Saturday, March 29, 2008

Reading the Documents of Vatican II (Part 3)

In this third and final excerpt from the preface of The Church in the Making, theologian and author Richard R. Gaillardetz presents an “explicit, interpretive methodology” that he insists is the only way out of the impasse noted in the previous excerpt.

In her review of Gaillardetz’s book for the soon-to-be posted April issue of The Progressive Catholic Voice online journal, Paula Ruddy outlines the origins and nature of this “impasse”:

In order to get almost unanimous agreement from the bishops on the documents [of Vatican II], theologians had to compromise. The way they did that was to place alternative formulations of some teachings one after the other in the same chapters of the document. That solution to their problem has caused new problems of interpretation over the 40 years since Vatican II. Using only the texts of documents, people who do not like change, cite the formulation that fits their agenda, and people who do want reform, cite passages that fit theirs.

Following is how Gaillardetz, using the insights of Australian theologian Ormond Rush, proposes a way around this impasse.


[We must] adopt an explicit, interpretive methodology, a conciliar hermeneutic that goes beyond the juxtaposition of discrete passages in an effort to discern the emerging theological vision that is evident in the conciliar documents. [Ormond] Rush contends that an adequate conciliar hermeneutic requires a threefold reading of the council documents.

First, a diachronic [i.e., of or pertaining to the changes in a linguistic system between successive points in time] reading of the council documents presumes that one must study the historical development of the documents from the pre-conciliar, preparatory period through the four sessions and three intersessions of the council itself. This reading requires a careful consideration of the sources from which a text draws, the history of its development, and a consideration of the questions it was intended and not intended to address. Such a reading will also identify an emerging trajectory of development that may in fact point beyond the council.

A diachronic interpretation of conciliar documents must respond to the following kinds of questions:

1. How does the history of a text as it moved from preparatory schema to its final promulgation affect our understanding of it?

2. Did a particular teaching grow or lessen in importance over the course of the council?

3. Did the council anticipate and provide for further development of a given topic after the close of the council?

4. How did the council critically “receive” earlier insights and theological perspectives?

5. Did the council intentionally leave some theological/doctrinal questions open?

6. What significance do we attach to the council’s decision to avoid certain theological formulations in its teaching?

[Gaillardetz employs this diachronic approach in Part One of The Church in the Making as he examines the history of three Vatican II documents - Lumen Gentium, Christus Dominus, and Orientalium Ecclesiarum.]

Second, alongside this diachronic reading, the texts must also be read synchronically, that is, each text must be read in relation to other companion texts among the council documents.

Questions that must be considered in a synchronic reading include:

1. When considering a particular text, how does a sense of the whole corpus of conciliar documents shape the way that a particular text is read?

2. Are there texts that ought to provide a hermeneutical key for interpreting other texts?

3. What weight should be given to any particular document with respect to the others?

[Gaillardetz uses this more synchronic reading in Part Two of his book to identify common themes in the same three documents mentioned above.]

Finally, diachronic and synchronic interpretations have to be accompanied by a third reading, one that considers the conciliar texts in the light of their subsequent reception in the life of the church.

Such a reading must consider:

1. What themes have been emphasized and/or neglected in post-conciliar church teaching?

2. What themes have been emphasized or neglected in post-conciliar theological literature?

3. What conciliar teachings have or have not given rise to concrete changes in church law, structures, and pastoral practice?

[Gaillardetz undertakes this third mode of interpretation in Part Three of his book, while Part Four looks to the future with some constructive proposals for continued church reform and renewal.]

. . . What I hope will emerge is a dynamic and vital image of the church, faithful to its great tradition, yet attentive to the distinctive challenges of the present and open to a graced future.


As I’ve noted previously, Richard Gaillardetz will be the keynote speaker at Call to Action Minnesota’s Spring Conference on Saturday, April 19, 2008. The topic of his presentation will be: “Rethinking Hierarchy: Becoming a Community of Conversation.” For more information about this event, see the “Upcoming Events” section in the latest issue of The Progressive Catholic Voice online journal.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Reading the Documents of Vatican II (Part 1)
Reading the Documents of Vatican II (Part 2)
Truth About “Spirit of Vatican II” Finally Revealed!


kevin57 said...

Gaillaredetz lays out a reasonable and respectful process for interpreting the Conciliar documents. It is one that I think both sides of the theological rift in the Church could stand to learn from.

However, methodology and even theology have little, if anything, to do with the political struggle occurring within the Church, specifically between the Curia in Rome and in some respects the rest of the Church universal. I know that that is a broad and somewhat unfair generalization, but the fact is that it is curial departments in Rome that are trying to control and dictate to the rest of the Church. Funny-mentalists in the Church applaud this, seeing the Vatican as their last refuge against a world hostile to their viewpoints...and against the vast majority of the Church (including bishops, truth be told), who have dismissed much of magisterial teaching, especially on matters of sexual conduct.

This has redounded against the Church before. Councils in the Middle Ages tried to curb papal shenanigans by calling for a more democratic process of electing the popes and other internal reforms. If the Vatican had actually adhered to what the extraordinary magisterium was doing, the Protestant Reformation might have been avoided. Alas, Adam's pride is never far from home...

Anonymous said...

I think its useful to apply Gaillardetz's interpretive principles to his own method. Isn't his hermeneutic a culturally constructed and conditioned way of advancing a particular agenda? Why is his agenda any better or worse, say, than Pope Benedict's agenda?