The Hermeneutic of Continuity Continues

We have underestimated the effects of the long papacy of John Paul with its “extension papacy” of Benedict XVI. I call Benedict’s papacy an extension of John Paul’s because he was for so long the right hand man of John Paul, and his obvious successor and “keeper of the flame.”

Together they guided the church for thirty five years. That’s a long time. It is an especially long time in a world which is changing so rapidly. John Paul and Benedict were European popes and their perspective was naturally rooted in their experiences in Poland and Germany and the events of the Second World War and the Communist domination of Eastern Europe. Their spiritualities and understanding of the church were formed by these pressures as well as the Catholic culture of Poland and Bavaria.

Francis’ papacy is therefore a shock to the system. We’re still reeling–not only from the resignation of Benedict XVI, but also from the end of an era. We feel like the days of John Paul and Benedict are over. Something new is happening in the church. Many in the church do not remember any popes but John Paul and Benedict. For converts, like me, they were my popes. I don’t remember Paul VI and John XXIII. Francis is therefore a new factor and an unknown and unpredictable papa. He comes from a different culture and was formed with a different perspective and different priorities. We have to take time to stop, look and listen.

But is he really so new? I don’t think so. Over the last week I have made an effort, as part of my research for doing a talk at a conference on the New Evangelization, to read John Paul and Benedict’s thoughts on evangelization and the church. Francis is not saying anything new. He’s not only continuing their teaching, but he is showing us how to put it into practice. His style is different, his emphasis is different and his perspective is fresh, but that is only to be expected from whoever was elected to the office. In my opinion he needs to be more careful in his public statements and more precise in what he is saying, but the basic content of his message is consistent and in continuity with John Paul and Benedict.

My ambition, therefore, as I continue to learn about Francis and learn from Francis, is to read and re-read the teachings of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Their teachings shed light on Francis’ papacy and will reveal the theory behind the actions and words of this most prophetic of popes. I encourage you to do the same. Follow through and do your homework. Read Benedict’s three encyclicals on the theological virtues. Read John Paul’s pastoral letter Into the New Millennium–and his Redemptoris Missio. These documents–and others from the past continually illuminate the present and guide us into the future.

We are used to the tension and swing of politics–in which a right winger is elected followed by a left winger. We’re used to the back and forth of politics in which no clear progress is made because there is not clear mandate of what should be done. We’re used to the constant tug and controversy of politics in which sides are taken and battles are fought.

This is not the way the spirit leads the church. It is true that we fall into camps of progressives and conservatives and we fight amongst ourselves, but this is the way of the world. This is not the way of the Spirit. Instead the spirit leads with both progress and continuity at the same time. Each papacy should be a step forward for the church, building on what has gone before and explicating and unfolding step by step the Spirit’s overall plan for the Church and the world.

This is also how we should grow spiritually in our individual lives. We grow and advance, building on a secure foundation and reaching out to learn and grow from what we have learned and add more wisdom and understanding as we grow hearts and minds that are ever open and searching for the fullness of truth.

Francis is not a break from Benedict and John Paul, but a flowering and opening out of all they taught. Therefore to rightly understand the present and move confidently into the future we need to look to the past.

UPDATE: Tom Perna has written along similar lines here

  • David L. Jones


    Christ is in our midst!

    Listen to Dr. Tracey Rowland’s recent talk. You will find it helpful.

  • Chesire11

    Back in April, on a political blog, I made the case that the pontificates of Blessed John Paul II, and Benedict XVI can best be described as “Magisterial,” in that their primary duty and accomplishment was the authoritative interpretation of the meaning of the Second Vatican Council.

    In the wake of two world wars, the Counter-Reformational reliance upon authority to propagate the faith fell victim to a general cynicism toward the authority of institution. It
    therefore became necessary for the Church to abandon its reliance on authority, in favor of conveying the deposit of faith by means of engagement with the modern world, through reasoned dialogue. Only through appeal to reason could the Church addressing and answering the challenges of a hyper-materialist, narcissistic consumer culture, rebuking a Godless materialist philosophy inimical to the dignity of man created in the image and likeness of God. THAT is what Vatican II was about – not repeal and revision of doctrine (which is impossible to the Church), but a new way of communicating those doctrines to a cynical world.

    The election of Pope Francis represents the flowering of this process. With the emergence of a Pastorally, rather than Magisterially focused pontiff in Francis (the first pope ordained into a post-Conciliar Church) the groundwork of the Council is complete, and the Church can at last engage more vigorously with the challenges of materialism and moral relativity which reduce man to a collection of appetites and urges, and values the individual only as a producer and consumer. Francis represents no more of a break from the legacies of his immediate predecessors any more than they represented a break with the Council. They all represent the maturing and flowering of the Conciliar Church, which itself is the unfolding of all that preceeded it.

  • Augustine

    When the Holy Father silently lets his wayward shepherd of Freiburg, Germany to receive remarried divorced couples to communion, after leading other German bishops in allowing the Morning-After Pill in Catholic hospitals, methinks of rupture, not continuity.

    Excuse me while I preemptively get scandalized by the prospect of an apostate pope who would make such abominations Church law. If so, the end is truly near.

    • Dan C

      This story just broke, with commentary out of the Vatican already. In reality, the first official step is by Mueller, as once Joseph Ratzinger responded in the past, with the lightning speed of weeks to months before taking someone to task. But those good ol’ days are remembered differently by you.

      Also, some of your problems you note pre-date this pontificate. Which suggests you criticize Benedict too.

      What did you think of Benedict’s encyclicals?

  • Dan C

    Benedict wrote three encyclicals for us as pope. Together they form what he thought was the foundational starting point for the Catholic. These are his explicit magisterial teachings as pope. They are both shockingly simple yet deep.

    Why are they avoided?