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Rupture, Reform, and Renewal

by Bernard Dumont POSTED: 12/8/11

(Editor of Catholica)

(Catholica n. 113, Autumn, 2011,


(Translation, including that from the French version

of J. Ratzinger’s council journal)

by John Rao

In his encyclical Fides et Ratio (September 14, 1998), John Paul II confronted a series of philosophical problems. These were both general in character—concerning an entire society that has fallen into confusion—as well as specifically related to the contemporary situation of the Church. One passage (n. 87) was devoted to a methodological point that has gained a particular significance today, given the recent, extensive, and open discussion regarding interpretation of the outcome of the Council and ascertaining how it may have constituted either a rupture or a maintenance of continuity with the past. This passage merits being cited in its entirety. It is to be found in a section of the seventh chapter of the encyclical that seeks to delineate certain “current tasks”, and treats rapidly of two tendencies judged dangerous for the philosophical activity that theology requires: eclecticism and historicism. The first tendency that is cited is examined from the standpoint of useless linguistic inventions that become sources of misunderstanding; the second, treated in a bit more detail, is presented as a particular instance of that first abuse.

Eclecticism is an error of method, but lying hidden within it can also be the claims of historicism. To understand a doctrine from the past correctly, it is necessary to set it within its proper historical and cultural context. The fundamental claim of historicism, however, is that the truth of a philosophy is determined on the basis of its appropriateness to a certain period and a certain historical purpose. At least implicitly, therefore, the enduring validity of truth is denied. What was true in one period, historicists claim, may not be true in another. Thus for them the history of thought becomes little more than an archeological resource useful for illustrating positions once held, but for the most part outmoded and meaningless now. On the contrary, it should not be forgotten that, even if a formulation is bound in some way by time and culture, the truth or the error which it expresses can invariably be identified and evaluated as such despite the distance of space and time.

In theological enquiry, historicism tends to appear for the most part under the guise of “modernism”. Rightly concerned to make theological discourse relevant and understandable to our time, some theologians use only the most recent opinions and philosophical language, ignoring the critical evaluation which ought to be made of them in the light of the tradition. By exchanging relevance for truth, this form of modernism shows itself incapable of satisfying the demands of truth to which theology is called to respond.

This passage concerns the methodology of reasoning and philosophical truths. Nevertheless, to the degree that theology is a reflection concerning the “givens” of Revelation following the same logical requirements as philosophy, its significance is greater. It applies especially to the evolution of dogma. Discussion of the development of dogma is placed between two approaches. One of these is uniform, self-contained, seen “on its own terms; that is to say, by looking at the dogma in itself, with respect to its own meaning, its own understanding.” This kind of approach can be found in Vatican One and the Constitution De Fide. The other refers to something outside of the dogma—to different, varied cultures. This second approach is the consequence of a modern subjectivism applied to theology by modernism. From the latter approach, Fides et ratio retains, above all else, the rejection of tradition in the name of the great number of “languages” found over time and space. But we have seen that the encyclical also includes an accusation as succinct as it is essential: namely, that (modernist) historicism “exchanges relevance for truth”.


These two aspects of the discussion are at the heart of the interpretation of the Second Vatican Council. Pope Benedict XVI’s discourse of December 22, 2005 focused upon them, more precisely with respect to one theme that itself on its own summarizes the whole of the problem: the conciliar Declaration Dignitatis Humanae. This attempted to give a doctrinal foundation to the guarantee of religious liberty in the positive law of states, while avoiding magisterial statements expressing an opposing teaching. A first difficulty with respect to the Declaration was noted at the end of the Council by the man who was then the peritus of Cardinal Frings, the Archbishop of Cologne: Joseph Ratzinger. This difficulty was presented in the course of a report that he gave of the fourth session (1965), reproduced in the diary recently edited in France (Mon Concile Vatican II: Enjeux Perspectives, Artège, Perpignan, March, 2011; Theological Highlights of Vatican Two, Paulist Press, 2009).

The text of the Declaration had been prepared during a first debate at the time of the preceding session. Joseph Ratzinger expressed a reservation regarding this, probably targeting the influence exercised by the Jesuit John Courtney Murray:

“As a matter of fact, it is the American model that appeared through the doctrine of natural law presumed to be independent of history. Instead of conceiving an ideal position regarding cooperation of Church and State, it would have done better to rest content with giving first place to the Gospel doctrine of non-violence, with all its consequences, thereby discarding the fatal error of Saint Thomas who believes he must correct the Gospel on this point, saying that in an exclusive Christian society there is no need to appeal to the courts, but that one must with full right extirpate the tares and kill the sinners ‘in a praiseworthy and salutary manner’” (Mon Concile, p. 170). (Saint Thomas was concerned with the possible fate to be meted out to “the evil”, that is to say, to criminals, in the name of the common good—and not to “sinners”. A reading of question 64 of IIa IIae would have proven to be somewhat urgent—author).

Later on, Joseph Ratzinger noted that the difficulty in finding a theological foundation (in Scripture or Tradition) for civil religious liberty remained. In consequence, he posed the problem of the continuity that the Declaration was simply contented to affirm as such in stating that it “leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ” (Dignitatis Humanae 1, 3). As a theologian, Ratzinger underlined the stumbling block: “The term the duty of societies towards the Church remains questionable: the conciliar Declaration, in reality, offers something new and in a manner different than what one can find in the declarations of Pius IX or Pius XII”. So much was this the case that the affirmation placed at the beginning of the Declaration, inserted to ward off apriori any hesitations was only “an opening rhetorical flourish that one could have perhaps better openly left aside {…} nothing other than a simple lack of taste” (Ibid., p. 216).

Here, despite the distance in time and evolutions owed to intellectual maturation, is something that permits us to understand better the problem formulated by Benedict XVI in 2005. There was a change of course in the domain under consideration (religious liberty) as there was in certain others. And if that presented a difficulty from the point of view of continuity—in the dynamic sense of an always more precise elucidation of the revealed given—one needed to bring forward the sole grounds that might permit the Church to accept it: that is to say, the change of an era, a change so clear that it authorized one to remove the raison d’être and the need for maintenance of a doctrine supported beforehand but having no more link with the new reality.

Such a clarification constitutes a considerable liberating step in comparison with the superabundance of writings trying to demonstrate the lack of a rupture—the supposed evidence of a continuity under the appearance of discontinuity, etc., that has characterized discussion during the preceding decades and is still sustained here and there. This time, the problem is clearly posed. The “reform” to which Benedict XVI alludes is defined as an “ensemble of continuity and discontinuity on diverse levels”. By “levels” one must understand a certain gradual development from the point of view of the duration of validity. The pope immediately explains what this means: “the fundamental decisions can remain valid while the forms of their application can vary in new contexts”. The concept of reform thus specified suggests two tracks for reflection: one concerning methodology and the other regarding fact.


The distinction between “fundamental decisions” and “forms” appears at first glance only to concern the mode of expression of one and the same principle. Moreover, the term embraced—that of “decisions”—is a little ambiguous, since it could merely concern disciplinary dispositions (for example, the Non Possumus policy in Italy and the Ralliement in France). But the context leads us to understand that it concerns doctrinal judgments (“applications”) expressed in a developed form, as, for example, the series of anti-modernist encyclicals of Leo XIII Diuturnum illud (1881), Humanum Genus (1884), Immortale Dei (1885), and Libertas praestantissimum (1888). Before the second session of the Council—that is to say really quite recently in time—such a means of distinguishing something fundamental and its application, at least in the extended sense that seems to be envisaged here, was neither evident nor common. One held to the idea that true principles could be recalled with insistence in periods during which one forgot them or violated them shamelessly.

As with all practical judgments, the principles were applied to a determined situation with either the insistence or the discretion that that situation itself imposed. It is this that, properly speaking, constituted the “form”. But since the second session of the Council, it does not seem that one is dealing with the same concept. Benedict XVI notes that the distinction between “fundamental decisions” and “forms” is “a fact that can easily escape one at first glance”. He even adds that it requires an effort of apprenticeship to grasp: “{…} we had to learn more concretely than before that the decisions of the Church regarding the contingent facts {…} had necessarily themselves to be contingent {…}. It was necessary to learn to recognize that, with respect to such decisions, only the principles express the durable aspect (…}; on the other hand, the concrete forms are not as permanent {…}”.

From the methodological point of view, therefore, it is a question of an innovation, consisting not solely in distinguishing—as always beforehand—principles and prudential applications, but more than that, one of dividing doctrinal expositions themselves into “fundamental” intangible principles and concrete forms whose exact status one still must grasp. Let us note that the terminology employed is clearly juridical, an approach which is perhaps not fortuitous. It seems that one might be able to understand, by analogy, the distinction brought to play here as an administrative or legislative act of demotion in social status: one part of a doctrine, as explained beforehand, being now in contradiction to a new historical situation, is from this point forward considered inoperable or counter-productive. It thus suffers a demotion, passing from the rank of true principles to that of forms or formulations linked to a given epoch.

The discourse of December, 2005 takes the example of religious liberty. This was condemned when it was “considered as the expression of the incapacity of man to find the truth”. It was praised at the Council because it was held to be “a necessity deriving from human coexistence” from the time that the “modern State accorded a place to citizens of diverse religions and ideologies, behaving towards these religions in an impartial manner and assuming simply the responsibility of their ordered and tolerant coexistence…”. The distinction passes beyond that of a particular nuance. The new argument does not complete the preceding one, but renders it null and void. Is this not a partial expression of historicism, to the degree that the doctrinal statement, issued with respect to circumstances new or presumed to be new, and due to its allotment to the category of “forms”, is made without consideration for the rule of uniform interior development of dogma?

Another example, and one that is certainly linked to the question of religious liberty, is that of the doctrine of Christ the King, thoroughly explained by Pius XI in Quas Primas (1925). Here, a long theological argumentation provided the reasons why each and every social body has the objective duty to render a public worship to Christ the Redeemer.  One can imagine—as a pure hypothesis—that in a given context, it might be preferable not to insist upon this doctrine, though for prudential reasons. But is it possible to envisage reconstructing that doctrine in a way that might not any longer appear “menacing” to the dominant anti-Christian culture, and to choose to amputate its socio-political aspects (the obligation of rendering public worship to the Redeemer) so as to retain from now on only its spiritual and eschatological sense? Never before Vatican II was such a possibility envisaged, and above all not in associating it with a peremptory historical judgment. From the factual point of view, unless we are mistaken, the method that appeared at the time of the Council was novel. The reasons for its emergence in that precise epoch would have to be the subject of research that would permit comparison of certain parallel manners of reasoning on theological terrains. This would include study of ecumenical methodology, new conceptions of Tradition, the development of notions of the potential of “pastoral approaches” the question of “reception”, the relationship between theology and praxis, etc.


Alongside the question of methodology there remains another one of fact. The change evoked by Benedict XVI corresponds to two distinct phases of modern political order: a first one justifying rejection, and a second, approval on the part of the Church. What can one say of the internal transformations of modernity? Assuredly, the violent and rapid political implementation of principles formulated at the time of the Enlightenment gave birth—and with forceps—to a new society. This new society was ruled according to the logic of a philosophy that was elaborated in formal antagonism with Christian principles from whose grip it wished to liberate humanity. That interrelation between philosophy and social reality is fundamental to modernity.

In other words, modernity developed over time as a process of implementation of the general philosophy that defined it. The process of implementation, carried out by men, met with resistance from the societies that it touched, docile or hesitant depending upon times and places. It also encountered the obstacle presented by the contradictions that it carried within its own bosom (universalism as opposed to diversity, sovereignty of the individual as opposed to equality, etc.) leading in the end to its self-destruction. Finally, let us not forget, that this process is part of the mystery of Divine Providence, whose designs, for a time, it accomplished. All this explains that, contrary to the progressive myth, the process can follow a chaotic rhythm before itself one day being obliged to disappear.

The discourse of December, 2005 does not claim that modernity—understood as the “radical liberalism” to which the equally “severe and radical condemnations” of Pius IX—has ceased to exist in the form of a philosophy impacting upon the world. Rather, it considers that, due to circumstances, the modern process has diversified its modalities (notably through the example of an American model distinct from that of Jacobinism). The political involvement of Catholics in democratic institutions has removed certain misunderstandings and enhanced the idea of a possible cooperation where beforehand only confrontation was imaginable. What this qualitative change principally means is reflected in a new spirit, a passage from a state of war to one of mutual openness. That evaluation coincides with the one that dominated at the time of the Council, characterized as this was by a determined optimism that was, indeed, well in accord with the realities of the moment.

Since then, however, it has become more difficult to envisage the facts under the same angle. The rejection of Christ by all types of political, ideological, economic, and religious forces has now gained considerable amplitude. Under current circumstances, the interpretation of events given by Benedict XVI in 2005 seems rather out of date. The sole trace of the good relationship to which he alludes without naming it – i.e., a positive form of secularization – is only for the moment a project, if not a fool’s bargain. We are, therefore, permitted to think that the purpose of Benedict XVI was perhaps more prescriptive than descriptive; a sort of pleading for a practical lessening of tensions with the view of this being the lesser of two evils.

A truce could be imagined under the hypothesis that circumstances may have weakened the dominant system, rendering it useful to that system to adopt the political strategy of extending a hand to the Church—up until the time when it would be ready to take its normal hostile course once again. Such strategies can be noted during the various phases of the nineteenth century hunt for a Party of Moral Order, or, once again, with the “religious NEP” in the USSR emerging with Stalinism.

On the other hand, modernity, with all of its forms mixed together, has today arrived in its latter day phase. It offers two faces illustrating what it has accomplished which are contradictory only in appearance -- that expressed by a hyper-modernity of unlimited ambitions and a decadent and anti-humanist post-modernity. Neither of these two faces of modernity would abandon the same initial principle of the exclusion of God from society at any price. At most, one can note small and sometimes useful differences, although in certain respects the final comparison gives the impression of the same modern game going nowhere. After all, did the homo sovieticus, a product of the police violence of the communist regime, not have his counterpart in brain-dead homo occidentalis, shaped by societies reputedly more free but producing comparable anthropological effects?

Whatever the truth may be in this regard, the present hour is one that seems to be returning to a situation of open conflict; a situation that leads us in various respects back to the moment in time that the Syllabus wished to address. Might it then be possible to envisage a new operation of reclassification in order to respond to that regression; a reclassification demoting the conciliar “form”, which is itself now a victim of obsolescence? That hypothesis is doubtful—all the more so since, in the example of religious liberty given by Benedict XVI, the pope indicated that Vatican II, in recognizing an essential principle of the modern State through Dignitatis Humanae and making it its own, had, at the same time, “regained anew the most profound patrimony of the Church”. It would be difficult to take a path in an opposite direction due to new structural manifestations of political hostility and escape the accusation of opportunism. The hypothesis of demotion is unthinkable without effecting a profound revision of the methodology as a whole—something that is well beyond the theme of the “four non-negotiable values”.

Nevertheless, it is necessary to find a way out. Although the concept of reform may be more precise than that of aggiornamento (updating), would it not be more just once again to give to the term “restoration” the place of honor; and this, moreover, in the sense employed at the time of the Council regarding the liturgy? Still, the connotation of this last term is very negative in the world passed down to us by the Enlightenment. It arouses all the phantasms of a return to the Ancien Régime, of “reaction”, etc. The Latin word instauratio that it translates perhaps renders much better the idea of restoration as a rehabilitation or a re-establishment. In the Christian life it evokes above all the fruits obtained through reconciliation with God after confession of one’s sins; or indeed also the rediscovery of the sense of the original beauty of doctrines and practices that has been dulled in men’s conscience over the course of time. That manner of envisaging a renewal, freed from the need to justify oneself vis-à-vis the world, would permit an essentially positive approach; one that would no longer end by sorting through sacred doctrine with respect to its acceptance or rejection by the dominant culture, but by hunting for all that which can and must be rehabilitated after a half-century of disorders.

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