On the first day of talks today at the Synod of Bishops on the Bible, which opened here Oct. 5, one theme seems to be emerging: 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.
And in a historical first, a rabbi addressed the synod and indirectly criticized the late Pope Pius XII for his alleged silence during the Holocaust.
Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Quebec City, the relator of the synod, issued a strong call 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. The synod runs through Oct. 26th.
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 was created by Pope Paul VI in 1969 to give the bishops of the world a regular voice in the governance of the universal church.
Delegates to this synod include 180 bishops representing episcopal conferences around the world, 24 members of the Roman Curia, 10 heads of religious orders, and 32 clerics appointed directly by the pope. There are also 37 observers, of whom 19 this time are women, and 41 experts who will advise the members during their deliberations.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops will be represented by five delegates: Cardinal Francis George of Chicago and Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., the president and vice-president of the conference, as well as Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Houston, Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, and Byzantine rite Archbishop Basil M. Schott. American Cardinal William Levada will serve as one of three co-presidents of the synod in his capacity as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Two Americans have been named by the pope as “auditors,” meaning non-voting observers: Carl Anderson, supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus, and Sr. M. Clare Millea, superior general of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Three Americans will also be among the expert advisers: Fr. Peter Damian Akpunonu of Our Lady of the Lake University in Mundelein, Ill.; Msgr. Timothy Verdon, a canon of the cathedral in Florence, Italy; and Sr. Sarah Butler of St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie, N.Y.
One highlight of the synod is that for the first time, the bishops will also be addressed by a representative of another faith. Rabbi Shear-Yashuv Cohen, co-chair of an Israeli-Vatican dialogue commission and the chief rabbi of Haifa, will lead a discussion on Jewish interpretation of scripture on Monday, the second day of the synod.
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.
Meanwhile, the first rabbi ever to address a Synod of Bishops praised the church’s commitment to dialogue with Jews, but he also issued a reminder of Jewish/Catholic tensions by indirectly criticizing the late Pope Pius XII, the wartime pope whose alleged silence during the Holocaust has long been a subject of controversy.
On Thursday, Benedict XVI will lead a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the death of Pius XII in 1958.
At the end of a brief speech to the synod this afternoon on the Jewish approach to the Bible, Rabbi Shear-Yashuv Cohen said he wanted to turn to “contemporary issues,” including a reference to Pius XII.
“We cannot forget the sad and painful fact of how many, including great religious leaders, didn’t raise a voice in the effort to save our brethren, but chose to keep silent and help secretly,” said Cohen, the Chief Rabbi of Haifa in Israel.
“We cannot forgive and forget, and we hope you understand our pain, our sorrow,” Cohen said, speaking to an audience of some 253 cardinals, archbishops and bishops, as well as Benedict XVI.
Cohen never mentioned Pius XII by name, though in context the reference was obvious. Earlier in the day Cohen gave an interview to the Reuters news service in which he said that had he realized his visit to the Vatican would coincide with ceremonies commemorating the death of Pius XII, he might not have come.