What The Heck Is Hermeneutics?
Back in my undergraduate days my roommate took a class called "Hermeneutics." Not surprisingly, I felt compelled to ask, "What the heck is hermeneutics?" He explained that the word comes from the Greek word ἑρμηνεύω (hermeneuo) "to interpret", and is related to the name of the god Hermes, bringer and interpreter of dreams. Hermeneutics, then, means interpretation, and when we speak of a hermeneutic, we mean a framework through which one interprets raw information. Even if we don't know the term, we all know the concept: if we say someone "sees the world through rose colored glasses", for instance, we mean that they employ a "hermeneutic of optimism"; if you refer to another person as being "always under a dark cloud", they have a "hermeneutic of pessimism". If we want a somewhat more sophisticated example, someone who uses a Marxist hermeneutic interprets everything through to the lens of Class Struggle.
|Hermes the Interpreter|
For most of us it seems a pretty esoteric word, and even if it's a part of our working vocabulary, it's probably not included in our everyday vocabulary. Nonetheless, it's a handy term to have. It gave Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), for instance, a very clear and precise way of summing up the the foundational error of both the "Spirit of Vatican II" progressives and the Lefebvrist ultra-traditionalists: both camps interpret the Second Vatican Council through a "hermeneutic of rupture", when the council should more properly be viewed through a "hermeneutic of continuity". In other words, both groups operate with the assumption that Vatican II is a decisive break with the previous nineteen centuries of Catholic Tradition, the only difference being one group thinks that's a good thing, the other decidedly not. Ratzinger was proposing that instead we should interpret the council with and through that Tradition.
The Hermeneutic of Suspicion
A similar problem, one that can be found not only among die-hard progressives and rad trads, but also among many people who consider themselves "faithful Catholics, but . . ." (and in fact it's a temptation for all of us), is the "Hermeneutic of Suspicion". In other words, the default position that for any issue on which the Church takes a stance contrary to my preconceived ideas, political loyalties, the prevailing popular wisdom, or whatever else, She must convince me, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that my position is wrong and that her position is right. This hermeneutic of suspicion is most conspicuously at play in the massive dissent from the traditional Catholic teaching on sexuality and family (which is not limited, by the way, to those who consider themselves "progressive").
Am I saying that to be a good Catholic we need to stop thinking for ourselves, or "mindlessly" go along with the Church, as anti-Catholics are fond of telling us? Not at all. But nobody thinks and decides in a vacuum, we all need some basis for interpreting our world; "give me a place to stand", said Archimedes, "and I will move the world". Being Catholic has always meant that we stand on the moral and metaphysical framework provided by Christ 's Church, and the Gospel as understood by that Church, not by the conventional wisdom or the prejudices of the cultural elite.
The Pillar and Foundation of Truth
The demand that the Church must exhaustively prove to my satisfaction any teaching that does not correspond to my preferences before I believe, in fact, seems to me to be the exact opposite of what has been normative for those who consider themselves faithful Catholics throughout the history of the Church. St. Paul refers to “the church of the living God” as “the pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Tim. 3:15), and in another place he makes explicit where the believer is to stand in case of conflict between the Truth of God and the conventional wisdom:
Let no one deceive himself. If any one among you considers himself wise in this age, let him become a fool so as to become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in the eyes of God, for it is written: "He catches the wise in their own ruses," and again: "The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are vain." (1 Cor. 3:18-20)
It was understood in the early Church as well, where the authority to make final and binding decisions lay. St. Augustine once said:
For already two councils on this question have been sent to the apostolic see; and replies have also come from there. The cause is finished [causa finita est]; would that the error might be sometime finished also! (Sermon 131:10)
The expression causa finita est comes from the practice of law; the modern expression that most closely corresponds to causa finita est is “case closed!” To Augustine it seems a given that the replies from Rome have ended the discussion.
More than a thousand years later St. Ignatius of Loyola is even more explicit in the Spiritual Exercises when he lists the rules “to have the true sentiment which we ought to have in the Church Militant”:
|Pope Paul III and St. Ignatius Loyola|
To be right in everything, we ought always to hold that the white which I see, is black, if the Hierarchical Church so decides it, believing that between Christ our Lord, the Bridegroom, and the Church, His Bride, there is the same Spirit see which governs and directs us for the salvation of our souls. Because by the same Spirit and our Lord Who gave the ten Commandments, our holy Mother the Church is directed and governed.
St. Ignatius is not urging that Catholics leave their brain behind when they enter the Church: notice that he does not refer simply to white, but "the white which I see". In other words, when it comes to fundamental categories (i.e., right and wrong), we need to trust the Church's judgment over our own, because she has been promised the guidance of the Holy Spirit, while we, as individuals, have not.
Every Man A Pope
It really could not be any other way. If we make ourselves the ultimate arbiters of truth instead of deferring to the Church, then the individual believer becomes, in effect, infallible, his or her own Pope, the result of which could only be thousands upon thousands of little schisms; any sort of real communion becomes impossible. In fact, that is exactly what we see among our separated brethren in the Protestant communities, whose separate denominations are now said to number in the tens of thousands, less than five hundred years after Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the church door in Wittenberg.In the end, faith itself becomes an impossibility, if there is no Truth greater than my own personal "truth". And if I’m the supreme judge, why do I need a church to teach me anything? For that matter, what use is religion at all, or a Divine Savior, if it’s up to me to determine whether there’s any sin from which to save me? Isn’t that the logical end-point of the Hermeneutic of Suspicion? Just myself, closed in upon myself. That’s an awfully cold, lonely way to spend eternity; it brings to mind what St. Paul says: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24). Paul, of course, knows the answer: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25). Only Christ can save me from myself, I myself who “do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want” (Romans 7:19). This same Christ has given His Church the power to bind and loose (Matthew 18:18); who am I, or any of us, to be its judge?