The media narrative that Pope Francis has rejected his predecessors continues to unravel as he endorses Benedict’s “hermeneutic of continuity” for Vatican II.
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Maybe declaring Pope Francis “a flaming liberal” was a bit hasty?
The narrative that Pope Francis has rejected his predecessors and is finally liberalizing the Church makes for good press, but two recent statements from Pope Francis add further weight to the interpretation that he has not abandoned “conservatives”, but is simply a plain old boring orthodox Catholic in line with his successors.
Pope Francis has written a letter for the 450th anniversary of the closing of the Council of Trent coming up in the first week of December. In it, he specifically endorses Pope Benedict XVI’s position that the Second Vatican Council must be interpreted with a “hermeneutic of renewal” or “continuity”, which views the council as a legitimate development in the Church’s doctrine, as opposed to a “hermeneutic of rupture”, which views the council as a rejection of what came before it. The letter is written in Latin, but here’s a translation of the relevant section made by Fr. John Zuhlsdorf:
The second statement concerns Archbishop Agostino Marchetto, well-known as a significant opponent to the “Bologna School” of Catholic theology which advocates for the “hermeneutic of rupture”. “[O]n the occasion of the presentation at the Campidoglio of a book in his honor,” Sandro Magister writes, again translated by Fr. John Zuhlsdorf, a letter from Pope Francis was read in which he called Archbishop Marchetto “the best interpreter of the Second Vatican Council”. Here’s the relevant section:
Pope Francis’ endorsement of Benedict’s interpretation of the council is significant since the idea that Vatican II was a hard break from the past is often used as justification by liberal Catholics for dissenting on a wide range of traditionally settled Church teaching. If Vatican II rejected certain aspects of the tradition, the thinking goes, maybe Catholics today can reject the tradition on hell, abortion, womenpriests, sexual ethics, or any other doctrine that does not conform well with modern secular liberalism.
“After Vatican II,” explains Ronald Rychlak, Butler Snow Lecturer and Professor of Law at the University of Mississippi School of Law, “some theologians and others spoke of the pre- and post-Vatican II Church as if they were two different entities, with different teachings and understandings. That is not the case. By putting his authority behind that truth, Pope Francis not only reaffirms that point, he may also be giving us a way to understand him. Many news accounts have suggested that our new pope was breaking with the traditional Catholic teachings of his recent predecessors. That was never the case, and this statement makes that very clear.”
John Bergsma, Associate Professor of Theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville, says Francis’ endorsement of Benedict’s “hermeneutic of continuity” in interpreting the Second Vatican Council indicates commentators should use the same principle to understand Francis’ relationship to Benedict.
“[T]here is greater continuity between Benedict and Francis than the media lets on. […] [We] should interpret Pope Francis' words and actions with a hermeneutic of continuity with the pontificate of Benedict XVI. Many have already pointed out that some of Francis' more ‘daring’ or ‘progressive’ comments were already anticipated by Benedict. Benedict, for example, said that we need to evangelize in love, not immediately condemn people for not following the moral law. But he wasn't heard. Benedict also first visited the juvenile detention center that Francis later made famous as the site of his first Holy Thursday Mass. So there is much more continuity between these popes than has previously been recognized.”
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Chair of the Department of Theology at Ave Maria University Fr. Matthew Lamb thinks Pope Francis is cleverly using his media influence against liberalism. “Pope Francis is resonating well in the mass media, and he is using his expertise to promote the hermeneutics of continuity against the mass media tendency to oppose the real Vatican II Council with a politically liberalizing Virtual Council.”
“What a wonderful irony that Pope Francis is using his communicative expertise to praise Archbishop Agostino Marchetto, with his two books carefully analyzing the histories of Vatican II, as the ‘best interpreter of the Council’. With that endorsement the English translation of the Archbishop’s book The Second Vatican Ecumenical Council: A Counterpoint for the History of the Council went from about $62 on Amazon to $162 and is now sold out, with a few copies going for $3,999. Then a few days later Pope Francis explicitly endorsed the ‘hermeneutics of reform within continuity’ in regard to the Council of Trent, thereby showing his disagreement with those who promote a hermeneutics of discontinuity, or even rupture, between the Council of Trent and Vatican II.”
While acknowledging that his remarks are not good for the “Bologna School”, Professor of Systematic Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary Robert Fastiggi cautions Catholics to not jump too quickly to strong conclusions from Pope Francis’ statements.
“Pope Francis wanted to express his appreciation for the work that Archbishop Marchetto is doing on the history of Vatican II. At the very least, the letter shows the Holy Father's keen interest in the history and interpretation of the Council. It's difficult to know off hand how much Pope Francis has read of Marchetto's work and how deeply he has studied the interpretations of the Council given by the authors of the five volume history edited by the late Prof. Giuseppe Alberigo (1926 – 2007) – the volumes identified with the ‘Bologna School’ of interpreting Vatican II. Because Archbishop Marchetto is a critic of the Bologna School, it's natural for Catholics to see this as a sign that Pope Francis is best identified with the approach to Vatican II taken by Pope Benedict XVI.”
“I think it's important to note that there are multiple authors of the five-volume Alberigo volume, and they present different perspectives — even if there is a certain interpretive slant. Archbishop Marchetto's work serves as a counterpoint to the Bologna School, but it does not mean that everything said in the five volumes edited by Alberigo et al. is without any merit. Pope Francis' endorsement of Marchetto's approach might serve as a warning to Catholic scholars to approach the Alberigo volumes with a healthy sense of reserve or skepticism. It might also serve as an indication of the direction Pope Francis hopes future historians of Vatican II will follow. As we all know, research into the history of the Council has not yet been completed.”
The following Aleteia Experts contributed to this article:
John Bergsma is Associate Professor of Theology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He specializes in Old Testament and the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Robert Fastiggi is Professor of Systematic Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, MI and and vice president of the Mariological Society of America.
Fr. Matthew Lamb is Professor of Theology and Chair of the Department of Theology at Ave Maria University. He has taught in the Theology Department at Marquette University, and Boston College, has lectured at universities in Europe and North and Central America, authored several books and over hundred and forty-five articles on various topics.
Ronald J. Rychlak is the Butler Snow Lecturer and Professor of Law at the University of Mississippi School of Law.