"And [Holy] Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit. It transmits it to the successors of the apostles so that, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, they may faithfully preserve, expound and spread it abroad by their preaching."43
Paragraph 81 seems to be a good opportunity to introduce into our stream the present working guidelines of the Church on the interpretation of Sacred Scripture. On April 21, 1964, the Pontifical Biblical Commission issued The Historicity of the Gospels, though its principles can be applied to nearly all aspects of the Biblical Canon. This document was released independently by the PBC during the Council and is not considered a Vatican II document, though the essence of its contents is seen throughout conciliar documents. The PBC’s work is indicative of the flowering of academic theology prior to the Council. The more revolutionary of teachings to come from the Council reflect at least a century of groundwork, most of it in Europe. With a few exceptions, the United States was not an active party, theologically speaking, in the scholarship renewal of other parts of the world.
I am including a link to The Historicity of the Gospels from EWTN’s site; the Vatican document service does not currently provide the text on-line in English. I am not recommending that you drop everything right now and read it, but you may want to hold on to the document, particularly if you are an educator/catechist. The 1964 PBC document attempts to mend catechetical rifts that would become hotly contested here in the U.S. after the Council, notably the argument fought in many an adult education class over the nature of the Scriptures as literal historical sources or as symbolic theological texts.
Para. 81 describes Sacred Scripture as “the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit.” The entire paragraph (through footnotes 42 and 43) is attributed to Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, but Vatican II in turn borrowed this terminology from the fourth session of the Council of Trent (1545-1563). Trent, you may recall, was the Catholic response to the Protestant Reformation, which had begun with the cry of sola scriptura, or the text of the Bible without embellishment. Catholicism was accused of being the great embellisher through its assertion of Tradition, which para. 81 refers to as the transmitter of the Word of God in its entirety.
Explaining the nature of Revelation is a challenge. Last week I cited a source which defined Tradition as both the act of passing along our Apostolic roots and the content of what is passed along. The challenge to the Church from Apostolic times has been the designation of those entrusted to nurture and care for the Tradition, what we might refer to as legitimate Church leaders, and the certification of the truths passed along. In the first century of the Church both facets of Tradition were fluid, in the formative stages. Church communities and local bishops determined that the narrative of Jesus’ life and its saving potential was better expressed in a Gospel by Mark than in a purported Gospel of Thomas. A similar process was unfolding in terms of authorized leadership. It is not precisely clear who celebrated Eucharist in the earliest times—first and second century literature mentions traveling prophets, heads of households, etc. St. Irenaeus (d. 202 AD) is often credited with establishing the tradition of strong local bishops.
It goes without saying that the Church of 2017 is more complex in every sense than the Church of Irenaeus’ day, though it is the same Church. It also goes without saying that the Church has made many decisions as to what should be contained in the body of Tradition. Doctrines of Infallibility, the Immaculate Conception, and the Assumption of Mary are very recent in our history, and at some points of history were considered questionable. In the late 1300’s the Dominicans came under fire at the University of Paris for teaching that the Immaculate Conception of Mary was unnecessary. In the early centuries of the Church the first feast of Mary was her Dormition (dormire in Latin, “to sleep”); the first accounts of an Assumption appear well into the Church’s history, and the doctrine was declared only in 1950.
The second portion of para. 81 defines an intimate connection between the Scripture and Tradition that is dynamic and unfolding. The New Testament is not a museum piece, but a living entity in time as it is preached around the world. It is important to underscore this dynamic between Scripture and Tradition because without this understanding, the early Protestants would be right in their assertions that Catholicism has built for itself an entire system of life and faith that goes much farther than God’s Word ever intended.
It may be useful here to bring up the example of Pope Francis. He is the living embodiment of Tradition in our time—in communion with the bishops of the Church and all the faithful. His tenure is remarkable in several senses: in what he teaches, and how he teaches. The controversies raised by several churchmen over the pope’s pastoral approach to the divorced and remarried is probably well known and need not be repeated here. But historians will later pay more attention to how he taught. I have read only a portion of Amoris Laetitia, but I was struck by Pope Francis’ narrative, almost story-telling, style which begins from the experiences of the faith and clergy drawn from the two synod meetings of 2014 and 2015. He proceeds to trace the holiness and importance of the family through a substantial review of biblical instances. He proceeds to a social analysis of the problems facing modern families, incorporating economic and other concerns from his previous Laudato Si. He develops a marital/familial spirituality based upon Jesus Christ. He integrates Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae and earlier teaching into the thrust of his message. He discusses the life of the family vis-à-vis the Church. He devotes a full section to reflections on love.
When I read this text for the first time, I was acutely aware that no pope in my recollection had taught in such a fashion before. The propositional elaborations of eternal truths—scholasticism—was being replaced by a teaching narrative in which the Bible, history, and human experience were woven together in the format described in para. 81. Francis, in his holy office, protects Tradition while at the same time expanding it in a new metaphor. He is meeting his vocation, his patrimony of Tradition, to “faithfully preserve, expound and spread it abroad by [his] preaching."