Brief Anecdote on the Hermeneutic of Continuity

From approximately 1988-1992 I served as Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Theology at the College of St Francis in Joliet, Illinois. As part of an effort to beef up the department and strengthen the Catholic identity of the College, by order of the President, I hired three new people to teach theology. One of them was a recent convert named Scott Hahn. Scott took on the assignments with great gusto and verve (as did the other two as well). For an introduction to theology course Scott compiled an impressive list of readings for the students, including The Catechism of Christian Doctrine by one Pope St. Pius X. The students were also reading the Bible, some excerpts from Vatican II, Augustine, Aquinas et al.

One afternoon as I was preparing a class on Plato’s Republic, a sister from the sponsoring religious order came flying into my office and angrily demanded to know why Mr. Hahn was using the Catechism of Pope Pius X? She insisted that he CANNOT do that! I was taken by surprise and felt put on the defensive, so I sputtered but that would be Pope SAINT Pius X, and what could be wrong with reading him? (I believe it was ST. Philip Neri who urged his followers to select books by auhors whose name began with an “S” e.g., Saint Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas etc.) But then I realized I had to engage the issue, so I asked “why”? The answer was that Vatican II has superseded the pre-Vatican II theology (by definition?) and it was inappropriate to continue to use the text. I expressed my scepticism about that view of things, but pointed to the many other fine books he was using (such as Vatican II) and made some gesture towards the principle of academic freedom for professors to use their professional judgment in the classroom. She was not convinced and we parted. I was put on notice, the venture in strengthening the Catholic identity at the institution was a precarious one.

I should have inquired further — exactly what has been superseded? There may be two possible answers I could think of — one, pertains to Doctrine. I do not know how one could maintain doctrine has changed, but I have heard some say (at that time prior to the Catechism of John Paul II) that certain doctrines were either dropped or put at the margins — such as mortal sin, purgatory, sacrifice at the altar (meal is more suitable today) and the like. Or perhaps the dread of the pre-Vatican material was its style and format. Pope St Pius X used a question/answer format requiring memorization of answers. See it here. Post-Vatican II catechetics pretty much eliminated memorization and strong cognitive content of the faith. The balance is yet to be restore. Of course, Pope John Paul II attempted to rectify this situation in his letter on catechetics.

Among other things he emphasized integrity of content (leave nothing out) and he did insist on a use of memory.

In order that the sacrificial offering of his or her faith should be perfect, the person who becomes a disciple of Christ has the right to receive”the word of faith” not in mutilated, falsified or diminished form but whole and entire, in all its rigor and vigor. Unfaithfulness on some point to the integrity of the message means a dangerous weakening of catechesis and putting at risk the results that Christ and the ecclesial community have a right to expect from it. Catechesi tradendae

I owe much to Scott Hahn for bringing this book to my attention. Of even greater note is that Catechism of Trent. It is a beautiful and powerful work, still worth reading from cover to cover. I will save that for a later day..

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