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Brian B. PinterSeptember 12, 2011

I led a Bible study series recently at a parish in Manhattan, where most of the participants were hip, advanced-degree-holding professionals. I worked hard to prepare for the classes, and during my presentations on the first three chapters of the Book of Genesis I used the best of historical-critical exegesis by respected Catholic scholars. We explored the differences among various literary forms, examined the historical contexts in which the Genesis accounts took shape and considered the function of foundation myths in ancient Near Eastern cultures. When the participants raised questions about scientific theories concerning the origins of the universe and humankind, I made reference to the 2004 statement by the Vatican-sponsored International Theological Commission, which spoke positively about the Big Bang theory. I also quoted Pope John Paul II’s affirming remarks on the theory of evolution.

Nonetheless, a number of individuals were shocked at the suggestion that the first and second chapters of Genesis did not contain literal, historically accurate accounts of creation. One woman protested, saying, “How do you know the world wasn’t made that way? You can’t prove otherwise!” Another was flabbergasted that I did not affirm the historicity of the talking serpent in Genesis 3: “Are you saying that God can’t create a talking snake?” Finally, an irate young man sent me e-mail to tell me, among other things, that my treatment of Genesis had no place in a Catholic parish and that I should consider becoming Protestant.

I attempted to reassure those who took exception to my nonliteralist approach by emphasizing that the ideas I taught were based not on my personal opinions but on the best of contemporary Catholic scholarship and on the tradition of the church. A few asked me, “If this is Catholic teaching, how come I’ve never heard it before?”

The Catholic Literalists

While Catholic scholarship has moved beyond literalism in its interpretation of the Bible, many of the faithful have not. Familiarizing Catholics with the Bible and its interpretation is a contining challenge. According to many studies, Catholics are among the most biblically illiterate Americans. While teaching Bible basics remains a major task, a more pressing and troublesome concern is the growth among Catholics of biblical literalism, also known as biblical fundamentalism. Fundamentalists assert that the Bible is without historical or scientific error and should be read literally in all its details. According to a 2007 Gallup survey, 21 percent of U.S. Catholics identify themselves as biblical literalists. Considering that the Pontifical Biblical Commission pointed out in 1993 that “fundamentalism actually invites people to a kind of intellectual suicide,” this percentage is not insignificant.

The fundamentalist positions assumed by many Catholics today could be described as unconscious or naïve. Most Catholics who are literal readers of the Bible do not realize that this method is not a part of their faith tradition and that such interpretations have been repeatedly discouraged by Catholic scholars, pastors and bishops.

Three causes for this “unconscious fundamentalism” deserve attention: the association of religiosity with biblical literalism in American culture, a failure to explore the question: “What is the Bible?” and, finally, ignorance of the Catholic tradition’s reason-based approach to biblical interpretation.

Consider the first cause: the culture. Nearly one-third of the U.S. population holds that the Bible is the literal word of God. In the public square, one’s religiosity is often judged by how well one knows the Bible. The media are fond of pitting biblical fundamentalists who defend the “truth” of Scripture against those who see the Bible as nothing more than a collection of ancient fables and myths. One need only recall the publicity surrounding the case of Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, which challenged a school’s policy of teaching intelligent design in science classes, or Alabama gubernatorial candidate Bradley Byrne, who was lambasted by his opponents for suggesting that not all the Bible was meant to be read literally. Many Catholics, fearing a secular attack on the inerrancy of Scripture, see literalism as the only way to protect the sanctity of the Bible.

Since most Catholics have very little experience reading and interpreting the Bible, they default to inadequate notions of what Scripture is. Many Americans, Catholics among them, see the Bible as a rule book, a play book or a user’s manual for life. These designations lead one to believe that the Bible has all or most of the answers to life’s questions. But as Prof. Dale B. Martin of Yale University, author of Pedagogy of the Bible, notes, if the Bible is a rule book, “it is an awfully confusing and incomplete one.” As for the Bible as user’s manual, says Martin, “it needed a better author and editor. And unlike really useful owner’s manuals, our Bible came to us without illustrations.” People of mature faith require a more nuanced approach to Scripture than these popular but simplistic definitions can provide.

A former student of mine now studying at St. Louis University had this to say about the problem of biblical literalism: “It’s sad that fundamentalism still persists among some Catholics. Reading the Bible that way misses out on so much of the church’s rich tradition of biblical interpretation.” For Catholics, reading the Bible has always been an exercise of both head and heart.

While we Catholics believe that God is speaking to us through the words of Scripture, we recognize that we must use our powers of reason to discern the meaning of those words. Contemporary methods of Catholic biblical interpretation, for example, are informed by the findings of archaeology, historical and cultural studies of the biblical periods and the analysis of the texts in their original Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic languages.

Complementing this scientific approach are the spiritual insights into the Bible given us by the patristic writers as well as the saints and mystics. This tradition of scholarship and spirituality serves as a rich resource in our quest to unlock the meaning of Scripture. Unfortunately, many Catholics remain unaware of it.

What Is the Bible?

Religious educators, Bible-study leaders and preachers can counter the three causes of fundamentalism by keeping in mind a few principles and strategies.

First, those who are responsible for teaching the Bible to children and adults must be well qualified and trained. Too often biblical literalism is promoted by inadequately prepared catechists. By second grade, for example, most children know that The Cat in the Hat is a different kind of book than Who Was Abraham Lincoln? Yet too few adults are taught that the creation accounts of Genesis are to be read differently than the Gospels, which in turn cannot be read in the same way as the Book of Revelation. Un-nuanced, uncritical reading of Scripture is what in part defines the literalist approach. While it would be unwise to try to teach contextual methods of biblical interpretation to children, they still must be given a foundation in interpreting the Bible on which they can build later, not faulty or misleading information they will have to correct later on.

Toward the goal of improving the quality of Bible instruction, some dioceses have instituted comprehensive, multi-year training programs that cover every book of the Old and New Testaments as well as methods of interpretation. This type of preparation is invaluable. Strong formation does more than head off problems. It equips those who teach the Bible to address the challenging questions about biblical texts that both children and adults are sure to raise. Students can easily become frustrated with Bible study if teachers consistently respond to questions with the stock answer: “It’s a mystery.” Proper training can help to avoid this unsatisfying and often unnecessary bromide.

Second, Catholics must be invited to engage the question, “What is the Bible?” Professor Martin has proposed that we think of Scripture as a sacred space we enter, like a church or cathedral. The Bible functions in much the same way as a sacred building: its very presence orients us toward God; and once we enter, we find many things inside to contemplate. A church building communicates the story of the Christian experience of God, past and present, through a variety of media—stained glass, statuary, paintings and icons. Likewise Scripture invites us to contemplate God’s communication to us through such methods as historical narratives, poetry, wisdom sayings, prophecy, apocalypse and letters. As with our experience of a beautiful worship space, encountering the Bible alone will be different than when the community is gathered to hear it.

When we encounter Scripture as a sacred space, says Martin, we are “moving around in its communicative richness, allowing our imaginations, our very selves, to be changed by the experience.” This model can also accommodate the variety of interpretive methods that are a part of the Catholic tradition. Like artwork in a cathedral, the individual or community is free to interpret Scripture through historical and spiritual lenses. In this way the words of the Bible, like a piece of religious art, can say something about the original author’s intention as well as the meaning being discerned by contemporary readers.

Third, Catholic leaders and teachers must work proactively to engage the faithful with the Scripture texts of the Lectionary. The liturgical reforms derived from the Second Vatican Council have brought more of the word of God to the people; but many preachers still shy away from using the Lectionary as a biblical teaching tool. Instead, sermons are more often used for expounding on points of doctrine or addressing contemporary moral issues. As an alternative, preachers might use their exegetical skills to connect the themes of the readings of a particular day or of the liturgical season. In this way the Lectionary could be used to nourish the life of the congregation and help the faithful to see that the Bible has much to say about everyday living as a disciple of Jesus.

The Bible has an undeniable appeal—even non-Christians find it enriching and fascinating. The church can capitalize on this. We must remember, however, that there is a Catholic way of reading the Bible, and it is not literalism. Above all, our church wants people to read the Bible in a way that encourages them to “grow in grace and knowledge” while avoiding “distorted” and “destructive” interpretations (2 Pt 3:16, 18). The Catholic tradition of biblical interpretation invites us to engage Scripture critically and spiritually. This approach allows us to encounter the Bible in a manner that respects both its complexity and the challenge of applying God’s word to modern life.

Listen to an interview with Brian B. Pinter.

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Christopher Mulcahy
12 years 9 months ago

Those of us who studied the Baltimore catechism know that the faith comes to us through both Scripture and tradition.  It follows, then, that the same faith tradition that selected what books are in fact in the bible (canonical) is also empowered  (by the Holy Spirit) to interpret them.   It seems to me helpful for Catholics to reflect on this fact—the Church tells us what the bible is and how it is to be read.  It didn’t fall from heaven, as seems to be the implicit assumption of most Protestants.

I like the analogy of Scripture with the newspaper.  Everyone knows that different types of rhetoric are employed in the different sections of the paper.  If you read the opinions the same way you read the front page, you miss the point big time. 

“Instead, sermons are more often used for expounding on points of doctrine or addressing contemporary moral issues.”  I would like to find the church (address please) where sermons are used for expounding on points of doctrine.  The ones I attend “address contemporary moral issues” virtually all the time.

Dianne Prichard
12 years 9 months ago
The statement that implied that most Protestants read the Bible literally alarmed me.  "Most" Protestants that I know read the Bible through a variety of hermeneutics.  On the other hand, there is a large group of Protestants that say they read the Bible literally; I wonder how much of the Bible they read.  It is hard to get even through Genesis without running into congtradictions, e.g. two creation stories.

The pastors I know have been educated at seminaries that teach critcial Biblical interpretation.  The problem arises (and this was one of my complaints as a layperson) when preachers "withhold" their seminary learning and let us in the pew continue to hear the same stories we heard as children in Sunday School.  It's not too difficult to skip the "hard" passages and stick to the familiar ones-one of the gifts of the Revised Common Lectionary.

Now that I'm a preacher, I struggle with dashing the childhood mythologies of my aging members, keeping them comfortable with the beautiful stories versus challenging them with new ways of reading scripture.  When I want to challenge them, which is every Sunday, I stick to Jesus the radical turn-the-world-upside-down Savior and let the Old Testament stories remain just that: stories.
Gregory Byrne
12 years 9 months ago
Mr. Pinter's experience parallels mine in two large Catholic parishes, one diocese, and one regional adult-faith formation certificate program. It's one reason I can no longer work for the Church. In my view, much of the fault lies with priests who-in their paternalistic fashion-continue to preach as if there were a historical Adam & Eve, Noah, etc. They assume Catholics are simply too stupid to understand Biblical scholarship and they certainly don't want any problems with the Ordinary, especially if they think they might make monsignor one day! I once had a pastor come in to speak about the Hebrew Scriptures to a large RCIA group. When questioned about the historicity of Genesis, he began to speak about how scientists know that humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time! I assume he was referring to the Book of Flinstones. Even when priests know better-and this is true of Protestant churches too-they preach a simplistic literalism that seems to comfort people who cannot, or will not, live with uncertainty in their lives. Having found no support from pastors or bishops, I have given up the struggle.
12 years 9 months ago

Brian B. Pinter states: “Most Catholics who are literal readers of the Bible do not realize that this method is not a part of their faith tradition and that such interpretations have been repeatedly discouraged by Catholic scholars, pastors and bishops.” 

To some extent that is true, but it overlooks the sad fact that genuine critical study of the bible was not fostered by the Roman Catholic Church before Vatican II, or at least before Pius XII.  In fact it was condemned in the 19th century, and Catholic scholars who tried to use the method in the early 20th century had to do so surreptitiously.  We are still reaping the whirlwind from that negative attitude despite the efforts of many since the 1960s.  Incidentally, how big an advocate of critical study of the bible has our present pope been?  To understate the matter, with his undying opposition to "Relativism," he has not been what one would call an enthusiastic supporter.

In the last forty years how many of our bishops have ever publicly encouraged their people to read or their religion teachers to use at least the smaller paperback works of such eminent Catholic scholars as Raymond E. Brown (New Testament) or Michael D. Guinan (Old Testament)?  How many in the pews ever even heard of these priests?

To this very day I wonder how many of our present day bishops could give their flock a satisfactory definition of “biblical inspiration.”  (I am told that the oft-repeated one given by LeoXIII is inadequate.) Would they ever tell us that it is a metaphor, not a literal reality, to call the Bible “the word of God,” and as a group would they ever dare to let it be known that error, even moral and religious error, is indeed contained in Holy Writ?  (I recall that in the original Jerome Biblical Commentary, written after Vatican II, there was a chapter on Inspiration and Inerrancy.  Tellingly, the later edition of that scholarly Catholic work omitted the word Inerrancy in the chapter title.)   

I find it small wonder that many of our Catholics are still confused. As far as I know, our hierarchy as a whole has never hammered home the point that biblical literalism is wrong, even though it is.  Once again, I fear that the hierarchy demurs lest the “simple faithful” be disturbed.  And, over the years, since our bishops as a body  have not put much stress on this subject, so too in my experience there has been not much proclamation of it from our pulpits (ambos) or catechism classrooms. 

I’m not surprised that Brian Printer met the opposition he did when he tried to give his class some Bible lessons that used up-to-date scholarship.  That is a sad but true fact in much of the Catholic Church today, a Church to which I have belonged ever since infancy almost 80 years ago.  It’s a Church that has wisely taught me that hope is a theological virtue, a gift that has to be infused by God, something that is not of human making.

Andy Galligan         

Maeve Binder
12 years 9 months ago
Having been raised up in Catholic schools, and being age 68 now, I was not taught how to read scripture, nor did we have a Bible in our home.  Now that I have time to read the Bible, I am looking for books that will help me as I read it on my own.  (I own several Bibles: THE NEW JERUSALEM BIBLE, SAINTS EDITION; IGNATIUS CATHOLIC STUDY BIBLE NEW TESTAMENT; THE CATHOLIC RAINBOW STUDY BIBLE (TEV); HOLY BIBLE, Confraternity and Douay Texts, among others.)  I do have the book on the New Testament by Raymond Brown.  But I would like a few really good book suggestions from those who have studied scrpture perhaps in the seminary setting or theology classes, so that I may have an easier time understanding the parts I find confusing and just do not understand clearly.  Thank you for any and all recommendations! 
Mona Villarrubia
12 years 9 months ago
I taught high school theology for 27 years and it seemed to be getting harder not easier to convince students that it was not heresy to talk about myth when speaking of the first eleven chapters of Genesis, or to point out that there are inconsistencies, and historical and geographical inaccuracies.

In my last few years of teaching the textbooks being promoted (then required) by the USCCB were becoming more and more literalist in their approach to both scripture and doctrine. For me the latter was the most uncomfortable, and it is my greatest concern in the Catholic Church today: doctrinal fundamentalism. This is a more insidious evil than biblical fundamentalism. We teach that the bible in not without error but doctrine is without error. The bible needs to be read with an informed eye; doctrine needs to be accepted without question for question implies dissent and can lead to excommunication. Look at Fr. Roy Bourgeois’s situation.

For pew Catholics now in later middle age, with only grammar school or Sunday School catechesis for formation (often received from teachers with only grammar school or Sunday School catechesis themselves) surely it can be extremely confusing to be presented with doctrine that they are told to accept without question, and Scripture - The Word Of God - that they are told they can and should interpret with regard to author’s intent and interests, historical context, and literary form. In other words they should use critical thinking skills when reading scripture but not Vatican pronouncements, and certainly not the Catechism, which has become for younger Catholics the new Baltimore Catechism or perhaps even the new Bible.

I believe completely in the value of training grammar school teachers in the basics of biblical studies but certainly not book by book. They are responsible for teaching our children so they should have the equivalent of Old Testament and New Testament studies 101, an Introduction to Moral Theology, and an overview of Church History, and I mean the real story not the idealized pap you usually find in textbooks. And I believe that all high school educators could benefit from the same courses: questions of God, Truth, and Faith should be welcomed in every classroom if the school is purporting to educate in the Catholic faith tradition. Science teachers should not have to refer questions about evolution to the religion teacher. Furthermore, offer the same courses to the parents. I bet you would be surprised by the interest. I had a number of parents wanting to sit in on my senior Apologetics class (before the Archdiocese wrote it out of the curriculum.) And to clarify, by courses I am talking a weekend, Friday evening and Saturday all day. No need to drown people in information just get them thinking, introduce some tools, provide some solid resources and send them on their way with access to an on-line discussion group as follow up and support. Yes, there will be those who get angry even defiant, but growth is painful. Wow, as I write this I remember how much I loved teaching, and how much I miss it. I loved the challenge of opening minds and breaking out of the literalist boxes. Remember, I would tell them, God isn’t Catholic: there is a bigger picture.

Ah! Now I know why I don’t teach any more: I no longer see The Truth from inside the Catholic Box.
Mona Villarrubia
12 years 9 months ago
@ Maeve. I found that for the classroom, The New American Bible translation has great footnotes, introductions to each book and each section, and very good essays. I recommend them as a general introduction to biblical studies, before getting in to the books themselves. I have since bought The New Oxford Annotated Bible and also find it very good for the same reasons. As a theology student, the Introduction to the New Testament by Norman Perrin was invaluable. His co-author, Dennis Duling, has continued re-editing his work, and one of the later editions is called The New Testament, History, Literature, and Social Context.. For Old Testament studies The Living World of the OT by Anderson was great, and more recently Barry Bandstra Reading the Old Testament is very good. And sometimes, just opening the Psalms and reading them out loud is enough.
Chuck Radloff
12 years 9 months ago

Great article and contents...this type of information should be presnted on a continual basisvia the many Catholic Diocese Newspapers in the USA, such as the Southern Cross (Diocese of San Diego)and weekly bulletins..The members of the Church need it, the Church needs it!

Chuck Radloff
12 years 9 months ago
Suggest AMERICA issue a series of articles on the social teaching of the Catholic Church before the next Congrssional elections...some of Pope John XIII enclylicals, etc. and the responsibilities of Catholics to implement the social teachings of the Church through the election process.
Chuck Radloff
12 years 9 months ago
Suggest AMERICA issue a series of articles on the social teaching of the Catholic Church before the next Congrssional elections...some of Pope John XIII enclylicals, etc. and the responsibilities of Catholics to implement the social teachings of the Church through the election process.
12 years 8 months ago
As a Catholic educator, I found this to be an exceptional presentation that should be read by everyone who teaches Catholic youth.  It also would be very helpful in reflecting on the differences experienced by the non-Catholic students within our schools.  If I don't really know the differences and nuances it is almost impossible not to be reactionary when learners differ from one's 'model student' or the hopes and dreams that went into my lesson plan. I will reflect on the cathedral metaphor for quite a while and bless the teachers and preachers who still aid in my understanding of Scripture.
Brian Pinter
12 years 8 months ago
Dear Readers,
Thank you for your comments and thoughtful reflections.  A few replies:
Greg - Simplistic literalism is an apt description for what too often happens in some preaching; also, I always tell my students, adults and teenagers, that mature faith involves ambiguity and uncertainty. We're not going to have all the answers. That's why they call this faith and not certitude.  
Andy - as far as I am concerned Ray Brown should be canonized, and I mean that seriously.  He is one of the most important and influential Catholics of the 20th century.  He translated the findings of the biblical academy into language that can affirm, deepen, and enrich the faith of lay people.  God bless him, and may he rest in peace.  Also the U.S. Bishops tried to address fundamentalism back in the 80's.  Take a look at http://www.geocities.com/xman1892/sp004.htm and http://www.shc.edu/theolibrary/resources/fundmntl.htm.  As we know the bishops have deemed other issues to be more important at present.  
Maeve - The New Jerome Biblical Commentary is, I think, the best all around reference.  It also has great articles about context, interpretation, biblical theology, etc.  For a very interesting take try the social science commentaries of John Pilch and Bruce Malina.  I use these in the classroom with high school students and adults; they find it to be very fascinating and helpful.  
Mona - I couldn't agree more.  Doctrinal fundamentalism is doing and will do serious damage to the church until it is checked.  I see it as a product of immature faith that is unwilling to accept both ambiguity and the fact that life is often gray, not black and white.  I think proper training for those teaching on the grammar school level is crucial.  A lot of damage can be on that level, and some people are never able to move beyond the bad info they learn as children.  As a result they drift away or just give up on the church/faith. 
Susan - thank you for your kind comment.

Brian B. Pinter
Dianne Prichard
12 years 8 months ago
Check out http://oyc.yale.edu/religious-studies-Yale University Open Courseware.  They offer both  Old Testament and  New Testament classes FREE.  Great for eager, curious beginners.

Craig McKee
12 years 8 months ago
Given the declining church membership and entrance statistics given elsewhere in this issue, perhaps the specialists and professionals stood take a step back and just thank God that Catholics are reading the Bible at all, rather than bemoaning how they are interpreting and understanding it incorrectly. If more time were given to a higher quality
of liturgical proclamation and celebration of the Word, perhaps more people would feel the need to actually pick up a Bible and just read it. Like Paul said: "Faith comes through hearing." And he didn't mean hearing the latest archeological discovery in Tantur which correlates, substantiates or obviates the historical accuracy of this or that chapter and verse. Nor did he mean listening to the most recent metaphorical paradigm for increasing one's cognitive and/or affective response to Scripture.
Think of the parabolic language of the Master STORYTELLER, who was able to keep a mostly uneducated and hungry crowd of 5,000 spellbound with simple, everyday language about lost sheep found, lost coins located, lost children returned. There's the catechetical model to follow. Just tell the stories, and then, to paraphrase the words of Mychal Judge: GET OUT OF THE WAY!
(And no, there will NOT be a quiz at the end of this module!)
Thomas Mitchell
12 years 8 months ago
I think this article has been sent to me by the Holy Spirit on this Sumday morning. I have been driven to within one very small distance from going to the Lutheran church today to see what's doing there.

The problem in our parish (the only one for many, many miles) on this topic - Genesis 1-3,  is not the ignorant layperson (me) but the pastor (Master's in Divinity, yet) who clearly believes in the historical fact of the Adam and Eve story; he leads at least every third homily with it. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of "figurative language" but I have never received any catechesis on its communicative richness.
12 years 8 months ago
#15 - Thomas H. Mitchell
     Visit www.wordonfire.org and listen to Fr. Robert Barron's sermons, etc. etc.etc.  Or just go to youtube and type in:  Fr. Robert Barron videos and you'll see lots of goodies there.
      There are so many resources today all over the place, even my local public library has books and publications on Catholicism and the Christian faith.  Look and you shall find.  This magazine, America has many resources, just go to Teachers Resources, etc.
12 years 8 months ago
There are so many wonderfully written books on scripture; where to begin? Well, for example, here are five of my favorites:

"Introduction to the Old Testament"; Walter Brueggeman
"Constantine's Bible"; David L Dungan
"Job"; Daniel Berrigan
"The Last Word"; N.T. Wright
"The Writings of the New Testament"; Luke Timothy Johnson

But I would like to put a spotlight on two books which may offer a fresh perspective on the bible for Christians. Written by Abraham Joshua Heschel, they are:

"God In Search of Man; A Philosophy of Judaism", and
"Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion".

Don't be put off by the word "philosophy". In them you will hear that-"the Bible points to a way of understanding the world from the point of view of God", not from a causal argument for creation by man. 

Thanks to all for the insightful commentaries. I especially relate to the indifference to Biblical Studies within in the Parish. How can one hope to be fed with one 10 minute homily each week?
12 years 8 months ago
Individuals who are interested in Bible Studies can initiate it at their parish.  Don't wait for anybody to start it.  There are many bible studies programs complete with guides and  discussion topics.  Try the New Collegeville Bible Commentary or the Now You Know Media. 

Thank you #17 - Art, for mentioning Abraham Heschel.   He is one of my favorites.  I discovered him a few years back.
annmarie pettenon
12 years 8 months ago

For several years I have read works by Jewish authors (Heschel for example),Protestant(Tillich for example)and Orthodox (Pelikan) and host of others not just Catholic (Brown). I have to agree with the other comments that Bibical reading through the historical critical method has NOT been been passed on to the pews, even EWTN does not list any programming on the subject they sound more fundalmentist than the Fundamentalists. If it was not for all the woderful books and writers out there about the Bible, Church history, Theology, etc. I imangine I would just be another lump in the pews-and I suspect thats how the church prefered us to be. But I think in lew of the different church scandals and exiting cradle Catholics out of the church, this stuborn ancient institution has to decide how it's going to pastor to its congregation beyond the old style of our grandparents' days, the idea that a church in Manhatten held a class like one that Brian Printer gave is very exciting change. Reading has profoundly changed my outlook and has improved my Catholic identity or I problably would have left for good years ago.

In regards to how to find good books-I started by reading the bibiographies and footnotes of different authors and reading who they read. The 20th century problably had the most exciting explosion of writers both American and in Europe. But the Protestant scholars are the ones who intiated the Historical critical method, the Catholics came late to the game so anyone interested in pursuing futher reading should not shy away from opening a book that's not by a Catholic writer-they read the Protestants too.
Virginia Edman
12 years 8 months ago
"Most Catholics who are literal readers of the Bible do not realize that this method is not a part of their faith tradition and that such interpretations have been repeatedly discouraged by Catholic scholars, pastors and bishops."

When I began to study scripture I found it very difficult to let go of the belief that it was to be read literally as the truth.  After a while i began to understand that the culture of the time, the period it was written, and other archiological discoveries surrounding its creation were important in interpreting the meaning.  Gradually scripture took on a whole different meaning, and it was exciting and actually strengthened my faith.

Many people have never read the bible out of fear.  There was a time when church leaders discouraged the laity from reading it.  I know many who have said that they never read the Bible because it was discouraged in their homes.  It is a wonderful idea to teach scripture now as it can make our faith stronger.  It is no longer necessary to be ignorant of scripture. 
K Jenkins
12 years 8 months ago
A well written article that resonates with my college and graduate education... but as a DRE now, I wonder HOW to accomplish this.  All the resources are listed for adults, not kids, and I'm sure there's some development issues too.  At what point are kids able to understand that a story has truth even if not factually true?  The key, for any age I think, would be the *transition* between literal and historical critical methods... 
Brian Pinter
12 years 8 months ago

Fr. McDermott,

Thank you for your comments on the piece.  I’d like to respond to a few of your criticisms.  It seems that we simply disagree about the issues here.  I used the term literalist/fundamentalist because my research and experience suggests that a number of Catholics (too large for my comfort, but perhaps you feel differently) are by definition literalists because they interpret the Bible “literally in all its details” (The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, PBC, 1993).  The Gallup surveys report this, and based on a number of the comments above, it would appear that my impression is not so far from the experiences of others.  I do not believe that “most priests offer little more than simple-minded literalist pap…” nor did I say that in the piece.   I know that many priests and preachers work hard to deliver thoughtful, challenging homilies.  But it has been persistently pointed out that poor preaching is an issue in many Catholic parishes (See, for eg.,  Peter Steinfels, “Further Adrift,” Commonweal, 10/22/10 or William Byron, “On Their Way Out,” America 1/3/11).  I agree with you that a homily is not an academic lecture, but I have heard many great preachers use contextual methods of biblical interpretation to show where we might find the intersection of the sacred text with questions that we confront as modern day disciples of Jesus.  Once again, the anecdotal evidence suggests that a number of Catholics (too many for my comfort) do not get this type of preaching on a typical Sunday (I would refer you to the comments under Fr. Byron’s article.)  You also suggest that my reflection borders on name calling.  I am using terminology also used by the USCCB (Pastoral Statement for Catholics on Biblical Fundamentalism) and the PBC.  Literalism among Catholics is not a new issue.  It is my hope to simply revisit and further a conversation begun by Catholic pastors, bishops, and scholars decades ago.  I am using vocabulary that has been in the parlance for quite some time.  It did not occur to me that using that vocabulary would be perceived as name calling.  Finally, you mention high-school students in your comment (a group I did not discuss in my piece) and you seem to imply that I am placing them, generally speaking, among fundamentalists.  On the contrary, I have found high school students to be quite open to new ideas and interpretations of the Bible.  And as far as I know all Jesuit high schools teach our students contextual methods of interpretation.   I thank you again for your comments.

Brian B. Pinter
Bill Taylor
12 years 8 months ago

For me, one theme that keeps emerging in the comment section of this article is the difference between external and internal authority. According to Vat. II, the True Church "subsists" in the Catholic Church. I am always struck by the word "subsists." One meaning Webster gives is "to remain alive." To which we could often append the adverb: barely.

And so the best the institution seems to do is keep us barely alive...unless we make a personal decision to go find the depths. But to do that, we have to do what so many in this thread seem to have done-to start to live within your inner authority, praying, looking, listening. All this can seem strange and even frightening to those who have chosen to live within the bare walls of an unadorned institution living by external authority alone. Don't be afraid and don't get lost in your anger at all the insitutional Church seems able to accomplish. There is a deeper Church and through her ancient wisdom and current discoveries, she offers amazing growth and life.

Jason Moore
12 years 8 months ago
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Nicholas Clifford
12 years 8 months ago
Mr. Pinter's is a very interesting and much-needed article. But like many other reflections on the current teachings of the Church, it suffers from a lack of historical context. The author talks about a Catholic tradition of reading and understanding Scripture. But surely there have been traditions (plural) rather than a tradition (singular)? I won't repeat Andy Galligan's points made above, but he's certainly correct that Catholic biblical scholarship that might be at odds with the fundamentalist, literalist, approach, is a pretty recent development.

John Donahue's 1993 article from America gives a quick but accurate account of the changes in Church teaching about the inerrancy of Scripture, and (fortunately) is easily available at

Note that back then, amost 20 years ago, he sees the golden age of Catholic biblical scholarship coming perhaps to an untimely end. Was he right? I can't say.
12 years 8 months ago

(A Fundamental Challenge by Brian B.Pinter)  I log on to ADVENT for links to various websites to learn about what is happening in the Church.  Some are informative; most are ultraconservative.  I would assume that many of the comments made are by priests, deacons, seminarians or well educated laity. I have read articles describing Raymond E. Brown, S.S. as a neo-Nestorian or a neo-Modernist.  On some theological topics references are made to decisions of the Biblical Commission of the early 20th century bypassing one hundred years of advanced biblical scholarship, which is constantly being denigrated.  Of course, there is constant attack on President Obama, Democrats and all entitlements.  The Church has lost many intellectuals and now with the sex scandals many of the laity – witness the exodus of German Catholics.  If this ultraconservatism by the clergy continues, the Church will in time lose its moral and intellectual standing in the world.  St. Peter's Basilica will become like the Taj Mahal a tourist attraction for its art and beauty in a mausoleum for dead popes.

12 years 8 months ago

If you want an example of what's being published in a diocesan paper about the literal interpretation of scripture, just check out this link. This was in response to a piece by a Franciscan priest Michael Guinan. He like Brian Pinter was trying to get people to think way beyond Adam and Eve and the talking serpent.

This letter and others like it were bad enough but then the priest in charge of diocesan catechetics weighed in (only in print edition,not online) and declared that while the "church has not dogmatically defined the historical existence of Adam and Eve, the traditional understanding that there was an original couple...first true human beings and...progenitors of the human race is .. a theologically certain presupposition for the dogmas of original sin and redemption."

Maybe someone could comment further on the Pontifical Biblical Commission's comment that "fundamentalism invites people to a kind of intellectual suicide".

Pierce Brennan
12 years 8 months ago
Nice piece, Pinter.  Appropriately challenging, but tactfully posed.  I plan to send this on to quite a few that it might illuminate.
Leonard Villa
12 years 8 months ago
Sometimes a text is meant to be taken literally and you read the text with the Church. For example John 6 on the Eucharist.  A lot depends on the literary character of the text.  There is always the danger under the pretext of fighting fundamentalism that texts are "explained away" because they conflict with the spirit of the times or political correctness or we're too smart or sophisticated today (the Bultmann a priori) for example, the biblical texts against homosexuality.  Under ideological pressure some would seek to explain them away under the guise of not being literal.

The rules for exegetes are set out in Vatican II's Dei Verbum #12.  One of the things Dei Verbum says about the Gospels is the following:

Holy Mother Church has firmly and with absolute constancy held, and continues to hold, that the four Gospels just named, whose historical character the Church unhesitatingly asserts, faithfully hand on what Jesus Christ, while living among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation until the day He was taken up into heaven.
#19 Emphasis added. 

One other point: archeology often vindicates biblical texts which a consensus of scholars held to be figurative or a literary device or without foundation.  There has to be a critique of the method used to combat literalism. Is the method sound? What are the presuppositions?
Angela Marczewski
12 years 8 months ago
What a fantastic article!! Nothing to be added, in my opinion. How unfortunate that many who need to hear this informaton will not know of its existence or be in a position to read it. My one somewhat skeptical reaction is to the assumption made in the next to last paragraph that preachers in the Catholic Church have the education and knowledge base, themselves, to use the Lectionary as a Biblical teaching platform. I have heard priests misquote Scripture in homilies many times or make blatently erroneous statements about Scripture passages. In one case that I can remember specifically, the priest actually confused a Gospel story with an Old Testament story and referred to the Centurion in the story of Jesus' healing of his servant as a temple official! Validly educating our priests in the historical-critical method of Scripture interpretation would be a most welcome start to moving in the direction that Mr. Pinter advocates.
12 years 1 month ago

re the quotation in #29 (F.C. Tantillo) from V2's Dei Verbum #12:

it's amazing, then, that Raymond E. Brown's "Death of the Messiah" earned the _nihil obstat_ and _imprimatur_. It's clear from the first several sections that REB holds and teaches that the passion narratives of the Four Gospels do not agree _as history_; but the key point (made, iirc, in a footnote referring to REB's "Birth of the Messiah") is that the purpose of the Four Gospels is to further evangelization, not to serve as incontrovertible history or biography. As just one example, the Gospels do not agree on Jesus's last words before dying; but the purposes of the different versions are the same: to help people (in particular, the different audiences to whom the different Gospels were addressed) to believe, and believe more strongly.

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