Cultural anthropologists tell us that one of the characteristics of our postmodern age is a disregard for history. Catholicism itself, however, exists in a tradition that recognizes doctrinal development in history. Our best Catholic theologians will remind us that the church’s attention to the unfolding truths of revelation makes history radically important for us. Moreover, understanding Scripture as a witness to salvation history confirms for Catholics their understanding that the past builds toward the present, and the present is developed from the past. To understand the forthcoming Synod of Bishops on the Word of God, we must appreciate its continuity with the past.
Throughout the four years of its deliberations, the Second Vatican Council repeatedly confirmed the fundamental importance of the Scriptures for every dimension of the church’s life. A brief review of the more recent milestones of that journey into the Bible, demonstrating both continuity and development, provides a helpful background for the discussions that will take place in the synod this autumn in Rome.
A Quick Look Back
At the heart of the liturgical reforms promulgated by the Second Vatican Council in 1963, for instance, was the admonition that “if the restoration, progress and adaptation of the sacred liturgy are to be achieved, it is necessary to promote that warm and living love for Scripture to which the venerable tradition of both Eastern and Western rites give testimony” (“Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,” No. 24).
In 1965 the council fathers reminded pastors that “all the preaching of the church must be nourished and ruled by Sacred Scripture” (“Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation,” No. 21). Unfortunately, serious study of Scripture at the parish level is often compromised by a congregation’s preoccupations with catechetical needs or the practical programs of any given Sunday’s liturgy, as well as by the busyness of people’s lives throughout the week. An authentic homiletic use of Scrip-ture clearly requires more than bland and tiresome exhortations that “God is love.”
In another context that same conciliar document insisted that Scripture must remain “the soul of sacred theology” (No. 25). This fundamental principle had been affirmed in 1893 by Pope Leo XIII in Providentissimus Deus and again in 1920 by Benedict XV in Spiritus Paraclitus. Each of these encyclicals addressed the need for the renewal of the scholastic rationalism of 19th-century theology.
In 1943, as a 50th-anniversary commemoration of Leo XIII’s teachings, Catholic understanding of the centrality of the Word and the value of scientific exegesis was confirmed in Pius XII’s landmark encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu. A half-century of often contentious debate, which led to some unfortunate casualties among Scripture scholars, had produced general agreement.
The efforts of distinguished and faithful Catholic scholars, like Marie Joseph Lagrange, O.P., at the école Biblique in Jerusalem, were finally given public papal recognition and official approval. The importance of distinguishing literary forms was widely accepted, and the fundamental responsibility of Catholic exegetes to search out the original historical meaning of the inspired texts and the intentions of their authors was recognized.
Out of that history what could be called a renewed second common language was restored to the church; Scripture was proposed by the documents of the Second Vatican Council as the lingua franca for all Catholic teaching, preaching and praying. As a result, soon after the council, a lectionary with many more selections from the Old and New Testaments was published. The Sunday and weekday eucharistic life of the church was enriched. More recently the theologian John Cavadini of the University of Notre Dame praised the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992) for the remarkable manner in which it uses the language of Scripture so pervasively in presenting the faith of the universal church.
Debates within the exegetical community continued. What was the relative importance of literal translations as opposed to translations that were more dynamic (but conceptually faithful) and aimed at providing access to the witness of ancient worlds very different from our own? New exegetical methods inspired by movements in the church like feminism and liberation theology challenged the hegemony of historical-critical approaches. A deep hunger for biblical literacy began to flourish in Catholic lay circles, possibly encouraged both by people’s liturgical experiences on the weekend and by the growing popularity of the American evangelical movement among Protestant neighbors and co-workers.
Preparatory Documents for the Synod
In late spring of 2007, the usual early draft of the council’s agenda, called the lineamenta, was issued to offer some broad outlines for discussing the proposed synodal topic for the 12th Ordinary General Assembly of bishops. An initial study of that document leaves one with several impressions: it honestly acknowledged that ignorance of the Bible is still pervasive among many Catholics; it recognized the need to respond to the more aggressive forms of evangelical proselytism, sometimes blatantly anti-Catholic; and it clearly emphasized the practice of lectio divina. The document seemed to emphasize an individualistic approach to the Scriptures rather than evoke communal experiences. Many references to past papal encyclicals seemed to encourage a more spiritual use of Scripture, neglecting the importance of historical-critical methods. The enthusiastic invocation of past patristic ages seemed to favor allegorical approaches to the understanding of Scripture. Responses and reflections were submitted from around the world. Biblical scholars noted the document’s limitations and flaws.
In June of 2008 the instrumentum laboris, as the customary next phase in preparation is called, was published inviting further reflection. The document emphasized the Word as a person, not merely a printed text, and clearly endorsed the “application of every scientific and literary method available.” If the earlier text seemed to suggest reservations about the importance of historical criticism, that caution was now less pronounced. The treatment of all the issues related to “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church” seemed exhaustive. Nevertheless, it was still clear that the more devotional lectio divina was emphasized and that the authors of the text did not have a full, professional background in the Catholic study of Scripture.
The Landscape Today
By definition synods are convened to offer counsel to the pope in the pastoral governance of the church. Their recommendations simply provide the raw material from which a post-synodal apostolic exhortation is written and promulgated by the pope. As part of our own preparation for those discussions, which should engage the entire Catholic community worldwide, I offer from the American scene three cautions and one hope.
Caution One: the Patristic Revival. One of the great blessings of Catholicism has been the fact that the church has long held in great esteem the literal meaning of the text, but never been held hostage to it. Early third- and fourth-century debates between the more literal Antiochenes and the more typologically oriented Alexandrians recognized the differences. Medieval schools of thought continued the debates, especially as a clear biblical foundation was sought for Marian doctrines. More recently, the strong commitment of Catholic scholars to historical criticism has been supplemented by more literary approaches, asking, “What does this passage say in its current context and nuance?” The contemporary interest in reclaiming the fruits of the patristic commentaries, however, requires considerable caution. The early fathers often developed brilliant Christian theology, but their interpretations of the Bible were not always grounded in a sure reading of the text. Patristic exegesis was often creative and imaginative but not always grounded in the text itself.
If the deliberations of the coming synod neglect the serious scholarship of the past century, it will be a great disservice to the church. A recovery of patristic exegesis can supplement our understanding, but the literal historical meaning of the text is also “spiritual,” and any suggestion to the contrary is simply erroneous.
Caution Two: Contemporary Popularization. As a result of the renewal of the church in recent decades we have been blessed by a new influx of popular teachers whose expositions of biblical topics have been warmly welcomed by catechists and the general Catholic population alike. People are hungry for the Word. The academic world, however, can sometimes speak on a technical level that is beyond the ability of enthusiastic novices to appreciate. The result can be loss of interest. The church needs the scholarly work of Catholic academics, but also the pedagogical and catechetical skills of those who can find solid pastoral nourishment in biblical scholarship.
At the same time, if the catechists, for all their enthusiasm, are recent converts from a more evangelical and Calvinist background, their presentations may not always embody the fullness of the Catholic tradition. They can remain rooted in another very different ecclesial perspective. As a teacher and pastor I recognized that danger in the early charismatic movement, and I see it again in some of the biblical materials promoted at the parish level. For that reason I emphasize the following convictions.
It is also profoundly Catholic to want to know the history of any given biblical concept and the way in which its meaning was deepened and developed over the centuries. Granted, the oldest expression is not necessarily the best, but the earliest should be kept in mind when attempting to understand the root of our most cherished expressions of faith. This caution is particularly valuable when ecumenical eyes are brought to a text and the prism of the church’s various understandings over the years is explored. Under grace ideas mature and deepen.
It is also profoundly Catholic to want to understand the literary context of each statement and the type of literature in which it is expressed. But biblical history alone, like the Bible history booklets used in my own childhood catechetical experiences, does not nourish the faith. Those who have merely transferred their biblical knowledge from one Christian tradition to the Catholic communion without an appreciation of Catholic literary analysis, liturgy and devotional tradition will be very limited in their ability to communicate the riches of our Catholic biblical tradition.
Fundamentalism—the preoccupation with the literal wording of the text without regard for its historical context and isolated from the life and teaching of the church community—can be dangerous. A recent document from the Pontifical Biblical Commission in Rome called that mindset “intellectual suicide” (The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church).
Caution Three: Canonical Contexts. Sometimes the inspired books of Scripture speak to one another as well as to the casual reader. It is not by accident that the church early on bound the individual scrolls into a single codex. The Book of Job can serve as a clear reminder that simplistic invocation of blessings for the faithful and punishments for the wicked, as the Deuteronomic theologians once asserted, simply does not explain the mystery of evil or the way God actually works in the day-to-day lives of people. Or again, the narrow accent, for example, on the purity of Jewish identity upon return from Babylonian exile needs to be balanced by the remarkable witness of the Ninevites, who responded so enthusiastically to Jonah’s preaching (to his chagrin and disgust, as the tale points out), or by the devotion of the foreigner Ruth to her mother-in-law, Naomi.
The uniting of books from the First and Second Testaments links the experience of the synagogue to that of Christianity, and it is also profoundly Catholic to recognize the difference as well as the continuity. Although we may see hints of Christ in the former, they must be allowed to speak in their own terms. Hasty spiritualization must never be allowed to obscure the Jewish character of our biblical heritage.
It is profoundly Catholic to insist on the differences among the literary forms found in the inspired library we call the Bible, and to allow each to speak in its own voice. In our quest for understanding, it matters greatly if the purported teaching is found in poetry, legend, moral exhortation or even in the inspired catechetical reminiscences that we proudly call the Gospels. Popular biblical teachers who never allude to such differences shortchange our people’s early introduction to the Scriptures.
A great deal more care must be given to the Catholic critique of materials used at the parish level. In a capitalistic society, popularity and availability often rule without solid critique or assessment from the standpoint of the full Catholic tradition.
A Concluding Hope
If the synod is to embrace the full scope of the Word of God in the life of the church, then the question of liturgical translations, both biblical and sacramental, cannot be relegated to the margin of the bishops’ deliberations at this moment in our history. The Word must be clearly intelligible when proclaimed orally and faithfully expressed in language that is not stilted, clumsy or wooden.
Access to the fullness of our Catholic tradition is a fundamental right of our people. They should not be shortchanged by reducing the message of the Gospel to a simple spiritual inspiration, which inevitably fails to go beneath the surface level of the Word’s life-giving promise.