The Word in the Church Tradition

Francis J Moloney

Those of us, now into our 60s, who had lived contented Roman Catholic lives in Australia across the 40s and 50s of last century, had no idea of what is nowadays meant by “the Word of God”. We lived by the words of the Church: the rare but important Encyclicals that came from the Holy Father, the instructions of our Australian Bishops, and especially of our local Bishop. This was particularly the case if, like me, you lived in Melbourne, and the local Bishop was the much-revered Daniel Mannix. However, our day-to-day Catholic lives were ultimately determined by local authorities: our teachers, almost always Religious women and men, and our local Priest. We learnt our Catechism by heart, and I do not think there was a serious citation from the Scriptures anywhere in the so-called “Penny Catechism”. The Mass was in Latin, all the readings were in Latin, and the same cycle of readings was read year in and year out.

There were some major difficulties in our time, of course, most importantly the split in the Australian Labour Party, which divided the Australian Church, especially along lines which either supported Dr Mannix and B. A. Santamaria, or the softer position taken by other Australian Bishops, especially Cardinal Gilroy in Sydney. But living in the Catholic enclave of Moonee Ponds, Melbourne, Victoria, there were no doubts about where we stood!

Just these few references to that not-too-distant past begin to make us aware of how our Catholic life, and that which nourishes this life, have changed. The agent of such change was the Second Vatican Council. This Council did not “creep up” on us gradually. It fell upon us like a thunderbolt, called by a charismatic Pope, John XXIII, in a moment of extraordinary insight. As the sessions unfolded from 1962-65, it gathered energy of its own. It was a heady experience to live in Rome as the Council concluded, listening to all the famous theologians, gathered there as experts. Vatican II left all concerned from Paul VI and the Fathers of the Council itself, down to the simplest practising Catholic, somewhat breathless in its aftermath. In my experience and understanding, we are still struggling with that breathlessness. But more of that below!

This is not the place to examine all the good and bad results of the experience of being a Catholic in the 60s and 70s. But allow me to reflect briefly on the remarkable rebirth of interest in the Bible as a Word of God, directed to the whole Church at Vatican II. One of the most subversive documents to come out of the Council was the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum). The pre-conciliar Church was a deeply eucharistic Church, but an Ecumenical Council, the supreme teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church, now told us that there was a new player on the block:

“Just as from constant attendance at the eucharistic mystery the life of the Church draws increase, so a new impulse of spiritual life may be expected from increased veneration of the word of God, which “stands forever (Isa 40:8; 1 Peter 1:23-25”) (Dei Verbum 26).

Like most major achievements of Vatican II, this rebirth of interest in the biblical Word did not miraculously emerge at the Council itself. Its long pre-history goes back to the renewal of critical study of the Bible that began in Germany in the 19th century.

The new age of post-Enlightenment reason rejected a religion based upon a book full of so many non-sequiturs and contradictions. Committed Christian scholars began to work hard to show that the Bible was the presence of the Word of God, transmitted in the fragile and limited words of men and women.

As some of the Christian scholars accepted the rationalist critique too easily, the Roman Catholic Church initially rejected critical biblical scholarship. However, its agenda was finally and unconditionally accepted by the remarkable and surprising appearance, toward the end of World War II, of Pope Pius XII’s Encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943). Pius XII asked Catholics to prepare themselves for a fuller understanding of the true meaning of the original texts, so that the treasures of the Bible, in all their richness, could be communicated to the Church.

Nowhere have the principles guiding critical biblical scholarship been better stated than in Dei Verbum 13:

“Indeed the words of God, expressed in the words of men, are in every way like human language, just as the Word of the eternal Father, when he took on himself the flesh of human weakness, became like men.”

Catholic biblical scholarship had been working quietly up to that time, especially in the great European Catholic centres of biblical learning: Louvain, Paris, the Biblical Institute in Rome and the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem. This had been accompanied by an intense interest in the renewal of the liturgical life, also going on in Europe for several decades before the Council, especially in Germany, Belgium and France.

Inevitably, the emerging Catholic interest in the restoration of the Liturgy joined hands with an emerging Catholic biblical movement, commissioned by Pius XII, to restore the Word of God to its rightful place at the heart of the life of the Church. The very life-blood of the Catholic Tradition, the Eucharist, was seen to be inextricably associated with the living presence of the Word of God in the community. These sentiments were succinctly articulated in Dei Verbum 21:

“The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures as she venerated the Body of the Lord, in so far as she never ceases, particularly in the sacred liturgy, to partake of the bread of life and to offer it to the faithful from the one table of the Word of God and the Body of Christ.”

Bishops and Major Superiors of Religious Orders sent men and woman to study the Bible. Holiday courses in the Bible, visiting lecturers, especially from the USA, and even our local experts, drew large crowds. The Mass was celebrated in English, and we found that so much of our eucharistic celebration was “biblical”. The new Lectionary appeared. We were exposed to a rich cross-section of biblical passages, with special focus on the reading of Matthew, Mark and Luke across a three-year cycle, and the allocation of the Gospel of John to the great feasts of Christmas, and especially Easter. Priests were told that the proclamation of the Word, and preaching the Word, was an integral part of the liturgical life of the Church. Everyone was excited to find how life-giving an understanding of the Word of God, as a living presence of the voice of God, could be (see Dei Verbum 8).

Of course, it was not all “plain-sailing” Shock descended on some circles when the original intentions of the various authors of Genesis 1-11 were uncovered. Even more serious was the problem of the historicity of the events reported in the infancy narratives of Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2. The shock moved into action as some of these conclusions began to surface in post-conciliar catechetical texts. Bishops and their Religious Education personnel were placed under great pressure by small, but vocal groups who “united for the faith”. But, in the light of Vatican II, one had to ask: which faith?

No doubt there was a great deal of naivety in those early decades after the Council, and many mistakes were made. We knew what we no longer wished to say and do within our believing community, but we were unsure of how to articulate what we did want to say and do! There was a moment of “stumbling in the dark”, often not recognised as we were so buoyed up by the excitement of those days. Thus, of course, there was the occasional abuse of the new freedom that we had been given, and these exceptional cases stood in the limelight, and added fuel to a growing “slowing down” of the original enthusiasm.

As a professional biblical scholar of more than 30 years’ experience, I have had the mixed blessing of living through the pre-conciliar experience to our present moment in the life of the Church when, in my experience, the “slowing down” mentioned above has almost become a full stop.

I suspect there are several reasons for this situation. In the first place, we must admit to a period after the Council when the communication of the faith to a newer generation lost its way. A generation of young people emerged from that period – now the parents of a newer generation – who “fell between the cracks”.

My experience as the Professor of Theology at Australian Catholic University (1994-1998) taught me a great deal about the profundity of content and the pedagogical skills that are nowadays used in the process of communicating the faith. However, we have lost a generation, and they are not to be found working at their Bibles, or attending the seminars and sessions that are now increasingly difficult to run successfully. The task of recapturing the interest and enthusiasm of the present generation of young people demands extraordinary dedication and considerable skill.

Secondly, there is an increasing lack of confidence in a critical reading of the Bible. Many, including important Church leaders and Catholic lay leaders, see biblical scholarship as a danger to the simple faith of the ordinary people. These people can be exposed to every subtlety of their particular profession or trade, but they are not to be challenged to look seriously at the very source that nourishes their faith. We are facing a moment when the Word of God is once more seen as expressed only in the word of the teaching Church.

In 1943 Pius XII asked that the Catholic Church rediscover the fullness of its biblical heritage by returning to original sources, rather than simply accepting St Jerome’s Latin Vulgate. These sentiments were repeated at Vatican II (Dei Verbum 12). In 2001 the Roman document, Liturgiam Authenticam, insists – for the sake of uniformity – that all liturgical readings of the Bible must use a recent Latin translation (the Neo Vulgate) as their basic point of reference.

In 1973, the outstanding biblical scholar, Raymond Brown, could write a caricature of a phenomenon that he regarded as a thing of the past:

If the biblical scholar was going to insist on the freedom to play with his new-fangled toys of language and literary form, he was to be kept in a playpen and not let out to disturb the good order of the theological household (R. E. Brown, The Virginal Conception and the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus [London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1973], 6).

It is my sense that this desire to curb the role of the Catholic exegete is not a thing of the past. Indeed, there is every indication that the golden era of biblical enthusiasm in the Catholic Church is on the wane.

The esteem for Catholic biblical scholarship among non-Catholics remains high, but its function within the life of the Church no longer occupies the place it had in the decades following the Council. Here at the Catholic University of America, where we run internationally significant Department of Biblical Studies, non-Catholic students outnumber the Catholics.

This is not the time to be discouraged, but to develop our sense of history, and a proper understanding of the significance of an Ecumenical Council. Most major events in world history are followed by a desire to restore the security of a time prior to those events. Only a few brief years after the French Revolution (1789), the Bourbon family was back on the royal throne of France. But they did not last long. The principles of the Revolution had been let loose, and could not be stopped by restoration. After fighting a long and drawn-out revolutionary war, there were many in the new United States of America who wished to make George Washington their King in 1812. This also had no future, as it idealised the past.

A similar historical experience is evident in our post-conciliar period. This can be painful and confusing, especially for those of us who have been part of the authentic Catholic tradition before, during and after the experience of the Council, and who have given our lives to its agenda.

However, in a moment of its supreme teaching authority, the Church has stated:

“But the task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Christ. Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it “(Dei Verbum 10. Stress mine)

The restoration of the biblical Word of God, authentically interpreted by a teaching authority, under the word and exercising its ministry in the name of Christ, forms part of the teaching of an Ecumenical Council.

I have mentioned only a few major places and themes from Vatican II where the Word in the Catholic Tradition appears, but it permeates almost every document that came from that remarkable ecclesial moment. It is understandable that many would prefer to “restore” the situation that I described in my earlier paragraphs, but one cannot write history backward, no matter how hard one may try.

These are not easy times for the Catholic Church – neither its leadership nor its faithful. Indeed, we have come a long way from my days in Moonee Ponds. But I believe it is a time of painful growth that cannot be denied by the “restoration” of an idealised past. The growth unleashed by Vatican II let loose a hunger for things unseen, and this hope will not be thwarted. “Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Rom 8:24-25).

(Fr Francis J. Moloney, SDB is an internationally renowned scripture scholar, author of many books and articles, currently Professor of New Testament Studies at Catholic University of America, Washington DC, USA. Fr Moloney is also a Patron of Catalyst for Renewal)