Hermeneutics as Weapon

by Robert McClory

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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.

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.”

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. “And in order to learn the language Pope John Paul the Great and Pope Benedict are trying to teach us they have to unlearn the language that they have learned.”

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.”

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.

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.

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