The Insufficiency of the Hermeneutic of Continuity

The hermeneutic of continuity clearly recognizes the existence of a doctrinal crisis in the Church, but it ultimately fails to provide an adequate, complete solution. Proponents of this position identify the root of the crisis as the manner in which the texts of the Second Vatican Council were interpreted, leading to an implementation that caused rupture with Catholic Tradition. This, they claim, caused many to remain ignorant of the Council’s actual intentions, and the hermeneutic of continuity will help Catholics understand the documents according to their true meaning. The texts themselves they deem to be essentially in conformity with Tradition, but merely misinterpreted, leading to a misguided implementation in the years following the Council.

The formulation of this position in the early 2000s was an encouraging sign for the Church; after several decades of doctrinal complacency, liturgical experimentation, and rampant innovation, the faithful were reminded of the fact that the fundamental content of the deposit of faith cannot be rejected or modified. The role of the magisterium is not to introduce innovation or to invent new doctrines, but to explicate upon and reaffirm past teachings. However, the hermeneutic of continuity raises another question: if the documents have been hitherto misinterpreted and are now being subjected to a “corrected” interpretation, then what should be made of the other post-conciliar magisterial acts which find their basis in the Council?

The hermeneutic, furthermore, appears to be self-refuting. If Vatican II is already in conformity with Tradition, then why should the texts not be able to speak for themselves to this effect, rendering recourse to interpretation unnecessary to begin with? Without a new interpretation according to the hermeneutic of continuity being imposed by an external source, the existing rupture, which bears the signatures of the post-conciliar popes, would continue to exist in objective reality, according to the interpretation already given throughout the past few decades. Rather than defending the Council against those who criticize its documents, the hermeneutic of continuity actually fully vindicates the position of these critics.

Even those who do not believe that the documents of Vatican II cause rupture with Catholic Tradition willingly admit that the texts are ambiguous and, in many cases, poorly worded. This ambiguity, they continue, is precisely why there is a need for a correct interpretation. From a statement like this, the first conclusion that can be drawn is that Vatican II was non-infallible, and that its disputed texts are not binding upon the consciences of the faithful; there is a right to withhold assent insofar as a “correct” interpretation according to the hermeneutic of continuity has not yet been definitively established. One simply cannot be obliged to assent to an ambiguous formulation of ideas before those ideas are properly clarified and interpreted.

The magisterium possesses finality, meaning that it has the final say in telling the faithful what they need to believe to save their souls. Unlike Scripture, which is ambiguous at times, necessitating recourse to an infallible interpreter (the Church), Tradition is objective and not subject to interpretation. The magisterium acts an intermediary which explains the content of Scripture so that it may be understood, but this means that the magisterial statements part of Tradition must be definitive and able to speak for themselves. The fact that the magisterium could not make itself properly understood at an ecumenical council, and that decades later, there are still calls for a proper interpretation, shows that Vatican II fundamentally failed in its finality.

The conclusion that the magisterium could fail is troubling, but the fact that Vatican II was a pastoral council prohibits any consideration on the possibility that it was not valid, as there was simply no solemn exercise of the magisterium. When the documents merely repeat prior teaching, the ordinary magisterium is exercised; when there is ambiguity or innovation, only the non-infallible authentic magisterium is exercised. The Council never intended to define dogma, and it only wanted to make Church teaching understandable to the modern man. It was meant to be a hermeneutic in itself, not needing to be subject to another hermeneutic whatsoever. Thus, the fact that a hermeneutic of continuity had to be proposed several decades after the Council’s conclusion shows that Vatican II failed in its pastoral mission as well.

By criticizing those who have interpreted Vatican II in a heterodox manner, the hermeneutic of continuity actually criticizes many acts of the post-conciliar magisterium as well. It is true that the texts have been subjected to an exaggerated and distorted implementation. The widespread abandonment of Latin and Gregorian chant, for example, was never called for by Sacrosanctum concilium; in fact, such innovations actually contradict the very document often cited to justify them. The primary fault cannot be upon the theologians of heterodox schools, but rather only upon that very authority which oversaw the implementation of Vatican II, which utterly failed to intervene when abuses occurred, and which even directly sanctioned novelties such as the Novus Ordo Missae and the scandalous interfaith gatherings at Assisi.

What this demonstrates is that the ambiguity of Vatican II was a deliberate ambiguity, one which could be easily subverted to promote soul-destroying novelties, while the Council itself can still be defended by appealing to the issue of interpretation. But the magisterium, the only authority competent to interpret the Council, has authorized, often by papal fiat, precisely those actions which are very clear examples of rupture with Tradition. In a sense, an interpretation of Vatican II has already been given, and the post-conciliar magisterium itself has authorized a hermeneutic of rupture for decades. The proposed hermeneutic of continuity indirectly condemns both that same magisterium which implemented the rupture, as well as the deliberate ambiguity of Vatican II itself.

The hermeneutic of continuity thus poses a danger to the magisterium: the more the Council is defended, the more risk there is that the only authority competent to remedy the doctrinal crisis will be discredited. The only way forward, then, is to look at the texts themselves and truly examine whether they are in conformity with Tradition, and to properly understand how much magisterial weight they hold. Up until now, Vatican II has only been “clarified” and “explained” through post-conciliar documents which largely cite the Council and each other; there has been no thorough external comparison with pre-1962 teachings. With this self-referential mentality, no true examination of whether the Council possesses continuity with Tradition can even begin, and the proposed hermeneutic does nothing but maintain this status quo.

Theoretically, a binding interpretation of Vatican II according to the hermeneutic of continuity could be issued to rectify the confusion that exists in the Church today. But due to the pastoral nature of the Council, such a “binding” interpretation simply cannot exist because there would never be semantically stable formulas suitable for every time and place in the future. This instability does nothing to promote continuity and conformity with Tradition, but in fact can only lead to continued rupture and confusion. The pastoral directives of these documents would have to be constantly reread in light of a continuous effort of interpretation, making a binding interpretation absolutely impossible, and the Council would become entirely incapable of conveying any definitive meanings, leading a loss of unity in faith and practice.

Pastoral needs and concerns, unlike semantically stable dogmatic formulations, do change depending upon the circumstances of time and place. Things have changed dramatically after the optimism and enthusiasm of the 1960s came to pass; with other sources to address pastoral issues, hearkening back to a Council which was indeed a product of its time and circumstances seems rather foolish. These documents have long outlived their usefulness, and in fact, the turmoil of the past sixty years demonstrated that these initiatives were never very successful to begin with. Considering this, one really must wonder: is it the so-called “traditional Catholics” who are nostalgic for the past, or are the defenders of the Council really the ones who fit that description?

It is necessary to recognize that the experiment of aggiornamento—the breath of fresh air that quickly became a hurricane—has been a failed experiment, and that holding onto directives issued for an era that has already come to pass only results in stagnation. Truly, it is time to consign the documents of Vatican II to the dustbin of history; until this is done, the Church cannot enter into a new springtime from this desolate winter.