4. Word of the Lord and/or Word of the Church? The Bible in a recent papal pronouncement

January 11th, 2011

The Bible is central in the long-standing controversy between the Protestant Reformation and Roman Catholicism. So any pronouncement coming from the Pope on the topic is to be read carefully by all those who live a Bible-centered faith. The pronouncement we are talking about comes after a specific Synod that took place in 2008 when Roman Catholic bishops discussed the following issue: “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church”. After synods discuss, it is customary for the Pope to issue a written document which summarizes the gist of the proceedings and states them authoritatively. This is also the case of the 2010 Post-Synodical Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini (VD, the Word of the Lord) by Benedict XVI.

The document recalls the RC teaching on the Bible as it has been articulated and taught in¬† the XX century. In particular, VD acknowledges the Vatican II Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum (God’s Word) as the paramount doctrinal reference for the Roman Catholic theology of the Word of God and sees itself in total continuity with the Council. What is most interesting is the relationship between the Word and the Bible that is envisaged by VD.

To start with, VD claims that the Word of God “precedes and exceeds sacred Scripture, nonetheless Scripture, as inspired by God, contains the divine word” (17). VD claims that the Bible is the Word of God in the sense that it contains the Word. There is the Bible and there is also a further word beyond the Bible that makes the Bible not sufficient on its own. What is at stake here is not the divine inspiration of the Bible (which VD firmly affirms), but the sufficiency of the Bible and its finality. For Pope Ratzinger, the Bible is the Word of God in some sense, but the Word of God is bigger than the Bible. The latter contains the former.

For Protestant readers especially, a comment is here in place. Liberal theology has developed its own theology of the Word whereby the relationship between the Word and the Bible is thought of in dialectical and existential ways. In other words, for some versions of liberal theology, the Bible is a (fallible) testimony to the Word and it becomes the Word of God, if it ever becomes so, when the Spirit speaks through it. Now, the RC version of the Word-Bible relationship is articulated in a different way. The premise is the same (i.e. the Bible contains the Word), but the outworking of the Word comes through the tradition of the RC Church. The gap between the Word and the Bible is not existential but ecclesial. The Church is the cradle of the Word, both in its past and written form (the Bible) and in its on-going utterances (Tradition). In this respect, Benedict XVI writes: “The Church lives in the certainty that her Lord, who spoke in the past, continues today to communicate his word in her living Tradition and in sacred Scripture. Indeed, the word of God given to us in sacred Scripture as an inspired testimony to revelation, together with the Church’s living Tradition, it constitutes the supreme rule of faith” (18). The Bible is upheld, but the Bible is always accompanied and surmounted by the wider, deeper, living tradition of the Church which is the present-day form of the Word. Amongst other things, this means that the Bible is not sufficient in itself to give access to the Word and is not the final norm for faith and practice. The Bible needs to be supplemented by the Catechism of the Catholic Church which is “a significant expression of the living Tradition of the Church and a sure norm for teaching the faith” (74).

Thus VD maintains a dynamic view of the Word whereby the Bible is a divinely appointed container of the Word. Yet the final reference point of the Word is the Church from which the Bible comes from and through which the present-day Word of God resounds.

Lots of questions arise from the painted picture by VD which is totally coherent with Vatican II and indeed the Council of Trent. Since VD is not a systematic treatise, but rather a written exhortation, only few points are dealt with in terms of explaining how the Church relates to the Word.

Firstly, the role of “private revelations” (e.g. Marian visions and on-going revelations accredited by the RC Church). Beside the Bible, they “introduce new emphases, give rise to new forms of piety, or deepen older ones” (14). Private revelations are the basis for the Marian cults of Lourdes, Fatima, and Medjugorie, for example. For Evangelicals, these cults cannot be squared with basic Biblical teaching, yet the normative point for “private revelations” is the Church’s tradition, not the Bible alone. For RC, basing the faith on the Bible is important, yet inconclusive. There are further standards for spiritual discernment that go beyond Scripture.

Secondly, the “ecclesial” reading of the Bible. According to VD, Scripture must never be read on one’s own. Reading must be always an “ecclesial experience”, i.e. something done in communion with the Church. The issue at stake is not only methodological, as if private readings were to be replaced by study groups at a parish level presided over by a priest, but also hermeneutical. “An authentic interpretation of the Bible must always be in harmony with the faith of the Catholic Church” (30). Reading the Bible needs to be an exercise done in accordance with the institutional church, both in its forms and outcomes. Apparently, there is much wisdom in these statements, especially considering the real risks of fancy, individualistic, awkward interpretations by isolated readers of the Bible. Yet, there is something missing here. For a Church that has forbidden for centuries the reading of the Bible in vernacular languages, it is at least unfortunate that not a single word of repentance is offered. For a Church that has prevented the people from having access to the Bible until fifty years ago, it is at least puzzling that not a single word is spent to underline the Church‚Äôs need for self-correction and vigilance. Moreover, if reading the Bible must always be done under the rule of the institution, what happens if the institution itself is caught in error, heresy or apostasy? How does the Spirit correct a sinful church if not by the biblical Word? In the history of the Church, the teaching of the Bible had to sometimes be played against the institutional church and against its consensus. Only a self-proclaimed indefectible Church can ask total submission to “the watchful eye of the sacred magisterium” (45) without having a final, ultimate bar. Here at stake is the question: Who has the final word? The Bible or the RC Church? Since the Church is “the home of the word” (52), VD responds: the latter!

Thirdly, the practice of Biblical interpretation. A properly defined RC reading of the Bible requires the acceptance of the unity of the whole of Scripture (“canonical exegesis”), as well as obedience to the living Tradition of the whole Church and the combination between the historical-critical and the theological level of interpretation (34). The RC Church fears two extremes: On the one hand it fears the critical arrogance which severs the Bible’s unity and rejects its divine origins; on the other, the fundamentalist approach which offers “subjective”, “arbitrary”, and “anti-ecclesial interpretations” (44). Two brief comments are possible. 1. In the public opinion, Benedict XVI is often depicted as a champion of the “spiritual” reading of the Bible (e.g. his acclaimed book Jesus of Nazareth, 2007). Yet VD readily acknowledges the benefits of historical-critical methods (32) while rejecting their extreme claims when they are contrary to “theological” considerations. Though not himself a liberal, Ratzinger does not belong to the same typology of Biblical conservative scholarship that can be found in Evangelical circles. Any simplistic overlap muddies the waters. 2. Fundamentalism is not defined in any way, yet is the recipient of strong criticism. No reference to fundamentalist literature is offered but instead negative statements are made as far as the dictation-theory is concerned, or the lack of appreciation of Biblical language as being conditioned by times and cultures. Who on earth believes that the Bible was mechanically dictated or that its language is an angelic reality? The impression is that VD plays against a straw man here.

Fourthly and finally, the liturgical context of a proper approach to Scripture. Reading the Bible as an ecclesial experience means that it needs to occur in a liturgical context set forth by the RC Church. “The privileged place for the prayerful reading of sacred Scripture is the liturgy, and particularly the Eucharist, in which, as we celebrate the Body and Blood of Christ in the sacrament, the word itself is present and at work in our midst” (86). The hearing of God’s Word is fruitful when certain conditions are present: the administration of the Eucharist (54) and other sacraments (61), the Liturgy of the Hours (62), the practice of gaining indulgences (87), and recital of the Holy Rosary (88). According to VD, the Bible can never be alone, but must always be surrounded by ecclesiastical paraphernalia which inform, direct and govern Biblical reading and interpretation. In so doing, the Bible is never free to guide the Church, but always conditioned by some extra-biblical practices of the Church.

The papal pronouncement encourages the reading of the Bible and this is good news. The fundamental question remains: Whose word is the Verbum Domini? The Bible’s and/or the Church’s?

Leonardo De Chirico
leonardo.dechirico@ifeditalia.org

 

3. Papa dixit. The recent interview with Benedict XVI

Rome, 6th December 2010

If you were given the opportunity to meet the Pope in person, what would you ask him? In a video on Youtube John Piper tells us that if he were to have a two minute conversation with the Pope, he would ask him: What’s your view on justification? That question would speak volumes for him and perhaps for many Evangelicals. Not so for Peter Seewald, the German journalist who just released his new interview with Benedict XVI. Seewald spoke six hours with the Pope but the topic of justification never came up. This suggests that people’s agendas in dealing with the highest RC authority may be very different. Yet the interview is an interesting piece of conversation that deserves our attention.

The book is entitled Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times and is published in English by Ignatius Press. Seewald is not new to the task of interviewing Ratzinger, having done so twice when the latter was Prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: Salt of the Earth (1996; English edition 1997) and God and the World (2000; English edition 2002). Many commentators have underlined the parts of the interview in which Benedict XVI addresses controversial issues on human sexuality and the recent sexual scandals within the RC Church. In spite of rumors and fancy titles, there is nothing new in the Vatican’s approach to these issues and many others. In the Vatican’s perspective an interview is a tool towards consolidating something that is already part of the ethos of the Church, perhaps using conversation and a warm, personal tone. So Light of the World does not break any new ground in doctrinal or moral matters. Benedict XVI confirms his confident, sapiential and assertive posture in defending the dynamic stability of Rome’s magisterium, as well as his worried analysis of Western cultural trends away from past settlements between church and society. The present-day turmoil of the world, though perplexing and troublesome, is seen within the hopeful context of the long-term mission of the Church that will eventually succeed.

The pope addresses many important matters, but perhaps three are more worthy of mention for Evangelicals.

The first has to do with Benedict’s personal prayer life. In shedding light on his daily spiritual disciplines, the Pope says that he prays to God and also invokes a selected group of saints. His special list mirrors his theological program: Augustine, Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas. To them he cries for help as well as to the Mother of God. In another section, Seewald echoes widespread comments even in Evangelical circles that Ratzinger is more Christocentric than Marian. Yet Benedict XVI tells the interviewer that he is very close to Our Lady of Fatima (believing her alleged revelations) and deeply involved in Mary’s hyper-veneration. This is his way of living out the communio sanctorum. So, having Christ at the center means having an inclusive, wider center that hosts Mary and the saints. Do we really understand what the centrality of Jesus Christ means for RC doctrine and spirituality, even in its apparently more Christocentric forms?

The second comment touches on the Pope’s perception of Evangelicalism as a player in the realm of Christianity. Of course the book is not an academic treatise on ecumenical theology and one does not have to read too closely between the lines. Yet a distinct picture does in fact emerge. In this respect Benedict XVI distinguishes in Protestantism the “classic confessions” and the “new Protestantism”. The latter is growing and represents a “sign of the times”. This expression is a catchword for present-day Roman Catholicism. John XXIII used it to launch the Second Vatican Council and since then it has been employed to refer to providential, kairos-types of events. Evangelicals are modifying the religious landscape of the Third World. The Pope goes on to say that this movement is not the church, nor can it be on the account that it lacks some defining features of the Church (i.e. the rightly transmitted sacrament of Order, the Episcopal hierarchy under the papacy, the properly administered Eucharist). According to Ratzinger, the Evangelical understanding of the church is a “new concept” whereby the church is no longer an institution but a community summoned by the Word. The Pope appears to think that in Evangelicalism there is life but it is defective and insufficient since it is outside of the full fellowship with Rome. Later, recalling his visit to Brazil, he comes back to the topic of Evangelicalism and makes some very telling comments. He associates the word “Evangelical” with “sects” thus going back to derogatory language and also failing to make an important distinction between mainstream Evangelicalism and fringe groups that are awkward for Evangelicals as well. The other comment refers to the inner “instability” of the Evangelical movement and the fact that it does not produce a “long-standing sense of belonging”. The Pope looks at Evangelicals with a mixture of spiritual curiosity and Roman perplexity. Compared with the stability of the RC institution, Evangelicalism seems to be a frail vessel floating aimlessly. Compared with the deep sense of belonging that RC is able to nurture in most of its adherents, Evangelicalism seems to produce individual outbursts of spiritual life, yet is detached from historical, cultural and community awareness. The picture that Evangelicalism presents of itself to the observing world should cause all of us to ponder. Benedict XVI seems to think Evangelicalism can be an inspiring spirituality for our age (a “sign of the times”), yet in itself it lacks ecclesial structure and identity markers to be the Church and to survive for long.

A final comment is in place regarding global scenarios. Seewald wants to know what the Pope thinks of his petrine ministry that causes troubles for non-Catholic Christians. Well, the agreement about the papal ministry with Orthodox churches is not so far, says Ratzinger. Yet there is another facet to it. More and more, he says, religious leaders are realizing that in the global world a global voice is needed to address the importance of “religious values” and the disruptive claims of secularism. Being the ‚Äúsingle voice on great themes‚Äù is what the Pope envisages for his ministry: for Catholics and non-Catholics alike, as well as for Muslims, Hindus, etc. The Pope offers his ministry to serve as the spokesperson for all religious-minded peoples of the world. This is the vast frontier development of the papacy that embraces both ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue. Of course this is not the full scope of the RC understanding of the papal office, but it will pave the way to achieving it.

In summary, Light of the World contains nothing new but instead underlines the standing claims of the present Pope with some intriguing nuances. Filled with awe for the great tradition of the Church, Benedict XVI is fully persuaded that the RC Church will manage to fulfill her mission, i.e. being a sign and instrument for the unity of mankind.

Leonardo De Chirico
leonardo.dechirico@ifeditalia.org

 

2. The Future Roman Catholic Church. Global Tales from the 21st Century

Rome, 18th November 2010

What will the Roman Catholic (RC) Church be like at the end of the 21st century? How will this institution be able to handle the multiple challenges that she is confronted with? More radically, will this church still be still around in a hundred years? And if yes, how different will she be compared with her present-day outlook?

These intriguing questions get some ever more intriguing answers by the CNN Vatican correspondent John L. Allen in his recent book The Future Church. How Ten Trends are Revolutionizing the Catholic Church (New York: Doubleday, 2009). Allen writes as a journalist and sociologist of religion who looks at what is happening in the RC universe within the context of a fast moving globalization. His immediate readership is North-American but what he writes is gathered from years of international journalism and aimed at painting global scenarios.

Asking readers to stretch their “imagination” (1), Allen argues that there are at least ten trends that are impacting the RC Church and that will increasingly be on the agenda. Here is his list:

  1. A World Church
  2. Evangelical Catholicism
  3. Islam
  4. The New Demography
  5. Expanding Lay Roles
  6. The Biotech Revolution
  7. Globalization
  8. Ecology
  9. Multipolarism
  10. Pentecostalism

Suffice it to briefly comment on each trend while pausing a little bit more on those which resonate more closely with Evangelicalism (i.e. Evangelical Catholicism and Pentecostalism).

  1. The center of gravity is shifting from North to South. In 2050 the largest majority RC nations will be Brazil, Mexico, Philippines, USA, Congo, and Uganda. The global story of Catholicism today is growth, not decline (19). Its most pressing need is managing expansion, not contraction. Generally speaking, Southern Catholicism is youthful, morally conservative and politically liberal, open to the supernatural, more interested in ad extra missional challenges than in ad intra traditional issues (like doctrinal disputes and canon law debates), and bringing a new set of issues (e.g. polygamy, witchcraft, women empowerment). If RC “will become steadily more non-Western, nonwhite, and nonaffluent” (432), then the time for a Southern pope has come.
  2. The “identity issue” is what is at stake with Evangelical Catholicism. For Alles, the meaning of the word Evangelical here has little to do with the Biblical-Protestant understanding of the same word. It is rather “an underlying religious psychology” (57) that embodies a “hunger for identity” in a rootless secular culture. Evangelical Catholicism strives for liturgical conservativism, catholic education, priestly-laity distinction of order, and theological clarity both in Christology and ecclesiology. Champion of this type of Evangelical Catholicism is the 2000 document Dominus Iesus which stressed the traditional understanding of the RC Church as being the only rightly ordered agency which enjoys divine grace in its fullest measure. In the same vein, for Allen, both John Paul II and Benedict XVI are Evangelical Catholics, as well as ecclesiastical figures like Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger of Paris (57), writers like Geoge Weigel who urges Christians to have “the courage to be Catholic” (453), ecclesial movements like Communion and Liberation (entrepreneurial, yet strongly papist and marian), and events like the World Youth Day. Allen exegetes the word Evangelical as meaning a re-affirmation of RC identity in its basic, uncompromising markers, not as implying an openness to renewal according to the Gospel. For him Evangelical is a sociological category expressing a search for identity rather than a theological one based on Gospel transformation.
  3. Islam is another global player of the 21st century and RC will attempt to develop cordial relationships while trying to avoid the clash of civilization mentality, refraining from outspoken missionary endeavors, and building a moral alliance based on natural law and basic religious sentiment.
  4. Global demographic trends encourage the RC Church to support pro-life and fertility policies and also global migration movements. From the ecumenical point of view, the Eastern Orthodox churches will be less appealing than Pentecostals due to the declining demography of most Eastern Orthodox majority countries.
  5. The last hundred years have seen the emergence of more than 120 lay movements (e.g. L’Arche, Focolare, etc.). They are a powerful force which has stirred a “democratization of catholic conversation” (209). Both lay and female ministries will expand their borders, yet not at the expense of overcoming the traditional understanding and practice of the (male) priestly ministry.
  6. The biotech revolution has seen the RC Church on the defensive side. Confronted with the new challenges, there has been a revival of natural law which will allow the RC Church to build bridges with world religions which will regard her to be the global spokesperson for nature-based conservative bioethics. Here Allen seems to underestimate the potential of this trend for future inter-religious developments and future RC claims about the RC Church representing the whole of humanity.
  7. Globalization has pushed the RC Church to expand her social teachings about solidarity, common good, subsidiarity, and integral humanism. She will become the only diplomatic global player which can embrace both the rich and poor, North and South, support for capital and labour, and concerns for social justice and economic development.
  8. Global warming and climate change, along with water scarcity and deforestation will encourage the trend toward natural theology giving the RC Church the opportunity to shape her distinct “both-and” eco-theology.
  9. The 21st century will see “the interaction of multiple points of influence” (340) with the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China) raising their profile. In this new global setting, the RC Church is the only religious institution which is already multipolar and has the diplomatic structure and culture to deal with it.
  10. Harvie Cox has dubbed Pentecostalism “Catholicism without priests” meaning an expression of folk spirituality without the Roman juridical system or complicated scholastic theology (382). After Vatican II the RC Church has found room for Pentecostal spirituality within the borders of her theological structure. In some regions (e.g. Latin America) the Pentecostal explosion has given rise to an anti-Pentecostal attitude by RC officials. Yet Pentecostalism is winning the day, both inside and outside the RC Church. “Pentecostalism, not Orthodoxy, will be the primary Christian “other” for much of the Catholic Church of the twenty-first century” (361). New forms of “horizontal ecumenism” and bottom-up initiatives will develop (401). They will be less concerned with theological precision and more interested in exchanging spiritual experiences. Allen goes as far as arguing that the internal fault line of the 21st century will be between Pentecostal and non-Pentecostal Catholicism.

The wide picture emerging from Allen‚Äôs book is complex and multifaceted. The ecclesiological notes of the Church (“one, holy, catholic and apostolic”) will translate into four sociological notes: “global, uncompromising, Pentecostal and extroverted” (432).

Many sociological trends he highlights could be easily applied to global Evangelicalism and they would fit quite naturally. Yet there is a catholic difference that gives RC an extra input in confronting new phases and challenges: “he historical spirit of Catholicism is its passion for synthesis, for “both/and’ solutions” (449). The future will bring tension and conflict, yet the institution that is most suited to balance and accommodate different claims, interests, and concerns is the one that was able to survive the modernity project without selling its soul to it and will be able to navigate the waters of a thicker globalization. This is the RC theological genius that has been displayed for centuries. This is an essential part of the RC system and will be the primary tool to face the future. The RC Church will continue to claim and to act as if she were the sacrament of unity of the human family. This is her mission and it will continue to be so.

Leonardo De Chirico
leonardo.dechirico@ifeditalia.org

1. Vatican efforts towards New Evangelization?

Rome, 18th October 2010

Setting up a new Pontifical Council is not something that happens often in the Vatican, given the conservative nature of the institution. Yet Pope Benedict XVI has just released the motu proprio document (entitled Ubicumque et semper, “everywhere and always”) that establishes the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization. One of the reasons why this recent move deserves careful consideration is that it is going to be a long term initiative. The central concern that gives name to the Council is also of great significance, especially for Evangelicals who like to think that they “own” everything that is related to evangelism-evangelization. Here is a Vatican office devoted to foster the new evangelization of the West. Another feature that would ring some Evangelical bells is a long quote from Evangelii nuntiandi, a 1975 Vatican document on mission that many observers have seen as the Roman Catholic counterpart of the 1974 Lausanne Covenant. So mission to the Western world is right at the heart of the Vatican agenda.

Facing the challenge of the secular West is a typical concern of Pope Ratzinger. In many ways, his first years of being Pope can be read as an attempt to deal with this issue. The newly established Council is the “institutional” way to confront it. The letter contains reference to some themes which are dear to Benedict XVI: he points to the progressive loss of Christian practice in the First World as well as the on-going abandonment of Christian values in Western society leading to indifference if not harshly anti-Christian attitudes. In one word, the Pope thinks that “secularism” is the big spiritual enemy of the Church. He calls the Church to a phase of re-vitalization of its inner life to respond to secular trends.
The Ubicumque et semper papal letter does not contain a full-orbed theology on the new evangelization. Yet there are hints that perhaps deserve a comment and that puts this Vatican move in perspective.

1. The rhetoric of the progressive de-christianization of Europe has been a persistent feature of papal pronouncements since the French Revolution. “There is good reason to fear lest this great perversity may be as it were a foretaste, and perhaps the beginning of those evils which are reserved for the last days; and that there may be already in the world the “Son of Perdition” of whom the Apostle speaks (II. Thess. ii., 3). Such, in truth, is the audacity and the wrath employed everywhere in persecuting religion, in combating the dogmas of the faith, in brazen effort to uproot and destroy all relations between man and the Divinity”. These words seem Ratzinger’s but were written by Pius X in 1903 in his encyclical E supremi apostolatus (n. 5). In a sense, there is nothing new under the sun. Churches have been engaging forms of secularism for at least the last three centuries. What is perhaps new is the danger that the institutional churches may lose their privileged status in a pluralist society. It seems that present-day secularism cannot cope with pre-Revolution settlements between church and state. Is this what Ratzinger fears most?

2. In assessing the danger of secularism, Benedict XVI charges it with all kinds of evil. In many ways, his evaluation is accurate. Yet, something of importance is missing. There is not a single word on the responsibility of the Church for the poor state of Western Christianity. Has the Church really worked hard to proclaim the Gospel with integrity to the observing modern world? Has the Church been faithful to the Word of God? Is the Church somewhat responsible for causing, at least in part, the disturbing secular trends? Does the Church need to look at her own sins before pointing the finger at the world? The document does not address this. It does not even ask the question!

3. The encouragement given to the Church is to promote the new evangelization and to re-ignite her mission to shape society. The document does not hope for conversion to the Gospel, as the Lausanne Covenant would say. It rather points to the recovery of a Christian society where Christian values are honored and practiced and where the Church is recognized for being a shaper and upholder of society. What does evangelization hope for? Does it foster a nostalgia for the “Christian society” of the European past? But were these societies Christian in the Gospel sense? Should we not accept the challenge of evangelizing the West without wanting it to simply go backwards?

4. A final comment on the tools that Pope Benedict XVI sees as crucial for the task. Prominent is “the use of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, as the essential and complete formulation of the content of the faith”. It is perfectly legitimate for the Head of the Roman Catholic Church to support the use of the Catechism. Yet, Gospel people would have expected the Pope to encourage people the read, study and share the Bible. Evidently, for him the Catechism contains the Bible, not vice versa.

Leonardo De Chirico
leonardo.dechirico@ifeditalia.org