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What Did the Pope Say? Developing a Hermeneutic of Papal Interviews
By Andrew M. Greenwell
October 2nd, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)
It seems that in dealing with this new genre of Papal communications, since it does not appear that it will go away, we will have work on a hermeneutic, a theory of interpretation, that allows us to understand the Papal media interviews and avoid an apoplexy of faith each time these are released.CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) - It is said that the editor of the Dublin Review, William George Ward (1812-82), the advocate of papal infallibility and chatterer if there ever was one, used to say, "I should like a new Papal Bull every morning with my Times at breakfast.
Well, with Pope Francis's penchant for giving interviews to the secular and religious press, it looks like Ward's wish might be coming true. Pope Francis's most recent interview with Eugenio Scalfari was published by the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, in Italian and in English translation. This follows on the heels of the one given to the editor of La CiviltÓ Cattolica Antonio Spadaro, S.J., and published in English in the review America, and the interview before that on the plane trip back from World Youth Day in Brazil.
The press interviews appears to become a trend Ward perhaps would have welcomed. Well . . . except for two things.
First, Pope Francis's interviews do not have anything close to the dignity and solemnity of Papal Bulls, and are hardly prepared with the same care. It should go without saying that Pope Francis's interviews hardly have the doctrinal significance or the import that, say, Pope Leo X's bull Exsurge Domine (which fulminated against Martin Luther) had.
Which leads to the second thing. The entire genre of this sort of communication and the informality of the process lead to imprecise, often vague, even unfortunate expressions. It lends itself to controversy, and controversy is unsettling.
To be sure, there are advantages to this medium of communication. Both the church and the world reads and discusses (even if unfairly) the Pope's interviews in a way that no Encyclical is read and discussed.
Second, the interviews are informal, seemingly unguarded, and therefore give us an insight into the personality and thoughts (and perhaps future action) of the Pope which, in the past, was not available to us in the same manner.
So as a means of communication to the masses, despite its strengths and limitations and advantages and disadvantages, and irrespective of the controversy they invariably raise, these interviews appear to be a vehicle Pope Francis seems intent on using.
We may as well get used to it.
To get used to it, we will have to develop and polish up some rules of interpretation, a hermeneutic, if you will, of papal interviews.
The first and easiest issue is that we will have to deal with the question of bad or hurried translations from the Italian of the Pope to the English of the reader. An example of this in the Scalfari interview is the statement "The Son of God became incarnate in the souls of men to instill the feeling of brotherhood." No Catholic would say such a thing--that God the Son becomes "incarnate in the souls of men." And that is not what the Italian says. It reads: Il Figlio di Dio si Ŕ incarnato per infondere nell'anima degli uomini il sentimento della fratellanza. Literally it says, "The Son of God became incarnate to inspire in men the sentiment of brotherhood."
We will have to get used to terms of art and recognize them. For example, "Proselytism is solemn nonsense." Someone unfamiliar with the manner in which Pope Francis uses the term "proselytism" may confuse "proselytism" with evangelization. They are not the same thing.
Proselytism is the use of unjust, unfair, undignified, or manipulative methods to induce people to accept a belief and join an organization. Evangelization, on the other hand, is the proclamation of the Gospel coupled with concern that the act of faith in Jesus and His Church be free. The Pope has not called Evangelization nonsense.
We will have to get used to sloppy or imprecise language whose consequences are not fully thought out, and simply learn to live with it. We will have to understand these assuming the Pope to be speaking in good faith. For example, the Pope states: "Each of us has a vision of good and evil. We have to encourage people to move towards what they think is Good."
If someone--say a rapist--has a vision of good that includes raping women, surely Pope Francis is not advocating that the Church ought to be encouraging the rapist to move towards what he thinks is good. Interpreted in good faith, I think Pope Francis means the Church ought to encourage men to look for the "Good" beyond any particular chosen good, which, in an objective sense, may be only an apparent or false good. But if he means that, he did not say it in so many words. We have to add nuance where it was left off.
We shall have to get used to inaccurate, perhaps even imprudent language, even statements materially proximate to heresy. The Pope is not promised infallibility when giving interviews. Remember, for example, that Pope John XXII privately believed and privately taught material heresy, namely, that the souls of the departed did not enjoy the beatific vision until the final judgment. It has happened in the past, and, given this new genre, is likely to happen, and happen publicly.
As an example, the Pope in the Scalfari interview says that "St. Paul is the one who laid down the cornerstones of our religion and our creed."
What? St. Paul who preached only "Christ and him crucified" (1 Cor. 2:2), who called Jesus Christ "the chief cornerstone" (Eph. 2:20), who wrote that no man can lay another foundation other than the one laid by God, which is Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 3:11)?
This is an unfortunate statement. First, it contradicts Scripture and contradicts the Church's dogmatic teaching: "Christ Jesus Himself being the supreme cornerstone" of our Faith (Lumen Gentium, No. 19). Second, it plays into the heretical notion that Christianity is nothing but Paulinism, and that the Jesus of History is different from the Christ of Faith, the latter being an invention of St. Paul.
We shall have to get used to mistakes in judgment. For example: Pope Francis tells Scalfari that the "most serious," the "most urgent and most dramatic" of "the evils that afflict the world these days are youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old." No one doubts that these are social or civil evils, even significant ones. But, given the collapse of the Faith in Europe, the martyrdom of Christians around the globe, the militancy of Islam, the flaunting the Gospel of Life, can it really be said that these evils are the most serious?
Then we will have to resist the temptation to infer from silence. Because the interview genre is limited and uncontrolled, there will be things that the Pope does not say that can be construed as tacit acceptance of its opposite.
For example, Scalfari says that the Pope told him that "conscience is autonomous." The Pope does not challenge that statement. Well, in one sense conscience is, and it one sense it is not. And it is hardly certain that Scalfari and Pope Francis understand the word conscience in the same way.
Conscience is certainly not absolutely autonomous in the sense understood by a Kantian or a modern atheist, and I doubt very much the Pope understands it that way. Even the conscience of the atheist is answerable, for example, to the natural moral law, which, the Pope knows, is man's participation in the Eternal Law, namely God. But the Pope, by silence, allows the reader to infer that perhaps he agrees that conscience is fully autonomous, even of natural law and God.
There will always be some missed opportunities: we must not interpret these interviews with l'esprit d'escalier, a "spirit of the stairs." There are things the Pope, in retrospect should have said, or in our mind, he should have said which he didn't. For example, Scalfari opens the door about the "epistemological turn" of Descartes--I think therefore I am--which ushered in the Enlightenment and ultimately divided reason and nature and reason and faith. Pope Francis could have challenged this philosophical turn, as Pope Benedict XVI surely would have. Instead, he parries the issue and gracelessly lapses into the not-very-enlightening and jejune difference between unbelief and anti-clericalism. This one landed with a thud.
We shall have to get used to statements that are unsettling, even violent, but true. The Pope, for example, states that he believes "in God, not in a Catholic God, there is no Catholic God, there is God and I believe in Jesus Christ, his incarnation." At first it may seem scandalous. But it is certainly true and unimpeachable that the God of Catholics is not a tribal God, a deity of the people exclusive to the people and not others. The God of Catholics--the Catholic God--is the Almighty God, the God of Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Jesus Christ, the one and only God.
Finally, we will have to accustom ourselves to reading sentences that, frankly, will not seem to make a whole lot of sense. We have one such instance in this interview: "God is the light that illuminates the darkness, even if it does not dissolve it, and a spark of divine light is within each of us. . . . [O]ur species will end but the light of God will not end and at that point it will invade all souls and it will all be in everyone." I have no idea how to take this statement. What does the Pope mean by "our species will end"? What does it mean that God "will invade all souls," and that God will "be in everyone"? To me, this Teilhardian-sounding mish mash is unintelligible as Catholic doctrine; indeed, it is unintelligible as English.
But there will always be those spontaneous gems, such as "A religion without the mystical is a philosophy." Or the acute observation: "Personally, I think so-called unrestrained liberalism only makes the strong stronger and the weak weaker and excludes the most excluded." Amen.
Then there are what may be hints, which allow for speculation upon speculation. Here are a couple that have raised my eyebrows and unsettle me:
"Vatican II, inspired by Pope Paul VI and John [XXIII], decided to look to the future with a modern spirit and to be open to a modern culture. . . . But afterwards very little was done in that direction. I have the humility and ambition to want to do something."
Does this suggest the abandonment of the "hermeneutic of continuity" of Blessed Pope John Paul II and his successor Benedict XVI? Did these two do "very little" in opening up the church to the modern spirit and the modern culture? Is Pope Francis suggesting a "hermeneutics of rupture"? A change of policy from his last two predecessors?
Another hint is his mention (twice) of the very liberal and now deceased Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, whom Pope Francis had previously hailed as "prophetic" figure and a "Father for the Whole Church." Does this forebode changes and reforms to liturgy, governance, and discipline that the more conservative and traditional Catholics are sure to find distasteful? I think so. And it worries me.
So it seems that in dealing with this new genre of Papal communications, since it does not appear that it will go away, we will have work on a hermeneutic, a theory of interpretation, that allows us to understand the Papal media interviews and avoid, or at least reduce, the apoplexy of faith each time these are released.
Unless we do so, every morning shall be greeted with consternation, controversy, and confusion, and it is not likely we shall ever enjoy our breakfast, finish our coffee, much less even get to the Times.
Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas. He is married with three children. He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum. You can contact Andrew at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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