In the first of two articles, John Hunwicke looks at the danger of basing an interpretation on the ‘spirit’ of what is said rather than the actual words used

It is no secret that Roman Catholics are not at one about the meaning of the Second Vatican Council. Broadly, there are those who look at what the texts of the Council actually say; and there are those, more liberal,’ who are much more interested in the spirit’ of the Council. Here is one example of how that works out.

The Council said that the use of Latin in the worship of the Western Church should be maintained. It went on to allow the possibility of some use of the vernacular, particularly in the Readings and the Intercession. That is what it said and presumably what it meant to say. But those whose loyalties are to the spirit of the Council rather than its words will say: ‘We must look at what is different.
The words about maintaining Latin are just a hang-over from the past. They had to be put in as a sop to fuddy-duddy bishops. What matters is what is new. And that is: openness to the Language of the People. So the spirit of the Council is not really found in what its words say about keeping Latin. Its spirit means we should have the whole Mass in the vernacular.’

Concentrating on difference
So when some followers of Pope Benedict XVI show an inclination to bring Latin elements back into the Mass, the cry goes up ‘You are reversing Vatican II,’ even though what is now being commended is strictly what that Council actually ordered. Sometimes this is called a hermeneutic of rupture: you read the documents of the Council with an eye to taking seriously only what is new and different and ignoring everything which is in continuity with the past.

It occurs to me that applying this sort of ‘hermeneutic’ (you’ll have to get used to that sort of jargon) to the teaching of Jesus has interesting results. Quite a lot of his ethical teaching is much the sort of thing that a rabbi of his time might have said; or even a teacher in some other world religion. But if we concentrate on what is different, we get interesting results.

And, in this case, unlike Vatican II, Jesus actually proclaims his own hermeneutic of rupture: ‘You have heard…but I say…’ Perhaps this most strikingly affects his teaching on divorce and the absolute permanence for life of marriage. I don’t think he could have expressed himself more clearly: despite the Law of Moses, divorced people who marry somebody else are, he says, quite simply adulterers.
Sometimes when people have suggested to me that this is merely an ideal that people should try hard to live up to, I have replied: ‘Right. So if Jesus had wanted to say that marriage is unbreakable, what words do you suggest the poor chap could have used so that you would understand?’ I have yet to receive a reply.

Changing the emphasis
And the teaching of Jesus about sex is very hard-line. Lust committed by eye or hand is the same as consummated adultery, so that you would do better to pluck out your eye or cut off your hand. Indeed, self-castration ‘for the Kingdom’ does not seem to be excluded. Goodness!

This does not seem to fit very well the ethos of a liberal Christianity which emphasizes God’s merciful forgiveness at the expense of his just judgement; a Christianity which assures us (rightly) that sexual sins are not the only sins and that we shouldn’t talk and act as if they were; which (wrongly) has persuaded the Church of England to accept the ordination of remarried divorcees and tells us that we will cut ourselves off from the possibility of being listened to by the world if we teach the sinfulness of unmarried people cohabiting.

So the hermeneutic of rupture – ‘what matters is what is different’ – would make the Lord’s ultra-rigorist teaching on sex not just part of his teaching, but by far the most important part; the part that we should go around the world shouting most loudly from the housetops. And, presumably, in a libertarian age, we would have to crank up the decibels even more. I am far from sure that this is what liberal Christians really want to say. Indeed, I am not sure I do myself.

A liberal interpretation?
And some scholars have argued that Jesus could not possibly have said that we should chew {trogein) his flesh and drink his blood, because that would have been repugnant to Jewish taboos about blood (the writer of John 6.60 was not unaware of this point). If what really matters is what is strange, new and discontinuous, the doctrine of Transubstantiation must be at the very heart of the Gospel. Fair enough. I think it is. But is this really where the liberals want the argument to lead?

Perhaps we Anglicans shouldn’t meddle in other people’s affairs. But this is rather topical, with Benedict XVI accused of going back on the Council. And that Council was an important turning point for all Western Christians.