by Martin Rhonheimer
At the end of his opportune response to the historian Roberto De Mattei, Massimo Introvigne writes "en passant" that my position on religious freedom is different from that of Benedict XVI. Who – as Introvogne notes – has spoken only of an "apparent" discontinuity between the present and the past, contrary to what I have written.
It is not up to me to judge whether my interpretation of the speech by Benedict XVI on December 22, 2005 coincides with the mind of the pontiff. Nonetheless, what Introvigne says definitely does not coincide with the text of that speech. Moreover, it seems to me to be derived from a hardly attentive reading of my article "The hermeneutic of reform and freedom of religion" published on April 28 by www.chiesa:
> Who's Betraying Tradition. The Grand Dispute
In what sense did Benedict XVI speak of a merely "apparent" discontinuity in the speech of December 22, 2005? Let's listen to him again:
The merely "apparent" discontinuity of which the pope speaks refers precisely to the "inmost nature" of the Church and to its "true identity," which have remained intact despite the corrections made by Vatican II on "certain historical decisions" connected to modern thought.
At the same time, however – Benedict XVI adds – alongside this merely "apparent" discontinuity there is a real discontinuity. The pope affirms this when he explains that Vatican II had proposed to "give a new definition to the relationship between the Church and the modern state that would make room impartially for citizens of various religions and ideologies, merely assuming responsibility for an orderly and tolerant coexistence among them." And he adds that precisely in this – not on the nature and identity of the Church, but regarding the conception of the state and of relations between Church and state – "some kind of discontinuity might emerge. Indeed, a discontinuity had been revealed."
For Pope Benedict, there is therefore in the Council a real discontinuity with respect to past conceptions of the state, and at the same time a continuity that is also real – in spite of appearances to the contrary – of the subject Church. This because Vatican II, "recognizing and making its own an essential principle of the modern state with the decree on religious freedom, has recovered the deepest patrimony of the Church."
As a result, the true hermeneutic of the Council is not a "hermeneutic of discontinuity," which would presuppose a rupture and new beginning for the Church. Nor is it a mere "hermeneutic of continuity," as Introvigne also recognizes: because there is not full harmony on this point between what the popes of the nineteenth century taught and what Vatican II teaches.
The true hermeneutic is precisely a "hermeneutic of reform." Reform – again citing the pope who clearly contradicts Introvigne here – distinguishes itself by the fact that it is a "combination of continuity and discontinuity," but "at different levels." The two levels are in this case, as I tried to explain in my article, on the one hand the level of principles (where there is continuity), that is, the nature and identity of the Church and the unicity and fullness of its truth; and on the other the historical applications of these principles (where there is discontinuity with respect to the previous rejection of religious freedom in terms of freedom of conscience and worship as civil rights, a rejection that presupposed the idea that the state is the secular branch of the Church and has the task of enforcing its salvific truth in human society).
It is therefore false to suggest – as Introvigne does and as is also typical of other defenders of Vatican II against the traditionalists – that Benedict XVI does not also speak of true discontinuity. In my view, the audacity, the pastoral sincerity and intellectual honesty of Pope Benedict have led him to identify, and at the same time to neutralize dogmatically in a theologically correct way, the point that the progressives use as a pretext to affirm a "rupture," and that for the traditionalists constitutes instead the stumbling block. It is therefore a matter of recognizing that there exists a level, not essential for the Church's understanding of itself and dogmatic identity, on which there can be, and in fact is, a discontinuity and incompatibility between the magisterium of the popes of the nineteenth century and that of Vatican II. At the same time, however, the pope has clarified that there does not exist that which both the progressives and the traditionalists, with opposite assessments, affirm: a rupture in what is constitutive for the Church, that is, its dogma and its identity as "one, holy, catholic and apostolic."
The most profound reason in support of this "innovation in continuity" – another formula used by Benedict XVI – is that the doctrinal development of the Magisterium of the Church on religious freedom, although it is a real shift, is not a case of the development of dogma. The development of Catholic dogma must always be homogeneous, and therefore take place in complete continuity, as a mere explication and deepening of what already exists in the previous formulations; at the level of dogma, that is, there cannot be reform, but only homogeneous development and therefore continuity. Nonetheless, in what the Council affirms about religious freedom there is no development of dogma, because this is not in any way a question that touches on dogma. Here the development concerns the understanding of that which, in the past, was thought to belong to dogma because it was considered essential for resisting modern religious relativism and indifferentism; while in reality it was not part of dogma – that is, it was not necessary to guarantee the rejection of religious relativism and indifferentism – and therefore it could be abandoned.
To be precise, this is a case of abandoning a certain conception of the state – of the temporal power – a conception that Vatican II implicitly declared to belong to the world of the past, and therefore to be cast off as historical dead weight. This old conception of the state and of its relationship with the Church was not part of the patrimony of the "depositum fidei." Its abandonment, therefore, does not entail any dogmatic discontinuity. Such dogmatic discontinuity – referring to the nature and to the very identity of the Church – is, as the pope says, only "apparent." What really happens, in fact, is entirely different: by casting off the historical dead weight, the truly traditional core of the Church's doctrine on religious freedom shines again in all its purity, in what is essential from the dogmatic point of view and in that belongs to natural law; the doctrine, that is , that in matters of religion, and always excepting the just demands of public order, no human power can limit the freedom to adhere, including publicly and in community form, to the religion that each considers in conscience to be true, and to propagate it. This is what the first Christians asked, and it is what Benedict XVI clearly affirms, saying that with the doctrine on religious freedom Vatican II "has recovered the deepest patrimony of the Church" and finds itself "in full harmony with the teaching of Jesus himself (cf. Mt 22: 21), as well as with the Church of the martyrs of all time."
It is surprising that authors like Massimo Introvigne and others, including theologians, who are in no way "traditionalists" but who seek to be faithful to the magisterium of Vatican II, should have to make such an effort to accept the existence of that real, and not only apparent, discontinuity explicitly affirmed by Benedict XVI in his speech of December 22, 2005. They deny that which they perhaps fear could be a scandal – a certain discontinuity in the ordinary magisterium of the Church – because they think that this makes it easier to defend the infallibility of the Church and win over the traditionalists to an acceptance of Vatican II.
I think, however, that the path opened by Benedict XVI of not contrasting the "hermeneutic of discontinuity" simply with a "hermeneutic of continuity," but with a more nuanced "hermeneutic of reform" will be more fruitful, above all because it is more sincere. Only sincerity and fidelity to the historical facts can be the path of fecundity in this case as well. They could also help to show where the real weak point of the "traditionalists" lies.
In reality, on the point of religious freedom, the traditionalists are not so much defending the nature and identity of the Church; nor are they in the end defending the "depositum fidei" and the dogma of the Church; and therefore they are not really defending Tradition either. What the traditionalists are really defending here is a specific conception of the temporal order, of the state and its relationship with the Church; that is, a model of the confessional state of the past, which moreover was also typical of many Protestant states of the modern era (and in this sense, simultaneously "traditional" and modern), but, as Vatican II has show, not belonging either explicitly or implicitly to the patrimony of the "depositum fidei," and therefore not to Tradition as dogmatically normative.
I am convinced that understanding these distinctions will help the "traditionalist" who is really seeking to be faithful to the Catholic Church and to the truth it has handed down to understand that by accepting the doctrine of Vatican II on religious freedom neither the Church nor these truths are betrayed, but that – as Benedict XVI insists – "the Church, both before and after the Council, was and is the same Church, one, holy, catholic and apostolic, journeying on through time."
As for Massimo Introvigne, I think – and I hope – that after reading this clarification he will realize that he agrees with me more than he thought he did at first, and that his disagreement was, at bottom, due only to an overly hasty reading of what I had written.