Hermeneutics of Vatican II
Part III.3: The Hermeneutic of Suspicion
By Jeremy Hausotter
May 16, 2021
Note on the Text:
Part III is broken up into nine separate pages because this investigation in Google Docs is approximately 130 pages. In Google Docs it is broken up into three parts, which the reader here can discern based on the numbering scheme. The reader will profit most by reading Part III in sequential order. Part III.1 develops the hermeneutic of faith. Part III.2 applies the hermeneutic of faith to several hermeneutical controversies of Vatican II. Part III.3 develops the hermeneutic of suspicion.
Table of Contents
3. The Hermeneutic of Suspicion
A term that has become common in theology is the “hermeneutic of suspicion”. The hermeneutic of suspicion has several meanings. For Bible scholars, the hermeneutics of suspicion refers to the historical movement that especially came about due to the Enlightenment that became the historical critical method. For philosophers, some interpret Jacques Derrida’s project of deconstruction as a hermeneutic of suspicion. Another interpretation is that given by Paul Ricoeur. We can hence immediately appreciate the fact that the phrase “hermeneutic of suspicion” has several meanings. While much can be said investigating the modern historical critical method and Derrida, we are going to restrict these pages to Ricoeur’s analysis.
3.2. Ricoeur’s Analysis of the Hermeneutic of Suspicion
3.2.1. Freud, Marx and Nietzsche
In a brief few pages of Ricoeur’s The Conflict of Interpretations and further developed in Freud and Philosophy, Paul Ricoeur argued that Freud, Marx and Nietzche all possess a common method. This common method is the attack on the illusion of self-consciousness. Descartes taught the maxim “I think therefore I am”. He could doubt the laws of logic and mathematics, and propose that everything is a dream, and yet Descartes still held onto the belief that “consciousness is as it appears to itself”. The three mentioned thinkers, on the other hand, begin by going beyond Descartes. Even the belief that “consciousness is as it appears to itself” is doubted.
Their method is not that of the skeptic, since they each presuppose a realistic outlook of man’s consciousness. Rather, Freud, Marx and Nietzsche are masters of suspicion because they doubt the self-evidency of consciousness. Consciousness according to these three thinkers requires an exegesis of its meaning. Each thinker proposes a method of deciphering the expressions of consciousness since “consciousness is not what it believes itself to be” and so each thinker must propose a way, a relationship to bridge between consciousness and the hidden causes for its illusion. “What is essential is that all three create with the means they possess… a mediation science of meaning which is irreducible to the immediate consciousness of meaning.” This deciphering is done to extend consciousness. For Marx this decipherment was the praxiological awareness of necessity, liberation of the working classes; Nietzsche wanted to restore man’s power through the will to power; and Freud sought to identify the instinctual powers of libido and aggression to enlarge the patient’s field of consciousness so he can live a better life. Each proposed a decipher for discovering an intelligibility to consciousness not present before for the purpose of liberation, of liberating the bearer of consciousness so that he or she can live according to this new understanding given by the decipherer. All three propose a method of deciphering the false consciousness of man. It is the confrontation with the necessity of man’s condition. “It is the lesson of Spinoza: one first finds himself a slave, he understands his slavery, he rediscovers himself free within understood necessity.”
3.2.2. Ricoeur’s Hermeneutic of Faith
To step back from this analysis of Ricoeur’s, in his Freud and Philosophy Ricoeur describes a hermeneutics of faith. According to this hermeneutic, the project of hermeneutics itself is understood as “the manifestation and restoration of a meaning addressed to me in the manner of a message, a proclamation, or as is sometimes said, a kergyma”. In this statement we can identify several themes: the word and symbol contains an object of meaning. This object is addressed to me. Language is “not so much spoken by men as spoken to men”. Hermeneutics is hence motivated by a concern for the object that consists in surrendering to the movement of meaning.
The hermeneutic of suspicion, on the other hand, is a demystification. The hermeneutic of faith is concerned with the problem of truth and error, whereas the master of suspicion subordinates this problem to the expression of his decipher. While the hermeneutic of faith begins with the given object and a concern for its meaning, the hermeneutic of suspicion starts by doubting “whether there is such an object” and that object’s address to man. The hermeneutic of suspicion “is not an explication of the object, but a tearing off of masks, an interpretation that reduces disguises.”
3.3. The Double Meaning of both Hermeneutics
We can hence understand at this point a double meaning of the hermeneutics of faith and suspicion. The hermeneutic of faith in the Ricouerian sense refers to a faith in the word and symbol addressed to man. It is an attitude adopted towards the expressed word with the belief that there is an object of meaning addressed to man that is worthy of itself to investigate.
A second meaning of the hermeneutic of faith is the existential attitude of the Christian towards the world. The Christian lives and breathes by the light of Christ, and so gazes upon the world according to this light. He tests the spirits of the world according to the received Word. It is nothing else than the understanding of how things stand against eternity.
Before when we analyzed the hermeneutic of faith, we explicated upon this second meaning. Vatican II must be interpreted according to the Catholic faith in faith. Vatican II is measured by faith but this measuring must be done so by the exegete with theological faith. This process in part requires Ricoeur’s faith hermeneutic that the words and symbols themselves possess an object of meaning.
Ricoeur’s hermeneutic of faith is the basic principle of exegesis of all who wish to be intellectually honest. The theological hermeneutic of faith elevates this intellectual honesty by illuminating the intellect with theological faith so that he can clearly perceive the ordering and meaning of the cosmos according to eternity and how the word and symbol either corresponds to it or fails to do so.
The hermeneutic of suspicion likewise has a twofold meaning. The suspicion of the written word requires a demystification and deciphering of the illusion. The object itself is doubtful. This corresponds as the antithesis to the faith in word and symbol. We can call this a hermeneutic of textual suspicion. There is likewise a corresponding antithesis to the theological hermeneutic of faith. The claims of theological faith must be analyzed and reduced according to a decipher for any claims of this faith is itself an illusion according to this method. The exegete here takes upon himself the task of presenting a method to remove the masks of faith and expose false consciousness. Any claim of faith is itself an object of suspicion. This hermeneutic of theological suspicion is nothing other than a hermeneutic of disbelief. We must note that the hermeneutic of textual suspicion and even of theological suspicion are not erroneous principles themselves, but that they require proper intellectual, religious, and moral formation in order to be used properly.
3.4. The Application of Suspicion to Vatican II
3.4.1. Ricoeurian Suspicion
The application of the hermeneutics of suspicion to the conciliar texts of Vatican II are manifold. The suspicious exegete understands the object of the written word itself not as presenting an object of meaning, but as a false consciousness of the Council. He suspects the written word. This suspicion is taken in two directions: radical progressivism and ultraconservatism. Both begin with the basic assumption that the conciliar texts of Vatican II represent a rupture or discontinuity of the Church’s teachings; and hence the Council’s own claims and consciousness of such continuity must be deciphered according to each’s methodologies.
The progressives decipher the Church’s consciousness of the Second Vatican Council according to the whimsical standards of secular society. The “spirit of Vatican II” is hence understood in this manner which seeks to liberate the Church from her Tradition. Tradition and doctrine are conceived of as strictly negative objects to be discarded and overcome as outmoded ways of thinking. Aggiornamento is hence understood as the task of the secular modernization of the Church, to update the Church according to the standards of the world. Their approach is a spirit without a letter and so it wanders aimlessly according to the cultural trends.
The ultraconservatives understand the Council’s consciousness of renewal and pastorality as illusions or pretensions. Their methodology is a letter without a spirit for their method of decipherment is precisely the task of removing and exposing the illusions of Vatican II according to their private understanding of preconciliar theology. Lefebvre’s criticism of religious freedom, for example, originate by separating the letter from the spirit of the papal teachings against indifferentism in order to interpret the “true” teaching of Dignitatis Humanae. Vatican II’s consciousness of renewal is deciphered according to this dead letter.
Both the radical progressives and conservatives begin with a doubt in the Magisterium’s own understanding of the Second Vatican Council. They doubt the meaning of the object and its claims of proclamation. This doubt requires a methodological deciphering of the Church’s own consciousness and teaching authority. Both set up their own private “magisterium” of theologians to determine the true meaning of Vatican II. Dissent is required. The practitioner of suspicion is required to dissent. He must or otherwise sacrifice his method and assumption of doubt. He builds his career on dissent and doubt, and so the duty to reverse course and return to faith becomes all the more difficult.
The conciliar texts themselves are placed under suspicion and doubt. They are understood to be ambiguous, possessing double meanings. The exegete must bring out the latent content to demystify the illusion of meaning the texts proclaimed. The progressives do so with their method of modernistic secularization, the conservatives with their own perverted variation of preconciliar theology. In both cases ambiguity is invoked to demystify the Council’s teachings.
3.4.2. Theological Suspicion
When we now turn to theological suspicion as the existential hermeneutic opposed to the hermeneutic of theological faith, we can first note that the Catholic theologian has set him or herself in opposition to the legitimate teaching authority of the Magisterium. Such theologians have adopted a stance on the spectrum bordered by disobedience and dissent that ends in schism. The existential core behind the adoption of such a hermeneutic is a fundamental disbelief, an anti-faith, in the Church.
The hermeneutic of theological faith as a faith in Christ requires a faith in the Church. This is part of the content of the revelation of Jesus Christ. By adopting the hermeneutic of theological suspicion, the exegete not only places himself in opposition to the Church, but also places himself in opposition to himself by incapacitating himself from the content of faith, namely the Church. He impedes himself by impeding his ability to recognize the requirement of faith and so places himself in opposition to the content of faith. He erects his own barrier to his faith.
The main problem concerning the suspicious exegete however is his claim that the words of the Holy Spirit are not the Spirit’s own but those of Satan. If the documents of Vatican II require a hermeneutic of suspicion to decipher it and obtain the Council’s true meaning, then not only is Vatican II not a gift of the Holy Spirit nor its written word the word of the Spirit, but the practitioner of suspicion must ultimately claim that the words and fruits of the Spirit originating from Vatican II are really those of Satan. The practitioner of suspicion faces the same temptation as the Pharisees when they claimed that Jesus casted out demons with the power of demons. The ultraconservative movement openly acknowledges this in their claims that the documents of Vatican II teach heresy and erroneous beliefs; for such claims are made to reinforce their overall metanarrative that Satan has infiltrated the Church and converted her to modernism. But, such an analysis necessarily requires the hermeneutic of rupture and a rejection of the hermeneutical insight that Vatican II is a gift of the Holy Spirit. Instead, Vatican II appears as a rotten fruit of Satan.
The radical progressives, on the other hand, claim such only implicitly. They wish to change the Church according to various secular trends, such as same-sex marriage, women priests and the denial of the Church’s teaching authority. They do so by claiming the inspiration of a “spirit of Vatican II” and some will even pretend this spirit is the Holy Spirit, but it is their fruits which betray them. Their teachings have nothing to do with Catholic doctrine and traditions but with the worldly spirit of the age. They attribute these as works of the Holy Spirit which are really the works of the devil. Hence authentic Church doctrine becomes a stumbling block to them and must be departed with accordingly.
3.5. Legitimate Application of Suspicion
The hermeneutic of suspicion has both legitimate and illegitimate applications. It is always illegitimate to apply it to the teachings of the Church and the Bible because God is the guarantor of their authenticity and of the object of meaning addressed to me, the addressee. God is not the evil genius of Descartes but the Loving Father.
For other authors, some are workers of iniquity. Some of these workers of iniquity are honest about their objective, others are devious, mischievous, and in fact employ ambiguity. The honest ones are intellectually honest in that their authorship and presentation of objects of meaning is done in a manner such that the hermeneutic of suspicion would be invalidly applied to them, for the given object is precisely what they mean. When the dissenting Catholic theologian states he disagrees with the Church’s teachings on contraceptives and promotes his views, he is being honest about his dissent as far as presenting the object of meaning is concerned, even though his dissent is still a disobedience to the Magisterium and is done so out of disbelief in the Church’s supernatural gift of infallibility.
On the other hand, some authors are more vicious because of the ambiguity of language they purposefully employ in order to confuse the minds of their readers. Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger ought to be read with a hermeneutic of suspicion because their philosophies in many ways are a great danger to the unassuming Catholic. Their use of language is done for the purpose of manipulation. Make no mistake, the distinction being drawn here from the above case with some dissenting theologians is that while both are attempting to manipulate the reader, one does so with a precise object of meaning, the other does so by presenting an ambiguous object that can be interpreted in many ways. This is why, in part, many Catholic thinkers become enamored with Heidegger, because many interpretations can be read into him, and so they forget that suspicion is required.
We must now contrast the hermeneutic of suspicion as a legitimate hermeneutical tool of analysis from the general approach of suspicion by Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, and our Vatican II interlocutors. According to these thinkers, they all accept in common that the primary presented object of meaning is to be held in doubt. What is meant by “primary” here in our examples is the given objects of the written word, i.e. the conciliar texts of Vatican II. The texts of Vatican II present a primary object of meaning that our interlocutors argue require a deciphering in order to obtain the true meaning of their teachings. Their goals are hence to discover a secondary meaning found in the intentions of the authors, eg. those who argue that Vatican II’s text weaponized ambiguity in order to promote modernism. Such an argument begins with doubt in the primary object and so requires a decipher to discover the secondary object which possesses the true meaning of the text, and which is hence retroactively applied to the primary object. In our example the secondary object is the promotion of modernism, and so the supposed ambiguity must be interpreted accordingly as weapons for modernism.
Such is not our problem at hand. The issue here is that the primary object is on purpose being expressed in ambiguous ways that requires painstaking analysis. Reading Heidegger and Sartre requires the most prudent reader precisely because the primary object they present is on purpose employed to confuse the reader. Jacques Dupuis SJ, is another such author. We must be suspicious of these authors because the hermeneutic of faith demands it.
We observed a twofold distinction between the hermeneutic of faith as a faith in the text, faith given in the primary object of meaning, and secondly, the hermeneutic of faith as hermeneutic according to the theological faith in Christ. The hermeneutic of textual faith is limited, for when one is given an ambiguous primary object this requires analysis of other texts for information about the author’s intended meaning, he can still fail in principle to discern the meaning. He may have to not only use other textual principles but also look at the author’s own life to perhaps attain insight into the intended meaning of the ambiguity, and even then both may fail the interpreter.
When we approach these authors according to the hermeneutic of existential faith we can properly understand their place in God’s plan of salvation. We know such authors are to be doubted as to their sincerity because of clues within their writings and personal life. The proper interpretation of them requires a strong faith.
The hermeneutic of suspicion in this case is a tool of analysis in the service of the hermeneutic of existential faith for the purpose of assessing whether such an author leads one to errors and perhaps even damnation. This suspicion requires theological faith as the first principle to correctly decipher the primary object of meaning. Faith is presupposed and the requirement for an authentic hermeneutic of suspicion. The error of Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud was that they proposed an alternative to theological faith as the first principle and so suspicion became weaponized against faith. Instead, faith in Christ is the first requirement, then these authors of dubious meaning can be interpreted. Dietrich von Hildebrand knew Heidegger was a charlatan and not a philosopher, because he understood the place of Heidegger’s thought in light of salvation.
We can observe now the distinction between skepticism and the hermeneutic of suspicion as understood by the masters of suspicion. For Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche, faith is grounded in the meaning of the secondary object and not the first. The object of meaning in one’s consciousness needs to be explained by a decipher that leads one to a second object of meaning. This second object of meaning however is assumed to be the truth concerning man. These masters of suspicion place their faith in the secondary object and not the primary and in this respect remain realists. The skeptic, on the other hand, does not place faith in any object of meaning whatsoever. He remains skeptical of a given object of meaning and of its possible deciphering regardless.
We can also distinguish authors of malevolent ambiguity from other cases of ambiguity. Some authors are ambiguous due to a lack of formation in their intellectual training and so cannot understand basic theological or philosophical principles. Others may in fact be the erudite scholar but may have uttered or written a careless or imprecise word or phrase, or may have a meaning that has been lost due to the time gap between the date of authorship and present time. It would be improper to apply a hermeneutic of suspicion to these authors based on these factors alone.
The hermeneutic of theological suspicion is advantageous to the Catholic theologian and philosopher when he assesses radical thinkers, dissidents, and texts of other religious traditions. Theological suspicion is applied in that a fundamental disbelief in these texts is adopted because the Catholic interpreter knows that ultimately these texts contain falsehoods requiring a proper interpretation to see their relationships to Catholic doctrine. The Catholic reading the Book of Mormon ought to be suspicious of its claims about religion, for the sake of understanding what possible truths and untruths the text possesses and to understand its place in the order of salvation as an impediment to faith in Christ. A lack of suspicion on his part can actually be dangerous for he may be duped into believing the Book of Mormon and its claims of divine authorship. Suspicion here can serve as a safeguard to the Catholic faith.
 Cf. Scott Hahn’s Politicizing the Bible and Modern Biblical Criticism as a Tool of Statecraft to get a historical overview of this movement from 1300 to 1900.
 Cf. Garret Green, Theology, Hermeneutics, and Imagination: The Crisis of Interpretation at the End of Modernity, ch 6. Christopher Bryan, Listening to the Bible: The Art of Faithful Biblical Interpretation, 25-26.
 Cf. Paul Ricoeur’s The Conflict of Interpretations and Freud and Philosophy.
 Cf. pages 148-150.
 Cf. pages 28-36.
 The Conflict of Interpretations, 148.
 Garret Green in his Theology, Hermeneutics, and Imagination: The Crisis of Interpretation at the End of Modernity argues that Feuerbach is a forerunner for this methodical doubt in consciousness. Cf. p. 19.
 Conflict of Interpretations, 149.
 Ibid, 149.
 Ibid, 150.
 Freud and Philosophy, 35.
 Ibid, 27.
 Ibid, 29.
 Ibid, 28.
 Ibid, 29.
 Ibid, 26.
 Ibid, 30.
 Ibid, 30.
 Cf. 1 John 4:1.
Hermeneutics of Vatican II Articles
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