The Hermeneutic of Continuity: Part II. Pope Francis, Vatican II, and the Neo-Traditonalists

January 17, 2021
Defense of Vatican II

Before I begin today’s blog a note of terminological clarification is in order.  In what follows I will often be referring to what I am calling the “neo-traditionalists”.  All Catholics ought to be some form of a traditionalist since, obviously, as Catholics the living Tradition, as interpreted by the magisterium, is important in our approach to Revelation.  However, since the Vatican Council there has arisen a counter reaction to its reforms from Catholics who object to many of its teachings, which they consider to be departures from the received Tradition.  These Catholics were relatively few in number at first but their ranks have recently grown exponentially.  Fueled by the papacy of Pope Francis and with the internet as their highway they have grown increasingly influential and comprise, in my view, a genuinely new movement within the Church.  Therefore, I am calling them “neo-traditionalists” in all that follows.  So let us begin ….

I have written a lot on this blog about the hermeneutic of continuity.  I have gotten largely positive feedback from my readers which is always encouraging.  However, the one constant refrain I keep hearing from almost everyone is something along the lines of the following:  “This is all great but how do we continue to believe in the hermeneutic of continuity in the era of Pope Francis and his many departures from tradition?”  And this question comes from both my more moderate to conservative readers as well as from the many neo-traditionalists who read this blog.  Therefore, and in light of the recent motu proprio from the Pope on women in the ministries of acolyte and lector that stirred up yet more dust, I thought it was time to deal with the elephant in the living room:  Pope Francis.

The first thing that must be pointed out is that for the neo-traditionalists Pope Francis is problematic not just in himself but stands as “exhibit A” for all that has gone wrong from the Council forward.  In other words, he is not unique in their view, but is merely the logical outcome of the many ruptures with Tradition that the modern magisterium has promoted.  Their blogs and podcasts all engage in lengthy criticisms of Vatican II and the ressourcement theology that animates it, and they all seem to buy into some version of Archbishop Vigano’s rejection of the Council as “near heretical” and his assertion that the post Vatican II Church is a corrupted “parallel Church” that exists alongside of the true Church of the orthodox holy remnant of believers.   Pope Francis is just the cherry on the cake of that false “Vatican II Church” and their criticisms of him therefore lean heavily in the direction of viewing him as an arch heretic.  Therefore, in order to contextualize my critique of Pope Francis it is first necessary to outline where I think the neo-trads go so terribly wrong and thereby end up exaggerating the “problem of Pope Francis”.

Let me first begin then with what I think is the deepest theological flaw in their approach.  A flaw that is in reality an internal contradiction.  I think they know this which is why they refuse to address the question head-on and resort instead to what amounts to various forms of deflection.  The contradiction in their approach is that they all claim to affirm the authority of the magisterium, but only when and where it suits them.  Which is to say, they don’t really affirm the authority of the magisterium at all, but are instead affirming their own magisterial authority over the magisterium, which is, ironically, decidedly Protestant in principle.  They try to get around this problem by trying to locate the exact moment in ecclesiastical history when the magisterium began to be corrupted with error (again … the Protestant idea that there is a primitive true Church that was then corrupted) and to imply, or to state explicitly, that all magisterial statements after this “rupture” are suspect. And of course for them that rupture was Vatican II, with the more radical among them claiming that the rupture began even earlier with the emergence of the nouvelle theologie.  And still others go further back viewing Vatican I as the source of the problem with its declaration of papal infallibility, which created what they call the “hyperpapalism” that opened the doors to all of the papal and conciliar shenanigans of the 20th century. But once again, it is not hard to see that this is Protestant in principle as evidenced by the fact that the neo-traditionalists themselves are broken up into various factions that line up behind their own favored narrative of rupture.

They all however have as their modus operandi the attempt to prove their narrative of rupture by cherry picking from the magisterial documents of the past that they think the modern magisterium contradicts and to use this as evidence of the putative rupture.   Thus do they claim that they are merely preserving the Tradition against modern innovations and are not truly “dissenting” from the magisterium but are, in fact, trying to preserve it.  But left unaddressed is the thorny question of why ancient magisterial teaching should have any authority whatsoever if the modern magisterium can get it so wrong?  If Vatican II can teach heresy and if modern popes can teach heresy, why should any council or any pope of any time be given any weight or credibility as authoritative? How is it not deeply contradictory to say that the ancient magisterium was authoritative but the modern one is not? How does one divide-up the magisterium in this manner unless one is really implying that the modern magisterium is really no magisterium at all?  Wouldn’t all of this instead imply that the Protestants have been right all along and that the very notion of an authoritative teaching magisterium is a post Constantinian invention?

And it is no good to hide behind the red herring that what they are rejecting is merely non-infallible teaching.  Because their narrative of rupture goes far beyond mere “dissent” and is instead accusing the modern magisterium of full-on heresy on a massive scale.  It is also a huge display of chutzpah since many of these folks are the same people who accused the liberal dissenters from Humanae Vitae back in 1968 with unfaithfulness to the ordinary magisterium of the Church, which requires our assent even when it is teaching in a non-infallible manner. After all, they said then, outside of the creeds and a few statements from Councils and Popes, most of the Church’s teaching is of the non-infallible kind and there are therefore, “levels of authority” in the teaching of the ordinary magisterium that we must pay attention to.  Indeed, there are elements of the ordinary magisterium of the Church that are also infallible, even if they haven’t been defined de fide definita, and those elements cannot be dissented from.  The authority of the Church’s teaching, therefore, cannot be neatly divided between “stuff that is infallible”and “all of that other crap that doesn’t matter”. The moral theologians Germain Grisez and John Finnis both argued cogently that Humanae Vitae, for example, is just such an example of an infallible teaching of the ordinary magisterium.  And no less a light than Hans Kung agreed and stated that the “infallibility” of Humanae Vitae only proved that the whole teaching on infallibility is wrong since Humanae Vitae is so clearly incorrect.  Sadly, there are now members of the neo-traditionalist movement who are reaching the same conclusions as they dissent from Vatican II and claim that the modern Church proves that the whole teaching on infallibility has to be looked at again.  

Furthermore, the neo-traditionalist narrative of rupture involves an idealization and romanticization of the ancient magisterium as this monolithic “thing” that was uniform and harmonious – – an idealization that any Church historian would find risible – – and then use this alleged uniformity of the past as a bludgeon against the modern Church. Of necessity therefore, their narrative also requires a constant exaggeration of the “chaos” of the modern Church filled with anecdotes of the horrors committed in the name of the Council, which has the net effect of painting a picture of the modern Church that is wholly negative.  That is not to say that there isn’t much to criticize in the modern Church – – I have pointed out many of these things myself – – but that is far different from the wholesale demolition that these folks engage in.  Their aim is to discredit the modern Church at its very roots and that is a dangerous game to play.  In fact, it is a schismatic game.

They cannot have their cake and eat it too which is why my claim is that they are in de facto schism with the Church even if they are unwilling to admit it.  How else can one interpret the claim of Archbishop Vigano that Pope Francis is a heretic who presides over a “false parallel Church” which exists over and against the “true Church” of the “holy remnant” other than as a de facto schism?  And most of the neo-traditionalists who are currently popular out there in clickbait land have elevated Vigano to the level of a spiritual hero who is a prophet for our times.  They publish and discuss his various overheated letters at length (with approval) and breathlessly await the next one.  They openly favor and further his cause and speak of him as a true hero – – a Catholic Assange or Snowden – – and never a word of criticism emerges from their lips in his regard.  One can only assume, therefore, that they share, or are at least deeply sympathetic with, Vigano’s views.  And when pressed on this issue they get very testy and have no answers.  The theologian Robert Fastiggi has also written on this contradiction and called them out on it, only to have his views dismissed by them as “hyperpapalist” propaganda.  In other words, they resort to ad hominem attacks rather than address the very substantive issues that Fastiggi, and I, and others like Adam Rasmussen and Thomas Weinandy, have raised.  They have no substantive answers because there are none possible.  Insofar as they support Vigano and share his views they are supportive of his de facto schism whether they want to admit it or not.  

The charge of “hyperpapalism” is particularly indicative of the source of their problem.  They are so convinced that the modern Church is in contradiction with the past that they interpret any theological attempt to place the modern Church in continuity with the tradition as a bogus effort at obfuscation.  Their world is a black and white world, lacking nuance or historical contextualization, and they therefore read magisterial documents with a wooden and flat-footed literalness that admits of no further development should circumstances warrant it or the Church gain a deeper understanding of her own Tradition over time. They ignore the fact that there is in the deposit of faith a hierarchy of truths and that often in the Church’s history a lower truth has tended to eclipse a higher one, thus requiring a later correction.  Such is the case, for example, with the Church’s teaching on religious freedom at Vatican II which the traditionalists wrongly claim is in full-on contradiction with past teaching when in point of fact it is grounded in an appeal to a higher truth in the deposit of faith (the orientation of truth to its reception in freedom and the constitutively non coercive nature of faith) over the concept of confessional States which is rooted in the lower truth of the supremacy of the spiritual realm over civil authority.   Understanding doctrines in historical context then allows one to understand why the Church may have deemed it wise to foster a coercive approach to the faith via the State at one point in its history only to go beyond that view in the present time as it deepened its understanding of the nature of faith.  (I have written on this issue in a previous blog post).    

This is but one example among many that the traditionalists claim proves that there is a rupture, when in point of fact all that has happened is a legitimate development of doctrine.  They would also add to their list of grievances the teaching of Vatican II on ecumenism, interreligious dialogue, and liturgy. Space constraints prohibit me from commenting on these at length but there are numerous theologians, of a very high caliber, who have done yeoman’s work in this area.  Of course their analysis is debatable, such is the nature of theology, but at the very least they do make it possible to view these issues in the light of a hermeneutic of continuity without any “forced” hyperpapalist contortions in play.  Furthermore, the Church enjoins us to approach all of her teachings with an open submission of mind and heart, which means that the theological work that has been done in these areas is extremely valuable to anyone who wants to approach the Church’s teaching on these hot topics with a charitable reading rather than a suspicious one from the get-go.    And that should be the approach of any faithful Catholic who isn’t spoiling for a fight.        

One is justified, therefore, in thinking that there are other ideological forces at play beyond some theological disagreements over whether or not we should be talking to the Lutherans or allowing female altar servers. This suspicion grows deeper when you read their blogs and watch their YouTube channels (as I do) and see them calling theologians like Ratzinger and von Balthasar “modernists”.  Their use of that term as a descriptor for ressourcement theologians displays an astounding ignorance of what the term “modernism” meant in its historical context.  Because none of those theologians was a “modernist” in the accepted sense of that word and actively fought against it.  Therefore, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that what the traditionalists mean by “modernist” is simply everything that is “modern” tout court.  Nobody is more critical of the basic philosophical underpinnings of modernity than I am.  And I oppose the crushing nihilism, scientism, and atheism of our time.  But to just reject everything that is modern ignores the fact that the modern world has given us new insights into many things that ought to be taken into account. And that is precisely what many orthodox theologians have attempted to do, but in order to do so had to go beyond the strict confines of scholastic manualism.  To ignore the profound theology of a Henri de Lubac on the grounds that he and his allies are the reason why we have communion in the hand is just a gross – – and dare I say sinful – – distortion of the truth. In fact, quoting David Bentley Hart, such assertions scarcely rise to the level of nonsense.

But it is also ideologically suffocating.  One of the complaints from the traditionalists is that the modern Church is characterized by too much change.  One popular neo-traditionalist blogger complains that the Church has changed so much that the Catholic Church of today is actually a “different religion” from the pre Vatican II Church.  But this hyperventilating over the many changes of the past fifty years (and there have been many) is related to their refusal to engage the modern world in any meaningful way.  Because the simple fact of the matter is that the modern world itself represents the greatest change in human consciousness in history.  The rise of modern science alone, with its utter destruction of the old, enchanted, hierarchical cosmology of the ancients, presents us with a radically different view of reality than the ancient Church could have ever imagined.  The modern world thus presents to the Church the greatest spiritual and intellectual challenge she has ever had to face.  And the power of the coercive, confessional State to impose Catholicism from above is as dead as disco.  So the Church has to really fight her way out of this one, defenseless and vulnerable as was her master, with no other weapon than the truths of the Gospel.  Therefore, it should not surprise us that in response to these challenges the Church might have to put on a radically new garment – – the garment of a radical Catholicism and not just mere “orthodoxy” – – in order to repristinate the faith by returning it to her roots.  That means a simpler Church, shorn of Constantinian pretentions, shorn of its triumphalist pieties, committed to the evangelical counsels and the path of holiness, and fully aware that her credibility in the modern world, so long as she merely retreats into her medieval answers, is nil. But it also means therefore that theology had to widen its horizons in order to be on an equal intellectual footing with the Archons of our age.  Not to parrot those Archons in a vain attempt to gain “respectability” with them (we will leave that to the liberal Catholics) but in a robust retrieval of that which is most uniquely her own and it representation as something fresh.  And anyone who thinks that a return to pre Vatican II scholasticism is the answer to that challenge is just ignorant of the real theological challenge at hand.  But hey… we are indeed talking to the Lutherans and the Jews with respect so somebody must have screwed up.

In accord with this rejection of all things modern there is also a powerful undercurrent of apocalypticism in the writings of many of the neo-traditionalists.  In the religious domain most especially, narratives are of constitutive importance, and the narrative that they have concocted in order to legitimate their dissent from the modern magisterium is that we are living in the time of the “Great Apostasy” that has been predicted to precede the return of Christ. This is what allows them to reject the modern magisterium without running off into schism because the apostasy of the Church has been foretold and they view themselves then as modern day Essenes running off to the Qumran of the Latin Mass awaiting the day of their ultimate vindication.  Marian apocalypticism looms large here as well and has been the engine that has fueled an explosion of conspiracy theories that read like a Dan Brown novel.  The Freemason challenge to the Church is, and has been, a real one, but to read books like Taylor Marshall’s “Infiltration” or any of Vigano’s letters, is to enter a world of Freemason conspiracies so detached from reality that it borders on a true paranoid delusion. But such apocalyptic narratives are necessary to the cause since only a tale of end times apostasy can justify their bilious hatred for the modern Church, which is now cast as part of the conspiracy.  Furthermore, such thinking poisons the well of honest discourse since everything you say now in defense of the modern Church is just used as further evidence of how deep the apostasy goes.  Therefore, such apocalyptic thinking creates a uniquely closed mind that is completely impervious to all arguments that come from tainted sources. Which is why the traditionalist echo chamber of discourse is so incestuously inbred.      

This penchant for apocalyptic conspiracy scenarios also helps to explain their bizarre attachment to Donald Trump. Taylor Marshall, for example, was once Trump’s campaign advisor for all things “Catholic.” Trump is viewed by many in their camp as the last great firewall of resistance to the evils of the Democrats precisely because of his manifest insanity which makes him the free-wheeling, rogue destroyer of enemies that we need.  The more insane he became and the more things he destroyed, the better. Thus, every vice that Trump exhibited simply elicited even more devotion and excitement.  At last! We have a lunatic on our side who will restore Christian America! Newsflash: America was never Christian.  But that is a blog for another day.  My only point here is that their devotion to Trump runs deep because he fulfills their apocalyptic fever dreams of a ruined modernity. Because it is only after modernity is crushed that we can leave Qumran and start to rebuild the Temple.  If this is what they  mean by “true continuity”, then I gladly return the ticket to their after party.

It is important to any discussion of the hermeneutic of continuity that we point out that continuity does not mean slavish repetition and it does not mean that there will not be some “ruptures” with the past. All great Councils of note were called because the Church was facing some crisis, some dispute, some problem, that needed to be resolved.  And in that process often times the Church has to come up with a solution that requires a change from some aspect of its teaching.  A change that is both in continuity with the central truths of the faith, but that is also a rupture from some lesser truths that had gotten distorted.

Just think of the controversies created when Nicaea adopted the philosophical and non-scriptural term “homoousios” to describe Christ’s relation to the Father.  It was a novelty at the time and it went against the sensibilities of many Council fathers.  It also cost Athanasius dearly as the Council kicked up a post conciliar firestorm so strong that it rivals the post Vatican II maelstrom.  Several more Councils were needed just to figure out how in the heck homoousios actually related to a host of other Christological issues.  In no way, therefore, does a defense of a hermeneutic of continuity commit one to the idea that there can be no novelties introduced by a Council and no breaks with the past in order to emphasize deeper truths that had been obscured.  And that is the nature of all true reform.  The problem, therefore, with the neo-traditionalists is that they want to freeze the Church into a certain form, and keep it locked into a single era and then use that as the only barometer of true orthodoxy.  But that is not a true “traditionalism” at all, but an ecclesiological/political ideology of fairly modern provenance masquerading as such. And then weaponized against the unity of the Body of Christ in his Church.

Now, as for Pope Francis….  I will simply begin with the straightforward admission that I think he is a very average Pope.  We have had bad Popes before of course, but their deficiencies were mainly in their palace-court style corruption.  Pope Francis, on the other hand, presents us with a unique set of problems since he has taught things that are indeed a rupture with the Tradition, and not in a good way.  That just is a fact and has to be admitted up front in the interests of honesty.  Allow me to quote myself from a previous blog since what I said then is appropriate here as well:

“In the light of the current papacy has the hermeneutic of continuity failed?  The answer to that question is a maddening “yes and no” type of response.  First, there is the issue of Pope Francis himself whose words, despite his sometimes loose, off the cuff comments, speak to an endorsement of a hermeneutic of continuity.  He has said that he is a “loyal son of the Church” and there is no reason to doubt this when one looks at the long list of progressive wishes he has not granted:  the discipline of mandatory celibacy for priests stands, the ordination of women to Holy Orders has not happened, he has not rolled-back or even “modified” the teaching against artificial contraception, he has not granted in an official way intercommunion with non-Catholic Christians, he has not rolled back Benedict’s permission for any priest to be able to celebrate the Traditional Latin Mass, and he has not changed the Church’s teaching on homosexuality or changed, as he did with the death penalty, the language of the Catechism which refers to homosexual acts as “intrinsically disordered.”  It would seem, therefore, that he is not on board with the agenda of the progressives even if he has gone slightly beyond John Paul on the issue of the death penalty and he has softened the Church’s pastoral response to those who are divorced and remarried.  This latter point is instructive since he could have merely changed the Eucharistic discipline of the Church in this matter but chose instead to simply “tweak” it a bit.  And you can quibble with my use of the word “tweak” if you like, but the main point I am making here is that he fell far short of what the progressive wing of the Church wanted in that matter.

However, he is a truly confusing Pope and very hard to pigeon-hole in any definitive way.  And even if he has not delivered to the progressives their full laundry list of desired changes he has re-empowered and emboldened them with his constant pitting of truth against mercy, doctrine against pastoral sensitivity, and “institutional rules” against love. Furthermore, he has appointed to high ecclesiastical office men who have just this mentality and who seem to have an animus against those Catholics who are actively and publicly engaged in what has come to be known as the “culture wars.”  He has refused to meet with the dubia Cardinals, or Cardinal Zen when he visited Rome, but had plenty of time to meet with NBA players to discuss the issue of systemic racism.  And, of course, the entire Synod on the Amazon was simply a coming out party for old, white, liberal, Germans who proceeded to cynically use the troubles of the Amazonian region, which they really don’t give a damn about, to blather on about enculturation and celibacy as if Brazil was Belgium in 1968. His post apostolic exhortation on the Synod was a tepid and empty endorsement of absolutely nothing beyond superficial bromides about economic injustice.  Conservatives cheered and sneered after the release of the exhortation since it seemed, in its silence, to be a papal slap-down to the progressives who manipulated the Synod into a group-hug for paganism, but in reality it was a vacuous document that makes one wonder what in the heck he thought would happen after he had stacked the synodal deck with a gaggle of Germanic Gnostics.  

In short, Pope Francis seems to sympathize with the progressive wing of the Church but does not have, in my view, a deep enough understanding of what their project really entails. He seems to have the mistaken view that Catholic liberals in 2020 are the same as liberals in 1958, and seems genuinely disappointed when they behave more like secular critical theory provocateurs rather than Yves Congar.  His whole thought-world seems to be that of a man who thinks the Church is still this insulated, neo-scholastic “fortress” whose walls need to be battered down, even as he stands astride their rubble.  He is fighting yesterday’s battles which underscores my point that we are most definitely not in a “third phase” of conciliar reception, but have instead been teleported by this papacy back to 1965 forcing those of us in the ressourcement camp to relitigate a case that was decided, with magisterial authority, by the previous two popes.  Perhaps this has been his end game all along.  Perhaps he is not as naïve as I think.  Perhaps he wants to reopen that case precisely because he wants it adjudicated differently but does not want to be the presiding judge, allowing “drift” to accomplish what papal fiat cannot. He is, after all, a Jesuit.”

Yes, he is a troubling Pope.  But I stand by all of which I wrote before.  He has not taught in an official way anything that can be deemed “heresy”.  Therefore, his reign as Pontiff should not cause us to lose our faith in the promises of Jesus to Peter or in the magisterium in general.  And for all of their concerns with “hyperpapalism” the neo-traditionalists are making far too much of the importance of this one Pope.  We must not exaggerate the importance of any single Pope, good or bad, as we see, for example, that the hero worship of JPII has gotten a bit chastened by the recent revelation that he did, after all, have flaws.  Pope Francis has said and done things that I think are erroneous and are harmful to the hermeneutic of continuity.  But he isn’t a heretic, and the errors he has taught (e.g. the famous footnote in Amoris, civil unions for homosexuals, his change to the catechism on the death penalty, the entire Amazon Synod) can be reversed by a future Pope.  Francis will not be pope forever and this too shall pass.  As Frank Costanza would say “serenity now!”

So has the hermeneutic of continuity failed because of Pope Francis? No it has not.  He is a set-back in that cause I admit, but not an insurmountable one. And if you will allow me a rather disrespectful descriptor, Francis is just a speed bump, and not a roadblock or a bridge that has fallen in the road ahead. As my Zoom, podcast friend Zac Crippen puts it, the hermeneutic of continuity has not failed, it just has not completely succeeded yet.  And a retreat back into a romanticized past that never really existed is a very bad idea.  (You can find Zac’s podcasts here.)

There is only one magisterium of the Church.  And that is because there is only one Church.  And that magisterium stands or falls on the integrity of the whole, and not just in some of its parts.  Therefore, the only truly Catholic path forward is to respect the entirety of the magisterium, ancient and modern, and not to weaponize one part of it against another.  It can be criticized.  It can even be heavily criticized.  But to accuse the modern Church of apostasy and heresy is a bridge too far.  Let’s not cross it, shall we?

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