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Errantry: Novak's Journal
...Words to cast/My feelings into sculpted thoughts/To make some wisdom last
Theological Notebook: NCR Article on Supposed Hermeneutics "of Discontinuity" and "of Renewal" 
2nd-Mar-2010 10:14 pm
Vatican/St. Peter's
While I find it sometimes trying to read the Catholic journals, both "left" and "right," that take those political and cultural poles dogmatically, I do see articles here and there that I think hit the facts straight-on and not just as a result of their political commitments. Such is more the case with this National Catholic Reporter article, which highlights a point I've made or noted elsewhere: that this new argument or supposed polarity between a "hermeneutics of discontinuity" or a "hermeneutics of reform" is more a rallying cry for engaging in inflammatory denunciation of others with whom some disagree than being a serious pair of categories committed to accurate and truthful historical description.

The sad irony of the whole thing is that for those denouncing a "hermeneutics of discontinuity" regarding the Second Vatican Council, these categories are just that: a hermeneutics of discontinuity with the self-articulation of the bishops of the Council. Retroactively gagging a generation of bishops and theologians seems to me hardly a constructive or faithful approach to continuing interpretation of the Council, even as we acknowledge that the generation of the Council are not the only generation with a duty to engage in such interpretation.

The new spin on Vatican II

Article Details: Dividing people into hermeneutic camps has become a favorite tactic of conservative commentators and some bishops, especially those who most want to downplay the idea that the council altered the teaching or attitude of the church in any significant way. Others, however, see the categories as artificial and overstated, attempts at marginalizing as extreme anyone convinced that Vatican II ushered in important changes.

Editor’s note: This is the second part of a series exploring the long-standing "liturgy wars" and how they shape today’s understanding of the Second Vatican Council.

Not too long ago, when bishops spoke about the Second Vatican Council, the language you’d hear would often include words like people of God, dialogue and collegiality.

That was then. Now, if a bishop speaks of that council, which involved the world’s bishops in meetings spanning the years 1962 through 1965, another word -- hermeneutics -- will likely dominate the discussion. It’s an unwieldy term that traditionally was used in college-level classrooms and referred to principles of interpretation, particularly in matters of scripture.

When it comes to Vatican II, however, the term has come to mean how one interprets that event and it is usually modified by phrases that have become a sound-bite way of separating Catholics into two general camps:
Hermeneutic of discontinuity (sometimes referred to as the hermeneutic of rupture) is used to refer to those who think the council represented a distinct change from the past, and is used often to disparage those who speak of a pre-Vatican II and post-Vatican II church.

Hermeneutic of continuity or renewal refers to those who would hold that very little actually changed at Vatican II, that it was a “reaffirmation” of all that went before only cast in new language so as to be understandable to the modern era.
Dividing people into hermeneutic camps has become a favorite tactic of conservative commentators and some bishops, especially those who most want to downplay the idea that the council altered the teaching or attitude of the church in any significant way. Others, however, see the categories as artificial and overstated, attempts at marginalizing as extreme anyone convinced that Vatican II ushered in important changes.

Talking points

Whatever one’s point of view, “hermeneutics” has taken on a life equivalent to campaign talking points. The categories provide a coherent, easy-to-understand critique of what has become a standard perception of the council. Hermeneutics is echoing around the Catholic landscape and is being used to package ideas ranging from the investigation of religious orders to alterations in the liturgy.

The term played large at a meeting in September of last year at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass., a gathering said to have been influential in the decision of Cardinal Franc Rodé to initiate an investigation of women religious in the United States. At that gathering, Bishop Robert C. Morlino of Madison, Wis., spoke of the “discontinuity hermeneutic” and “the language of rupture.”

He was responding to a talk by Rodé about religious formation and education.

“The language that many people have learned -- it is clear from today that most of you resisted learning it, and I resisted learning it -- but the language that many people have learned is the language of the discontinuity hermeneutic, the language of the rupture, between pre-Vatican II and post-Vatican II,” Morlino said. “Many if not most of our people have learned the language of the discontinuity hermeneutic. And in order to learn the language that Pope John Paul the Great and Pope Benedict are trying to teach us they have to unlearn the language that they learned.”

In an October pastoral letter on the “future of the church in the diocese of Sioux City, Iowa,” Bishop R. Walker Nickless picked from the text of Pope John XXIII’s speech opening the council, a few lines that might be seen as undergirding the hermeneutics-of-continuity point of view. “In opening the council, Blessed John stated that the ‘greatest concern of the ecumenical council’ was twofold: ‘that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be [both] guarded and taught more efficaciously,’ ” wrote Nickless. “Later in the speech he elaborated on this: ‘The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another.’ ” For Nickless, that means that the teachings of the church “must be loved and guarded, yet brought forth and taught in a way understandable to the modern world.”

A few paragraphs later, he cites a 2005 speech by Pope Benedict XVI to the Roman curia in which the pope states that a large part of the difficulty in implementing the council stems from the fact “that two contrary hermeneutics came face-to-face and quarreled with each other. One caused confusion, the other, silently but more and more visibly, bore and is bearing fruit.”

The “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture,” said Benedict, “has frequently availed itself of the sympathies of the mass media, and also one trend of modern theology.” The alternative is hermeneutic of reform, which he also describes as the hermeneutic “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.”

Shortly after that passage, Nickless declares: “The so-called ‘spirit’ of the council has no authoritative interpretation. It is a ghost or demon that must be exorcised if we are to proceed with the Lord’s work.”

A third hermeneutic

The matter of language is not insignificant, as Jesuit historian Fr. John W. O’Malley draws out at some length in his essay for the 2007 book Vatican II: Did Anything Happen? O’Malley argues, first, that it would hardly be exceptional for a council to be “discontinuous” or distinctive from past councils. Perhaps the only thing common to councils prior to Vatican II, he says, is that they were all assemblies of bishops “that have made authoritative decisions binding on the whole church. Other than that they differ considerably among themselves” and were “to a greater or lesser degree discontinuous with one another.”

What made Vatican II especially different from all councils that preceded it, writes O’Malley, is the language used, a language so distinctive that it requires “a new hermeneutic ... that takes serious account of the discontinuity, thus putting the council’s continuity in perspective.” For lack of a sound-bite name, one might just call O’Malley’s version the third hermeneutic.

Further, he says, the “characteristic style of discourse” of prior councils comprised “two basic elements” -- the canon, or law, formulated to impose a punishment, and the vocabulary appropriate to that genre. It uses “power words,” or “words of threat and intimidation, words of surveillance and punishment, words of a superior speaking to inferiors or … to an enemy.” The language is used to define and limit, to make clear who is included and who excluded.

In contrast, Vatican II used “empowerment words,” words of reciprocity and persuasion as different from commands and anathemas. “There is scarcely a page in the council documents on which ‘dialogue’ or its equivalent does not occur. ‘Dialogue’ manifests a radical shift from the prophetic I-say-unto-you style that earlier prevailed and indicates something other than unilateral decision-making.” Such language, writes O’Malley, did not make it into the documents “without a fierce battle.” Things, indeed, were different about Vatican II at a fundamental level. Whether that difference is expressed in a hermeneutic of discontinuity or of renewal is a battle that still rages, along with, in some circles, the original fight over the language itself.

O’Malley’s view, of course, is that of one person. But it is widely seen, if the reviews are to be believed, as an updated and valuable articulation of the segment of the church that believes that the council represented significant change from previous ways of doing church business.

O’Malley’s analysis was important enough in the eyes of those advocating the hermeneutic of continuity to draw considerable attention from conservatives, not least of which was the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus in the October 2008 issue of his magazine, First Things. He disapprovingly termed O’Malley’s book “a 372-page brief for the party of novelty and discontinuity.” He declared at review’s end that the 2008 book Vatican II: Renewal Within Tradition, edited by Matthew L. Lamb and Matthew Levering and offering an opposing view from O’Malley’s, makes “it evident that the hermeneutics of continuity is prevailing, if it has not already definitively prevailed.”

How the scorecard ultimately nets out is probably more complex than the scoring system for Olympic figure skating. Longtime Catholic church observer and former New York Times columnist Peter Steinfels, reviewing the O’Malley book in December 2008, notes that the world’s bishops 50 years ago could have simply “rubberstamped a series of routine texts prepared under Vatican oversight and gone home.”

“How the bishops took charge of the agenda and radically reshaped the outcome is a story of bold confrontations, clashing personalities and behind-the-scenes maneuvers,” he writes. Acknowledging that some, claiming an elusive “spirit of the council,” have used the event to stake claim to changes well beyond any imagined by the council’s participants, Steinfels nonetheless argues that “any effort to shuffle the cards of continuity and discontinuity so as to minimize the profound reorientation wrought by the council borders on the ludicrous.”

If, indeed, a “profound reorientation” occurred because of the council, what does that mean today? And does the talk of a need to relearn language an attempt to return to, for lack of a more nuanced phrase, a pre-Vatican II reality? Morlino’s comments would certainly suggest such a course as would the later words of Rodé, who said in an interview with NCR that Vatican II precipitated “the greatest crisis in church history” (NCR, Oct. 30).

Still seeking resolution

If there is little love in the Vatican these days for the council, experts in liturgy and history still exist who understand how profoundly some things have changed. Benedictine Sr. Mary Collins, a liturgy expert and former prioress, recalled in an interview that it wasn’t long before the council that Pope Pius XII, in his encyclical on liturgy, declared “quite matter-of-factly that the role of the priest is essential and the role of the laity is not essential in the Mass, that it is the priest who effects the sacrifice of the Eucharist.”

In contrast, she noted, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy and the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church that came out of Vatican II articulated a far different ecclesiology, one in which “it is the right and privilege and responsibility of the baptized, who are fully involved in the liturgy of the Eucharist.” The point, she said, was not to downplay the role of clergy, but rather to explain the more integral role of laity in the Eucharist.

“Twenty years out,” she said, “I hope we’re not still arguing about Vatican II. I think the way this gets played out and resolved will make a massive difference in the shape the church takes 50 years from now. This is not a matter of irrelevance to the future of the church, but I would not presume to predict how it sorts itself out.”

The liturgy is at the cutting edge of the debate over the direction of the council and while in the English-speaking world the “continuity hermeneutic” seems to have won the day with new prayer versions that attempt to be one-to-one translations from the Latin, the arguments seem far from resolved.

Fr. Michael Ryan, pastor of St. James Cathedral in Seattle for more than two decades, in December began a campaign to slow down implementation of the new translations of the missal. “For some time I’ve followed the bishops’ debates, read many of the new texts, discussed them with brother priests, and visited about them with Catholics in the pews, and I’ve become aware of how difficult it’s going to be to ‘sell’ ordinary, faithful, good Catholics on the new, Latinized translations of the Missal,” Ryan said in an earlier interview (NCR, Dec. 25).

So far he’s garnered more than 17,000 supporters in an online campaign at whatifwejustsaidwait.org.

In January, Benedictine Fr. Anscar J. Chupungco, director of the Paul VI Institute of Liturgy in the Philippines and former president of the Pontifical Liturgical Institute at Sant’Anselmo in Rome, gave a stinging critique of the “reform of the reform,” a phrase used weeks earlier by none other than the papal master of ceremonies, Msgr. Guido Marini.

In a talk at Australia’s University of Newcastle’s program of liturgical studies, Chupungco responded to Marini’s claim that the Vatican II liturgical reform has “not always in its practical implementation found a timely and happy fulfillment.”

“What are the possible implications of a reform of the postconciliar reform?” Chupungco asked. “What remedy does it offer for a reform that according to some Catholics has gone bad? What agenda does it put forward so that liturgical worship could be more reverent and prayerful?”

The liturgy envisioned by the council, he stated, “was marked by noble simplicity and clarity. It wanted a liturgy that the people could easily follow. In sharp contrast is the attempt to revive, at the expense of active participation, the medieval usage that was espoused by the Tridentine [or pre-Vatican II] rite and to retrieve eagerly the liturgical paraphernalia that had been deposited in museums as historical artifacts.”

Comparing the reforms of Vatican II to a springtime renewal, Chupungco lamented that after more than four decades “the church is now experiencing the cold chill of winter brought about by contrasting ideas of what the liturgy is and how it should be celebrated.” Such tension, he said, “could be a healthy sign that the interest in the liturgy has not abated.” But he cautioned that after the council, “we are not free to propound views” apart from principles established by the council. “There are surely instances of postconciliar implementation that are debatable, but we should be careful to distinguish them from the conciliar principles, especially the full, active participation of all God’s people in the liturgy.”

[Tom Roberts is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is troberts@ncronline.org.]
3rd-Mar-2010 06:55 am (UTC)
That said, I want to kvetch some about this article, mainly because I don't know that I agree that the "third hermeneutic" is really a separate hermeneutic, and moreover the quotes and examples that he offers don't seem fair to conservatives (or whatever you want to call the reform-of-the-reform) at all.

I see that O'Malley argues for both a significant and very positive change in the post-Conciliar Church, but to me, from what I've read and the way he *himself* uses language, he falls right into the "hermeneutic of discontinuity" camp. I've read the first few chapters of his book What Happened at Vatican II?, and I had to put it down, because his view of history and the 19th century Church was so pervaded with rhetoric and his own moral judgments, I couldn't see straight. I don't know enough of the period to judge if he was right, that the Church then really was as nasty and soulless as he made it out to be, but I don't know enough to know if he's wrong, either. I may very well pick it up again, but overall I found his approach disturbing and he failed to gain my trust as an historian, let alone a theologian. His explanation (theory?) of the "spirit" behind the Vatican II-era language was helpful and fit with what I've read elsewhere, but his description of the previous style of Councils and canons as "power words," "words of threat and intimidation, words of surveillance and punishment, words of a superior speaking to inferiors or...to an enemy," frankly, scandalized me (in the New Testament sense of the word). It may be true in a descriptive sense, I don't deny that, but it's pretty clear to me that his use of those words for the official doctrinal "method" of the Church since Nicaea is itself a hermeneutic, and worse, "words to an enemy." And this is exactly what I find myself balking at whenever I read from those on both extremes -- they make an observation, critique, or historical note that I agree with, but they attach a significance to it that, it seems to me, cannot be held in good faith or... with "good manners" by a Catholic who is faithful to the entire history of the Church. I hope you know what I mean by "good manners"; the appropriate Catholic terminology is escaping me, but I mean the basic attitude of good faith, or benefit of the doubt, or obedience, or the basic deportment, and the guarding of the tongue and the prudent use of learning and teaching, which keeps us in the arms of the saints and the Truth at the same time.

It only gets worse, in my opinion, when he starts to quote Fr. Ryan, the pastor of my own Cathedral in Seattle. I read that article by Fr. Ryan when he published it and I was, again, actually scandalized by the language he used about Vatican II. Regardless of whether the Sancrosanctum Consilium even justified the liturgical changes that happened in the post-Conciliar Church, which I seriously doubt, he calls this document a "liberating document," "that great Magna Carta to the [small c] church." I, obviously, didn't live through the Council, but I was just basically stunned at his apparent willful ignorance of the impact of the Council itself and the liturgical reforms in the US throughout the 60s and 70s -- it has never even entered his *wildest dreams* that he would see "the systematic dismantling of the great vision of the council’s decree" but, with a dramatic touch: "I have [seen it]. We Catholics have." He pulls out the old rhetoric and accuses the Congregation of Divine Worship etc. of "raising rubricism to an art form" (gee, I don't know what ritual has to do with art) and sneers at "the endorsement, even encouragement, of the so-called Tridentine Mass."
3rd-Mar-2010 06:57 am (UTC)
I can't get over his next stunningly un-self-aware claim: "It has become painfully clear that the liturgy, the prayer of the people, is being used as a tool—some would even say as a weapon—to advance specific agendas." Regardless of what one thinks about the good or bad aspects of the liturgical changes in the post-Conciliar Church, it escapes me how *anyone* could deny that the liturgy was used as a tool, and even a weapon, for a particular theological agenda. The mere fact of the basically arbitrary (in the sense that it was not organic, not that there weren't reasons behind particular changes) construction of the Novus Ordo is proof that the liturgy itself was being significantly changed and directed towards a particular theology or a particular theology of worship. His cries for "the people" to defend themselves truly makes me sad, not because I either romanticize the Latin Mass or scorn for the Novus Ordo (I don't do either), but because I've heard too many personal stories from Catholics, a good number who left the Church afterwards, of their pain and confusion after the liturgical changes post-Vatican II.

Moreover, reading through Fr. Ryan's reactions to the language of the new NO translation, I was struck both by his apparent lack of appreciation for any poetic value in sacred language at all, and his lack of faith in the intelligence and spiritual depth of parishioners. Sure, some of the new translations are awkward, but even despite my affection for the liturgy that I learned as a would-be convert, I don't think there is any excuse for the stark, simple-minded, and unpoetic language of the current translation. And when Fr. Chupungco described the movement back toward traditional liturgy as: "the attempt to revive, at the expense of active participation, the medieval usage that was espoused by the Tridentine rite and to retrieve eagerly the liturgical paraphernalia that had been deposited in museums as historical artifacts," I.... what am I supposed to say to that? After all the significant theological work done on the meaning of the liturgy and of ritual in the last 50 years, which demonstrates (at least to me) the truly human and absolutely significant character of ritual performance and the role of mystery in language and prayer, not to mention the claim that traditional styles of worship have on Catholics, it truly seems to me that Fr. Ryan, Fr. Chupungco and others are standing across a deep divide from where I am. And I come from an entire childhood and adolescence filled only with the kind of evangelical, "comprehensible," and participatory worship that they so long for. I truly value it, but I know it's not enough, and I know there is a greater capacity in worship itself.
3rd-Mar-2010 06:58 am (UTC)
Why does this author only quote from those who explicitly oppose the "reforms"? I don't mean to misrepresent him, because I do think he, on the whole, manages to refrain from expressing his opinion, but what does this statement really imply? "If there is little love in the Vatican these days for the council, experts in liturgy and history still exist who understand how profoundly some things have changed." I'm no expert on the changing theology of the Church, and I'm sure you could correct me, but it seems very simplistic to characterize "the Vatican," and particularly Pope Benedict, as not understanding "how profoundly" some things changed. The theologians of this generation, as far as I understand, on the whole have been deeply influenced by 20th century ressourcement theology, and theologians like Congar, de Lubac, and whoever else was in that group, I don't really know its boundaries. They don't just understand the significant changes, they live them and are formed by them. Moreover, what I consider to be the loudest Catholic voice on the ground right now is the youthful, orthodox, but thoroughly "Protestantized" JPII generation, who are as comfortable adoring the Blessed Sacrament and reciting the St. Michael prayer after Mass as they are going to evangelical-style youth retreats and attending small group studies of the Theology of the Body. These are the same people who are most willing to both understand and critique Protestant faith and practice. They are emphatically faithful to the Magesterium and to the uniqueness of the Catholic Church, but they simply live in a different devotional world, with a different character and openness, than either the theologians who still write about being "liberated" from the Latin Mass, or the traditionalists that I personally know who have attempted to co-opt all the exclusivist, dogmatic language and attitudes they can possibly find on the SSPX official website. I suppose what I'm trying to say is, I don't think all this rhetoric being thrown around about regressing to the medieval church and or denying the Council, demonstrates a grip on reality. Frankly, it strikes me as being misleading, even purposefully so. Although for all I know, Fr. Ryan and Fr. Chupungco are being wholly sincere, and we really do live in our own little ghettos of perception-as-truth.

I apologize for the extreme length of this reply! I hope my tone isn't too negative or argumentative throughout; although I was disconcerted a bit by the article, I wasn't meaning to direct any of that at you, just at the ideas. I'm thinking aloud, not trying to throw any "words of threat or violence" at anyone. ;)
8th-Mar-2010 06:56 am (UTC)
Court: I know I owe you a big response here, I'm just ... hm... working my way up to it? I know, I know... "survey says: #1 lame response."

I'm just going to preface my thoughts, when I figure them out, by noting that I was actually present with John O'Malley when he delivered "Vatican II: Did Anything Happen?" as an address here at Marquette a few years ago. If you click on my "second vatican council" tag above, and then go back to 2005 and 2006, you can see some of what I jotted down about the historiographical context of his address, the early articulation of this "hermeneutic of discontinuity/hermeneutic of reform" dichotomy as articulated by Cardinal Ruini.

I think that the real point, though, is that I find this contrast to be an artificial one. I know of no real thinkers even on the so-called "liberal" side who pose a "hermeneutic of discontinuity" as absolute as what Ruini warns against. It's a caricature and a straw man. Even a pundit for the Catholic left like my former prof at Notre Dame, Richard McBrien, constantly talks about the new directions of Vatican II in the context of wider Church history and tradition: the ressourcement of partristic and medieval insights into the Church and not just the "traditional church" of the early modern period before Vatican II. My sense of O'Malley is not that he "falls right into the 'hermeneutic of discontinuity' camp" in the absolute sense that those promoting those categories indicate, but that he understands change and reform in the Church to be part of an ongoing fidelity to the whole of the Church's Tradition, and that the judgments he makes about excesses in the generations immediately prior to the Second Vatican Council are not out of a capitulation to modern liberalism, nor are they a hard-and-fast "break" with the patrimony of the Church, but are instead an attempt to be faithful to the full deposit of the faith maintained by the Church, and not just exclusively the early modern Church since Trent or the 19th century (and those eras of the Church's ability to be overly-influence, not by 20th century liberalism, but by their period's powerful tendencies, not least of which might be 19th century Absolutism). O'Malley seemed to me to be far more truly a speaker for a "hermeneutic of reform in continuity" than those on the far more Traditionalist side who are invoking such language for themselves, and who, O'Malley rightly noted, were speaking over-much as though the previous generation's bishops of the Church had not done anything exceptional in the Council.
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