"Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with you."
"Hermeneutics" is a word that I learned from Pope Benedict XVI. Judging from the way that Benedict uses this word I have come to understand that it refers to how something within Catholicism is "interpreted". For instance how one interprets a particular one of the parables of Jesus will depend on the "hermeneutic" that one uses.
I have come to think of a hermeneutic as a lens through which one views not only sacred scripture, but everything regarding our Catholic faith. I imagine it as looking through a sort of telescope at some object. Depending on the angle of perspective and depending on the magnification and what filters are used the view changes. One could even add lenses that distort the image for whatever reason -- whether to try to improve some aspect of the image or simply to shift the image to make it conform to our own selfish desires.
It is a fancy word and it seems unnecessarily academic, but words express ideas. And Benedict is introducing us to a new idea which is difficult to grasp, but which he personally found to be extremely useful. I'm sure that I don't fully grasp the concept, but nonetheless I will try to explain what I understand with regards to the useful applications of this idea.
The most frequent -- and I think important -- use of this term by Benedict is the "hermeneutic of continuity" with regards to Vatican II. This is in contrast to the "hermeneutic of rupture". I'll get into what this means a little later, but first I'd like to explore other "hermeneutics".
I suppose that you could say that each Protestant denomination has its own "hermeneutic" through which it views the Bible and various Church teachings. That could extend to even its view of the Catholic Church. This sounds similar to what secularists refer to as a "world view". And that is probably pretty close to the idea of a hermeneutic, although I think a hermeneutic is more closely tied to interpretation as I mentioned at the beginning.
So I think a better example is the way that radical feminists attempt to re-interpret the Bible. Benedict might say that they employ a "hermeneutic of radical feminism". Again, going back to the telescope idea they employ certain filters which makes certain concepts stand out more than others and de-emphasizes other features.
Think for example of a telescope with a red filter. Regardless of whether that filter simply emphasizes all red objects, this creates a distortion in the real image. For instance, this causes blue objects to fade into the background. This could be useful as long as one is mindful that such a filter is in place and is aware of the distortion of the image, but it can also lead to misinterpretations if the resulting image is taken to be the "real" and "correct" one.
But this discovering the "real and correct" image seems to be the purpose of a hermeneutic. And so the radical feminist will say that they have found the real meaning of the women that are found in the Gospels. They may claim that this "truth" was hidden by cultural and historical realities at the time of Christ, and that by removing those cultural and historical barriers they have been able to reveal these previously hidden meanings of the Gospel.
The end result is a sort of gospel of radical feminism, which seems to bear little or no relationship to the true Gospel that was taught from the time of the Resurrection until the present day. This contrasts for example with the Gospel which St. Paul taught to the early Christians in the Greek speaking parts of the Roman Empire.
What then does Pope Benedict mean when he refers to the "hermeneutic of continuity" with regards to Vatican II vs. the "hermeneutic of rupture". "Continuity"refers to the principle that the doctrines of the Church prior to Vatican II remain valid and have only been re-clarified and expanded upon to fit the needs of the present day. While "rupture" refers to a view that Vatican II represents a significant departure from the pre-council Church and that it invalidates many prior Church teachings.
For the most part I would say that the Catholic Church in America has been acting as if the correct hermeneutic is the one of "rupture". It seems to reject or ignore pre-council teachings that violate even the "spirit" of Vatican II.
This is disconcerting because it means that the Church was wrong about many things for nearly 2000 years. And using the same logic, couldn't the Church be wrong about many of its current teachings as well? And in fact this is the logic that enables some within the Church to push for "women priests" or "homosexual marriage".
Benedict proposes a "hermeneutic of continuity" to resolve this problem. But even this hermeneutic presupposes that when there is a conflict between pre-council and post-council teaching that the Vatican II interpretation is the one that takes precedence. The problem is that there are many, many very fundamental conflicts to resolve. So this hermeneutic still implies that for nearly 2000 years some fundamental Church teachings were severely flawed -- if not downright just plain wrong. And this applies especially to the Popes of the 100 or so years before the council who have consistently taught that "modernism" contained errors which were totally contrary to the Catholic faith.
And once again if the Church and the popes got it wrong for so long, how do we know that we've got it right now? Shouldn't we be constantly "reforming" the Church just like the Church of England does? After all the Anglicans have "women priests" and are OK with contraception and "homosexual priests" and abortion in many cases, etc,
All of this leads one to the question: What is the correct hermeneutic for understanding Vatican II? Is it "continuity", "rupture" or perhaps something else?
This is not just an academic exercise given that the post-council Church is a mere shadow of her pre-council self. And in these "modern" times more than ever we need a Catholic Church that will stand up to the forces that are transforming the global society by destroying every hint of 2000 years of Christian culture.