Synod: Ambivalence about modern Bible scholarship continues to swirl

by John L. Allen Jr.

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Ambivalence about modern Biblical scholarship, which uses the same historical and literary tools to study scripture that one might apply to any other ancient text, continues to course through the Oct. 5-26 Synod of Bishops, devoted to “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church.”

On the one hand, speakers have praised the contributions of Biblical scholars and called their work “essential” for a proper understanding of scripture. Yet several have also warned about a gap between exegetes and the rest of the church, especially the bishops, and the need for scientific study to be understood as no more than an appetizer, so to speak, before the main course of deep spiritual meditation.

In other words, the concern is that using the methods of scientific study should not lead to seeing the Bible as no more than an interesting piece of ancient literature, rather than the living Word of God.

That note was struck yesterday afternoon, in various ways, by at least four participants in the synod: Archbishop Terrence Prendergast of Ottawa, Canada; Bishop Félix Lázaro Martínez of Ponce, Puerto Rico; Cardinal William Levada, an American who heads the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; and Fr. Julián Carrón, President of the Communion and Liberation movement.
tLázaro, for example, called for “mutual exchange between theology and exegesis.”

“It is the People of God,” he said, “who suffer the consequences of the existing dichotomy between theology and exegesis.”

Levada said that while the church must “treasure scientific research by the exegetes,” nonetheless “the interpretation of the Holy Scriptures cannot be only an individual scientific effort, but should always be compared, inserted and authenticated by the living tradition of the church.”

Prendergast called for the synod to ponder “the loss of confidence among Catholics that scripture truly communicates God’s revelation” and “how this may have been brought about by the influence of modern Biblical scholarship on preaching.” He also suggested renewal in “the church’s understanding of the spiritual sense of scripture” as a possible remedy.

Other notes struck yesterday afternoon include:

•tArchbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., pointed to “a highly secular and materialistic world view,” with an exaggerated focus on the individual, as a major pastoral challenge. He recommended efforts in preaching and religious education to connect the Bible readings presented in the Lectionary with the doctrinal teaching found in the Cathechism of the Catholic Church.
•tArchbishop Tomash Peta of Astana, Kazakhstan, in effect echoed Cardinal Marc Ouellet’s call for a “Marian paradigm” in the interpretation of scripture, though without directly using that term. He argued that Mary is the “key to understanding the Bible,” both in terms of her openness of heart and her “complete union with Jesus.”
•tBishop Eduardo Patiño Leal of Córdoba, Mexico, was the first to raise the issue of “private revelation,” meaning spontaneous eruptions of alleged divine revelation in venues such as Marian apparitions (The on-going reports of revelation from Mary in Medjugorje, Bosnia, are probably the best-known contemporary example). In broad strokes, Patiño called for caution in approaching private revelation: “Simple people of good will are drawn to alleged manifestations,” he said, “but sometimes they transform themselves into isolated religious groups within the Catholic church who spread devotions and spiritual pointers whose origins are to be found in ‘private messages and revelations,’ that have to be evaluated with care and that still have to provide an impulse toward overall public revelation in the living tradition of the church.”
•tFr. Heinz Steckling, Superior General of the Oblate Missionaries, urged synod members not to restrict their sense of God’s Word to the printed page, but rather also to be attentive to what God might be saying “in human culture, in inter-religious dialogue, in our own life history.” The Bible, he said, is like a language school in which one learns to hear God, but “it would remain dead letters on a page if we spent our whole lives in school without going out to hear God’s voice in the world around us.”
•tBeyond the nexus between the Bible and the church, Levada also stressed the importance of the Bible in the search for unity among the divided branches of the Christian family. He noted that through the centuries, the Bible has sometimes been a source of division – citing, for example, the Arian heresy and the Protestant Reformation. Nevertheless, he said, “attention given to the written Word of God is certainly a very strong bond that draws the Catholic church closer to the other confessions in the common search.”
•tPerhaps the day’s most practical speech came from Bishop Peter Ingham of Wollongong, Australia, who focused at some length on the role of the lector at Mass, meaning the person who reads the scripture passages aloud. Some lectors read too fast, Ingham complained, and others don’t give each word or bit of punctuation their due. He recommended practice reading aloud before Mass.
•tOn a more lofty theological note, Bishop Oscar Brown Jiménez of Santiago de Verguas in Panama stressed the link between the Eucharist and the Bible. In that context, he suggested that perhaps the Western church should steal a page from the East, speaking of a “double epiclesis,” or calling down of the Holy Spirit, during the Mass – one which is implicit in the liturgy of the Word, and the other which is explicit in the words of consecration that transform the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. After all, Brown argued, it’s the same Holy Spirit present in both.
• Archbishop Geraldo Lyrio Rocha of Mariana, Brazil, stressed the importance of Liturgies of the Word in communities that lack a priest. He said that in Brazi, an astonishing 70 percent of Catholic communities do not have regular Sunday celebrations of the Eucharist, a reflection of severe priest shortages in much of Latin America. (In the United States and Europe, the ratio of priests to Catholics is roughly 1-1,300; in Latin America, it's closer to 1-7,000.)

Each morning before the work of the synod begins, the bishops and other participants take part in a brief rite of morning prayer. As part of the service, a different bishop offers a brief spiritual reflection – ideally, modeling the sort of good homiletic practice for which various speakers have called.

This morning’s reflect was delivered by Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco of Genoa, who is also president of the Italian bishops’ conference. Speaking primarily to his brother bishops, Bagnasco said that pastors are painfully aware of their “moral and anthropological poverty” and the “insufficiency of our powers” facing the great challenges of the day. He called upon bishops to keep their gaze fastened upon Christ, and to be for one another a “small ray” of Christ’s light.

In other business, the synod yesterday chose moderators and relators for the small groups in various languages. Two Americans were tapped: Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, president of the U.S. bishops' conference, was elected moderator of one English-language group, and Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucscon, vice-president of the U.S. conference, was chosen as relator of the same group.

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