Not "What" but "How"


In his opening speech convening the Second Vatican Council in 1962, Pope John XXIII had perhaps a single point of emphasis, captured in a single sentence: "The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another."

In other words, this Council was not to concern itself as much with what to teach (which was decided and presumed to be known) but with how to present the truths of the Catholic faith "more efficaciously."

That is precisely the challenge of the New Evangelization - the newness of it is not its "what" but its "how."  It is obsessed with the question of how to communicate more effectively given the thoughts, attitudes, and circumstances of today's world.  And the measure efficaciousness is the buy-in of our audience and the subsequent life-transformation it produces.

Kierkegaard's Double-Reflection

Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard talked about the necessity of a "double-reflection" in effective communication.  The first reflection has to do with self-understanding.  It asks, "Do I clearly understand the concept I am trying to communicate?"  Once an idea is sufficiently understood, a second reflection must take place which asks, "How can I communicate this in a way that the person I'm speaking to will understand?"

Who hasn't had the frustrating experience of not understanding the diagnosis of a doctor, or even a mechanic?  There is a whole vocabulary within various professional disciplines that is completely unintelligible to the average person.

Just so, for nearly 2000 years, the Church's councils have operated on the level of the first reflection, the essential task of self-understanding.  The language of this self-understanding has utilized to a large extent the technical vocabulary of philosophy and the specialized theological vocabulary of the New Testament.  What Pope John XXIII is saying is, let's begin the second-reflection in earnest.  Let's begin speaking to the world in a language that it will understand.

Hermeneutic of Continuity

All of this presumes that the first-reflection is complete.  This is precisely what Pope John XXIII was indicating when he said, "The salient point of this Council is not, therefore, a discussion of one article or another of the fundamental doctrine of the Church which has repeatedly been taught by the Fathers and by ancient and modern theologians, and which is presumed to be well known and familiar to all.  For this a Council was not necessary."  He goes on further to emphasize that the Council must "adhere to all the teaching of the Church in its entirety and preciseness."

This notion flies in the face of what nearly every media source that mentions Vatican II would have you believe - that Vatican II signaled an abrupt shift in the course of the Catholic Church; that forevermore there would no longer be "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church," but instead two Catholic Churches, the Pre- and Post-Vatican II Church.  This is the "hermeneutic of discontinuity" which Pope Benedict XVI says must be overcome.

Instead, we must reappropriate the teachings of the Council through a hermeneutic of continuity.  Only when we assume a continuity with the past will the documents truly come alive, full of rich history and, most importantly, faithful to the full, authentic teaching of Christ.