We continue our Monday and Saturday flashbacks to Vatican II, which concluded fifty years ago this fall.
In the First Session of the Council in 1962, the schema “Divine Revelation” had caused a major crisis on the floor, leading Pope John XXIII to pull in back from consideration for an exhaustive rewrite by a newly formed commission. After two years of work the commission returned with a new draft, represented by the ubiquitous Cardinal Bea, who had also worked exhaustively on the Decree on Ecumenism. The discussion that followed was long and arduous, a clash between traditional theological methods and the post-Enlightenment approach to knowledge and science.
Xavier Rynne summarizes the new schema is this fashion: “What the new decree did was to acknowledge that there was no absolute way in which Scripture was to be interpreted; that in each age, the Church, under the inspiration of the Spirit and in keeping with the intellectual process of mankind, could achieve a more meaningful appreciation of the mysteries of divine revelation in relation to the facts of salvation as lived by Christ in His birth, death, and resurrection.” (306) Thus, the proposal here was acknowledging that there were multiple styles of scrutinizing and interpreting the Bible, and that knowledge of Revelation actually progressed with study and experience over the centuries. And, if this were true, what was the implication for key Church doctrines that depended heavily upon Scripture texts? Consider Christ’s words in the Synoptic Gospels: “Take and eat, for this is my body….” If the new schema was allowing for other methods of Scripture study besides a purely historical, factual approach, then what might happen to “timeless truth” and the ultimate teaching authority of the Church itself (Tradition)?
In truth, a literal historical interpretation of the Bible was never the only method of Scripture study. Symbolism was a critical key as well. The early desert monk John Cassian (d. 435) described the four senses of literary Scripture interpretation: (1) the historical or literal; (2) the allegorical or Christological sense; (3) the tropological or moral or anthropological sense, and (4) the anagogical or eschatological sense—i.e., interpretation with an eye toward “the end times.” Christians—at least those who never drifted into heresy—never disputed that the Gospels, for example, were historically inspired. In fact, St. Matthew’s Gospel was known as “the Gospel of the Church” at least in part because of its length and detail. All the same, there were contradictions between the Gospels that troubled even the earliest churchmen and led them to suspect that there was more than met the eye.
Perhaps more to the point, even during the New Testament era itself, the sacred authors made use of multiple literary forms in writing sacred texts. In references to Jesus as the “New Moses” we have John Cassian’s second type, the allegorical/Christological. In references to the Son of Man coming in glory on the last day, we have the fourth or eschatological interpretive sense. For much of Christian history these types or models of Biblical study, in various forms, were well known and openly used. In the Middle Ages St. Thomas Aquinas, among others, freely adopted John Cassian’s four-fold methodology.
The difficulties at Vatican II stem from the fact that immediately after the Reformation, to shore up doctrinal challenges, the Church after the Council of Trent (1547-1565) reverted to John Cassian’s first principle at the expense of the rest, in order to shore up defense of propositional Church teachings, many of which rested upon key Scriptural texts. Scripture study in the Catholic Church went into eclipse for nearly four centuries until Pope Pius XII (1943), in his Divino Afflante Spiritu, allowed Catholic biblical scholars to take advantage of advances in method of Scripture study enjoyed by other Christian scholars over the past two centuries. However, Pope Pius’ approval did not have impact upon the Curia, as the floor debate at Vatican II would show.
The first exchange of fire would set the tone of the battle. As was now becoming a habit, Cardinal Ruffini opened with the argument that “faith must be stated in intellectual concepts.” Ruffini was here defending the concept of an unchanging body of truths authentically arrived at and preserved by the Church as the official translator of the Bible, unchanging and unchangeable for all eternity. Technically, he was referring to Church Tradition, a body of inspired and interpretative wisdom that over time had come to be seen as a separate but equal source of Divine Revelation. So, when Protestant attackers
during and after the Reformation would attack the Church as teaching an “unbiblical” doctrine, the Church could point to its tradition of Revelation and respond that the Holy Spirit had inspired the Church to comprehend the issue in contention in this particular fashion.
Again, as in earlier debates, the scholarly and updated fathers took the floor to both refute an exaggerated sense of Church Tradition and to introduce the Biblical theology that had emerged from the nineteenth and twentieth century. Cardinal Meyer of Chicago is remembered for his response, “Faith should not be described in such a way as to make it too intellectualistic, as this would be contrary to the spirit and general approach of St. Paul.” Meyer represented a clear majority of the Council fathers that the modern inroads into Scripture study should hold sway, but the stakes were so significant that as might be imagined speakers on both sides of the issue demanded time to express passion. Ruffini returned, for example, to decry the power and influence now being passed to Catholic Biblical intellectuals. Ruffini had a point, but he may not have fully appreciated the university model of peer evaluation.
By October 6 the discussion had finally exhausted itself, but in now tried and true method of the Council, the schema was held over until the next year (1965!) for a final redrafting and vote. Rynne comments that the final schema was received even more favorably than the 1964 version.
One final point here: the 1964 Third Session would be the final one for Cardinal Meyer of Chicago. Tragically, he died of brain cancer early in 1965; this year is the fiftieth anniversary of his death. The Chicago Catholic newspaper has a fine biography here. When the Cardinal attended the Council, a great shadow of sadness followed him. Just two weeks after his installation as Archbishop of Chicago in 1959, a massive fire destroyed one of his schools, Holy Angels, killing 92 children and three religious sisters. Cardinal Spellman flew to Chicago to assist Archbishop Meyer, who nearly collapsed at the diocesan memorial. The most detailed account of the fire is To Sleep with the Angels: The Story of a Fire (1998).