A Hermeneutic Without History


Last summer, I had a conversation on the topic of religious liberty with a dear priest friend who is a very accomplished moral theologian and seminary professor. He’s one of very few people I know whose rock-solid orthodoxy, knowledge and insight make him a reliable guide in all matters Catholic.

That being the case, I was surprised to discover how little familiarity he had with the relevant papal magisterium of the centuries prior to Vatican II, and how comfortably he repeated the well-worn and utterly unsustainable mantra suggesting that the Church’s traditional approach to church-state relations was somehow pigeonholed to a specific, and long since passed, moment in history.

The reality is, however, it is far more unusual to encounter any Catholic, clergyman or otherwise, regardless of background, education and relative orthodoxy, who possesses any meaningful awareness of the pre-conciliar magisterium on this subject, or most any other for that matter.

This, I suspect, is the case for a number of reasons.

Firstly, for as often as we hear about the need to apply a “hermeneutic of continuity” to the conciliar text, there is very little in the way of faith formation resources, or even basic instruction, available to the average Catholic who wishes to explore the magisterium of the centuries prior to Vatican II.

As a result, most Catholics content themselves with pondering the Council’s place in the life of the Church with nothing more than a “hermeneutic without history.” (This is precisely why I am soon to unveil a new faith formation series that will aid in rectifying this problem. Stay tuned.)

This lack of foundation is arguably just as evident in many seminaries, as a disproportionately small amount of time is spent imparting the magisterial treasure of the centuries predating the Council.

Lastly, it is perhaps a predictably American mindset to consider anything other than the very familiar, pluralistic, U.S. Constitutional approach to religious freedom (the same that was adopted by the Second Vatican Council) as outdated and irrelevant.

This brand of shortsightedness isn’t limited simply to those living in the United States, however.

For instance, Catholic News Service recently posted a video on its blog wherein Bishop Athanasius Schneider, the auxiliary bishop of Astana, Kazakhstan, who has become a globally respected champion for the restoration of reverence before the Most Holy Eucharist, discusses the Declaration on Religious Freedom of Vatican II, Dignitatis Humanae.

I have a great deal of respect for His Excellency and applaud his efforts with regard to Holy Communion, but in this case, he’s well off the mark.

First, Bishop Schneider speaks of the traditional approach to church-state relations by pointing to the 19th century as the exemplar of that model; a time during which, he maintains, the papal magisterium on this subject confined itself to “Catholic countries like France or Italy” and attempts on the part of non-believers to make them, as he stated, “not Catholic, and therefore the popes wanted to reject this form of religious liberty.”

This simply is not correct.

Yes, the popes of that time did intend to refute those who sought to eliminate the Catholic State (whereas today we discourage the very notion of the Catholic confessional state), but their teaching was not so narrowly focused as this; rather, it was directed toward every nation and every people.

For example:

“Thus the empire of our Redeemer embraces all men. To use the words of Our immortal predecessor, Pope Leo XIII: ‘His empire includes not only Catholic nations, not only baptized persons who, though of right belonging to the Church, have been led astray by error, or have been cut off from her by schism, but also all those who are outside the Christian faith; so that truly the whole of mankind is subject to the power of Jesus Christ.’” (Pope Pius XI, Quas Primas 18)

Secondly, Bishop Schneider goes on to address “religious liberty in the 20th century” with a similarly narrow focus; one that is equally as inaccurate.

He speaks of the approach taken at Vatican II as being aimed directly, if not exclusively, at atheistic regimes such as “the former Soviet Union” wherein “all society was not Catholic … and religion itself was prohibited.”

Dignitatis Humanae, Bishop Schneider maintains, can be correctly understood as addressing the question, “How can I argue with a government who is atheistic … I have to argue with them on the level of reason only … on the natural level.”

He goes on to say that one cannot simply demand that such nations embrace Catholicism, since it is the one true faith (even though, as he affirms, this is the truth), because “they will not understand this.”

“So, I have to argue,” he continues, “‘Give us religion, because this is the demand of human dignity.’ And so what we have in common with the atheist is at least to save the human dignity.”

This, according to the Bishop Schneider, is how we should understand the “intention of the Council” and the aim of Dignitatis Humanae.

There are a number of major problems with this kind of thinking. For one, we most certainly do not have saving human dignity in common with the atheist.  An atheist, by definition, is an enemy of human dignity, even if only by ignorance. What we have in common with the atheist is the fact that we are subjects of Christ the King, in spite of the unbelievers’ inability (or unwillingness) to recognize as much.

Secondly, it is an affront to truth to even suggest that human dignity is in some manner upheld, expressed or developed through the practice of just any religion. The “demand” of human dignity in this regard is better understood in light of the first demand of justice; to render unto God the worship that He is due; not as we see fit, but in truth as He Himself has established. There is only one way.

Lastly, a cursory reading of Dignitatis Humanae is enough for one to discover that its exhortations are directed to all the nations of the world, not just atheistic, communist regimes. Beyond that, simple observation alone indicates that the decree has been largely understood by the popes of the last fifty years as a mandate to eschew mission in favor of a highly secularized version of religious diplomacy.

In short, religious freedom as conceived at Vatican II is, and ever has been, far more than just a program for evangelizing the Eastern Bloc nations of the Cold War era.

Furthermore, the intentions of John Courtney Murray, the architect of Dignitatis Humanae, were not at all motivated by a concern for the Church in Communist lands; rather, he was very much obsessed with the marginalization of Catholics living in the United States, a country whose electorate and political power structure were dominated by Protestants.

Murray, in other words, mistook the blessed persecution that Jesus promised His Church with a crisis to be averted by compromise.

According to Fr. Joseph A. Komonchak, “The defense of the ideal of [state]intolerance [of false religions, as was the case in the traditional teaching]led many American Protestants to be wary of any kind of cooperation with a church which in theory maintained that one day they might be deprived of their religious freedom, and it was this impediment to cooperation in the temporal sphere that led Murray to undertake a study of the classic Catholic doctrine and to propose a development of it that would permit Catholics to endorse the First Amendment on grounds other than simple expedience.” (The Review of Politics, Vol. 61, No. 4, Christianity and Politics: Millennial Issue I. – Autumn, 1999)

In any case, the results of the program put in place by Dignitatis Humanae are plainly evident.

The prelates of the Church have voluntarily relinquished those unique claims that are properly her own based on the Social Kingship of Christ, relegating “Thy Kingdom come” to the realm of the strictly escatological, teaching and preaching as though the Catholic State is no longer even desirable, and it is entirely inaccurate to suggest that a simple misunderstanding of the intention of Dignitatis Humanae is to blame. Indeed, the exact opposite is true.

Until the leading voices in the Church cease paying lip-service to the notion of “continuity” and ground their own understanding of the conciliar text in the papal magisterium predating Vatican Council II, rest assured, apart from Divine intervention, the Bark of St. Peter will continue to get tossed about on the stormy seas of modernism, just as it has for lo these past forty years.


About Author

Catholic News Agency columnist, author and speaker w/ particular focus on applying the hermeneutic of continuity to Vatican Council II.