Sunday, November 16, 2008

A New Counter-Reformation?

The 11/14/08 issue of the Wall Street Journal featured an article of more than passing interest by David Gibson: A New Counter-Reformation Starts at the Vatican. Gibson has been observing the Synod of Bishops at the Vatican and sees hopeful signs of an initiative that could become a New Counter-Reformation:
For most of October, more than 200 Catholic bishops, along with sundry theologians and experts, met at the Vatican to figure out how to get Catholics to read the Bible -- a project easily dismissed by Protestants and some Catholics as too ambitious and about 500 years too late. After all, wasn't it Rome's fears about letting mere lay people consult Holy Writ that stoked the Reformation? And Catholics don't want to read the Bible anyway, right? They're all about the Mass and the sacraments.
Gibson begs to differ with the notion that Catholics and Scripture don't mix too well. Or rather, as Gibson backhandedly concedes, at least a rarefied clerical and academic elite within the Catholic Church has opened itself to Scripture. Just how far this openness extends we will consider, but Gibson claims, after a brief review of 20th century Church history, that the Church has gradually developed an impressive and balanced cultural blend of Scripture and traditional Catholic piety:

But a funny thing happened on the way to modernity: The Catholic Church opened itself to the Word in a way it hadn't done before. In the process, it fostered a balanced culture of biblical exegesis and devotion (at least among most scholars and clerics) that many in sola scriptura Protestantism might envy. Especially in light of trends in mainline denominations that foster a radical deconstruction of biblical texts on the one hand, or, on the other hand, a blinkered literalism that appeals to many conservative pew-sitters.

The revolution in Catholic scholarship really began in 1943, when Pope Pius XII issued a key encyclical called "Divino Afflante Spiritu" ("Inspired by the Divine Spirit"). Pius did not give an unqualified imprimatur to using secular historical criticism on sacred texts, but he did welcome close readings of the Bible that spurred a renaissance in Catholic exegesis.
Now that parenthetical statement--"at least among most scholars and clerics"--is telling. Can one truly speak of a Church culture if that culture is restricted to "scholars and clerics"? And what might be the reason for restricting to a rarefied elite what most Catholics could be forgiven for regarding as a crucial aspect of Church culture? Gibson doesn't exactly let the cat out of the bag, but he does give us a glimpse of the beast, still lurking in the bag. Gibson believes that the Church has avoided the biblical Scylla and Charybdis of "radical deconstruction of biblical texts on the one hand" and "on the other hand, a blinkered literalism that appeals to many conservative pew-sitters." The "revolution" that led to this happy situation, Gibson hastens to explain, began with Pius XII's encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu. According to Gibson, "Pius did not give an unqualified imprimatur to using secular historical criticism on sacred texts, but he did welcome close readings of the Bible that spurred a renaissance in Catholic exegesis."

Most ordinary pew-sitting Catholics might be forgiven for rubbing their eyes in disbelief at the picture of Church culture that Gibson has painted. The experience of most Catholics is precisely that the Church is uneasily divided into two mistrustful camps: an academic elite that is perceived as all too prone to "radical deconstruction of biblical texts" and at least a significant portion of the pew sitters who are prone to precisely that type of "blinkered literalism" that is suspiciously similar to the outlook of Evangelical Protestantism. While this thumbnail analysis may not be entirely fair to Catholic academics, the hierarchy is unquestionably monitoring an uneasy "don't ask don't tell" type of truce between these two wings of the Church. Moreover, we will see that the hierarchy is well aware of this divide. While the reasons for this divide have a long history, it is in no small part due to the fact that Pius XII felt unable to give an "unqualified imprimatur to using secular historical criticism on sacred texts" that the Church finds itself in this situation.

Divino Afflante Spiritu did, indeed, spark a renaissance of Catholic Biblical studies, but it was a renaissance that was unfortunately lacking in theological and philosophical foundations. Pius refrained from giving an unqualified imprimatur to historical criticism largely because Catholic thought was unable to provide a principled account of the relationship between the ancient Israelite scriptures (the "Old Testament") and the early Christian writings that have achieved canonical status as the New Testament. Traditional Church thought, especially since the Protestant Revolt, had, when push came to shove, rested precisely on the type of "blinkered literalism" that should have no place in Catholic thought. This tendency is best exemplified by the unfortunate Galileo affair--an affair that was an affront to all that was best in Catholic thought and besmirched the name of one of the Church's most intelligent theologians, Robert Bellarmine.

Now, it's quite true that Catholic scholarship on matters scriptural has come a long way since Galileo, thanks in no small measure to Divino Afflante Spiritu. It's even possible to consult official Church documents and learn that the faithful need no longer read the first eleven chapters of Genesis with "a blinkered literalism." That brings the reader up to the Tower of Babel. But what, one might well ask, of the rest of the Pentateuch? What, to cite just one example, of God's testing of Abraham? Is that narrative not, in its own and perhaps more serious way, fraught with as many difficulties as the famous Tower? And what of the Exodus, the smiting of the Egyptian first borns, the stone tablets that God is said to have handed over to Moses atop Mount Sinai? And there is much more. Is the faithful Catholic pew sitter required, or is he/she not required, to read such narratives with "a blinkered literalism?" How, in principle, should our approach to these narratives differ from our approach to the first eleven books of Genesis? And if our approach should differ in these instances, does the difference necessarily land us in "a blinkered literalism" with regard to much of the Pentateuch? It was precisely for lack of (or perhaps we should say, for the perceived lack of) the intellectual tools to frame the needed principles that Pius felt unable to give an unqualified imprimatur to historical criticism.

Where does the Church stand now? At first glance, one might think that the difference in the current intellectual climate with that of the pre Divino Afflante Spiritu days is one of night and day--but then why the divided culture of the Church? Why the mutual distrust and even disdain between gown and town, as it were? The answer lies in the less than whole hearted embrace that the Church has given to historical criticism, and to modern religious studies as well. This continued uneasiness and inability to come to principled terms with these issues is on full display in a 2002 document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission: The Jewish People and their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible. The following section speaks volumes:
4. Return to the Literal Sense

Thomas Aquinas saw clearly what underpinned allegorical exegesis: the commentator can only discover in a text what he already knows, and in order to know it, he had to find it in the literal sense of another text. From this Thomas Aquinas drew the conclusion: a valid argument cannot be constructed from the allegorical sense, it can only be done from the literal sense.40

Starting from the Middle Ages, the literal sense has been restored to a place of honour and has not ceased to prove its value. The critical study of the Old Testament has progressed steadily in that direction culminating in the supremacy of the historical-critical method.

And so an inverse process was set in motion: the relation between the Old Testament and Christian realities was now restricted to a limited number of Old Testament texts. Today, there is the danger of going to the opposite extreme of denying outright, together with the excesses of the allegorical method, all Patristic exegesis and the very idea of a Christian and Christological reading of Old Testament texts. This gave rise in contemporary theology, without as yet any consensus, to different ways of re-establishing a Christian interpretation of the Old Testament that would avoid arbitrariness and respect the original meaning.
The good news is that the Church is finally taking its Common Doctor seriously: "the literal sense has been restored to a place of honor and has not ceased to prove its value. The critical study of the Old Testament has progressed steadily in that direction culminating in the supremacy of the historical-critical method." In plain language, the Church realizes that Aquinas demonstrated that the traditional allegorical method of Patristic exegesis is invalid in principle. As a direct result, "the relation between the Old Testament and Christian realities" is "now restricted to a limited number of Old Testament texts." In point of fact, many Catholic scholars would say that that "limited number" is zero. And that is the nub of the problem: many in the Church cannot imagine a "Christian" reading of the Old Testament that does not involve the use of the allegory and typology so beloved of Patristic exegesis. In sum and substance, there are still many within the Church, including within its hierarchy, who believe that the historical-critical method, based on a realist philosophy such as that of Aquinas, is essentially non-Christian.

And yet ... The Church realizes that Patristic exegesis (to the extent that it relies upon allegory) is essentially arbitrary and violates the "original sense." To attempt to reject historical-critical scholarship would cast the Church adrift on a sea of subjectivity. It would lead back to precisely that style of exegesis that has discredited the Church in the eyes of modern man. And it would lead to the opposition between faith and reason that Benedict XVI is committed to bridging. When one considers that it is now 2,000 years after Jesus' life, death and resurrection, this inability "to reach any consensus" betokens, in my view, an intellectual crisis of no ordinary dimensions. And because the Church, as a whole, sees no easy solution it has temporized.

It is my view that precisely the same intellectual crisis that has largely shattered Protestant thought--its Augustinian inspired rejection of reason and history--is what lies behind this crisis in the Church. The Augustinian tradition's fideism deprived the Church of essential intellectual tools, leading ultimately (through what Etienne Gilson described in The Unity of Philosophical Experience as "The Breakdown of the Medieval Synthesis") to both the rise of skeptical modern thought as well as the anti-rational Protestant Revolt--and in this way to our deconstructive present. To Benedict XVI's great credit he has made the recovery of reason the theme of his papacy, even though his own book, Jesus of Nazareth, mirrors the same uncertainties as the Pontifical Biblical Commission. Still, in the wake of the orgy of self demolition of Catholic intellectualism in the wake of Vatican II, the Church at least realizes that Aquinas is pointing to the way out of this crisis. Ironically, it is an Anglican scholar, N. T. Wright--who was present at the Synod and offered an intervention--who has championed an explicitly Thomist heuristic, who can show Catholics the way.

Yet, as Gibson points out, it was in a spirit of great optimism that the Chuch at Vatican II sought to reach out to Protestants by "firmly plac[ing] Scripture at the center of Catholic life alongside the Eucharist:"
The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) expanded on Pius's initiative in the document "Dei Verbum" ("Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation"), which firmly placed Scripture at the center of Catholic life alongside the Eucharist and noted that the church and its leaders are at the service of the Word, not the other way around. The council encouraged biblical scholarship by experts and easy access to the Bible for the faithful.

Liturgical changes after the council then transformed the experience of going to Mass, as worshipers heard and read more biblical texts than ever before -- including, for the first time, passages from the Old Testament -- and in their own language.
Now, far be it from me to slight "Scripture" or to deny it a place near the center of Catholic life, but Gibson's comments reflect basic and sadly prevalent misconceptions regarding the very nature of the Church. As Archbishop Marc Ouellet affirmed at the Synod:
.. the Word is much more than the Bible. [Ouellet] clarified that Christianity is not a religion of the Book.

"The Word of God means before all else God himself who speaks, who expresses in himself the divine Word that belongs to his intimate mystery," he said.

This Word, he added during his Latin-language discourse, which he delivered seated beside the Pope, speaks in a particular and also dramatic way in the history of man, especially in the election of a people, in the Mosaic law and the prophets. [See my extended discussion of Ouellet's comments: Scripture as Tradition]
Every Christian should be clear that no book is at the center of his faith. Nor is the Christian called, as Gibson suggests (below), to "live biblically." Rather, the Christian is called to participate in the life of the Risen Christ.

And yet, in the face of these misunderstandings, which have only deepened since Vatican II, in no small part because of confusion regarding the nature of Scripture and revelation itself, the Church plowed forward with its great ecumenical outreach. True, as Gibson notes, "worshipers hear[] and read more biblical texts than ever before -- including, for the first time, passages from the Old Testament." Yet what are the principles behind the selection of the texts, and perhaps more importantly, what principles of exegesis guided the reformers in grouping the New Testament readings with the Old Testament selections? Was it the literal sense, which has "pride of place?" Was it allegory or typology, so beloved of Patristic scholars of the ressourcement movement--in spite of the well known "excesses" of this method? I confess that I can discover little method to the ... method. Certainly the average pew sitter receives little guidance, as it is the rare sermon that draws any connection among the various readings. This is not progress. Worse, it can even open the door for the pew sitters to consider the "blinkered literalism" of Evangelical Protestantism that the Synod decries.

Gibson remains resolutely optimistic, while recognizing the existence of problems:
So what's the problem? Why did the pope call leading churchmen from around the world to a three-week "Synod on the Word"? For one thing, the Catholic Church -- at least in the U.S. -- is in no position to claim a high level of biblical literacy among its members. In fact, no church can. ... Few can distinguish literary forms like epistles, prophecy and history, and too many confuse inerrancy and literalism.

... And there are indications that Catholics are open to more literary and metaphorical readings of the Bible, especially the Old Testament stories, than many Protestants.

Indeed, a Vatican document prepared for the synod called biblical literalism a dangerous kind of "fundamentalism" that is "winning more and more adherents . . . even among Catholics." It "demands an unshakable adherence to rigid doctrinal points of view and imposes, as the only source of teaching for Christian life and salvation, a reading of the Bible which rejects all questioning and any kind of critical research." ...

Did the Vatican meeting change that dynamic? The attention at the top is certainly welcome and can tap into a genuine curiosity about the Bible that is too often satisfied by questionable archaeological "discoveries" or cable-television glosses.

But the synod's 55 final recommendations to the pope (he will likely approve most of them in a document of his own next year), while filled with lovely language about better homilies, could have used a greater focus on small-group bible studies outside the liturgy. Living biblically is hard to do if you don't understand the Bible or, worse, if you are afraid of what you might find there. The message of the Bible is simple, in a sense. But even Christ spoke with human words, which were related by human followers and preached by human beings through the centuries. That means the Scriptures are complex, and challenging.

It is no coincidence that the most popular Catholic Bible study program in the U.S. remains the Little Rock Scripture Study, which was begun in 1974 as a way for Catholics in central Arkansas to hold to their faith amid the region's dominant Bible-quoting Protestants. The response was overwhelming, and today the program has been used in more than a third of U.S. parishes. But much more needs to be done to promote a Catholic version of the kind of small-group Bible study that is a staple of American Protestantism -- and a draw to Catholics who don't find that kind of engagement in their own church.

In fact, one of the most concrete suggestions at the synod -- for "a clear and direct guide that would highlight the rich and useful methods of the Church for reading and sharing sacred Scriptures" -- came from Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston. He noted that in the Bible Belt, as elsewhere in the U.S., Bible studies are often the locus of grass-roots ecumenical contact, as church-going Catholics and evangelicals often find their passion for issues in the public square coincides with an interest in exploring their respective beliefs. But then they are at odds over Bible and doctrine. That contact becomes a spur to Catholics to learn the Bible but also a challenge to the Catholic Church to equip them with resources that are "totally ecclesial and Catholic."

Unfortunately, the cardinal's recommendation did not make the final cut. Still, the tools are there, and besides, most reformations start from below. Only this time, perhaps Catholics can lead the way.
Yes, it is unfortunate that Cardinal Dinardo's recommendation didn't make the final cut. But it was hardly surprising, given contemporary theology's inability to reach any consensus on these troublesome issues. But before the Church pushes the faithful to immerse themselves in an area in which 2,000 years of theology has failed to reach any consensus, would it not be wise to provide them with "a clear and direct guide," with "resources that are 'totally ecclesial and Catholic?'" As this blog has attempted to show, the resources are available. Not only does Thomism offer a firm grounding in philosophical realism, but the social sciences offer the resources for a deepened understanding of revelation, of man in history. In this regard, it is notable that John Paul II was and Benedict XVI is acquainted with the work of Mircea Eliade--which is, if not a complete account, a necessary starting point for considering revelation. It is the Church's own failure to face the intellectual disarray of its ecclesial culture--rooted in the Platonism of the Augustinian tradition--that prevents the formulation of a coherent theology of revelation. Perhaps a true internal reformation, or renewal, is advisable before the Church attempts a new Counter-Reformation--just so we'll be clear what needs reforming and what needs countering.

For extended discussion of the direction that a theology of revelation needs to take, see these earlier blog posts:

Scripture as Tradition

Messy Revelation

The One Who Is To Come

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