19 October 2009

Rupture vs. Continuity: reading Vatican Two

Making the rounds in the Catholic blogosphere--the recently published pastor letter by the Most Rev. R Walker Nickless, bishop of Sioux City, "Ecclesia semper reformanda."

The Money Paragraph:

My brothers and sisters, let me say this clearly: The “hermeneutic of discontinuity” is a false interpretation and implementation of the Council and the Catholic Faith. It emphasizes the “engagement with the world” to the exclusion of the deposit of faith. This has wreaked havoc on the Church, systematically dismantling the Catholic Faith to please the world, watering down what is distinctively Catholic, and ironically becoming completely irrelevant and impotent for the mission of the Church in the world. The Church that seeks simply what works or is “useful” in the end becomes useless.

Like people, texts are conceived and born; however, they do not interpret themselves. Readers do. This is how the meaning and application of a text grows into the fullness of its potential. Every text has a compositional history, a record of its conception and birth. How readers come to a text as interpreters is the science and art of hermeneutics.

Pope Benedict XVI has argued that some interpreters of the documents of Vatican Two have used a "hermeneutics of rupture" to read and implement the teachings of the council fathers. Specifically, these interpreters have come to the documents with the pre-conceived notion that the fathers imperfectly inscribed in their texts a spirit of ecclesial revolution, a spirit of radical change and discontinuity with the sacred tradition handed on in all previous ecumenical councils. With these unusual reading glasses perched on their nose, the revolutionaries read the documents and see only the upheaval of tradition, the overthrow of authority, and the tilling of the fertile ground of "starting over again."

Since their hermeneutic is disruptive, any text that appears to affirm or reinforce tradition is read as a failure to inscribe adequately the spirit of revolution that gave birth to the idea of the Council in the later '50's. Since they cannot dismiss these affirmations outright, mentions of tradition or continuity are placed under suspicion and interpreted as merely necessary political concessions to conservative reactionaries and curial stalwarts. Renewal then becomes a matter of reading and implementing the intentions of the Council fathers in light of a vaguely defined, endlessly malleable "spirit of reform." We've tasted the fruits of this hermeneutic and the resulting indigestion still plagues us.

Our Holy Father, Benedict, has called upon all Catholics, especially theologians, to read and interpret the documents of the Council within a "hermeneutic of continuity;" that is, to approach the documents as developments, elaborations, and extensions of the sacred tradition secured in all previously promulgated conciliar documents. This stalls two extremes in the interpretative process: 1) textual fundamentalism and 2) unchecked interpretative license.

Supporters of the "Spirit of Vatican Two" hermeneutic of rupture fear that recent efforts to rehabilitate the documents themselves as the only authoritative source for the council's teachings frequently point to the dangers of textual fundamentalism. They are not wrong. There is a very real danger that relying on the texts themselves will produce a narrow, unwarranted legalism, a kind of juridical straitjacket that suffocates legitimate renewal. However, attempts to move beyond the texts almost always betray the intentions of the Council fathers as expressed in those same texts. Too often appeals to the "Spirit of Vatican Two" are little more than efforts to supplant the Holy Spirit with the zeitgeist, the Spirit of the Age.

As always, the balance is found in the Church. As the magister of the tradition, the Church, especially in the teaching offices of the bishops and the Holy Father, mediates and decides what is and is not consistent with the tradition as we have it. Without the magisterium to set the standards and evaluate both the processes and the products of theological reflection, anything goes and then everything goes. . .straight to Hell. Every reader becomes his/her own private authority, every interpretation takes on the shine of truth. We need only glance at the recent history of the Anglican Communion to witness the disaster such a surrender to ecclesial egalitarianism causes.

Recent efforts by the Holy Father and others to re-establish the authority of the original texts is not about removing the Council from its immediate historical context in order to foster a textual fundamentalism. Rather, the Holy Father and his theological allies are attempting to ensure that the Council documents are read, interpreted, and implemented in the much broader context found in the long history of conciliar teaching. While the "Spirit of Vatican Two" readers would have us limit the interpretative context to the history, philosophy, and theology of the middle-late 20th century, the hermeneutic of continuity demands that we start at the beginning of salvation history and place every document in its proper magisterial context. Sacrosanctum concilium, Lumen Gentium, etc. do not reveal anything new about God or His Church. Nor do they require the Church to radically alter anything about the Truths we know. What they do is elaborate on and develop our understanding of God's Self-revelation found in scripture, creation, and Christ Jesus himself.


  1. I have just finished reading this wonderful pastoral letter and I intend to send the link to all of the bishops in Australia in the hope that they might be as inspired by Bp Nickless' letter as I am.

    There were many "money paragraphs"in this great document. As a teacher who has long lamented the disasterous state of catechesis in my country I agreed totally with the bishop's comments particularly in his stressing the need for adult catechesis so that they can have something to pass on to their children.

    I also liked the way he gently reminded the laity that their task is to evangelise the culture - "sanctify the temporal order."

    Growth is holiness is something I am working on personally and the bishop's closing remark resonated with me. ." God desires each one of us to grow in holiness. Let us abandon all to Divine Providence, knowing that “in reality, holiness consists of only one thing: complete loyalty to God’s will.”

  2. Bravo Bishop Nickless! As an Orthodox Christian there is much in the Second Vatican Council that I can affirm (e.g., liturgy in the vernacular) and which gives me hope for the eventual reconciliation of our two Churches (e.g., the Council's teaching on conciliar nature of the Church and the balance between the Office of Peter in the midst of the bishops). There are also teaching that challenge me (e.g., the identification of the Church with the joys, hopes and struggles of all humanity in Gadium et Spes and the irenic approach to ecumenicism).

    I think I can speak for many Orthodox Christians when I say that those who read the council as a rupture with the Catholic tradition do nothing to encourage Orthodox Christians to a good view of the Catholic Church. Indeed, as "hermeneutic of discontinuity" has taken hold among some Catholics I think I (and many Orthodox Christians) have been saddened. As one Orthodox priest told me, "I don't understand. The Rome Church has this beautiful tradition that they insist on dragging through the mud." This lack of appreciation for your own among some Catholics scandalizes Orthodox Christians and cause us to wonder, if they treat their own tradition with contempt, how will the treat outs? More than one Orthodox Christian has told me, that reconciliation with the Catholic Church would harm the Orthodox Church--we don't want to see our tradition undermined.

    So thank God for Bishop Nickless and Pope Benedict XVI and all those who argue for the hermeneutics of continuity! It is only by our two Churches being ourselves that we can hope to heal the schism. Let us show each other (to borrow from Victoria) how we foster a life of holiness in our respective faithful. Reconciliation between us requires above all else saints in each tradition that can recognize saints in the other tradition.

    In Christ,


  3. Bishop Nickless is to be commended. I can just imagine all the conniption fits the editorial staff at the National Catholic Distorter are having over this. McBrien's attempt to deconstruct this is on its way in a couple weeks, to be sure.

  4. I intend to send the link to all of the bishops in Australia in the hope that they might be as inspired by Bp Nickless' letter as I am.

    I daresay Cardinal Pell's there already...

  5. Wow. Is it just the imaginings of this overwrought mid-1950's catholic son, or is that a long awaited and refreshing breeze that's just started to blow more noticeably through God's House!

    Thank you Bishop Nickless; you've learned well from your former superior, Archbishop Chaput. The small handful of truly faithful Bishops is slowly, yet steadily, growing.

    Thanks be to God. Let's keep praying that the Victory of Fatima will soon be fully realized in this darkened world.