Leading theologian admits hermeneutic of continuity is just an Orwellian facade

"The Church does the opposite of the used car dealer"
Popes often push through innovations by passing off the new as the old, says theologian Michael Seewald. How come? And can politics possibly learn something from this?

We live in times that give us a lot of headaches. That's why we ask in the series "What are you thinking about right now?" leading scientists and voices in public life what they currently think is worth considering. The questions are asked by Maja Beckers, Andrea Böhm, Christiane Grefe, Nils Markwardt, Peter Neumann, Elisabeth von Thadden, Lars Weisbrod or Xifan Yang. Today the theologian Michael Seewald answers.

ZEIT ONLINE: Michael Seewald, what are you thinking about right now?

Michael Seewald: About dogmas and their problems: How has official Christian teaching changed over time? For what reasons did she do this? What mechanisms were at work?

Michael Seewald is a professor of dogmatics and the history of dogmas at the University of Münster. In 2018 he published the book "Dogma in Transition" (Herder). Most recently he published "Theories of doctrinal development in the Catholic Church" (Cambridge University Press, 2023).

ZEIT ONLINE: In an essay in the latest issue of the journal for the history of ideas, you took a look at a certain type of these change mechanisms. It's about "concealment of innovation" and the "construction of continuity facades". What does that mean?

Seewald: A dogma is a teaching that claims to be highly binding. Normativity and temporality enter into a strange liaison. In the dogmatic "That's the way it is" there is also a "That's the way it should stay". Now, however, the history of dogmas shows that "that's how it is" and "that's how it should stay" are only loosely related to each other. Since there is no provision for changing or even correcting the dogma in the dogma itself, continuity facades are erected. In other words, an attempt is made to give the impression that, in principle, everything will always remain the same. And if something does change, it is often presented in a harmonising way. According to the motto: It is only about organic developments, but not about corrections. The discrepancy between what dogma says should be and what actually is embarrasses the Pope and the ecclesiastical doctrinal machinery. They are therefore trying to give the appearance of continuity. And certain techniques have been developed to do this.

ZEIT ONLINE: What would be a historical example of this?

Seewald: About the attitude of the Catholic Church to freedom of religion and conscience. Pope Gregory XVI considered human rights "madness" and freedom of conscience a "plague-like error". That was in the 19th century. In the course of the 1950s, a tendency towards change slowly became apparent. At the Second Vatican Council, which took place from 1962 to 1965, the Pope and Bishops suddenly showed themselves to be big fans of freedom of religion and conscience. They taught that this freedom follows from the dignity of the human person and is in full harmony with revelation. If one reads the relevant document of the Council, one gets the impression that religious freedom is actually an invention of the Church. The fact that this freedom was enforced not because of the church, but in spite of it, is not discussed. A U-turn was achieved but at the same time continuity in questions of teaching was demanded.

ZEIT ONLINE: In the essay you mentioned, you also describe a newer strategy of concealing innovation, which is used by Pope Francis today. What does it consist of?

Seewald: Francis has expanded the repertoire of concealing innovation. It is about the interplay between main text and footnote. His writing Amoris laetitia, published in 2016, is about people who "permanently live in grave sin". This refers to people who are legally married under Canon Law, but were legally divorced and finally married another partner. The canonical fiction in these cases states that the people concerned are actually still married to their previous partner. By marrying someone else, therefore, a sinful condition is permanently set. The result is exclusion from the Sacraments. Now Francis does not object to this in the main text of his letter. Like the Popes before him, he says that the greatest possible pastoral attention should be bestowed on those concerned.

ZEIT ONLINE: Doesn't sound particularly innovative.

Seewald: Strictly speaking, the main text even contains a fairly conservative definition of the relationship between Church and grace. As Francis says: The people who live in such irregular situations could lead a life in the grace of God with the help of the Church. A life of grace is thus tied to the mediation of the church. The Second Vatican Council was already further along this path. The Council taught that the grace of God works invisibly in the hearts of all people of good will. If you only read the main text of Amoris laetitia, you might ask: what kind of conservative Pope is this?

ZEIT ONLINE: But then comes the relevant footnote.

Seewald: Exactly. And it says that the help of the church can also be the help of the Sacraments. What sounds like continuity in the main text takes on a direction in the footnote that differs significantly from what has been handed down. Because here, in principle, a liberal practice of administering the sacraments is introduced. Although popes have used footnotes to refer to other texts before, this use of discursive footnotes is new. While the main text maintains the facade of continuity, the footnote introduces innovation.

ZEIT ONLINE: Does this procedure ultimately work? After all, this case has led to a debate in church circles as to what is actually more decisive: the main text, because it is the main text? Or the footnote, because more specific regulations always beat more general ones?

Seewald: More observant people know, of course, that continuity facades are often erected in the church. With the example of freedom of religion, it was clear to contemporaries in 1965 that the Church had taught something else shortly before the Council. Most played along anyway, because they felt the Council's position was the right one, but also recognized that a facade was needed to keep the conservatives from gasping. The fact that these continuity facades often work well can be seen from the conflicts that arise when these facades are missing.

ZEIT ONLINE: To what extent?

Seewald: Take the outlawing of the death penalty. From the point of view of the popes, the imposition of the death penalty should be as rare as possible. However, it was not fundamentally ostracized. Even the 1992 Catechism teaches that in extreme cases a state has the right to impose the death penalty. In 2018, Pope Francis corrected this position by classifying the death penalty as morally reprehensible under all circumstances. In Europe we take it for granted, but in the US it has led to an outright revolt against the Pope in right-wing Catholicism. And that was probably also due to the fact that the Pope had not erected a continuity facade on this question. The Catechism now says: "For a long time" the Church handled it this way and that, "today" we have to do it differently. A Papal about-face has thus become on record. That didn't go down well with some.

ZEIT ONLINE: There have always been cases of continuity facades outside of the church. Just think of the French revolutionaries of 1789, who sometimes took up ancient symbolism in order to place themselves in the tradition of Attic democracy. Nevertheless, this technique seems to stand in contrast to the zeitgeist. Today, a "narrative" is needed for everything that presents things as particularly new and innovative.

Seewald: It seems to me that there are both in the present. You will also find traditional narratives, for example in hip bakeries that report on their history on their homepage and tell how the founders came up with the idea for gluten-free baked goods a few years ago. Even for the shortest periods of time, narratives are created that attempt to clothe the present with meaning. However, there is a tendency to emphasize what is new and unprecedented in the present. That would not work in the Catholic Church. To put it bluntly: The Catholic Church does the opposite of a used car dealer. While the latter – at least according to the cliché – wants to sell an old car as new if possible, the Catholic Church constantly sells new cars, but suggests that they are actually old cars.

ZEIT ONLINE: Joe Biden seems to be doing something very similar in the USA. While the correct narrative for a Green New Deal has been discussed for years, it is currently being implemented. It's just called the Inflation Reduction Act and pretends it's nothing new. This is another reason why there is relatively little protest from the Republicans. In this respect, could one say: Learning from the Catholic Church means learning to win?

Seewald: Maybe. Whereby the church did not invent the erection of continuity facades. Even ancient communities placed themselves in the tradition of certain founding myths. The need for continuity is not specifically religious. Every social structure is in the quandary of locating itself in time. This self-positioning goes hand in hand with the desire for stability. This desire has two directions: it extends into the future, but also into the past. Not only should everything stay the way it is, it should always have been like that.

ZEIT ONLINE: But is the dark side of building continuity facades that it makes the necessary break with the past more difficult? More specifically: Is that why the Catholic Church is finding it so difficult to transparently deal with the countless cases of abuse in its ranks?

Seewald: Above all, covering up the abuse could have something to do with the tendency to build facades. In theory, all power in a Diocese emanates from the Bishop. Responsibility is therefore highly personalised. Because the bishop is unable to cope with this, however, responsibility is secretly depersonalized again: all authorities look to the Bishop and the Bishop says that he cannot have his eyes everywhere. In the end nobody takes responsibility. The church should think about whether the monarchical bishopric is actually the best form of leadership. The office of bishop, as it is dogmatically defined today, is an invention of the 20th century. In fact, because Vatican II erected such good facades of continuity, some believe that the council's Episcopal image originates from Jesus himself. The church's inability to respond to the scandal by reforming its leadership structures is also due to the fact that narratives of continuity are used to stabilize the status quo. This shows the ambivalence of this technique.

ZEIT ONLINE: So continuity facades are neither good nor bad in and of themselves?

Seewald: Building continuity façades is a cultural technique for dealing with the simultaneity of permanence and change. This technology enables innovation and it prevents innovation. Both can be studied at the Catholic Church.


Cathcon: The ruptures, philosophical, liturgical and theological occurred before the Second Vatican Council; so to some degree this made the hermeneutic of continuity argument easier.


MARCH 19, 2023
Liberal theologian Michael Seewald interprets Vatican Council II with a fake premise and then says dogmas evolve and there is a doctrinal development.
MARCH 19, 2023
Liberal theologian Michael Seewald interprets Vatican Council II with a fake premise and then says dogmas evolve and there is a doctrinal development.

Liberal theologian Michael Seewald interprets Vatican Council II with a fake premise and then says that dogmas evolve and there is a doctrinal development. If he did not choose the fake premise and inference to interpret Vatican Council II, the Creeds, Catechisms etc he would be a traditionalist and would be expelled by the University of Munich. Now he keeps his job with the unethical theology of Pope Benedict and the popes since Pius XII.
Without the Boston Heresy of Pope Pius XII and the popes who followed, Vatican Council II would affirm the dogma extra ecclesiam nulla salus, as it was known in Germany over the centuries.- Lionel Andrades
Man o man, Lionel. You have been beating this dead horse in this that and the other blog/web site for a score of years- and more.

I have personally corrected you on your heretical charges against others so you can not plead ignorance of Catholic Doctrine.


You literally do not know what you are talking about.

Repent while you still have time for the severity with which you judge others may one day be applied to you