Commonweal on the Hermeneutic of Continuity

There’s lots of nostalgia for the Catholic past, especially in the area of liturgy, says Commonweal blogger Cathleen Kaveny (John P. Murphy Foundation Professor of Law and Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame). And this has her worried.

There’s plenty to complain about in contemporary culture. Nonetheless, I worry about the upswing in nostalgia for the Christianity of the past–for Christendom, sometimes, it seems. The nostalgia’s mainly about liturgy–the retrieval of older, more beautiful forms of the mass–but I find myself wondering whether liturgical and moral and political sensibilities can be so neatly separated. If the liturgy makes a world, what are the other aspects of that world, both good and bad?

And so she points us to “De Haeretico comburendo (1401) … a statute passed by Henry IV, prohibiting, among other things, the distribution and possession of the Bible in the vernacular.”

In the comments, she spells it out more:

The theoretical (academic, scholarly) question that interests me is the extent to which a liturgy, ritual, symbolic event) can be disentangled from the broader world view in which it is embedded. The pope is advocating a selective hermeneutic of continuity (with respect to liturgy)–but not with respect to say, doctrines on religious liberty, etc. I have my doubts that the two are so easily separable. The question isn’t how the rite “looks”–how-much brocade– the question is the symbolic encoding.

And further:

Well the question is to what degree the tridentine rite is separable, in worldview, from the Council of Trent, and the broader response to the religious divisions of the time. It is something that would take careful study by a scholar–not punditry. But you might want to take a look at the bull exurge domine, by which Pope Leo X condemned the errors of Martin Luther. Among the terrible errors that Martin Luther spread, according to the Pope, was the view “that heretics be burned is against the will of the Spirit.’

I don’t think mere preference–unexamined preference-for the Tridentine rite will ineluctably lead someone to burn heretics. But I think it’s foolish to ignore the vision of the Church–and the state-and other branches of Christianity that were presupposed by a tridentine mentality.

The pope wants a heremeneutic of continuity–how much continuity–what’s the principled distinctions. He presupposes there is a distinction between a hermeneutic of continuity in liturgy–why not in other doctrine too? Why not in other teaching? Is it entirely arbitrary? This is pretty, so we keep it?


The question is, do ideas have their own gravitational force? In my view, they do. They are generative. So the mere fact that a thinker denies that his idea has a certain implication is not, for me, conclusive proof that it doesn’t have it. Ideas contain seeds that develop–or can be developed. The crudest form of this connection is the “slippery slope argument.” Conservatives argue this all the time when they argue that the legalization of birth control lead ineluctably to the culture of death. Or that the Casey “mystery passage” leads to dogs and cats sleeping together, to quote Bill Murray in Ghostbusters. I think one needs to be careful about slippery slope arguments–but I think it’s within the realm of scholarly work to examine the unintended implications of an argument. And there are less crude forms of intellectual generativity, where shifts in imagination and actual living conditions, combine to lead to new ways of thinking and acting.

One thought on “Commonweal on the Hermeneutic of Continuity

  1. By this argument, if there was a tense situation and the city government banned guns and alcohol, they could never allow guns and alcohol ever again.

    The vernacular Bible translation bans were passed because there were so many baaaad vernacular translations in circulation at that time. It was legislation aimed at a specific problem for the civil government (subversion and civil unrest), and as usual for such legislation, was written for the government’s convenience (broadly).

    Vernacular translations of the Bible, usually as separate books by separately interested translators, were pretty darned common in medieval Europe. The trick was to be patient enough to collect them all. 🙂

    Of course, anyone with a serious interest in reading the entire Bible back then would just go and learn Latin. A lot faster and cheaper.

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