The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 26, 2023 - 4:28:37

What needs interpreting?

Katie van Schaijik, Jan 12, 2015

A friend, exasperated with the ambiguity of some of the Pope's public statements and with my saying that Catholics have a duty to interpret him according to a "hermeneutic of continuity," asks:

Why does everything require an "interpretation" from the faithful these days?  Vatican II, 50 years later, still being argued over and "interpreted."  The Theology of the Body - a vast arena for interpretation there too.  The Pope and Bishops are to be teaching and confirming the faithful in the Faith. 

I'm not sure whether he meant the question sincerely or was just blowing off steam, but I want to answer it sincerely regardless, because the answer is so interesting from a personalist point of view.

The question is at least partly rhetorical. The speaker implies that it would obviously be better if no interpretation of the Pope's words or Church documents or theological texts were necessary. But would it be?

What sort of things need interpreting? Isn't it mainly personal things? And inter-personal things?

Numbers don't need interpreting. Nor do "mere facts." They are what they are. There's no mistaking them. They have the same meaning for everyone. They can be collated by computers.

But poems need interpreting. Great works of art too. Musical compositions, philosophical essays. Signals and messages need interpreting. So do facial expressions and bodily gestures—whatever is intimate and transcendent.

And the higher and deeper the "thing" being expressed, the greater the need for interpretation, and more significant will be the "role" of interpretation in our apprehening it rightly.

Right interpretation of, say, John Donne's poem, "Death be not Proud," requires something of the hearer. It requires a certain spiritual depth and maturity and sincere faith in the afterlife.

A tone-deaf person can't perceive the greatness of Beethoven's symphonies or Bach's Cantatas. A cynical person has no understanding of the life of Mother Teresa or the sacrifice of Maximilian Kolbe.

Newman goes to great lengths, in the course of defending the rationality of religious belief, to explain that faith is meant to be a test of the heart. What we believe, how and why we believe it reveals who we are. In other words, it reveals our subjectivity, and it requires something of our subjectivity. 

The ability and the responsibility to interpret spiritual things is part and parcel of our dignity as persons.