Sunday, March 11, 2007

Still interpreting after all these years

Well, as promised, I will be posting summaries of some of the sessions I attended at the RE Congress this year, with some reflections of my own. I will be taking them in no particular order, and it may take some days to get through them all.

My Saturday morning session was Reading Them Again for the First Time: The Documents of Vatican II Today with Dr. Edward Hahnenberg from Xavier University in Cincinnati. He got a laugh from the hundred or so people there by pointing out that the title of the session might be more accurate if you left one word out -- again. Our task is to reclaim these documents for ourselves, documents that are largely unread by many Catholics, including people in ministry. We all tend to have read some particular passages, usually because they support some position we already hold. These are the most important texts produced by the Catholic Church in the past four centuries or so, and we need to know them as they really are.

Hahnenberg's basic point is "the spirit is in the letter", meaning that we have to learn how to read and understand the documents fully -- we need what is known as a hermeneutic -- a systematic approach to interpreting and understanding the work of the Council through these texts.

In constructing a hermeneutic of the Vatican II documents, Hahnenberg cited a favorite book of mine, Ormond Rush's Still Interpreting Vatican II: Some Hermeneutical Principles, defining three complementary approaches for interpretation:

  • of the readers (or "that was then, this is now"
  • of the writers (or "what were they thinking?")
  • and of the texts (or "how they say what they say").
There is no way in this space to do full justice either to everything either Hahnenberg or Rush is saying on this, but there are a few points I want to touch on.

Concerning readers, an important factor to remember in this is that many people not only have little if any memory of the Church before Vatican II, they have little memory of the Council itself or its immediate aftermath -- the post Vatican II church is the Catholic Church they know. Instead of comparing the Church before and after the Council, a comparison that may not be that relevant to some readers today, we might better compare the changes between the Council and our own time. For example, one important issue to examine is the nature of Catholic identity in a postmodern world, something we seem to have trouble with.

A hermeneutic of the writers involves trying to understand just what the council fathers were intending, based on the text, their own writings about the texts, and the history of the Council. Hahnenberg asserts that, just like any other historical text, these texts have to be examined from historical-critical point of view. He is concerned that specific texts are used ahistorically. (One of the better examples he gave concerned the famous chapter 31 of Lumen Gentium defining the laity, and how it should be interpreted. This post got delayed days as I worked that part up, so I split it off into a separate post which will go up in a couple of days.) Part of that is examining the "theological trajectory" of the Council, how certain topics became more important as the Council progressed, with a development of how the issues were handled from one document to another. (Most of the apparent differences between some of the documents, often referred to as the "tensions" between the documents, can be ascribed to this kind of trajectory.) The role of bishops is a good example of such development over the four years; the relationship with the world set out in the constitution Gaudium et Spes is another.

Examining the texts means we have to look at how something was said as well as what was said. A common complaint about these documents is that they are long and boring. The style of these documents is different from that of earlier councils -- a briefer and more legalistic style was more common. Hahnenberg said that a better way is to look at the style is to see that it is not so much long as it is invitational (his term) and not so much boring as intended to seek and support consensus. They are invitational in that they are constructed to, in a sense, start from the beginning and lead the reader step by step through the issues, ideas, and conclusions made by the council fathers. This is a style that has been continued in most papal documents since the Council, in particular, those of John Paul II. The Council fathers were also trying to seek consensus in drafting these works, which means that they often try to include some treatment of differing perspectives in some way, adding to the length and complexity. However, this effort succeeded -- most of the documents received nearly unanimous approval from the Council fathers.

Possibly the most notable occurrence at this session occurred after I left. I skipped the audience questions session to cut out for the vendor area. I picked up a copy of Hahneman's new book A Concise Guide to the Documents of Vatican II in time to meet him in the author's signing area. At the line for Hahnenberg, someone was already waiting for him to arrive for book signings; we talked about how much we liked the session, and this other person said that (apparently) right after I left a Canadian bishop came up to the audience mike and praised Hahnenberg's approach. The bishop stated that he had attended the Council, and that Hahnenberg was presenting the Council as he remembered it. (I am not sure who this was, but I suspect it might have been this bishop.) To say the least, Hahnenberg was glowing when he arrived for the signings.

More on this, with some discussion of the book, in a future post.

No comments: