Editor’s Note: This post contains the full text of all four installments of the 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.


A Post-Conciliar Tribal Church

The Promise and Limits of Theological Paradigms

Three disparate paradigms at Vatican II

The Hermeneutics of Discontinuity

A Post-Conciliar Tribal Church

In July of 2017, I had the privilege of attending the USCCB’s Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America in Orlando, Florida.[1] It was a great gathering of Catholic leaders, but I would offer a couple of observations. The conversations and presentations were brimming with jargon from The Joy of the Gospel, but just beneath the surface, the basic theological perspectives represented by the various participants sounded the same notes as they had for decades. It struck me as a huge gathering of theological tribes and not quite the intended unified assembly of the universal Church. That is not a criticism of the organizers; I thought the blending of panelists was the most intriguing part of the event—the gathering represented an atypical combination of voices. What was opportune is that many folks who never come together in such a mixed gathering from across the entire theological spectrum were under the same roof. Yet it seemed to me also that people remained largely in their comfortable associations, while also embracing the rhetoric of the Joy of the Gospel. Several years later, these comfortable associations have become increasingly shrill in their rhetoric and hostility toward one another.

For several years now, and over the course of many years serving in a variety of ministerial and teaching environments, a suspicion has grown within me that we can correlate the loss of the Church’s missionary impulse to a kind of tribalism that prevails within Church life since Vatican II. We have not been able to get the Church’s mission moving forward because there are too many internal rivalries about what it means to be Catholic. There is not even agreement about the Church’s mission, without which no organization can flourish. We have fragmented identity and thus a weak sense of unity today; and as a direct consequence, we have no compelling witness. Catholics can focus too much attention on intramural debates than figuring out how to advance the mission. I would argue that the faithful are divided among various theological paradigms. We talk about mission but do not seem to know how to go out to others.

I would consider the following four post-conciliar paradigms to be the most consequential: the liberationist paradigm that arose in the 1960s as a Christian appropriation of Marxism; the Psycho-spiritual paradigm engendered by the confluence of modern psychology and eastern spirituality during the 1970s; the Charismatic-evangelical paradigm that emerged in the 1970s through the Charismatic Renewal; and finally the Neo-traditionalist paradigm that arose during the 1980s in reaction to the last three and remains to this day more popular in the US among younger and newer converts to the faith.

While it is true that the Christian faith is not itself a paradigm, it is equally true that Catholic influencers today and those they lead operate within theological paradigms that contextualize what it means to be a good Catholic. There are clear brand identities, political jockeying, and prejudices within the flock, and it has shifted the focus of attention onto internal power struggles for primacy of influence within the Church. My hunch about this is that our current state of affairs results from the profound influence “modernity” has had on Christian peoples.[2] While the faith is transcendent and universal, it is lived historically. What is most characteristic of modernity is its profound ability to dissolve unity in favor of particularism and individuality. The universal and transcendent is eclipsed by the culturally conditioned and subjectivity of experience. It should be obvious that a divided community does not grow.

Furthermore, the years following Vatican II created a political vacuum within which several theological paradigms have vigorously rivaled for ascendency and the right to interpret the meaning of the Council.[3] What ought to be the signature character of the Catholic Church, called to the unity of faith, is the way we are able to work through our differences in the spirit of charity. There is something especially scandalous about tribalism, and even worse, schism. It cuts to the very heart of what we as Christians claim for the world—social unity, the witness of divine love, and the ministry of reconciliation (cf. Col 1:21-23).  In sum, the spirit of the modern age has fragmented the Church’s mission and thus weakened our unity of witness.

How can outsiders take us seriously, much more, be attracted to our message or perceive among us any authenticity when we so evidently cannot get along over the essential matters we claim to profess? The Church has always been the home of diversity and a whole slew of charisms. This is not the issue. The fragmentation to which I am referring is more reminiscent of watching several sets of hands tearing a garment to pieces. Catholics have torn asunder particular elements of Christian life represented by different theological paradigms, and then juxtaposed these to each other. For example, we pit law against personal experience; authority against freedom; office against charism; the new against the old and vice versa; social engagement against the interior life, tradition against progress; the living against the unborn; Latin against the vernacular; history against truth; faith against reason—and the list goes on. Where is Jesus in all of this? Is any of this about him? My conclusion is that the contentiousness is not about Jesus or his mission, since so many Catholics have just been moving along with the currents of change both within and outside the Church.

Let me delve deeper into the concept of a theological paradigm, which seems controversial to certain people.[4] Some have claimed that the Catholic faith is not a paradigm and so we ought not to speak of it in that way. The point these commentators are making is that paradigms do not apply to matters of faith and morals.[5] While I agree, it is also true that modern people contextualize their ideas and experiences through paradigms. It is one of the consequences of the scientific revolution as well as the modern turn toward subjectivity.

Thomas Kuhn, an American physicist and philosopher, coined the term “paradigm shift” in his 1962 publication, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.[6] A paradigm refers to a framework of understanding within a science, which enables those of a common academic discipline to systematize their principles, concepts and findings into a coherent and organized view of the reality they seek to understand. Newtonian physics, for example, provided a coherent framework for scientists for a long time and served as a framework for putting together a successful space program in the 1950s and 1960s. Quantum theory emerged as a new paradigm, however, and demonstrated the limits of Newtonian physics by better enabling scientists to delve into reality on a subatomic level.

Theoretical paradigms are very much the product of the scientific revolution and a scientific age. The purpose of any scientific method is to create a systematic body of knowledge that provides explanatory power for the nature of various realities.  Scholars have extended the scientific method to disciplines such as history, psychology, sociology, and philosophy, and so paradigms operate in these disciplines as well as the hard sciences. Paradigms tend to function in and through theoretical models, as well as constructed narratives, that provide a lens through which people explore certain realities such that new schools of thought arise.

Paradigms shed a certain light on reality, but the danger is that we can ascribe to them more explanatory power than they truly have. A paradigm cannot explain everything. A good example of this is the theory of evolution, which accounts for a great deal, but not everything. Evolutionary biologists might apply the theory to eliminate the need for God or attempt to make evolution explain more than it can about human behavior.[7] People can apply paradigms subjectively because of a bias or ideology. Since the modern turn to the subject and the rise of philosophical skepticism, modern people tend to think in terms of mental constructs with which they contextualize their experiences or observations.

With some degree of intentionality, we allow paradigms to become the filter of our interpretations of reality and personal experience. When we refuse to acknowledge the limits that a paradigm imposes upon reality itself, they lose their usefulness. Put another way, to reduce reality simply to what one wants the paradigm to explain is a common temptation; one might try to explain everything in terms of the paradigms he or she prefers, which might often lead to a distorted perception of reality. Paradigms easily become a mental structure one imposes such that reality is reduced to the paradigm’s limited perspective.[8] By way of a preliminary conclusion, I would suggest that much of the tribalism we see today in the Church, especially as it relates to Vatican II, is attributable to competing theological paradigms and their consequent blind spots.

Many Catholics will deny that they function within paradigms or that modernity is an adverse influence on them. Yet I would push back against this assessment, for we are mostly all children of modernity and need to acquire perspective on what that means. To some extent, it is impossible not to be. I am not suggesting that modernity is all bad, but that some influences of modernity have distorted our understanding of the Christian Gospel. The challenge that awaits us is a matter of discernment and deeper conversion for all of us, and honest self-awareness. The more I examine this problem the less I believe the demographic nose-dive of our parish registries is the fault of secularizing influences out there in the world. It is the direct consequence of having lost our missionary focus through dissipation and internal rivalries influenced by corrosive elements of modernity within the Church. While these rivalries result from over-politicizing theological commitments along paradigmatic lines, political solutions will not remedy the crisis. Decades of magisterial authority and pronouncements have only served as rallying points for the various camps.

The Promise and Limits of Theological Paradigms

An innovative Protestant author by the name of Alan Hirsch has applied the concept of paradigms to church life. While he identifies paradigms of the Church in a manner quite different than I would, I quote him here for the sake of clarifying the concept for theology:

[A paradigm] is a way of perceiving our world, of filtering out what is considered real or unreal, of creating mental models of how things should be. Once established, paradigms in many ways do our thinking for us; that is their purpose … Although paradigms help us make sense of our world by giving us ways to interpret it, they also create what is called paradigm blindness: an incapacity to see things from outside that particular perspective or paradigm. And this can account for how people fail to see certain important things that might be glaringly obvious to others. It can also account for many of the problems we in the church now face.[9]

What is true of all modern theoretical sciences is also true of theology, which the Church considers a science. By this, I am not suggesting that Revelation is a paradigm, but our attempts to understand and conceptualize the meaning of Revelation create theological paradigms or schools of thought.[10] Interestingly, the systematic organization of doctrine underwent a “scientific revolution” when the thought of Aristotle arrived in Europe just before the dawn of the modern period.[11]

Throughout the universities of medieval Europe, which were then just emerging on the historical landscape, a tremendous work was underway by scholastic churchmen who endeavored to organize and systematize the whole body of theological works handed down since the time of the Church Fathers.[12] What gave the effort a paradigmatic quality is how the organization of these writings and the systemization of thought occurred in dialogue with the thought of Aristotle. This systematic approach produced vast volumes or summaries of theology, the most famous being St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa theologiae.  For over 500 years, the Summa theologiae served as a primary framework within which the science of theology developed during the modern period. The history of scholasticism is a rich and varied history I will not recount here, but I mention it because it represents the theoretical framework from which the modern period had its seminal beginning. Aquinas’s framework was not the only operative paradigm in the medieval period, however. Others emerged that resulted in centuries of internal rivalries over the resolution of certain disputed questions. In particular, the Dominican and Franciscans “schools” developed divergent theological approaches that rivaled one another vehemently at times.[13]

I would attribute all the aspects of Hirsch’s definition to the paradigms created within the scholastic tradition. That is not to say that the scholastic tradition has been harmful. Quite the contrary, the West built an entire civilization up from this vigorous and engaging period of intellectual development. Tremendous advances in our understanding of Revelation would not have occurred without medieval scholasticism. The difficulty has been that throughout the past 500 years, the scientific revolution, which scholasticism precipitated, has produced several other paradigms that gradually shifted the foundations of Christian society. We call this new historical context, modernity. Concisely, certain strands of scholastic thought evolved into modern political philosophy and other sciences, which in turn precipitated the Enlightenment, and eventually established the framework of modern secularism.[14]

For example, the philosophy of Liberalism drastically altered the social landscape and almost entirely reshaped life in the modern period.[15] More importantly, this and other paradigms deeply influenced the science of theology in the past 500 years. Our theological paradigms have shifted and continue to shift under the influence of modern modalities of thought. New paradigms emerged and contended with older ones. As a result, the Church and the cultural landscape today are vastly different than they were when the Summa theologiae assumed the place of honor on the high altar of St. Peter’s Basilica during the Council of Trent (1545-1563).

Theological paradigms thus arise when intellectual frameworks are engaged in such manner that scholars form a unique and somewhat independent “school of theology”. This kind of intellectual creativity has always been part of the science of theology. Augustine’s thought is distinct in his reliance on Plato. Aquinas’s work is unique for its Aristotelianism. Pope St. John Paul II built up his Theology of the Body through engagement with the philosophy of Max Scheler’s phenomenology. What is characteristic of the history of theology as a discipline of inquiry, in fact, is the ongoing relationship between the content of divine revelation and the philosophical nature of the human mind.[16] What makes the modern period unique is the contentious “politics” that theological paradigms engendered within Western Christianity and its spheres of influence.

Paradigms are not inherently problematic until scholars attempt to make everything fit into the paradigmatic system without broadening the horizon of understanding through ongoing engagement with the actual content of reality—or in this case, the content of Revelation. No system exhausts truth, and yet, theoretical reductionisms are all too easy to embrace, especially in today’s highly subjectivist culture. Even worse for Christianity is when we see the foreign elements of outside systems of thought begin to reshape the meaning of Revelation or impute to God’s Word interpretations deeply at odds with the intention of the divine and human authors. We can also become blind to aspects of the faith that do not fit within the paradigms of our choosing.

Each of the theological paradigms I named previously bears indispensable elements of the Christian faith. The problem is that these elements do not stand in isolation. When they do, one distorts their perception of the faith. Even more, when Christians cling too rigidly to paradigms, as opposed to the Catholic whole, and do so as a matter of personal identity or as a stubborn insistence that this is the only way to see the faith, it betrays the blind spots to which every paradigm is susceptible and becomes divisive to the Church. Paradigmatic blindness is not only about the realities we do not or cannot see, but it can also become willful prejudice toward others who operate in other paradigms than our own.

In practice, blind spots tend to silence dialogue and those who have them tend to cling to a closed system that admits few or no considerations or perspectives from outside the paradigm.[17] Not only can they make us selective in our beliefs, but they can also lead us to reject or deny essential aspects of the faith, especially if these aspects do not fit within our preferred paradigms. Hirsch goes on to state, “Paradigms … are good only as long as they match and interpret external conditions. When the context shifts significantly [paradigms] can become problematic because they can prevent an organization from readily seeing its way beyond them.”[18] What Hirsch states here is one reason Pope St. John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council in 1962. The Neo-Scholastic paradigm had become tired and seemed to be undermining the Church’s witness, making Christianity less influential and relevant in the modern world amidst the progressivist ambitions of modern secular society.

Three disparate paradigms at Vatican II

In the years leading up to Vatican II, Catholic leaders had a deep sense that the cultural paradigms outside the Church had so drastically shifted that the Church needed to find a new form of engagement with modern society. We needed an approach that would make the Gospel fresh and ever new to a world that had grown deeply wary of neo-scholastic formulations of the faith.[19] While the Church had dependably borne the legacy of the scholastic tradition well into the twentieth century, it seemed timely to engage anew, recent currents of philosophical and theological thought.

With respect to internal matters, as the twentieth century emerged, plagued as it was by ideological world wars and cultural upheavals such as the Bolshevik (Communist) Revolution in Russia (1917), the Thomistic revival Leo XIII envisioned remained pastorally embodied within a strict disciplinary crackdown on Catholic education and schools of theology. This was a direct response to Pope St. Pius X’s warnings against “modernism” in his encyclical Pacendi gregis (1907) and the fear that certain currents of modern secular thought were beginning to hold sway with some Catholic theologians and philosophers.[20] Pastorally, the result was that the legalistic ethos of the Neo-scholastic paradigm continued until the Second Vatican Council, rather than being retired as it might have been if the Leonine revival had reached into all areas of church life.

In the immediate decades leading up to Vatican II, the Church’s defensive posture toward the unfolding events of the twentieth century created some internal tensions among theologians as to what degree scholars were permitted or ought to engage modern sources of thinking. On the one hand, there were those attempting to advance the Thomistic revival. Others were beginning to explore ways to adapt Church teaching to modern modalities of thought. Others, for their part, had more historical interests in recovering the most ancient sources of Patristic thought and their uses of Scripture in the earliest developments of theology.[21] Tensions arose in discerning how creative one could be in bringing the Church into a fruitful engagement with the modern world.

In the three decades before Vatican II, the stage was set for the fragmentation that followed the Council. On a pastoral level, the Neo-scholastic paradigm conditioned the experience of the faithful. Meanwhile, in the universities and theologates, tensions were emerging as to the best approach for renewing the Church. Does Aquinas provide the best framework? Or rather, should we circumvent the medieval period, with its historical baggage, and go back further by engaging modernity from the ancient sources of the early Church? Yet maybe going back is not the best way to go forward. Thus, some advocated for adapting the faith to modern currents of thought in philosophy, modern psychology, sociology, and history.[22]

In calling the Second Vatican Council, Pope St. John XXIII’s response to these disparate, but not fatefully opposed, approaches, was a resounding affirmation of all the work theologians were doing. The council documents reflect a profound integration of every one of these approaches. It demonstrates the truly conciliar nature of the Council, the compromises the Council fathers reached, all of which avoided extremes, and it provided a positive framework for future ministry in the Church.[23] The Council’s documents are faithful to an authentic re-reading of Aquinas for our times; they are substantiated in the ancient patristic sources, and in Scripture; and they are responsive to all the current questions of the twentieth century. It was a clear path beyond the limitations of Neo-scholasticism. It represented the richness and wealth of the entire theological history of the Church, and it positioned the Church to lead, not only Catholics, but also the world out of the ideological darkness of the first half of the twentieth century. The hope and the energy of Catholics everywhere was palpable.

So what happened? Why did the anticipated “golden age” of Catholicism not dawn as many had hoped? Depending upon who one asks, one will hear different accounts. Some argue that the “spirit” of Vatican II hijacked the Council’s purpose, failing to root the Council’s interpretation in the “letter” of the documents.[24] Others argue that Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI attempted to roll back the clock and sidestep the intention of the Council fathers. Many of the theologians influenced by the spirit of aggiornamento held to this view. In any case, the disparate hermeneutics operating in the post-conciliar debates have revolved around the question of who has authority to interpret the Council; and as the years passed, few church commentators seem to register must satisfaction with the outcome of the Council, except the pontiff’s charged with the daunting task of implementing the Council’s pastoral and missionary vision for the Church. The post-conciliar disagreements have been anything but conciliar.

I would suggest that the various theological approaches preceding the Council vied, in the years following, for the right to interpret the Council’s meaning. Perhaps more innocuously, leaders clung to those aspects of the Council with which they felt an affinity. They dug in against those who defended what they considered the less appealing aspects of the Council’s outcomes or the perceived desire to roll back the clock. These divisions shaped the paradigmatic landscape that followed the Council. For its part, the media showed its bias and helped polarize the post-conciliar debates and solidify our disparate paradigmatic commitments.[25] The Council created a political vacuum into which various theologians and church leaders pushed their agendas forward, and at times by simple fiat.

While some might bristle, the concepts of paradigm and paradigm shift can do a lot of heavy lifting to help us understand, now sixty years later, the current controversies surrounding the relevance of Vatican II. It is also significant that a paradigm is not necessarily a bad thing. Knowledge and even wisdom increase significantly within certain disciplines because of the organization and systemization of knowledge so characteristic of the modern age. However, the blind spots that paradigms engender are also very significant. The effectiveness of mission within the Church today depends upon the degree to which we understand the operative paradigms within the Church (and in the world) and their blind spots. The latter, especially, can hinder our ability to create vibrancy within our parish communities. If we remain in our blind spots and thus divided and polarized over the internal sub-cultures within the Church, we will struggle to attract people to the redeeming grace of Jesus Christ and continue to lag behind the cultural architects and influencers of today.

The Hermeneutics of Discontinuity

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 aggiornamento 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.[26]

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.[27]

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).[28] 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.[29] 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.[30] 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.[31] 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.[32] 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.[33]

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.[34] 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.[35] 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.[36]

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.[37] 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] See conference videos at http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/get-involved/meetings-and-events/convocation-2017/index.cfm. Accessed on October 21, 2018.

[2] For the most part, I will use the term modern in its more technical sense to mean the time from roughly 1400-1960. The post-modern period begins in the late nineteenth century, but only becomes culturally pervasive after the social upheavals of the 1960’s. In my view, “post” modernity is the cultural ruins of the moral and philosophical collapse of the via moderna. See Romano Guardini, The End of the Modern World, (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 1998), chapter 2.

[3] For one version of this story, see Ralph McInerny, What Went Wrong with Vatican II: The Catholic Crisis Explained (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 1998).

[4] The context of the controversy are the comments Cardinals Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Blase Cupich made about Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia representing a “paradigm shift” on the pastoral care of marriage. Their comments stirred strong reactions among several commentators. See Alessandro Gisotti, “Cardinal Parolin: il 2018 di Francesco all’insegna di giovani e famiglia, https://www.vaticannews.va/it/vaticano/news/2018-01/card–parolin–il-2018-di-francesco-allinsegna-di-giovani-e-fami.html#play (Accessed October 31, 2018); Michael Sean Winters, “No Paradigm Shifts, Weigel Says—but church history is full of them,” https://www.ncronline.org/news/opinion/distinctly-catholic/no-paradigm-shifts-weigel-says-church-history-full-them (accessed October 31, 2018); Dorothy Cummings McLean, “Scholar stumps Cardinal Cupich, asks if Pope’s ‘paradigm shift’ means ‘radical’ doctrinal change,” https://www.lifesitenews.com/news/scholar-stumps-cardinal-cupich-asks-if-popes-paradigm-shift-means-radical-d (accessed October 21, 2018).

[5] See https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2018/01/the-catholic-church-doesnt-do-paradigm-shifts (Accessed October 21, 2018). See also https://www.crisismagazine.com/2018/on-paradigm-shifts (Accessed October 21, 2018)

[6] Fiftieth Anniversary Edition (Chicago IL: University of Chicago Press, 2012).

[7] For a book that shows beautifully how little the paradigm of evolutionary biology explains, see Benjamin Wiker, A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature (Downers Grove IL, InterVarsity Press, 2006). See also, Christoph Cardinal Schonborn, Chance Or Purpose?: Creation, Evolution, and a Rational Faith, trans. Henry Taylor (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007).

[8] To advance the example of evolutionary biology, see Leon Kass, Life, Liberty and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics, chapter 10: “The Permanent Limits of Biology” (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2002).

[9] Permanent Revolution: Apostolic Imagination and Practice for the 21st Century Church (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2012), p. XXXii.

[10] The Church recognizes the difference between the realities in which we believe and our human modes of expressing these truths. CCC, no. 43: “In defending the ability of human reason to know God, the Church is expressing her confidence in the possibility of speaking about him to all men and with all men, and therefore of dialogue with other religions, with philosophy and science, as well as with unbelievers and atheists.” From the same paragraph: “Admittedly, in speaking about God like this, our language is using human modes of expression; nevertheless it really does attain to God himself, though unable to express him in his infinite simplicity.”

[11] Pope John Paul II, Fides et ratio (On Faith and Reason), nos. 36-44.

[12] R.W. Southern, Scholastic Humanism and the Unification of Europe, Vol. 1 (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1997), chapter 1.

[13] See Louis Dupre, Passage to Modernity: An Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993).

[14] Ibid. See also Charles Taylors large tome A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2007).

[15] See Pierre Manent, An Intellectual History of Liberalism, trans. Rebecca Balinski (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995).

[16] Fides et ratio, nos. 16-35.

[17] Joseph Ratzinger, On the Nature and Mission of Theology: Approaches to Understanding Its Role in the Light of Present Controversies, trans. Adrian Walker (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), pp. 32-34; 73-98.

[18] Ibid, XXXiii.

[19] See John O. Malley, What Happened at Vatican II (Cambridge MA: Belknap Press, 2008), 43-52.

[20] Russel Hittinger, “Pascendi gregis at 100: Two Modernisms, Two Thomisms: Reflections on the Centenary of Pius X’s Letter Against the Moderns,” Nova et vetera , English Edition, Vol. 5, No. 4 (2007): 843-8880.

[21] O’Malley Vatican II, pp. 72-92; R.R. Reno, “Theology After the Revolution.”

[22] The three rival camps were those who embraced Neo-Thomism, those who wished to return to the Patristic sources under the label of Ressourcement, and finally were those who wanted to explore new forms of engagement with contemporary currents of thought according to the aspirations of aggironamento (renewal). More recently, a fourth group has emerged that basically rejects the theological vision of the Council as fundamentally corrupting to the church.

[23] This is the sentiment of the authors who contributed to the collection edited by Matthew Lamb and Matthew Levering, Vatican II: Renewal Within Tradition (New York: Oxford University Pres, 2007).

[24] McInerny, What Went Wrong with Vatican II.

[25] The most notable example of this is the opposition to Pope Paul VI’s Encyclical Letter, Humane vitae. Most recently, the media has been quite “involved” with Pope Francis’ interpretation of Church matters. He has probably had more press than all the popes combined since Vatican II.

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

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

[28] 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).

[29] 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).

[30] 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.”

[31] 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).

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

[33] 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.

[34] 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.”

[35] 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).

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

[37] 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.

Discuss this article!

Keep the conversation going in our SmartCatholics Group! You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter.

Liked this post? Take a second to support Where Peter Is on Patreon!

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).

Vatican II and Theological Paradigms, Complete
Share via
Copy link