Dignitatis Humanae: Part Two: The Hermeneutic of Kenosis
“A (true) revolution is a call from a less perfect tradition to a more perfect tradition, a call from a shallower tradition to a deeper tradition, a backing up of tradition, an overtaking of depth, and investigation into deeper sources; in the literal sense of the word, a ‘re-source."
In my last essay on Dignitatis Humanae I noted at the end that there is no way to avoid the fact that the document’s teaching on religious freedom constituted a reversal of recent magisterial teaching on the topic even as it appealed to a deeper and more ancient aspect of the tradition which had been eclipsed and obscured. The central focus of my essay was on the fact, disputed by only a few, that DH grounded its affirmation of religious freedom in a development of doctrine centered upon the concept of human dignity. Many modern popes, beginning with Leo XIII, had developed the Church’s teaching on human dignity by reflecting upon the deeper implications for the Church that a more robust understanding of human dignity entails. Vatican II can thus be viewed as a legitimate development of recent papal teaching as the Council explicitly affirms that human dignity demands freedom in the civil sphere for all religions, and not just Catholicism.
There can be no doubt, however, that such an affirmation constitutes a reversal of the teaching by many earlier popes who had explicitly rejected the notion of religious freedom for all as a dangerous concession to relativism and indifferentism. There are still those conservative hold-outs who continue to insist that DH was making purely prudential and juridical “tweaks” to previous teaching, but such views have to ignore the obvious. Namely, that DH provoked strong opposition from many conciliar bishops, Archbishop Lefebvre among them, precisely because it was very clear to them that DH was indeed overturning a long-standing teaching of the ordinary magisterium of the Church. The theologian Thomas Guarino, in his excellent book on Vatican II (“The Disputed Teachings of Vatican II”), states it as follows:
“… it is precisely this discontinuity that led to ‘vigorous sustained opposition’ to the schema until the very end of the council. The teaching authority of the Catholic Church had not always seen religious freedom as a necessary implication of human dignity. On the contrary, such ‘freedom’ was seen as a concession to error, a concession that inexorably endangered human souls since it relentlessly exposed them to falsehoods of every kind. Ironically, homogenous growth in one area (human dignity) entailed the simultaneous overturning of certain firmly rooted positions (that religious freedom served only the promiscuous spread of error, and that the state was bound to offer unique privileges to the true religion). But if religious freedom … were to be fully supported, then the Church could hardly expect a confessional state that acknowledged the societal kingship of Jesus Christ and provided unique protections for Catholicism. Indeed, the end of the confessional state was a foreseeable by-product of the council’s affirmation of religious freedom.” (p. 196)
In short, the heart and soul of DH contains a teaching that many popes had previously, and quite explicitly, condemned, and many conciliar bishops saw in this fact a grave crisis of authority. The fifth century monk Vincent of Lérins had made a distinction between true and false developments of doctrine wherein true development was viewed as organic and rather homogenous and which he termed a “profectus non permutatio.” By contrast, false development entailed distortions and innovations which he termed a “permutationes fidei.” So the question for the council fathers was really a rather simple one on paper: does the “development” of doctrine in DH constitute a Vincentian “permutation” of the faith or does it embody a perfecting of the faith?
Obviously, since the final schema of DH was passed with only 70 “non placet” votes in dissent, most conciliar bishops saw in DH a true development of doctrine even if it was of a rather peculiar sort. Lumen Gentium had already overturned previous papal teaching on the link between episcopal jurisdiction and consecration (cf. Guarino, p. 193), and so too here in DH do we see the same with regard to religious freedom. Therefore, it is not too far of a stretch to say that the council fathers, in some seminal and noteworthy ways, were embracing a hermeneutic of tradition that was open to using certain aspects of the tradition in order to “correct” others, a fact that did not go unnoticed by the old-guard pit bulls of curial scholasticism. The key here is to view this hermeneutic, not as an open license to a false “permutation” of any kind, but as a retrieval of deeper aspects of the tradition which had been ignored over time and a concomitant reordering of the hierarchy of truths in the doctrinal deposit. Guarino quotes Pope Benedict who nicely summarizes this line of thinking:
“The Second Vatican Council, recognizing and making its own an essential principle of the modern State with the Decree on Religious Freedom, has recovered the deepest patrimony of the Church. By so doing she can be conscious of being in full harmony with the teaching of Jesus himself (cf. Mt 22-21) as well as with the Church of the martyrs of all time … the martyrs of the early Church died for their faith in that God who was revealed in Jesus Christ, and for this very reason they also died for freedom of conscience and the freedom to profess one’s own faith - - a profession which no State can impose but which, instead, can only be claimed with God’s grace in freedom of conscience.” (Benedict XVI, Christmas message, 2005. Quoted in Guarino, p. 194, emphasis added)
Therefore, Pope Benedict, in an article in L’Osservatore Romano, (October 11, 2012) concludes:
“To this extent, it can be said that Christianity, at its birth, brought the principle of religious freedom into the world.” (Again, quoted in Guarino, 194)
Of course, many modern radical traditionalists reject all of this as just a “word salad” of obfuscations and ambiguities and as nothing more than a clever act of magisterial sleight-of-hand in order to mask over the fact that the council taught heresy - - a heresy that all post-conciliar popes are also implicated in. But this is a very flat-footed approach to hermeneutics and is quite frankly a form of cartoonish thinking that is also, ironically, rather modern in its approach since it views Church teaching as little more than dis-incarnate, factoid nuggets of objective truth whose formal structures evince no constitutive, relational, grounding in the Mystery from which they sprang. And one of the chief cartoonists was Archbishop Lefebvre who couldn’t get his mind around the idea that truth is oriented to freedom in equal measure to freedom’s orientation to truth, and that this is a central aspect of God’s Revelation as such in the various covenants. In this regard it is deeply important to ask the question about what kind of “truth” we are dealing with when discussing God’s Revelation, which is precisely why Dei Verbum, as Father Robert Imbelli points out, is the key to the entire Council. Because it simply is not the case that all truth is homogenously of the same genre in all instances. The modern prejudice is to reduce all “real” truth to only those affirmations which are publicly accessible to secular, and especially scientific, reason, and that all such affirmations must at least be attempting the pursuit of some kind of pure Archimedean objectivity, while relegating all other so-called “truths” to the realm of the private and subjective. And it was precisely this dismissal of the peculiarly personalistic, relational, and historically situated nature of Christian truth by modernity that caused a shift in Catholic theology toward an exaggerated emphasis upon Revelation as a collection of equally “certain” objective truths which were put forward as the first principles of a form of theological thinking that proceeded to deduce all manner of other alleged “certainties” from them. Thus did Catholic theology in the manualist tradition become unhinged from spirituality, Mystery, history, subjectivity, and the relational nature of Christian truth. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that the intellectual revolution that Christianity introduces is rooted in the insight that truth is personal - - nay - - is a person (or “persons” in a trinitarian sense). And it was exactly this insight, this revolution, that ressourcement thinkers, and the Council they inspired, sought to recover. And it was this aspect of theology that the manualist tradition ignored, or worse, feared, as a dangerous concession to subjectivism and historicism.
This is precisely why Mary’s perfect fiat is so central to the narrative of salvation. God would not enter fully into human history until Israel freely and fully accepted God’s overtures of grace in the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants. But due to sin, Israel could not give that perfect and free “Yes” to God. Truths about God had indeed been revealed to Israel but they were theological truths that were constitutively relational insofar as their entire internal structure and logic tied “truth” to the very Mystery and personhood of God - - a God who desired communion with his creatures. Thus, God could not force or coerce a free response out of Israel to his “truth” without violating the very internal logic of that truth. The communion he sought was a free one, born in the heart, and not merely a forensic adjudication of the various “obligations” of the Law. How often did the prophets drive this point home in their insistence that God desires a humble heart that freely embraces the Divine Love, and not sacrifices of bulls and sheep? And is this not what made Israel’s covenants with Yahweh so radically different from the Mesopotamian Suzerainty treaties of that same era that emphasized a strictly forensic and servile obedience to the King in exchange for favorable treatment? Mary is thus, as Joseph Ratzinger points out, the “Daughter Zion” who represents all of Israel - - indeed all of humanity as well - - when she, in her sinlessness, offers to God the first fully and truly free “Yes” to His request to be allowed into human history in a complete way. And the importance of her “Yes” can be seen in the fact that after she utters it the narrative tersely, but sweetly, ends: “Then the angel departed from her.” The world took no notice of her “Yes,” uttered as it was in the quiet solitude of her home in Nazareth. Caesar slept soundly without disturbance. But Heaven shook, its portals opened to the earthly depths below, and the angels wept for joy.
Yes, there are objective truths in all doctrines. But unless those truths are all properly integrated and re-ordered to their source - - the deep Mystery of God’s Revelation in Christ - - they can actually become dis-ordering and distorting forces through a hypertrophy of lesser truths at the expense of higher ones. For example, while it is indeed true, as the traditional teaching affirms, that “error has no rights,” it is more true, from a deeper Christological perspective, that people who are in error do have rights. But the former had been allowed to ride roughshod over the latter and in ways that bear little resemblance to the cruciform, non-violent, non-coercive, ordo of Christ’s Paschal passion. And please don’t get cute here with various definitions of “coercion” that are stretched so wide as to include things like traffic laws and zoning regulations in suburban neighborhoods. The Church burned people at the stake for getting religion “wrong,” proving as she did so that it was she herself that had gotten her own religion at least partially wrong. Those weren’t “stop sign” forms of coercion. They were the bloody kind. And no less a light than Thomas Aquinas thought that was just fine and even necessary at times. As he says in reference to the sin of obstinate heresy:
“On the part of the Church, however, there is mercy which looks to the conversion of the wanderer, wherefore she condemns not at once, but "after the first and second admonition," as the Apostle directs: after that, if he is yet stubborn, the Church no longer hoping for his conversion, looks to the salvation of others, by excommunicating him and separating him from the Church, and furthermore delivers him to the secular tribunal to be exterminated thereby from the world by death. For Jerome commenting on Galatians 5:9, "A little leaven," says: "Cut off the decayed flesh, expel the mangy sheep from the fold, lest the whole house, the whole paste, the whole body, the whole flock, burn, perish, rot, die. Arius was but one spark in Alexandria, but as that spark was not at once put out, the whole earth was laid waste by its flame." (ST II:II Q11 A3)
And even though many Popes sought to rein in the worst excesses of the various national iterations of the Inquisition, they did not object to inquisitions as such and did not think burning heretics was necessarily wrong in principle. The Church, at varying levels of authority, tortured heretics in order to solicit a conversion of mind and heart. She entered into concordats with various States, even dictatorial and grossly unjust ones, in order to enshrine her precious “freedoms” even as she denied those same freedoms to others. Let us not play in the sandbox of abstractions here with talk of the legitimate role of the government to foster the spiritual common good and to promote “true religion” for the good of society. Because in practice it was more often than not a merely “worldly” form of coercion that the Church lusted after, which caused it to choose, allegedly, between lesser and greater State evils such as, to cite but one example, Franco’s brutal repressions over Leftist ones. Right Wing forms of political coercion were deemed “safer” since at least such regimes usually payed public lip service to the Church, codified some of its moral teachings into civil law, and granted prelates seats of high honor at State functions. But it was all an elaborate shell game of power as raw force with the Church used as a convenient prop for the social and political status quo - - a status quo that always favored the rich and the powerful - - as she desperately sought to cling to the last vestiges of a long dead Christendom. Christendom had long since receded, but just as glaciers as they melt away leave behind boulders and striations and lakes, so too had Christendom left behind certain talismans of its once mighty presence. And there the Church sat, perched on the remnant boulders of her former glory, screeching at the wind some nonsense about her “freedom” and her allegedly transparent “truths” that needed to be enshrined in law forthwith.
Yes, Protestants did the same, and often worse, and the Church was merely reflecting the tone and tenor of the times where the State, now desacralized in its pagan sense, was resacralized in a lesser sense as the pliant tool for the Church’s enforcement of doctrinal purity. But Protestants make no claim that the Church’s magisterial tradition is indefectible and are therefore free to admit that the Church, with regard to the question of religious freedom, was simply in error in the past. But the Catholic Church does claim for its magisterium the charism of indefectibility in matters central to faith and morals, and even, in certain limited circumstances, infallibility. Therefore, one cannot help but take notice of the fact that Vatican II has made a bold move here. Because if DH is correct on the question of religious freedom, and I am convinced that it is, then there is no escaping the direct implication that the Church’s repeated denunciations in the past of that same reality was in error. And, once again, I am convinced that the Church was in error. There… I said it … the Church taught error. And I want to drive home the force of what I am saying by rejecting the attempts by some, in a kind of “Lindbeckian” move, to say that doctrines are not so much “objective” truth statements that are true for all times and places, as they are an expression of a certain “grammar” that regulates and codifies a particular era’s “paradigm” for what constitutes truth. Seen in that light we can say, simply, that the Church once had a different doctrinal grammar, suitable to the needs of a past time, and that when it taught that religious freedom was an evil it was simply speaking a certain language and therefore was teaching something “true” insofar as that teaching really was reflective of the grammar of those times.
But this will not do. Lindbeck, following Wittgenstein, has a point, and a good one, about how linguistically constructed our notions of truth are. But neither Wittgenstein nor Lindbeck were for all that epistemological relativists, subjectivists, or raging historicists. And at some point the question of a pre-linguistic or trans-linguistic truth re-imposes itself, as even they recognized. Furthermore, the simple fact of the matter is that such linguistic and grammatical notions of “truth paradigms” is never how the Church has described her own efforts, which has always been far more classically metaphysical in its understanding of truth and also therefore in the manner in which she proposes it. And so the problematic remains. The Church once taught that it is true that religious freedom is not a good thing and she condemned it as such. I will not go into all of the lengthy quotes, but Guarino’s text lists many statements from various Popes to the effect that religious freedom for everyone is a deep and pernicious error. And yet, DH explicitly says the opposite.
The beginnings of a way out of the problem can be found if we make the proper distinction between the ordinary and extraordinary aspects of the magisterium. And to a great extent I think this is precisely what Vatican II was doing. Space does not permit a lengthy discussion here of the complex criteria established by the Church for adjudicating the level of authority to be accorded to various teachings. This can get very complex and the complexity is such that often times there are deep ambiguities as to what the authority level of a teaching is, leading many to wonder what good an “authoritative” magisterium is in the face of such ambiguities on even important matters. Furthermore, the question arises that if a later non-dogmatic teaching of the ordinary magisterium can overturn an earlier non-dogmatic teaching, then why should any teaching of the ordinary magisterium be taken seriously as “authoritative” when it too, apparently, can be overturned at a future date? Certainly, Lumen Gentium 25 makes it clear that we owe obedience to all of the magisterial teachings of the Church regardless of their place in the hierarchy of authoritative statements. But all that means is that we are to abide by the teachings of the magisterium even if we disagree with them and that we maintain a certain devotion to the Church as our pedagogical mother. But it most certainly does not foreclose ongoing theological debates of a legitimate and respectful nature, especially since the “authority card” is not often part of a winning hand in the poker game of ecclesial debates of a contentious nature. Finally, with regard to the issue of whether or not some very consistent teachings of the ordinary magisterium are indeed also “infallible” (e.g. as Germain Grisez argued that the teaching in Humanae Vitae is an infallible teaching of the ordinary magisterium), the criteria established to adjudicate such things are very much open to interpretive differences when they are applied in particular instances. For example, not every orthodox moral theologian agreed with Grisez and offered reasons of their own based on the same criteria to which Grisez was appealing.
The key to unravelling this knot is to affirm the distinction between the ordinary and extraordinary magisterium of the Church, but also then to go a step further theologically and to seek to discern how the deepest wellsprings of the Church’s tradition have ordered the truths of the faith hierarchically. Absent this endeavor the various teachings of the Church threaten to degenerate, as I noted above, into a set of disconnected “factoids” all of which are jostling with one another for attention in a playing field of discourse that seems “equal” or “neutral” for all without any criteria in place to discern the level of importance for any particular teaching in the bigger picture of things. For example, is the Church’s teaching on usury on the same level of importance as her teaching on the Trinity? And if she got the usury thing “wrong” (I don’t think she did) then does it necessarily follow that she might also be wrong about the Trinity? Of course not, and no orthodox theologian would claim that. And along the same lines, no sane theologian with a good grasp of Church history would ever sign on to a hermeneutical approach that would compel us to do all manner of intellectual contortions, like the rubber man at the circus, in order to “prove” that the Church has never been wrong about anything of substance - - ever - - no matter how low on the hierarchy of truths the doctrine in question resides.
And yet the tut-tutters are out in force and clutch their pearls and get all verklempt when Dignitatis grounds its approach to religious freedom in an older tradition - - a tradition that is far more rooted in the Church’s dogmatic Christological awareness of herself than the later distortions are - - in order to correct the deficient theological grounding of the more recent tradition. And that deeper tradition includes such noteworthy figures as St. Augustine (among others) who affirmed the concept of religious freedom for all. But this is what I meant earlier when I called such concerns from the traditionalists “hermeneutically flat-footed” and “cartoonish.” For them the issue is simple: The Church erred on something and so now we can’t trust the Church on anything so we better deny that the Church has erred in the past and affirm that it is Vatican II that is in error and every pope since then. Except Vatican II is an ecumenical council and a part of the magisterium as well, and the post-conciliar popes really were popes, so … oops. Enter stage right some former Freemason whistleblowers, decked-out in their finest “Team Vigano” regalia purchased from Taylor Marshall, to let us know that John XXIII was actually a transgendered woman and a Masonic/KGB operative. “Infiltration!” explains it all…. And so you end up with a bunch of semi-sedevacantist conspiracy devotees armed with the latest missive from Peter Kwasniewski on the Satanic origins of the Novus Ordo who then wrap themselves in the mantle of a “tradition” they incoherently misrepresent as having ended in 1962.
Thus do you also get the spectacle of the very conservative Dominican Romanus Cessario (who I like and who is normally quite insightful) defending in the pages of “First Things” the 19th century Vatican-led kidnapping, with the full approval of Pius IX, of a six year old Jewish boy from his family in Bologna, simply because the boy had been given an emergency Catholic baptism as a baby by a nanny who feared if he died a Jew he would go to Hell. And Papal law, which reigned over that part of “Italy,” said that all Catholics must have a Catholic education so off the lad went to live as a ward of the Church, much to the horror of his family who, in the blink of a papal eye, had lost their son. I guess some folks just cannot stomach the thought that the Church, and the Pope, could have been so wrong about something as important as whether or not dead Jewish babies go automatically to Hell and therefore need surreptitious baptisms followed by ecclesial abduction. It is funny how pliant “natural law” can be when you set your mind to it. The “natural rights” of parents? Hmmm…. Sure, yeah, just not Jewish ones.
But all of this underscores the superficiality of the traditionalist’s critique of Vatican II wherein they claim that the pastoral implications of the Council were altogether wrong-headed, all the while they ignore the deep, negative pastoral consequences of an ecclesial milieu that thought most non-Catholics are going to Hell, that religious freedom is a portal to error and therefore to the doors of that Hell, and that it is therefore okay to kidnap secretly baptized Jewish babies “for their own good.” And of course, lurking in the background as well is the question of why the Church ever thought it wise to wield the cudgel of coercive power through legislation that made such horrors possible. When viewed properly therefore - - that is, when viewed through a brutally honest lens of a real, ecclesial examination of conscience - - Vatican II not only becomes understandable, but begins to take on the coloration of that which was necessary. Which is also why I think we need to view the traditionalist’s critique of DH, and of Vatican II more generally, as utterly jejune and nugatory. Because it is not only theologically adolescent in its questing after some era of the Church that was doctrinally pure and free of error, but it is also disingenuous since it is hard to accept that they really believe the revisionist, restorationist fantasies that they peddle.
And that brings me at last to what I call the “hermeneutics of kenosis.” In order to understand what I mean by this term it is first necessary to grasp the essence of what has come to be known as “ressourcement theology.” Literally, the term means a “re-sourcing” as in a return to the seminal resources of the Church’s tradition. But this is all too often misunderstood as a desire to do a kind of “end run” around the medievals and the entire scholastic tradition in order to go back to the patristic era in order to slavishly repeat what they said and to thereby reduce theology to a mere exposition of patristic texts. And if this were true then the ressourcement thinkers would be guilty of the same kind of privileging of one era of Church history over all others, just as they accuse the scholastics of doing with Aquinas. Fortunately, that is not what the ressourcement project was about in either theory or in actual practice. Ressourcement thinkers emphasized the patristic era, not to negate anything that came after, but rather to embed the entirety of the tradition in a broader horizon. In other words, their goal was for the tradition to take deeper breaths in order to gain a more robust understanding of Revelation as such. Therefore, they were not seeking to “repristinate” some golden era in the early Church in order to make it the bell cow of a new movement to reform the Church via a kind of patristic fundamentalism.
That latter point is key. Ressourcement thinkers did not want to repristinate anything since such projects evince a romanticized form of thinking that borders on the antiquarian. Rather, what they sought was something far, far more radical: the re-interrogation of the entire tradition via a re-centering of all doctrine in a christocentric theology of Revelation that could then be used to restore the hierarchy of doctrinal truths in a manner more faithful to the Church’s core identity as the Body and the Bride of Christ. The theologian Marcellino D’Ambrosio, in an older essay on ressourcement theology, puts it thus:
“For these thinkers, doing theology meant doing history. Yet the distinctive approach to historical theology which they shared was neither mere detached, scholarly reconstruction nor a futile attempt at … ‘repristination.’ It was rather a creative hermeneutical exercise in which the ‘sources’ of Christian faith were ‘reinterrogated’ with new questions, the burning questions of a century in travail. … These theologians of ressourcement were able to unlock new rooms in the treasure house of tradition and discover there, surprisingly enough, many of the twentieth-century ideas which neo-Scholasticism neglected or even resisted.” (“Ressourcement Theology,” Communio, Winter 1991, pp. 532-533).
What these thinkers sought was a form of theology that evinced a creative originality that was not a modern innovation, but which was truly radical as only something deeply traditional can be. What they sought, as D’Ambrosio notes, is not to “go further” but to go “deeper.” As Etienne Gilson put it: “if theological progress is sometimes necessary, it is never possible unless you go back to the beginning and start over.” (quoted in D”Ambrosio, p. 537). What they sought was not so much a scholarly retrieval as it was the pursuit of a form of pastoral revitalization that they thought neo-Scholasticism, with its ahistorical objectivism, had ignored. In short, the problem with neo-Scholasticism in their view was not that it was “too traditional” but rather that it was not nearly traditional enough. And we see this still today in the casual dismissal of Vatican II by so many radical “traditionalists” as a “merely pastoral” Council that offered no new canons, issued no anathemas (oh the horror), and proffered no new dogmas. But in so dismissing the Council they display a profound ignorance of the problematic at hand. Namely, the divorce between theology and sanctity, doctrine and praxis, the pastoral and the dogmatic, that had plagued the Church for centuries and which the very pastoral nature of the Council was seeking to address. In other words… the pastoral nature of the Council’s theology is precisely the theological point of doctrine that the Council was affirming. Seen in this light, the ressourcement theologians were the most radically traditionalist of all of the conciliar contenders, and the Council itself, far from being a “rupture” with tradition in the deeper and more radical sense of that word, was perhaps the most traditionalist Council in centuries. There can be no better way to express this than in these words by Péguy:
“a revolution is not a full revolution unless it is a full tradition, a fuller conservation, an anterior tradition, deeper, truer, more ancient and thus more eternal. … It is necessary that, by the depth of its new and deeper ‘re-source’ it prove that the preceding revolutions were insufficiently revolutionary, and that their corresponding traditions were insufficiently traditional and full; it is necessary that, by a more profound mental, moral and emotional intuition, it conquer the tradition itself by being traditional. … far from being a superaugmentation …. a revolution is an excavation, a deepening, an overtaking of depth.” (quoted in D’Ambrosio, 551)
Ultimately, this “depth” that is sought is nothing other than Christ himself. The ultimate “Source” in ressourcement is Christ’s paschal mystery as this is communicated in the Church via the Spirit that Christ sends in Pentecost after the Ascension, and which is, therefore, the only true “canon” (regulative rule) in the deepest theological sense, in the Church. And any ecclesial canon which falls short of that Christological canon is a canon of distortion. And any doctrine, no matter how long it has been taught, that falls short of that Christological canon, is a distortion. And any liturgical form or catechetical teaching or papal bull that falls short of that canon is a distortion. Ressourcement thinkers were not seeking a patristic revival as an end in itself. What they sought was a patristic revival that retrieved in some sense the “freshness” of the Christocentrism of the fathers and their closeness therefore to the Spirit that animates both Scripture and all true tradition. And please do not misunderstand this as some new-fangled hermeneutic without precedent. What is tradition if not the communication in time and history of the very Christ who grounds it? Tradition is not an ideological construct superimposed on Revelation as a kind of template of our own making. It is meant instead as an explication of God’s Revelation in Christ, and it is guaranteed by the Spirit to be “indefectible” in matters pertaining to our salvation. However, in the course of the ages that tradition has allowed in certain distortions and even errors in some doctrines that are not central to our salvation, but which have been taken by some to be so, which has only compounded the problem. But what we have learned from these mistakes is not to allow a “creeping indefectibility” to invade the Church with a triumphalist sense that its every pronouncement has been faithful to the canon that is Christ.
But how do we judge when a doctrine or practice is “christological enough?” First off, we need the Wisdom of the Holy Spirit, gifted to us as a charism related to faith, which creates within us a connatural “sym-pathy” with the Christological form. A deep dive into Scripture is needed, as well as attention to all of the deep elements of the tradition. The saints and the doctors of the Church are critical here, as well as is the liturgy, creeds, and explicit dogmatic teachings. There is no magic bullet of “super clarity” and ambiguities and debates will remain. How could they not? Our minds rise to God asymptotically and the “greater dissimilarity” abides. As St. Augustine said: “Si comprehendis, non est deus.” The goal of dogmas and lesser doctrines is not the elimination of Mystery buts its accentuation. We are blinded, not by darkness, but by an excess of light, and dogmas are only vessels of that light and not the light itself. All the great saints knew this well. The closer we get to God the more we know what it is that we don’t know and the more we “see” the more we are aware of our blindness.
In this whole process of hermeneutical retrieval therefore there is no substitute for prayer and holiness. There is no substitute for the coming together of the Marian and Petrine dimensions of the Church. In the end, only Christ remains as the sole criterion of adjudication and that Christ has a cruciform logic. And that “logic” was expressed by St. Paul when he said that the essence of Christ’s love for us can be seen in his “descent” (Kenosis) into the form of a slave. Kenosis is thus the pattern of his mission as he descends from the Father into our world, and then descends into actually “becoming” one of his creatures in a mysterious union only achievable by God himself, whose inner trinitarian life is characterized by the perichoresis of infinite love which is itself the very logic of “subsistens” as relational divestment. Christ then descends into death and the dank, yawning, crouching, dark of the tomb; into the stench of Satan’s sting he descends in order to conquer death by the irrepressible force of the life-love conjunction that knows no exceptions. He then descends into Hell, a doctrine which can only mean that Hell too is a Christological reality, created at the very intersection of love’s overtures and creaturely resistance that exists within the core of His Sacred Heart. And there too is a descent: the descent into the suffering of love (Regis Martin’s beautiful insight) that awaits the return of the prodigal sons, even as they tarry in gross indifference. Kenosis is the very law of God’s inner life and is the fruit of an infinite superabundance of love and not of any strange, gnostic, Sophiology of Divine limitation. Kenosis, in other words, is paradoxically, the greatest fullness imaginable. And this law of God, this law of love, is for us therefore, our only true canon for discerning the spirit of the tradition. It is the law of theosis through kenosis that must be our guiding star. There is no other path because there is no other God. And there is no other name by which we are saved.
Therefore, the only true hermeneutic is the hermeneutic of kenosis, or, as Pope Benedict puts it, the “hermeneutic of the cross.” And it is this hermeneutic of the pattern of the divine love revealed in Christ, that is the only true measuring stick for which doctrines are authoritative in a deep, deep, constitutive way, and which ones are not. Indeed, it is a measuring stick that allows us to admit our ecclesial errors with a confidence born of a true faith that brings humility in the light of truth. Vatican II, in my view was a ressourcement Council. And as such it was a Council that sought to reinterrogate the entirety of the tradition christologically and in line with a hermeneutic of the cross, of kenosis. And it sought to reorient the Church’s hierarchy of truths based on this architectonic concept. And in doing this the Council did create some doctrinal casualties, just as when I seek to reorient my own spiritual life to be more in tune with the cruciform Christ, some things I once held dear are exposed as less than dear, and need to go. Seen in this light, the traditionalists are right about Vatican II. It may have been the most radical Council in the history of the Church. But what the traditionalists get wrong is that it was this very radicality that made Vatican II the most traditionalist Council of all.
The fact that the Church may have committed errors in the past bothers me not one wit. I lose no sleep over it and it does not engender in me a crisis of faith. Little children that are tortured and raped and then murdered by some sick sadist causes me far more existential dread than the fact that some Pope once taught some howler of nonsense. The teaching of DH on religious freedom, as well as some of the other teachings of Vatican II, has caused a deep, existential crisis of faith for many of the radical traditionalists. With every new ambiguous statement or anti-traditionalist diktat from Pope Francis more and more of them are red-pilled and are fleeing in horror to the SSPX and/or into wild theories of sedevacantism or “Bennyvacantism.” I am not a huge fan of Pope Francis either. I think he is a lousy Pope. But we have had lousy Popes before. Move on…. And most Catholics who think similarly have moved on. But something else is stirring in the souls of many of the traditionalists and that something else strikes me as having the scent of atheism about it. That is harsh, I know, but it is what I think. Because only someone who is haunted by the secret abyss and void in their souls is attracted to a Church of unerring and total certitude in all things it has ever taught at all times. They are like a person adrift at sea who spies a rock jutting out from the water and as they seek to cling to it they curse the slippery moss that covers it. But it is a rock in the ocean and so of course it has moss on it. Better to find that floating beam of wood, that thin arboreal presence which alone stands between us and the abyss below and upon which our Savior, the only Savior, once hung.
Dorothy Day, pray for us.