Discovered! The Hermeneutic of Continuity, Documented

You know the argument: Vatican II was falsely interpreted through a ”hermeneutic of rupture.” Misguided implementation of the Council caused all sorts of mischief and unnecessary upheaval. Now we can undo the damage and get it right by re-reading the Council through a “hermeneutic of continuity,” or as Pope Benedict nuances it, a “hermeneutic of reform within continuity.”

The problem so far has been that the scholarship tends to support the real innovation that took place at Vatican II, in the letter as well as the spirit of the Council. There’s Fr. John O’Malley, for example, in his masterful book What Happened at Vatican II. There’s the “Bologna School” (see this) of Albergio, Melloni, Ruggieri, Dossetti, and the hefty five-volume History of Vatican II edited by Alberigo and Komonchak.

By contrast, the “hermeneutic of continuity,” so far, hasn’t been much more than an editorial – oft-repeated, to be sure.

But now, right from the ambit of the Second Vatican Council, we have solid documentation of what continuity with the great tradition of pre-conciliar Catholicism looks like. Over at Commonweal, Joseph Komonchak has helpfully given us translations of the documents prepared by the preparatory committees and taken up by the Council fathers when they got to Rome. This is Vatican II, right where it started.

You can read four of the documents over at Commonweal or at Fr. Komonchak’s blog. Here’s a taste of what you’ll find, from “On the Christian moral order”:

2. An Absolute Moral Order

The moral order, furthermore, is absolute, that is, it is valid always and everywhere, independently of circumstances, although in various ways and degrees. … The moral order must be said to be absolute also with regard to its fundamental norms, which do not depend on changeable circumstances but radically inhere in God himself, supreme holiness and eternal wisdom; and it establishes the relationships that must necessarily exist both among rational creatures themselves and especially between rational creatures and their Creator. … [D]espite the different aspects which the divine order once had in the earthly paradise, which it now has here on earth in the fallen and redeemed human race, and which it will have finally in heaven, and despite also the various applications of norms in various circumstances of life, the moral order must not be said to be relative in any way, and the Holy Synod rejects any teaching in which its absolute validity is denied either in whole or in any essential part.

6. Errors are rejected

The Sacred Synod … grieves, however, that many people are transgressing the divine law, more from weakness than from wickedness, though rarely without grave guilt. It notes with great horror that errors are being spread everywhere, errors that open the way to perdition and close the gate of salvation. …  Creeping error has many colors and many heads; but the truth which will free us (see Jn 8:32) is one as Christ is one. But the same thing that the Founder of the Church once testified about himself, he can today profess to the Church before the world: “I came in the name of my Father and you do not accept me, yet if another comes in his own name, you will accept him” (Jn 5:43).

Only one problem, near as I can tell. All this is what the Council fathers rejected when they took charge of the Council early on, threw out the preparatory documents, and started over from scratch.  The fathers of Vatican II saw continuity, right there in black and white, and they opted for something else.

The marked difference between the preparatory documents and the final documents as approved by the Council fathers is, I think, a steep hill to climb for those who want to claim that the whole Councl should be interpreted through a “hermeneutic of continuity.” If, that is, the “hermeneutic of continuity” is to be something more than an editorial without scholarly foundation.



  1. Father
    There is too much to read in all of the documents you link to for your readers to take it all in at once. You might be able to describe a little what you understand by continuity and rupture. My understanding is that little or no doctrinal change was adopted (I know that opinions differ here) and so this would seem to be continuity. Equally for others any change at all, in say the liturgy, would be regarded as rupture (I think that this is the SSPX position). So evolutionary reform would, depending on the perspective of the reader, be continuity or rupture.
    Could we have an analysis of what we should understand as rupture, what we should understand as reform and what as continuity?

  2. Peter,

    I read a good answer to this on La Stampa’s Vatican Insider web page. Basically, rupture and event are very close, even indistinguishable in French:

    In the historiographical and theological debate, there is a split between those who favour the term “event” (in Italian “evento”) and those who prefer “rupture” or “occurrence” (in Italian “avvenimento”). Is this just a terminological difference or are these profoundly different interpretations?
    This is a question of subtleties in the Italian language. In my native language, French, for example, we only have one word for this: “évènement”. Having said this, it is true that these terminological differences are not neutral. Those who prefer the word “occurrence” to the word “event” are those who tend to want to diminish the change marked by the Council. I personally believe the Council was an “event”. John Paul II spoke of “an event of grace” for all those who took part in it. We must not forget the testimonies of the Conciliar Fathers. Their experience should be taken into consideration if Vatican II is to be interpreted correctly.

    1. @Jim McKay – comment #2:
      Thank you Jim.
      McKay does not sound French to me but my butcher in Paris was a M. McLeod so why not. Perhaps if all comments were in French people would think more carefully.
      In my Robert rupture has, as definition 3, “Interruption, cessasion brusque, (La rupture des relations diplomatiques)”. This is more dramatic than “évenèment, (2) Ce qui arrive et qui a quelque importance pour l’homme”.

      To me the idea of rupture suggests a radical change: all that has gone before can be ignored as a completely fresh start is made, there is a break from the past. Reform implies modification of what was there at the time and continuity could imply either no change or continuing with the existing line of change.

      I would agree with Fr Sanchez that rejection of the draft documents prepared does not, in itself, tell us anything certain. It could be just finding a different form of expression. Given the way committees work I suspect that the result is usually less elegant.

      You are absolutely right that the words chosen in the discussion are rarely neutral which is why I asked Fr Ruff to offer a view as to what changes we should understand as rupture or reform.

  3. Bravo, Anthony!

    I’ve been reading along with Fr. Komonchak’s posts and documents, but I hadn’t yet put it all together under the aegis of continuity and reform. You’ve nailed it!

  4. Only if the documents were *limited* to the idea of continuity could you conclude that their rejection constitutes a rejection of continuity.

    IOW, if I say “A and B and C” is bad, that doesn’t mean A, B, or C is (necessarily) individually bad.

  5. You’re right Felipe; and not only that, but it would seem that some of the themes from the “rejected” documents weren’t really rejected because they were ultimately taken up in the final documents approved by the Council. Furthermore, it would seem that the desire to address modern man in his style of communication could have been a deciding factor. Also, any predatory documents put together by a committee generally undergo many revisions in meetings like this. Suffice it to say that the rejection of the first documents doesn’t necessarily mean that it was an intended rupture with the past.

    1. @Fr. Allan J. McDonald – comment #7:
      I think the hermeneutic of continuity is vastly overrated as a virtue in many realms treating religion, not the least being moments of conversion, renewal, and metanoia.

      As for its surfacing in this generation as a badge of level-headed conservatorship, it’s not always difficult to discern it as run-of-the-mill post-conciliar hermeneutic of obstruction dressed in the same ol’ chasubles.

    2. STRAW MAN ALERT! Cardinal Dulles writes:
      “Some propounded the hermeneutical principle that where there are ambiguities in the council documents, these should always be resolved in favor of discontinuity. Others used the device of preferring to follow the “spirit of Vatican II” at the expense of the letter.”
      1. I don’t know of anyone who said we should prefer novelty or discontinuity for its own sake, or that the principle was that in cases of doubt, go for discontinuity – just for the fun of it, as it were. Rather, the spirit of the council made possible a re-examination of everything, and innovations/discontinuities came to be advocated because it seemed like the best thing in substance, not just because it’s different.
      2. I don’t know of anyone who opposed the spirit and the letter of the Council and opted for the former. Rather, and here I think of the careful scholarly work of Fr. John O’Malley SJ, it was the letter itself of the Council, the texts of the Council which showed that a new spirit was at work.

    3. @Fr. Allan J. McDonald – comment #7:
      STRAW MAN ALERT! Cardinal Dulles writes:
      “Some propounded the hermeneutical principle that where there are ambiguities in the council documents, these should always be resolved in favor of discontinuity. Others used the device of preferring to follow the ‘spirit of Vatican II’ at the expense of the letter.”
      1. I don’t know of anyone who said we should prefer novelty or discontinuity for its own sake, or that the principle was that in cases of doubt, go for discontinuity – just for the fun of it, as it were. Rather, the spirit of the council made possible a re-examination of everything, and innovations/discontinuities came to be advocated because it seemed like the best thing in substance, not just because it’s different.
      2. I don’t know of anyone who opposed the spirit and the letter of the Council and opted for the former. Rather, and here I think of the careful scholarly work of Fr. John O’Malley SJ, it was the letter itself of the Council, the texts of the Council, which showed that a new spirit was at work.

      1. @Anthony Ruff, OSB – comment #10:
        In line with what Deacon Fritz writes, Cardinal Dulles toward the end of his brilliant piece that I link writes, “The artful blending of majority and minority perspectives in the council documents should have forestalled the unilateral interpretations. There is no reason today why Vatican II should be a bone of contention among Catholics.”
        Now surely that’s not a straw man or is it?

      2. @Anthony Ruff, OSB – comment #10:
        I doubt too, that anything anyone did in the post-conciliar Church, in continuity or out of continuity, was done to intentionally destroy the Church, her faith or practices, although one does have to wonder if there weren’t many working in the “spirit” of what they perceived to be the Council wanted to destroy the pre-Vatican II dimension of the Church as though these were now evil. Of course anyone who lived in the aftermath of the Council well into the late 70’s and early 80’s knows that the worst insult that could be hurled against anyone, especially in a seminary setting or religious formation session, was the epitaph “you are so pre-Vatican II” as though that could be an insult.
        But I guess another way to say what you posit about advocating innovations/discontinuities was “because it seemed like the best thing in substance, not just because it’s different” is “the way to hell is paved with good intentions.”

    4. @Fr. Allan J. McDonald – comment #7:
      Have posted the response by Rev. Ladislas Orsy, SJ to this Dulles article. Again, you pick and choose….Dulles and Orsy had a number of America articles/themes – responses, etc. published.
      Simply, Orsy describes this article as non-professional; doesn’t hold up to the research requirements and documentation that peer reviewed and professional studies insist upon. His conclusion is that it is an *opinion* piece masquerading as scholarship.
      Interesting – your earlier comment disparaged theologians – exactly what or who was Dulles? A theologian? (let’s face it – his cardinalate was an honoray gesture – yes, well earned)
      Here is another opinion piece about Dulles after the year 2000:

      Your loyalty to the papacy is admirable but Vatican II laid out a more developed concept of Church and as Fr. Komonchak repeatedly says – the church is more than just the curial/papl heirarchy. Also, theologians are part of the magisterium (currectly understood). You use *magisterium* in the narrow, institutional *power or office* definitions.

      This is amplified by Yves Congar:

      “This means that no one should claim a monopoly on the truth or consider his own view to exhaust the matter under discussion. Some forty years ago, a year before Vatican II opened, Yves Congar gave a lecture with a similar title to mine tonight: “Diversity and Divisions.” Toward the end, he spoke of what he called “a law of communion,” whose implications he then spelled out:
      Although external authority has a place within it, the church is a society not by coercion but by communion: communion of the members in the same objects of faith and love, communion of the members with one another.
      The great requirement of this communion is openness, a readiness to welcome, to give, and to exchange. Individuals, groups, peoples, we distinguish ourselves by ways of thinking that are different, perhaps even in certain respects opposed.

  6. I’m wondering if we’re not taking seriously enough the meaning of “hermeneutic” as the set of presuppositions/prejudices that one brings to the reading of the text. As such, I am not sure that an appeal to the text can really determine what our hermeneutic should be.

    Of course, the text is not infinitely maleable and it clearly ought to influence what we consider an appropriate hermeneutic. If I bring a culinary hermeneutic to the Conciliar documents I’m still not going to be able to turn Dignitatis Humanae into a recipe for cherry pie. But this seems to me somewhat different from the decision to privilege elements in the text that are new over those that repeat past teachings, or vice versa. Here, the text is rich enough and the the motivations determining the particular hermeneutical bias complex enough that I don’t think you can simply point to the text (or even an array of texts) and say, “See, your hermeneutical privileging of dis/continuity is clearly wrong” in the way that you might point to the text and say, “See, your culinary hermeneutic is clearly wrong.”

    What does seem obvious to me is that there are elements both of continuity and of discontinuity in the Conciliar texts. What does not seem obvious to me is why those who privilege the former over the latter — or vice versa — feel the need to excommunicate the other approach. Why can’t the “continuists” and the “discontinuists” simply recognize that the catholicity of the Church, not to mention the hermeneutical indeterminacy of all texts, can accommodate both sides?

  7. Father, maybe I’m off base, but I think you are not getting to the bottom of the real question here: not “continuity” or “rupture” of Vatican II in particular, but rather the nature of ecumenical councils in general. Can we really look at Vatican II alone here, or should we look at it in the scope of all councils before?

    Do we expect a radical change when a council is called? Should we?

    Also, do councils change the manner in which the faith is presented, or the faith itself? How much can presentation change without affecting the deposit of faith? Is this where the promise of the Holy Spirit always being with the Church comes in?

    1. @Bruce Ludwick, Jr. – comment #13:
      I think you’re either begging the question, or else asking the main question again. I don’t mean to read into it, but the way you frame the question sounds like you’re suggesting a ground rule (not sure where you got it from) that ecumenical councils do not introduce big changes, that never happened before V2, so ergo Vatican II didn’t do that either. If that’s what you’re suggesting, I think the fact of the text of Vatican II suggests otherwise.

      The Holy Spirit is always with the Church. But that doesn’t mean sometimes less than others, it doesn’t mean that there couldn’t have been massive failures in church history, even with the HS’s present, and that doesn’t mean that we can’t make a big jump sometimes in being led by the Spirit to a new way of doing things.

      I don’t think it works to say that the faith is one thing, how it is presented is another. I know that John XXIII said that – but Cardinal George has rightly questioned it. As I think you’re suggesting, the manner of presentation affects the thing presented. Which is to say, the deposit of faith isn’t an unchanging and unchangeable mass like the gold in Fort Knox.


      1. @Anthony Ruff, OSB – comment #16:
        Good: I thought it would be helpful to frame the viewpoint of the person asking the question.

        Trent introduced some very big changes, of course. I am nervous that we are often looking at Vatican II with myopia, the “supercouncil” view, if you will. I think it’s important to look at the nature of the big changes in every council, and then weigh things in the balance and see what is lacking…or not.

      2. @Bruce Ludwick, Jr. – comment #18:
        I would view Vatican II as moving forward on work that Trent did not complete. Trent foresaw vernacular as a need (it was even implemented temporarily in central Europe) and frequent communion as a goal (we had to wait until Pius X picked up that thread from Trent) and Vatican II then began to develop from there: once the emphasis moves from the juridical-cultic dimension of liturgy that was too long a focus to the sacramental-sanctification-theosis dimension of liturgy, it was likely there would be significant shifts of emphasis in the ritual itself.

  8. I am a big fan of “Still Interpreting Vatican II: Some Hermeneutical Principles” by Ormond Rush – he out and out owns that there were some instances of discontinuity, distinguishing between micro-ruptures and macro-ruptures.
    Instead of taking the documentarian view of the Church – an ongoing system of doctrines, laws, etc. – an organic view – that we are a Body, whose animating principle is the Holy Spirit – allows for the possibility of things being rejected, with new growth. Like all bodies, sometimes thing die and need to be sloughed off, sometimes things break and need to be healed or fixed, sometimes new growths aren’t healthy and need to be excised. Veni, Sancte Spiritus!

  9. Count me among those confused as to what this post supposedly proves…

    Strong language = continuity/more nuanced language = discontinuity?

    But saying the same thing in a different/more accessible way IS continuity.

    Or did the council fathers reject the idea of an objective and immutable moral order, divinely ordained? I don’t think so.

    As far as I know, every major council involved a drafting and arguing process. Does the fact that this happened at V2 make this council different?

    A hermeneutic, as Deacon Fritz rightly notes, is a method or system of interpretation – and thus does not need to be justified by the text itself. Hermeneutics tend to be outside logical constructs that inform how we approach a text.
    A hermeneutic of continuity would mean (as I read the Pope’s comments) interpreting the conciliar texts in light of the lived tradition (and continued post-conciliar input) of the Church. Similarly, Catholics are to interpret scripture (a more important document) in light of the Church’s tradition and teachings. This approach seems to contrast with a hermeneutic of textual fundamentalism that often creeps in when we address church documents these days. (at least, as long as such an approach supports whatever case we’re trying to make)

  10. Of course, you are very good at dissent.

    From my mental health work (30 plus years), wonder how you remain fixated on certain, long remembered *abuses* from your seminary days.
    Mental health professionals have a good track record on helping and supporting folks in moving past events that appear to have created negative memories. At PrayTell blog, would wager that you have cited the same 1970s memories over a hundred times and it seems to have left a deep block in your psyche. We know from experience how this can be both debilitating or can skew how one looks at the future.
    The same dynamic is alive and well in our faith – moving past negativity is part of metanoia; we are on a journey together as a pilgrim people and it is painful to watch you struggle over personal history (e.g. pre-VII type name calling) that is long past.

    Also, yes, these are my positions but do try to support using recognized experts, documentation, etc. Sorry, don’t have time or desire for my own blog.

    1. @Bill deHaas – comment #23:
      Bill, back in April when Fr. Allan suggested to Brigid that her “problems with the Church, her hierarchy, her priesthood, her discipline, her canon law and her own problems really need to be hashed out with a confessor and/or spiritual director” (here), Jack R. took offense to it as “completely inappropriate” and having “no place on this blog.” He went on to say:

      “Would you really tolerate it if for example I suggested that Allan’s responses and behavior on this blog have more to do with deep seated psychological problems, and that he would be better off spending his time with a mental health counselor than participating on this blog?”

      It seems you’re doing just that. Can we please avoid these unpleasant remarks in the future?

  11. Massimo Faggioli in True Reform prefers the ecclesiology of Sacrum Concilium (human and divine centered on Christ and liturgy) to the ecclesiology of Lumen Gentium (” a delusional attempt to balance Vatican I with Vatican II”)

    His primary reason is ressourcement, that SC exemplified the finest of going back to the “sources” in the liturgical, biblical, patristic and ecumenical movements that preceded Vatican II.

    1. This intertwined ressourcement in Sacrosanctum Concilium return to the sources of Christianity and return to liturgy as source as “font” is visible at a glance by the balance between biblical quotations (23 footnotes out of 42) fathers of the Church (6 footnotes ../), and canons of the Council of Trent (five footnotes…). The fact that Pius XII decisions on the liturgy are implicitly received in the constitution does not obscure the fact that SC is the most ressourced and least dependent on recent papal teaching for its inner balance and core concepts.

    2. The most radical ressourcment in SC is the option to get back to liturgy as the language in which the Church expresses and communicates within herself and with the world…In other words, the liturgical renewal needs ressourcement but liturgy itself is the main source to which the Church needs to return to understand its essence and mission.

    3. …the liturgical constitution was the only council document that could maintain the framework and the insights of the preparatory schema, on the basis of a pluri-decennial experience of the liturgical movement This was made possible by good working relationships of the liturgical movement with both bishops and curial members.

    4. One of the reasons for the coherence of the theological foundation of SC around resourcement has to found in the fact that one of the major splits in the theological advant garde that made Vatican II possible, i.e. between the “neo-Augustinians” and “neo-Thomist) appeared only later in the unfolding of the council and after Vatican II.

    5. Faggioli appears to relate SC very much to Dei Verbum and gives both priority to Lumen Gentium.

    So a lot of how one interprets Vatican II and continuity depends upon how one connects the dots, e.g. bible, patristics, Augustine, Thomist, Trent, pre-Vatican II movements of ressoucement, papal encyclicals, preparatory work, council deliberations, council documents, post-Counciliar developments.

    Faggioli gives us one very interesting way of doing that, and also illustrates the complexity of the process of interpretation.

  12. I’d throw my hat in with Deacon Bauerschmidt on this one.
    I’m also not at all sure that a hermeneutic can be so easily read out of documents – to be proven or disproven – since a hermeneutic is, at least in part, the lens by which a document is interpreted. In this case there doesn’t seem to be something quite like a ‘plain sense of the words,’ since it is a matter of which part of the whole is receiving greater emphasis.
    I’d also add that the hermeneutic of continuity has a good basis in the continuity of the speaking subject – i.e. the Church – at Vatican II. It seems to be presumed by the documents that the Church speaking is the very same that spoke at Vatican I, Trent, the various Lateran councils, Nicaea I & II, etc. even if the content spoken is not identical.
    That seems like a silly and obvious thing to note, but is quite important when it comes to relations with SSPX (and other post-VII schismatic bodies), who have fully accepted a hermeneutic of rupture. It is just that for them the apparent rupture in doctrine was also break away from the true Church – i.e. that the subject speaking at VII is no longer identical to the subject at previous councils.

  13. Sorry, JP. You have read into my comment, as usual. Will let Jack R. respond rather than you on what he meant and the context with Brigid. There is no comparison between what Allan (an ordained pastor with responsibilities) said to Brigid (overtones of an unequal set up between cleric and lay; male and female, etc.) in tone, attitude, and words. (for those of us who have perused his blog, you understand)

    Never suggested *deep seated psychological problems* – your interpretation. Did remark about his constant use of the same *abuses* every time there is some type of discussion around *hermeneutic* – and suggested that he might want to explore that.

    Never posed the *spend time with MH counselor than participating on this blog* – which is exactly what Allan did say to Brigid. It was dismissive and rude.

    Yes, did take the chance to be *bold* (in your word, unpleasant) and suggest a course of action – others have also made suggestion along these lines but with *crooked lines* – changing the subject; not responding to the question at hand; straw men; ad hominem via personal experience, etc.

    “It seems you’re doing just that” – sorry you took it this way.

  14. Ecclesiastes 12: 9-12

    Not only was the commenter a lover of wisdom, he carefully researched and theorized about many topics.

    The commenter sought to discover understandings that were both truthful and appealing.

    The comments of the wise are like pointed sticks, and their collected comments like firmly fixed nails.

    Let us be {watchful, careful, and observant} children of the word.

    Of the making of many comments there will be no end.

    Reading too many comments wears us out.

    The above is my own spiritual (i.e. interpretative) translation.

    Originally I was just going to quote Verse 12

    But, of course I opened BibleWorks to see what translation (s) I would use.

    And then got interested in the immediate context of the original saying.

    Low and behold, discovered a reasonably decent philosophy of commenting in the preceding verses, at least for myself.

    Perhaps others may find it useful, too.

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