Hermeneutic of Reform

In his inaugural address to the curia in Advent 2005, Pope Benedict spoke against reading the Second Vatican Council as though it had made a rupture with the past.

The historical reasons that contributed to a  sense of rupture–it was the sixties, after all–combined with internal reasons. One thinks of the dearth of documents issued before the last months of the Council, while the public was deluged with breathy news dispatches throughout the Council’s course, suggesting revolution.

The Pope Emeritus did not, however, contrast the “hermeneutic of rupture” with a “hermeneutic of continuity,” as is often suggested. Rather, his expression for the authentic interpretation was a “hermeneutic of reform,” by which he meant “continuity and discontinuity on different levels.”

I’m currently reading the first volume of Jesus of Nazareth, and I notice that the Pope Emeritus has used a similar hermeneutic in Biblical studies as well, to interpret the Law of the Old Testament. He writes of the perennial, divine Law, against which all norms must be measured, and the casuistic Law given for a time, to shape the social order. There is continuity and discontinuity, but on different levels, with different purposes.

What is this “reform” all about in the Church? Certainly it is not meant to be the divisive “reforms” that really are revolutionary, factions and schisms and the like.

Maybe reform is the following. Reading and hearing about the lives of the saints in the Liturgy of the Hours or at daily Mass, I’ve heard time and time again about the “reformers” in the Church. It’s almost as though this is a category of saint, like “martyrs” or “apostles” or “virgins.” They often had difficulties in their lives, these “reformers.” They seemed to be always swimming against the tide. But perhaps what was truly going on was a “hermeneutic of reform,” or “continuity and continuity on different levels.” They were able to hold constantly to what truly is of perennial value, while interpreting ephemera for what they are.

10 Replies to “Hermeneutic of Reform”

  1. Hermeneutic of reform – that's fine. The question is : What is to be reformed? The saints you mention launched reforms in their respective religious communities concerning the discipline. It was usually a situation where laxity had set in, and our saint undertook a return to the primitive austerity of the founders, surely, with some practical modifications where necessary. The same did the general and local councils. For example, each session of the council of Trent had, beside dogmatic decree and canons, also a 'decree of reform'. In this respect, all councils, except Vatican I, were 'pastoral' councils. However, the context of Pope Benedict's speech of 22.12.2005 where speaks of such hermeneutic suggests a 'reform' of the Church's doctrine. None of the saints had proposed this so far I know,

  2. Another element often missing from the consideration of reform is that in one's own spiritual life. All the great saint-reformers had a strong sense of personal sin and were cognizant of their own weaknesses.

    In this light reform is a lot stronger and more important than a simple "hermeneutic." It implies a lifelong commitment to the Gospel, to changing one's ways, to be open always to correcting one's path when one hears the voice of the Lord beckoning us somewhere other than where we want to go or where we thought we were being called.

    For the liturgy, it strikes me that reform must engage a deeper invitation not to the priestly/professional classes of clergy, musicians, sacristans, lectors, artists, etc., but a more evangelical spirit to draw people in and inspire the "amazement" JP2 spoke of in his encyclical letter Ecclesia de Eucharistia.

    The amazement is to be found not in the peripherals so much, but perhaps in the way people treat one another, under the inspiration of the Eucharist.

    This is the main reason why I find myself losing patience with the whole continuity/discontinuity discussion. Continuity, outside of a medium-level pastoral virtue, is not the most important value.


  3. I found when the Holy Mass is celebrated reverently with respect to the Church's tradition and rublrics, faith of the individuals are more deepened. I hope more priests help all the faithful to be familiar with both forms of the Holy Mass, and not to be remaned as half catholics, so we can work towards for the true unity of the Church in the liturgy.

  4. Or, as seems to be a recurring pattern in the land of the hermeneutic of complaint, another misunderstanding.


  5. Continuity, outside of a medium-level pastoral virtue, is not the most important value.

    Except that the discontinuity has been so pronounced in recent years that no less than the Holy Father himself has had to stress it anew.

  6. I don't agree. I think this has been a misdiagnosis. I also believe that discontinuity in the sense of needed reform and conversion is a virtue, not a problem.


  7. I'm confused by your assertion that the discontinuity so evident in recent years is a "misdiagnosis." Is it that the discontinuity that is so obvious to me and so many other Catholics really a product of our collective imagination? Or is it that this discontinuity, while real, is not a problem, but rather a positive sign of "conversion"?

    As if one's two eyes were not enough, I think a book like James Hitchcock's The Recovery of the Sacred, which argues – almost entirely from a (secular) anthropological standpoint – for the radically disruptive nature of the shift in the liturgy following Vatican II, is quite compelling.

    One may be convinced that a radical change needed to be made, but it's hard to deny that the way in which it was made was less than ideal. On these grounds alone it seems that some reparative steps are in order.

  8. I think of recent years being the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI. If you and Dr Hitchcock are talking sixty years, then I see your point. I still don't agree that the post-conciliar discontinuity is a bad thing. Reform was necessary and long overdue.

    Change also represents a significant spiritual challenge to be sure. Are traditionalist Catholics up to it, including Dr Hitchcock? What of the witness of the apostles–Peter who left his nets, Paul who was struck blind before his conversation with the Lord?

    Reform implies disruption. And with so many people in the world disrupted by the changes in modern life, should we Catholics not be one with them, dealing with change, and showing the way? Yearning for simpler, younger days is understandable. But you can't go back. Not even if you're a pope. Nor should a believing disciple want to turn back.


  9. If you read Dr. Hitchcock's book you'll see it has little to do with a fuzzy nostalgia for "simpler days." As I indicated, he uses the findings of religious anthropologists and applies it to the way in which the reforms were implemented and finds it sorely lacking. It has less to do with the content of the reform than with how it was done.

    The whole notion of "going back" is something of a red herring. All but very people I know understand that, even if they wanted to (and most of of them don't), they can't go back anyway. But I have met many people who see that we have lost a great deal that was worth saving in some form or other. They wonder why everything had to go from one extreme to the other – a sense of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. If there was too much emphasis on private devotion, for example, then work to restore the balance. But why the virtual ban on novenas, ridicule of the rosary, and the dismissing Eucharistic adoration? It's OK to admit that sometimes the changes were too much too fast.

    It is a truism to say that all reform involves disruption. It is the degree and nature of this disruption that is under discussion. And it begs the question to point to Peter and Paul as models of conversion for the Church at large at a particular time. One could point to other saints who turned to the Lord in much less "disruptive," yet equally radical ways.

    You say it's understandable to yearn for simpler days; it's equally understandable to yearn for revolutionary, radical disruption, even when it is not called for. Impatience and high-handedness can be as bad, or worse, than nostalgia.

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