Synod: For the first time, the pope speaks

By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Rome

For anyone with a spare dollar looking to make a wager about the Synod of Bishops, here’s the safest bet in the world, in the wake of this morning’s session: There will be a proposition on the relationship between exegesis and theology among the final recommendations presented to Pope Benedict XVI.

Truth to be told, the relationship between Biblical interpretation and other areas of Catholic theology had already emerged as a major concern. This morning, however, Pope Benedict himself took the unusual – indeed, quite possibly unprecedented – step of explicitly recommending that the bishops adopt a proposition on how exegetes and theologians can better inform each other’s work.

The recommendation was delivered viva voce, as Benedict XVI took the microphone at the synod for the first time. He spoke immediately after the customary 10:30 am coffee break; Archbishop Nikola Eterovich, secretary of the synod, informed the group that they would have to interrupt their normal program “because our president wishes to address us.”

Technically, the pope is also president of the Synod of Bishops.

The Vatican is expected to release a transcript of the pope’s remarks either later today or tomorrow. For now, the official Vatican bulletin has simply reported: "Starting from the consideration of the work for his book Jesus of Nazareth, the Holy Father dwelt upon the fundamental criteria of Biblical exegesis, upon the dangers of a secularized and positivistic approach to the Sacred Scriptures and upon the need for a closer relationship between exegesis and theology."

Synod sources said that he spoke for a little less than ten minutes, drawing upon notes that he had apparently made in a small notebook.

In broad terms, those sources said, his topic was the need for historical-critical interpretation of the Bible to take Christian faith as its point of departure, because otherwise its risks treating the Bible as simply a “book of the past.” In that regard, the pope apparently suggested that exegesis needs to be better integrated into theology, so that it is seen less as a self-standing enterprise, and more as part of a broad effort to combine reason and faith.

As part of his reflection, Benedict reportedly suggested to the bishops that a proposition on the relationship between exegesis and theology would be helpful – making it all but a foregone conclusion that at least one such proposition will be offered.

Since the propositions are addressed to the pope in any event, as suggestions for whatever document he may eventually issue on the topic of the synod, it’s also a safe bet that Benedict XVI will discuss the need to treat scripture as “the soul of theology” in that text.

Sources said that the pope was greeted by a hearty round of applause at the close of his remarks.

This is the second Synod of Bishops under Benedict XVI, and the second time the pope has chosen to address the bishops towards the end of the initial round of speech-making, as the agenda for the synod’s final documents is beginning to take shape. In each case, Benedict has reflected briefly on what had emerged as a central concern during those opening speeches. During the Synod on the Eucharist in 2005, Benedict spoke about the relationship between the horizontal and vertical dimensions of the Mass, meaning the twin images of the Mass as a meal and as a sacrifice – suggesting they need to held together rather than put in tension.

The pope appears to have struck a similar note this time around about the relationship between exegesis and theology – suggesting that offering both/and solutions to seemingly either/or problems may be emerging as what one might call the "synodal specialty" of Benedict XVI.

Benedict has been present for most of the synod’s deliberations thus far, including the hour set aside for “free discussion” at the end of each day. That hour was set aside at Benedict’s request for the 2005 synod, and has now become a part of the event’s formal structure.

Fr. Bryan Massingale of Marquette University, President-elect of the Catholic Theological Society of America, acknowledged that sometimes exegetes and theologians struggle to stay on the same page -- not, for the most part, because of ill will or intellectual disagreements, but rather the compartmentalized nature of the academy these days.

"As theology becomes more and more specialized, we need to create opportunities in which theologians and exegetes can pursue collaborative projects," Massingale said in a telephone interview this afternoon.

Massingale said one such initiative is already underway at Marquette: a new inter-disciplinary seminar titled "Theological Interpretation of Scripture."

"We may still run into disagreements over what constitutes theological interpretation of the Bible," Massingale said, "but at least there's the beginnings of a conversation."


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