In his 2005 Christmas Address to the Roman Curia, Benedict XVI chose to evoke the contemporary crisis of faith by quoting from St. Basil’s account of the aftermath of the council of Nicaea: the “raucous shouting of those who through disagreement rise up against one another, the incomprehensible chatter, the confused din of uninterrupted clamoring, has now filled the whole of the Church, falsifying through excess or failure the right doctrine of the faith.” Commenting on the passage, Benedict observed that while this “dramatic description” cannot be “precisely” applied to the period after the Second Vatican Council, the difficulties of our time are “nevertheless reflected in it.”
Today, a decade after Benedict’s address, and amid new storms of “incomprehensible chatter,” many of us have made our own the Holy Father emeritus’ subsequent question: “Why has the implementation of the Council, in large parts of the Church, thus far been so difficult?”
In answering his own question, Benedict offered us his well-known distinction between the “hermeneutic of discontinuity” and the “hermeneutic of reform”; the former he identified as a cause of “confusion,” the latter as a source of spiritual fruit. We should note, however, that the mode in which he presented the hermeneutic of reform was that of an admonition.
For he first described the hermeneutic of reform as a call for a “commitment to expressing a specific truth in a new way,” and pointed out that this “program” was “extremely demanding” because it requires both fidelity to the received truth and dynamism or creativity in its expression. Then, having recited some of the history of the Church’s confrontation with the modern state, he observed that in the Council’s Declaration on Religious Liberty a “discontinuity” with previous magisterial statements had “been revealed,” but that after the necessary distinctions had been made, “the continuity of principles proved not to have been abandoned.” He then immediately added that this underlying continuity was “easy to miss.”
The paragraph that followed this warning deserves careful attention.
It is precisely in this combination of continuity and discontinuity at different levels that the very nature of true reform consists. In this process of innovation we must learn to understand more practically than before that the Church’s decisions on contingent matters . . . should necessarily be contingent themselves, precisely because they refer to a specific reality that is changeable in itself. It was necessary to learn to recognize that in these decisions it is only the principles that express the permanent aspect . . . [while] not so permanent are the practical forms.
The distinction he offered, between those “practical forms” that are “changeable” and those “principles” that are not, in turn refers us to another distinction, between those matters which are of faith (de fide) and those which are not.
In order to understand and to live by the hermeneutic of reform, then, we must be able reliably to make this distinction. Yet herein lies a great difficulty: the distinction is not one that we commonly or easily make, for we are accustomed to trusting our rightly-constituted teachers to make it for us. Today, however, it is not so easy for us to summon up this trust. It is, therefore, imperative for us both to know our faith well enough to make the distinction ourselves, and also to understand why the life of faith is often fraught with the difficulties we are facing in the Church today.
To the first end, we need to recommit ourselves to the study of the Church’s doctrine; to the latter end, I would propose three brief considerations on faith.
First, it is important for us to recall that while faith is “an act of the intellect assenting to divine truth” (CCC #155), which is one, nevertheless this assent extends to many matters, and, therefore, must make use of human reason to connect what is to us prior—the articles of the Creed—to those truths that follow from them. The Catechism describes this process of connecting a subsequent truth of the faith to a prior one in terms such as these: “from generation to generation . . . the ‘deposit’ of Christian moral teaching has been handed on, a deposit composed of a characteristic body of rules, commandments, and virtues proceeding from faith in Christ and animated by charity” (CCC #2033, emphasis added). Again, the Catechism speaks of the infallibility of the Magisterium as extending “to all those elements of doctrine, including morals, without which the saving truths of the faith cannot be preserved, explained, or observed” (CCC #2035). But, the exercise of theological reasoning, like any exercise of the human faculty of reason, is prone to error. So, just as we are not shocked or dismayed when a high-school student fails to reason well, but instead calmly correct his reasoning, we also should not be unduly alarmed or confused when our fellow Catholics reason poorly or erroneously about the faith. And, for our consolation and support, there is a readily-identifiable body of approved reasoning on matters of faith, which is found, in the first place, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, given to us by St. John Paul II as “a sure norm for teaching the faith and thus a valid and legitimate instrument for ecclesial communion” (Apostolic Constitution Fidei Depositum, 1992).
Second, we need to be mindful that faith is a gift of God and no mere intellectual calculus. The Catechism puts it this way: “What moves us to believe is not the fact that revealed truths appear as true and intelligible in the light of our natural reason: we believe ‘because of the authority of God himself who reveals them’” (CCC #156). That our faith must be divine, that is, again in the words of the Catechism, “a personal adherence of man to God,” is true not only with respect to the articles of the Creed, but also with respect to many other matters of faith, especially when it is a question of receiving the very teaching of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Consider the form taken by the teaching in paragraph 1650 of the Catechism:
Today there are numerous Catholics in many countries who have recourse to civil divorce and contract new civil unions. In fidelity to the words of Jesus Christ—‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery’—the Church maintains that a new union cannot be recognized as valid, if the first marriage was.
The last phrase—“if the first marriage was,” that is, was valid—is the statement that gives support to the position of those who would address the problem of divorced and remarried Catholics by means of the nullity process. Earlier in the passage, however, we heard the sonorous declaration, “in fidelity to the words of Jesus Christ.” This is the kind of indication of the Church’s divine faith that we need especially to notice and with gladness to accept. Will there be Catholics in our time who will make a shipwreck of their faith by setting aside their fidelity to the words of Jesus Christ, whether these particular words or others? Sadly, yes. Yet we ought not to be surprised to see it happen; the epistles of St. Paul and of the other apostles contain too many warnings against such infidelity for us to think that the Church will ever enjoy a period when she does not suffer from it.
Third, we need to be reminded that faith is a virtue, and of the virtues an especially noble one. “Believing is possible,” the Catechism teaches, “only by grace and the interior helps of the Holy Spirit. But it is no less true,” the text continues, “that believing is an authentically human act” (CCC #154). Faith, then, requires exercise, commitment, courage, and the support of divine grace. There is work here for the intellect, but also for the will. We need to commit ourselves both to study and to prayer, and we need to cultivate a steadfast trust in God’s Providence. To that end, we can take heart from some words of counsel offered by St. Francis de Sales to one of his spiritual charges some four centuries ago: “What is it that you seek upon the earth other than your God? And you already possess him. Be firm in your resolutions. Stay in the boat. Let the storm come. While Jesus lives, you will not die. He is sleeping, but he will awaken to calm the storm at the right time.”