Scripture and Vatican II: A very incomplete journey
BRENDAN BYRNE SJ
LET ME BEGIN, if you will allow, in autobiographical mode. I have long counted myself very fortunate to belong to a generation that knew both the pre-Vatican II and post-conciliar period. I shivered as an acolyte at a dawn kindling of the Easter Vigil fire before the transfer of the ceremonies to the evening. As a young student for the priesthood, I was excited in the early 60’s as cracks were found in the frozen pre-Vatican II liturgy for inserting sung Gelineau psalms in the evocative Grail translation that we still use today. This was a musical, imaginative entrance into the biblical world far more powerful than purely intellectual instruction. Later—in the early years of the Council actually—the chance to learn Hebrew greatly deepened that entry and further studies set me on the path to be a biblical scholar in the post-conciliar era.
Of course, well before the Council, Australian biblical scholars of the preceding generation—our teachers—were returning from studies abroad and, in tandem with new movements in catechetics, beginning to open up the Bible to seminarians, to religious sisters and other groups. Names such as Harry Davis, Bill Dalton, Jerome Crowe, Campion Murray, Bob Crotty, Angelo O’Hagan, Dennis Murphy, John Scullion and others spring readily to mind. They had a wonderful, liberating message and, for the most part, audiences thirsting for what they had to offer.1 At the same time, like all enhancers of life, they met opposition, charges of disloyalty and even heresy, some of it quite personal and wounding. They were worked off their feet, being rectors, provincials, presidents betimes. They broke the ice for scholars of the next generation such as Frank Moloney, Tony Campbell and myself. Their contribution to the Australian Church cannot be over-estimated. As one of their heirs and successors, I pay tribute to them now.
The scholars and teachers of that generation were, of course, the first inheritors of the turn-around in Catholic biblical studies that came, twenty years before Vatican II, with the publication in 1943 of Pius XII’s Encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu.2 That biblical encyclical broke the long winter of repression that had settled upon Catholic study of the Bible in response to the Modernist crisis and the perceived excesses of Protestant ‘higher criticism’. The encouragement to study the Bible in the original languages and not as refracted through the Latin Vulgate and, above all, the acceptance that biblical truth appeared in a variety of literary forms proved to be immensely liberating. Divino Afflante Spiritu really opened up the way for Catholic scholars to embrace whole-heartedly the historical-critical approach to the Bible that had become the dominant paradigm in Protestant scholarship, with its roots in the Enlightenment of the late 17th-18th century. Young Catholic scholars of that era—the late 40’s—such as Joseph Fitzmyer, Raymond Brown and Roland Murphy, capped their ecclesiastical studies at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, with doctoral work under leading Protestant scholars such as William Foxwell Albright. Armed with knowledge of the biblical languages and immersed in the fray of discoveries such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, they became masters of the historical-critical approach and the relentless pursuit of the literal sense: to determine as accurately as possible what the text meant in its historical context. Their unassailable scholarship won for them acceptance and leadership in the highest levels of the wider biblical guild, hitherto the preserve of Protestants alone. Their monument—and the monument to Catholic practice of the historical critical method—is the Jerome Biblical Commentary (in both its original and New editions).3
Working, as I did, alongside a leading scholar of that era, such as Joseph Fitzmyer, on the Pontifical Biblical Commission, I was struck by the tenacity with which he would defend the historical-critical approach. He did so with the ardour of a veteran, who had seen the battle fought long and hard before finally sheathing his sword. As is well known, the path from Divino Affante Spiritu in 1943 to the Decree On Divine Revelation in Vatican II was not an untroubled progress. In the final years of Pope Pius XII and the early months of John XXIII a strong reaction against modern biblical scholarship made a brief but very wounding appearance, culminating in the suspension from teaching of several scholars at the Biblicum. The crisis came to a head with the decision as to which approach—the historical-critical sanctioned by Divino Affante Spiritu or the old proof-texting style of the reactionaries—would be sanctioned in the Decree on Divine Revelation to be considered by the Council. As is well known, in what was probably the most defining act as regards the direction the Council was to take, a draft form of a schema on Revelation reflecting the reactionary approach was withdrawn, after vigorous debates, at the first session by John XXIII, who commissioned its rewriting, adding to the commission responsible for the schema several biblical scholars reflective of the new approach.4
In the light of that victory and in its spirit, the Pontifical Biblical Commission, issued in 1964 an Instruction on the Historical Truth of the Gospels.5 Beyond the recognition of literary forms, this very positive document accepted that between the life of Jesus himself and the actual composition of the written gospels there existed a considerable period when the traditions about Jesus, in various forms, were moulded and shaped by the new awareness of his status brought through Easter faith and also by the variety of forms and contexts in which they were transmitted in the teaching and preaching of the Church.6 This greatly defused controversy swirling around the delicate area of historicity. The Vatican II Dogmatic Constitution ‘On Divine Revelation’ (Dei Verbum) when at last promulgated at the final Session in 1965, gave full endorsement to this document, taking over its content and much of its language in its treatment of the Gospels.7
Officially, then, with the blessing of the Council, the path was set for the furthering of the biblical revival in the Catholic Church. Reversing centuries of reaction to the Protestant campaign for the scriptural empowerment of believers, Vatican II insisted that the Bible was the treasure and possession of the entire Church and encouraged its study and reading on the part of all the faithful.
I have the good fortune to belong to that generation of biblical scholars who emerged from graduate studies in this new era of acceptance and ecumenical cooperation. We have never lacked employment—not only in positions of formal teaching but for occasional lectures, workshops, and other modes of biblical study. I feared at one time that the biblical wave might peter out, that other areas of theological interest would rise and eclipse interest in scripture. This has not happened. Thirty years on, a major in biblical studies still seems to be the norm in the construction of theological degrees; the lay people who now make up the vast majority of students show no less enthusiasm for biblical studies than the seminarians who once outnumbered them. In the glory days of the mid-80’s, institutions such as Catholic Theological College and Yarra Theological Union had nearly five hundred students taking biblical courses. This means that out there in the parishes and schools of Australia there are tens of thousands of scripturally literate Catholics—literate in the sense of knowing the kind of literature they are dealing with when handling the Bible, and having some knowledge of the world and cultures from which the texts come. Beyond mere knowledge, the scriptures are nourishing and energising the lives and spirituality of such people to an extent unthinkable before Vatican II.
All well and good, but shadows have gathered as well as light. It is sometimes said that it has been the misfortune of the Catholic Church that, after long struggle, it opened itself up to the modern world at Vatican II just as the world itself was rejecting modernity—the legacy above all of the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment—in favour of that somewhat amorphous but much-appealed-to construction known as ‘post-modernity’. The Church, in other words, decided finally to get on the bus and take the trip just as everyone else, intellectually and culturally, was beginning to get off. We are witnessing in recent times a curious alliance between forces of reaction that would have been at home in the theological climate of the Modernist repression and post-modern tendencies that in other respects endorse a highly relativised view of truth that questions the validity of any kind of over-arching grand narrative such as Christianity would appear to presuppose. There is also the dispute over the legacy and meaning of Vatican II itself. Was the Council primarily an opening out to the modern world and an endorsement of the autonomy and value of the world—the kind of endorsement characterised above all by the ‘Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World’ (Gaudium et Spes) and the ‘Declaration on Religious Liberty’ (Dignitatis Humanae)—in theological terms the Rahnerian vision? Or was it a rediscovery on the part of the Church of her full biblical and patristic patrimony, a reprising of the richness of her own tradition, whose beauty above all she could hold up before the world for its chastening and (hopefully) its captivation—in theological terms the von Balthasar vision?8 It is surely no secret that, during the present pontificate and under the current President of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, it is the latter, rather than the former that has been officially in favour.9
At one level, it might be supposed that the biblical movement would flourish in such an atmosphere. But the matter is more complex than that. As I noted earlier, the biblical movement since Divino Affante Spiritu has been largely the promulgation of the historical-critical approach to the Bible. The Jerome Biblical Commentary is its monument. In accordance with the post-Enlightenment ethos, history has been the dominant paradigm. Such an approach is very good at telling you what a biblical text meant in its original context—an informative and salutary exercise, liberating scriptural interpretation from literalist constructions and challenging outdated paradigms and prejudices, notably anti-Jewish ones. It can often be very enriching. It does demand, however, that one enter the biblical world on its own terms and, for a time at least, remain there. It is not so good at telling how to return to your own world—the modern world—with the riches you have gained. In other words, while it’s good at telling you what the text meant, it’s not so helpful in regard to what it might now mean.
If in this connection I might lapse back into autobiographical mode for a moment, my period of tenure as a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, beginning in 1990, was dominated by the preparation of the document, promulgated by Pope John Paul II in April 1993, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church.10 On the whole, the sessions devoted to the composition of this document were a rewarding experience and, as most of you are probably aware, the document was by and large well received and praised for its basically positive tone and openness to new developments. It was interesting, however, to observe the currents running during its preparation. On the one hand, older scholars such as Joseph Fitzmyer were determined not to yield an inch of the hard-won high ground in regard to the primacy of the historical-critical method, virtually to the exclusion of everything else; on the other hand, there were those who felt it was time to recognise that the historical critical method had its limitations, that it had limited appeal in many pastoral and homiletic contexts, and needed to be supplemented by other approaches and methods of interpretation. At one stage, too, it had more or less been agreed upon to omit the virtually compulsory salute in church documents on Scripture to the ‘treasure-house’ of Patristic interpretation. Then, not without some encouragement from the Cardinal President, back came a ‘patristic paragraph’ (III, B, 2), albeit, to my mind, very well composed by one of the French members of the Commission. So the document emerged, with the historical-critical method still enjoying a certain primacy but having to make room on its perch for several other methods and approaches—literary and structuralist, canonical, social scientific, liberative (liberation theology and feminist theology)—all critically reviewed, to be sure, but none rejected or regarded as totally without merit. Needless to say, too, the document totally endorsed and urged still further the promotion of knowledge and use of the Bible in all aspects of Church’s life, as Vatican II had already commended.
But what is the reality regarding that desiratum when we look at life in the Church some sixty years after the movement set in motion by Divino Afflante Spiritu in 1943? I can speak only for the Church in Australia—though I suspect that it is typical of the situation in Western Christianity as a whole. Doubtless there is a minority—I think we have to call them an elite—who have, through courses, reading, and workshops, become highly scripturally literate; they derive nourishment and strength from their reading of scripture; many put into practice a biblical vision of social justice, often at considerable personal cost. Beyond this minority, however, I think we must reckon a far greater number who, if still ‘churched’ in any sense, regard the Bible as mysterious and alien. The passage from a literalist understanding of, say, the accounts of the Ascension of Jesus (Luke 24:50; Acts 1:9-11), to an appreciation of its expression of truth in symbolic form, is not an easy one—certainly not one that can be successfully achieved in one sermon or instruction. Those of us who are teachers know that many students in introductory biblical courses wrestle for months to grasp that biblical truth is not the same as historical exactitude and that, just as we don’t have to believe that the whale swallowed Jonah, so we don’t have to make one continuous historical reconstruction from the four gospels of all that happened on the first Easter Sunday. There is moreover, the legacy of the historical-critical approach that suggests that, if you are going to really appreciate this particular biblical episode or parable, for example, you’re going to have to come with me on a journey back into the biblical world and its culture. To grasp the message of the more familiar New Testament at any depth, you’re going to need to have some awareness of the Old Testament texts and traditions which it is constantly evoking. We almost have to ask people to become 1st Century believers in order to become 21st century believers with complete biblical enrichment.
For most people today—apart from the dedicated inner circle—that is a big ask. It is becoming a bigger ask day by day as biblical literacy in the wider cultural sense diminishes more and more. How many people stopped in the street or coffee shop could tell you who came first: Abraham or Moses—or Charlemagne, for that matter? Or whether the Flight into Egypt took place on a donkey—or on El Al or Egyptair? In short and, more seriously, the movement for biblical renewal in the Church is asking ordinary members of the Church to incorporate into their sense of religious identity a whole new biblical culture—the kind of biblical culture Protestants have had for generations—just when the sense of belonging to a Christian, let alone Catholic culture, ethnically imbibed in one’s mother’s milk is rapidly waning. Unlike the United States, the Australian national myth lacks biblical foundation. Our catechists and, in particular, our liturgists have a grave challenge on their hands when they try to find a bridge between the symbols and stories encased in the great biblical narratives and the myths that stir and resonate in the wider popular culture. Fundamentalists in any of the Christian denominations and, to a lesser degree, Evangelicals and Pentecostals will require an entrance into a biblical world that virtually cuts off their adherents from the wider secular culture—even if they readily employ features of that culture, e.g., its rock music or marketing techniques, to some effect. The Catholic way—going right back, I would maintain, to the great project of Luke-Acts—has ever been to seek to bridge the gap: to inculturate the Gospel without losing its vital challenge. Since Western civilisation is now so far removed from its historically Judeo-Christian roots, that task is now immeasurably more difficult.
So, while applauding the achievements of biblical renewal in the years since Vatican II, I feel obliged to acknowledge that they have been largely confined to an inner elite rather than diffused among the masses of believers. In no small degree are our labours of Sisyphus-like proportions.
I think, too, it has to be said that the task of promoting the kind of biblical literacy asked for at Vatican II has received little help and no small degree of hindrance from prevailing tendencies in the Roman Curia. The 1993 document of the Biblical Commission stands on a lonely eminence in this regard—and even it could have been negative in tone had not several of the members of the Commission fought long and hard to exclude gratuitous judgements in many areas. The handling of scripture in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994) is simply disgraceful and in many respects regresses not merely behind Vatican II but Divino Affante Spiritu itself.11 When I asked at a session of the Biblical Commission why that Commission was not being employed or at least consulted during the preparation of the Catechism, my question was received in sullen silence; I had ventured upon some inter-Curial turf war.
Moreover, when one teaches New Testament within the Catholic tradition, with complete loyalty and appreciation of that tradition, including such things as the primacy, the distinct presbyteral and episcopal ministry, a high christology and deep sacramentality, one can only become more and more aware of the gap between the Gospel as Jesus appears to have proclaimed it and required it to be lived in the community, and the policies, edicts, appointments and decisions that have emanated from Rome in recent years. There is no need for me to catalogue such things now.12 Let me simply say that, having resisted for years the application of the strictures of Jesus against the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23 to my own Church, I find myself unable to do so any longer:
The scribes and the Pharisees occupy the chair of Moses. You must therefore do what they tell you and listen to what they say; but do not be guided by what they do since they do not practise what they preach. They tie up heavy burdens and lay them upon people’s shoulders, but will they lift a finger to move them? Not they! (vv 2-4).
If any good at all can come from the extremely painful situation that so many church leaders finds themselves in as a result of failure or alleged failure to take action in the matter of sexual abuse, it may be in the area of being forced to return to such passages of the Gospel and to ask whether the age-old refusal to apply them ‘domestically’, so to speak, needs some reassessment.
I am concluding, then, on a rather sombre note. I am happy in my scriptural work and will beaver on, knowing that other sons and daughters of Vatican II have much harder and more risky roads to traverse and much greater disappointments to confront. I can identify with the wistful comment of the two disciples on the way to Emmaus, ‘We were hoping ...’ (Luke 24:21). I know that the risen Lord still accompanies us, expounding the Scriptures, instructing us, perhaps, that our earlier Vatican II vision was too simple, too optimistic in a worldly sense; that we need to grasp again and again how it is through suffering, diminution and death that redemption, little by little, is achieved. Let us keep on going along the road on which he has been and remains our Companion.
On this era see B Rod Doyle, Biblical Studies in Australia: A Catholic Contribution:
A Short Survey and Bibliography, (Melbourne: David Lovell, 1990), esp. pp. 6-10.
This article is from a public lecture from Vatican 2: Memory and Hope – 40 Years On, a conference presented by the Forum of Australian Catholic Institutes of Theology (FACIT) with Australian Catholic University, and held at St Patrick’s Melbourne Campus of ACU in October, 2002.