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Q&A  January AD 2011
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Hermeneutic of Continuity?

Question:  What is a “hermeneutic”? And what was all the talk about a “hermeneutic of continuity” and Vatican II?

Answer:  Hermeneutics (Her-men-gnu-ticks) are essential to exegesis—and there you have a pair of $100 words if ever one existed. In very simple terms, exegesis is the task of interpreting a literary work, and hermeneutics are the rules by which this interpretation is done. The term is associated with Hermes, whom the Greeks considered to be the messenger and interpreter of the gods. Although exegesis and hermeneutics are often associated with Biblical interpretation, similar principles apply to the interpretation of any literature. One might, for example, conduct an exegesis of Homer or Shakespeare.

Hermeneutics does not investigate the authenticity of the text with which it is dealing—this is a matter for textual or “lower” criticism, a literary discipline of its own—the authenticity is presumed to have been previously investigated.[i] Hermeneutics seeks to determine what the writer meant to say—whether it be true or false is not determined. Hermeneutics does not resolve the question of whether a document is sacred or profane.

All hermeneutics applies three common sense rules of interpretation: the work is evaluated a) according to its proper language, with due attention given both to grammar and philology (the history of language development); )b according to the rules of logic; and c) with regard to what is known about the writer's mental and external condition. As a brief example, in the case of Semitic literature, the interpreter would be aware of of a) the lack of superlatives, and the need for exaggeration to replace them; b) the need to explain any apparent contradictions between related documents or parts of documents; and c) with attention to the intense nationalism and the generally pastoral economy of the Jewish people. A knowledge of history and archeology may be of great value to the interpreter.

When the interpretation is of Sacred Scripture, the interpreter must also be conscious of the inspired nature of the documents, and the authority of the Church in designating what is scriptural and how it is to be interpreted.[ii] There is a vast body of literature on how the scripture is to be interpreted. The reader is directed to the Catholic Encyclopedia article “hermeneutics” for a review of the literature and a summary of hermeneutic principles for Scripture interpretation.[iii]

Modern philosophy has corrupted the interpretation process with relativism, casting doubt on everything and then pretending to supply a new set of rules for doing what it claims to be impossible. This modern “hermeneutic” extends beyond mere literary interpretation. The economist, Murray Rothbard writes:

The greatest success of the hermeneutical movement has been achieved in recent decades, beginning in the closely related movement of "deconstructionism" in literary criticism. Headed by the French theorists Michel Foucault, Paul Ricoeur, and Jacques Derrida, deconstructionism in the Western Hemisphere is led by the formidable Department at Yale University, from which it has spread to conquer most of the English-literature departments in the United States and Canada. The essential message of deconstructionism and hermeneutics can be variously summed up as nihilism, relativism, and solipsism. That is, either there is no objective truth or, if there is, we can never discover it. With each person being bound to his own subjective views, feelings, history, and so on, there is no method of discovering objective truth. In literature, the most elemental procedure of literary criticism (that is, trying to figure out what a given author meant to say) becomes impossible. Communication between writer and reader similarly becomes hopeless; furthermore, not only can no reader ever figure out what an author meant to say, but even the author does not know or understand what he himself meant to say, so fragmented, confused, and driven is each particular individual. So, since it is impossible to figure out what Shakespeare, Conrad, Plato, Aristotle, or Machiavelli meant, what becomes the point of either reading or writing literary or philosophical criticism?

It is an interesting question, one that the deconstructionists and other hermeneuticians have of course not been able to answer. By their own avowed declaration, it is impossible for deconstructionists to understand literary texts or, for example, for Gadamer to understand Aristotle, upon whom he has nevertheless written on at enormous length. As the English philosopher Jonathan Barnes has pointed out in his brilliant and witty critique of hermeneutics, Gadamer [Hans-Georg Gadamer, a pupil of Martin Heidegger], not having anything to say about Aristotle or his works, is reduced to reporting his own subjective musings–a sort of lengthy account of "what Aristotle means to me." Setting aside the hermeneutical problem of whether or not Gadamer can know even what Aristotle means to him....[iv]

This modernist “hermeneutics” appears in the writings of Marx and other socialists, as well as in the writings and speeches of modernist theologians. Since everything is considered relative, “truth” becomes nothing more than yearnings, feelings, or sentiments for the individual—and a consensus of the theoreticians, the “acting persons” in dialogue about the given discipline. If this seems vaguely familiar, it is a description of the Modernism condemned by Pope Saint Pius X in 1908.[v] Pope Pius referred the feelings of the Modernist individual as the “religious sense,” and to the consensus as Modernist “dogma.” Of course, over time the consensus must evolve into some new consensus as people with a different “religious sense” enter the dialogue.

I do not believe it an accident that Karl Marx is considered one of the great hermeneuticians. This century has seen a series of devastating setbacks to Marxism, to its pretensions to "scientific truth," and to its theoretical propositions as well as to its empirical assertions and predictions. If Marxism has been riddled both in theory and in practice, then what can Marxian cultists fall back on? It seems to me that hermeneutics fits very well into an era that we might, following a Marxian gambit about capitalism, call "late Marxism" or marxism-in-decline. Marxism is not true and is not science, but so what? The hermeneuticians tell us that nothing is objectively true, and therefore that all views and propositions are subjective, relative to the whims and feelings of each individual.

So why should Marxian yearnings not be equally as valid as anyone else's? By the way of hermeneutics, these yearnings cannot be subject to refutation. And since there is no objective reality, and since reality is created by every man's subjective interpretations, then all social problems reduce to personal and nonrational tastes. If, then, hermeneutical Marxists find capitalism ugly and unlovely, and they find socialism beautiful, why should they not attempt to put their personal esthetic preferences into action? If they feel that socialism is beautiful, what can stop them, especially since there are no laws of economics or truths of political philosophy to place obstacles in their path?[vi]

For Marx, the “dialogue” is the “dialectic” of Hegel, Thesis + Antithesis → Synthesis. Of course the process is everlasting for the “synthesis” will soon bump into its own “antithesis” to yield a new “synthesis.” Indeed there is something of an obligation to “keep the conversation going.”

They insist that even though it is impossible to arrive at objective truth or indeed even to understand other theorists or scientists, that we all still have a deep moral obligation to engage in an endless dialogue or, as they call it, "conversation" to try to arrive at some sort of fleeting quasi-truth. To the hermeneutician, truth is the shifting sands of subjective relativism, based on an ephemeral "consensus" of the subjective minds engaging in the endless conversation. But the worst thing is that the hermeneuticians assert that there is no objective way, whether by empirical observation or logical reasoning, to provide any criteria for such a consensus.

Since there are no rational criteria for agreement, any consensus is necessarily arbitrary, based on God-knows-what personal whim, charisma of one or more of the conversationalists, or perhaps sheer power and intimidation. Since there is no criterion, the consensus is subject to instant and rapid change, depending on the arbitrary mind-set of the participants or, of course, a change in the people constituting the eternal conversation.vii]

At this point, the traditional Catholic has to be asking how it is possible for truth to be so “flexible.” Whether we are dealing with philosophy, religion, economics, or whatever, isn't there an objective truth? Even if mortal men might not be able to determine the truth, even if there is room for disagreement, doesn't objective truth exist in the mind of God?

Of course objective truth exists. That is Rothbard's point about Marx. Communism has been a demonstrable failure—it doesn't work. Instead of a “workers' paradise” people starve, are murdered, or languish in a gulag. Misery, rather than wealth, is all there is to redistribute. So the Marxist must refuse to demonstrate the ability of his theory to predict an outcome—he cannot because it does not. Instead Marxists engage in dialogue about their feelings, aspirations, and yearnings.

It shouldn't be surprising that this sort of thing has infected religion. “Philosophy is,” after all, “the handmaid of theology,” and the people who have brought about this relativism are crackpot philosophers.

The “hermeneutic of continuity” (as opposed to the “hermeneutic of rupture”) is an attempt to make the Second Vatican Council and its offshoots appear to be natural developments of the previous nineteen centuries of Catholicism. The attempt is made by defining a method of interpretation that doesn't allow the obvious ruptures and contradictions even to be considered. If it used to be green, and now it is red, one must simply not consider color. One may not place, for example, the teaching of Pope Pius XI on interfaith activities alongside that of Pope John Paul II—one may not compare Mortaliam animos with Ut unum sint.viii] One may not compare the social teaching of Rerum novarum or Quadragesimo anno with Caritas in Veritate unless one is prepared to ignore the contradictions.[ix] Pope Benedict XVI himself describes Gaudium et Spes as a “counter-syllabus” to the Syllabus of Errors of Pope Pius IX, “and, as such, represents, on the part of the Church, an attempt at an official reconciliation with the new era inaugurated in 1789” [the French Revolution!].{x}

The crux of the problem with the hermeneutic of continuity is that it violates the fundamental rule that interpretation must be subject to the rules of logic. Truth is not “flexible.” God is omniscient and unchanging, and the truths of the Catholic Faith and the Moral Law come from God. No amount of dialogue will change that truth or any other.



iv  Murray N. Rothbard, “The Hermeneutical Invasion of Philosophy and Economics,”

vi  Rothbard, ibid.

vii  Rothbard, ibid.


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