Posted by: Peter | May 28, 2007

Hermeneutic of Hope?

A couple of days ago, our founder, Steve, asked me to contribute to this blog with a post about the hermeneutic of continuity.  I want to clarify my position for him, as well as everyone in CR.


I recently posted on an acquaintance who publicly defected from the faith several weeks ago.  A leader in our diocesan office no less, one of his reasons for abandoning Catholicism was the “irreconcilable” contradictions in the Church’s doctrine since Vatican II.  Reflecting on Bill’s apostasy made me consider his points and evaluate them in light of many of the same objections made by “traditionalists”.  Who hasn’t at one time questioned the prudence and/or the validity of Vatican II?  (Other than, of course, the ultramontane, i.e. James Likoudis and Kenneth D. Whitehead.) 


The fact is, the post-conciliar crisis has many of us asking questions and losing some, or all, sense of hope.  Yet we cannot avoid the reality that Vatican II did occur.  Nor can we deny that it has had its influence on the Church.  The majority of Catholics not only accept it, but they embrace it, and they embrace what they falsely believe it to be – an event that changed the very nature of the Church, as well as her mission.  We know that the Church cannot be “changed”.  So, we are left with the problem: What do we do with Vatican II?

The Problem 

Simply put, we have an ecumenical council and many phat post-conciliar documents on our hands (Out damn spot!) that don’t seem to help us plainly see how everything fits together.  Life before the council is contrasted with life after the council; and many lament, “How things have changed…What we have lost…”


In my estimation, when the Magisterium either makes a doctrinal pronouncement or revises her pastoral approach, the Magisterium has the obligation to the faithful to show how that which it is introducing is in accord with, and is supported by, Tradition.  Typically, in the past anyway, this is how things were done.


Vatican II left us hanging; its amalgamation of ambiguities left us wondering, “What the heck does it all mean?”  We see the obvious problems around us: parishes closing, priest being locked up, nuns selling their silver crucifixes and priceless pieces of Catholic art to get a hairdo and a ride to the local Catholic Charities event, honoring Chelsea and Hillary Clinton.  And so we are left to our own devices, pondering, “How can things have wandered so far in such a short amount of time?”  I’ll never forget asking, “How in the world does one make sense of Ut Unum Sint next to Mortalium Animos?”  Ultimately what has ensued in the wake of the Council is a collective ecclesiastical amnesia, a corporate ignorance about the patrimony and heritage of the Faith.  For most of us, this new springtime is more like a comatose, vegetative state.  And it doesn’t seem like she’s “coming to” anytime soon.


A new interpretation? A potential solution? 


With the recent publication of Sacramentum Caritatis (SC), I believe the Church has the opportunity to come face-to-face with the mind of Benedict XVI and his desire to bring about lasting renewal and restoration to Christ’s Church in light of the beleaguered post-conciliar project.


Part of Benedict’s papal agenda is the reinterpretation of the Second Vatican Council in light of the Church’s perennial Tradition, a schema expressed and outlined in a Christmas address to the Roman Curia in 2005.  The methodology of analyzing, synthesizing, and thereby clarifying the work of the Council Fathers and the Popes within the context of the patrimony of the Church is known as the hermeneutic of reform and continuity.


What is it? 


Hermeneutic of continuity is contrasted with what is known as the hermeneutic of rupture and discontinuity. The hermeneutic of rupture is that fetid reality of a pseudo-Catholicism which resonates with the mass media.  It is a trend of modern theology that typically uses elitist francophone phrases for all its new propositions, carried out in the “spirit” of Vatican II with the aim of destroying Catholic dogma. In a word, Modernism.  Discontinuity is an agent of schism and heresy for it splits the pre-conciliar Church from the post-conciliar Church, as if the Mystical Body of Christ can be put asunder.


On the other hand, the proposed plan of continuity supports and restores integrity to “the one subject-Church” which develops, yet always remains the same.  This hermeneutic is a tool of interpretation that abets and assists the transmission of doctrine, “pure and integral, without any attenuation or distortion”.  Simply put, the hermeneutic of continuity is the only way to explain Vatican II (and its ambiguity) and put into effect its proper implementation in accordance with Tradition.


The principle behind the hermeneutic of continuity is the simple fact that “the Church is One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic both before and after the Council, throughout time.” And the pope’s role, as he himself has noted, is one of “guarantor of the obedience toward Christ and his word.”  In a document written while he was still head of the CDF, Ratzinger said, “To interpret the signs of the times in the light of faith means to recognize the presence of Christ in every age.”  Using the hermeneutic of continuity is simply recognizing the presence of Christ in our age; it is recognizing that He has not abandoned His Church and that He will continue to maintain her purity, her indefectibility. The hermeneutic of continuity, as Archbishop Albert Malcolm Ranjith vouches, “truly is a correction of course and should be welcomed, appreciated, studied and put into practice.”


How is it being applied? 


I do not claim to be an expert on Joseph Ratzinger.  There are many priests and bishops who have been trained by the Pope himself, and are therefore much more qualified to explain his thought than I am.  But in my limited layman’s reading of his works, I believe he expresses his mission of vigilance and continuity in regard to Catholic doctrine. At the center of the Pope’s thought are the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, most especially St. Augustine and St. Bonaventure. Anyone who follows his Wednesday catechesis can observe how Benedict relays the rich tradition of the Church each week, applying it, while calling the faithful to do the same, to our present historical situation.


One can peruse the pages of Ratzingerian thought and observe how the former Prefect of the CDF “connects the dots”, applying the Tradition of the Church to the complexities of modern ecclesial dilemmas.  Clearly, not everyone else is doing this.  There has been much misinterpretation of Vatican II and the disastrous effects on the Church are evident. But in all of Benedict’s work, the application of the hermeneutic seems to be present; it is a constant reference point of logical consistency for the Pope.  In his exclusive interview with Vittorio Messori in 1985, the Pope expressed how “Vatican II is in the strictest continuity with both previous councils…Whoever accepts Vatican II…at the same time accepts the whole binding tradition of the Catholic Church.” (Ratzinger Report, pg. 28)


To usher in a process of reinterpretation, the correct interpretation, the only interpretation that can maintain doctrinal purity, the Congregation of Divine Worship and Sacraments has initiated a broad liturgical program based on the hermeneutic of continuity (see Sacramentum Caritatis #3, note 6).  Some of you may have noticed the republication of Ludovico Trimeboni’s Compendio di Liturgia Practica, dedicated to Benedict, noting SC#35 and #40.   Moreover, I have already heard of and seen practical application on the parish level, incorporating and promoting Latin in the liturgy and private life.  The key word here is “initiated”.  It’s a first step.  Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither was the Church.  Although the faith of many Catholics was easily destroyed in a few short years, it is not nearly as easy to restore all that has been lost.  It will take time and patience.  The body was wounded by those who seized the council for their own vicious purposes.  Now, the proper remedies must be applied and we must allow time for the remedies to take effect.


On another note, with the recent publication of his book Jesus of Nazareth, the Pope applies his hermeneutic in a personal reflection, putting into check modern biblical critics while speaking of Christ to the world as “Papa”.  The reason this book is important is because it reveals Benedict’s heart and mind as no magisterial document could do.  By reading it, we can have great insight into his personal hopes for the Church.


Taking into consideration the entirety of the Popes’ thought and praxis, the Pope continues putting forth and applying his schema of restoration, despite inevitable resistance.  Yet, will he be heard, will he be obeyed?  Time will tell.


What can we do with it? 


To employ the hermeneutic of continuity as lay faithful we need to notice what our pope is doing, and follow his example. What Benedict has done in the past in application of this central theme of his work is important.  We need to observe and replicate how the Holy Father has been using this method for years: reading the Council and critiquing it’s aftermath in light of Tradition.  This entails reading a little.  Okay, a lot.


Fortunately for us, modern means of communication provide the faithful with available access to Ratzinger.  He is our pope and therefore deserves our filial respect.  We must ask ourselves, “Can we honestly assess a papal program without studying his work?” The Church can certainly learn a lot from our peritus pontiff as he himself is intimately aware of the crisis and is working toward restoration.  But to learn we must read him without pretext.


When approaching the documents of Vatican II, one need not start with a hermeneutic of suspicion and/or rupture, but one based in the Tradition of the Church.  Francis Bacon once wrote, “Read not to contradict and confute; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider.”  The hermeneutic of continuity requires one to weigh and consider; it necessitates a willingness on one’s part to see things from a holistic perspective that can only come with a deep desire to know the truth.


Furthermore, we have priests leading the charge.  Fr. Tim Finigan and many others (e.g., Fr. Zulhsdorf, Fr. Brian Harrison, Fr. Brian Mullady, Fr. Ray Blake, Fr. John Boyle, Monsignor Ignacio Barreiro and others) have been applying the hermeneutic in various ways, leading the faithful in its concrete application.


Vatican II’s “prudential programs” are often overlooked due to erroneous execution. The fruits of rupture are everywhere to be seen.  But our experience need not put a damper on our reading of Vatican II.  Going back to the council documents with a Traditional perspective is the key in making connections between that which otherwise seems conflicting.


Yet, how is a Traditional perspective acquired?  First, we need to educate ourselves about the Catholic faith – its dogmas, history and development – to be able to correctly perceive and prudently live according to the Tradition of the Church.  Then we must actually dive into the Council documents and spend the extra time looking up the footnotes (those small references at the bottom of the page that make one squint while widely opening up the door to our Catholic patrimony and heritage).  This seems to be more than the average Joe Six-Pack in the pew can handle.  It is more than he can handle.  But as the intellectuals hoping to be the leaders that restore Tradition to our Catholic brethren, we have the responsibility to do this for him, and to share with him the ever-persisting continuity in Church doctrine.


On a less academic note, applying the hermeneutic of continuity in our daily lives is taking the often-used slogan “This is the age of the laity” and using it to our advantage.  Reaching out to Catholics who are not “traditional” and evangelizing them with the apostolate of friendship. Creating lay associations to educate the uneducated.  Finding a Catholic academy that espouses traditional devotions and adheres to Church teaching and supporting it.  From teaching our children the simplest of Latin prayers to practicing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, there is always a chance for continuity to perdure in light of rupture. What we do in reference to our faith should always be an opportunity to grow in virtue. 


Continuity consists in studying the faith, understanding it, and living it.  Fides quaerens intellectum – an obligation for all Catholics, can be as easy as sitting down with an old Baltimore Catechism or as challenging as reading encyclicals and other church documents thematically, searching for patterns of development and consistency in doctrine.  (To facilitate the latter, we have our own little Catholic association (RCP) so that we can garner and give support to those who are advancing Catholic culture in every walk of life.)  With all the hustle and bustle concerning Young Adult groups and marriage intervention programs in today’s parish life, Catholic associations for the implementation for the hermeneutic of continuity should flourish as restorative elements within each diocese.


In all of this, ultimately, our ecclesial vocations must consider the role of the pope and the bishops in their teaching office.  For Benedict’s hermeneutic to be truly effective and  global in scope, the force by which it will be made manifest must reside in the will of each bishop in communion with Peter.  Over this, we have little control.  However, as laymen, we can certainly live the pope’s principles in our lives to show the world the truth about Catholicism, taking into consideration one’s vocation in accord with our rights and duties. (cf. canon 212.)




Benedict has firmly stated that “to defend the true tradition of the Church today means to defend the council.”  Calling into question the hermeneutic of continuity is calling into question the mission of Benedict XVI – his challenge to properly interpret and apply the pastoral program put forth by Vatican II in light of the Tradition of the Church.


So, what are our options?  Pretend Vatican II doesn’t exist?  Wish that it never happened?  Try to be Catholic in spite of Vatican II?  Many choose this route, and it may be possible to create a Catholic ghetto to protect one’s faith by surrounding oneself with only those who are like-minded.  This is something I attempted to do for a certain period of time.  And then I looked around and realized: souls are perishing.


Are we thriving, and helping others back into the barque of Peter, or are we merely surviving, hanging on for dear life?  If we “jump ship” from the strict traditionalist positions (i.e. limbo) to help as many as we can climb back into the ark, are we putting our own spiritual life in peril?  And if so, does that mean that we should just hide ourselves away in the closet of traditionalism and plug our ears so as to not hear the cries of those who desperately need our help?  Can we assume that, hiding away in our closet, we can know the best course for the ship, that we can know more than the captain at the helm?


I ask you, what is the purpose of being rooted in Tradition? A tree has roots so that it may flourish, so that it may bear fruit.  The reality in which we are living is that Vatican II did occur and we must contend with it.  If we have been given the grace of recognizing our roots and being nourished in them, we need to take that grace and use it to bear fruit that will plant even more seeds for the next generations.


Some say Vatican II ought to be relegated to the dunce corner, with hopes that all will be forgotten as modernists die off and true Catholics fill their places.  I think such opinions and praxis to be dishonest and ineffective in meeting the persistent need for prayer and action due as a response to Vatican II.  In the meantime, souls are being lost.


The Holy Father rightly notes, “In our generation the Christian Faith finds itself in a much deeper crisis than at any other time in the past.  In this situation it is no solution to shut our eyes in fear in the face of pressing problems, or to simply pass over them.  If faith is to survive this age, then it must be lived, and above all, lived in this age.” (Emphasis added.)  Today many understandably question the purpose of yet another “interpretation” of Vatican II, as the need for reform and restoration has lingered throughout decades of a pastoral program gone mad.  Yet, in light of his history and work as Cardinal Ratzinger, it is clear that Pope Benedict comprehends the nature and gravity of the current ecclesial crisis, and has proposed his hermeneutic as a tool of hope amidst our deprecating debacle. 


I ask you: what choices do we have?  What paths do we have before us on which we can choose to move forward? We can dismiss his plan as naïve and ineffective, making snide remarks behind his back.  We can distrust him, essentially labeling him as a deceiver who is using this idea of harmonizing Vatican II with the rest of Tradition as a means of leading the flock astray.  Or we can follow his lead as our spiritual father, putting our trust in him and putting into action his hermeneutic. 


  1. This is excellent. Good work.

  2. Thanks, Dale. God bless.

  3. “Who hasn’t at one time questioned the prudence and/or the validity of Vatican II?” Well, me for one. And I’m hardly a ultramontanist.

    The distinction between a hermeneutic of continuity and discontinuity is not a new one. Avery Dulles has been talking about it for decades in various terms (since the 1970s). The whole Communio “school” to which Beneidct XVI belongs is premised upon it, as is the ressourcement movement that contributed so much to the documents of the council itself. I know for sure de Lubac insisted upon it. The 1985 Synod of Bishop’s final report insisted upon it.

    The recommendation here is right on and traditional (although not necessarily traditionalist):

    “First, we need to educate ourselves about the Catholic faith – its dogmas, history and development – to be able to correctly perceive and prudently live according to the Tradition of the Church. Then we must actually dive into the Council documents and spend the extra time looking up the footnotes (those small references at the bottom of the page that make one squint while widely opening up the door to our Catholic patrimony and heritage).”

    I believe if one reads the documents in this manner many of the so-called ambiguities disappear.

    I teach the documents to seminarians every year. It is amazing the epiphanies that occur when the students read the texts themselves for the first time. “The documents say that? That is not what Fr. so-and-so has been saying.”

    The problem is, Fr. so-and-so hasn’t read the documents in forty years, if ever. And when he did he probably did it with a hermeneutic of discontinuity, which was never intended or promoted by the Council itself.

    Are you implying by the fact that you didn’t mention it that the pontificate of John Paul II was marked by an discontinuous interpretation of the Council? It is not like Benedict XVI was the first to implement the Council in an authentic manner. Or do you hold that?

  4. Thanks for the comments, Robert. You are certainly right by saying that the idea of an “hermeneutic of continuity” is not new. Yet, it seems that Pope Benedict’s words in his Dec. 22, 2005 speech are clear about the “difficulties” since the council and his intention to put such an hermeneutic to use as the central theme of his papal program.

    With regards to John Paul II, I was not trying to imply anything. I think the matter of continuity during his pontificate is a mixed bag. While we certainly cannot deny there were many areas of continuity (morality, social teaching), in my opinion actions such as Assisi I & II and other “ecumenical” ventures (i.e., Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration) have no real basis/justification in Vatican II.

    What do you think about John Paul II’s pontificate in light of continuity, in light of the T(t)radition of the Church? I’m sure as a seminary prof., who teaches Vatican II, you have a lot to say. I’d like to learn.

  5. This is why I bought the collections of the VII documents (edited by some Dominican. Austin? I am at work and can’t check). I think one, more intelligent than I, might still find faults with the continuity of the documents, but there are not the “glaring heresies” one expects to find after seeing clown masses and being told that it is all “in the Spirit of Vatican II”.

    Also, and I speak as a layman here, I suspect that a lot of the “ecumenical” stuff was originally aimed at the Orthodox (and a desire for reunion with them is entirely traditional. Many councils have attempted it.) not at the Western schismatics.

    Finally, there are many options for us as regards Vatican II. They think that there is this official list of 21 ecumenical councils in the Pope’s office. Actually, there is no such list. The idea of 20 ecumenical councils was suggested in the 20th century by some scholar (Bellarmine? Again, not sure) It is not a hard and fast rule. The first seven councils are held, unequivocably, to be ecumenical. Since then only Trent and Vatican I would be unquestionably ecumenical, for Catholics anyway. Councils have been held and then declared “incorrect” or not ecumenical later on (there was a council in the 15th century, in Siena I think, that was later disparaged by Rome).

    We are not in a situation that demands we feel one way or another about VII. We simply need to be good catholics, which means the same now as it did fifty years ago. Eventually, the Magisterium will either read the Council in the light of tradition, or reject it as heretical.

  6. 1. Read the Latin text. No translation does them justice.
    2. What makes a council ecumenical is if a pope subsequent to the council affirms that it is. I think Vatican II qualifies.

  7. – What makes a council ecumenical is if a pope subsequent to the council affirms that it is. I think Vatican II qualifies.-

    I have heard this before but where is it actually said? There seem to be many possible criteria for “ecumenicity” (sorry to coin that term). Is there a certain canon or law written somewhere that states this?

  8. Rob, perhaps these will help (see CIC 336-341):

    Can. 337 §1 The College of Bishops exercises its power over the universal Church in solemn form in an Ecumenical Council.

    §2 It exercises this same power by the united action of the Bishops dispersed throughout the world, when this action is as such proclaimed or freely accepted by the Roman Pontiff, so that it becomes a truly collegial act.

    Can. 337 §3 It belongs to the Roman Pontiff to select and promote, according to the needs of the Church, ways in which the College of Bishops can exercise its office in respect of the universal Church in a collegial manner.

    Can. 338 §1 It is the prerogative of the Roman Pontiff alone to summon an Ecumenical Council, to preside over it personally or through others, to transfer, suspend or dissolve the Council, and to approve its decrees.

    §2 It is also the prerogative of the Roman Pontiff to determine the matters to be dealt with in the Council, and to establish the order to be observed. The Fathers of the Council may add other matters to those proposed by the Roman Pontiff, but these must be approved by the Roman Pontiff.

    Can. 341 §1 The decrees of an Ecumenical Council do not oblige unless they are approved by the Roman Pontiff as well as by the Fathers of the Council, confirmed by the Roman Pontiff and promulgated by his direction.

    §2 If they are to have binding force, the same confirmation and promulgation is required for decrees which the College of Bishops issues by truly collegial actions in another manner introduced or freely accepted by the Roman Pontiff.

  9. Peter,


  10. Ut Unum Sint was an encyclical, was it not? And therefore not necessarily infallible in any or all respects. Of course, this applies to pre-Vatican II encyclicals too.

    Always, one looks for continuity and for consensus. Individual popes have their quirks and hobby-horses. We have to look for the continuing themes in the history of the Church and Papacy. That is, Tradition.

    Vatican II documents do contain some surprising things. For example, it is recommended that boys and girls receive the education appropriate to their respective future roles. (Needlepoint for girls?) I don’t notice much emphasis being put on that text by “progressives” for some reason!

  11. Julian, I’m not quite sure what to think about your note on encyclicals and papal hobby-horses; other than the fact that we have to look for tradition and continuity in all things despite papal quirks. Yet, what are we to do when papal quirks are not in line, not in continuity with Tradition? Can you think of any examples of this? I guess there is only so much we can do as laymen.

    Though encyclicals do not necessarily communicate infallible truth, they are authoritative, are they not? And if they are authoritative, what degree of assent is required of the faithful.

    Where does Vatican II address the roles as you put it? I can’t seem to find such in Gravissimum Educationis.

  12. Thank you. I am interested in hermeneutics to Ratzinger and Habermas. With the blessing of God.

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