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  • D'Costa's Hermeneutics
  • Eduardo Echeverria

My contribution to this symposium on Gavin D'Costa's recent Vatican II: Catholic Doctrines on Jews & Muslims (hereafter, VII)1 will focus on the hermeneutics of the Second Vatican Council that he develops in the first chapter (VII, 10–58) in his critical discussion of general types of interpreters of the Second Vatican Council.2 It is fitting to focus on this aspect of his book, since he is concerned throughout the remaining chapters to discuss the development of the Church's teaching at Vatican II on its stance toward Judaism and Islam. The first type of interpreter—of which Giuseppe Alberigo and John O'Malley, S.J., are representative—emphasizes a historical approach to the documents of Vatican II, underscoring discontinuity in doctrinal teachings, historicizing their truth-status, and hence opening them to reversal. The second type of interpreter (e.g., Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre) emphasizes a theological approach to the documents, underscoring doctrinal continuity, and hence rejects any form of discontinuity either as purely pastoral in character and reversible or, if doctrinal, as heretical and grounds for rejecting the Council. The third type of interpreter (e.g., Pope John XXIII, Yves Congar, O.P., and Pope Benedict XVI) synthesizes historical and theological interpretations of the Council's texts. This last is D'Costa's hermeneutics, in which there is a legitimate place for doctrinal development within continuity, development that expands our understandings of doctrinal truths, as well as a place for legitimate diversity/discontinuity in theological expressions within a [End Page 255] fundamental unity of truth, diversity that addresses the novelty of new questions that arise in specific situations. D'Costa's distinction between the second and third types of interpreters provides a critical and, hence, more exact way to approach the question of continuity/discontinuity, doctrinal development, novelty, and reform than does the approach of Massimo Faggioli, who seems to group advocates of continuity in D'Costa's second type.3 Furthermore, Faggioli seems sympathetic to the interpreters of the first type of hermeneutics without attending to any of its problems. Be that as it may, integral to D'Costa's hermeneutics is the import of different "theological notes," meaning authoritative levels of magisterial teaching. These varying "notes" not only affect the status of the teaching but also limit the scope for legitimate development and, consequently, discontinuity. There is a fourth type of interpreter that regards the texts of the Council as having arrived too late and, hence, as largely irrelevant to the issues raised by liberationist, feminist, and post-modernist theological interpretations. D'Costa does not engage the fourth type, and hence neither shall I.4

Before going on to discuss his hermeneutics of Vatican II, it is important to describe briefly the theological notes—"what doctrines are binding, on what grounds, and in what measure"5—by explaining briefly both these notes and the corresponding authority of doctrinal statements. Given the limitations of this article, I can best begin here by citing Karl Rahner's statement regarding the Council's assumptions about levels of authoritative teaching. These assumptions, I contend, are necessary for a clear and fruitful discussion of doctrinal development. The Council assumes:

[1] the distinctions to be made between the wielders of the teaching authority in the Church (individual bishops, the collective episcopate, the pope, a general council); [2] the distinctions to be made between the doctrine taught (revealed truths, truths not revealed but necessarily linked with revelation [End Page 256] as its presupposition or its consequence, etc.); [3] the distinctions to be made between the types of authority claimed by the teacher and his intention of binding his hearers; [4] the distinctions to be made between the "theological qualifications" of the truths proposed (dogma, common teaching, irreformable truths, reformable truths which still demand a conditional assent, etc.); [5] the distinctions to be made in the assent of the hearer (from the absolute assent of faith to a genuine but not necessarily irreformable inner assent and on to mere "obedient silence").6

For my purpose here, I will pare down and summarize the different levels of magisterial authority to be attributed to dogmas and doctrines as...


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