103 For this reason, the Church has always venerated the Scriptures as she venerates the Lord's Body. She never ceases to present to the faithful the bread of life, taken from the one table of God's Word and Christ's Body.
The sole source for Paragraph 103 is Vatican II’s Dei Verbum, “The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation,” specifically para. 21, verbatim. Dei Verbum is a remarkable turnabout for the official teaching Church, and such a statement would have been unthinkable coming from Vatican I in 1870. Vatican II and the Catechism reflect considerable change in attitude and emphasis on the Bible in terms of pastoral practice and theological method, and one only need to look at the nineteenth century to see the full scope of the change.
In his account of Vatican II John O’Malley defines the nineteenth century as extending from 1789 and the French Revolution to Vatican II (1962-65), and assessing events in the Catholic Church in that time frame, there is much to be said for that. The year 1789 sparked a series of changes across the European continent in every aspect of life—governance, thought, religion, economics—which had profound impact, naturally upon the Catholic Church. The 1800’s saw the enhancement/development of philosophies (as with Hegel), science (as with Darwin), and governance (as with Metternich) that essentially reshaped the world without revealed religion—or a recasting of religion for the needs of a nation or state.
For the Catholic Church the post-Napoleonic era was a two-fold challenge. The theological challenges posed by modern thought are too numerous to evaluate, though the eminent Jesuit philosopher Frederick Coppleston may have summed it up best in his assessment that the very idea of philosophy without a link to the primacy of theology constituted a seismic shift. Coppleston made this observation about the rise of nominalism in the fourteenth century; the difference between then and the nineteenth century was the union of church and state, which enabled the Church to control, to some degree, the propagation of novel and alternative philosophies.
Which brings us to the second issue for the Church: in the nineteenth century the papacy saw its secular power diminishing before its eyes. The Church viewed itself as a (the?) major player in secular affairs, though by 1800 the Holy Roman Empire was dismantling and as a major player the Church was effectively left with the papal states on the Italian peninsula, which it effectively lost in 1861 in the drive for Italian sovereignty. All that remains today of the Church’s “temporal power” is Vatican City’s sovereignty.
For much of the nineteenth century the leader of the Church was Pope Pius IX, staunchly determined to strengthen the Church on both fronts, the intellectual and the secular, though he would be more successful with in-house theological control. Within the Church itself there were two schools of thought about the best way to address the future. The first, and ultimately victorious position, was centralization of Church authority in the person of the pope, which happened in 1870 at the Council Vatican I, with the declaration of papal infallibility.
However, there were a number of Catholic scholars of another persuasion. They were concentrated in England and Germany primarily, and they advocated more interaction with Protestants, new systems of thought to express Catholic theology, and most importantly, an emphasis upon the Bible in Catholic preaching and thought. The most famous scholar of this school is Ignaz von Döllinger (1799-1890); I highly recommend The Pope and the Professor: Pius IX, Ignaz von Döllinger, and the Quandary of the Modern Age (2017). Dollinger was born about a century or so too early. His speeches and writings in the three decades prior to Vatican I won him much acclaim among non-Italian theologians, particularly his call for the regionalization of bishops by nation (an early theory of national conferences of bishops, such as our USCCB.)
However, Pius IX was very much aware of his work, too, and invited Dollinger and another Catholic man of letters, Lord Acton, for a papal audience in 1857. The English Lord Action is famous for his observation that “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Both men, fortunately, left details of the meeting with the pope in their diaries. The two men were required to make three separate genuflections, and only then to come forth and kiss the pope’s gold slipper. Pius emphasized to them three times that a theologian’s role was loyalty to the Church; Dollinger defended his studies of the Bible and history as critical to reform of the Church. In any event, both Dollinger and Acton determined that they would never visit Rome again.
Dollinger’s demise occurred one year after Vatican I (1871), when he was excommunication for his views on papal infallibility: "As a Christian, as a theologian, as an historian, and as a citizen, I cannot accept this doctrine." It was the beginning of a seven-decade period in which supreme authority of the pope and the scholastic theology of Thomas Aquinas replaced the burgeoning scholarship in the field of historical and biblical studies. Given that Biblical study through the early twentieth-century was a primarily Protestant venture, the place of the Sacred Scripture occupied a decidedly minor emphasis throughout the Church. Even in my own youth, the first half of the Mass was called “The Mass of the Catechumens.” A Catholic who missed the Liturgy of the Word on Sunday was guilty of a venial sin only. The second half of the Mass, centered upon the bread and wine, was called the “Mass of the Faithful.”
Pope Pius XII allowed Catholic biblical scholars to employ the methods and findings of Protestant scholars in 1943, a Magna Carta moment for Catholic universities and seminaries. But it was Vatican II (1962-1965) which produced the statement from Dei Verbum repeated in para. 103 of the Catechism. In para. 103 we find the remarkable statement that the “Church has always venerated the Scriptures as she venerates the Lord’s Body.” In a general sense this is true, but it would not have been evident in the era of Pius IX.
There can be no separation of the Eucharist and the Scripture, since the latter proclaims the reality of the former. Immediately after Vatican II Church architects attempted to capture the reality of para. 103 by providing equal status to the ambo [the pulpit where the Scripture is enshrined] and the tabernacle [where the Eucharist is reserved.] Over the years though, for a number of reasons, churches continue to emphasize the Eucharist in design at the expense of the Scripture, overlooking that “the bread of life [is] taken from the one table of God's Word and Christ's Body,” per Vatican II and the Catechism.
102 Through all the words of Sacred Scripture, God speaks only one single Word, his one Utterance in whom he expresses himself completely:
You recall that one and the same Word of God extends throughout Scripture, that it is one and the same Utterance that resounds in the mouths of all the sacred writers, since he who was in the beginning God with God has no need of separate syllables; for he is not subject to time.
There are two challenges to approaching Sacred Scripture, and Paragraph 102 labors under both. The preeminent challenge is the mystery of the Incarnation: that a God who is totally “other” from his creation has bridged the gap in a way that we can never understand—which is why we call it faith! The second challenge is squaring the circle: deciphering the Word of this “other” God as it has passed down through thousands of years of perception, translation, and interpretation. Where would you like to start?
Para. 102 calls us to look at the Bible as a unity; “God speaks only one single word.” I received an email recently through the Café asking me if I thought Jews could be saved. I replied that any devout Jew who lived and prayed in the divine revelation of the Old Testament would certainly have as good a chance as I would in the Catholic tradition. I didn’t give it much thought, assuming that this is consistent with Vatican II’s Nostra Aetate (para. 4). What followed was a disturbing avalanche of one-way correspondence (since blocked by me) and outdated historical references to ecclesiastical condemnations of Jews, a monumental effort to refute my answer. In subsequent scanning of Church news I have become more aware of the anti-Semitic tone of some extreme Catholic internet sites. It is a sad thing to see a resurgence of this kind of thought in any Catholic movement, and the Catechism in many places, including para. 102, delegitimizes anti-Semitic tendencies.
By speaking of Scripture as “one single Word,” the Catechism reinforces the truth of the unity of God’s revelation across the two testaments. There is a seamless truth between the two Testaments. For most of Catholic history, the Church’s view of Judaism has been negative. There are multiple reasons for this: (1) Jews who accepted Jesus found it harder to live with their co-religionists in the years leading up to Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.; (2) Christian apologists interpreted the destruction of Jerusalem as God’s disfavor upon the Jews for not embracing Christ as the Savior; (3) the Gospel accounts depict the Jews as the murder of Christ, leading to centuries of Christian accusations of “deicide,” the killing of God. (4) The persecutory stance of Christians against Jews led to a discrediting of the Hebrew Scripture, though the Church found it useful for its indications of a coming Messiah, the Psalm prayers, etc.
It is true that Judaism as a whole has not accepted Jesus as Savior. But consider this: the concept of Messiah was not uniform in Jesus’ day. (1) The Messiah (with a capital ‘M”) in its earliest meaning applied to an anointed king who would lead in the Davidic tradition the coming of Yahweh’s definitive reign; by Jesus’ time, however, many had given up this vision of the future. (2) The Jews had no expectations of a “divine” Messiah. (3) There is no clear evidence that the Jews thought of a messiah as a transcendental figure whose mission would go beyond the boundaries of history.
Much has been made of the historical reality of the Jewish rejection of Jesus, but before heading down that road too far, it is only fair to ask if the Christian Jews were not troubled by the same questions as their non-Christian brethren? There are a number of New Testament texts which suggest that the Jewish-Christian acceptance of Jesus’ nature was complicated and prolonged. Mark 16:14 describes the risen Jesus as quite angry with the disciples for their lack of faith. Luke 24: 25-27 describes Jesus taking an entire afternoon to explain the full meaning of the Scripture [ the Hebrew narrative] to disciples who had been scandalized by his crucifixion.
The “Christian” segment of Judaism, then, had difficulties grasping the unity of the Hebrew Scripture with the experience of Christ that would become the New Testament. I would maintain that the reason we of this century have less difficulty reconciling the two is that we barely know either. For us, the Bible has been “domesticated” to support our Catholic (or other denominational) agenda. Our sense of the pulse of either Testament is faint; God’s Word has become a kind of “Poor Richard’s Almanac” which we plumb for advice or inspiration. It is rare to take God’s Word into one’s hands for the very reason that it is God’s Word, with an agenda that might be foreign to our preoccupations of the moment. This is the seed of Biblical prayer: full obedience to the text.
In Acts of the Apostles 8: 26-40, Philip is directed by an angel to an Ethiopian eunuch who was laboring over a text from the Hebrew Testament, specifically Isaiah. Philip asks if the reader understands what he is reading. “How can I unless someone explains it to me?” Philip explains the text, and the Ethiopian demands to know what stands in the way of his being baptized in the Lord Jesus; Philip baptized him on the spot. St. Luke, author of the Acts, underscores the unity of the Hebrew Scripture with full faith in Christ. The thought occurred to me that Christian enmity against the Jews over two millennia—Venice erected its first walled Jewish ghetto in 1140 A.D.—has actually undermined the mission of reuniting the Old and the New. After reading Paul Johnson’s A History of the Jews (1988), particularly his moving description of the religious faith of the Jewish victims in the extermination camps in the Holocaust, I came away with the confusing feeling that Jews actually live what Christians effortlessly profess.
101 In order to reveal himself to men, in the condescension of his goodness God speaks to them in human words: "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."
[Paragraphs 96-100 are summary statements and require no further commentary.] We begin a new section of the Catechism entitled “God Comes to Meet Man,” an exploration of the communication process involved in the texts of sacred scripture. Paragraph 101 assumes a core truth from the Catechism [paras. 198-199], one might say the core truth, that God created us gratuitously, freely, and lovingly, with no advantage to his own perfect being.
Para. 101 indicates that, having created us, God wishes to communicate. The content of his communication is simple and diverse. There is the obvious question of why God went to the trouble in the first place to create and then to converse. In the New Testament, 1 John 4 does its best to answer the question, though all human language about God’s intentions will suffer from the limitation trying to penetrate the unknowable. 1 John 4:7 states: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God.” The author of this New Testament letter argues persuasively that the reason for creation and the content of God’s communication is love.
A perfect love brings a perfect happiness; the generosity of God can be described as forming creatures who can aspire to and even experience what God has enjoyed from the beginning. This generosity is carried forward and communicated by God’s giving up his own identity. St. Paul, in Philippians 2, crafted the poetic language of God’s speaking in action: “Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.”
That God created us for ultimate happiness--“eye has not seen, nor ear heard, what God has prepared for those who love him”—is well established in the Scripture. Para. 101 moves on to the next theological hurdle, the fact that God speaks to us in human words. Jesus, who is fully human as well as fully divine, suffered the limitations of space and time just as all humans do. The same is true with God’s words, which come down to us “in every way like human language,” as our paragraph puts it. Discerning God’s language and putting it in human idioms will always be a struggle for the Church on so many levels, and the matter of the sacred books—their composition and inspiration—was a preoccupation of Christianity for several centuries.
Of this we can say with certainly: The Bible, God’s revered text of conversing love, did not arrive in one complete package at one specific time. In fact, there is no complete original bible on the face of the earth. Scrolls and fragments exist around the world, from the Vatican Library to the Smithsonian/Freer Museum in Washington, D.C. The study of God’s Word, then, requires both a faith in the content of the texts and scrupulous study to insure the accuracy of the translation. This should not overly disturb anyone; as the Catechism explains, the “words of God, expressed in the words of men, are in every way like human language.” The Bibles in our homes or on our mobile devices are, in most cases, the most accurate translations available in 2017.
That said, since the third century the Church has enjoyed the confidence of the Holy Spirit to speak definitively of which books belong in the canons of the Old and New Testaments. The determining factor appears to have been the experience of the local churches, where selection of texts for usage in the liturgy gradually whittled down to the selection of books in our Bible today. In the days long before missals, calendars, and lectionaries came into common use, local churches exercised freedom in selection of the Eucharistic Scripture readings. It was not until the fifth century that an “official” translation of the Bible appeared, St. Jerome’s Vulgate Latin translation [from the Latin vulgus, “common,” as in legible to common people.] It is unfortunate that the Latin word vulgus evolved into the English word vulgar.
But no one in Jerome’s day would have said that the Vulgate was a perfect rendering. Jerome’s contemporary Augustine wrote with some exasperation, “And if in these writings I am perplexed by anything which appears to me opposed to truth, I do not hesitate to suppose that either the MS [manuscript] is faulty or the translator has not caught the meaning of what was said, or I myself have failed to understand it . . . I believe, my brother, that this is your own opinion as well as mine.” A millennium later, the Catholic Renaissance scholar Erasmus—possibly the greatest linguist the Church ever produced--pointed out an “inconvenient truth,” specifically that Jerome’s Vulgate was a translation from Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew. At the height of the Reformation, Erasmus’ efforts to correct Jerome’s venerable text from these multi-lingual documents were not appreciated by the Catholic Church, which was under assault by Luther and others for “unbiblical practices.” Roman Catholicism maintained the Vulgate as the translation for use in the Mass until 1970.
Para. 101 is a reminder of the mystery and the complexity of the divine “other-worldly” entering the finite world of human complexity, including the very texts of revelation. We can be comfortable about two things: first, the books we see in our Bibles contain the entire body of what we need to know and believe in order to understand and respond to God with love. Textual studies of the Bible will continue long after our deaths to insure greater clarity for faith, preaching, and reflection.
Second, the Catechism summarizes the direction of God’s revelation, “in the condescension of his goodness.” The gestures of creation, revelation, and most of all, the sending of his Son, are extensions of his pure love. We labor to understand, and even more so to imitate, but the heart of the message is God’s desire is the happiness of his created children.
Unfortunately I am tied up in hurricane preparations today, but I hope to have next week's Catechism post in on time.
There is the possibility that here in the Orlando, FL, area there may be an extended loss of power, though the Duke Energy truck fleet is just three miles from my house. If I miss some posts early next week due to power outage, it is because I wrote them out in paper (pencil and paper !?) and will put them up later in the week. Where we live, we are not worried about danger to life and limb, but the "mess" of the aftermath. I lost a tree to Hurricane Charley in 2004. Fortunately it did not fall on anything of value. This area (Central Florida) is certainly not going to experience the pain of Texas and Louisiana. Keep them in your prayers.