Symbols and the ‘Hermeneutic of Continuity’

Symbols and the ‘Hermeneutic of Continuity’

In her provocative book “The Rite of Sodomy” [New Engel Publishing, 2006] author Randy Engel writes of the camauro worn for centuries by the popes in Rome, “During Christmas 2005, the pope was photographed showing off a red medieval fur-lined hat—a picture that can only be described as overtly camp.”  [p. 1171] There is a different and better explanation.

Engel is perhaps revealing a lack of knowledge of church history. She should have written instead that it is “overtly papal.” The camauro appears in the portraits of popes before the Reformation. Its revival for a single occasion by Pope Benedict is surely within his well-known program of the ‘hermeneutic of continuity’. He insists that there was no break with tradition and that the Second Vatican Council is misunderstood if it is seen in terms of a ‘hermeneutic of rupture’. Any symbolic union with the past is a way of emphasizing continuity with it as Russell Shaw indicates in “Continuity and Change”  (, 25 March 2011).

To this end Benedict revived the processional cross-staff of Pope Pius IX, the wider use of Latin in St. Peter’s for the sacred liturgy, kneeling to receive Holy Communion on the tongue, and other specific symbolic choices which predate the 1962-1965 council. Obviously, Engel published her study before the motu proprio of August 2007 which restored the Roman Missal of 1962 as well as before the 13 May 2011 Instruction Universae Ecclesiae.

Paul Zalonski puts it thus:

“Perhaps the most apparent and luxurious sign of the new era is the pope’s vestments. Benedict has worn an ancient form of the pallium, or cloak, preferred by first-millennium pontiffs. He also brought back the ermine-trimmed red satin mozzetta, a short cape. And the pope clearly does not obey the article of American political faith to never don an unconventional cap. He has sported a red saturno, a sort of papal cowboy hat, and an ermine-trimmed camauro, a crimson cap that resembles a Santa hat and is worn on nonliturgical occasions.”

[ ]

Was it not Sigmund Freud who said that “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”? Ms. Engel is naively American in her political faith and just too untraditional in her statement that the camauro is merely “camp.”

For all we know, the pope’s personal physician may have ordered the elderly Benedict to wear a hat outdoors, and for a pope there is no other choice except the historic “camauro” which is simply the pontifical biretta. John Allen (online National Catholic Reporter, 21November 2010) wrote that inDecember 2005 Benedict XVI once sported the camauro, a thick woolen cap last worn by Pope John XXIII. Several commentators touted it as an example of Benedict’s traditionalism, but in a Peter Seewald interview the pope says the reality was far more prosaic: It was a cold day, Benedict has a sensitive head, the camauro was lying around, and he simply put it on. Benedict says he’s never done so since, “in order to forestall over-interpretation.”


December 21, 2005

“Pope Benedict XVI, sporting a fur-trimmed hat in the rich red color of a Santa
hat, arrives in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, for his weekly general audience.

The red hat with white fur trimming is known in Italian as the ‘camauro’.

It was popular among pontiffs in the 17th century. More recently, it was used
for Pope John XXIII when his body was exhumed and moved to the St. Jerome altar of St. Peter’s after his beatification in 2001. Then it was decided to re-dress the body in the choir dress of cassock, rochet, ermine-lined mozzetta and camauro.”
Pope John XXIII 

           Pope Benedict XVI   December 21, 2005Pope Innocent VII(1404-1406)Pope Julius II (15031513)


Latin: camelaucum,
from the Greek kamelauchion = camel skin hat

A cap traditionally worn by the pope. Camauros are red with white ermine trim, and are worn in place of the biretta of lower orders of clergy. The camauro is thought to represent the headgear of the “armor of God”. It has been part of the papal wardrobe since the 12th century. For a while it was worn by cardinals, though without the ermine trim, but in 1464 it was restricted to the pope with cardinals wearing the scarlet zucchetto instead. The papal camauro fell into disuse after
the death of Pope John XXIII in 1963, but Pope Benedict XVI wore one in December 2005. One wonders why we have not seen it since. Perhaps the pope’s doctor did not think the camauro was warm enough.

What we need to see is the white camauro worn during the Octave of Easter.

Reverend Brian W. Van Hove, S.J.

Alma, Michigan


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