John XXIII and the Lérinian legacy
In his recent article “Pope Francis, Catholic neo-traditionalists and the legacy of Benedict XVI” (La Croix International, October 16, 2017), Massimo Faggioli defends Pope Francis’s recent call for abolishing capital punishment as a matter of doctrinal development. Faggioli claims that Pope Francis is inspired by St. John XXIII’s opening address at Vatican II. Faggioli cites two passages from John on continuity and change, tradition and innovation, preservation and growth, but does not explain the broader context or framework of the latter’s address so that we can understand Francis’s thinking about doctrinal development.
I agree with Faggioli’s claim that Francis’ views are inspired by St. John XXIII. In an earlier article in Catholic World Report, I examined the import of Vincent of Lérins’ thought for John XXIII and Pope Francis. The former, in his opening address, Gaudet Mater Ecclesia, explicitly refers to Vincent’s Commonitórium primum 23.3, which is part of a larger passage from Vatican I (Dei Filius 4.13-14). The Lérinian legacy is, arguably, based on the distinction between unchangeable truth and its historically conditioned formulations, between form and content, truth-content and context, in sum, propositions and sentences, which was implied by John XXIII in his opening address. John states, “For the deposit of faith [2 Tim 1:14], the truths contained in our sacred teaching, are one thing; the mode in which they are expressed, but always with the same meaning and the same judgment [eodem sensu eademque sententia], is another thing.” The crucial point here is that although unchanging truths can be expressed in different ways, they must always be expressed according to the same meaning and same judgment, meaning thereby maintaining the material continuity, identity, and universality of the truths of the Christian faith preserved over time. Put differently, John XXIII draws an important distinction in his opening address between the deposit of faith given in the dogmatic teachings of the Church and their various concrete expressions. The latter, not the dogmatic teachings that express the deposit of faith, are subject to reform. Put differently, development, yes; mutability, no.
I argued in my book, Pope Francis: The Legacy of Vatican II (Lectio Publishing, 2015), that Francis himself explicitly draws on these sources for justifying doctrinal development. He has now moved to giving a Lérinian justification for abolishing the death penalty. Pope Francis alludes to the Lérinian “law of progress” that, he says, “is a distinguishing mark of revealed truth as it is handed down by the church, and in no way represents a change in doctrine.” But in my CWR article I argued that he cannot provide such a justification as a matter of doctrinal development. Considering the Lérinian distinction between “progress” and “change,” where progress, meaning thereby development, is understood organically and homogeneously, and change is understood as reversal—one thing becoming something else—the question arises whether the Pope’s call for abolishing the death penalty—that is, the reversal of the teaching of the Catholic tradition on capital punishment—is progress or change. Clearly, I argued, Francis’s position involves change and not progress.
Faggioli, Austen Ivereigh, and others have responded to this criticism by claiming that Pope Francis is simply working out the fuller implication of the dignity of human life by drawing the conclusion that this dignity—indeed, the Gospel itself—is inconsistent with the practice of the death penalty under any circumstances. Hence, it is progress and not change from a Lérinian perspective of doctrinal development.
But Edward Feser has given the crucial rebuttal of this fallacious claim. He argues in a recent article on Catholic World Report:
For a genuine ‘development of doctrine’ has to take account of the entire body of the Church’s traditional teaching, not just some part of it considered in isolation. For example, in hammering out the doctrine of the Trinity, the Church considered both the truth that there is only one God and the truth that the divine Persons are distinct. The Trinitarian conception of God is precisely a reconciliation of these ideas. Hence if the Church were to deny the distinctness of the Persons in the name of respecting the teaching that there is only one God, this would not be a ‘development’ of past teaching but a rejection of it. It would be a matter of pitting one part of the deposit of faith against another, rather than preserving the whole.”
In short, in a Lérinian perspective—and let’s keep in mind that Pope Francis is a Lérinian!—reversing the Church’s teaching on the death penalty would not be progress but change given Francis’s claim that capital punishment is intrinsically wrong, his eliminating the import not only of the distinction between moral principle and prudential judgment, but also of the moral difference between the innocent and the guilty. Thus, the pope will have to find another way to justify his call for abolishing the death penalty.
Faggioli’s argument for the criticism of Tradition
Faggioli may provide us with an answer to that search for justification regarding doctrinal development by claiming that “Francis makes a very ‘Ratzingerian’ argument for the development of tradition.” According to Faggioli, Vatican II’s Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, “reframed the relationship between scripture, tradition and the magisterium.” How so?
In answering this question, Faggioli cites Dei Verbum 8, which Pope Francis also cited in his address calling for abolishing the death penalty. I will highlight the passages that Faggioli quotes in the broader context of the paragraph of Dei Verbum 8.
Now what was handed on by the Apostles includes everything which contributes toward the holiness of life and increase in faith of the peoples of God; and so the Church, in her teaching, life and worship, perpetuates and hands on to all generations all that she herself is, all that she believes. This tradition which comes from the Apostles develop in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (see Luke, 2:19, 51) through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through Episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her.
Faggioli, then, doesn’t turn to explain this paragraph, but rather he turns to Joseph Ratzinger’s commentary on Chapters I, II, and VI of Dei Verbum (Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, Vol. III, Herder and Herder, 1969 ), to consider the issue of the criticism of tradition in light of the Scriptures. “In his commentary,” says Faggioli, “Ratzinger pointed out the shortcomings of Dei Verbum in making an argument about the Church’s need to be able to correct, when necessary, possible distortions in the Catholic tradition. Specifically, regarding DV 8, the future Benedict XVI wrote that the Church must be able to criticize the tradition when it does not correspond to the Gospel.” Says Ratzinger, adds Faggioli, “Consequently, tradition must not be considered only affirmatively, but also critically; we have Scripture as a criterion for this indispensable criticism of tradition, and tradition must therefore always be related back to it and measured by it.” Faggioli concludes, “This is basically what Pope Francis did in his speech . . . when he pointed out the Catechism’s inadequate treatment of the death penalty. In this particular case, and also on other issues he’s commented on during his pontificate, Francis has applied Ratzinger’s critical reading of Dei Verbum—namely, the Church must measure the tradition by the Gospel and the tradition cannot be the measure of the Gospel.”
Faggioli speculates—his “educated guess,” he says, for which he offers no evidence—that Francis’s citing of Dei Verbum 8 is interpreted in a “Ratzingerian” mode, and hence he concludes, “One cannot reject Pope Francis’s speech for the anniversary of the Catechism without also rejecting Ratzinger’s interpretation of the theology of tradition in Dei Verbum at Vatican II.”
A critique of Faggioli’s interpretation of Ratzinger’s view of Scripture and Tradition
If this is Faggioli’s so called “Ratzingerian” argument for justifying a critique of tradition, and hence of the death penalty, it is fallacious. First, Faggioli refers only in passing to Ratzinger’s claim that Dei Verbum falls short of making an argument for a critique of tradition, but then Faggioli ignores that shortcoming and proceeds to argue that Ratzinger gives an interpretation of the theology of tradition contained in Dei Verbum, particularly its critique of tradition—ignoring all the while Ratzinger’s point that Dei Verbum does not have a theology of the critique of tradition. Indeed, by the time we get to the end of his article he charges the critics of Francis’s call for abolishing the death penalty with “reject[ing] . . . Dei Verbum’s theology of the tradition.”
But this conclusion ignores what Ratzinger actually says: “On this point Vatican II has unfortunately not made any progress, but has more or less ignored the whole question of the criticism of tradition.” Thus, how can Francis’s critics reject something that Dei Verbum doesn’t address? Yes, adds Ratzinger, commenting on Dei Verbum 7 (not Dei Verbum 8), an eschatological element is introduced such that “All knowledge in the time of the Church remains knowledge seen in a mirror—and hence fragmentary.” He explains:
The direct relation to reality, to the face of God itself, is kept for the eschaton (cf. 1 Cor 13:12). This is the only place (emphasis added) in this chapter in which one can hear a gentle note of criticism of tradition, for when everything is seen and read only in a mirror, one must expect distortions and shifts in emphasis.
Still, given an eschatological perspective of our knowledge, there is no need to withdraw the claim that one can express truth determinately because our dogmatic formulations cannot exhaustively grasp the content of revealed truth. We can know something truly without knowing it exhaustively.
Significantly, Ratzinger’s interpretation of Dei Verbum does not support Faggioli’s claim that Dei Verbum 8 figures centrally to a theology of tradition. There is not only an absence of a theology of tradition, particularly the critique of tradition in Dei Verbum, but also it is the eschatological dimension of all knowledge referred to in Dei Verbum 7 that is significant in Ratzinger’s view, rather than merely the criterion of Scripture.
Second, on Ratzinger’s interpretation of the relationship between Scripture and tradition, and hence as he understands Dei Verbum, Faggioli is wrong. Faggioli’s position, in other words, sounds like Biblicism—a pure sola scriptura, which is a monistic principle of theological authority, in which Scripture is alone the authority for judging between rival interpretations. Says Faggioli, “The Church must measure the tradition by the Gospel and the tradition cannot be the measure of the Gospel.” But this claim is explicitly denied not only by Dei Verbum but also by Ratzinger in his commentary on Dei Verbum.
Dei Verbum 12 states as one of the principles of biblical hermeneutics that correctly interpreting the Sacred Scriptures requires that the “living tradition of the whole Church must be taken into account.” Furthermore, Dei Verbum 10 states “that it is not from Sacred Scripture alone [non per solam Scripturam] that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed.” In Ratzinger’s Commentary on Dei Verbum, he says, “[N]o one is seriously able to maintain that there is a proof in Scripture for every Catholic doctrine.” Elsewhere in his earlier 1964 study, “Revelation and Tradition,” Ratzinger questions the epistemic sufﬁciency of discerning and theologically justifying through Scripture alone (sola scriptura) all Christian dogmas: “neither the great dogmas of Christian antiquity, of what was once the consensus quinquesaecularis, nor, even less, the new ones of 1854 [Immaculate Conception] and 1950 [Assumption].”
Ratzinger holds that all these dogmas in some sense go beyond the Bible, but nevertheless still justiﬁably belong to the content of revelation. In his Memoirs, the later Joseph Ratzinger referred to his earlier view, and the two are in harmony, “[T]here can be no such thing as pure sola scriptura (‘by Scripture alone’), because an essential element of Scripture is the Church as understanding subject, and with this the fundamental sense of tradition is already given.”
In fact, in his commentary on Dei Verbum, pace Faggioli, Ratzinger explicitly identifies the place of tradition as an interpretative source: “The function of tradition is seen here as a making certain of the truth, i.e., it belongs in the formal and gnoseological [epistemological] sphere—and, in fact, this is the sphere in which the signiﬁcance of tradition is to be sought.” Although I can only mention him in passing, this, too, was the view of that Dutch master of dogmatic and ecumenical theology, G. C. Berkouwer (1903-1996). “The [Second Vatican] council … limited the signiﬁcance of tradition to indicating certitude, the church’s knowledge of the faith. This is the point at which the non per solam Scripturam functions in the life of the church, for here the believer is confronted with Scripture in its connection with tradition and church. But this does not yet imply that traditions are an independent source of revelation alongside Holy Scripture.” In my judgment, the Reformed theologian Berkouwer has a better grasp of the relationship of Scripture and tradition in Dei Verbum than does the Catholic Faggioli.
Furthermore, Ratzinger would charge Faggioli’s view with, in Ratzinger’s own words, “an isolated biblicism” that is unable “to preserve for tradition its proper place in the life of the Church.” Indeed, he identifies a dilemma in which position’s like Faggioli are caught: “[T]o separate Scripture from the total tradition of the Church leads either to biblicism or modernism or both.” Biblicism with the implication we referred to above; modernism because it imposes upon the Christian view of things the dualism between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith (dogmas), between historical-critical interpretations of the Bible and its theological exegesis, between history and unchanging truth.
In sum, says Ratzinger, properly understood, sola scriptura is not an anti-creedal or anti-tradition principle. Sola scriptura means that Scripture alone is the highest authority in matters of faith, not the only authority in adjudicating between rival interpretations, yes, of the death penalty. Says Ratzinger, “The idea of sola scriptura does not exclude, but includes, the understanding of Scripture and the determining of its hermeneutical center by the use of confessional writings [in short, tradition], is a clear indication that Scripture ultimately always only exists una cum traditione—which formulation also expresses the fact that not only is Scripture related to tradition, but also that tradition, in its turn, is based upon Scripture.”
Of course, says Ratzinger, in “Revelation and Tradition … the pronouncements of the Magisterium itself have to meet” Scripture. “Tradition by its very nature is always interpretation, does not exist independently, but only as exposition, interpretation ‘according to the scriptures’.” The Church’s Magisterium “must recognize that it is under an obligation to scripture and linked to it.” In the words, of Dei Verbum 10, the Church’s “teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it.” “Nevertheless,” adds Ratzinger, the Magisterium “continues to exist in faith as a critical court of appeal and as such has an urgent task, that of guarding the purity of the testimony once given, and of defending the sarx of history against the caprice of gnosis which perpetually seeks to establish its own autonomy.”
This last point is particularly important in Dei Verbum 10:
It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God’s most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.
Yes, these authorities function together (each in its own way) differing in degree of authority, with Scripture being the supreme rule of faith, the norma non normata, such that Scripture is not subservient to tradition or to the teaching office of the Church. The Church does not hold that her teaching office operates on its own, that is, without reference to any superior norm. There is a co-inherence of Scripture, tradition, and the Church in the pattern of theological authority such that in an intrinsic and necessarily related way they “are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others.” But “each in its own way” operates under the action of the Holy Spirit such that within that pattern of authority Scripture has priority—prima Scriptura, according to Dei Verbum 21–26. Arguably, then, when Dei Verbum affirms a necessary and intrinsic relatedness of tradition and the Church to Scripture, it also affirms a prima scriptura, indeed, it calls Scripture the “supreme rule of faith.”
Finally, the Lérinian hermeneutics of Vatican II addresses the matter of change, discontinuity in, and reform of, theological expressions and formulations of dogma/doctrine within a fundamental unity of truth. In the Commonitorium primum 23.3 of Vincent of Lérins, he states:
[L]et there be growth and abundant progress in understanding, knowledge, and wisdom, in each and all, in individuals and in the whole Church, at all times and in the progress of ages, but only with the proper limits, i.e., within the same dogma, the same meaning, the same judgment” (emphasis added).
Significantly, normative Catholicism has been Lérinian on this very point since Vatican I, through Vatican II and post-conciliar interpretations of doctrine—and hence anti-historicist. Vincent already saw this clearly in the early fifth century: doctrine can develop, but cannot change its fundamental meaning, i.e., the realistic meaning embedded in the creeds themselves. Bernard Lonergan wrote clearly about this in his magisterial work, The Way to Nicaea.
In short, the Lérinian legacy of Vatican II is that of commensurable pluralism (to borrow a phrase coined by Thomas Guarino), allowing for legitimate pluralism and authentic diversity within a fundamental unity of truth. Commensurable pluralism is, arguably, presupposed, even if not fully worked out, in post-conciliar interpretations of dogma/doctrine. Commensurable pluralism can account (a) for the need for new dogmatic formulations; (b) explain why propositions of dogmas/doctrines are unchangeable, irreformable, or definitive; and (c) justify the distinction between content/context, form/content, message and the medium, propositions and sentence, in short, the unchangeability and changeability of dogma/doctrine.
Faggioli’s naïve biblicism cannot account for different levels of authoritative Church teachings in Catholicism, with some being foundational, irreformable, and definitive, and others being non-definitive and hence subject to reform. Fundamentally, the problem with Faggioli’s view is his understanding not only of Dei Verbum but also of the early Ratzinger’s view of Scripture and tradition. Faggioli’s view is not only not fully Catholic but also is not that of Ratzinger’s. Thus, Faggioli’s pseudo-Ratzingerian argument for justifying abolishing the death penalty is fallacious.
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