The Hermeneutic of Ambiguity


Over at the Register today, 1P5 contributor Pat Archbold has a thing about “The Hermeneutic of Continuity”:

I used to be a big fan of the “Hermeneutic of Reform in Continuity,” or as commonly shortened, the “hermeneutic of continuity.”  But I think that perhaps its day has passed.

For those unfamiliar, a hermeneutic is a certain way of interpreting a text.  It is a lens, if you will, which allows you to interpret a text beyond just the words on the page.

Pope Benedict XVI famously contrasted “a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture” with “a hermeneutic of reform in continuity.” The Pope criticized “a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture” which views the documents of Vatican II as a break from all that had come before, as if Church teaching was being created anew.  The Pope rejected this interpretation and instead called for a “a hermeneutic of reform in continuity.”  In short, we must view the letter of the documents in light of and in continuity with all the magisterial teaching that came before it.


[T]he common usage of ‘hermeneutic of continuity’ extends its use beyond as just an interpretive lens of the council. Today, it has become a crutch and a cudgel.  It is a crutch in that the hierarchy of the Church no longer feels obligated to clarity in its communications, but regularly unitizes and embraces ambiguity out of laziness or even possibly sometimes with more nefarious motives.  The bottom line is there is no understood obligation on the part of the magisterium to teach and communicate in the clearest and most unambiguous way possible.

Rather, too much communication in recent years has gone beyond mere ambiguity approaching clear contradiction, leaving it up to those few still concerned with continuity to develop a lens suitable to a proper catholic understanding.  If you have to squint, turn your head left 45 degrees, and stand on one foot to view a modern church communication as Catholic, well then you had better do it bub.  In this way, the ‘hermeneutic of continuity’ is a rhetorical cudgel used to beat anyone who dares to notice any discontinuity.

Why is it now our obligation to assume even the most contradictory utterances and writings are in conformity with immutable Catholic teaching but no longer their obligation to clearly demonstrate that continuity?

Folks, this has been bugging me for years. The mental gymnastics and convolutions we have to go through to create a sense of harmony between the Church’s past teachings and those of the present are often a bit to painful to bear.

Pat makes mention of the great and prophetic encyclical of Pope St. Pius X, Pascendi Dominici Gregis. That papal text stands as a warning, published as it was in 1905, for the morass we find ourselves in today. In it, the sainted pope tells us that

If we pass on from the moral to the intellectual causes of Modernism, the first and the chief which presents itself is ignorance. Yes, these very Modernists who seek to be esteemed as Doctors of the Church, who speak so loftily of modern philosophy and show such contempt for scholasticism, have embraced the one with all its false glamour, precisely because their ignorance of the other has left them without the means of being able to recognize confusion of thought and to refute sophistry. Their whole system, containing as it does errors so many and so great, has been born of the union between faith and false philosophy.

Pope Benedict ardently desired to find enough theological spackle to fill in the chasm between the Church that was and the Church that is. And insofar as he was trying to prevent disintegration and disunity, he should be commended for it. But now that we are faced almost every day with some newly inscrutable statement from the Vatican’s highest prelates that invariably launches a tortured missive from some Catholic media outlet or other giving you Ikea-esque directions on how it can be interpreted as orthodoxy (“THINGS! TO KNOW! AND SHARE!”) we need to dial this back a bit.

To put it bluntly, when even an apostolic exhortation contradicts the Gospel (EG. #161), it doesn’t seem outlandish to say that we need a renewed focus on honesty, clarity, and a painstaking attention to accuracy. We need teaching that we don’t have to “interpret” and can instead simply read and understand.

At this moment in the life of the Church, we should all reflect on Christ’s own words:

“Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one.” (Mt. 5:37)

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