The Hermeneutic of Ambiguity

From a comment under an entry here…

When enumerating the various hermeneutics for reading documents: the hermeneutic of continuity or the hermeneutic of rupture, they, apparently, forgot to include the hermeneutics of ambiguity.

A priest friend sent this.



Screen Shot 2016-04-23 at 20.50.47UPDATE:

Meanwhile, the UK’s liberal and not best Catholic weekly The Bitter Pill (aka RU-486 aka The Tablet) has what is, frankly, a critique by Clifford Longley of how sources are used and citied in the problematic Ch. 8 of Amoris laetitia.

I, for one, was pretty concerned about how GS 51 was used.

Longley is disappointed in Francis’ Letter and thinks that he didn’t go far enough.  To wit, a smattering:

Conservatives say Pope Francis cannot have meant that “divorced and remarried Catholics could be admitted to Holy Communion in certain circumstances”, as many have interpreted the document, because that would be plain contrary to long-standing Catholic practice sanctioned by the magisterium.

[NB] But that would have meant that he too is a conservative, and we know he is a liberal. We are free to interpret his words in the light of that. But why the uncertainty? Why couldn’t he have spelt it out with a simple statement such as the one above? Was he under pressure, for instance facing threats of resignation from senior cardinals in the Vatican, so he had to create a smoke screen so everyone could claim a victory? How does that help the rest of us, or at least those of us who aren’t conservative curial cardinals? He has created confusion precisely where there needs to be clarity.

In every other respect Amoris Laetitia is a pastoral triumph. But not this one. It is a mess. In those circumstances the only possible advice is to follow the instincts and intuitions of one’s conscience as honestly as possible, consulting whomever one likes in the process. Let liberals interpret the document liberally and conservatives conservatively. But don’t let anybody tell them they are wrong, because nobody knows that for sure.


Longley’s view is really interesting, coming as it does from the Left.

You would do well to read it carefully.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. arga says:

    And don’t forget the hermeneutic of mendacity, an 8th commandment matter.

  2. Elizabeth D says:

    Next papal document “Gaudium instigantibus” to consist literally of a series of ink blots.

  3. It’s not really Pope Francis the liberals have a problem with, but the Holy Spirit, Who will not allow the Deposit of Faith to be corrupted.

  4. Rich says:

    Thanks for the link, Fr. Z. It was indeed a good read. Though I would say my views are definitely at odds with Longley’s, it says a lot when folks from both sides of the aisle all have their reasons for being disappointed with the disingenuous way other Church documents are cited in Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia.

    As far as I am concerned, the ambiguity of what “certain cases” are being referred to in AL 305 is what it is. Hagan lio! RIGHT??? But the way that AL 298 borrows wording from Gaudium et Spes 51 when GS was talking about how “it often happens that faithfulness is endangered and the good of the children suffers” when the conjugal lives of married couples run out of steam – and then applies this same wording to illustrate a hazard that divorced and remarried couples may experience if they have to live as brother and sister – discourages me. Not only is AL applying this wording to a completely different marital situation here – implicitly equating either situation (and what fidelity means in either situation) to the other – but it also confuses the reasons as to why couples within either situation would be refraining from sex. In so doing, AL also seems to further be creating a double standard in the cases of divorced and remarried couples trying to live as brother and sister.

    In GS this wording is used almost as an admonition to married couples to keep the flames of marital love burning even when they’re just not feelin’ it, since the consequences of their marital love goes beyond whether or not they’re feelin’ it.

    However, in the cases of divorced and remarried couples trying to live as “brother and sister”, the reasons as to why they would be refraining from sex would be completely different. They are already very likely sexually drawn to each other but are trying to live out heroic virtue in not following through with it. Yet, with AL 298, we also now have this situation where on the one hand they are “knowing and accepting the possibility of living ‘as brothers and sisters'”, but on the other, GS’s admonition to reignite the joy of love is being directed toward them, as well.

    As a pastoral document, I think this is where AL shoots itself in the foot. How are divorced and remarried couples who are trying to live as brother and sister supposed to feel now? Are they supposed to worry about (1) committing adultery or (2) maintaining fidelity and the good of their children? Are they supposed to live as “brother and sister” for the sake of not committing adultery against a prior spouse, but still engage in some signs of intimacy here and there, at which points they are, for the sake of fidelity, to forget about adultery? Why would fidelity to one’s prior spouse be important one second, and then fidelity to the current union be so important the next?

    By using the wording from GS 51, AL 298 potentially asks divorced and remarried couples to live in a schizophrenic state of vague, conflicting values with regard to fidelity. In either marital situation being addressed, I note however that that looking out for the good of the children is equally reinforced (notwithstanding the good of any children from a previous marriage). This could have been accomplished, though, without borrowing the wording from GS, which creates all sorts of confusion with regard to the question of fidelity.

    My reading of the whole thing could be avoided by assuming that the writers just wanted to borrow the wording from GS because it sounded nice, but did not necessarily intend to correlate the two types of marital situations being addressed. And, if people get a little confused by borrowing from GS, then Hagan lio! RIGHT??? But, when there are children involved, it’s taking the lio a bit too far.

  5. DeGaulle says:

    The present pontiff seems to consider himself immune from such inconvenient contradictions as Rich has pointed out. At the beginning of AL he emphasises the enthusiasm of the young for marriage, but on his recent in-air comments on his return from Lesbos he told the journalists that the big problem is that the young won’t marry. Is it wrong of me to find some consolation in that he is confusing the liberals as well?

  6. tcreek says:

    Fr George Rutler in Crisis.

    There was a Victorian member of the Royal Academy who boasted that his paintings were the best because they were the biggest. More perceptively, Cicero and Pascal and Madame Recamier and Mark Twain made opposite apologies: each had written a long letter because they did not have the time to write a short one. Not only is verbosity indicative of muddled thinking, it is the rhetorical indulgence of the modern age. The documents of the Second Vatican Council are wordier than the extant records of all the other ecumenical councils combined. The recent apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, is nearly two-thirds the length of all the Vatican II promulgations. The literary quality of Amoris Laetitia does not challenge the claim that the Authorized Version, or King James’s Bible, is the only successful work of art composed by a committee.

  7. Kerry says:

    Elizabeth, that’s funny!

  8. robtbrown says:

    IMHO, ambiguity is the greased pig of POST Modernism.

  9. donato2 says:

    We are living in times when the world is being swept by insanity that is particularly acute in the realm of sexual morality. It is the Church’s calling to speak the truth unambiguously in such times. What we are hearing however in the pontificate of Francis are ambiguous statements seemingly infected with the world’s insanity. It is telling that those who favor communion for the divorced and civilly remarried must disguise their argument in ambiguous language that is buried in a footnote of an exceedingly long and verbose document. The truth thrives in the bright sunlight of the open. It can be shouted from the rooftops.

  10. Ben Kenobi says:

    “How are divorced and remarried couples who are trying to live as brother and sister supposed to feel now.”

    Stay the course. Are you doing it because Benedict XVI told you to do it or because it’s the right thing to do?

  11. Frank says:

    This snip from Fr. Z’s snip of Longley reveals much, I’d say, about the way the meaning of conscience has been diluted by “progressives” in the Church:

    “In those circumstances the only possible advice is to follow the instincts and intuitions of one’s conscience as honestly as possible, consulting whomever one likes in the process.”

    Any conscience based on “instincts and intuitions” cannot possibly be well-formed.

  12. JabbaPapa says:

    I think Clifford Longley’s logic is flawed.

    But that would have meant that he too is a conservative, and we know he is a liberal. We are free to interpret his words in the light of that.

    First, that one’s understanding of the Church’s non-negociable teachings should vary following one’s political leanings is just plain old wrong. These teachings do not vary according to these concerns, and if one is a Catholic, whether conservative or liberal or any other label additionally, one is bound to profess one’s belief in the Deposit of Faith.

    So the factor here is not “conservative vs. liberal”, but orthodox versus heterodox.

    And one does not interpret the Pope’s words in the “light” of politics, but in the Light of the Revelation.

    Why couldn’t he have spelt it out with a simple statement such as the one above?

    Because there are some divorced-remarried who have reformed their lives in proper penitence, and so are not barred from the Sacraments by virtue of no longer committing adultery.

    Any “simple” statement declaring that the divorced-remarried can or cannot receive the Sacraments would be absolute, and therefore factually incorrect, in the face of the reality that the majority cannot, but a minority can.

  13. William Tighe says:

    “In those circumstances the only possible advice is to follow the instincts and intuitions of one’s conscience as honestly as possible, consulting whomever one likes in the process.”

    No better summary of the religious thought and moral teaching of Jean-Jacques Rousseau could be devised then this; it has, however, nothing to do with that of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

  14. The Masked Chicken says:

    Incongruity, ambiguity, and vagueness are terms that are thrown around in many analyses, but surprisingly, up until a few years ago, none of the terms had any precise definitions, which was unfortunate, because both notions of ambiguity and incongruity have been used in theories of humor. Up until the late 1900’s there was such confusion in the use of these terms that they were being used interchangeably by theorists. It became clear to me that until there were more precisely defined, we would get nowhere. Unfortunately, these terms depend on another term which is even more vaguely defined: context.

    For the last ten years or so, I and (to a lesser extent) computer scientists, such as Tony Veale and Rada Mihalcea, have independently (but convergently) been working to clean up the understanding of these terms. We have a pretty good understanding of both the discrete and continuum cases. I have been looking, most recently at the neural processing of these terms, but Veale, Mihalcea, and I are in good agreement on the discrete case (as computer scientists, so far they have modeled static text). I suppose, then, my opinion might be taken as that of an expert (I cringe when I say that, because I might make some stupid mistake in making this quick post).

    AL is not, in itself, technically, an ambiguous text; it may be an incongruous text; it is, certainly, a vague text. I wish I could give a lecture on this because it is possible to measure the degree of incongruity and vagueness. Without making a twenty page comment, let me just say, generally, what the document has done which has made it so vague.

    If you were to ask 1000 people to judge where yellow color ends and green begins or green stops and blue begins, one would get something like a Gaussian (Bell) curve (although, more technically, a Weibull curve, which is closely related) of decisions as to the cut-off points. There is a centroid and the usual other statistical measures for the curve. Now, we can, somewhat arbitrarily, define some range wherein green ends and blue begins, or yellow ends and green ends. This gives an empirical threshold value. In making color decisions, these threshold values become the normal ranges with everything else being outliers.

    Now, in making a moral decision with uncertain data, one has to have access to threshold data to decide each attribute in the moral calculus. For example, in terms of culpability for a sin, knowledge has some generally agreed upon threshold, etc., which could be made more precise by either a definition or by empirical statistics. Thus, after five beers – no knowledge; four beers, knowledge – such is the stuff of rule-based definitions or, in the empirical case, casuistry.

    What AL has done is remove the threshold data, leaving each priest to decide where the threshold for the irregularity of any moral attribute in divorce cases is close enough to the norm to allow its inclusion in the moral or regular realm – this, despite the fact that a norm is never given – indeed, it has been obliterated because it, nowhere, defines the thresholds of the curves.

    This makes the statements attached to the term, irregular, vague. It moves the problem from the realm of the empirically consistent, sensus fidelium, to that of fantasy and wish-fulfillment.

    So, while parts of the document are clear, some of the moral parts are vague and, to my mind, useless. There is a lot more that can be said, including how people actually make decisions in the face of uncertain or contradictory evidence, but, again, I am not teaching a course on the Bayesian brain in this comment. I am not even certain that a vague document should be included as part of the Magisterium – that is for more informed people than I to decide. I understand the need to include some wiggle-room in doing the moral calculus, but not knowing where the head and the tail of the worm are could be a problem.

    The Chicken

  15. The Masked Chicken says:

    Upon further reflection, I, now, suspect that, while there is no ambiguity in AL on the discourse level, there may be ambiguity at the meta-level. This is because it mimics a phenomenon called, binocular rivalry, where the left eye is presented one version of a picture and the right eye is, simultaneously, presented another version of the picture. The eyes can flip back and forth in terms of perception. This is ambiguity in vision and Al may do the same with semantics – with one take-away message by the conservative Right (doctrine hasn’t changed) and one message being heard by the liberal Left (doctrine is soft and can be interpreted).

    How ambiguity is process is really interesting, but not relevant to this comment.

    The Chicken

  16. robtbrown says:


    I wonder whether you are referring merely to ambiguous terms (homoiousios) or phrases (spiritual drink).

    In so far as ambiguous means two different interpretations, entire texts can be said to be ambiguous. An easy example is VII, SC no. 101, which says that all clerics are to read the Office in Latin, then follows with an exception: Unless they have a problem with it, which of course can include all clerics, depending on their disposition.

    Nb: The problem with ambiguity in theology is when one of the interpretations permits the denial of the other. Thus homoiousios with Arianism and Spiritual Drink with the denial of Transubstantiation.

  17. The Masked Chicken says:

    Ambiguity, in a technical sense, is not merely two different interpretations – that happens, technically, for almost every sentence (and, therefore, every extension of a sentence) in a semantics that is, “sufficiently rich.” Normally, the brain instantaneously filters out the other meanings because their Bayesian probabilities are below some recognition threshold.

    In simpler languages, for instance, in simple computer languages, ambiguity is not possible, because most of these languages (such as assembly language) are not sufficiently rich in their semantics to allow for ambiguity.

    Ambiguity in human communication occurs when the Bayesian probability of each interpretation of a semantic construct is about 50% and in ambiguity, unlike in humor, which uses incongruity, each of the two or more semantic constructs from the semiotics (the signs used for communication – such as words in a sentence) can exist independent of the other. One can stay in the space of one or the other interpretation as long as one wants. One jumps to the other interpretation only when one deliberately (or accidentally) wanders into the semantic space of the other interpretation. Humor, on the other hand, cycles automatically and dependently between the two interpretations (and one semantic space is slightly, but only slightly, more probable than the other -whereas in ambiguity, the probabilities are equal).

    The example you provided is not of ambiguity, but of something called absolute incongruity, which will take some time to explain and I have to go teach a class.

    More, later.

    The Chicken

  18. The Masked Chicken says:

    Dear robtbrown,

    You wrote:

    “In so far as ambiguous means two different interpretations, entire texts can be said to be ambiguous. An easy example is VII, SC no. 101, which says that all clerics are to read the Office in Latin, then follows with an exception: Unless they have a problem with it, which of course can include all clerics, depending on their disposition.”

    Let me try to unravel this without a lot of technical jargon.

    What you have in this example will be familiar to most computer science majors as a sorting problem (technically, a partition problem), in that it divides a set up into subsets. In a simple program, one could envision it being something like:

    If (attribute a) then:
    store x in set p,
    else store x in set q.

    So, let’s take a master set C composed of N clerics. Attribute a = “they have a problem with saying the Office in Latin.” This divides set C into two subsets: C+a and C-a, where +a means having attribute a. Now, the number of clerics in set C+a or C-a can, in theory range from 0 to N for either set. In this case, there is no ambiguity or incongruity. If it just so happens that set C+a winds up containing all N clerics, well, that was the sorting criteria we set up.

    The problem (and there is one), comes at the meta-level. If the expectation of the “program” is to wind up with |C-a|>>|C+a|, where |C–a| is the size of set C-a, and it does not, then it becomes a contrary-to-expectation or anomalous program result – that can happen with poor coding or when the code doesn’t adequately cover the problem. Normally, this leads to the code being re-submitted for review or the coder being fired. This does not have to be sinister, merely the result of human error.

    The incongruity (which looks like ambiguity, but, in a technical sense, is not) comes if the intention of the program output is split between two groups. Call them G1 and G2. Let’s make a list of the possibilities (I hope this formats properly):
    Input: set C

    Output result |C-a|>|C+a|…………………………….|C+a|>|C-a|
    1) G1 intended = good coding unintended = poor coding (incompetence)
    2) G2 intended = good coding unintended = poor coding (incompetence)
    3) G1 unintended = poor coding intended = good coding
    4) G2 unintended = poor coding intended = good coding
    5) G1 unintended = anomaly unintended = anomaly
    6) G2 unintended = anomaly unintended = anomaly
    7) G1 intended = incongruous intended = incongruous
    8) G2 intended = incongruous intended = incongruous

    The incongruity at the discourse level are in situations 7 and 8, since this violates the Law of Non-contradiction and this would render the text, itself, meaningless. That is not the case, however. The incongruity comes at the meta-level where the situations for the two groups can be at cross-purposes. It may be that conditions 1) and 3) are to be simultaneously intended, but the result is not yet incongruous because, in theory, each group can still go its separate way (as in the many times this happens in Protestant churches where groups splinter off). The incongruity occurs when the output results are presented as if there is only one intention. If one group or the other does not retract its intention to deliberately want outcome -a or +a, so as to collapse the states into a single state and, therefore, both are held to be intentional, simultaneously, and not the mere result of random results (which goes back to the original blind partition problem, which has no intentionality, so whatever result happens just happens), while the results are presented as a single outcome (or context) when the document or outcome is promulgated, then one has a genuinely incongruous result at the meta-level.

    This would be clear except that there is an additional slight-of-hand which covers this up: the result is embedded along with a separate variable, such that one has two dimensions presented instead of one – in this case, collegiality. Both sides agree that the result is intended – let us call this +i, so the result is presented as (+i, -a/+a), the result being that from one perspective, it looks like (+i,-a) and from another, it looks like (+I,+a). This result violates the Law of Non-contradiction only in cross-section, but not outright.

    There is incongruity in this at the intentional level – make no mistake, but not ambiguity at either the discourse nor meta-levels. In incongruity one has one single context, but two opposing outcomes. In ambiguity, one has two subcontexts and two outcomes residing in their own subcontext. In ambiguity, the incongruity (if it exists – ambiguity need not be incongruous) is quarantined, In true incongruity, it is not.

    Sorry for the lecture, but this sort of game-playing is being done all of the time when people don’t want their yes to be yes and their no to be no – in other words, where double-mindedness exists.

    The chicken

  19. robtbrown says:

    Sorry for the delay. I don’t have much time at the moment for blogs.

    1. Your comments brought me back to an earlier time in my life, when I was a programmer in 3rd and 4th generation languages and a Data Base Designer. You haven’t lived until you’ve read a hexadecimal dump (cf 3rd generation).

    2. Your approach needs all the machinations because it is founded on Nominalism. Set theory usually excludes universals, instead employing generalizations. Math either is based on Idealism or Nominalism.

    3. I found that students with a background in math, science, or engineering were very good at following an argument (i.e., syllogism). On the other hand, no matter how intelligent, they habitually had problems with establishing the concepts of a major premise in an apodictic argument.

    4. I agree about incongruity in humor, e.g., MisterRobinson’s Neighborhood.

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