Synod: Interview with Cardinal William Levada

Interview with Cardinal William Levada
October 16, 2008

Cardinal William Levada, the former Archbishop of San Francisco, is the first American to serve as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the powerful Vatican department once known as the “Holy Office.” Colloquially, it's also been called, in Italian, La Suprema – the “supreme” office in the Vatican power structure. Levada, 72, was appointed to the position by Pope Benedict XVI. He worked under then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger early in the future pope’s own tenure at the Holy Office, and later became a bishop member of the congregation.

Born in Long Beach, California, Levada is serving as one of three co-presidents of the Synod of Bishops on the Bible. He’s probably one of the busiest men in the assembly, because unlike bishops who are far away from their dioceses, he’s shuttling between his office and the synod hall every day.

On Thursday afternoon, he sat down for a rare interview in the offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The conversation was focused entirely on the present synod. The following is a complete transcript of the interview.

By design and also in the doing, this has been a very pastoral synod. Nonetheless, are there important doctrinal points that have emerged from the discussion?

Points of doctrine have been relatively few. They’d be related to Dei Verbum, I would think. [Note: Dei Verbum was a document of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) on divine revelation.] For example, the point that the pope himself addressed about the historical-critical method, which was mentioned in Dei Verbum as well as a note of the Pontifical Biblical Commission and Divino Afflante Spiritu. [Note: A 1943 encyclical of Pope Pius XII on scripture, which opened the door to use of the historical-critical method by Catholic Biblical scholars.] It’s had its own history now for forty years.

I think the pope’s comments concerned what he thought would be helpful in indicating what it useful in this method, but how the method itself has to have its own critique, both from within and without. I think what he sought to do was to create a bridge, which would help bring together the comments from both sides that you hear in the synod. Some have criticized the historical-critical method, on the grounds that it’s difficult to overcome the philosophical suppositions which formed its basis for many of the method’s original followers. Others see it as a useful tool for coming to a better understanding of the literal and historical sense of scripture. I think [dealing with this topic] is one thing that would be very helpful.

Another doctrinal issue concerns inspiration and inerrancy, which has come up a few times, and which can perhaps be given more thought in this next step in the synod process of preparing the propositions to recommend to the Holy Father. If the synod thinks it’s wise to put forward a clear position on inspiration and inerrancy, I’m sure they will ask the Holy Father to do that.

There have been suggestions in the synod that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith might consider putting out a document on inerrancy. Do you think the timing is right for such a document, or is there a need for further reflection?

Here’s the typical strategy for our documents. The Holy Father will receive these recommendations, and certainly if he were to pass that on to us, we would start an examination. The first judgment we would make is, is it opportune? Do we have sufficient elements for a magisterial document of the Holy See at this time? Or, is it still being discussed in a way that we don’t see it as a likely prospect? That goes through a whole process. There are theologians who comment on it, and then we’d usually bring it to the feria quarta, the meeting of the cardinals, and then their opinion will be submitted to the pope. If we thought it was not opportune, we would say so, but if he asks us to do it, then it’s altogether likely we would come up with something.

Do you have a personal sense of whether the time is right?

Well, one of things about inerrancy is that it also has a pastoral dimension. It’s not simply a doctrinal issue. In the light of the wide range of readings – the liberal, you might even call it the modernist, exegesis and critique of scripture, over against the fundamentalist ideas on the inerrancy of the Bible – I think that there is an apologetic value to some attempt to clarify that question. What I could call the view of an uncritical literalism is the kind of view that the modern, aggressive atheists hold up as the basis of their critique. How can there be a God, if this is what he’s speaking, what he’s revealing? They look at that as a kind of negative proof.

Almost a reductio ad absurdum on Christian faith?


I know you don’t want to prejudge the results of any study the congregation might do, but in a nutshell, what can we say to people who wonder what the Catholic church teaches about the inerrancy of the Bible?

I think Dei Verbum has stated a very clear and effective position, which is the teaching of the church.

As you know, however, there’s been a debate for forty years over the precise meaning of Dei Verbum. Some say it means that inerrancy applies only to those things in the Bible that concern our salvation, while others say all of scripture is inerrant, even if not always in the literal, factual sense.

I would say that’s a minor distinction compared to the major point, which is that the teaching of the Bible is a teaching about what God wants us to know for our salvation. How that teaching is proposed, with all of its human clothing, and, sometimes, its lovely language – what you might call its warts – doesn’t take away, I don’t think, from the central point of how Dei Verbum summed up the teaching of the church, and I think did so very well. A [new] document might have to try to tease out some of the implications of that, but I don’t think that’s a major point. I would call it a minor one.

A point that both the Holy Father and several bishops in the synod have raised is the relationship between theologians and exegetes. You have a somewhat unique perspective, because both the International Theological Commission and the Pontifical Biblical Commission fall under your authority. How do you see that relationship today?

Well, I would stand with the Holy Father! (laughs)

He’s obviously done a lot of thinking about this, and you can see part of his thinking in his book Jesus of Nazareth. He says, here are the principles that I use, and that I have come to think are most helpful in dealing with this. I know that in the past, he has expressed misgivings of one kind and another about over-reliance on the historical-critical method. My point is that the underlying principles of the method can be overcome by people who are grounded in the Catholic faith, and who see the faith as the overarching purpose of the scriptures. Therefore, it’s not historical detail, or bracketing out a way of looking at the composition of the scriptures. Rather, it’s seeing the fact that all the scriptures have as their author the Holy Spirit, and therefore the faith of the church is the determining aspect of what God intends us to know through the revelation he makes in the scriptures. That’s the underlying point that needs to be kept in mind.

As you know, the Holy Father said that in Germany today, in his view, the majority of the mainstream exegetes do not share a faith that opens them to belief in the hand of God, going beyond our present view of what’s natural. It excludes the resurrection of Christ, for example, or the Eucharist. So, those things are important in the formation of exegetes, which is the point he wanted to make. Today, you see an exegetical method which, by its nature, tries to bracket out a limited context. But exegesis has to look at the theological context, the faith of the whole church, how this relates to what God intends to say. If you leave that out, you don’t have a reliable method for Catholic exegesis of the scriptures. I think that’s fair to say.

That’s the theoretical level. Practically, do you have any suggestions for how exegetes and theologians might collaborate more effectively? I suppose one of the dynamics is the highly compartmentalized nature of the modern university.

That’s exactly right. This has been thought about for a long time, going back to Lonergan’s method in theology. [Note: Bernard Lonergan (1904-84) was a Canadian Jesuit known for his writings on theological methodology.] How do you deal with the increasing specialization? How do you foster dialogue in the academy to over the compartmentalization of a discipline? That’s the invitation the Holy Father makes. Exegetes and theologians are going to have to sit down together to look at the foundations of their own methodologies. In some ways, I think theologians are more bound, since the Bible is the soul of theology, to be aware of updated scriptural scholarship. Sometimes one gets the impression that scripture scholars, as a result of their specialization, bracket out any contact with the doctrine of the church.

Is there sometimes a fear among exegetes that theology could almost taint the results of their investigations?

That may be. I can’t say that, because I don’t want to make any accusations. But I think what the Holy Father is proposing, and what I hope the synod would propose as well, is that we make a special appeal to Catholic exegetes and Catholic theologians to talk to each other, to dialogue about the methodologies of their particular specializations. Of course, theology is not itself a specialization, but, you might say, a requirement of deepening our understanding of the revealed Word. In any event, we need to see how those two [exegesis and theology] work together. I’ve been trying to promote that in regard to homilies, and the pastoral presentation of scripture, to show the link with the faith of the church.

We can look at the Mass as the classic paradigm for the church’s use of the scriptures. They proclaim the Word, the preacher is asked to unfold the Word, and then you’re invited to say the Creed and to profess the Creed. It seems to me that this dynamic is one that ought to be paradigmatic for the way of looking at how the church reads the scriptures, reflects on the scriptures, and finds in the scriptures the elements that she needs to profess in her faith.

Cardinal Marc Ouellet, in his opening speech for the synod, floated the idea that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith could organize some symposia or other events to bring exegetes and theologians into conversation. Do you think that’s a possibility?

I think it is. That happened some years ago, when Cardinal Ratzinger was the prefect. Maybe we should go back to the acts of that symposium, and look at what might need further updating and further comment. That’s a good suggestion.

Of course, there’s a tendency in these meetings sometimes to think that the congregation is the solution to all of our problems.

It isn’t!

If this is going to bear fruit, it also has to happen at lower levels throughout the church. Is this the kind of thing that Catholic universities, for example, ought to be working on?

Of course. You mentioned at the beginning that this synod is a very pastoral synod, and all of these are things that the bishops themselves will want to take into account. They’ll want to try to encourage both scholars and pastoral agents to move forward. I don’t think there will be any restriction [on those possibilities.] Everything doesn’t have to depend on what our congregation does.

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