24 February 2009

Hermeneutics of Control

H/t LarryD

A while back I did a couple of fisks of articles by Richard McBrien. At the time I pointed out how McBrien set himself up as a neutral observer, while at the same time promoting one side of a debate and denigrating the other. He used a variety of tactics- snide remarks, straw men and others- to promote his argument.

I haven't done many fisks after that, and I rarely read his articles. The few I have read are slightly different in tone than the ones I fisked. He wasn't using straw men so much, and he made fewer asides or backhanded remarks. It is possible he is growing more mellow. It is also possible he is using more sophisticated rhetoric now. It is also possible he is doing neither. With that in mind, I am going to examine a recent article of McBrien's in which he examines the recent lifting of the excommunications of the four SSPX bishops. As always, my main focus will be on how he goes about making his arguments. His article is in blue, my comments are in black.

Pope Benedict on Vatican II

The controversy generated by Pope Benedict XVI's recent lifting of the excommunications from the four bishops of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X (also known as the Society of St. Pius X) has given some critics, on both left and right, occasion to question the pope's commitment to the Second Vatican Council.

This is all true and even fair. As I said, he is not taking potshots. Rather he is setting himself up as an observer making comments on a controversy.

On the left, some voice the suspicion that the pope is really in sympathy with those who question whether the council really changed anything in the Catholic church, even if his views do not exactly match those of the Society of St. Pius X, which openly rejects the council in whole or in substantial part. (Emphasis added)

This is also true. There are two points of curiosity here for me. The first is the double use of the word "really". Really is tricky term. It indicates that the writer or speaker is looking through a veil and seeing what lies behind. They are seeing reality, when others are not. But here he uses the word for the visions of both the left and the right. The left suspects the Pope is really in sympathy with those on the right who question if the council really changed anything. The balance is almost perfect. As I said, curious.

The second curious point is that McBrien is already separating the Pope from the SSPX. Their views, McBrien says, "do not exactly match." In the past, at least in the articles I read, McBrien showed little inclination to defend the Pope. Yet here it is. Let's see where he goes with this.

On the right, there is quiet rejoicing (And I would say a lot of not so quiet rejoicing- McBrien is being diplomatic.) over the lifting of the excommunications because for these critics the action confirms their belief that Pope Benedict also harbors serious reservations about Vatican II.

And again, I have no argument against this. In fact, I agree with it. I will say it: McBrien is exactly right so far. I cannot deny it.

So now he has set up the two sides, and outlined their basic points, and, if I am to evaluate it, he has been fair thus far. In many of his past articles, he endorses one side and dismisses the other, uses it as a "straw man" to make his own preference seem stronger and more forceful. If he is intending to use a straw man here, it is unclear which side it will be as yet. Let's continue.

Both sides, however, seem to base their judgments on the pope's previously stated views (especially in his address to the Roman Curia at Christmas 2005) that distinguished between two opposing interpretations of the council: what he called, on the one hand, a "hermeneutics of discontinuity" and, on the other, a "hermeneutics of reform."

This too is good. McBrien has outlined his point quite well. He is writing in a tone that is objective; he has not chosen sides and he has spoken- I cannot call it anything else- the truth. He has here introduced a term we used to call a "shifter", in this case, the word "however" This indicates that he is about to move in a different direction from what has come thus far. This is the crux of the matter. At the moment, he has just collapsed the two sides: for all their differences, they share a common point of origin. In the next paragraph, he explains that there is a problem with this.

The problem is that both sides, left and right, have interpreted the pope's own view, not as he actually expressed it, namely, as a "hermeneutics of reform," but as they assumed he meant it, namely, as a "hermeneutics of continuity."

Here is a problem indeed. McBrien is now proposing to explain the varying interpretations of the Pope's attempt to explain the varying interpretations of Vatican II. To explain myself fully, I need to digress away from this article for some length to speak about McBrien's key term here: "interpreted".

Interpretation and hermeneutics has long been a hotbed of debate, particularly after the arrival of post-modernism on the academic scene. To cut to the chase, the post modernists claimed that no interpretation of a "text" (and what they mean by text is really, really open to interpretation) is ever perfect. (I should hasten to add that none of the people they opposed ever claimed that there was such a thing as a perfect interpretation.) Since there is no such thing as a perfect interpretation, or reading, as we were fond of saying, then a valid reading is also, to a certain extent, a mis-reading. As sometimes happens, the argument was pushed further, and the "to a certain extent" get removed. Now you have the statement: A valid reading is also a misreading. Later still, with a stunning leap of illogic and hubris, the terms were reversed: A misreading is a valid reading. My failure to agree with this equation lead to no small trouble for myself in the department.

Added to this mix was another post modernist idea: infinite possibilities of readings or interpretations. Many post modern critics would claim that the number of possible readings/interpretations of a text was infinite, and then, as a demonstration of this infinitude, would iterate five or six.

While I could agree that no interpretation is complete or perfect, and I could also agree to the potential infinity of variations of readings, I used to warn my students against carrying this theory too far. A text may support any number of readings. This does not mean that it will support just any reading. For example, if a student were to explain to me that Hamlet is the story of a young farm boy on a distant planet who one day receives a cryptic message carried by one of his two new droids which direct him to seek a meeting with an old warrior of an ancient society who happens to carry with him the young farm boy's father's magic sword etc etc etc, this student would not be giving me a misreading which is still valid, that student would be flat out wrong.

Or, to put it in terms more familiar to the Catholic bloggers: How can one take the phrase: "The use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Roman Rite" and interpret it to mean "Latin is hereby banned."? Is this misreading a valid reading, or is it something else? A lie, perhaps?

There are many tricks to lying, many ways. There are, of course, the gross and overt lies. There are also more subtle ways. One way is to tell just the right amount of truth, and then stop. Another is to sandwich a lie between two truths. Either way, I wish to now return to McBrien. Remember how I said how everything he said was true? Here McBrien makes a distinction between hermeneutics of reform and hermeneutics of continuity. The Pope used them as synonyms. McBrien has just told a lie. From what he has set up, he is now going to base his interpretation on that lie.

He has also answered a question: which of the original two groups is going to be the strawman? The answer is: both. Let's continue now.

In an article in the Feb. 2 issue of America magazine, Fr. Joseph Komonchak, professor of religious studies at The Catholic University of America, effectively challenges this assumption ("Novelty in Continuity: Pope Benedict's Interpretation of Vatican II").

Now McBrien has done something typical. he has introduced a favoured authority, one who will explain McBrien's point of view, and he endorses this point of view, but in seemingly objective terms. This new article "effectively challenges this assumption". McBrien is still observing, but now he is trying to direct your attention to this new point of view. He doesn't present this view as it challenges his left/right dichotomy earlier, rather it is presented as already having challenged and defeated that point of view.

The pope had begun his address to the Roman Curia by contrasting two ways of interpreting the council. The first interpretation Benedict did call the "hermeneutics of discontinuity," which he described as an approach that runs the risk of positing a rupture between the preconciliar and postconciliar church.

This is true.

According to Fr. Komonchak's rendition of the pope's remarks, this approach "disparages the texts of the council as the result of unfortunate compromises and favors instead the elements of novelty in the documents."

No argument here. Once again, we are starting off with some truths.

Komonchak notes that some undoubtedly expected the pope to call the position he favors the "hermeneutics of continuity," in contrast to the "hermeneutics of discontinuity." Instead, he called it the "hermeneutics of reform" and devoted the greater part of his address to explaining what he meant by that phrase.

Now McBrien will interpret Komonchak's interpretation of the Pope's interpretation etc etc.

He did not mean that the council changed nothing. "After all," Komonchak writes, "if there is no discontinuity, one can hardly speak of reform."

This is true, but with a caveat. Remember my line about how the academics reversed the reading and misreading dichotomy? Same thing here. Reform is a mixture of continuity and discontinuity. It is based on the old, but it introduces something different, something new. Both sides exist, in sort of the way that an elephant can be simultaneously like a wall, a tree, a snake, a leaf and a rope. Pope Benedict spoke of both reform and continuity. McBrien and Komonchak turn that into discontinuity, along the same lines of "Latin=no Latin"

On the eve of the council, Pope Benedict pointed out, three "circles of questions" had formed, all of which challenged the church to a new way of thinking and acting: about the relationships between faith and modern science, the church and the modern state, and the church and other religions.

In each area, the pope insisted, "some kind of discontinuity might emerge and in fact did emerge," but it was "a discontinuity that did not require the abandonment of traditional princi-ples."

"It is precisely in this combination of continuity and discontinuity at different levels that the very nature of true reform consists."

As I said, the Pope is addressing both reform and continuity. McBrien and his preferred writer here wish to see that as the Pope embracing discontinuity.

Vatican II's new definitions of the relationships between the church, on the one hand, and science, the state, and non-Christian religions, on the other, required the council to rethink and even correct earlier historical decisions in order to "preserve and deepen the church's inmost nature and identity."

Komonchak concedes, however, that "the clear disjunction between the two rival hermeneutical orientations with which the pope began his remarks [became] rather blurred in the course of his argument" -- which is also why some readers may have difficulty fully grasping the central point of this week's column.

The Pope's words were not sufficiently clear, which is why we need these people to help clear out the cobwebs. The Pope's distinctions become rather blurred, some people don't understand it (McBrien often makes claims about some people not understanding this or that and therefore needing someone like him to come along and clear things up) and therefore McBrien and Komonchak are doing a public service by coming around and clearing it up with their brand new clarification: Continuity=discontinuity.

Benedict's concept of reform involves important elements of discontinuity. In Komonchak's words: "A hermeneutics of discontinuity need not see rupture everywhere; and a hermeneutics of reform, it turns out, acknowledges some important discontinuities."

After that clarification, McBrien and Komonchak concludes with a few more such clarifications, and with these we see the return of the weasel words "really" and "real"

Komonchak suggests that the real target of the pope's words may have been the traditionalist followers of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who reject the council because of its perceived discontinuities from church doctrine.

The papal address could be read, therefore, as an effort to persuade traditionalists "that a distinction is legitimately made between the level of doctrine ... and the level of concrete application. ..."

However, some critics on the left and right have concluded, in the aftermath of Benedict's lifting of the excommunications, that the pope is really siding with the Lefevbrites.
Such an assumption is open to serious challenge, and Joseph Komonchak's article in A-merica helps us to see why this is so.

A curious article, not as polemic as some of McBrien's writing, but curious nonetheless. What I see here is a subtle shift in debate. McBrien, rather than arguing that the Pope is wrong, as he has done in the past, is here providing the reader with an interpretation of the Pope's words- the interpretation that he, McBrien, endorses repeatedly. A "Spirit of Pope Benedict", if you will. Very often, to interpret a work is to assert control over it: the interpreter makes the work say what he wants it to say, while at the same time claiming that this is what the work "really" said in the first place. A cunning argument. All McBrien's interpretation needs is for the reader to swallow one small, insignificant lie. Then all becomes clear. Misinterpretation=interpretation. discontinuity=continuity. lie=truth. wrong=right.

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