instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Autodidactic discontinuity

In a comment below, Jeff uses the expression "hermeneutics of discontinuity," which comes from a speech Pope Benedict XVI gave last December to the Roman Curia:
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.
My hypothesis for this week is that the willingness of lay Catholics to study the writings of the Church has contributed significantly to the popularity of the hermeneutic-of-discontinuity interpretation.

The idea is that, as Catholics (particularly layfolk) became more adept at arguing from source documents, they became more dependent on source documents for their arguments, which gave rise (or at least vigor) to the whole "my source document is more authoritative than your source document" style of debate. With the Second Vatican Council, you suddenly get a whacking great load of highly authoritative source documents, a fact that in itself makes the 1960s a decade unlike most any other in the history of the Church.

In the Church, though, such highly authoritative source documents are, literally, extraordinary. The ordinary way the Church teaches, and even if we may say learns through development of doctrine, is far more plodding and far harder to trace. A treatise isn't condemned, a canon law goes unenforced, a new idea is well received among the Curia.

But most or all of this is invisible to the self-taught reader of encyclicals and conciliar documents. You might say that, to some extent, the Church doesn't show her work between ecumenical councils and encyclicals. For that matter, doesn't the expectation that the Pope would write frequent doctrinal letters to the whole Church really only go back to Bl. Pius IX?

If as a matter of procedure you only consider doctrinal statements above a certain level of authority, that's sort of like only looking at mountaintops that poke above a cloud layer at a certain altitude. There's no way to see how, or if, they might be connected.

(There do seem to be those who insist that the connections must be perfectly straightforward without concern for what lies below, but that's not quite my understanding of the Catholic understanding of how the teaching office of the Church works.)

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