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Friday, January 31, 2014

The Hermeneutic of Continuity—Or, Adventures in Bluffing

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Faithfulness requires a clear head and the ability to call out nonsense for what it is. To be steeped in history is to cease to be neo-Catholic. It is to see the truth of Tradition, and the farce that is the ritual reference to the hermeneutic of continuity.

I’m always amazed by the sheer number of converts who have written books about their journey to the Church. I’m not sure who reads these books, but apparently there’s quite a market for them. I promise you to never join that fray. For one thing, I can’t imagine My Story would be of interest to anyone but a small group of (no doubt annoyed) confessional Lutherans. For another thing, even within this niche market, it would prove to be terribly boring reading. I simply have had no Road to Damascus experience, no existentialist crisis, no particular phenomenological breakthrough, and no precise ‘ah ha!’ moment; I didn’t have an apparition or vision, and I was never ‘shaken to the core’ or some such thing. More importantly for my present purposes, I didn’t see in the Church the solution to some life crisis or trauma, I didn’t ‘feel’ my way into the Church, I didn’t ‘fall in love’ with any aspect of it, and as a result of finding the Church, I didn’t ‘find myself’, nor did I have any other sort of emotional epiphany or therapeutic recovery (though it should be noted that if my conversion had given me such an emotional headway, no Lutheran worth his salt would have taken me seriously anyway—call it the Lutheran Catch-22).

If my conversion story were made into a movie, it would be incredibly drab. It would basically consist of me reading some book or other, usually while sitting in a pub; perhaps it would also have a few scenes of me arguing with friends about Catholic dogma…while sitting in a pub (actually, I wouldn’t mind if they made this movie, provided they cast me as me). My conversion was simply a matter of my own phlegmatic, contrarian, and skeptical nature going out and investigating things—and I can’t imagine my inner monologue would be that captivating to anyone but a select few. In fact, it’s probably exciting only for me. My conversion story boils down to this: as a result of conversation, reading and research, I slowly figured out that the Church was right about….well, everything.

I hate testimonials, so let’s not get carried away here (consider the above two paragraphs my story). I mention this all to make a serious point: one fortuitous advantage of a dispassionate discovery of the Truth is that it better allows one to see what the Catholic Church can do, and what false churches cannot do. To wit: the Church can tell you precisely why it says what it says about anything. Indeed, part of the reason that the Church has been attractive to skeptics and intellectuals since its inception, is that it is quite willing to back up its claims, and show its work.

Typical of any healthy skeptic, I am not going to believe what the Church tells me ‘just because’. I am simply not conditioned, culturally or emotionally, to care one cent what the Church teaches about anything; I’m not going to believe what the church says simply because it declares something to be such. Rather, I believe it (all) because I’ve found it (all) to be true. I must emphasize: this attitude is not unique to me, but to many converts—or, at the very least, to those converts who are not privy to mystical experiences, epiphanies, or emotional breakdowns. If you did not find in the Church a therapeutic answer to your own psychological hang-ups, but instead found it to contain the truth (perhaps begrudgingly, as in my case), you are probably like me. For folks like me, the magisterium of the Catholic Church did not get the benefit of the doubt: it had to prove its salt. This might seem scandalous to some faithful readers, but I assure you that it’s a trait that has proven handy in these confusing times.

An oft cited quip of John Henry Newman goes something like this: to be steeped in history is to cease to be protestant. You bet. To get past the protestant’s own historical index liborum prohibitorum, and to engage in some detailed reading of the Church’s history, is to discover a Christianity practiced since its inception that looks inconveniently identical to the one advanced by the Church Immemorial, and it is to see the ideas of the Reformation as a rupture from this continuity. Yet we must recognize that the post-conciliar Church has cleverly censored the past to its liking as well. Indeed: the same detailed reading into the Church’s history that should shake a protestant, should also shake a neo-Catholic.

A detailed investigation into Catholic history and Catholic dogma should disturb anyone who has simply gone along with the idea that the present Church is ‘continuous’ with the past. To update Newman’s quip, we should say: to be steeped in history is to cease to see the novelties introduced by the Second Vatican Council as anything other than troubling. To be steeped in history is to see the New Mass as egregious, along with much else promulgated by Vatican II. To be stepped in history is to see what is deemed the ‘ordinary’ form of the Mass as anything but. To be steeped in history is to cease being a neo-Catholic. To be steeped in history is to be a traditionalist.

G.K. Chesterton once said that our religion should be less of a theory and more of a love affair. I appreciate his attitude, but in an important and relevant sense, I disagree with the Catholic Bard. When our approach to the Church becomes rooted in feelings and sentiments, and removed from ‘theory’ and argument, we can too easily be led astray, and we can fail to see when we’re being duped. To approach our true religion more dispassionately, by contrast, is to see not only precisely why its tenets are entirely and wholly true, but also why the post-conciliar mutation is frighteningly anomalous.

In other words, the same impassive approach to history, philosophy, and theology that rightly leads one to reject Protestantism and accept The Faith, should also lead one to reject so much that is contained in the documents of the Second Vatican Council. It is no wonder, therefore, that so many converts come to eventually embrace some form of ‘reactionary’ Catholicism. They are happily in a position that many cradles are not: they are able to see with greater clarity the absurdity of Vatican II, its discontinuity with what came previously, and the utter ridiculousness of the idea that ‘all is well.’

Many converts are not culturally or emotionally conditioned to find anything that the Church says to be so. They are obviously not in love with the Church prior to converting, and they are not struck with love potion during their confirmation. Therefore, they are more easily able to see our post-conciliar nightmare for what it is. They are not suffering from the sort of cognitive dissonance that understandably affects so many souls born into the Church—souls that love Her like a family member. It is easy to see how someone mired in emotional attachments brought on by years of cultural conditioning might fail to see how Vatican II led to the Church’s disintegration; such folks might be more easily led to believe in the risible idea that there is ‘continuity’ between the past and present.

Yes, continuity. What a silly notion. As far as I can tell, this continuity is like an autostereogram. We are told by most everyone in the know, that if you squint really hard, you will see continuity. Or even if you can’t see it, even after much practice, you should know that it’s there—it’s there between the Tridentine Mass and the Novus Ordo, between the magisterial teachings prior to the Council and after, between the Catechism of the Council of Trent and the Catechism promulgated by the late John Paul II, and between the tenets of Vatican II and the teachings of every council prior. We are told this. We are not shown this.

The citing of the hermeneutic of continuity is not an explanation at all: it’s just a gratuitous assertion.

If we are a bit more cool and collected—if we bracket our ‘love affair’ and hold on to some elements of good ‘theory’ (for example, elementary logic and ostensive data)—we can more easily notice the problem here. It’s one that in academic circles is known as ritual citation. The ritual citer plays a clever trick on his reader. He cites the work of those who challenge his own position, and then he makes reference to a concept that supposedly answers this objection, without actually making the argument himself. That is, he does not actually ruminate on the counter-argument now cited, or offer detailed reasons for its falsity. He simply cites the problem and the gratuitous solution: for to cite the works at all is to give the impression to the inattentive reader that the writer has in fact dealtwith the critique of the work. ‘Well,’ the casual reader might say, ‘he seems to know about this counter-argument…’

Basically, it’s a way of bluffing. After all: most weak arguments are a result of simply not being aware of the relevant counter-arguments. Usually, when an argument or work is broached, it is properly dealt with. The ritual citer is exploiting your regular assumptions about how arguments are made: we regularly assume that arguments that are mentioned are analyzed and defeated. To ritually cite is to give the inattentive reader the impression that you not only know precisely what the criticism of your own view happens to be, but also that you have overcome it.

References to the hermeneutic of continuity are an example of such a bluff. Casual readers will often see references to the ‘hermeneutic of continuity’ ritually sprinkled throughout papal documents, Catholic articles, blog posts by lay apologists, and in blog comments meant to defend the doings of the new catechism, the New Mass, or some other antic of the Church this side of its French Revolution. Those who make reference to this supposed ‘hermeneutic’ are assuming not only that the mere citing of it should be evidence of its legitimacy; they are also counting on a readership that is emotionally invested in the teachings of an extraordinary magisterium that has itself made mention of it. In fact, it would be unfair to assume that the average citer of the chimerical hermeneutic is consciously trying to pull a fast one on its reader. Rather, most of the time, the citer of the hermeneutic is himself as emotionally invested in the truth of this hermeneutic as his intended audience. In fact, it could well be that no one person—at this point, anyway—is bluffing consciously. It could be that everyone who presently makes mention of the ‘hermeneutic’ in order to defeat those who see rupture, really believes that there is continuity. Yet it’s still a bluff. After all: if it were not, that which is believed could be unpacked and explained.

By someone. Anyone.

It’s one thing to believe in continuity; it’s an entirely different thing to be able to show it. Thus, we should also notice that while many believe there is continuity, and while many are happy to make mention of this hermeneutic, that no one is actually able to deal with the arguments that quite easily point to discontinuity. No one can explain how there is continuity, content as they are to simply cite the complaints and the contrary ‘explanation’.

We should see just how oddly anomalous this situation is. In and outside of the Vatican, the Catholic world is saturated with many intelligent and talented writers and intellectuals who have dedicated much of their time (and in some cases, their entire livelihood) to defending the truth of the Catholic faith. Many of these apologists are extremely deft and proficient at defending the tenets of the faith, and are quite skilled at showing why a particular Catholic position is correct. They are able to rationally defend sundry Catholic dogmas and teachings over Protestant criticisms, secular complaints, and heretical protestations. What is particularly admirable about many of these apologists is their ability to defend Church teaching without relying on Church pronouncement, in order to make their case. After all: to simply insist that a particular proposition is true because the church says it is true is not to actually deal with the proposition itself, but merely to gratuitously assert it again by other means. No skeptic would be convinced of the truth of a Catholic position because the Church said as much. They know quite well already what the magisterial authority says! The way to convince a skeptic is to show why a particular magisterial proposition is true independent of its endorsement by that same magisterial authority. Many apologists seem to realize this, and are quite good at presenting the Catholic teaching in ways that would appeal to the charitable seeker.

However, when it comes to defending the post-conciliar Church from charges of ‘rupture’, these same apologists seem happy to rely on The Bluff, and seem curiously unaware of how woefully inadequate this move appears to skeptics and seekers, and also how inconsistent it is with their own methodology otherwise. They seem strangely oblivious to the fact that their ritual reference to a hermeneutic is only convincing to those who already (blindly) believe to begin with that there is continuity, forgetting that the very issue under discussion is whether it exists at all, regardless of who believes in it. More oddly still, some of these apologists seem to incorrectly assume that the issue of continuity is merely an intervarsity affair, and therefore that it is only able to be ‘seen’ by the faithful, believing Catholic.

Alas, no doubt to the annoyance of these apologists, the Church is not esoteric. We should not need special glasses to see continuity, and it should not be inside information; more relevantly, we should be able to explain how there is continuity, and not just ritually assert its existence. If there is no explanation available—anywhere—this might well mean that it simply isn’t there. Indeed: it doesn’t take a Catholic to see this. Any casual observer ‘steeped in history’ can easily see the rupture brought on by the Council. For this reason, some of the most instructive and devastating arguments concerning the farce that is the ‘hermeneutic of continuity’ have come from—you guessed it—skeptics, protestants, and even unbelievers and atheists, writing on Catholic blogs.

One of the great things about blogs is that its discussion threads cannot so easily parse the washed from the unwashed, the good guys from the bad guys, the critics from the sycophants. Every assorted variety of seeker is free to make comments on a thread, provided that the host is willing to countenance their view. While any one post will usually draw the like-minded, it has the capability of including anyone who has a vested interest in the issue at hand. Much to the chagrin of a host, sometimes a blog post will draw devastating critique. I’ve read some outstanding comments by atheists on Catholic blog threads, charitably pointing out that Vatican II marked a total break from what came before. Responses to such comments have usually taken the form of: if you were Catholic, you’d see it differently.

Oh? Are we, like members of some Gnostic cult, led to a secret back room upon our conversion, and finally shown how reality is different than it seems? Are cradle Catholics therefore privy to this Secret Knowledge since birth? I think not. Our Church is boringly transparent, from the outside looking in. What the ubiquitous and farcical ‘hermeneutic’ citation shows us is that there is a certain unhealthy emotional attachment to the Faith among many of its members, and a corresponding lack of dispassionate analysis. This state of affairs, as far as I can tell, is the main reason why so many faithful Catholics seem incapable of rejecting what is impossible to defend: the hermeneutic of continuity. The fact that so much blind emotionalism exists among the faithful is unfortunate, not just because it stops otherwise intelligent people from seeing the truth, but also because it verifies the secularist’s supposition that Catholic folk are merely relying on emotion and not argument. It seems as if, when it comes to hermeneutic of continuity anyway, the secularist is exactly right.

Yes, our faith should be a love affair. But we should not let our emotions get the best of us. True love for the Church, and true faithfulness to its tenets, means criticizing heresy, novelty, and rupture—wherever it is found—and it means calling out whomever it might be that promotes such discontinuity. Faithfulness requires a clear head and the ability to call out nonsense for what it is. To be steeped in history is to cease to be neo-Catholic. It is to see the truth of Tradition, and the farce that is the ritual reference to the hermeneutic of continuity.

Read 5912 times Last modified on Sunday, February 2, 2014

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