Sunday, August 28, 2011

Hermeneutics Of Discontinuity?

Apparently, a great deal of what was literally written in Vatican II was meant to be taken as a figure of speech.

Robert McClory wrote a very interesting article in the National Catholic Reporter on Friday.  It is most certainly worth reposting here for some of the points he brings up dovetail nicely with what I wrote yesterday about codependency and the strategies used by codependent people to maintain their view of reality.  One of those strategies is redefining the facts of actual reality in such a way so that denial is a more effective strategy in maintaining the fictitious reality from which codependents operate.  Language and communication strategies are critical to the success of this endeavor.  As an example, a codependent will defend the addict/abuser by telling one and all the abuser didn't mean what they said or to do what they did.  Keep this in mind when reading the following article, because the reform of the reformers, even though they hold almost all the power in the Church, still consider themselves victimized by Vatican II.

Hermeneutics as Weapon

- National Catholic Reporter
Beware of hermeneutics! It’s a $25 Greek word, referring to the god Hermes, considered the inventor of language and speech, and it deals with the principles of interpretation used in examining the meaning of texts. In theological and philosophical circles, hermeneutics has a long, relatively polite history as scholars probed the writings of masters and came up with diverse (though not necessarily contradictory) meanings based on their hermeneutic perspective. Picture a formal dissertation with two scholars dissecting from different points of view a proposition (preferably in Latin) from Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, while a more or less rapt audience of students looks on.

That was then, this is now. (Back then the Church was the sole authority on everything.  Not so anymore.)

For hermeneutics as used by growing numbers of the hierarchy has become a blunt instrument insofar as the interpretation of Vatican II is concerned. Pope Benedict really got the ball rolling in his less-than-cheery pre-Christmas speech to the members of the Vatican curia in 2005. A large part of the difficulty in implementing the council, he said, stems from the fact "that two contrary hermeneutics came face-to-face and quarreled with each other." The first is the hermeneutic of reform, which the pope 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."

The second, which he calls "the hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture," is based "on a false concept of the church and hence of the council, as if the former were from man alone and the latter a sort of constituent assembly." This hermeneutic, he said, "has frequently availed itself of the sympathies of the mass media, and is also one trend of modern theology." The false interpretation caused confusion, he explained, while "the other, silently but more and more visibly, bore and is bearing fruit."

This is hardly an invitation to discussion and dialogue. When one hermeneutic is set against another -- the correct vs. the incorrect, the right vs. the wrong, the one based on what "the Lord has given" us vs. the one based on "man alone," there's no possibility of moving ahead. Classic hermeneutecists, I think, would be appalled.

This peculiar dichotomy was further explained in a 2009 speech Cardinal Franc Rode delivered before some 600 clerics and religious at Stonehill College in Massachusetts. He was at the time the prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. His talk was directed specifically at women religious, and it is Rode who initiated the controversial Vatican investigation of U.S. religious orders. "The hermeneutics of rupture has dominated the attempts at renewal of religious life," he said, and much of his talk dealt with how the "aggiornamento," the updating called for by the council, had been overtaken by a "pseudo-aggiornamento," a "naturalism which involved the radical centering of man on himself, the rejection of the supernatural and the supremacy of a climate of radical subjectivism."

The cardinal admitted that the language of the council document on religious life recommended ideas hitherto unheard of in church documents: “adaptation to the demands of the apostolate,” “adjusting their way of life to modern needs,” expressing “poverty in new forms,” in obedience “superiors should gladly listen to their subjects,” “suitable instruction …in the currents and attitudes and thought prevalent in social life today.” But such innovations must be tempered and qualified, said Rode, by other guidelines in the document which stress the more traditional, ascetic, demanding and holier aspects of religious life.

Rode said his remarks applied not only to religious but to all Catholics who have allowed their faith to become distorted by allegiance to the hermeneutic of rupture: “In our day the prevailing climate of agnosticism, relativism and subjectivism is frequently taken as having a normative value that belongs by right to the word of God. We must energetically oppose reformers who contend that the church must abandon her claims to absolute truth, must allow dissent from her own doctrines, and must be governed according to the principles of a liberal democracy.(Shades of Peter and Paul with regards to Jewish ritual law.)

In the final talk at the conference, Robert Morlino, bishop of Madison, Wis., said it’s a matter of teaching Catholics to speak properly. “Many if not most ... have learned the language of the discontinuity hermeneutic," he said.

Indeed, Vatican II did teach a new language, and most Catholics welcomed it. But it has little resemblance to the language Morlino wants us to learn. In his book, What Happened at Vatican II, historian John O’Malley vividly contrasts the pre-Vatican II emphasis on church teaching with the new emphasis the council had introduced. The shift, he said, was “from commands to invitation, from laws to ideals, from definition to mystery, from threats to persuasion, from coercion to conscience, from monologue to dialogue, from ruling to serving, from withdrawn to integrated, from vertical to horizontal, from exclusion to inclusion, from hostility to friendship, from rivalry to partnership, from suspicion to trust …from fault finding to appreciation …from behavior modification to inner appropriation.”  (This last is really hard for codependent control freaks to adapt to because they modified their behavior constantly to live sanely in an insane world.)

Turn that paragraph around, and you will see the direction in which the church as institution is being moved today: from invitations to commands, from persuasion to threats, from conscience to coercion, from trust to suspicion, from inclusion to exclusion, etc. etc. (From personal freedom and inner appropriation to command and control.)

New developments ranging from the excommunication of anyone assisting at a woman’s ordination, to the forced resignation of a bishop who even speaks about the subject, to the exclusion of girl servers in some parishes or dioceses, to a surprise assault by a bishops’ doctrine committee on the book of an eminent theologian, to the suggestion by the executive director of that committee that some theologians today are “a curse and affliction upon the church” -- these are the direct results we can expect from an exaggerated, extremist misuse of a “hermeneutics of continuity” to quash all discussion.

It’s not only discussion that’s getting quashed. In this coordinated campaign from above, it’s Vatican II that is being reduced to a false caricature of itself and its achievements dismissed as aberrations that must be corrected. (Sort of synchronistic that we had the story of Nathaniel this week who stated "No good can come from Nazareth.")


Someone asked me the other day what I considered the hardest part of the spiritual path. I said transcending our childhood because it's in our families and our early cultural experiences where we learn to relate to the worldIf those relational strategies are unhealthy and teach us to overly defend our egos, Jesus' teaching that we must lose our 'selves' to enter the Kingdom becomes much much more difficult.  In our religious relationships, being taught that God is quite willing to toss us aside for having created us fundamentally flawed (original sin) and preprogrammed to sin, does not bode well for a healthy religious relationship.  And when that kind of religious relationship makes us fearful and hyper vigilant,  learning selfless love is pretty much out of the question.  One is too busy defending their ego to let it go.  

I think that's pretty much what the reform of the reform is all about, and why Benedict defined the debates around Vatican II in the terms he did.  It's not about what's in the best interests of Catholics in learning to relate in a healthy way with the Creator.  It's about defending a particular version of institutional ego.  That's too bad because the world could certainly use a Catholic Christian voice generated from a selfless ego.

Here is a link which gives, well, almost a caricature of the 'hermeneutic of continuity'. I suppose that isn't surprising since it is the view of one of Catholicisms more ardent reformer of the reformers--Cardinal George Pell of Australia.  Pell completely ignores that Mass attendance in Australia in under 15%, but he does go on about the 10 postulants to his new Nashville Dominican Convent in Sydney.  This is an example of denial that is very close to delusional given that it's coming from a man who happens to be the titular head the rapidly imploding Australian church.  Don't miss reading this because there are all sorts of jaw dropping statements.


  1. Colleen, this is so insightful and helpful for me. Framing the response of some Catholics to Vatican II--the reform of the reform group--in terms of co-dependency helps me understand some dynamics that seem murky to me.

    First of all, that sense of grievance is rooted in a perception, no matter how wrong-headed (from my point of view) that these folks read as reality. And so that makes their response more understandable for me, even when I can't agree with it.

    And second, when you challenge me to frame things this way, and to think about the applications to family experience and childhood formation, things become even clearer.

    I have struggled frequently with patterns in my family which make me wonder how people can inflict gruesome pain on each other so freely, and not feel guilt or shame.

    I've slowly had to see that they aren't even aware that they're acting in an unjust, cruel, or shameful way, because they have reinterpreted reality (as I see reality) to justify their behavior.

    And they engage in that reinterpretation frequently because they are codependent and their codependent reality is self-reinforcing: like a circle drawn around the little family group that shares perceptions reading reality to suit their codependent needs.

    This is very, very helpful for me.

  2. "Apparently, a great deal of what was literally written in Vatican II was meant to be taken as a figure of speech."

    Unfortunately, the meaning of "literal meaning" is itself ambiguous. What did you mean by "literally written" ? The writing of the text; or, the meaning of the words & concepts, in the contexts expressed by the text, according to the intention of the Council ?

    "Literal" is often used to mean "actual"; or "historically actual" - it's overworked, and made to bear a load of meaning that is far better more precisely by some other phrase or word. The literal sense of a word is also apt to be used to mean (1) the meaning it is given in a dictionary as a lexical item; (2) its proper meaning as compared with its meaning in (1) an extended sense or (2) a figurative sense or (3) an idiomatic sense.

    The "literal meaning" of "literal meaning" is often far from clear, for many reasons.

    As for the Council itself, what one sees in it depends on the angle one sees it from: the disagreement between the Magisterium & many Traditionalists might to a large degree be summarised as a difference over whether V2 is to be judged by the past, or whether the past is to be seen as being judged by V2.

    There is also the question of the relation between Catholicism & Christianity... I don't envy anyone in the Church who has to consider these issues in detail the work of doing so, because the practical effects can be very formidable.

  3. "...and made to bear a load of meaning that is far better more precisely by some other phrase or word" ->

    "...and made to bear a load of meaning that is more precisely conveyed by some other phrase or word".

  4. Rat I wrote that sentence under the cartoon as a kind of pun. You are right though, about the difficulty of mining meaning from words, which is ironically what hermeneutics is about.

    Bill, and usually the circle of reality is drawn with the addictive or codependent authority figure as the both the starting and ending point. In the case of Catholicism we tried to draw our reality around the figure of Jesus with the all the people of God representing the family, but the codependent reality we call the papacy and Vatican curia just could not let that happen.

  5. Addictive (codependent) systems are hard to change as they are created to maintain the status quo. With all due respect, I don't see the church changing unless a crisis so shakes it that it's c arefully built boundaries come tumbling down. Maybe that will result from the pedophile scandal tho' the system is trying very hard to save itself; even to the extent of minimizing its size & influence.

  6. Ratzinger would be well aware of the Hegelian dialectic. From thesis and anti-thesis comes the synthesis. I wonder why he would frame the discussion in that manner, anyone, anyone Buehler?

    The concept of discontinuity is interesting. Businesses plan for discontinuity caused by unpredictable natural disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes, or pandemics. Marketing uses discontinuity as an opportunity for sales. For example if a customer has an experience that causes the re-thinking of a long-term relationship with a supplier one must be ready to take advantage of that momentary discontinuity of perception.

    I think of discontinuity in science, or sociology, or experience of life, as "the day the universe changed".

    Thanks James Burke.

    In the Light of the Above:

    Faith and Reason:



  7. See, I am so understanding of Benedict's discussion of two conflicting hermeneutics.

    You have the Voice of Continuity, which reflects the arc of development within the Church and (more generally) society.

    On the other hand you have the Voice of Discontinuity which refutes that arc and wishes to chart a different course based upon their own interpretation of recent (150-200yr) history.

    The trouble is that the Voice of Continuity is actually the 'reforms' of Vatican 2, following the arc of social justice, primacy of conscience and dignity of personhood which stretches back from the apostolic era, through Francis to the days of Newman and Dorothy Day.

    The Voice of Discontinuity, conversely, wishes to refute this arc of progression and return to older and more exclusive ways.

    Of course, your milage may vary.

  8. I have compared the Roman Church to our local electric utility, which appears to be facing its own End Times. In fact it recently won an "award" for the #1 worst public utility. Their directors immediately went into denial. They did not think they were that bad (they are).
    They blame trees for "90% of outages". In fact, most outages are caused by their poor maintenance. So this summer they mutilated thousands of trees, then saturated the local media with an ad campaign starring their president. He utters soothing words as somebody plays guitar music. It's cold comfort when you have no power for days, but at least during an outage you don't have to look at this fool's face on TV.
    What took the cake: the day before the hurricane, they made robocalls to all their customers, saying that Irene was on her way (we knew) and to expect many days of outage. I cannot imagine any utility guaranteeing failure like that, but they did it. Many, including myself, were horrified to get that call.
    Denial of the problem. Blame the trees. Nothing is our fault. Lower your expectations. Inappropriate actions. Directors in fantasy worlds with their heads up their tailpipes. Co-dependent advisors.
    Excuse me while I pay my Vatican bill!

  9. Trans, the company I work for is also a poster child for the corporate codependency. We have one freaking crisis after another, and now we all wonder if our paychecks will bounce. The only good thing about it is when it literally drives you nuts you have the option of walking down the hall to one of the shrinks and getting meds.

    On the other hand, after this disastrous summer reality might be raising it's head and I'm thinking it might be moving beyond denial. Or that could just be me in denial.