Eternal Truths and ‘Pastoral’ Changes

Ressourcement (“a return to the sources”) is a creative retrieval of the authoritative foundations of the Christian faith in Scripture and Tradition in order to revitalize the present. This retrieval was at the heart of Vatican II. In line with the thought of Vincent of Lérins (d. 450), the Council distinguished between truth and its historically conditioned formulations, truth-content and context, in sum, propositions and sentences. John XXIII alluded to these distinctions in his opening address at Vatican II, Gaudet Mater Ecclesia: “For the deposit of faith [2 Tim 1:14], the truths contained in our sacred teaching, are one thing; the mode in which they are expressed, but with the same meaning and the same judgment [eodem sensu eademque sententia], is another thing.”

The subordinate clause here – eodem sensu eademque sententia – is part of a larger passage from Vatican I’s Dei Filius (4.14), and this passage is, in turn, from the Commonitórium primum (23.3) of Vincent of Lérins: “Therefore, let there be growth and abundant progress in understanding, knowledge, and wisdom, in each and all, in individuals and in the whole Church, at all times and in the progress of ages, but only with the proper limits, i.e., within the same dogma, the same meaning, the same judgment.”

Yves Congar, one of the great theologians of la nouvelle théologie, argues that this distinction summarizes the meaning of Vatican II. Although the truths of the faith may be expressed differently, we must always determine, even as we deepen our understanding of those truths, that those new re-formulations preserve the same meaning and judgment (eodem sensu eademque sententia), and hence the material continuity, identity, and universality of those truths.

By contrast, we hear a lot today about a pastoral orientation of doctrine. “Pastoral” here has a historicist meaning, explicitly or implicitly denying the enduring validity of propositional truth: truth itself and not just its formulations are subject to reform and perpetual reinterpretation. This is precisely how some interpret John XXIII’s distinction between truth and its formulations. For example, Richard Gaillardetz and Christoph Theobald, S.J., advance this interpretation, which Theobold calls the “principle of pastorality.”

This principle is historicist because it collapses the distinction of unchanging truth and their formulations into a historical context, meaning thereby, as Theobald puts it, “subject to continual reinterpretation [and re-contextualization] according to the situation of those to whom it is transmitted.”

Theobald claims that the expression, “substance of the deposit of faith” should be “taken as a whole and without making reference to an internal plurality [i.e., unchangeable truth and its formulations] that is already part of such an expression.”

As Gaillardetz puts it, “doctrine changes when pastoral contexts shift and new insights emerge [because] particular doctrinal formulations no longer mediate the saving message of God’s transforming love.” In a nutshell, this approach brings into question the meaning of doctrines as absolute truths, or as objectively true affirmations.

But this particular principle of pastorality is implausible as an interpretation of Vatican II, given that John XXIII marked a clear point of contact with la nouvelle théologie, a movement of renewal that exercised a significant influence upon the Council.

There is evidence that supporters of this principle don’t seem to grasp the distinction between propositions and sentences, between truth and its formulations. For example, they have suggested that because Humanae Vitae went through a process of revision leading up to its final theological formulations that, therefore, the truth itself asserted by this encyclical may change.

Some are also now claiming that Joseph Ratzinger had difficulties with the truth-claims of Humanae Vitae. Yet during the interviews in Last Testament: In His Own Words, Pope Benedict clearly states that it was not the conclusions of Humanae Vitae that he questioned but rather the argumentation: “It was certainly clear that what it said was essentially valid, but the reasoning . . . was not satisfactory.”

He adds: “I was looking for a comprehensive anthropological viewpoint,” which he found in “John Paul II who was to complement [not reject] the natural-law viewpoint of the encyclical with a personalist vision.” JPII successfully synthesized into a coherent whole personalism, existential/hermeneutic phenomenology, and Thomism in his philosophical and theological work.

John Paul did Lérinian interpretations. This synthesis shows itself in his works on Christian anthropology, metaphysics, and sexual ethics (e.g., Love and Responsibility, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, The Acting Person, Person and Community). Indeed, in his great but now often ignored 1993 encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, he explicitly aligns himself with Lérinian hermeneutics:

Certainly there is a need to seek out and to discover the most adequate formulation for universal and permanent moral norms in the light of different cultural contexts, a formulation most capable of ceaselessly expressing their historical relevance, of making them understood and of authentically interpreting their truth. This truth of the moral law – like that of the “deposit of faith” – unfolds down the centuries: the norms expressing that truth remain valid in their substance, but must be specified and determined “eodem sensu eademque sententia” in the light of historical circumstances by the Church’s Magisterium, whose decision is preceded and accompanied by the work of interpretation and formulation characteristic of the reason of individual believers and of theological reflection. (§53)

Drawing on the distinction between truth and its formulations, between moral propositions and their linguistic expressions, John Paul explains that the moral norms expressive of moral truths, although taking account of various conditions of life according to places, times, and circumstance, “remain valid in their substance” and hence “must be specified and determined eodem sensu eademque sententia [“according to the same meaning and the same judgment”].

So, there is growth in the understanding of moral truth, seeking out and discovering “the most adequate formulation for universal and permanent moral norms” without changing the substantive and determinate truth of morality.

To revitalize the present with a creative retrieval of the Christian faith’s authoritative sources, the Church needs Lérinian hermeneutics, not a historicist principle of pastorality.

Eduardo J. Echeverria is Professor of Philosophy and Systematic Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit. His publications include Pope Francis: The Legacy of Vatican II Revised and Expanded Second Edition (Lectio Publishing, Hobe Sound, FL, 2019) and Revelation, History, and Truth: A Hermeneutics of Dogma. (2018). His new book is Are We Together? A Roman Catholic Analyzes Evangelical Protestants.