A collection of personal reflections. Copyright © 2005-2011 K. Gurries

Friday, February 11, 2011

On Misinterpretations and Clarifications

The recent speech given by Bishop Athanasius Schneider raises some interesting questions.  The call for a new Syllabus of Errors necessarily involves doctrinal clarification and completion insofar as it contradicts specific erroneous opinions and interpretations of doctrine.  

“There is need for a new Syllabus, this time directed not so much against errors coming from outside the Church, but against errors spread within the Church on the part of those who maintain a thesis of discontinuity and rupture with its doctrinal, liturgical, and pastoral application. Such a Syllabus would consist of two parts: a part marking errors and a positive part with propositions of doctrinal clarification, completion, and precision.”

In other words, the problem of doctrinal errors within the Church is not a result of a Magisterium teaching erroneous doctrine contrary to Faith and morals.  Rather, the problem stems from those erroneous interpretations and applications of the authentic magisterium.  But according to some writers the very need for “clarification” or “completion” of some previous magisterial text implies a defect in a given magisterial act.  In other words, if the Vatican II documents can be interpreted in an erroneous manner or if they can be augmented by further "clarification" or "completion" then, according to these writers, they must be rejected as defective on the grounds that they are either “ambiguous” or “incomplete” or both. 

This conclusion does not seem logical for several reasons.  There is no such thing as a text (Divine, Magisterial or otherwise) that is completely immune to abuse or being taken out of its proper context.  In other words, readers are often going to read into a document what they are pre-disposed to take away from it.  This is simply a reality of human nature and sin.  For example, we know from experience that the Bible is subject to many false interpretations.  It can easily be abused and taken out of proper context.  Yet the fact that the Bible can be understood falsely does not imply any defect in Sacred Scripture.  Furthermore, the fact that the Magisterium must subsequently “complete” the doctrine contained in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition by making more explicit what is only implicit does not imply that Divine Revelation is “incomplete” in some way.  We can consider another example in the dogma “Outside the Church there is no salvation.”  The fact that this dogma was subsequently "clarified" and “completed”  -- in the sense of making more explicit what was already implicit -- during the Pontificate of Pius XII does not imply any defect in the dogma itself.  It simply supports the fact that humans are capable of reading documents in a one-sided manner and applying mental filters based on what they are pre-disposed to understand.  Furthermore, the subsequent “completion” does not imply an “incomplete” doctrine – even if it draws the truth out more explicitly.  If we are going to be realistic about it then we should recognize that the role of the Magisterium in this process will continue until the end of time.  In every case, the only authentic interpreter of the Magisterium is the Magisterium itself.

In the hermeneutical uproar of contrasting interpretations and in the confusion of pastoral and liturgical applications, the Council itself united with the Pope appears as the one authentic interpreter of the conciliar texts. One could make an analogy with the confused hermeneutical climate of the first centuries of the Church, provoked by arbitrary biblical and doctrinal interpretations on the part of heterodox groups. In his famous work De praescriptione haereticorum Tertullian was able to set against the heretics of various orientations the fact that only the Church is the legitimate owner of the faith, of the word of God, and of tradition. With that in the disputes on true interpretation, the Church can drive the heretics “a limine fori”. Only the Church can say, according to Tertullian: “Ego sum heres Apostolorum” (Praescr., 37, 3). Speaking analogically, only the supreme Magisterium of the Pope or of a future Ecumenical Council will be able to say: “Ego sum heres Concilii Vaticani II”.  (Bishop Athanasius Schneider)





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