Creeping magisterial fundamentalismNow, four years into the pontificate of Francis, only the traditionalist wing still uses the hermeneutics of “continuity and reform” versus “discontinuity and rupture” in interpreting Vatican II; Francis has never used it. But the damage is done, and not just in Rome or in the Vatican.
Apr 07, 2017
By Massimo Faggioli
Now, four years into the pontificate of Francis, only the traditionalist wing still uses the hermeneutics of “continuity and reform” versus “discontinuity and rupture” in interpreting Vatican II; Francis has never used it. But the damage is done, and not just in Rome or in the Vatican. For while on one side there is the minimizing of the role of critical thinking about Church history, on the other there is the cultural turn to an emphasis on identity studies. Even at those universities where a historical-critical approach to Church institutions and magisterial texts persists, things tend to gravitate around “religious studies” instead of theology.
This poses a problem for history and religious studies as disciplines: trying to understand the past lives of Christians without a theological line of credit open toward the faith of those Christians limits the ability of the historians to understand the lives of those Christians. But, it’s an even bigger problem for theology. The historical-critical method is facing some pushback today even when it comes to biblical studies, as seen recently in overblown reactions to what the new general of the Jesuits said about the interpretation of the Gospel a few weeks ago.
Paradoxically, it seems more acceptable in today’s Catholic Church to bring the historical-critical method to bear on Scripture than to documents of the magisterium; it’s become more acceptable to critique divinely inspired authors of Scripture than a pope writing on sexual morality.
A creeping magisterial fundamentalism toward the encyclicals of this last century is part of the “biopolitical” problem of Catholicism. This is clearly visible in the debate over Amoris Laetitia. But it would also be worth exploring how naively and uncritically Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum is sometimes used (or misused) in the US Church to make arguments about Catholic social teaching.
Catholic traditionalists have different expectations from Catholic progressives when it comes to history. In the recent past, a strictly institutional and traditionalist Church establishment attempted to disable historians from offering insights about what Church history can teach Catholic theology, especially Catholic leaders drafting magisterial texts. As Rowan Williams wrote a few years ago, “Good theology does not come from bad history.”
Catholic theologians, confronting a possible shift from historical-critical analysis of religious history to a post-historical theology, could stand to learn from what the current “post-truth” moment is showing us.
But the institutional Church establishment isn’t alone in carrying some responsibility. A post-historical approach gives us bad theology because it tends to reduce Church history to “narrative,” where different narratives present “reparationist” accounts of what happened.
I believe that understanding Catholicism historically and theologically still needs a general “Church history” kind of approach, enriched by the new methodological insights of post-modern historical and social studies. Church history as a discipline has a lot to learn from other methodologies — and this might be the key to its survival as a discipline in the no-man’s land between theology, secular history, and social studies.
While we can bemoan the decline of the historical-critical study of the Church in its most “ecclesiastical” aspects (history of Church institutions, of canon law, of magisterial documents), we cannot really celebrate the “success” of the social/cultural approach. For, if it was meant to liberate the Church from its institutionalism, it has in fact done the opposite: opening the way to an institutional Church even more reluctant to historicize itself, or even eager to elevate every aspect of itself to the level of ontology.
Through the neglect of Church history by Catholic academia, we now reject the very idea of changes in Church teaching; some, for example, still deny that Vatican II changed the Church’s teaching on religious liberty.
If bad history first gives us bad theology, it next gives us bad politics. -- Commonweal Magazine
Third Sunday of Easter: Word and Sacrament
It is important that we have bibles, and pray with our bibles, but we have been given a gift that is greater than even our bibles. We have been given the gift of the Eucharist.