Skip to main content

How The Catholic Church Wrestled with Scriptural Modernity FIRST OF TWO PARTS

Volume 31, Issue 1,2 & 3, March 21, 2017
By

John T. Shields, Victoria

     Years ago when I was in high school, my Jesuit teacher my class that the Catholic Church was a human and fallible institution that could make serious and terrible mistakes. There was one exception: when it formally taught matters of belief and morals, they said, it was divinely protected from error. That protection is called the doctrine of infallibility.
     In 1870 the First Vatican Council proclaimed that the Ecumenical Councils and the Pope were protected from error when they articulated the doctrine of the Church. Ecumenical Councils like Vatican II are considered the highest teaching authority within the Church. When he called the Council, Pope John XXIII intended to update the Catholic Church’s message in the modern world. Not all the documents were thought to be infallible, but they were all the supreme teaching authority on practice and belief.
     Any important new teaching was debated and passed overwhelmingly by the bishops at Vatican II, namely The Dogmatic Constitution On Divine Revelation (DEI VERBUM). Experts from a wide array of disciplines and including scientists, linguistic scholars and biblical scholars from the Jewish, Protestant and Catholic communions had been working since the middle of the 20th century to integrate the evidence of their amazing discoveries. 
     In the years after the World War II, extensive archeology had shed new light on peoples and nations in the ancient Middle East. Cities that had been buried long before the time of Christ divulged evidence of the culture, religions and languages of long lost actors in the biblical story. The resulting new knowledge radically changed the perception of the Old Testament. It also changed the way biblical interpretation needed to be practiced.
     The following excerpt from “Dei Verbum” expresses the evolved thinking of the biblical scholars, which the Council accepted as necessary to accurately interpret biblical passages. For a thousand or more years Christianity had insisted that the Bible should be interpreted literally. But the preponderance of evidence persuaded the Council Fathers that it was necessary to update that outdated thinking. 
     12. However, since God speaks in Sacred Scripture through men in human fashion, the interpreter of Sacred Scripture, in order to see clearly what God wanted to communicate to us, should carefully investigate what meaning the sacred writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words.
     To search out the intention of the sacred writers, attention should be given, among other things, to “literary forms.” For truth is set forth and expressed differently in texts which are variously historical, prophetic, poetic, or of other forms of discourse. The interpreter must investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express and actually expressed in particular circumstances by using contemporary literary forms in accordance with the situation of his own time and culture (emphasis added). For the correct understanding of what the sacred author wanted to assert, due attention must be paid to the customary and characteristic styles of feeling, speaking and narrating which prevailed at the time of the sacred writer, and to the patterns men normally employed at that period in their everyday dealings with one another.
     By stressing the role of the writer, Vatican II recognized that the production of the biblical texts was a human activity, with full appreciation of the literary means that the authors used to express the intended meaning. With the recognition of the human role in the creation of the various books, the traditional understanding of inspiration is fleshed out and brought into harmony with the appreciation of the role of authorship. If a reader does not comprehend the intent and context of the author, the reader will not understand what was intended in its expression and can easily come to an inaccurate interpretation of the passage. 
     This change is based on rigorous scholarship that the best scientific tools had made available in the 20th century. Nonetheless, the effect of this change for the Church was potentially far-reaching. Within only a few years of the conclusion of the Council the new biblical teaching would cause a crisis of enormous proportions. 
     When the new understanding of the change was applied to a key Catholic dogma it would shake the religion to its foundation. The requirement to understand what the author intended would void a fundamental and long held tenet with profound and unexpected implication for the doctrine of Original Sin.
     Biblical scholars were convinced that the authors of Genesis not teaching history and never intended their readers to take the Garden of Eden story literally. Rather than recounting ancient history, the authors of the early passages of Genesis wrote to motivate the Israelites to counter the theology of the Persians who had recently conquered the Babylonians. Before I get too far ahead of my explanation of the crisis I need to fill in some other discoveries about Israelite history.
     First, the books of Genesis and Exodus were not as old as previously assumed. Scientific dating from internal sources and external evidence established that those books were not written in the time of Moses, but about five hundred years later. The era of the authorship was the end of the period when the Israelites were in captivity in Babylon. The Persia armies had defeated Babylon and the new emperor had decreed that the exiles were free to return to their homeland. Even though they were free to leave Babylon, the bulk of captive Jews were electing to stay in the most affluent city in the ancient world rather than return to Jerusalem and the heir vanquished lands. The priestly leaders wrote Genesis and Exodus to persuade their recalcitrant followers to leave Babylonia by appealing to the way that Abraham, the Father of their nation, had followed the calling of Yahweh and Moses had led the Israelites into the wilderness into the unknown future and was rewarded with a Covenant and a Promised Land.
     The opening chapters of Genesis had a more specific purpose: the priests were refuting the religious beliefs of the powerful conquering Persians. The Creation narrative, including the creation of humanity, was a teaching story intended to stress the goodness of their God, and explain the presence of suffering and sin in a world created as good. This was a teaching allegory, not an ancient history lesson.
     For the Church, this more accurate explanation of the intent of the authors meant that the Garden of Eden was not an historical place, nor were Adam and Eve actually living people. The Pope, Paul VI, who had presided over the proclamation of Dei Verbum, undoubtedly realized that there was no biblical foundation for the Church’s doctrine of Original Sin. If Adam and Eve were not actual people but were intended to characters in a literary allegory, there could not have been an Original Sin.
     The early Church, at the urging of St. Augustine, had proclaimed Original Sin as an article of faith in 418. The churchmen of the fifth century did not have access to the context or the intention of the authors who wrote about 539 BCE, approximately nine hundred years earlier. They were left with the literal reading of the passages. As a consequence, the bishop relied on the literal reading of Genesis and misinterpreted the biblical text. 
     The ramifications were huge. After the declaration of the new article of faith, early church preachers began to explain the meaning of the death of Jesus on the Cross as redemption from Original Sin. Moreover, Augustine explained his own propensity to engage in carnal sin as the effect of humanity’s fallen nature. The focus on sex and lust moved into a central preoccupation of Christianity. The corrupted nature of the body was a source of debate in the Church from then on. And lastly, the Church had declared that it was infallible when it decreed any article of faith, and the Pope no doubt believed he could not admit that it had made a serious mistake.
     I was stunned however, when Pope Paul slammed the door on the new findings. Many of my contemporaries in theology studies anticipated that with the acceptance by the Church of the more solid and fruitful way of understanding the Bible a renaissance in biblical wisdom would follow. What the scholars had identified was a far more literate and nuanced use of literary forms to convey complex, subtle theological material. The use of imagery was a sophisticated rebuttal of Zoroastrian theology through allegory. 
     The Church had a golden opportunity to jettison its unhealthy preoccupation with sex and sin. With the research that was adopted by Vatican II there was a chance to restore the true New Testament message of love God and one another that was the centre of Jesus’ teaching.
     The Pope, however, reacted to the discovery of the true meaning to the Garden of Eden story with fear. He understood that if he adopted what the new Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation called for, he would be running counter to centuries of practice. Original sin was deeply embedded in the psyches of Catholics and Christians of other denominations. 
To be continued....