In his Christmas 2005 address to the Roman Curia Benedict XVI famously upheld the “hermeneutic of reform” (ermeneutica della riforma) against the “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture” (ermeneutica della discontinuità e della rottura).
Benedict was speaking about the relationship between the pre-conciliar and post-conciliar Church. Against those who would see the post-conciliar Church as one that had severed her ties with the past (the hermeneutic of rupture) he insisted that reform and renewal take place “in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has granted to us; she is a subject that grows in time and develops, yet always remaining the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God.”
Later Benedict would refer to the hermeneutic of reform as the “hermeneutic of continuity” (explicationis continuationis, ermeneutica della continuità). You can find him using the latter term, for example, in Sacramentum Caritatis (2007) and in an address to the Italian Bishops Conference (2012).
If Benedict had not spoken expressly of a hermeneutic of continuity in 2005, the idea was there nonetheless, given that the hermeneutic of reform was opposed to what he called the hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture.
The passage from the pope’s 2012 speech to the Italian Bishops’ Conference in which he mentions the hermeneutic of continuity is worth quoting at length:
In this new quinquennium may you pursue together the ecclesial renewal entrusted to us by the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council; and may the 50th anniversary of its opening that we shall be celebrating this autumn be a reason for deepening our knowledge of its texts, a condition for their dynamic and faithful reception. “That which most interests the Council is that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously,” Bl. Pope John XXIII said in his speech at the Council’s opening. And it is worth reading and meditating on these words. The Pope charged the Fathers with considering in depth and presenting this perennial doctrine in continuity with the millennial tradition of the Church: “transmitting the doctrine, pure and integral, without any attenuation or distortion”, but in a new way, according “to what our time demands of us” (Speech at the solemn opening of Vatican Ecumenical Council II, 11 October 1962). With this key to interpreting and applying it — not of course in the perspective of an unacceptable hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture but rather of a hermeneutic of continuity and reform — listening to the Council and making its authoritative instructions our own, is the way to identify the modalities by which the Church can offer a meaningful response to the great social and cultural changes of our time which also have visible consequences on the religious dimension.
The principle that the pope is articulating is this: the Church’s present pronouncements should be interpreted in light of her past teaching. This interpretive rule is guided by the ontology Benedict outlines in the 2005 speech to the Curia: the Church of the past is identical with the Church of the present. Just as there is no discontinuity in her identity from one epoch to the next, neither is there discontinuity in her teaching.
Benedict’s idea isn’t novel (which is only fitting). It is just another (rather obvious) way of explicating the Catholic notion of tradition.
But let’s get to what all of this has to do with the Vatican’s website. I’m thinking in particular of two parts of the site: the Supreme Pontiffs page and the Resource Library page. The Supreme Pontiffs page begins with the current pope and goes back only to Leo XIII, whose reign began in 1878 and concluded in 1903. In other words, we have all and only the twentieth and twenty-first century popes. The popes who led the Church for the first eighteen centuries of her life are unaccounted for. No hermeneutic of continuity here. What message does this send (whether intentionally or not) to the people who visit this page?
The Resource Library is just as bad. We notice that positioned prominently from the upper third to the lower third of the page are these six links:
Catechism of the Catholic Church
Code of Canon Law [of 1983]
II Vatican Council
Then in smaller font on the bottom third of the page we see:
Official Acts of the Holy See
Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church
I can’t complain about the Bible being at the top but the rest of the most prominent part of the page is taken up by links to documents that were all published after 1960. Apparently whatever happened between the completion of the last book of the New Testament in the first century and 1960 was not important enough to warrant being placed here.
The Books link takes you to a page that has links to Italian and Spanish translations of John Paul II’s Gift and Mystery and a dead link to John Paul II’s Crossing the Threshold of Hope. And the Jubilee 2000 link takes you to a page with links to material related to the Jubilee Year of 2000. Do these really rank with the documents of Vatican II and with the new Catechism?
The Official Acts of the Holy See link, which from its position on the page and the size of its font suggests that it is of less importance than the links above it, takes you to a page with links to Church documents that date from 1865 to 2012. Buried among these documents are those of Vatican I, which, it would seem, are not quite as essential as, say, Crossing the Threshold of Hope. (Please do not misunderstand – I think Crossing the Threshold of Hope is a great book, but…).
Last and maybe least, at the bottom of the page are the links to various translations of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, a 2005 document of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Why are there links to the Compendium here? Quite mysterious.
What is missing from the Resource Library? Well, for starters it is quite evidently missing the nineteen ecumenical councils prior to Vatican I. And the texts of Vatican I, as I mentioned above, are not readily accessible. They are two links away in two different PDF documents (vols. 5 and 6 of the Acta Sancta Sedis). And the texts of Vatican I are in Latin only. I am very happy that the Latin texts are made available. They should be. But why are they not available in other languages too? It appears that each document of Vatican II is available in Byelorussian, Chinese, Czech, English, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, Latin, Portuguese, Spanish, and Swahili. Why are the two documents of Vatican I, Dei Filius and Aeterni Patris not also translated into these languages? I won’t ask about translations of the documents of the other ecumenical councils since these are not present in any language. Can they be found anywhere on the Vatican site? If they can, it would be good to know.
What else is missing from the Resource Library? Besides the new Catechism it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have the Catechism of the Council of Trent. Also, there are no links to any of the important patristic or scholastic writings. One, I think, could for obvious reasons expect, at the very least, links to the works of Augustine and Aquinas.
As with the Supreme Pontiffs page, the Resource Library page shows almost no concern for the hermeneutic of continuity. Again I ask: What message does this send to the people who visit these pages? If any part of the Vatican site should exhibit the hermeneutic of continuity, these two pages should. But they don’t.