The hermeneutic for Vatican documents and Church law

Reading John Allen’s book All the Pope’s Men, which tries to explain Vatican culture to outsiders, I ran across an interesting nugget. Allen writes that in Italian culture,

law is regarded as the expression of a human ideal, a descriptor pf a perfect state of affairs, and everyone realizes most people will fall short. This is very different from a typical Anglo-Saxon approach, which expects the law to reflect what people actually do. Thomists believe the purpose of law is to promote virtue; in the social contract theory underlying Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence, the law represents the minimum infringements on personal liberty necessary to regulate social life. In this sense, Italians … think the law should indeed promote higher standards of morality, but they don’t really expect it to work. While they grumble about lawlessness, fundamentally they are believers in subjectivity. No law, they believe, can ever capture the infinite complexity of human situations, and it’s more important for the law to describe a vision of the ideal community than for it to be a lowest common denominator of civic morality.

All the Pope’s Men 105 (2004). Allen continues with an example: A man asks the CDF’s Archbishop Angelo Amato whether he must confess a sin he has on his conscience before taking communion. He “didn’t feel he was ready to confess, but at the same time he wanted to receive the Body and Blood of Christ.” Amato replied,

you should go to confession. But now let me talk to you person-to-person. As a priest, I can’t substitute my conscience for yours. I can’t tell you to go [to confession] or not to go. You have to make that choice in conscience, always bearing in mind that it must be a well-formed conscience.

Id., at 106. Allen summarizes Amato’s italiante gist: “the law’s ideal must be upheld, but indivudals have to make the choices that correspond to their own unique situation.” Id.

Allen appears to be saying that compared to the more aspirational Italian assumptions about law, the Anglo-American conceptualization of law is of a system of rules—the rule of law is a law of rules, as Justice Scalia’s famous article maintains—that are thought to be reasonable and to which it is therefore reasonable to hold citizens’ conduct. The latter implies much stricter assumptions of how law should be applied, not at the conscious level of whether law should be applied liberally or with a hard line, but rather in its bedrock assumptions about what law is and therefore what it means for law to be applied at all.

If this assessment of Italian culture in regard to law is correct, it is troubling because the Vatican naturally marinates in Italian culture. I therefore wonder whether this suggests a hermeneutic for reading Vatican decrees—one that displeases people like me. Everyone understands that a legal test that is a standard should be applied as a standard, i.e. not rigidly, whereas a bright-line rule should be applied as a rule, i.e. more-or-less strictly. We naturally read a directive as a directive not as a suggestion. If we understand that a document expresses an ideal to which people should aspire rather than a legal rule, a practical standard which governs behavior, we will naturally interpret it in a different manner.

Yet much of the Church’s regulatory structure presents itself as law, including but not limited to canon law. Anglo-American readers will naturally understand ecclesiastical law as law, and will thus, even more naturally, conceptualize its directives as just that: Practical rules to govern behavior within a legal paradigm. If Church laws are born of Italian legal philosophy, however, and thus presuppose an entirely different hermeneutic, do we still interpret and apply them faithfully when we do so through  an Anglo-American legal paradigm—at least when they do not by their structure require such treatment?