ASK THE LITURGIST (29) – The hermeneutic of continuity

FEATURED IMAGE: Cardinal Ratzinger with Pope Paul VI.

– Don Enrico Finotti

Recently there has been a growing discussion on the Council and its interpretation. Pope Benedict XVI proposed the motto “reform in continuity,” but the debate continues. I would like to understand more.

The expression used by Benedict XVI in the now famous speech to the Roman Curia of December 22, 2005 is not a novelty with respect to the Magisterium of the post-conciliar Supreme Pontiffs. Indeed, they have always explained that the Second Vatican Council certainly achieved a doctrinal progress and a pastoral reform, but in continuity, that is, in the coherence of an organic development in the context of the perennial Tradition of the Church. Certainly Benedict XVI wanted to re-propose the problem with clarity and determination, distinguishing the two opposing expressions: the hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture or the hermeneutics of reform in the continuity of the single subject-Church. He wants to solicit the overcoming of all extremism, both on the right (traditionalism) which does not recognize the “new” contributions of the Council, and on the left (modernism) which would like a break with the previous Tradition.

Pope Paul VI already expressed himself clearly: “… a false and abusive interpretation of the Council, which would like a break with tradition, even doctrinal, reaching the repudiation of the pre-conciliar Church, and the license to conceive a ‘new’ Church, almost ‘reinvented’ from within, in the constitution, in dogma, in custom, in law” (Paul VI, Address to the Sacred College of June 23, 1972, in Insegnamenti, vol. X (1972), pp. 672-673, our translation).

The hermeneutics of rupture is well described by its proponents: “If we want to summarize, I would thus describe the crux of the contrast that has weighed on the Catholic Church for decades: for Wojtyla and Ratzinger the Vatican II should be seen in the light of the Council of Trent and Vatican I; for us, instead, those two Councils must be read, and relativized, in the light of Vatican II. Therefore, given this divergent angle, the contrasts cannot be eliminated. And in cascade, every day, we see coming from the Roman See norms, decisions, interpretations that, in our opinion, radically conflict with Vatican II.” (Giovanni Franzoni, Report held on September 18, 2011 in a theological Congress in Madrid, in Adista, October 8, 2011).

This hermeneutics of rupture is also assumed, in the opposite sense, by traditionalism: the Council, or at least some parts of its documents, is rejected as it is considered an illegitimate development and extraneous to the previous doctrinal tradition of the Church.

These two extremisms were described with lucid discernment by Paul VI, who repeatedly confirmed their inadequacy: “On the one hand, here are those who, with the pretext of greater fidelity to the Church and the Magisterium, systematically reject the teachings of the Council itself, its application and the reforms that derive from it, its gradual application by the Apostolic See and the Episcopal Conferences, under our authority, wanted by Christ. Discredit is thrown upon the authority of the Church in the name of a Tradition, of which only materially and verbally is attested; the faithful depart from the bonds of obedience to the See of Peter as to their legitimate Bishops; the authority of today is being rejected, in the name of that of yesterday … On the other hand, in the opposite direction as regards ideological position, but equally cause of deep punishment, there are those who, believing erroneously to continue in the line of the Council, yes they are placed in a position of preconceived and at times irreducible criticism of the Church and its institutions.” (Paul VI, Speech on the occasion of the secret Consistory, Monday 24 May 1976, our translation).

It is also good to distinguish the terms “progress” and “reform.” The first could be used in reference to the legitimate development of the doctrine in its substance which is always identical and perennial, the second to the pastoral choices by nature contingent. Nevertheless a complete obedience of faith implies both the acceptance of doctrinal progress and that of pastoral reforms: it is necessary to avoid both the partial or erroneous or selective adherence to the doctrines formally declared in authentic documents (heresy), and the indiscipline towards laws legally codified in accordance with the conciliar decrees (schism). And so here is the need to maintain via media, that which is in conformity with the Magisterium and which guarantees the two inseparable aspects: on the one hand the real and legitimate doctrinal development and the pastoral reform operated by the Second Vatican Council with respect to the previous Councils, and the other hand, the substantial continuity with the dogmatic, liturgical and pastoral Tradition of the only subject-Church, which has never disappeared over the centuries. The composition of the two terms – development and continuity -, understood in due balance, is ultimately guaranteed by the Church’s Magisterium.

(From Il mio e il vostro sacrificio. Il liturgista risponde, 2018©Chorabooks. Translated by Aurelio Porfiri. Used with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved)

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