By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Blaming Bible scholars for a crisis of faith in the West is a time-honored exercise in Christian thought, but after a fairly tough opening round for the Biblical guild during the current Synod of Bishops in Rome, notes of praise as well as burial are beginning to be heard.
Bemoaning the corrosive influence of skeptical currents in exegesis has long been a truly ecumenical enterprise. In the early years of the 20th century, both Pope Pius X in his anti-modernist encyclical Lamentabili sane, and the Bible Institute of Los Angeles in a series of tracts called The Fundamentals: A Testimony To The Truth (from which “fundamentalism” draws its name), put scientific study of the Bible squarely in the dock.
During the first round of speech-making in the Oct. 5-26 synod, a host of bishops revived this tradition, though in less polemical fashion. Archbishop Terrence Prendergast of Ottawa, Canada, for example, suggested that a “loss of confidence among Catholics that scripture truly communicates God’s revelation” may be related to “the influence of modern Biblical scholarship on preaching.”
One could be forgiven the impression that for some bishops, modern Bible scholarship ought to come with a warning label: “May be hazardous to your faith.” Even Pope Benedict XVI got into the act, describing what he called a “so-called mainstream of exegesis in Germany” which “denies that the Lord instituted the Holy Eucharist, and says that Jesus’ corpse stayed in the tomb.”
Yet when the circoli minores, or small groups, that are currently working on propositions to be submitted to the pope gave their initial reports late last week, several came to the defense of Bible scholars. The result suggests that some synod participants may be concerned that an excessively negative tone could risk demoralizing those Bible scholars who are trying to put their talents at the service of the church.
A German-language group led by Bishop Friedhelm Hofmann of Würzburg, for example, reported on Friday afternoon that it had detected “a certain fear about the historical-critical method” in the first round of debate in the synod. The group warned that such fear could “endanger the merits and fruits of scientific exegesis.”
A properly spiritual interpretation of the Bible, Hofman’s group said, requires scientific exegesis as its “premise.”
A Spanish working group led by Fr. Julian Carrón, president of the Communion and Liberation movement, proposed that the synod offer a note of thanks to Catholic institutes of Bible studies, “especially those in Rome and Jerusalem” – a clear reference to the Jesuit-run Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome and to the Dominican-run École Biblique in Jerusalem. Both are known for efforts to apply historical-critical tools to the study of scripture, though in the context of church teaching and tradition.
A French-language group led by Bishop Joseph Bouchard of Saint Paul in Alberta, Canada, suggested that references to Bible scholars in the synod documents be “positive,” since “the vocation of the exegete is to help the church’s judgment grow more mature.”
Taken together, the comments suggest that the synod is groping for a more balanced approach to historical-critical study, and the use of other scientific tools to understand the Bible, so that the other main point made by Benedict XVI in his brief remarks on Tuesday not get lost: Christianity is a historical religion, the pope said, not a myth, and hence it’s entirely appropriate that it be the subject of serious historical research.
Other points to emerge from the small group reports include:
•tA basically positive tone with regard to Liturgies of the Word, led in many cases by laity, in regions where priest shortages dictate that there is no regular access to the Sunday Eucharist.
•tA desire for deeper study of the reasons why some Catholics are defecting to Pentecostal and Evangelical movements, as well as repackaged versions of tribal and indigenous religion, in some parts of the world.
•tSupport for reading and reflecting on the Bible within small Christian communities, often referred to as “base communities” or “basic ecclesial communities.”
•tDeeper attention to the ecumenical and inter-religious dimension of the Bible, especially in relations with Jews.
•tNear-universal support for translations of the Bible into more languages, especially those spoken by poor and isolated communities.
•tDivision over three practical ideas that surfaced during the synod’s opening round: 1) a “compendium” or “directory” for homilists and preachers; 2) creating a special World Congress on the Word of God, analogous to existing Eucharistic Congresses; 3) revising the Lectionary, the collection of scripture readings for use at Mass. In each case, one group appeared to endorse the idea, while another expressed ambivalence or outright opposition.
The Synod of Bishops on "The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church" runs Oct. 5-26 in Rome.