneutic of continuity:

“On the contrary, what is right and fitting is this: There should be no inconsistency between first and last.”

In the 19th century, St. John Henry Newman’s An Essay on the Development of Doctrine stresses a hermeneutic of continuity. Indeed, his conversion arguably came from an honest awareness of the hermeneutic of rupture Anglicanism represented.

When he honestly looked at Anglican claims, he had to admit that its pretending to be just another, original parallel trunk of Christianity was false: The Church that existed in England from the time of Augustine of Canterbury until 1534 did not look, smell or sound like the Church of England, but it did look, smell and sound like the Catholic Church. By Strange Ways, a new book about non-Catholics who in the last decade converted to the Church and became theologians repeats over and over again their admission that, when they examined their previous religion’s claims in the light of Catholicism, they faltered precisely because they lacked continuity with the Church that goes back to Christ.

So, while Pope Benedict XVI repopularized the concept, the “hermeneutic of continuity” has had, shall we say, a long continuity in the Church.

I make this point because I already hear noises wanting to discard the concept, contending Benedict invented it to ensconce a particular, cramped reading of the Second Vatican Council. This line of argument pretends that the “Spirit of Vatican II” was caged by the John Paul-Benedict hermeneutic that, christened as the “hermeneutic of continuity” by the latter, constrained the Church until Francis let the winds of synodality blow. Partisans of this view also maintain that those who appeal to the documents of Vatican II are distorting the Council because they were compromise texts to placate a reactionary rearguard, not full expressions of the Council’s thought, intentions or “Spirit.”

This is balderdash and likely driven more by an ideological agenda wedded to the contemporary zeitgeist than to good theology.

Its proponents claim that the “hermeneutic of continuity” does not do justice to the “innovative” aspects of Vatican II they insist are the “work of the Spirit” making the Church “up-to-date.”

Two responses. First, the Holy Spirit does not contradict himself: He does not teach A at one time and B at another.

Second, Vatican II — while deserving recognition as the work of the Holy Spirit in our times — is not a new Church. It is part of the Church that preceded it and that it carries forward. It cannot be part of the Church at loggerheads with that Church, and those contradictions cannot be dismissed by pretending that fundamental rules of logic (like “A cannot be true and false at the same time”) are suspended because we invoke Vatican II.

Simply put, as a valid expression of the Church’s magisterium, Vatican II must fit in continuity with that magisterium, not denying its developments but recognizing that “developments” at odds with received teaching of faith and morals are deviations, not “developments.” That is not to “stifle the Spirit” but to recognize that the Triune God is not in contradiction with himself or with the Church he promised to be with until the end of time (though it may be at odds with some unwritten ghost Council that exists only in the gaseous penumbrae of some people’s fantasies).

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