Thursday, June 08, 2006

The Proper Hermeneutics

I find myself in substantial agreement with Tom Kreitzberg at Disputations when he attributes a certain kind of theological sentiment to "the willingness of lay Catholics to study the writings of the Church", but I'm not so sure that I agree with his assessment of the source of the sentiment.

Citing a speech of Pope Benedict XVI to the Roman Curia in which two methods of "reading" the Second Vatican Council are limned, Tom notes that
as Catholics (particularly layfolk) became more adept at arguing from source documents, they became more dependent on source documents for their arguments, which gave rise (or at least vigor) to the whole "my source document is more authoritative than your source document" style of debate. With the Second Vatican Council, you suddenly get a whacking great load of highly authoritative source documents, a fact that in itself makes the 1960s a decade unlike most any other in the history of the Church.
I think, on the one hand, that it is true that one does, indeed, find arguments of this sort going on in certain circles. It has been my experience, however, that most of these circles are confined to the Internet--discussion lists, online forums (fora?), blogs, etc. The participants tend to be college educated folks with an intense interest in the Church. To a certain lesser extent you find some of this sort of activity in the MSM as well, though such venues seem to me to be on the wane in this particular regard.

On the other hand, I find few folks in the pews getting as deeply involved in these sorts of things as do the online participants, and in general the more distinct one's professional life is from academia the less likely is it that one will engage in the sort of polemics that Tom describes. Or at least that is what my own personal experience has been after two decades of living in and around academia in various cities east of the Mississippi.

This leads me to suggest that the problem lies not so much in the allegedly newfangled phenomenon of laymen reading Church documents (the historical record suggests that there have always been plenty of people doing that, though obviously if one searches through certain historical periods when literacy rates were different one can substantiate a variety of hypotheses; but I'm not aware of any other than anecdotal evidence that the proportion is now greater than ever before) but rather in an attitude that is endemic among academics, especially American and Western European ones (this particular phenomenon does not strike me as being much of an issue outside of those regions). The attitude is that of intellectual pride; I am tempted to characterize it as a particularly American one, but really it is an Enlightenment one, an attitude that regards all subjective sentiments as somehow on an equal footing. "Here I stand", we all say, and our subjective conscience--whether or not well-formed--rules the day. Sure it all began with Luther, but nowhere else will you find the extensive explosion of Protestant denominations that you find here in the United States, the World Headquarters of the Democracy of Ideas. Here, if you don't like the way your local church is being run, you just run out and start your own.

The American love affair with freethinking naturally subsidizes this tendency to prop up whatever views one happens antecedently to hold with pseudo-arguments grounded in sophomoric readings of history and theology. Ironically it is by virtue of working in academia myself that I can see that the foundations for this attitude are already in place when students come to college. So perhaps I should not attribute this attitude to those features of the academic lifestyle that collectively tend to make college professors rather tiresome people; it really is something fundamentally part of American life itself, it seems.

In the papal speech that Tom cites we hear of two "readings" of Vatican II, one the Holy Father calls the "hermeneutics of discontinuity and rupture", the other he calls the "hermeneutics of reform". According to the former, Vatican II represents a fundamental break from the past, with the opening windows of aggiornamento representing a chance for us to escape from the fetters of the past that had everyone's mind "checked at the door" for so many centuries. According to the latter, the Council is rather a renewal of the continuity that is the development of the doctrine of the Magisterium that is always one with Our Lord. In the teaching of young people it is easy to see why the hermeneutics of discontinuity and rupture would be the more appealing, at least in this American culture of ours. The young are often attracted to change for its own sake, and there is also a tendencey among some to want to experience the excitement of rebellion and the rejection of what was widely accepted by earlier generations. The hermeneutics of reform are, in a sense, more conservative in nature, and conservatism is not popular among the young or at universities these days, if it ever was.

Which hermeneutics one believes to be the "correct" will be a function of one's attitude towards hermeneutics generally. If one is a devotee of the hermeneutics of discontinuity it is probably because one is already committed to a kind of postmodern rejection of the notion of objective truth. Simili modo those to whom the hermeneutics of reform is attractive will be those folks for whom the Magisterium represents the last vestige of moral and theological realism. Only the former, however, could ever endorse the intellectual egalitarianism that Free Speech Americans have enthroned above the Gospels, and they would think and argue that way whether or not they engaged in more reading and arguing about Church documents.


Jeff said...

This is all very persuasive in a general way. But I think that the preconceptions about heremeneutics tend to run in the opposite direction as well.

There are elements of Vatican Two that seem quite honestly to represent a "new departure" of sorts, a new way of thinking involving new kinds of models. The idea of Religious Freedom as enunciated by the Council and that of Ecumenism are very different ways of thinking and speaking from the magisterial norm that existed before.

There can be a "hermeneutics of stasis", or "integrisme", that can explain away everything that seems like a new departure. People generally have a sort of psychological or conceptual tendency toward Seeking the New or Clinging to the Old which tends to determine their ideas on these matters.

Scott Carson said...

An interesting comment. I suppose I lean rather more towards the "hermeneutics of stasis" myself, though I do agree with you that there are "different ways of thinking" that appear over time. I would maintain that these nevertheless do not amount to different things to teach. Maybe it's a Kuhnian thing.

Jeff said...

I find the "stasis" paradigm very attractive myself. But I've come round to thinking it's a besetting sin or mine, at least in its more absolutistic manifestations.

"Why, you're just changing Ephesus to try and truckle to the Nestorians who have already been condemned!", seems like a perfectly reasonable response in many ways by the Churches of the Levant to Pope Leo and the Chalcedonians. "We'll stick with what's been handed down to us by our Father, Cyril and is the whole Tradition of the Church."

We forget how disorienting it must have been and how much like going back on things well-settled. But whenever I get to feeling particularly hide-bound, I remember Newman looking in his mirror and seeing the reflection of a Monophysite looking back at him.

Mike L said...

You might be interested in my treatise at Pontifications: Development and Negation. If you are, email me at and we'll blog about it.