Speaking to journalists on his recent plane ride back from Latin America, Pope Francis made the following comment:
“In your job, the hermeneutics of a text is very important. A text can’t be interpreted only in one sentence. The hermeneutic has to be applied to the entire context. There are phrases that are exactly the keys to the hermeneutic, and others that aren’t… It’s key to interpret a speech, any text, with a comprehensive hermeneutic, not isolated.”
The study of hermeneutics, the art and science of interpreting texts, has been a blossoming field of theological study in the last century and half. Thinkers like Friedrich Schleiermacher, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Paul Ricoeur and Jürgen Habermas have influenced the way we think about both the texts of Christianity and other world religions, and the process by which the written accounts, and the faith in general, are handed on and received by successive generations.
Francis was not the first pope to highlight the importance of reflecting on hermeneutics to understand the words and events of Christian life. Both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI spoke about the indispensable reality of framing these interpretations properly. Much of the discussion in that period, and today, surrounds doing so in regard to the Second Vatican Council.
In general, constellations of meaning surrounding continuity and novelty; and of the interplay between author, written words, and audience/receiver/faithful continue to be studied and debated.
It is clear that Pope Francis is here critiquing a “proof-text” mentality toward his words and actions. In such a perspective, someone approaches the speeches, comments or decisions of the pope with his or her mind already made up a priori and then seeks to point to an isolated phrase or section to exclaim: “See, the pope agrees with my pre-conceived opinion on the matter!” In textual terms this is called eisgesis (“reading into a text”), where one’s own presuppositions and agenda are superimposed into or onto the text. It is a faulty methodology when contrasted with proper “exegesis” (“reading out of a text”), where we let the text speak to us and transform our horizons — instead of shoehorning its message into our rigid and pre-concretized worldview.
The great works of our tradition, whether textual or artistic, from Augustine and Aquinas to Dante and Michelangelo, to the encyclicals of John XXIII, John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis, have changed hearts and minds for millennia and continue to do so. But they can only succeed in this transformative encounter if we approach them with a hermeneutic of openness and of metanoia, a willingness to reorient our lives in light of what they can say to us to elicit surprise and wonder, not around what we already think they ought to be saying in agreement with our prefabricated perspectives.
Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D, Loyola University Chicago.