Shortly after Traditionis Custodes was promulgated last summer, Shaun Blanchard wrote an excellent analysis of the motu proprio for Church Life Journal. In that article, Blanchard claimed that “we should see Traditionis Custodes as a decisive contribution by Pope Francis to the continued debate not just over Vatican II specifically, but over a broader postconciliar Catholic debate regarding the nature of doctrinal development.” He concludes that Traditionis Custodes is “a fairly clear rejection of the rigid and static view of ‘continuity’ espoused by figures like Cardinal Burke.”
I think this is exactly right. I believe that this “rigid and static” idea that “Church teaching never changes” is the underlying premise for much of the criticism directed at Pope Francis.
A recent example of this flawed understanding of continuity can be found in a column by Phil Lawler. There Lawler claims that Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II “gave us abundant indications that the Church had not changed in any essentials” (emphasis in original) and that Benedict specifically said we ought to understand Vatican II with a “hermeneutic of continuity” and realize “that the teachings of the Church in the 1960s must necessarily be compatible with her teachings in the 1660s or the 560s.”
Lawler laments that Pope Francis is “telling us, in unmistakably clear language, that there had been a break in continuity” and “a radical break in the Church’s liturgical tradition.” Because of Francis, Lawler argued, Catholics are beginning to ask whether Vatican II itself was a rupture from Tradition. Ultimately, Lawler concludes that Francis’s teaching is driving Catholics like himself to embrace traditionalism.
I believe Lawler’s position here fundamentally misunderstands Pope Benedict and the Church’s teaching on the development of doctrine. Unfortunately, his perspective represents that of a growing contingent of Catholics who share this view.
Lawler appeals to Benedict’s teaching about the “hermeneutic of continuity” as how we ought to understand Vatican II. Although Lawler did not provide a link or footnote to a specific statement or document of the pope emeritus, Benedict’s most well-known and in-depth discussion of this topic was in his 2005 Christmas address to the Roman Curia.
There the former pontiff spoke about how “two contrary hermeneutics” arose in the years after the Council and juxtaposed a “hermeneutic of discontinuity” with a “hermeneutic of reform.” Of the former, Benedict says:
“The hermeneutic of discontinuity risks ending in a split between the pre-conciliar Church and the post-conciliar Church. It asserts that the texts of the Council as such do not yet express the true spirit of the Council. It claims that they are the result of compromises in which, to reach unanimity, it was found necessary to keep and reconfirm many old things that are now pointless. However, the true spirit of the Council is not to be found in these compromises but instead in the impulses toward the new that are contained in the texts.”
In other words, Benedict defines the hermeneutic of discontinuity as the idea that the actual texts of the Council are different from the true spirit of the Council. Therefore, for the sake of faithfulness to the Truth, “it would be necessary not to follow the texts of the Council but its spirit.”
This is opposed to a hermeneutic of reform that recognizes that the Council sought (here Benedict quotes Pope John XXIII) “to transmit the doctrine, pure and integral, without any attenuation or distortion” while recognizing that “The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another.”
In other words, as Adam Rasmussen has pointed out, we can distinguish the substance of a doctrine and a particular written or verbal expression of it. Or, as the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, phrased it, there is a distinction between the “realities” and the “words” of our Tradition.
This distinction is important for understanding what the Church means by “development of doctrine.” The substance of the Church’s doctrine—the divine revelation that is handed down, uncorrupted, by the Church through the centuries by the successors of the Apostles—does not change. That is the radical continuity. But the material aspects of doctrine—the verbal and written expressions that are necessarily limited by factors such as human language, knowledge, and historical context—can change. Here there can be discontinuity. As the Catechism explains it, over time, and with “the assistance of the Holy Spirit, the understanding of both the realities and the words of the heritage of faith is able to grow in the life of the Church” (CCC 94).
Pope Benedict discussed the Council’s teaching about religious tolerance to explain this point. He said:
“Indeed, a discontinuity had been revealed but in which, after the various distinctions between concrete historical situations and their requirements had been made, the continuity of principles proved not to have been abandoned. It is easy to miss this fact at a first glance. It is precisely in this combination of continuity and discontinuity at different levels that the very nature of true reform consists.”
Then, when discussing the Council’s teaching on religious freedom, Benedict said the Council Fathers “recovered the deepest patrimony of the Church. By so doing she can be conscious of being in full harmony with the teaching of Jesus himself (cf. Mt 22: 21).” He explains:
“The Second Vatican Council, with its new definition of the relationship between the faith of the Church and certain essential elements of modern thought, has reviewed or even corrected certain historical decisions, but in this apparent discontinuity it has actually preserved and deepened her inmost nature and true identity.”
In other words, Benedict acknowledges that there can be “apparent discontinuity” between contemporary magisterial teachings and historical teachings and this discontinuity of expression or formulation can actually be a reaching back to the original sources and a deeper preservation of the true doctrine.
As Dei Verbum teaches:
“This tradition which comes from the Apostles develop in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (see Luke, 2:19, 51) through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through Episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her” (DV 8).
From this teaching we can see that doctrine develops with the assistance of the whole Church: the lived and prayerful faith of the laity, the study of theologians, and, ultimately, the Magisterium.
The idea that Church teaching never changes in any way or that the Council did not change anything isn’t present anywhere in the teachings of Pope Benedict or the Council itself. The Church can, and has, corrected some historical decisions of the Magisterium. However, in matters of doctrine, any contradiction with the past is only “apparent” and not substantial. Further, it is ultimately the Magisterium, and only the Magisterium, that definitively resolves any apparent contradictions because the “task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone” (CCC 85).
In light of Pope Benedict’s “contrasting hermeneutics” paradigm, I would like to propose a third hermeneutic: the hermeneutic of traditionalism. This hermeneutic proposes that contemporary magisterial teachings must be understood and interpreted through the lens of historical teachings. This is a tempting hermeneutic because it appears solid and faithful. However, it is ultimately a type of subjective relativism. This hermeneutic presumes that individual Catholics have the ability and authority to correctly interpret the Church’s historical teachings and discern where the “living teaching office of the Church” has contradicted Tradition. This then allows members of the faithful to judge the official teachings of the Church’s magisterial authority based on that interpretation. This hermeneutic is flawed because it makes the individual member of the faithful, and not the living Magisterium (the pope and the bishops in communion with him), the authentic interpreter of Tradition.
Pope Francis is very aware of the hermeneutic of traditionalism and, throughout his pontificate, has responded by emphasizing the continual growth and development of the Church’s living Tradition and opposing rigid definitions of continuity. His criticism of this hermeneutic culminated in his letter accompanying Traditionis Custodes where he wrote, “To doubt the Council is to doubt the intentions of those very Fathers who exercised their collegial power in a solemn manner cum Petro et sub Petro in an ecumenical council, and, in the final analysis, to doubt the Holy Spirit himself who guides the Church.”
This hermeneutic of traditionalism also mirrors the hermeneutic of discontinuity. It is defined by the idea that there is a Truth (i.e., Tradition) that can be known apart from the actual texts of the Magisterium. As with the hermeneutic of discontinuity, the traditionalist hermeneutic holds that for the sake of faithfulness to the Truth, it may be necessary not to follow the teachings of the Magisterium. Ultimately, as Pope Benedict warned in his 2005 address, the hermeneutic of traditionalism “risks ending in a split between the pre-conciliar Church and the post-conciliar Church” because it asserts that the texts of the Council and postconciliar teachings are not entirely faithful to the Truth of the Catholic faith.
The hermeneutic of discontinuity and the hermeneutic of traditionalism also use similar tactics to advance their position. Specifically, they both undermine the authority of the living Magisterium. Reactions to the teachings of Pope Paul VI illustrate this similarity.
As many Catholics are aware, Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical prohibiting contraception, Humanae Vitae, was not well received by many of the faithful. It was, and is, a difficult moral teaching for modern men and women to accept, let alone strive to practice. In the years following the encyclical, the hermeneutic of discontinuity ran rampant. Many influential Catholics readily asserted that our assent is only really required for the pope’s infallible teachings, and because Humanae Vitae was not an ex cathedra teaching, it was more like “optional advice” than authoritative teaching.
It was also popular to emphasize the messy process that went into drafting the encyclical. Paul VI famously rejected the conclusions reached by the majority of the papal commission that had been established to help him address the morality of birth control and instead reaffirmed the minority position that the Church’s prohibition on contraception should remain in place. Catholics who argue against Humanae Vitae often focus on these details (“how the sausage was made”) in order to undermine the final product.
The same type of argument is regularly used by those who adhere to the hermeneutic of traditionalism against Paul VI’s liturgical reforms, postconciliar magisterial teachings, and even the Second Vatican Council itself. For example, prominent traditionalists like Fr. Chad Ripperger have been arguing for decades that any “non-infallible” teaching can be questioned if it appears to contradict historical teachings. Especially since the release of Traditionis Custodes, I have seen Catholics arguing that the development of the reformed liturgy after the Council was messy and its composition and theological foundations are therefore dubious. They advance the notion that even though the liturgical reform was promulgated by the Magisterium, its legitimacy is questionable and it is unquestionably inferior to the liturgy that came before it. In other words, the arguments against both Humanae Vitae and the reformed liturgy boil down to the same thing:
“Pope Paul VI broke with the spirit of the Council/the Tradition when he promulgated Humanae Vitae/reformed liturgy.”
To be clear, it is important to note that this hermeneutic of traditionalism extends far beyond those who attend the Tridentine Mass or who describe themselves as “traditionalists.” In fact, many Catholics who attend the Vatican II liturgy and support and promote John Paul II and Benedict—many of whom even criticize “Rad Trads” for their excesses—have fallen prey to this false hermeneutic. They do this whenever they presume that an apparent contradiction between a teaching of Pope Francis and the teachings of a past pope or council is a substantial contradiction. Examples of this hermeneutic include the assertions that Pope Francis’s teachings on the death penalty or the possibility of Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics are ruptures from the Tradition. Like the Second Vatican Council’s teaching about religious freedom, Francis’s magisterial teaching about capital punishment and Communion include a “combination of continuity and discontinuity at different levels.” Some of the current pontiff’s teachings are indeed changes from those of his predecessors, but they are not ruptures. Francis is reaching back to a deeper truth.
As Shaun Blanchard says in the article quoted above, Traditionis Custodes does reject the understanding of “continuity” promoted by leading critics of Pope Francis, including Cardinal Raymond Burke. In fact, the cardinal expresses a distilled version of the hermeneutic of traditionalism in his 2019 interview with Ross Douthat. In reference to Amoris Laetitia, Burke said, “I haven’t changed. I’m still teaching the same things I always taught and they’re not my ideas. But now suddenly this is perceived as being contrary to the Roman pontiff.” The idea that one could not possibly be in schism because their beliefs have not changed rests on the premise that Church teaching cannot change.
Under Pope Benedict, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published a document that addressed the “hermeneutic of continuity.” The CDF specifically pointed to the Catechism of the Catholic Church as well as the many synods and post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortations as offering “a precious commentary – a true hermeneutic of continuity of the teachings of Vatican II.” These sources are “privileged instances of efforts to ensure a correct hermeneutical interpretation of the Second Vatican Council at the level of the universal Church.”
In other words, the CDF taught that if someone wants to have a hermeneutic of continuity then they ought to pay special attention to the teachings found in the Catechism and the decisions that result from synods of bishops. It is very ironic, therefore, that the two teachings that have faced the most opposition from those with the hermeneutic of traditionalism are found in Pope Francis’s revision to the teaching on the death penalty in the Catechism and in his post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia.
When we do not allow the living Magisterium to lead us to a deeper and richer understanding of the Truth, we wander into subjective relativism. Whether its advocates are willing to admit it or not, the hermeneutic of traditionalism is ultimately the elevation of personal interpretations of the Truth above the living teaching office of the Church. The path away from the hermeneutic of traditionalism is the same path Pope Benedict presented in response to the hermeneutic of discontinuity. We must embrace a hermeneutic of reform rooted deeply in fidelity to the living Magisterium.
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Paul Fahey lives in Michigan with his wife and four kids. For the past eight years, he has worked as a professional catechist. He has an undergraduate degree in Theology and is currently working toward a Masters Degree in Pastoral Counseling. He is a retreat leader, catechist formator, writer, and a co-founder of Where Peter Is. He is also the founder and co-host of the Pope Francis Generation podcast. His long-term goal is to provide pastoral counseling for Catholics who have been spiritually abused, counseling for Catholic ministers, and counseling education so that ministers are more equipped to help others in their ministry.