INTERNATIONAL THEOLOGICAL COMMISSION
THE INTERPRETATION OF DOGMA*
1. The State of the Question
If, for mankind, the interpretation of man's being, of history and of the world itself, has always been an important problem, we, today, are faced with the problem in a new phase of interpretation, and that is the hermeneutic circle: in reality, it claims, man in his concrete existence is not to be seen in a context of pure objectivity; reality is always found in a particular historical and cultural context. Now, this question of the subject-object relationship is studied by hermeneutics, whether of a positivistic or anthropocentric kind, and runs the risk of moving from a misconception of man's subjectivity to a downright subjectivism. Certain present-day theological currents deeply enmeshed in the hermeneutical approach concentrate on the meaning of dogmas without paying attention to their unchanging truth. For example, liberation theology and radical feminist theology interpret the faith in function of socio-economic and cultural factors. In such cases, social progress and the emancipation of women become the decisive criteria for interpreting the meaning of dogmas.
The present importance of the hermeneutical problem has led the International Theological Commission to this study in order to isolate the basic elements in the interpretation of dogma as conceived by Catholic theology.
2. The Work of the International Theological Commission
As was the case with themes examined by the International Theological Commission in earlier five-year periods, the present theme was proposed from various quarters to the Commission at the opening of the fifth such period: Professor Walter Kasper, who was then Professor at the University of Tübingen, was made President of a sub-commission to study the problem and prepare the points for discussion at the eventual plenary session. With the agreement of the International Theological Commissions president, Cardinal Ratzinger, Professor Kasper picked the present sub-commission and each member was assigned a precise point to examine and then communicate. Professor Rasper's own contribution is called: "What Is a Dogma? Historical and Systematic Considerations". Our present publication is the result of the successive revisions of the initial work. The other preparatory submissions of the sub-commission addressed the following subjects: "The Interpretation of Dogma according to the Magisterium of the Church, from Trent to Vatican II" (Prof. Ambaum); "The Present Status of the Question of the Interpretation of Dogma" (Prof. Colombo); "Dogma in the Tradition and Life of the Church" (Prof. Corbon); "A New Testament Exegete Examines the Question of the Proper Interpretation of Dogma" (Prof. Gnilka); "Modern Hermeneutics: Its Philosophical Consequences and Bearing on Theology" (Prof. Leonard); "Present Problems in the Legitimate Interpretation of Dogma" (Prof. Nagy); "Hermeneutics of Faith in Liberation Theology" (Prof, de Noronha Galvao); "Unity and Plurality in Faith" (Prof. Peter); "Dogma and the Spiritual Life" (Prof. Schönborn); "Dogma and Inculturation" (Prof. Wilfred).
The members of the sub-commission made their respective contributions during the plenary session in 1988, and a week was spent on the discussion which arose. On the basis of the discussion and written submissions, Professor Kasper with the assistance of the sub-commission prepared a text, and this, after a series of corrections, was fully approved in forma specifica by the Commission at the plenary session of October, 1989.
3. The Main Themes of the Document
In its first part the text underlines the importance of history, tradition that is, for the understanding of dogma. In the West today, the present is so valued as to cause the past to be considered as something alien. One kind of hermeneutic tries to bridge the gap between us and the past in various ways which are often reductionist. These must be left behind so that we attain to a metaphysical hermeneutics based on the fact that truth manifests itself in and through human intelligence. What then is the relationship between truth and history? In spite of all determinisms of human thought, we take it for granted that there is absolute truth and truths of an universal nature with their values intact.
As far as the theological problem of interpretation is concerned, the Church regards it as a first principle that the revealed truth which she teaches is universally valid and unchangeable in its substance. Still, difficulties arise when it is a question of passing on dogmatic truths to people who live in different cultural climates, as, for instance in Africa or Asia. How then does one "interpret" the faith? Some take a radical approach: the faith must be interpreted in a Marxist perspective; or, indeed, a particular idea about emancipation becomes the open sesame for interpreting the Bible.
The second part of the document shows how the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, gives witness to revelation. The history of dogma highlights the unbroken continuity of tradition. This is followed by the presentation of the declarations of the Magisterium with regard to the interpretation of dogma (Trent, Vatican I, Pius X, Pius XII, Paul VI), with greater concentration on the doctrine of Vatican II. To this we may add the praxis Ecclesiae which, when new developments arise, interprets certain prior situations (for example such as concern religious liberty).
While presenting a systematic reflection on dogma as it lies at the heart of tradition, the document explains how it is that Tradition gives a more profound dimension to the words and images of human language as it uses these to express the faith. In the course of history the Church adds nothing new to the Gospel, but does present Christ in a new style. The place of dogma in evangelisation, and the theological import of dogma, must be understood according to such a rubric.
The use of and the interpretation of Scripture in this enterprise are examined in a third section under the title: "Criteria of Interpretation". The document underlines the unity of Scripture, Tradition and the life of the Church in maintaining an interpretation of dogma at the very heart of the Church. There is no doubt about the timeliness of such a task. The aim is to manifest guiding principles. The document places the permanent validity of the dogmatic formulas in the foreground and at the same time presents suggestions for a renewed way of interpretation. The criteria for judging doctrinal development proposed by J. H. Newman can be helpful. And, that much achieved, the document makes timely reference to the role of the Church's Magisterium, since the authentic interpretation of God's Word was confided to it. In effect, eternal life for mankind is what is at stake in every element contributing to legitimate interpretation.
Msgr. Philippe Delhaye
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A. THE PROBLEM
I. The Philosophical Problem
1. The Fundamental Problem of Interpretation
The problem of interpretation is fundamental to mankind from the beginning. As men, we try to understand the world and ourselves. Now, when faced with the question of truth and reality, we never begin at an absolute beginning, a zero point. The real in question meets us in preexisting interpretations, in the system of symbols of a given culture, and, most of all, in language.
Human understanding then is always in symbiosis with human community. Therefore, interpretation must make its own of, and understand, the witness of tradition already existing.
This symbiosis puts paid to any simplistic realism. We never meet the real in the nudity of birth, but always in mans cultural contexts, where what man learns has already an inherited cargo of interpretation.
As a result, the fundamental problem of interpretation may be stated as follows: how can man take the hermeneutic circle between subject and object seriously without becoming victims of a relativism which recognizes nothing but interpretations of interpretations, which, in turn, give birth to further interpretations. Is there, not as something external, but at the very heart of the historical process of interpretation, a truth existing of itself? May man claim an absolute truth? Are there certain propositions which must be admitted or denied, no matter what the culture is, or the particular point in mankind s history?
2. Two Reasons for the Timeliness of the Problem
The problem of interpretation is more acute today. Because of cultural breakdown, the gap has widened between the witness of tradition and our present-day culture. Particularly in the West, this has changed attitudes towards the truths, values and outlook of tradition, and, even more, has given the present an unilateral preponderance over against the past, and, again, led to giving an unilateral edge to novelty as judge of thought and action. In philosophy today, thanks especially to Marx, Nietzsche and Freud, a "hermeneutics of suspicion" is dominant which rejects tradition as an interpreting link between past and present. It is rejected as a falsification of human nature, and a tyranny But, if man rejects the memory of what tradition has created, nihilism overpowers him. The worldwide crisis of tradition has become one of the most profound spiritual challenges of this age.
The crisis of tradition is further accentuated today by the very diffused phenomenon of cultural encounters with all their differing traditions. The problem of interpretation is not alone that of mediation between past and present, but how to mediate between a plurality of cultural traditions. Today, such a transcultural hermeneutic has become a condition for the survival of mankind in peace and justice.
3. Different Types of Hermeneutics
An hermeneutic of a positivistic nature stresses primarily the role of objectivity. This approach has contributed much to a better knowledge of reality. But it considers human knowledge one-sidedly as a function of natural, biological, psychological, historical and socio-economic factors and, in doing this, misunderstands the meaning of human subjectivity in the process of knowing.
The hermeneutic of an anthropocentric nature remedies that. But this hermeneutic, with a one-sided stress, makes the subjective pole decisive. In that way it limits knowledge of the real to its meaning for the human subject. The truth about reality is its human meaning alone.
The cultural hermeneutic understands reality through its objective realization in culture, in human institutions such as manners and customs and, above all, language. Each culture and its value system is imprinted with mans conception of himself and of the world. While acknowledging the significance of such an approach, one must raise the question of values that transcend culture and of the truth of the "humanum" which unites men over and above all cultural difference.
Unlike the more or less reductionist positions mentioned so far, a metaphysical hermeneutic raises the question of the very truth of reality itself. This begins with the fact that the truth manifests itself in and by means of human intelligence in such a fashion that in the light of the intelligence the very truth of reality itself shines forth. Since reality is always more vast and more profound than all its representations and conceptualizations, as these are conditioned for us by history and culture as we elaborate them, it is imperative to seek a constantly renewed and deepening interpretation of such cultural traditions.
Our principal task then is as follows: in our encounters with, and our discussions concerning, contemporary hermeneutics, and also with contemporary human sciences, we must endeavour to recreate metaphysics, and the metaphysical questions concerning truth and reality. The nub of the question is the relationship between truth and history.
4. The Basic Question: Truth in History
As far as the relationship between truth and history is concerned, it has become evident that, in principle, there is no human knowledge without presuppositions: what is more, all human knowledge and all human language depend on an already built-in structure of understanding and judgment. And, so much so, that in all that man knows, says, or does, which is conditioned by the operation of history, there is, at times, an awareness of something which has preceded; a sense of an ultimate; unconditioned, and absolute. In all our quest and search for truth, we presuppose that truth exists always, even certain basic truths (for example, the principle of contradiction). Thus, the light of truth is always preceding us: in other words, it appears as objectively evident to our intelligence when this approaches reality. These basic gears given in advance, and these given presuppositions, were known by the Stoa in antiquity by the name of dogma. Tailored in that way, in a very general sense one could speak of man being cut fundamentally to a dogmatic measure.
Inasmuch as our knowledge, thought and will are always determined collectively by respective cultures, and by language above all, the basic dogmatic structure we speak of concerns not alone the individual but human society as a whole. In the long run no society can survive without fundamental convictions and values which are common to all, and which characterize and shore up its culture. Unity, mutual comprehension, peaceful coexistence, as also mutual recognition of a common human dignity, also presuppose that in spite of the profound differences between cultures, there does exist a common pool of human values and, as a consequence, a truth common to all men. This conviction is very clear today in the recognition that each human being has universal and inalienable human rights.
But these truths of a universal nature are recognized as such for that matter only in particular historical contingencies, most of all, when cultures meet. We must then distinguish between such occasional situations and the sheer need for absolute value which is at the very heart of the truth that man knows. Truth, in the name of its essence, can only be one, unique, and, so, universal. That which was once known as truth must be recognized again as valid and true.
The Church, by means of the unique Gospel she preaches, and which, in time, is revelation for all men and for all time, can meet all essential needs of the human intelligence which is in history and also open to the universal. The Church can purify this and give it perfection.
II. The Theological Problem Today
1. The Specific Problem of Evangelization and the Renewal of Evangelization
Catholic theology begins from the certitude of faith that the Paradosis1 of the Church and the dogmas she transmits are authentic statements of the truth revealed by God in the Old and New Testaments. She also affirms that the revealed truth, transmitted by the Paradosis of the Church, is universally valid and unchangeable in substance.
In the matter of dogmas, this certitude was already called into question during the Reformation in the sixteenth century. In a vastly more acute fashion and in entirely different conditions, the situation is now of global proportions as a result of the ideology of the Enlightenment and the modern demands for liberty. In our time dogmatic theology has been, without benefit of critical analysis, simply defined as dogmatism, and so rejected. Unlike the integral Christian faith of the past in the West, our contemporary secularized culture seems to find the traditional dogmatic language very hard to understand, even when it has not been downrightly misunderstood. This applies also in the case of many Christians, some of whom regard it even as an obstacle to a living transmission of faith.
The problem becomes aggravated when the Church tries to enter the African and Asian worlds with dogmas which have been forged, speaking historically, in the context of Greco-Roman and Western culture. This demands more than a mere translation. To achieve inculturation, the dogma must be stripped down to the original kernel to make it intelligible in a new culture. It is a problem involving all evangelization today, and especially where new factors affect the process of evangelization.
2. The Inadequate Solutions of Hermeneutical Theology
At the beginning of this century, Modernism addressed itself to the question. It was a poor solution: revelation was improperly conceived and dogmas were given a pragmatic slant.
Contemporary theology of the hermeneutical school tries to build a bridge between the dogmatic tradition and modern thought by asking what meaning and what importance dogmas have for man today. But in acting like that, one detaches the dogmatic formulation as such from the Paradosis and one isolates it from the living life of the Church. In that way one makes the dogma a substance by itself. What is more, in harping on the practical, existential or social meaning of dogma, the question of truth is lost to sight.
A similar objection holds when dogma is held to be a thing of convention, that is a function of ecclesiastical language, necessary as a mark of unity, but ultimately merely provisional and open to further corrections. In that way, dogma is no longer regarded as an inevitable and obligatory mediator of revealed truth.
3. The Legitimacy and the Limits of New Approaches from Both Theoretical and Practical Viewpoints
In the case of liberation theology, the problem of the hermeneutics of dogma is based on the question of poverty and of social and political oppression in many Third World countries. What is theory and what is practice? A very important biblical idea of truth is involved—one must "do the truth" (Jn 3:21). There is without any doubt a theology of liberation in full conformity with the Gospel and with full standing in the Church. It comes from the priority of the spiritual mission of the Church but the Church insists on certain presuppositions and certain social consequences (cf. ITC, "Human Development and Christian Salvation" , Documents pp. 161—203).2
In radical liberation theology, on the other hand, everything is based on economic, political and social factors only: the relationship between theory and practice is governed solely by Marxist materialistic ideology. In consequence, the message of divine grace and the eschatological destiny of man and universe disappear. Faith and its dogmatic formulations are no longer regarded in terms of truth but of economic realities, as the sole value. They function only as an inspiring force in the process of revolutionary political liberation.
There are also other hermeneutical systems today: in spite of certain differences between them, they agree in shifting the emphasis away from the proper place of a hermeneutics of the truth of being, in other words, from revelation as a source of meaning, to other components, legitimate but less than general, and these they make the centre and criterion for their whole enterprise. This is the case with radical feminist theology. Revealed data are no longer accepted as base or norm to vindicate the dignity of woman; an important and legitimate procedure. On the contrary, a certain idea of emancipation becomes the one and only hermeneutical key for the interpretation of Scripture and Tradition.
The question, then, of the interpretation of dogma brings us face to face with the fundamental problems of theology. In the last analysis, it is a question of theological understanding of truth and reality. Also, from the theological viewpoint, the question spills over into that of the relationship between universal truth, always valid, on the one hand, and the historicity of dogmas, on the other. The concrete question is how the Church today can pass on her teaching of the faith and its obligation so that from her memory and tradition hope will arise for now and for the future. And bearing in mind the different socio-cultural situations in which the Church lives today, the question also arises of unity and pluriformity in dogmatic explanations of the truth and reality of revelation.
B. THE THEOLOGICAL FOUNDATIONS
I. The Biblical Foundations
1. Tradition and the Interpretation of Sacred Scripture
Revelation, as attested in Sacred Scripture, was effected by words and deeds in the history of the relationship between God and man. The Old Testament is a process of constant re-interpretation and re-reading. Only in Jesus Christ is it finally and definitively interpreted, since the revelation which was prepared in the Old Testament came to completion only in Jesus Christ. Then the fullness of time came (Heb 1:1-3, to be compared with Gal 4:4; Eph 1:10; Mk 1:15). As Word of God become man, Jesus is the interpreter of his Father (Jn 1:14-18). Truth in person (Jn 14:6). In his being and life, through his words and the signs he gave, and, above all, by his death, resurrection and exaltation, as well as by the sending of the Spirit of truth (Jn 14:17), Jesus is full of grace and truth (Jn 1:14) (cf. DV 4).
The truth revealed once and for all cannot be recognized and accepted except by the gift of faith from the Holy Spirit. According to the meaning given it in Sacred Scripture, faith is man abandoning himself to the God who reveals himself (DV 5). It involves cleaving to the words and deeds of revelation, professing them, and in particular, cleaving to Christ and the new life with which he has endowed us. Faith, consequently, is man's act in believing ("fides qua") and the content of this belief ("fides quae creditur"). It is "the guarantee of the good we hope for, the proof of realities so far invisible" (Heb 11:1).
Given once for all through the apostles, the faith is faithfully treasured in the Church as the "depositum fidei" (1 Tim 6:20; 2 Tim 1:14). The Church is in fact Christ's Body animated by the Holy Spirit, and she has received from Christ the promise that the Holy Spirit will constantly guide her towards the fullness of truth (Jn 16:13). The "Gospel of Truth" (Eph 1:13) was confided to the Church as God's people journeying on. In her life, the confession of her faith and her liturgy, she must witness to the faith before the eyes of the whole earth. She may be defined as "the pillar and ground of truth" (1 Tim 3:15). It is true that we now see the truth as it were in a mirror, and only in part: It is only at the end of all things that we shall see God face to face, and as he is (1 Cor 13:12; 1 Jn 3:2). Our knowledge of truth is poised in the tension between "already" and "not yet".
2. Hermeneutical Perspectives in Scripture
The way to interpret the biblical message springs from the very nature of the message. Revealed truth, as taught in Scripture, is the truth of God as he shows his fidelity in history ("emeth"): in the last analysis, it is the communication of himself that God makes in Jesus Christ, to be prolonged endlessly in the Holy Spirit. The words, actions and entire life of the Church witness to this. And that is why, for the Christian, Jesus Christ is the unique Word that is present in the depths of all words. Every statement of Old and New Testaments must be seen in relation to him and as beamed on him. This is their unity. Accordingly, the Old Testament must be interpreted in the light of its fulfilment in the New, and the New Testament is to be understood in the light of the Old Testament promises.
Both Testaments must be explained and made alive in the Holy Spirit who dwells in the Church. Each individual, in virtue of the gift of grace received "according to the degree of faith God has given him", must contribute to the building up of the Body of Christ, the Church (Rom 12:4-8; 1 Cor 12:45). For that reason, the Second Epistle of Peter (1:20) is already warning against arbitrary interpretation of Sacred Scripture.
Revealed truth wants to make its imprint on the lives of those who have received it. According to Saint Paul, existence in Christ and the Spirit carries an imperative to lead a new life. What matters is" to live in truth, and not only in terms of increasing intellectual appreciation, but to make it fully active in life: "to do the truth" (Jn 3:21). In that way, truth appears as the absolutely certain, and as the foundation stone of human existence. More than anything else, liturgy and prayer are a very important avenue of meaning for approaching and mediating the truth.
3. The Confession of Faith as Formulated in the Bible
What has been said is equally "valid" for the "homologies", modes of confessing the faith which are found already in the earliest strata of the text of the New Testament. Faith is expressed in Jesus as the Christ (Mt 16:16 and par.), as Kyrios (Lord) (Rom 10:9; 1 Cor 12:3; Phil 2:11), as Son of God (Mt 14:33; 16:16; Jn 1:34-48; 1 Jn 4:15; 5:5; etc.). They witness to faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus (1 Cor 15:3-5; 1 Thess 4:14; Rom 8:34; 14:9; etc.). They proclaim his mission and birth (Gal 4:4), the sacrifice of his life (Rom 4:25; 8:32; Gal 2:20; etc.) as well as his second coming (1 Thess 1:10; Phil 3:20f). There are hymns which praise the divinity of Jesus, his incarnation and exaltation (Phil 2:6-11; Col 1:15-20; 1 Tim 3:16; Jn 1:1-18). It follows from all this that the faith of the New Testament communities was not based on the private witness of occasional individuals, but on a confession of faith common to all, which was public and of obligation.
We meet this confession of faith in the New Testament without its having a single monotonous cast. Rather, this unique truth is clothed in a striking richness of expressions. There is evidence even in the New Testament that there were stages in the arrival at truth: these expressions of truth reinforce one another mutually, go from depth to depth, but never contradict one another. It is always the identical mystery of God's salvation in Jesus Christ which has found expression in many forms and from different aspects.
II. Declarations and Practice of the Church's Magisterium
1. Declarations of the Magisterium with Regard to the Interpretation of Dogma
The path of history through Nicea (325), Constantinople I (381), Ephesus (431), Chalcedon (451), Constantinople II (553), and through the later councils of the ancient Church, shows the history of dogma as an unbroken, living process of interpretation of Tradition. The Second Council of Nicea encapsulates the teaching of the Fathers which clarifies the fact of the transmission of the Gospel in the Paradosis of the Catholic Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (DS 600, 602f, 609).
The Council of Trent (1545-1563) defended that teaching and warns the faithful against the private interpretation of Sacred Scripture, and adds that the assessment of the true meaning of Scripture and its interpretation is the province of the Church (DS 1501, 1507), and the First Vatican Council (1869-1870) confirms Trent (DS 3007). It goes further in recognizing a development of dogma, which however does not depart from the original sense and meaning ("eodem sensu eademque sententia"). The Council in that way teaches that, as far as dogma is concerned, there can be no departure from the meaning once and for all defined by the Church.
For that reason, the Church condemns anyone who sets that meaning aside under the pretext and in the name of superior knowledge or because of advances in science, or because of some alleged more profound interpretation of the existing formula, or a refinement in the scientific approach to the matter (DS 3020, 3043). Such an irreversible stance and the denial of the possibility of fundamental change is implied in the doctrine of the infallibility of the Church as guided by the Holy Spirit, with particular reference to the role of the Pope in matters of faith and morals (DS 3074). This is based on the fact that the Church, through the Holy Spirit, shares in Gods truthfulness, which cannot deceive us any more than it can be self-deceptive in God himself ("qui nee falli nec fallere potest", DS 3008).
The Church's Magisterium has defended this doctrine against the purely symbolic and factitious understanding of dogma on the part of the Modernists (DS 3401-8, 3420-66, 3483). Pius XII in the Encyclical, Humani generis, gave a new warning on relativism in the field of dogma, which abandoned the language traditionally used by the Church to express the content of faith in favour of language which changes with the contingent changes of history (DS 3881-83). In much the same way, Paul VI in the Encyclical Mysterium fidei (1965) insisted that the precise language of the Church must be maintained.
2. The Doctrine of Vatican Council II
The Second Vatican Council presented the Church's traditional doctrine on a much greater canvas, and, in doing so, it has accepted that dogma has an historical dimension. It teaches that the People of God as a whole has a share in the prophetic office of the Church (LG 12), and that, with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, a growth in the understanding of the apostolic tradition does take place (DV 8). In the matter of overall missionary commission and responsibility the Council lays strong emphasis both on the doctrine of an authentic Magisterium confided to bishops alone (DV 8, 10), and on the doctrine of the Church's infallibility (LG 25). But the Council wants the bishops to be primarily the heralds of the Gospel, and subordinates their role as teachers to their evangelizing role (LG 25; cf CD 12-15). This valorization of the pastoral character of the Magisterium underlines the distinction between the unchanging basis of faith, on the one hand, and the way this is expressed, on the other. The point is that the teaching of the Church, while always the same in meaning and content, should be passed on to mankind in a living way, and adapted to what the times demand (GS 62; cf. John XXIII, the Opening Discourse of Vatican II, 11 October 1962; AAS 54 : 792).
The declaration Mysterium Ecclesiae (1973) makes the same distinction and adds precision and depth to it against the false interpretations of relativism in matters of dogma. It is true that dogmas are historical creations in the sense that their meaning "depends in part on the power of expression the language used had at a particular point in history and in particular circumstances." Later definitions preserve and ratify the earlier ones, and also explain their meanings, mostly in the case of new questions or in the case of error, and so make them alive to the benefit of the Church. This does not mean that infallibility can be reduced to a frozen truth. Dogmatic formulations do not define truth in an undetermined, changing or approximative fashion, much less do they transform or maim it. Truth must be kept to a determined form.
Here, it is the historical meaning of dogmatic formulations that is paramount (n. 5). Recently in his Apostolic Letter Ecclesia Dei (1988) Pope John Paul II has strongly reaffirmed this sense of living tradition. But the relationship between the formulation and the content of dogmas needs a further clarification (cf. ad rem, infra III, 3).
3. Theological Qualifications
The fact that tradition is a really live reality explains why there are so many declarations by the Magisterium of varying importance and varying degrees of obligation. To gauge these exactly and to interpret them, theology has worked out the doctrine of theological qualifications or notes, which, to some extent, the Magisterium has adopted. In recent times, this approach has unfortunately been more or less forgotten. But it is useful in the interpretation of dogma and should therefore be repristinated and developed further.
According to the doctrine of the Church, "an act of divine and Catholic faith must be made in what is contained in Gods word, either as it is written in Scripture or handed on by tradition and proposed by the Church, whether that be by way of a solemn decision or by the ordinary Magisterium, and the obligation to believe is demanded because it is divine revelation" (DS 3011). This "credendum" includes the truths of faith (in the strict sense) and also those truths, witnessed to by revelation, which have a bearing on the moral life (DS 1501, 3074: "fides et mores"; LG 25: "fidem credendam et moribus applicandam").
Natural truths and natural moral doctrines may belong indirectly to the binding doctrine of the Church whenever they have a necessary and intrinsic connection with the truths of faith (LG 25: "tantum patet quantum divinae Revelationis patet depositum, sancte custodiendum et fideliter exponendum"). Nonetheless Vatican II makes a clear distinction between the doctrine of the faith and the principles of the natural moral order, inasmuch as for the first, the Council speaks of [the Church's duty] "to give utterance to, and authoritatively to teach" while for the second the language is "to declare and confirm by her authority" (DH 14).
Since the Church's teaching is a living whole, the faithful may not limit their assent to the truths which are formally defined. Other statements of the Magisterium which, without being definitive definitions, come from the Pope, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith or from the bishops, must equally be accepted, in varying degrees, with religious assent (religiosum obsequium). Of these, those belong to the authentic Magisterium where a declaration of intent as magisterial is present. This can be recognized, first of all, "from the character of the documents, from [the Pope's] frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking" (LG 25; cf. DS 3044f). The precise meaning of that Conciliar statement needs a more advanced theological explanation. It is desirable before all else to avoid the Church's authority becoming pointlessly blunted, that the Magisterium itself should, on every occasion, indicate the type and degree of obligation of the statements issued.
4. The Magisterium in Action
The Magisterium in practice should tend towards realizing her own pastoral character. Her task of witnessing authentically to the truth of Jesus Christ is at the heart of the larger mission of the care of souls. With this pastoral character in mind, the Magisterium will meet with prudence and judgment new social, political and ecclesial problems.
In recent centuries, one can see, on the part of the Magisterium of the Church, the interpretation of certain prior stands, as new developments arose, and especially when a complex situation had been well analysed and clarified. Such is the case in regard to the attitude to social questions against the background of the accomplishments of the modern sciences of nature, in the matter of human rights, religious liberty in particular, the historico-critical method, ecumenism, the appreciation of the Oriental Churches, and many of the basic demands of the Reformers, etc.
In a world which is noticeably pluralistic and in a Church where differences are more pronounced, the Magisterium fulfills its mission in having more and more recourse to discussion. In such circumstances, the heritage of faith cannot be passed on except by a willingness on the part of the Magisterium and others with pastoral and theological responsibility to engage in a common dialogue. When account is taken of the scientific and technical research of our time, it seems advisable to avoid taking a particular stance too quickly, but to favour instead nuanced decisions which indicate the lines to be followed, and this with subsequent definitive decisions of the Magisterium in mind.
III. Basic and Fundamental Theological Reflections
1. Dogma at the Heart of the Paradosis of the Church
The basic statement of Christian faith is the confession that the Logos, which already and in a partial way was alight in all reality, and whose coming was promised specifically in the Old Testament, came on earth in all fullness in the actual historical figure of Jesus Christ (Jn 1:3-14). In the fullness of time (Gal 4:4), the fullness of the Divinity was bodily present in Jesus Christ (Col 2:9). In him are hidden all the wealth of wisdom and knowledge (Col 2:3). He is in person the way, the truth, the life (Jn 14:6).
The presence of the Eternal in a specific figure in history is therefore of the essence of the Christian mystery of Salvation. In him the vague opening in man's heart towards God finds a definite answer. This very concrete event, and no mistake about it, must be equally imperative in the matter of our confession of faith in Jesus Christ. In virtue of that very thing, Christianity is, so to speak, dogmatic in its intimate nature.
God’s truth would not have come definitively and as the end of history in Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit who recalls us, time and time again, to Jesus Christ and leads us to the fullness of truth, if it had not been accepted and publicly proclaimed by the community of the faithful. In Mary and the Yes which she gave without reservation on behalf of the human race to God's salvific will, the Church sees the prototype of her own Yes in faith. In the Holy Spirit, the Church is the Body of Christ, in which and through which God's many-facetted wisdom is proclaimed to all mankind (Eph 3:10f.; cf. Rom 16:25£; Col l:26f.). In Tradition, the communication of himself which the Father makes through the Logos in the Holy Spirit remains present always in the Church in many forms: in the words and actions of the Church, in her liturgy and prayer, and in all aspects of her life (DV 8). The dogmatic definitions are only one element within a tradition which is very much larger.
It is the fact then that we do not "possess" the truth and reality of Christ except as it is mediated to us by the testimony of the Church animated, as it is, by the Holy Spirit. Without the Church, we "have" nothing of Christ, nor do we have Gospel or Sacred Scripture. An a-dogmatic Christianity which would subtract itself from such a mediation through the Church would be simply tinsel.
The Church's Paradosis makes her own the expressivity and universality of human language, and of language's images and concepts. It gives them their definitive meaning by a process of purification and transformation. A new language corresponds to the new creation through which all peoples acquire mutual understanding, and the definitive unity of a new humanity begins to prepare itself. This is made possible because the Paradosis incarnates itself in the symbols and languages of all mankind, purifies and transforms their inherent values and inserts them into the whole process of the unique mystery of salvation (Eph 3:9). In this process in history, the Church adds nothing new (non nova) to the Gospel, but she constantly renews (noviter) the newness of Christ. Everything new that she picks from her treasure dovetails with what was there from the outset (DH 1).
This interior continuity of the Paradosis is owing to the fact that the Church is the home of a faith that surpasses time and space. For that reason, the Church must at all times have the history of her faith in a memoria animated by the Holy Spirit; and she must present it vibrantly and vitally in a prophetic way for now and for the future.
2. The Teaching of the Church (Dogma in a Wider Sense)
At the centre of all that we mean by the Paradosis of the Church, the meaning of dogma in a wider sense is the Church's testimony, expressed as obligatory doctrine, to the saving truth of God as promised in the Old Testament, and definitively revealed in all its fullness in the "person' of Jesus Christ; this truth lives on in the Church through the action of the Holy Spirit. There is no doubt that from the very origins of the New Testament this doctrinal ingredient belonged to the preaching of the faith. Jesus himself is presented as a teacher (Rabbi). For that matter, he was addressed by that very title. He was a teacher and gave his disciples a teaching role (Mt 28:20). In the primitive communities there were teachers properly so called (Rom 12:7; 1 Cor 12:28; Eph 4:11). It is noteworthy that a special form of teaching seems to have accompanied baptism in the Paradosis (Rom 6:17). The importance of doctrine comes much more clearly to the fore in the later apostolic writers (1 Tim 1:10; 2 Tim 4:2f; Tit 1:9, etc.).
The presentation by the Magisterium of the revealed truth is a testimony to God's word in and by means of human language. It shares in the definitive and final character of the divine truth that appeared in Jesus Christ, as it also shares in the temporal and limited character of all human language. The doctrine of the Church cannot be grasped and interpreted without faith. It follows from this that:
— Dogmas are to be interpreted as a verbum rememorativum. They are to be interpreted as a return journey by memory, a memory-laden recall of the mighty acts of God, which the testimony of revelation presents. For that reason, they must be brought into focus beginning with Scripture and Tradition, and be explained within and by means of those parameters. They must be interpreted within the whole corpus of Old and New Testaments according to the analogy of faith (cf. DV 12);
— Dogmas are to be interpreted as a verbum demonstrativum. They are not confined to the works of salvation of past times, but are meant to express salvation effectively in the here and now. They are meant to be light and truth. That is why they should be given a salvific meaning and presented in a living, attractive and stimulating fashion to the people of each and every epoch;
— Dogmas are to be interpreted as a verbum prognosticum. As a testimony to the truth and reality of salvation and the last things, dogmas are anticipatory statements about the end of all. They must give birth to hope and be explained in terms of the last end, of man s final destiny and that of the universe (DS 3016), and as a hymn of praise to God.
3. Dogmas in the Strict Sense
The teaching of the Magisterium on revealed truth can take different forms, be more or less a full expression, and have a sliding scale in the matter of obligation (LG 25). In the strict sense (and this approach is a creation that belongs to the modern epoch only), a dogma is a teaching in which the Church proposes a revealed truth definitively, and in a way that is binding for the universal Church, so much so that denial is rejected as heresy and falls under an anathema. So in dogma understood in this sense there are twin components, one doctrinal, and the other, juridical or disciplinary Doctrinal statements with sacred obligation have an undeniable foundation in Sacred Scripture, in particular in the power of binding and loosing which Jesus gave his Church, and which is binding also in heaven, that is in Gods eyes (Mt 16:19; 18:18). Even the matter of anathema has New Testament foundations (1 Cor 16:22; Gal l:8f; cf. 1 Cor 5:2-5; 2 Jn 10; etc.).
This focusing, both doctrinal and juridical, on a single proposition corresponds to the concrete and determinative character of Christian faith. It carries with it, by the same token, a danger of a legal positivism and a diminution of dogmatic emphasis. To avoid both these hazards, a twofold integration is necessary in the dogmatic field:
— The integration of the ensemble of dogmas in the fullness of the doctrine and life of the Church. This is because "the Church, in her teaching, life and worship, perpetuates and hands on to all generations all that she herself is, all that she believes" (DV 8). As a result the dogmas must be interpreted in the overall context of the Church's life and teaching.
— The inclusion of each individual dogma in the ensemble of all dogmas. They are not intelligible unless we begin with their internal linkage (nexus mysteriorum, DS 3016) and within their integrated structure. In this respect particular attention must be given to their rank or to the "hierarchy of truths" in Catholic teaching. This arises from the different ways according to which the dogmas are tied in with the christological foundation of Christian faith (UR 11). Without doubt, all revealed truths must be held in virtue of an identical divine faith, but their meaning and weight differ in proportion to their relationship with the mystery of Christ.
4. The Theological Significance of Dogmas
In the last analysis, all revelation is the revelation and communication of himself that God gives through his Son in the Holy Spirit so that we may enter into communion with him (DK2). For that reason, God is the one object, all-encompassing, of faith and theology (Saint Thomas Aquinas). As a result, it is quite correct to say that "actus credentis non terminatur ad enuntiabile, sed ad rem" (I I a Ilae, q. 1, a.2, ad 2). In line with that, the medieval theological tradition laid down regarding the article of faith: "Articulus fidei est perceptio divinae veritatis tendens in ipsam" (cited in the sed contra in the Summa theologica, IIa IIae, q. 1, a. 6). This means that the article of faith is really and truly a grasp of divine truth. It is a mediation, effected in doctrine, containing the truth to which it gives testimony For the very reason that it is true, it recoils, beyond itself, into the mystery of divine truth. It follows from this that the interpretation of dogmas, like all interpretation, is a path which leads us from the word on the outside into the heart of its meaning and finally to the unique and eternal Word of God. And that is why the interpretation of dogmas does not go from a particular word or formula to more of the same. It goes from words, images and concepts to the truth of what they hold within. It also follows that all knowledge by faith is in the end an anticipation of the eternal vision of God's face. It ensues then from this theological meaning of dogmas that:
— Like all other human statements about God, dogmas must be understood analogically, which means that as between the Creator and the creature the dissimilarity is away greater than the similarity (DS 806). This analogy is also a bulwark against an understanding of faith which objectifies it too much, reducing it to a thing, as much as against the excesses of a negative theology, which sees dogmas as mere "cyphers", so transcendent as to be unreachable, and in that way misconceiving the historical and concrete nature of the Christian mystery of salvation.
— The analogical character of dogmas must not be incorrectly confused with a purely symbolic conception which would consider dogma as a subsequent objectivization, whether of an original existential religious experience or of certain social or ecclesiastical practices. Dogmas must rather be understood as an obligatory doctrinal form of the truth of salvation directed by God at us. They are a doctrinal form the content of which is God s own word and truth. They should be interpreted theologically before all else.
— According to the teaching of the Fathers, the theological interpretation of dogmas is not an intellectual process only. At a deeper level still, it is a spiritual enterprise, brought about by the Spirit of Truth and possible only when preceded by a purification of the "eyes of the heart". It presupposes God's gift to us of the light of faith, participation in divine things and also a spiritual experience of that which is believed. That is worked in us by the Holy Spirit. It is above all at this profound level that the interpretation of dogmas involves both theory and practice; it is indissolubly linked to a life of communion with Jesus Christ in the Church.
C. CRITERIA OF INTERPRETATION
I. Dogma and Sacred Scriptures
1. The Fundamental Meaning of Sacred Scripture
The writings of the Old and New Testaments were composed under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, so as to be "useful for teaching the truth and refuting error, or for reformation of manners and for discipline in right living" (2 Tim 3:16). These writings are collected in a Canon. The Church through her Magisterium has recognized in the Canon the apostolic witness to the faith, the authentic and certain faith of the primitive Church, and on this she continues to insist (DS 1502-4, 3006, 3029). "The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she has also done always for the very Body of the Lord and she never ceases, especially in the holy liturgy, to take the bread of life from the table of the Word of God and from that of the Body of Christ to offer to the faithful."' It is necessary therefore that all preaching in the Church "be nourished and governed by Sacred Scripture" (DV 21). The story of Sacred Scripture should be at the same time the soul of theology and of all preaching (DV 24; OT 16). The witness of Sacred Scripture then should be the starting point and the basis for the understanding of dogma.
2. Crisis and Positive Findings of Modern Exegesis
The conflict between exegesis and dogma is a modern phenomenon. Following on the "age of Enlightenment", the tools of historical criticism were developed with the aim in mind also of favouring emancipation where dogmatic and ecclesiastical authority were concerned. This critical method became more and more radical. Soon it was no longer a question alone of a conflict between Scripture and Dogma: the very text of Scripture itself came under critical scrutiny to discover the so-called "dogmatic second-coatings" in Scripture itself This line has been continued in the socio-political and psychological critical methods and these have searched the text for socio-political conflicts or for suppressed psychic data. All these approaches are based on the common suspicion that the dogma of the Church and Scripture conceal a primitive reality which can only be uncovered by critical questioning.
Certainly, the positive side and the results of "Enlightenment" criticism of tradition should not be neglected. The historical criticism of Scripture has revealed that the Bible itself is a thing of the Church; it is rooted in the Paradosis of the primitive Church, and the fixing of the limits of the Canon was itself a process of decision by the Church. In that way exegesis leads us back to dogma and tradition.
But the historico-critical method has not come to the conclusion that Jesus himself was absolutely "a-dogmatic". In the most severe critical analysis a most incontestable historical core remains of the life of Jesus on earth. This core contains what is shown by the words and deeds of Jesus, to wit, his statements concerning his mission, his person, his relationship with God, his "Abba". These claims contain implicitly, and already present in the New Testament, the subsequent evolution of dogma and are the core of all dogmatic definitions.
The primitive form then of Christian dogma is the confession, central indeed to the New Testament, that Jesus Christ is the Son of God (Mt 16:16).
3. The Teaching of Vatican II on the Interpretation of Scripture
The Second Vatican Council has taken up the positive concerns of modern historical criticism. It has underlined the fact that in the interpretation of Sacred Scripture, the task is to investigate with care "what the sacred writers really wanted to say and what God wanted to say by means of their words". To discover this, it is necessary to know the historical background as well as the thought forms, and the ways of speaking and the nature of narrative in that epoch. The historico-critical interpretation is to be inserted as a contribution to the theological and ecclesial interpretation. "Since Holy Scripture must be read and interpreted in the sacred spirit in which it was written, no less serious attention must be given to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture" (DV 12).
The theological interpretation of Scripture must begin with its centre, Jesus Christ. He is the only interpreter (exegesato) of the Father (Jn 1:18). From the outset, he has given his disciples a share in this interpretation since he introduced them to his way of life, confided his message to them and the gifts of his power and Spirit to take them towards the fullness of truth (Jn 16:13). It is in the power of that Spirit that the apostles and their disciples received and transmitted the witness of Jesus. The interpretation of the witness of Jesus is then indissolubly linked to the action of his Spirit in continuing this witness (apostolic succession) and in maintaining the sense of faith of God's people.
Correct interpretation of Scripture is vital in the matter of the dogma of the Church. In this question of dogmatic interpretation of Scripture and the obligation involved, the Magisterium is not in an inferior position to God's Word, but rather at its service (cf. DV 10). The Magisterium does not judge the Word of God but the correctness of its own interpretation of it. No age can go back on what has been formulated dogmatically through the Holy Spirit as a key to the interpretation of Scripture. This does not exclude the fact of new points of view in the future or new formulations. Finally, the judgment of the Church in matters of faith is constantly being enriched thanks to the advance work of the exegetes and their careful studies of what Sacred Scripture intended to say (DV 12).
4. The Christocentric Nature of Scripture as a Criterion
In spite of all modern progress and the radical spiritual upheavals following on the "age of Enlightenment", it is still the fact that Christ is the definitive revelation of God, and there is nothing to come, no new age of salvation, no new gospel, which will surpass the age of Christ. The time that remains until Christ returns remains bound essentially to the "once-for-all" (ephapax) that took place in the Christ of history. The same is true of the tradition of Scripture and the Paradosis of the Church which are his witnesses. The present Lordship of Jesus Christ, albeit hidden, is the measure and the touchstone from now on that separate truth and falsehood. It is in terms of Jesus Christ also that the distinction is made in the new methods of scriptural interpretation between what sets forth the real Christ and what is a misunderstanding, or even more so, a falsification.
Many of the perspectives made available by the historico-critical method and more recent methods (the history of comparative religions, structuralism, semiotics, social history, depth psychology) may help to put the figure of Christ in greater relief for men of our time.
Nevertheless, they will bear no fruit unless they are employed subject to faith, and without claims to autonomy The communion of the Church remains the place where the interpretation of Scripture is sheltered from the danger of being swept away by the currents of opinion common to one age or the other.
II. Dogma in the Tradition and in the Communion of the Church
1. The Indissoluble Bond between Scripture, Tradition and the Communion of the Church
The one Gospel, which, as the fulfilment of Old Testament promises, was revealed once and for all in its fullness by Jesus Christ, remains unshaken as the source of all salvific truth and all moral teaching (DS 1501). Thanks to the assistance of the Holy Spirit, the apostles and their disciples have passed on the Gospel in their preaching, by their example, by the institutions they founded; under the inspiration of the same Spirit, they have committed it to written documents (DV 7). Thus, Scripture and tradition form together a single depository of faith (depositum fidei) which the Church must protect faithfully (1 Tim 6:20; 2 Tim 1:14). The Gospel was not given to the Church as a dead letter, a mere parchment: it is written by the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the faithful (2 Cor 3:3). In that way, thanks to the Holy Spirit, the Gospel is permanently present in the community of the Church, in her doctrine, her life and above all her liturgy (DV 8).
Scripture, tradition and the community of the Church do not then run on parallel paths; they form an intimate unity (DV 9f; cf. supra B, I, 1; C, I, 2), which has its most profound basis in the Father's sending of his Word and his Spirit to us as gift. The Spirit produces the great works of salvation: he calls and inspires the prophets who explain these works; he raises up a people who acknowledge them in faith and witness to them. In the fullness of time, he brings about the incarnation of God's eternal Word (Mt 1:20; Lk 1:35); through baptism, he constructs the Church, the Body of Christ (1 Cor 12:13), and always brings to its mind the words, deeds and person of Jesus Christ, and guides her in the fullness of truth (Jn 14:26; 15:26; 16:13f).
Through the action of the Holy Spirit, the spoken word becomes "spirit and life" in the hearts of the faithful. God himself anoints them with knowledge (1 Jn 2:20, 27; Jn 6:45). The Holy Spirit awakens and nourishes the sensus fidelium, which is that inner sense in virtue of which, and under the guidance of the Magisterium, the people of God recognize in preaching that the words are Gods not man's and accept and guard them with unbreakable fidelity (LG 12; cf. LG 35).
2. The One Tradition and the Plurality of Traditions
Tradition (Paradosis) in the end is nothing else but the communication of himself which God, the Father, gives through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit, with a view to a presence forever new in the community of the Church. From the outset, this living Tradition in the Church took on a large number of different forms in particular traditions (traditiones). Its inexhaustible richness is expressed in a plurality of doctrines, chants, symbols, rites, regulations and institutions. Tradition also displays its fecundity by way of "inculturation" in different local Churches according to their local cultural situation. These multiple traditions are orthodox inasmuch as they testify to the one apostolic Tradition, and pass it on.
The discernment of spirits (1 Cor 12:10; 1 Thess 5:21; 1 Jn 4:1) is therefore an element in the entrance through the agency of the Holy Spirit into "the fullness of truth". The problem is to make a distinction between Tradition as received from the Lord (1 Cor 11:23) and the traditions of men (Mk 7:8; Col 2:8). The apostolic tradition in the Church cannot undergo any essential corruption because of the permanent assistance of the Holy Spirit which guarantees its indefectibility. The Church is holy, but at the same time a Church of sinners, and for that reason human traditions can slip in which diminish the one apostolic tradition in the case where the nucleus is violated by a certain exaggeration of certain aspects. And that is why the Church always feels the need for purification, penance and renewal with regard to the traditions in her (LG 8). The criteria for judging such a "discernment of spirits" flow from the very nature of Tradition.
Since it is the one Spirit who acts during the whole history of salvation, in Scripture, in Tradition, and also in the whole life of the Church along the centuries, the internal coherence of Tradition is a fundamental criterion. This coherence is made certain by the fact that Jesus Christ is the centre of revelation. Jesus Christ himself is then the focus of unity for the multiple forms of tradition: He is the criterion for discernment and interpretation. It is from this centre as origin that Scripture, Tradition and particular traditions as well, with their correspondences and connections, are to be examined and interpreted.
Since the faith has been transmitted once and for all (Jude 3), the Church is permanently bound to the heritage of the apostles. Consequently, apostolicity is an essential criterion. The Church must constantly renew itself through living the memory of its origin, and interpret dogma in the light of those origins.
The one apostolic faith which was given to the Church in its entirety takes form in the diversity of the traditions of local Churches. An essential criterion is catholicity, that is, agreement within the communion of the Church. Uncontested agreement on a point of faith over a long lapse of time is a sign of the apostolicity of that doctrine.
The connection of Tradition with the ecclesial communio is shown and made living before all else in the celebration of the liturgy. This is why the lex orandi is also the lex credendi (DS 246). The liturgy is the living and all-inclusive theological home of faith. This is not simply in the sense that liturgical and doctrinal expressions must correspond; the liturgy makes "the mystery of faith" actual. The reception of the eucharistic Body of Christ ministers to the building up and growth of the ecclesial Body of the Lord, the community we call the Church (1 Cor 10:17).
3. The Interpretation of Dogmas within the Communion of the Church
The Church is the sacrament, that is, all together, the place, sign and instrument of the Paradosis. She announces God's saving deeds (martyria); she passes on the confession of faith to those she baptizes (Rom 6:17); she confesses her faith at the time of the breaking of bread and at prayer (leiturgia, Acts 2:42); she serves Jesus Christ in the poor, the persecuted, the prisoners, the sick and dying (diakonia, Mt 25). The dogmas are an expression of that same tradition at doctrinal level. One may not then sever them from their context in the life of the Church and interpret them in a purely conceptual manner. The meaning and interpretation of dogmas is more a matter of redemptive value; they are to guard the family of the Church against error, heal its wounds, and serve the growth of living faith.
The service of the Paradosis and its interpretation has been confided to the Church as a whole. At the heart of the Church, it falls to the bishops, who are established as the apostolic succession, to give a faithful interpretation of the Tradition of the faith (DV 10). In union with the Bishop of Rome, to whom the ministry of unity has been entrusted in a special fashion, the bishops have the power to give the authentic definition and interpretation of dogmas. This may take place by the assembly of bishops in union with the Pope, or by the Pope alone, the head of the episcopal College (LG 25).
The task of interpreting the dogmas in the Church appertains as well to the "witnesses" and to the doctors in communion with the bishops. The unanimous agreement of the Church Fathers (unanimis consensus Patrum, DS 1507, 3007), the testimony of those who have undergone martyrdom for the faith and that of the other canonised saints of the Church, in particular Church doctors, have, in this matter, an altogether special function.
4. Assisting the Consensus Fidelium
An essential criterion for the discernment of spirits is the building up of the unity of the Body of Christ (1 Cor 12:4-11). This is the reason why the action of the Holy Spirit in the Church also appears in a process of "exchange". Scripture and Tradition set free their meaning above all when they are made real and actual in the liturgy. And they are fully accepted by the community of the Church when they are celebrated in the depths of the "mystery of faith". The interpretation of dogmas is a form of the service supplied by the consensus fidelium, through which the people of God, "from the bishops to the last believing layman" (Saint Augustine), expresses its general agreement in questions of faith and morals (LG 12). The dogmas and their interpretation should buttress this consensus of the faithful in confessing "that which we have known from the beginning" (l Jn 2:7-24).
III. Dogma and Contemporary Interpretation3
1. The Need for Contemporary Interpretation
The living Tradition of God's people on pilgrimage through history does not come to a stop at a particular point in that history It arrives at the present only to move on to the future. A dogmatic definition is not only the end of a development but equally a new start. If a truth of faith has become dogma it becomes part for good of the Paradosis which travels on. Following on definition comes acceptance, which is a living grasp of the dogma in the common life of the Church, and a deeper insight into the truth the dogma presents. For dogma should not simply be a relic of times past; it should bear fruit in the life of the Church. For that reason, attention should not be limited to the negative or restrictive side of it, but to its positive side since that is its doorway to truth.
Such a contemporary process of dogmatic interpretation should bear two principles in mind, which at first sight seem to contradict each other: the permanent value of truth, and its contemporary form. This means that one cannot deny or betray the tradition nor, in the guise of loyalty, pass on an ossified tradition. The tradition must release from its memory hope for the present and for the future. A definition, in fine, can have no significance here and now except to the extent that it is true. The permanence of truth and its contemporary form interact. Only the truth makes free (cf. Jn 8: 32).
2. The Guiding Principles of Contemporary Interpretation
Since the contemporary interpretation of dogma is a part of an ongoing history of Tradition and dogmas, it is directed specifically by the same principles as that history itself.
This means, first of all, that such a process of contemporary interpretation is not a purely intellectual enterprise, nor for that matter purely existential or sociological. Further, it does not consist exclusively in more precise definition of individual concepts, nor in the reshaping or invention of formulations. It is inspired, sustained and guided by the action of the Holy Spirit in the Church and in each believers heart. It takes place in the light of faith; it gets its drive from the charisms and the witness of the saints which God's Spirit gives to his Church for an appointed epoch. In the same context it is the place for the prophetic witness of spiritual movements and the interior wisdom pouring forth from the spiritual experience of lay people filled with God's Spirit (cf. DV 8).
Just as in the case of the Paradosis of the Church as a whole, contemporary interpretation of dogmas takes place in and by means of the life of the Church in all its aspects. This happens in preaching and catechesis, in the celebration of the liturgy, in the life of prayer, in service, in the daily witness of Christians, and also in the juridical and disciplinary side of the Church. The prophetic witness of the single Christian, or of groups, must find its place as follows: is it, and to what extent, in communion with the life of the Church as a whole? In other words, can it be received and accepted by the Church in the course of a lengthy and sometimes painful process?
The faith and living understanding of faith are also genuinely human acts, and make use of all man's faculties: his intelligence, his will and his emotional nature (cf. Mk 12:30 par.). The faith should give an answer before all mankind (apo-logia) concerning the reasons for hope (logos) (cf. 1 Pet 3:15). And this is why the work of theology, the historical study of sources, the contribution of the human sciences, hermeneutics and linguistics, and philosophy as well, have great importance for the contemporary interpretation of dogma. All these disciplines can act as a spur to the witness of the Church and do a preparatory work in presenting that witness to the demands of reason. But in doing this, their basis and norm remain the preaching, teaching and life of the Church.
3. The Permanent Value of Dogmatic Formulas
The question of the contemporary interpretation of dogmas is centred on the problem of the permanent value of dogmatic formulas (cf. International Theological Commission, "Unité de la foi et pluralisme theologique" , in Documenta, op. cit., p. 364). Without doubt a distinction must be made between the permanently valid content of dogmas and the form in which this is expressed. The mystery of Christ transcends all possible elucidations, no matter what the epoch, and therefore can never lend itself to a finally exclusive system of interpretation (cf. Eph 3:8-10; International Theological Commission cited above, p. 32). In different cultural situations and as the successive signs of the times demand, the Holy Spirit continues without pause to make the mystery of Christ present in all its freshness.
At the same time, it is not possible to make a neat distinction between content and form of expression. The symbolic nature of language is not simply an item of apparel, but in some way truth itself incarnate. This applies in a very particular way, since the foundations are the incarnation of the eternal Word, to the profession of faith of the Church. This profession takes concrete form in a proper formula, which as a real-symbolic expression of the content of faith, contains and makes present what it indicates. For that reason the images and concepts used are not interchangeable at will.
The study of the history of dogma shows clearly that in these dogmas the Church has not simply taken up already existing conceptual schemes. She has rather subjected existing concepts, imprinted by the upper levels of the language of the milieu, to a process of purification and transformation, or reworking. In that way, she has created the language that fits her message. Take for example the distinction between "substance" (or nature) and "hypostasis", and the working out of the concept of person which was unknown, as such, to Greek philosophy. In fact, it came about as a result of reflection on the reality of the mystery of Salvation and on biblical language.
The language of the Church's dogma was then forged partly in debate with certain philosophical systems, but is not bound in any way to any definitive philosophical system. In the process of seeking language for the faith, the Church has created a language of her own in which she has given expression to realities hitherto unperceived and unknown, but which belong now, precisely by means of such linguistic expression, to the Paradosis of the Church and through it to the historical heritage of humanity.
As a community of faith the Church is a community in the language of the profession of faith. That is the reason unity in the basic expressions of faith, both in the course of history and in the here and now (diachronically and synchronically), is also part of the Church's unity. The basic expressions of faith may not be revised, even when it is claimed that the reality they express will not be lost to sight. The effort must always be made to assimilate them more and more, and to push on with explaining them, thanks to a whole range of different forms of evangelization. In particular, the inculturation of Christianity in other cultures may give occasion for this task, or indeed make it obligatory. Revealed truth for all that remains unchanged "not alone in what constitutes substantial content but also decisive expressions in language" (International Theological Commission, supra cit., p. 37).
4. The Criteria for Contemporary Interpretation
For this process of the Paradosis in our time the criteria presented in the preceding paragraphs are valuable. It is essential that the "christological axis" be preserved, in such a way that Jesus Christ remains the beginning, centre and measuring rod for all interpretation. To make certain of this, the criterion of origin, that is apostolicity, and that of communion (koinonia), that is catholicity, have pride of place (cf. C, II, 2).
In addition to the two criteria already considered, the "anthropological criterion" has also an important role today in the field of interpretation. In saying that, there is obviously no intention of suggesting that man in himself, certain of his needs or interests, or even the tendencies of fashion, can function as the measure of faith and the interpretation of dogma.
That is already out of court for the very fact that man himself is an unresolved question to which the only full response is God (GS 21). Only in Jesus Christ is the mystery of man made clear: in him, the New Man, God has fully revealed man to man and opened up to him his most sublime vocation (GS 22). Man then is not the measure, but the point of reference for faith and dogma. This is the road too the Church follows in the explanation of her dogmas (cf. John Paul II, Redemptor hominis, 14).
The First Vatican Council had already taught that a deeper knowledge of the mysteries of faith is made possible if they are viewed by analogy with ordinary human ways of knowing and if they are seen in relationship with man's last end (DS 3016). The Second Vatican Council speaks of the "signs of the times" which, on the one hand, are to be interpreted on the basis of the faith, but which, on the other hand, can stimulate a greater understanding of the faith as it has reached us (GS 3f, 10f., 22, 40, 42f., 44, 62, etc.). In this way, the Church wishes to illuminate the mystery of man by the light of Christ and to cooperate in the search for a solution to the most urgent problems of our times (GS 10).
5. The Seven Criteria of J. H. Newman
Newman worked out a criteriology for the development of dogma, which serves both as preparation and finishing touch to what is being argued. It can be applied in proper proportions to that further interpretation of dogmas aimed at giving them contemporary relevance. Newman lists seven principles, namely the following criteria:
1. The conservation of the type, which is to say the basic form, and of the proportions and relationships existing between the whole and the parts. When the structure as a totality remains, its type holds fast, even if some particular concepts change. But this total structure may become corrupt, even in the case where the concepts remain unchanged, if the latter are made part of a context or a system of coordinates which is altogether different.
2. The continuity of principle: the different doctrines represent principles existing at a deeper level, even when these are often not recognized until a later stage. The same doctrine, if detached from its founding principle, may be interpreted in more ways than one, and lead to contradictory conclusions. Continuity of principle then is a criterion which can distinguish proper and legitimate development from the erroneous.
3. Capacity for being assimilated: a living idea shows its edge by its ability to get at reality, attract other ideas to itself, stimulate reflection and develop itself further without loss of its internal unity. This capacity for being integrated is a criterion of legitimate development.
4. Logical coherence: the development of dogmas is a vital process which is too complex to be regarded simply a logical explanation and deduction from given premises. Nevertheless, there must be logical coherence between the conclusions and the initial data. Conversely, one can judge what a development is from its consequences or recognize it as legitimate or otherwise by its fruits.
5. Anticipation of the future: trends which come to realization and succeed only later may make themselves noticeable early on, even if as isolated phenomena where the outline is still dim. Such advance trends are signs of the agreement of subsequent development with the original idea.
6. The conservation of past values: development becomes corruption when it contradicts the original doctrine or earlier development. True development conserves and safeguards the development and formulations that went before.
7. Durability: corruption leads to disintegration. Whatever corrupts itself cannot last for long. Whatever is vital and durable on the contrary is a sign of authentic development.
6. The Importance of the Magisterium for Contemporary Interpretation
The criteria which we have enumerated will be incomplete if we omit to remind ourselves of the function of the Church's Magisterium, to which the authentic interpretation of God s word has been committed, both written and passed on by tradition, and as a mandate exercised in the name of Jesus Christ and assisted by the Holy Spirit (DV 10). Her mission does not consist in merely ratifying and making definitive, as if she were a supreme "notary", the process of interpretation in the Church. She must also stimulate it, follow it step by step, and direct it, and to the extent that the process comes to a positive conclusion, give it, by an act of official validation, objective standing, and make it a matter of universal obligation. In this way, the Magisterium will give a sense of direction and certainty to the faithful who find themselves faced with confusing opinions and endless theological disputes: this may take place in various ways and with varying degrees of obligation, beginning with the usual preaching, exhortations and encouragement and on to authentic statements of doctrine, even infallible ones.
"Faced with doctrinal statements that are gravely ambiguous, even perhaps incompatible with the Faith of the Church, the Church has the capacity to discern error and the duty to dispel it, even resorting to the formal rejection of heresy as the final remedy for safeguarding the Faith of the people of God" (International Theological Commission, "Unité de la foi et pluralisme théologique", op. cit., p. 345). "A Christianity which can no longer say what it is and what it is not, or where its frontiers lie, will have nothing more to say" The apostolic function of excommunication belongs, even today to the rights of the Magisterium of the Church; and an obligation to exercise it may arise (International Theological Commission 1972, Commentary, in Die Einheit des Glaubens und der theologische Pluralismus [Einsiedeln, 1973], pp. 48, 50f.).
All dogmatic interpretation has one aim only, and that is that in the Church and in each believer "spirit and life" may be born from the words of the dogmas. In a present constantly made new, hope should spring from the memory of the Church's tradition; in the diversity of the human condition, cultural, political, economic, in the plurality of peoples, the unity and catholicity of the faith must be strengthened and promoted as a sign of and an agent of unity and peace on earth. What is at stake is that men should have eternal life in knowing the one true God and Jesus Christ, his Son (Jn 17:3).
* This document of the International Theological Commission was prepared under the direction of His Excellency, Msgr. Walter Kasper, at the time Professor at Tübingen University and presently Bishop of Rottenburg-Stutgart, by a sub-commission consisting of Professors Ambaum, Columbo, Corbon, Gnilka, Leonard, Nagy, de Noronha Galvao, Peter, Schönborn and Wilfred. The document was discussed at the plenary session of 3rd to 8th October, 1988, and fully approved in forma specifica at the plenary session of October, 1989. In accordance with the statutes of the International Theological Commission, it is now published with the authorization of His Eminence Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the Commission's President. The basic text is in German.
1 This word, which means Tradition, is from the German text. It will be maintained.
2 Commissio Theologica Internationalis, Documenta/Documenti (1969-1985) (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1988) (also cf. Commission Theologique Internationale, Textes et documents). [Published in English as International Theological Commission, Texts and Documents, 1969-1985 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989 and 2009). "Human Development and Christian Salvation" appears as chap. 7.]
3 The word "contemporary" is used here, and in what follows, to translate the German heutige. It is not intended to give it any unique standing as against other epochs. Interpretation is a perennial task.
4 Textes et documents, p. 53. [Published in English as "Theological Pluralism", in Texts and Documents, chap. 3.]
5 Textes et documents, p. 52. [2009 Eng. ed.: "Theological Pluralism", 1:90.]