[Editor’s Note: This is the fourth and final installment in a series on “Vatican II and Theological Paradigms” by Michel Therrien, STL, STD, exploring the root causes of internal divisions and polarization in the post-conciliar Church, particularly the debate over the possibility of paradigm shifts in Catholic theology.

Click here for Part 1Click here for Part 2. Click here for Part 3.] 

What is striking about the post-conciliar environment is how so many sincerely committed Catholics can be misinterpreted, misquoted, and dismissed, or worse, maligned by brothers and sisters in the faith. Regardless of the issue at hand, this distrust and spirit of suspicion usually revolves, in one way or another, around the issue of continuity in magisterial teaching. If we were to divide the paradigms into those of a more progressivist and those of a more conservative bent, the deepest underlying point of contention is how to interpret Vatican II—as a paradigm shift that saved the Church or ruined it. Likewise, too many Catholics read the post-conciliar period as a tug-of-war between two political forces vying for the right to own the Council. These movements all tend to rally to one or another pontificate. We thus divide ourselves over the figure whom Christ entrusted with building up the Church in unity—the successor of Peter (Luke 22:32; Matthew 16:18).

Theological paradigms affect how each group relates to or appraises recent papacies. Part of this story is simply the visibility popes enjoy today because of the media, as well as the way it tends to spin Vatican news. Another part of the story is how Catholics use communication platforms to shape perceptions of the papacy. Nevertheless, allegiance to this or that pope is another branding element of our ecclesial identity politics. A liberationist, for example will identify more with the spirit of aggironamento so characteristic of Popes St. John XXIII, Blessed Paul VI, and now Francis. A neo-conservative will rally to the free market sensibilities of Pope Leo XIII and Pope St. John Paul II, while passing right over the economic insights of Pope Pius XI. A neo-traditionalist is right at home with Pope Benedict XVI’s reform of the liturgical reform, and so forth.

The first order of business is to overcome our papal biases. I would like to suggest a way beyond this situation by pointing out the obvious. As human beings like the rest of us, those who occupy the Chair of Peter, as well as the bishops that comprise their Magisterium, are individuals whose personal experiences of the Church and the theological systems through which they contextualize their faith, and have learned theology, give shape to their leadership. While the faith is not a paradigm, as I have already noted, the articulation of doctrine and their forms of expression, are the product of the theological paradigms used in formulating the truths we profess.[1]

For example, we derive the word transubstantiation from an Aristotelian-Thomistic framework. Communio personarum is a phrase originating within a personalist framework. Not only do such terms reflect different systems of thought, but they are also the direct result of individuals who employed these frameworks to define a doctrine when it was their rightful authority to do so. While there was a time when the Church did not use such terms, the Church still professed her faith in these realities, yet perhaps with far less clarity of definition, or differently, as the case may be. The body of magisterial teaching is a unique compilation of many theological paradigms that have contributed to the formulations of faith down through the centuries, principally through the leadership of the Holy See.[2]

These paradigms have also been the occasion of blind spots that caused certain truths of the faith to remain obscure for a time. Think of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body (TOB).[3] The Church did not always present human sexuality through this lens. For centuries, the Church relied upon an Augustinian (Platonic) framework for its teaching on sexuality. When John Paul II introduced TOB, we saw a paradigm shift but not a change of the essential teaching of the Church, and yet, some still look askance at what John Paul II presented.[4] Look at the insights that have opened for the faithful now that his personalist theology has shed a new light on this aspect of human existence. We literally speak a new language in the Church today because of it, even though we profess the same sublime mystery of God’s plan for marriage and sexuality. In fact, John Paul II’s ‘catechesis’ on the body engages modern philosophical and theological thought in a manner that the Neo-scholastic paradigm could never do as effectively today.

Popes and the ordinary Magisterium have formulated the truths of the faith using a diversity of theological frameworks available to them. The beauty of the Magisterium is that it brings together multiple theological elements that provide a more complete picture of the faith within any age, especially through the deliberations of an ecumenical council. Nevertheless, the character of those teachings often bears the character of the popes who presided over the promulgation of those teachings. Hence, if one reads the encyclicals of Pope Leo XIII, they are unique in their Leonine character from, say, the encyclicals of Pope Pius XII, and different still from Pope St. John XXIII, or Pope Benedict XVI. To employ a principle of biblical exegesis, the popes are human authors, leaders and theologians, who rely not only on the guidance of the Holy Spirit, but their own theological experience and formation.

The challenge for Catholics, however, is how to read these teachings faithfully and in a spirit of humility. If we happen to function within a similar theological paradigm as that of the current pope, we will find it easier to agree with his teachings. They resonate with us. Yet when a pope employs elements of a different paradigm, or shifts the paradigm, it can create dissonance and even deep fear and resistance. One might even become suspicious of their motives, especially when their approach appears to represent a sharp departure from their predecessor. Think of John Paul II’s teaching on capital punishment in Evangelium Vitae.[5] His personalist approach to human dignity precipitated a development of that doctrine and a paradigm shift in its articulation. Pope Francis further developed John Paul II’s position. Progressives applauded; traditional Thomists bristled.[6] One of the deepest challenges of the post-conciliar Church is the degree to which adherents of the various paradigms will read a pope’s writings selectively through the lens of their paradigmatic commitments. What results are theological scrums around the popes, or a pitting of one against another as a mark of loyalty to brand identity, and perhaps even outright dismissing a pontiff with suspicion.

Another problem arises when one attributes to magisterial teaching (or reads into it) their own prejudices. For example, much controversy surrounded Vatican II’s teaching on religious liberty from the document Dignitatis Humanae. Alongside some other issues, it became the occasion of a schism in the Church with the Society of Saint Pius X—a thoroughly neo-scholastic and now neo-traditionalist group.[7] Those of a liberationist bent assumed, as a matter of discontinuity, that the Council changed Church teaching on religious liberty by adopting a modern (Enlightenment) view of the matter. Others have shown convincingly that the teaching represents a legitimate development of the doctrine in continuity with pre-conciliar formulations.[8]

The matter of any debate is not the issue here; rather, I am pointing out how people will read discontinuity into magisterial teaching from the perspective of their paradigmatic biases. Those in the liberationist camp will cheer Dignitatis Humanae as an endorsement of liberalism; while the Neo-traditionalist will see the same thing, but as a reinforcement of their suspicions of the Council. The biggest points of controversy have surrounded the paradigm shifts between Pius XII and John XXIII (Vatican II), between Paul VI and John Paul II, and now between Benedict XVI and Francis. My point is that papal teachings reflect theological paradigms and people read papacies through their paradigmatic lenses; yet this hardly demonstrates discontinuity in magisterial teaching. Rather, it reflects the inconsistency of Catholics in their adherence to magisterial teaching.

Pope Benedict XVI coined the helpful phrase the hermeneutics of continuity, which I have always liked.[9] It suggests that we ought to read the pre- and post-conciliar magisterial statements as consistent and continuous in their authoritative teaching. The phrase indicates that we should read magisterial documents from the perspective of supernatural faith as opposed to clinging to those aspects of the faith with which we identify as a matter of personal preference. The faith of the Church as it is articulated and professed to the faithful is always the rule and measure of what we are to believe. That is, we will see continuity in papal teachings, despite the shifting of theological paradigms, if we hold as a principle of faith that magisterial teaching develops in continuity with previous teachings. The essence of the faith does not change, even while our understanding of the faith grows, and our formulations evolve to reflect our deeper and more nuanced understanding as time goes on. The Church contextualizes her formulations historically.

When we place our modern philosophical or ideological commitments before the act of faith, what results is a history of magisterial teaching that seems disjointed, drifting, and inconsistent. The hermeneutics of continuity suggests that we ought never to read magisterial teaching in this manner but must see in the genealogy of papal teaching a consistency only the Holy Spirit can achieve within the shifting of theological paradigms. The reality of theological paradigms, and our commitments to them, complicates this process, however, insofar as we can be unaware of our own biases and filters. We must always listen carefully, in a discerning spirit, where God is calling the Church to greater conversion, to see a different aspect of the faith with greater clarity. One ought never to assume he or she has it all figured out.

All the recent contentiousness over papacies originates in the dissonance between paradigms, which paradigmatic blindness aggravates. Those who have acquired a more integrated view of the faith see continuity, while also discerning how recent popes employ different frameworks of understanding for the articulation of the same doctrines, or in the development of doctrine. In fact, they welcome this diversity of expression and the unique accents each pontiff places on various aspects of the faith. I would point out that when the Cardinals elected Pope Benedict XVI, the close runner up was Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio.[10] These two men could not be any more different in their formation, theological persuasions, or cultural contexts. Yet the College of Cardinals saw value in both potential candidates. Even more importantly, to believe that these men will teach and uphold the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic faith is a matter of supernatural faith.[11]

Hence, it ought to go without saying that, if the Holy Spirit guides the Church, we ought to begin with faith in the infallibility of the Magisterium to uphold the doctrines of the Church on matters of faith and morals. Moreover, the distrust of authority from any paradigmatic persuasion, while a quintessential characteristic of modernity, does not belong among Christians. That is the irony in all of this. Who then decides which popes we ought to believe; which magisterial teachings are reliable? Why profess Catholic Christianity if one does not believe in this most fundamental source of assurance? We must be aware that our acknowledgment of a given papal teaching, or the rejection thereof, may reflect our own personal bias.

Concerning the issue of doctrinal confusion, it is the public challenging of papal authority by academics and Church leaders that creates the confusion about which we hear so much today. This is what has led to the massive dissent from Church teaching after Vatican II by ordinary Catholics.[12] In today’s saturated media environment and endless platforms, this is very confusing indeed. To whose commentary should one listen? Public opposition happens whether one is accusing the papacy of being too stringent or too lenient on any number of issues. The problem seems to be reading a statement out of the context of the entire body of magisterial teachings—or perhaps misreading a statement because one is looking for discontinuity, or perhaps lifting one phrase out of an entire address for the sake of personal posturing. Again, this happens from any paradigmatic point of view and reflects a crisis of faith in the Church today.

Unique to Catholicism, however, is the potential strength of our unity. I say potential because to read magisterial teaching selectively is the most efficient way to divide the Church’s members and weaken our witness. The issue of continuity cuts to the heart of what it means to be a missional body in service to the Gospel. The one thing Christians ought to be able to proclaim before the world is the unity of our minds and hearts. We know this but allow ourselves to buy into a hermeneutic of discontinuity anyway. To suggest that the Magisterium of the Church or the successors of St. Peter can ever be doctrinally inconsistent or discontinuous is simply to abrogate one of the very first principles of supernatural faith. It demonstrates a profound distrust in the presence of the Holy Spirit and the promise of Jesus that he will remain with us until the end of the ages (Jn 17).

Without a doubt, we must debate Church matters for the sake of clarity, because fraternal dialogue contributes to the indefectibility of the Church, but we can never assume even the possibility of discontinuity in teaching. Nevertheless, the assumption of discontinuity has been an epidemic since the Second Vatican Council. The problem, however, does not originate in the Council, or the popes, or the lack of clarity in magisterial teaching. It originates from the many ways modernity and paradigmatic blindness have influenced and shaped perception along individualistic and tribal lines, that is, in a manner thoroughly voluntaristic. Every operative paradigm in the post-conciliar Church suffers from this in some manner.


[1] Pope St. John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, nos. 36-44.

[2] Joseph Ratzinger, On the Nature and Mission of Theology. Part II: “The Nature and Form of Theology,” pp. 45-100.

[3] John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, translated by Michael Waldstein (New York: Pauline Books and Media, 2006).

[4] Luke Timothy Johnson Commonweal Magazine, June 4, 2004, “A Disembodied ‘Theology of the Body,’ https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/disembodied-theology-body (accessed October 27, 2019).

[5] Evangelium vitae, no. 56. See also Catechism of the Catholic Church no. 2267. Pope Francis has recently amended this paragraph number to state: “Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good. Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption. Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person’, and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”

[6] Michael Sean Winters, National Catholic Reporter, “With death penalty change, Francis builds on John Paul II’s teaching,” https://www.ncronline.org/news/opinion/distinctly-catholic/death-penalty-change-francis-builds-john-paul-iis-teaching (accessed October 27, 2019); Diane Montagna, LifeSite News, August 15, 2018, “75 clergy, scholars appeal to Cardinals: Urge Francis to ‘withdraw’ death penalty teaching,” (Accessed October 27, 2019).

[7] See Gaudron, Matthias. The Catechism of the Crisis in the Church. Angelus Press, 2011, pp. 70-72.

[8] Russell Hittinger, “Dignitatis humanae.” Vatican II: Renewal Within Tradition, ed. Matthew Lamb

(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 359-382. Hittinger is one of the foremost Thomists of our times.

[9] Benedict XVI (22 December 2005). Christmas Address of His Holiness Benedict XVI to the Roman Curia: “The question arises:  Why has the implementation of the Council, in large parts of the Church, thus far been so difficult? Well, it all depends on the correct interpretation of the Council or – as we would say today – on its proper hermeneutics, the correct key to its interpretation and application. The problems in its implementation arose from the fact that two contrary hermeneutics came face to face and quarreled with each other. One caused confusion, the other, silently but more and more visibly, bore and is bearing fruit. On the one hand, there is an interpretation that I would call ‘a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture’; it has frequently availed itself of the sympathies of the mass media, and also one trend of modern theology. On the other, there is the ‘hermeneutic of reform’, of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us. She is a subject which increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God. 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. These innovations alone were supposed to represent the true spirit of the Council, and starting from and in conformity with them, it would be possible to move ahead. Precisely because the texts would only imperfectly reflect the true spirit of the Council and its newness, it would be necessary to go courageously beyond the texts and make room for the newness in which the Council’s deepest intention would be expressed, even if it were still vague. In a word:  it would be necessary not to follow the texts of the Council but its spirit. In this way, obviously, a vast margin was left open for the question on how this spirit should subsequently be defined and room was consequently made for every whim. The nature of a Council as such is therefore basically misunderstood. In this way, it is considered as a sort of constituent that eliminates an old constitution and creates a new one. However, the Constituent Assembly needs a mandator and then confirmation by the mandator, in other words, the people the constitution must serve. The Fathers had no such mandate and no one had ever given them one; nor could anyone have given them one because the essential constitution of the Church comes from the Lord and was given to us so that we might attain eternal life and, starting from this perspective, be able to illuminate life in time and time itself.”

[10] John Allen, Jr. National Catholic Reporter, March 3, “Profile: New pope, Jesuit Bergoglio, was runner-up in 2005 conclave,” https://www.ncronline.org/blogs/ncr-today/profile-new-pope-jesuit-bergoglio-was-runner-2005-conclave (accessed on October 27, 2019).

[11] Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, nos. 18-29.

[12] The first such incident after the Council was precipitated by Fr. Charles Curran over Humane Vitae. More recently, we see requests for the removal of Pope Francis over Amoris Laetitia.

Image: Adobe Stock. By Zaleman.

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Michel Therrien, STL, STD is the President and CEO of Preambula Group. Prior to founding Preambula Group, he served as the President of the Institute for Pastoral Leadership and the Director of Evangelization for the Diocese of Pittsburgh. Before moving to Pittsburgh in 2014, he was a professor moral theology and Academic Dean at the Augustine Institute in Denver, CO. He taught for seven years at Saint Vincent Seminary in Latrobe, PA, also serving as Academic Dean from 2008-2012. He holds a B.A. in Theology from Gonzaga University in Spokane, WA, an M.A. in Theology and Christian Ministry from Franciscan University of Steubenville, a Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the International Theological Institute in Gaming, Austria, and a Doctorate in Fundamental Moral Theology from the University of Fribourg in Switzerland (2007). Michel is the author of The Catholic Faith Explained (Sophia Institute Press, 2020).

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