Review "The Word of God at Vatican II"

by Michael Sean Winters

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On November 14, 1962 the Second Vatican Council began its consideration of the text, De Fontibus, the proposed schema, drafted before the start of the Council by the Roman curia and its theologians, on the subject of divine revelation. As the title indicates, the text repeated the classic Roman understanding of revelation as springing from two sources, Scripture and Tradition, and it generally followed the standard line, ignoring many of the theological advances of the past decades.

The seventy-nine year old Cardinal Achille Leinart, of Lille, approached the microphone. He said the draft schema was entirely inadequate and demanded it be sent back for a complete overhaul. He was followed by others who supported his call for a complete re-draft, including Cologne’s Cardinal Joseph Frings, assisted at the Council by his theological advisor Fr. Joseph Ratzinger. After a few days of intense debate, a majority of the Council Fathers voted to reject the draft text, but not the two-thirds needed to affect that desire. Finally, after a week of nervous wondering about how to proceed, Pope John XXIII stepped in and ordered a complete re-draft. He entrusted the task to a commission to be jointly led by one of the Curia’s most ardent conservatives, Cardinal Ottaviani of the Holy Office, and one of Pope John’s favorites, Cardinal Bea, the leader of the ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue.  This was one of the pivotal moments in the Council, not only in its own right, but because of what it demonstrated about the Council as a whole. The Council Fathers were not going to simply rubber stamp the draft texts brought forth by the Roman curia, but would draw on new scholarship into the richness of the Catholic tradition, crafting texts that brought the Catholic Church fully into the modern world.

The eventual Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, would be ratified in the last session of the Council in 1965. For a variety of reasons, Dei Verbum has never gotten its due in the larger Catholic community. Everyone knows and cites Gaudium et Spes. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, opened the door for changes that immediately impacted Catholics in the pews, including the Mass in the vernacular and having the priest face the people at Mass. Nostra Aetate is rightly credited with opening a new, and happier, chapter in the Church’s long, ugly history with the Jewish people. But, Dei Verbum has been mostly the focus of Scripture scholars.

Rev. Ronald Witherup, SS, has just published a new book, The Word of God at Vatican II: Exploring Dei Verbum, which will hopefully bring new and much needed attention to this critical text. (Full disclosure: Fr. Witherup was on the faculty at Theological College when I was an inmate there, but ours paths did not cross overmuch. He is now the superior of the Society of Saint Sulpice.) The book is entirely accessible and blessedly concise. It would be perfect for use in adult faith formation class or in RCIA or for the general reader. It looks at the historical context out of which Dei Verbum came, and examines each paragraph of the document, explaining the key citations and those significances that might not be obvious to the average reader.

Witherup’s examination of the antecedents to Dei Verbum is especially helpful. There is a tendency in certain Catholic circles to believe that Vatican II fell from the sky, then through the window opened by Pope John XXIII. It did not. Witherup shows the influence of the teachings of the Council of Trent, which finalized the canon which had been challenged by Martin Luther, and while the documents of that council did not treat the subject of revelation explicitly, they did affirm the divine authorship of the sacred texts. Witherup notes that, “Although the decrees at Trent conclude with anathemas, condemnations of those who would go contrary to the church’s teaching, modern scholarship showed that Trent was less rigid and more nuanced than had usually been presumed.” That modern scholarship still remains under-appreciated in certain, mostly lefty, Catholic circles which dismiss Trent as a simple re-iteration of past teaching, failing to recognize that Trent was the greatest reforming council in the history of the Church. This false characterization of Trent extends beyond the subject of revelation. In terms of reform, Trent makes Vatican II look like a piker.

Vatican I, in 1879, re-affirmed the teachings of Trent, and despite its concerns about modern rationalism, it held that human reason has a role to play in “allowing humans to comprehend God’s revealed truth preserved in the faith.” Even at a time of great reaction, the Church, in its highest teaching authority, would not go down the fundamentalist or pietist path. Twenty-three years after Vatican I’s premature closing due to the Franco-Prussian War, Pope Leo XIII issued an encyclical Providentissimus Deus, which was cautious about new researches in archeology and literary studies, but nonetheless encouraged Catholic scholarship to utilize these new fields of research.

Whatever else one thinks of Pope Pius XII, his encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu, issued on September 30, 1943, was a watershed for Catholic biblical scholars, explicitly encouraging the study of literary forms and genres in the Bible, as well as archeological researches, in helping the Church to better understand the deposit of faith contained in the Scriptures. Pius XII did not cede the ultimate interpretation of the Scriptures to scholars, to be sure. The Church remained the guarantor of their authentic interpretation. But, he gave the papal stamp of approval to this area of theological research, something he was unwilling to do in other areas. His 1950 encyclical Humani Generis condemned much of the forward-leaning nouvelle theologie that had taken hold in French and other circles.

By the time the Council opened, Pius was gone and those he had condemned were rehabilitated: Witherup cites the influence of Yves Congar, Karl Rahner, Henri de Lubac, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Louis Bouyer, Edward Schillebeeckx, Hans Kung and Joseph Ratzinger on the conciliar texts and, the special influence of Gerard Philips and the “Lousvain school” on Dei Verbum. He also makes the important point that the nouvelle theologie was not that nouvelle at all, but was characterized specifically by a return to the biblical, patristic and medieval sources of theology, hence the other name for this school of innovative theological approach: ressourcement. Witherup observes, rightly, “Paradoxically again, revisiting the church’s more ancient history in these early sources would significantly revitalize the church in the modern period.”

Tomorrow, I will continue looking at this important new book. Today, I am traveling so no more posts today.  

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