I’m currently taking a course on the thought of Joseph Ratzinger, so his thoughts tend to show up a lot on these posts. Here’s an interesting quote from him in light of Nathan’s post, in which Ratzinger, as prefect, comments on the relationship between theologians and the Church’s teaching authority:
[Donum Veritatis] states—perhaps for the first time with such candor—that there are magisterial decision which cannot be the final word on a given matter as such but, despite the permanent value of their principles, are chiefly also a signal for pastoral prudence, a sort of provisional policy. Their kernel remains valid, but the particulars determined by circumstances can stand in need of correction. In this connection, one will probably call to mind both the pontifical statements of the last century, especially the decisions of the then Biblical Commission. As warning calls against rash and superficial accommodations, they remain perfectly legitimate: no less a personage than J. B. Metz, for example, has remarked that the anti-Modernist decisions of the Church performed the great service of preserving her from foundering in a bourgeois-liberal world. Nevertheless, with respect to particular aspects of their content, they were superseded after having fulfilled their pastoral function in the situation of the time (The Nature and Mission of Theology, 106).
Given the context of Metz (no magisterial “yes-man”), the “bourgeois-liberal world” would probably have been the milieu of German, Protestant academics, who proved generally accommodating to the Nazi party. Bultmann’s hermeneutical project of demythologization and Heideggerian transposition had left Scripture largely powerless to speak against the forces of totalitarianism. Of course, Heidegger’s own regrettable cooperation in this regard has already been mentioned in this blog.
The underlying attitude must clearly be discerning. The Magisterium can’t always speak with oracular certainty (especially vis-à-vis the problems raised by emergent political or scientific realities); yet even her “superseded” statements have indicated a prudent pastoral direction, and represent a continuity of principle rather than the wholesale contradiction of subsequent positions.
Following on this view, then, both those who insist on a radical “change” and those who insist on seamless continuity would alike be guilty of a certain “fundamentalism”—if by that ambiguous term one means an inability to situate a document historically or weigh its degree of magisterial authority.
Pope John Paul’s ascription of an “early mythical character” to Genesis 2 would be a prime example of respectful discernment. Doubtlessly sensitive to past condemnations of Genesis as “myth”, he gives a lengthy footnote in which he distinguishes his own understanding from the 19th century understanding, according to which myth indicated “what is not contained in reality (Wundt), the product of imagination, or what is irrational (Lévy-Bruhl).” This is presumably the meaning of myth that the Instruction of 1909 condemned. Hence, he still shows some respect for the core principles even of the Magisterium’s “superseded” judgments, while also indicating a direction by which we might improve on them.