By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Much mischief in Catholicism often results from over-emphasizing one or another pole of a continuum. For example, push too hard on the church as a hierarchy, and the result is an inflated notion of authority; put too much stress on the church as the “people of God,” and you get congregationalism.
Applied to the current Synod of Bishops on the Bible, this "both/and" feature of Catholicism means that the bishops need to do two things at once: foster a deeper knowledge and love for the Scriptures, without generating an exaggerated cult of the printed word divorced from broader notions of tradition and the living church. A more succint way of phrasing the point is this: How can the church stress the Bible as fundamental, without turning Catholics into fundamentalists?
Yesterday saw just such an effort to strike the right balance, with a forceful plea from a key papal advisor to reject the idea of Christianity as a “Religion of the Book.”
By most accounts, the afternoon’s most memorable address came from Bishop Salvatore Fisichella, the rector of the Lateran University and President of the Pontifical Academy for Life. Under any circumstances, ears would perk up when Fisichella takes the floor. He’s a longtime advisor to Pope Benedict XVI; the two men worked closely together, for example, on Pope John Paul II’s 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio. (The joke around Rome at the time was that the text could have been titled Fisichella et Ratzinger.)
Fisichella began yesterday by arguing that the document of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) on Scripture, Dei Verbum, offered a piece of “authentic dogmatic progress” that has yet to be adequately discovered and developed: Its stress on the unity of the sources of revelation.
(By way of background, the big debate over Dei Verbum at the time of the council pitted what was then known as the “two-source theory,” which held that Scripture and tradition are essentially two separate streams of revelation, against the “one-source theory,” which posited that Scripture is the lone source of revelation and tradition is an elaboration of it. In effect, Dei Verbum held that Scripture and tradition are interdependent and integrally related to one another.)
Fisichella said the failure to appreciate the solution offered by Dei Verbum has had dangerous consequences.
“Many believers, when asked what the phrase ‘Word of God’ means, respond: ‘The Bible,’” Fisichella said. “That response isn’t wrong, but it’s incomplete , or at least it reflects an incomplete perception of the richness present in the expression, and as a consequence it tends to identify Christianity as a ‘Religion of the Book.’”
“In our language, we shouldn’t fall into the ambivalent expression ‘the three religions of the Book,’” Fisichella said, referring to Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Instead, he insisted, Christianity is properly understood as a “religion of the Word.”
“It’s important that we commit ourselves to constructing a culture that sees Scripture as a living word,” Fisichella said. Otherwise, he warned, “we run the risk of humiliating the Word of God by reducing it exclusively to a written text, without the provocative capacity to give meaning to life.”
Fisichella asserted that the church finds itself facing an “educational emergency,” created by a culture in which the Bible is often seen as a collection of “myths, lacking any historical character and intended solely for the naïve.” In that context, he said, it’s critical to present Scripture in its “totality” – meaning that it’s part of a living tradition, which is ultimately aimed at salvation.
Fisichella’s call to reject the phrase “Religion of the Book” echoes a point already made by Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Quebec City, the relator of the synod, in his opening address. Ouellet, too, expressed a preference for the term “religion of the Word.”
Other notes struck yesterday afternoon:
•tBishop George Punnakottil of Kothamangalam, India, from the Syro-Malabar Church, offered a gentle rebuke to synod organizers for neglecting the Eastern tradition, noting that the working paper for the synod contained just eight citations from Eastern fathers. He argued that the Eastern perspective can help achieve one of the synod’s main aims, which is restoring spiritual depth to the way the Bible is read, beyond historical and literary analysis. Emphasizing development of the “inner eye of faith,” Punnakottil said that “true theologians are true saints.”
•tArchbishop Orlando Quevedo of Cotabato, Philippines, who also serves as secretary-general of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, stressed that “God spoke his Word especially for the sake of the poor.” Asia today, Quevedo said, is “a continent of the poor, of economic and political imbalances, of ethnic division and conflict.” Yet in precisely that context, he said, “thousands of small communities of the poor” are springing up, drawing strength and consolation from reading the Bible. Quevedo’s endorsement of “Basic Ecclesial Communities” carries particular importance in light of the controversy that has sometimes surrounded them, especially in Latin America but also in other parts of the world. Critics charge that base communities can be excessively political and sometimes at odds with the hierarchy, but Quevedo praised them as “communities of solidarity and fellowship at the grassroots, effectively challenging in their own little way the modern culture of secularism and materialism.”
•tBishop Desiderius Rwoma of Singida, Tanzania, returned to one of the most popular themes so far in the synod – the need for better homilies. “If we speak of people being lukewarm concerning matters of our faith, and the phenomenon of religious sects which are spreading at an alarming speed in many parts of the world, the causes for this can possibly be traced back to a lack of good and proper preaching,” Rwoma said. He proposed a return to “mystagogical preaching,” meaning a style that gradually leads people more deeply into the central mysteries of the faith.
•tBishop Filippo Santoro of Petropolis, Brazil, was the first to raise the issue of “extraordinary ministers,” referring to lay people who under certain circumstances play roles once performed exclusively by priests, such as distributing communion during the Mass. Santoro asserted that extraordinary ministers “by themselves, and in themselves, do not arouse an encounter with Christ,” but rather “can end up exacerbating the bureaucratization of the church.”