Synod: The Bible beyond empty piety and parsing to death

by John L. Allen Jr.

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Already, one clear theme seems to be emerging at the Synod of Bishops on the Bible: the desire for a deeply spiritual way of reading Scripture, one that lies beyond both empty piety and parsing the text to death through historical and literary study.

Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Quebec City, the relator of the synod, issued a strong call this morning for what he called “spiritual exegesis” of the Bible, premised not just on cognitive understanding but, above all, on personal faith and commitment.

Prominent in Ouellet’s audience this morning in the Vatican’s Synod Hall was Pope Benedict XVI, who plans to be present for most of the discussions over the next three weeks.

Ouellet proposed a new “Marian paradigm” for Scripture study – using the Virgin Mary as a model of a response to God’s Word that, in his words, is “dynamic,” “dialogical,” and “contemplative.”

Among other things, Ouellet argued that the Bible has to be seen as part of a broader relationship with Jesus Christ, the “living Word of God,” that’s both personal and also rooted in the community of the church.

Christianity is not really a “religion of the Book,” Ouellet said, but rather a “religion of the Word – not solely or mainly of the Word in its written form.”

The Synod of Bishops on the Bible meets Oct. 5-26 in Rome. This morning, the 253 bishops and other participants heard Ouellet’s relatio ante disputationem, an opening speech intended to set the tone.

Scientific study of the Bible arose in the 19th century, partly as a protest against what was then seen as an overly pietistic approach – one which failed to do justice to the complexities of Scripture, including the human limits and biases of its authors and the clear evidence of historical development within the Bible itself. Especially since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), Catholic Bible scholarship made great strides towards a more rigorous form of study, drawing on archeology, linguistics, and the social sciences, but some charge that in the process the spiritual dimension of the Bible was either forgotten or deliberately suppressed.

In effect, Ouellet’s argument amounted to a plea to bring science and spirituality together in order to rediscover the “divine depth” of Scripture.

“Either the exegetes and theologians rigorously interpret the Bible in faith and listening to the Spirit,” Ouellet said, “or they hold to the superficial characteristics of the text, limiting the considerations to historical, linguistic or literary ones.”

Ouellet argued that the Bible must be read within the “living tradition” of the church, especially its official teaching authority, in order to avoid what he termed “subjectivist” readings. He was also critical of what he called “a questioning of the unity of the scriptures and excessive fragmentation of interpretations” among some Biblical scholars, as well as a “climate of often unhealthy tension between university theology and the ecclesiastical magisterium.”

To improve that climate, Ouellet suggested that the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith promote dialogue among pastors, theologians and Biblical experts.

Ouellet, a Sulpician priest, wrote his doctoral dissertation on the famed Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, and his speech today was in many ways a classic von Balthasarian analysis, insisting that theological reflection must be rooted in the faith and tradition of the church – what von Balthasar described as a “kneeling theology.”

Thus Ouellet placed great stress on reading the Bible within the context of the liturgy, especially the Eucharist, as well as the fathers of the church and the great saints. He called the liturgy the “crib” of God’s word, its “Sitz im Leben” – a technical term from Bible studies that means its social context.

Among other things, Ouellet said, situating the Bible in the context of the liturgy underscores its “performative virtue,” meaning that it’s intended to “make things happen” in the lives of those who hear it.

Ouellet also called for improved homilies.

“We still feel a great lack of satisfaction on the part of many faithful with regards to the ministry of preaching,” Ouellet said. “In part, this explains why many Catholics turned towards other groups and religions.”

Ouellet recommended a style of preaching that resists “the tendency towards moralism,” but which focuses on the “today” of the community.

Ouellet also suggested greater use of Lectio Divina, a form of prayerful meditation on the Bible, as well as the Divine Office, the daily prayer of the Catholic church, which draws above all on the Psalms.

Ouellet pointed to the Bible as a resource for dialogue with other Christian churches and other religions, especially Judaism and Islam.

With regard to Muslims, Ouellet argued that Christians should see them as natural allies: “Faced with secularization and liberalism, they are allies in the defense of human life and in the assertion of the social importance of religion,” he said.

Earlier in the morning, Cardinal William Levada, an American who serves as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and is one of three co-presidents of the Synod, delivered a welcome to Benedict XVI.

Levada stressed the “indissoluble unity” between the Bible and the “living ecclesial tradition,” adding that “it is not from Scripture alone that the church draws her certainty about everything that has been revealed.”

“This involves the rejection of any interpretation that is subjective or purely experiential or the fruit of a unilateral analysis,” Levada said.

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