Vatican II: A Hermeneutic of Continuity or Reform?

Cardinal Kurt Koch who is the President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity recently gave an interview in which he remarked that Pope Benedict prefers to call his approach to the Second Vatican Council not a “hermeneutic of continuity” but a “hermeneutic of reform.”

The expression using the word “continuity” rather than “reform” is actually found in Benedict XVI’s Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis of 2007, a document which is focused on liturgical issues and Eucharistic theology.  However footnote 6 of the document refers readers back to Pope Benedict’s 2005 Christmas message to the curia in which he used the expression “hermeneutics of reform.”

“Reform” connotes a development that improves upon the status quo and “continuity” carries the nuance of a particular non-revolutionary style of reform such as that found in John Henry Newman’s Essay on the Development of Doctrine in which Newman offered seven criteria by which developments could be judged to be either consistent or inconsistent with an earlier tradition.

Whether one speaks of “Continuity” or “Reform” both notions are quite different from “Revolution” or “Rupture.”

Cardinal Koch noted that both traditionalists and progressives see the Council as a decisive break (or one might say rupture) from the pre-Conciliar tradition.

At a conference in Cambridge in 1979 Karl Rahner drew an analogy between the Christian community before and after the Council of Jerusalem (circa 49AD) and Catholicism before and after Vatican II.  He used the language of a ‘decisive break’ to describe the two transitions, and went so far as to assert that the break experienced after the Council was of such a magnitude that the only possible comparison is with the transition from Jewish to Gentile Christianity at the Council of Jerusalem.  He added that such transitions “happen for the most part and in the final analysis, unreflectively; they are not first planned out theologically and then put into effect.”

Pope Benedict’s preferred option of a “hermeneutic of reform” is much more difficult to market than a hermeneutic of rupture or decisive break.  It begs the question of what needed to be reformed?  An answer to that question in turn requires an analysis of each of the Conciliar documents for an assessment of how they both appropriate and reform elements of the dominant pre-Conciliar theological framework.

One of the many areas which underwent a much-needed reform was that of the understanding of marriage and family life.  This was in no small measure due to the interventions of the young Bishop Wojtyła from Cracow.  He understood that the Church needed to develop a theology of marriage that went beyond the formulae of the scholastic marriage manuals that were widely used before the Second Vatican Council.  He wanted to inject some of the insights from personalist philosophy into the Church’s teaching in this area.  In other words, he wanted to draw into the Church’s theology of marriage ideas that are now presented to the world under the label of “Lublin Thomism.”

Lublin Thomism represented a development of the Thomist tradition with reference to themes in early twentieth century existentialist philosophy which so appealed to the generations who experienced the first and second world wars and the depression of the 1930s.  For these generations it was important to offer an account of the human person that affirmed the reality of human freedom against the various deterministic ideologies that were powerful at that time.  For example, Marxists believed in class determinism, Fascists believed in race determinism, and Sigmund Freud and his followers believed that much of human behaviour could be explained as the effect of sexual desires.

Bishop Wojtyła’s interventions at Vatican II were followed up by the publication of Love and Responsibility and eventually, in the early years of his pontificate, his Wednesday audience Catechesis on Human Love.  Importing the language of personalism the young Karol Wojtyła spoke of love as a gift of the self, of spousal love as the paradigmatic gift of the self, and of the Trinity as the archetype of such a gift.  These works were all light years away from the reduction of the sacrament of marriage to talk about rights, duties and ends.

The reform Wojtyła initiated at the Council has been developed even further by Cardinals Scola and Ouellet in works such as Scola’s The Nuptial Mystery and Ouellet’s Divine Likeness: Towards a Trinitarian Anthropology of the Family.  As a generalization one might say that the reform led to a greater emphasis upon the communion of the couple and the ways in which their mutual self-giving can lead to their sanctification.  In the words of Cardinal Ouellet:

The hour of conjugal and family spirituality is therefore the hour of the transcendence of the self into the image of the Trinity, the hour of becoming a house of God, a home of the Most High, an icon of the Trinity, memory and prophecy of the wonders of salvation history.

It is this nuptial mystery theology that now forms the basis of a belated Catholic engagement with the ideology of the “New Left.”

The term “New Left” arose in the 1960s when a new generation of Marxist intellectuals took over the humanities faculties of universities.  They were more interested in gender politics than worker’s rights and they tended to concur with Friedrich Nietzsche’s judgment that Christianity had killed eros.

Given the influence of the Jansenist heresy (especially the idea that holy people go into religious life and the spiritually defective get married as a remedy for concupiscence), Nietzsche did have a point.  He may have been wide of the mark but he had nonetheless identified a problem.

In one of his pre-papal essays Joseph Ratzinger acknowledged the influence of Jansenism.  He noted that French psychologists had coined the expression maladie catholique to describe a “special neurosis that is the product of a warped pedagogy so exclusively concentrated on the fourth and sixth commandments that the resultant complex with regard to authority and purity renders the individual incapable of free self-development.”

The neurosis may not have been named in the Conciliar documents but the theology of the Council, both in the area of the sacramentality of marriage, expressed in Gaudium et spes, and in the area of ecclesiology, expressed in Lumen Gentium, was the ‘reform’ required to address it.   In 1968 Paul VI wrote:

Marriage, then, is far from being the effect of chance or the result of the blind evolution of natural forces. It is in reality the wise and provident institution of God the Creator, whose purpose was to effect in man His loving design. As a consequence, husband and wife, through that mutual gift of themselves, which is specific and exclusive to them alone, develop that union of two persons in which they perfect one another, cooperating with God in the generation and rearing of new lives.

This “reform” was not however a revolution.  It was in continuity with the best of the previous tradition which had been somewhat occluded in the marriage manuals.  For example, in 1930 Pius XI wrote:

This mutual molding of husband and wife, this determined effort to perfect each other, can in a very real sense, as the Roman Catechism teaches, be said to be the chief reason and purpose of matrimony, provided matrimony be looked at not in the restricted sense as instituted for the proper conception and education of the child, but more widely as the blending of life as a whole and the mutual interchange and sharing thereof.

No doubt there is still much work to do in this area, but the work of reform was at least begun at the Council.

For some the reforms were unsatisfactory because they did not adopt elements from the liberal tradition of moral philosophy.  However there is nothing in the notion of a ‘hermeneutic of reform’ that endorses the idea of correlating the faith to contemporary social practices.  As G. K. Chesterton explained, the Catholic Church is the only thing that stands between the human person and the indignity of being a child of one’s time.

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Professor Tracey Rowland is Dean and Permanent Fellow of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family (Melbourne). She earned her doctorate in philosophy from Cambridge University and her Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome. She is the author of Culture and the Thomist Tradition after Vatican II (2003), Ratzinger’s Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI (2008) and most recently, Benedict XVI: A Guide for the Perplexed (2010).

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