Readers know that I am not in the habit of responding to comments on my posts, mostly because I think the comment section properly belongs to the readers. I have said my piece, now you all should have your chance. And, some of you readers post so thoughtfully and so regularly, and get such good debates going amongst yourselves, it seems that the comment section is doing quite fine without additional input from me.
But, two replies to my post on George Weigel’s response to Caritas in Veritate warrant attention. The first is from Mr. Nicholas Collura. Sir, identify yourself. Why are you not writing for us or for somebody on a regular basis! Your post was smart and witty and did most of the heavy lifting in responding to Mr. Weigel’s reply.
Yes, Mr. Weigel did see fit to reply to my post. In it, he raises a charge – though he does not indicate a target. He writes: "The Holy Father is at pains to stress a hermeneutics of continuity in understanding both Vatican II and Catholic Social Doctrine. One wonders how such a hermeneutics squares with the notion that there are two social doctrine traditions, one issuing from Rerum Novarum and one from Populorum Progressio, with the latter in effect trumping the former." I do not know who is postulating the existence of two social doctrine traditions. Certainly I did not make any such postulation in my original piece. I think the points of continuity between the two are obvious at both the level of principle and of policy. For example, the moral claim of the common good upon private property is a high principle of both and, in both encyclicals, issues in a frank and undeniable policy endorsement of workers’ rights, especially the right to organize.
What is more, it is clear that Pope Benedict XVI. In citing both of the magisterial texts, sees them as of one piece. Indeed, the whole point of the encyclical – arguably the whole point of the pontificate – is to say that the Church’s teaching is of one piece, that Rerum Novarum is of a piece with Populorum Progressio, of course, but also that the social encyclical Weigel most likes, Centesimus Annus, is of one piece with the one he likes least, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis. (Although, I wonder if Caritas in Veritate now tops Weigel’s least liked encyclical.) Indeed, one of the challenging contributions of Pope Benedict’s new work is the careful and precise way he shows how Populorum Progressio is of one piece with Evangelium Vitae and Humanae Vitae.
The "hermeneutics of continuity" to which Weigel refers was first articulated as a theological theme by Pope Benedict in his 2005 Address to the Curia at Christmastime. It is a key and important insight: So much of the historiography of Vatican II emphasized the Council’s break with the past that we have tended to overlook the points of continuity. For example, we can now see how Pope Pius XII’s reform of the Rites of Holy Week, especially bringing back the Easter Vigil, changed not only the Church’s view of the liturgy but also our views on the dignity of the baptized. Stretching even further back, we can see how Pope Pius X – no one’s idea of a progressive – nonetheless in some ways initiated this development in the laity’s role and self-perception by encouraging frequent reception of communion, placing the lay person in an active role in the Church’s most essential self-expression.
I have heard some progressives sniff at the phrase "hermeneutics of continuity" and suggest it was an invitation to rollback the Council. I think that is wrong in two senses. I think there did need to be a correction in the historiography of the Council and I think it bespeaks a fear that is misplaced. The goal is balance and the ways in which Vatican II represented a break from the past cannot be denied or air-brushed out of the picture. DeLubac and Murray were silenced in the 1950s after all. Furthermore, both the theological left and the neo-conservative right have overlooked or misunderstood the way that the theology of Communion, which is all over the pages of Caritas in Veritate is both the most significant doctrinal innovation of Vatican II and the source of greatest continuity, albeit not with the 1950s but with the early Church Fathers.
There is no need to comment upon the rest of Weigel’s reply. As I noted above, Mr. Collura and the other commentators on this post have done a fine job. But, Weigel’s comment indicates to me that the neo-cons will try and claim the "hermeneutics of continuity" for themselves and more progressive theologians should not let them do so. As Benedict showed in his latest encyclical, when you start with a theology of Communion, it is not clear where your politics will end up. The "hermeneutics of continuity" is a fascinating invitation to think through the fundamental theological issues of the day and of eternity and I delight in the prospect of intellectual sparring on this turf.