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Truth VS Communion? Traditionalism’s mistake

Updated: Jun 29, 2023

By Dom Dalmasso

Joseph Ratzinger, in his book Eschatology, writes that “the kerygma is theology’s point of departure, and its goal. If, en route, theological reflection attacks the kerygma, it is not the kerygma that suffers shipwreck, but theology.”[1]

Certain strands of radical immanentism and evolutionary historicism threatened the Church’s faith toward the end of the 19th century, and these often led to a religious subjectivism and to a relegation of truth to historical contingency. This called into question the objective content of the Church’s faith, and so, the Neo-Scholasticism which reigned at the time rightfully combatted what was dubbed “modernism.” Ratzinger elaborates on this point (in defense of Church doctrine) when he writes: “Here the linguistic substrate of faith, faith’s fundamental language, is en jeu. That boundary-point has been reached where, over and above the question of interpretation, the loss threatens the interpretandum, the objective content itself.”[2]

But an additional concern was subsequently voiced by many great Catholic intellectuals: theology, especially in seminaries, had become overly static, rationalist, and restrictive. On top of this, the faithful, often cut off from the rich sources of the broad tradition, found themselves engaged in individualistic forms of piety. The sacraments were perceived as remedies for the individual, as opposed to mysteries of union (the Second Vatican Council rectified this perception by speaking of the Church as the sacrament of salvation).

This divorce between theology and history, between sacra doctrina and piety, and between individualistic piety and the liturgical dimensions of the community, contributed in part to the spread of an in-house secularism, as Ratzinger pointed out in his 1958 article The New Pagans and the Church. Viewing theology as a catalogue of truths (or merely a science based on ahistorical principles) which excludes history and subjectivity so as to secure objectivity at all costs, is necessarily reductive. Divine revelation cannot be reduced to a “set of truths” because it is, first and foremost, the person Jesus Christ.

Theology, in a certain sense, is a “science of encounter.” It must therefore be propositional and historical, transcendent and immanent, objective and concerned with subjectivity, given and existentially experienced (piety and theology being in a fruitful union). The Christocentrism of the Second Vatican council unites all these aspects in what will, with further retrospection, be recognized as the Church’s definitive answer to modernism. Even more, the council will be seen as a propaedeutic to modernity. As a friend of mine put it: "the age of the person has dawned upon us, with all its glory and dangers." After all, is theology not the science of God? Is God not a communio personarum?

The dangers of an overly malleable historicism and of a radical immanentism are very real, and, resisting this with ahistorical propositions, and with concepts of truth which (unfortunately) bracketed off the subjectivity of the believing church, did indeed offer an effective “no” to these errors… but what does the Church say "yes" to? What are the correct questions to rival these incorrect questions? The history cat was let out of the bag... what do we do now? The Church needed to address in a thorough manner both history and subjectivity, which, after all, are essential aspects of Christology.

Based on the above, we see how a nuanced criticism of the enlightenment’s criticism, combined with a non-negotiable openness to the Tradition (contra the enlightenment), paves for us a path of continuity within said Tradition. The interpretandum of Tradition, if it has real objective content, must possess the same identity yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Yet this continuity, to be authentic, must refuse to betray Tradition by reducing it to mere propositions from the past. Likewise, it must refuse to relegate the interpretandum to that which is historically contingent (thereby destroying it).

Continuity takes place when the life of yesterday’s community is handed down to today’s community. I can hear the objections... let me explain: To oppose “life” to “truth” or "life" to “objective content” is to misunderstand “communion.” The life of the community has as its source communion with Christ — who is the truth. Thus, we see how truth and communion (and the life which this communion makes possible) are inseparable and are the very ground of continuity. This is why it is a contradiction to claim that schism is necessary in order to preserve the truth, why it is a contradiction to claim that the community in communion with Christ has lost the interpretandum, why it is a contradiction to claim that the council was a rupture with Tradition.

The conclusion is, therefore, that the proper hermeneutic of the Second Vatican Council is Christological, and this Christological hermeneutic is only found in its fullness within an ecclesial context, a context of communion and not schism, of continuity and not rupture. Reform? Yes, as the above observations make clear. But reform is merely a more profound "handing down" of the Church's life (which is what all councils are designed to do). Reform is a call for the Church to remember anew, to discover more deeply the life which animates her already. The Bible itself attests to this inseparability of the truth with the life which flows from communion: “Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life’” (Jn 11:25, NRSV);[3] “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life’” (Jn 14:6); “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb 13:8); and finally, “the church of the living God [is] the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15).

__________________________________________________________________________________ [1] Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life (Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1988), 268. [2] Ratzinger, Eschatology, 245. [3] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version (New York: American Bible Society, 1865).

Dom Dalmasso is a 2023 graduate from Holy Apostles College and Seminary with a Bachelor of Arts in Theology and philosophy. He was a Benedictine monk from early 2011 to late 2012 at Our Lady of Clear Creek Abbey in Oklahoma and was an active-duty United States Marine from August 2014 to August 2018. He runs the YouTube Show / Podcast The Logos Project, and is the editor-in-chief of The Ecclesia Blog. He is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Dogmatic Theology at Holy Apostles.

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