George Weigel’s

“Hermeneutic of Discontinuity”

Another Bridge to Nowhere

James Baresel


It is not easy to see how the unity of the Church will be

enhanced unless the Lefebvrists accept

Vatican II’s teaching..." ...George Weigel


"It is scandalous that on the 50th anniversary of the

convening of the Second Vatican Council Pope Benedict

moved to reintegrate people who were opposed

to the council's teachings." ...Hans Küng

(Posted 03/02/09 On December 22, 2005 Pope Benedict XVI gave an address to the Roman Curia in which he pointed out that there have been two opposing ways of interpreting the Second Vatican Council—the “hermeneutic of continuity” and the “hermeneutic of discontinuity”. The latter interprets Vatican II as a break with previous doctrine. The former interprets the Council as in accord with previous doctrine, even if admitting that the emphases and points of stress in the Council are different from the emphases and points of stress in Church teaching for some time previously.

The Holy Father endorsed the “hermeneutic of continuity” as the proper was to regard Vatican II. This position is correct not simply because of a single address of Pope Benedict, of course, but is absolutely necessary to preserve the indefectibility of the Church herself.

Over the past years the Holy Father has certainly taken steps towards implementing this proper hermeneutic. For example, in 2007 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith clarified the proper meaning of the term “subsistit in” found in the conciliar decree Lumen Gentium.  Around the same time the Holy Father, in Summorum Pontificum, declared that the former “Tridentine” liturgy had never been abrogated.  These are just two steps taken by the Holy Father to promote the proper “hermeneutic of continuity” in regard to the Second Vatican Council.

Now the Holy Father has authorized the Congregation for Bishops to lift the excommunication of the four bishops of the Society of St. Pius X consecrated by Archbishop Lefebvre without papal mandate in 1988.  While I do not agree with the action taken by the SSPX in 1988 (or for some time previous to that), it is a matter of simple justice to point out that the “hermeneutic of discontinuity” has been the major factor in the dispute between the SSPX and Rome, and it is to be hoped that the implementation of the “hermeneutic of continuity” will bring about reconciliation.

In light of the Holy Father’s efforts to implement the “hermeneutic of continuity” broadly and to reconcile the SSPX particularly, it is disappointing that a Catholic journalist of the standing of George Weigel has responded to the lifting of the excommunication of the SSPX bishops by promoting a “hermeneutic of discontinuity” which has been rejected by the Holy Father.

In his recent Newsweek article on the subject Weigel criticizes Archbishop Lefebvre for his rejection of “modernity”—by which is meant the Liberal principles of the French Revolution.  Weigel claims that for Lefebvre to “affirm the right of religious freedom and the institutional separation of church and state—was to treat with the devil.”  Weigel also says that this attitude on the part of the Archbishop was a result of the conflict in France between the French Revolution and the Church, and argues that “Lefebvre seems not to have read a fellow Frenchman's reflections on a very different kind of modernity, Alexis de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America””.

There is no doubt that Archbishop Lefebvre saw the Council’s Declaration on Religious Liberty (Dignitatis Humanae) as a break with previous Church teaching against the principle of religious freedom.  A full analysis of the Church teaching on this matter is beyond the scope of this article.  It seems for the present sufficient to simply say that, while the pre-Conciliar teaching condemned religious freedom under the law as an absolute inviolable principle, while also condemning the belief that people have an absolute moral right (before God) to practice a false religion, the Second Vatican Council is referring to a limited right to freedom from state coercion in religious matters— “immunity from coercion in civil society”, to use the Council’s own expression. 

For this reason the Council, in its own words, “leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty [emphasis mine] of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.” [DH 1]  In other words, men do not have a right before God to practice any religion they choose, but rather have an obligation before God to be Catholic.  This is so even though the individual also has a right to a freedom from coercion in this matter within certain limits. 

The Council stresses that this right to religious freedom is limited, is not the absolute right to religious freedom condemned by the pre-Conciliar popes and exalted by the American and French Revolutions.  For example, this freedom from coercion exists only “within due limits” [DH 2] and “provided the just demands of public order are observed”. [DH 4]  A right to a freedom from state coercion in religious matters, together a moral obligation to be Catholic (Vatican II), is a far cry from a moral right to practice any religion (American political doctrine).

While Weigel’s interpretation of Vatican II’s teaching on religious freedom is inaccurate and unjustified according to the actual Council text (both in itself and in light of previous papal teaching), it is true that a superficial reading of the text by one viewing it though an American political “lens” could lead to such an interpretation.  So it is possible to give Weigel the benefit of doubt.  He could have simply misunderstood what he read.

Nevertheless, Weigel’s weak understanding of history is herein exposed.  We can leave aside more obscure historical facts, such as that at least one major influence on the American founding opposed all monarchy on the grounds of its historic link with Catholicism.  It is even possible that Weigel is somehow unaware that precisely this conflict between American founding principles and Catholicism did, in fact, lead to the anti-Catholic “No Nothing” political movement of the 19th Century.  But surely Weigel must realize that the reason the American Revolution wasn’t as violently anti-Catholic as the French Revolution was that France had a large proportion of practicing Catholics who immediately recognized the opposition between their Faith and classical liberalism.  In America this was not at all the case.

What is most disturbing is Weigel’s apparent endorsement of the American model of Church and state, something which is in no sense endorsed in the Council, and which has been repeatedly condemned by the Church.  In his Syllabus of Errors, Blessed Pope Pius IX explicitly condemned the doctrine that “the Church ought to be separated from the State, and the State from the Church”. 

The same pope’s encyclical Quanta Cura and Pope Pius XI’s Quas Primas and Leo XIII’s Immortale Dei are among multiple papal condemnations of the idea of a secular state, rather than a Catholic confessional state.  The text of Vatican II explicitly “leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of…societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ”.  This can only mean that the state qua state must be Catholic—but that within the context of the Catholic confessional state non-Catholics have (within due limits) a right to immunity from coercion by the civil power in religious matters.  Again, the idea of a secular state, or a separation of Church and state, is not found anywhere in Dignitatis Humanae.

Moreover, it cannot be argued that the defense of the Catholic confessional state by pre-Conciliar popes was directed at anti-clerical governments in Europe or in some other way does not apply to the American ideal of separation of Church and state.  In his encyclical Longinqua (concerning the Church in the United States) Pope Leo XIII reflected on the growth and success of the Church in the United State, and then added:

The main factor, no doubt, in bringing things into this happy state were the ordinances and decrees of your synods, especially of those which in more recent times were convened and confirmed by the authority of the Apostolic See. But, moreover (a fact which it gives pleasure to acknowledge), thanks are due to the equity of the laws which obtain in America and to the customs of the well-ordered Republic. For the Church amongst you, unopposed by the Constitution and government of your nation, fettered by no hostile legislation, protected against violence by the common laws and the impartiality of the tribunals, is free to live and act without hindrance. Yet, though all this is true, it would be very erroneous to draw the conclusion that in America is to be sought the type of the most desirable status of the Church, or that it would be universally lawful or expedient for State and Church to be, as in America, dissevered and divorced [emphasis mine]. The fact that Catholicity with you is in good condition, nay, is even enjoying a prosperous growth, is by all means to be attributed to the fecundity with which God has endowed His Church, in virtue of which unless men or circumstances interfere, she spontaneously expands and propagates herself; but she would bring forth more abundant fruits if, in addition to liberty, she enjoyed the favor of the laws and the patronage of the public authority [emphasis mine].

It should be clear that while the Church can in practice accept American separation of Church and state as a tolerable situation, the Church does not and cannot accept such a model as ideal.  To interpret Vatican II as endorsing an American model of separation of Church and state is not only at odds with a true interpretation of the Council, but is not even an understandable misinterpretation of the Council texts, as it doesn’t find even a remotely plausible basis in the words of Dignitatis Humanae.

Weigel’s interpretation of Vatican II constitutes, ultimately, a practice in the “hermeneutic of discontinuity”.  In the case of his understanding of religious freedom, Weigel’s understanding of Vatican II (as well as the reading of both Vatican II and pre-Conciliar popes on this issue by the SSPX) constitutes what may be an understandable misinterpretation which propagates the “hermeneutic of discontinuity”. 

However in the case of Weigel’s implications that Vatican II provides a basis for an American style separation of Church and state in must be said that Weigel is clearly in violation of pre-Conciliar teaching and “makes” Vatican II responsible for errors  which it does not even remotely imply. Such a tactic is worthy of left-wing dissenters and their slavish commitment to the “spirit of Vatican II”. 

Regrettably, it seems that Mr. Weigel’s commitment to neo-conservative American politics and the principles of the American founding have given him divided loyalties and, however sincere he may be, he seems to be attempting to square circles in order to merge these commitments with Catholicism—thus promoting the “hermeneutic of discontinuity” in the process.

If they haven’t already, the SSPX must eventually come to accept that there is a right to freedom from coercion in matters of religion within the context of a Catholic confessional state—to do otherwise would be to deny authoritative Church teaching.  However, the SSPX (and all Catholics) must also reject the Americanist ideal of an absolute moral right to religious freedom and of separation of Church and state, errors which Weigel is at least implicitly promoting.

The unity of the Church and the “hermeneutic of continuity” can only be served by interpreting Vatican II in accordance with both the letter of the texts of the Council itself and in continuity with previous Church teaching. The position of Weigel is quite simply a misinterpretation of the Council texts in accordance with a secular Americanist political ideal.  It is a misinterpretation which would obliterate Pope Benedict’s principle of a “hermeneutic of continuity”, violates Catholic orthodoxy, and endangers reconciliation within the Church.