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In a video message broadcast to participants in the Second International Congress of Theology held in Buenos Aires, Sept. 1–3, Pope Francis told participants that Catholic theology should be done in the stream of the Church’s living Tradition. Quoting Pope Benedict XVI, he said: “We can therefore say that Tradition is not the transmission of things or words, a collection of dead things. Tradition is the living river that links us to the origins, the living river in which the origins are ever present, the great river that leads us to the gates of eternity.”

What does this mean for how Pope Francis understands theology and tradition? A few comments here must suffice.

First, the communion of the Church is the agent of Tradition, that is, of the transmission of revelation, of the normative sources (“origins”) of the faith.

Secondly, this transmission is about the reality itself of, for example, the sacrament of the Eucharist rather than merely the meaning and judgment about the Eucharist expressed in propositions. Of course the gift of the reality of the Eucharist is inseparable from its intelligible mediation in intellectual propositions as well as fitting language about this reality. Thirdly, the content of Tradition includes the Church. As Dei Verbum puts it:

The Church in her doctrine, life and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes. This tradition which comes from the apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities [of salvation history] and the words which have been handed down.

Tradition itself does not develop, but what does is our understanding and expression of the depth and richness of revelation. Francis intuitively understands that propositions—contents of thought that are true or false—do not vary as the language in which they are expressed varies; truths of faith are more than their linguistic expression. To make this point, Pope Francis appeals here in this address and elsewhere to John XXIII’s words at Vatican II, Gaudet Mater Ecclesia: “For the deposit of faith, the truths contained in our sacred teaching, are one thing; the mode in which they are expressed, but with the same meaning and the same judgment [eodem sensu eademque sententia], is another thing.”

The subordinate clause in this passage is part of a larger passage from Vatican I, Dei Filius, and this passage is itself from the Commonitórium primum of Vincent of Lérins. The distinction here is between truth and its formulations, content and context (form), propositions and sentences. Francis says, “We should do the work, the hard work, of distinguishing the message of Life from the form of its transmission, the form being the cultural elements in which that message was expressed [encoded] at one time.”

Francis looks again to John XXIII in Evangelii gaudium, and his explicit support for the Lérinian legacy stretches back to his pre-papal writings (e.g., On Heaven and Earth), continuing in the same Lérinian vein in a later interview (A Big Heart Open to God), prominently in Evangelii gaudium, up until his most recent encyclical, Laudato Si’, and reasserted in this address to the Congress.

Pope Francis looks to Vincent because he is persuaded that a Lérinian approach to doing theology in the stream of the Church’s living tradition avoids the temptations of rigidity or immobilism at the level of theological formulation which may lead to petrification on the one hand, or relativism, on the other. Since Francis is not a doctrinal relativist, he does not hold the truth itself to be variable with time and place, but only its formulations, urging an expansion of its expression, namely, “seeking ways of expressing unchanging truths in a language which brings out their abiding newness.”

Francis rejects an opposition between doctrine and pastoral practice as a false approach. He says in his address: “We not infrequently identify doctrine with conservatism and antiquity; and on the contrary, we tend to think of pastoral ministry in terms of adaptation, reduction, accommodation. As if they had nothing to do with each other. A false opposition is generated between theology and pastoral ministry, between Christian reflection and Christian life. . . . The attempt to overcome this divorce between theology and pastoral ministry, between faith and life, was indeed one of the main contributions of Vatican II.” The way to avoid this dilemma “is through reflection, through discernment, taking very serious both the Church’s Tradition and today’s reality, bringing both into dialogue.”

Furthermore, Francis resists the implication that this dialogical strategy means adapting or accommodating the Tradition to today’s standards; the pastoral context is not an isolated motive for renewal. Renewal is rather about transmitting Tradition today in its eternal newness—“in fidelity, to its own identity and the rich deposit of truth which it has received from Jesus Christ.” Pope Francis looks again to Vincent’s desire that the Tradition may be “consolidated with years, expanded with time, grow loftier with age”(“ut annis consolidétur, dilatetur tempore, sublimétur aetate”). Like Vincent and John XXIII, Pope Francis urges the theological transmission of revelation to be pure and integral, without any attenuation or distortion of doctrine.

As he writes in Evangelii gaudium

Whenever we make the effort to return to the sources [of faith] and to recover the original freshness of the Gospel, new avenues arise, new paths of creativity open up, with different forms of expression, more eloquent signs and words with new meaning for today’s world. Every form of authentic evangelization is always ‘new.’

In a nutshell, this is the hermeneutics of continuity in renewal.

Eduardo Echeverria is professor of philosophy and theology at the Sacred Heart Major Seminary and author of Berkouwer and Catholicism: Disputed Questions. He is a member of Evangelicals and Catholics Together. He will be giving a talk on his most recent book, Pope Francis: The Legacy of Vatican II, in our NYC editorial office on October 1. Further information about the event can be found here

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