Martini's 'preemptive strike' ahead of Synod on the Bible

by John L. Allen Jr.

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Looking ahead to next October’s Synod of Bishops on the Bible, a cardinal and one of the most noted experts on scripture in the Catholic hierarchy has launched what amounts to a “preemptive strike” – appealing to his brother bishops to concentrate on practical matters, rather than revisiting theological questions settled by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the former archbishop of Milan and a former rector of the Pontficial Biblical Institute in Rome, published his recommendations in the Feb. 2 issue of La Civiltà Cattolica, a Jesuit-run journal that enjoys a semi-official Vatican status.

Martini, a Jesuit, is widely regarded as a leading voice for the progressive wing of the Catholic church. His essay on the Synod suggests concern that next October’s Synod could be an occasion for reconsidering, or even reversing, choices about scripture made by the progressive majority at Vatican II.

Pope Benedict XVI has appointed Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Quebec, another scripture scholar, to lead the October synod on the topic of “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church,” along with Austrian-born Bishop Wilhelm E. Egger of Bolzano-Bressanone, Italy, as his special secretary. The synod is scheduled to meet Oct. 5-26.

In substance, Martini’s essay is a defense of the Vatican II document Dei Verbum, the Dogmagtic Constitution on Divine Revelation, which he calls “perhaps the most beautiful” text of the council. Though Martini does not make the point, it is also the Vatican II document with which a young German theologian named Joseph Ratzinger, today Pope Benedict XVI, was most involved.

“It will be important, above all, to look to this conciliar document in order to have a secure point of reference, Martini writes, and “to avoid the danger of prolonged and abstract discussions.”

Martini then divides his reflections into three categories: “some things to avoid,” “themes not necessary to discuss much,” and “topics to pursue.”

Matters to Avoid

Martini appeals to synod participants “not to descend beneath the happy formulas of Vatican II.”

For example, Martini cites Dei Verbum’s assertion that what is most important about scripture is not so much “the individual truths revealed, but the God who reveals himself” in its pages. Martini also points to the document’s description of faith as “human beings freely committing themselves to God,” and of tradition as the process through which “the church, in its doctrine, in its life and its worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she is, and all that she believes.”

Martini also calls for upholding Vatican II’s affirmation that “The magisterium is not above the Word of God, but rather in service to it.”

“It’s important to take care that formulas not be used which would carry us backwards with respect to the Second Vatican Council,” Martini writes.

As an example of this danger, Martini cites a bit of Italian translation from the final document of the 1985 Synod of Bishops. In Latin, the text used the phrase Ecclesia sub Verbo Dei, or “the church under the Word of God.” In Italian, however, the phrase came out as La Chiesa nella parola di Dio, or “the church in the Word of God.”

Themes Not Necessary to Discuss Much

It’s important, Martini writes, not to waste time in the synod “reprising those themes which were already treated fully at Vatican II, and about which it’s not possible for the moment to expect significant new contributions.”

Martini cites two examples: the relationship between scripture and tradition, and discussion of the historical-critical method of Biblical interpretation.

On the first point, Martini recalls the lively debate at Vatican II about how to understand the relationship between scripture and tradition. In 1962, in fact, when a preliminary vote on the subject was taken, the council appeared almost evenly divided and “some feared it would be impossible to move forward.”

Pope John XXIII then intervened to take the draft off the table, asking a commission led by Cardinals Alfredo Ottaviani, an Italian and the conservative head of the Vatican’s doctrinal office, and Augustin Bea, a German and a leader of the progressive forces at Vatican II, to produce a new text.

In substance, the final document approved by the council in 1965 asserts that tradition, scripture and the teaching office of the church are mutually inter-dependent, rather than seeing them as essentially parallel streams of revelation and authority.

“I recalled briefly this episode to suggest how unproductive it would be today to revisit these discussions,” Martini writes. “What was achieved with great effort, and without a degree of compromise, does not merit reconsideration, especially facing more urgent practical and pastoral matters.”

On the historical-critical method, meaning the effort to understand the various parts of scripture using the tools of historical science and literary analysis, Martini recalls that forty years ago some Catholics regarded these approaches as “incompatible with the faith.”

In the meantime, Martini observes, the church has issued several other documents examining the merits and the limits of these critical tools. He points to a 1964 instruction from the Pontifical Biblical Commission, as well as the 1995 document from that commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church.

The synod, Martini suggests, should content itself largely with echoing the contents of these documents – which were broadly approving of historical-critical study, as long as a faith perspective is not lost.

Topics to Pursue

Martini urges the synod to become an occasion for “a great examination of conscience by the entire church on the fruits it draws from sacred scripture.” In general, Martini counsels a focus on pastoral applications rather than theological underpinnings.

The majority of Catholics, Martini writes, “have not yet reached that level of familiarity with scripture that was hoped for by Vatican II.” He cites an Italian study, for example, which found that 70 percent of Italian Catholics have never read the four gospels, and another 15 percent have done so only once.

Yet paragraph 25 of Dei Verbum, Martini recalls, asserts that “ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ.” Those words, he writes, should constitute “a goal, and an important moment in the pastoral planning of every bishop.”

Observing the explosion in Catholic Biblical commentaries and study aids in the years since Vatican II, Martini says that “it’s inexcusable that a Catholic lay person, and much more a priest or religious, should claim that they don’t use scripture because they don’t have adequate supports.”

Martini also argues for a distinction between scripture study and catechesis, arguing that it’s desirable for catechetical materials to utilize scripture, but that nothing substitutes for direct contact with the Bible itself.

In that connection, Martini voices “a desire, perhaps a bit Utopian, but nonetheless important”: During every daily Mass, he proposes, a three-minute explanation of the scripture readings for the day should be offered.

“Experience shows that it’s possible in three minutes to give an ‘input’ that will help shape the day,” Martini writes, arguing that to be effective this presentation has to be well-prepared.

Finally, Martini turns to the ecumenical and inter-religious dimension of the Bible, focusing especially on the need to respect contemporary Jewish exegesis of Scripture as a means for “overcoming every possible form of anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism.”

“It’s not enough to avoid anti-Semitic sentiments,” Martini writes. “It’s necessary to come to love the Jewish people in all the expressions of their life and culture: their literature, their art, their folklore, their religiosity.”

“Only then,” Martini writes, “can we achieve those bonds that allow us not only to overcome diffidence and prejudice, but to collaborate for the common good of humanity.”

Martini has long been a leader in Jewish/Catholic relations; following his retirement from the Archdiocese of Milan, Martini spends part of each year at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Jerusalem.

With regard to the role of the Bible in relation to other religions, Martini writes that experience “is not very developed,” and it will be up to the synod to ponder what more can be done.

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