“Following the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and paying close attention to the special needs of our times, I devoted the encyclical Redemptor Hominis to the truth about man, a truth that is revealed to us in its fullness and depth in Christ. A no less important need in these critical and difficult times impels me to draw attention once again in Christ to the countenance of the ‘Father of mercies and God of all comfort.’”
— St. John Paul II
Dives in Misericordia, 1
The dichotomy between a “hermeneutic of continuity” and a “hermeneutic of rupture” is a central theme of the pontificate of Benedict XVI. “Hermeneutic of continuity” was what Benedict called the proper lens for interpreting the Second Vatican Council, as opposed to the erroneous hermeneutic of rupture. The former understands the teachings of the Council as reforms and developments in continuity with Catholic Tradition and teaching. The latter, which Benedict rejects, approaches the reforms of the Council as a clean break with the past and the traditional doctrine of the Church.
Unfortunately, some Catholics have appropriated these concepts for their own purposes. They apply this dichotomy to find ruptures between the present-day Church and the Church as it was at a time when they believe the Church better adhered to Catholic doctrine and Tradition. Typically, they will look to a point in Church history prior to whichever doctrinal developments they are unwilling to accept.
It comes as no surprise, therefore, that many Catholics who are critical of Pope Francis will assert that some of his teachings contain ruptures from what Pope Benedict taught. In other words, they apply Benedict’s hermeneutic of continuity principle against the Magisterium of Pope Francis.
This, however, is a betrayal of Benedict’s thought. In fact, to do this—to oppose the very same Magisterium that Benedict served humbly for his whole life—is perhaps the greatest rupture with Ratzingerian thought imaginable.
The continuity between Francis and Benedict is real, and it becomes very clear when we distance ourselves from reductionist dichotomies that worldly ideologies constantly try to impose. When we free ourselves from a culture war mindset and take an eagle-eye view of history, the lines that connect both pontificates are obvious.
While I have addressed specific questions regarding the continuity between Benedict and Francis many times in the past, this time I will not demonstrate this continuity with a document-to-document, point-by-point, word-to-word comparison. Today, I will explore the continuity between the overarching themes of both pontificates.
And this brings us to a second important theme of Benedict XVI’s pontificate: his warnings against relativism. From the homily he gave to his fellow cardinal electors before the 2005 conclave that would elect him pope, Benedict decried a “dictatorship of relativism,” which “does not recognize anything as definitive.” The message of his speech became central to his entire pontificate.
Some people insist Francis teaches in contradiction with Benedict, asserting that Francis promotes relativism. But this does not make sense. Francis has spoken against relativism several times during his pontificate. In his most recent encyclical, he devotes nearly an entire section to the problem of relativism (Fratelli Tutti, 206-210). And for all the accusations that the discipline of Amoris Laetitia promotes relativism, the document itself warns against its being interpreted in a relativistic way (307).
Where, then, do the alleged ruptures lie? Most of them can be traced, according to Francis’s critics, to the major theme of his pontificate: his emphasis on mercy.
Again, this is not a true rupture, nor is Francis’s teaching about mercy novel. The Church’s emphasis on mercy has been expanding since St. John Paul II’s encyclical Dives in Misericordia at least. But Pope Francis has emphasized mercy so much that it has become woven into his entire pontificate.
But is there a rupture? It is indeed true that a misguided emphasis on mercy, especially as it is understood in the secular world, can lead to relativism. We can be tempted to judge certain truths to be too cruel, leading us to abuse the concept of mercy in order to downplay or deny those truths.
This is not what Francis does, however. As I mentioned before, Francis strictly condemns any kind of relativism. In fact, in his criticism of relativism, Francis builds upon the foundation laid by Benedict.
Herein lies the continuity. Mercy is indeed one of the most important of God’s attributes. If it were not for God’s mercy, Jesus would not have died for our sins and our redemption would not have been possible. Heralds of God’s mercy are most necessary, especially today when the world seems to have outright rejected many of the basic tenets of Christian religion and morality.
St. Paul wrote, “Where sin abounded, grace did more abound” (Rom 5:20). If one believes—as most conservatives do—that modernity is filled with immorality and depravity, then this is not the time to impose undue restrictions on mercy. If this is true about our present time, then the message of God’s mercy becomes all the more urgent.
Francis should be, therefore, be seen as the most appropriate pontiff for our times.
True, the pope’s message can be misinterpreted. But precisely because of the danger that the modern world would misinterpret the language of mercy, it was necessary to have a forerunner to set the record straight on what mercy is. Mercy does not negate Truth. Quite the contrary— without truth, “Love becomes an empty shell” (Caritas in Veritate 3).
When I look at this, I cannot help but marvel at how God must surely be guiding the Church, by giving us the last two popes at the times we needed them. Sadly, this impressive continuity—wisely ordained by Divine Providence—is constantly undermined by many of the faithful, those who read and listened more closely to Benedict’s writings and teachings than to those of his successor. So many, tragically, are too blinded by culture wars to understand why Benedict wrote and taught as he did in the first place.
When they set truth and mercy at odds, Pope Francis’s dissenters fall into the same trap as the world does. Instead of correcting the world’s misconceptions by showing how Francis’s teachings on mercy build upon Benedict’s teachings on truth, his critics validate these misconceptions. They tell the world there are ruptures between them, and they say we have to choose one or the other. Of course, the world was not going to choose the harsh, cruel truths without mercy presented by Francis’s critics, so they instead gravitated towards a caricature of Francis that offers false mercy devoid of truth, because that’s what they were already predisposed to believe.
This is a diabolical trap, in the truest sense of the word. After all, “diabolos” means “the one who separates.” As I have written before, “heresy” is an artificial separation that tries to do away with the discomfort borne by the tension between two truths in apparent contradiction.
But this is not truth.
If we think that mercy is too dangerous for truth in present times, so we try to smother it, we are still obscuring a vital truth. This is a paradox indeed.
Isn’t doing away with one uncomfortable truth to cling to a disordered attachment to another truth exactly what relativists do? We cannot do away with God’s mercy as it is defined by the Magisterium. It is sometimes necessary to reevaluate our attitudes and assumptions about apologetics and theology in light of the Magisterium. It is not right to stubbornly hold on to ideas that contradict the Magisterium, no matter how much lip service we pay to truth while doing so.
When we run into a contradiction between the Magisterium and our own presumptions about the faith, we must rediscover a hermeneutic of continuity. Yes, we must read Francis in light of the foundation laid by Benedict. But we should also read Benedict in light of Francis’s developments. We should not try to see, preach, or sell rupture where it does not exist. Rather, we must seek to understand that both truth and mercy, both Benedict and Francis, complement each other.
This is how we acquire a fuller and more comprehensive understanding of the truth. Only then will it be possible to truly evangelize our world.
Image: Vatican News.
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Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.