The Hermeneutic of Continuity vs. the Hermeneutic of Suspicion

682px-Papa_BenedettoToday there is a lot of confusion about what Pope Francis wrote yesterday in Amoris Laetitia. I think a lot of it goes back to a principle that was best explained by Benedict XVI in his 2005 Christmas addressed to the Roman Curia, the hermeneutic of continuity. This is the hermeneutic to view all the Church’s teaching throughout the years in a continual sense of growth rather than in divisive and rupturing stages. In 2005, he was applying it specifically to the varied interpretations of Vatican II but I think it applies equally to interpreting Pope Francis. We need to read Francis in the light of tradition, a light that Benedict expressed so well.

Benedict said that the hermeneutic of discontinuity or rupture separates the Church before and after the council. This hermeneutic assumes where the council was going, and claims “the true spirit of the Council is not to be found in these compromises [in the actual documents] but instead in the impulses toward the new that are contained in the texts.” Benedict claims that such a hermeneutic misunderstands the basic nature of the Council. This hermeneutic is ultimately based on a false secular hermeneutic called the hermeneutic of suspicion.

On the other hand, he talks about a hermeneutic of continuity or of reform, which he calls the correct hermeneutic. In explaining this hermeneutic, he quotes several lines from John XXIII given to set down the mission of Vatican II: “to transmit the doctrine, pure and integral, without any attenuation or distortion,” but ” not only to guard this precious treasure, as if we were concerned only with antiquity, but to dedicate ourselves with an earnest will and without fear to that work which our era demands of us.” This hermeneutic sees the entire council in light of previous teachings in accord with them but seeking to reform their expression both in words and in pastoral practice.

If we apply the same hermeneutic to all that Pope Francis has said or done, we see an attempt to reach new people but no change in the doctrine of the Church. Francis has called for certain new emphases in our pastoral mission but has never contradicted the pastoral rules laid out by his predecessors. One clear example is how a great many people on either side have read Francis permitting communion for divorced and civilly married individuals into Amoris Laetitia. The only way you can read it in his with a hermeneutic of suspicion, a hermeneutic of discontinuity. If we read it with a hermeneutic of continuity or reform, we might see a different tone, a point that was skipped over, or some development but we do not see anything against the previous magisterium of the Church. Just like Vatican II, Francis has developed the Church’s ideas in new directions without contradicting the established ideas.

Both Francis-lovers and Francis-haters can tend towards a false hermeneutic: one to say that it’s great that the Church has changed, and the other to say that it’s horrible that the Church has changed. The point of the hermeneutic of continuity is that the Church never makes breaks but slowly reforms and converts herself, heading towards truth, which is not simply an idea but the person of Jesus Christ.

If you want to read it, but are short on time, read the key quotes I drew from the whole document.

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