Rivista di etica e scienze sociali / Journal of Ethics & Social Sciences



4.1. The Interpretation of History

What are the conditions for a correct interpretation of the past from the point of view of historical knowledge? To determine these, we must take account of the complexity of the relationship between the subject who interprets and the object from the past which is interpreted. First, their mutual extraneousness must be emphasized. Events or words of the past are, above all, "past." As such they are not completely reducible to the framework of the present, but possess an objective density and complexity that prevent them from being ordered in a solely functional way for present interests. It is necessary, therefore, to approach them by means of an historical-critical investigation that aims at using all of the information available, with a view to a reconstruction of the environment, of the ways of thinking, of the conditions and the living dynamic in which those events and those words are placed, in order, in such a way, to ascertain the contents and the challenges that - precisely in their diversity - they propose to our present time.

Second, a certain common belonging of interpreter and interpreted must be recognized without which no bond and no communication could exist between past and present. This communicative bond is based on the fact that every human being, whether of yesterday or of today, is situated in a complex of historical relationships, and in order to live these relationships, the mediation of language is necessary, a mediation which itself is always historically determined. Everybody belongs to history! Bringing to light this communality between interpreter and the object of interpretation – which is reached through the multiple forms by which the past leaves evidence of itself (texts, monuments, traditions, etc.) – means judging both the accuracy of possible correspondences and possible difficulties of communication between past and present, as indicated by one’s own understanding of the past words and events. This requires taking into account the questions which motivate the research and their effect on the answers which are found, the living context in which the work is undertaken, and the interpreting community whose language is spoken and to whom one intends to speak. For this purpose, it is necessary that the pre-understanding – which is part of every act of interpretation – be as reflective and conscious as possible, in order to measure and moderate its real effect on the interpretative process.

Finally, through the effort to know and to evaluate, an osmosis (a "fusion of horizons") is accomplished between the interpreter and the object of the past that is interpreted, in which the act of comprehension properly consists. This is the expression of what is judged to be the correct understanding of the events or words of the past; it is equivalent to grasping the meaning which the events can have for the interpreter and his world. Thanks to this encounter of living worlds, understanding of the past is translated into its application to the present. The past is grasped in the potentialities which it discloses, in the stimulus it offers to modify the present. Memory becomes capable of giving rise to a new future.

This fruitful osmosis with the past is reached through the interwovenness of certain basic hermeneutic operations, which correspond to the stages of extraneousness, communality, and understanding true and proper. In relation to a "text" of the past (understood in a general sense as evidence which may be written, oral, monumental, or figurative), these operations can be expressed as follows: 1) understanding the text; 2) judging how correct one’s understanding of the text is; and 3) stating what one judges to be the correct understanding of the text. Understanding the evidence of the past means reaching it as far as possible in its objectivity through all the sources that are available. Judging the correctness of one’s own interpretation means verifying honestly and rigorously to what extent it could have been oriented or conditioned in any way by one’s prior understanding or by possible prejudices. Stating the interpretation reached means bringing others into the dialogue created with the past, in order both to verify its importance and to discover other possible interpretations. . . .


5.3. Use of Force in the Service of Truth

To the counter-witness of the division between Christians should be added that of the various occasions in the past millennium when doubtful means were employed in the pursuit of good ends, such as the proclamation of the Gospel or the defense of the unity of the faith. Another sad chapter of history to which the sons and daughters of the Church must return with a spirit of repentance is that of the acquiescence given, especially in certain centuries, to intolerance and even the use of force in the service of truth. This refers to forms of evangelization that employed improper means to announce the revealed truth or did not include an evangelical discernment suited to the cultural values of peoples or did not respect the consciences of the persons to whom the faith was presented, as well as all forms of force used in the repression and correction of errors.

Analogous attention should be paid to all the failures, for which the sons and daughters of the Church may have been responsible, to denounce injustice and violence in the great variety of historical situations: Then there is the lack of discernment by many Christians in situations where basic human rights were violated. The request for forgiveness applies to whatever should have been done or was passed over in silence because of weakness or bad judgement, to what was done or said hesitantly or inappropriately.

As always, establishing the historical truth by means of historical-critical research is decisive. Once the facts have been established, it will be necessary to evaluate their spiritual and moral value, as well as their objective significance. Only thus will it be possible to avoid every form of mythical memory and reach a fair critical memory capable - in the light of faith - of producing fruits of conversion and renewal. From these painful moments of the past a lesson can be drawn for the future, leading all Christians to adhere fully to the sublime principle stated by the Council: The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it wins over the mind with both gentleness and power.



Memory & Reconciliation: the Church and the faults of the past

International Theological Commission (7th March 2000)

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