In our series on the documents of Vatican II during this “Year of Faith,” we have spent some time examining Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum. This pivotal conciliar document has called Catholics to draw more effectively upon the life-changing power of Sacred Scripture.
The success of my daughter Sr. Evangeline and her team of sisters on The American Bible Challenge has given our culture a wonderful witness of how Catholics—and all people!—should come to know and venerate Scripture as God’s love letters to us.
And yet, Dei Verbum is not simply about the Bible. The title of this document itself is instructive. The Council Fathers did not call it Dei Librum (“Book of God”) but Dei Verbum (“Word of God”). The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us why this distinction is important:
“The Christian faith is not a ‘religion of the book.’ Christianity is the religion of the ‘Word’ of God, not a written and mute word, but incarnate and living. If the Scriptures are not to remain a dead letter, Christ, the eternal Word of the living God, must, through the Holy Spirit, open our minds to understand the Scriptures” (no. 108, footnotes omitted).
For All the Saints
One of the principal themes of the Second Vatican Council was the universal call to holiness. The renewal of the Church hinges on the ongoing sanctification of all her members. This is the work of God, but all the faithful must be personally engaged in the process.
Dei Verbum takes us to the point of entry into this new life in Christ Jesus. It comes down to the “obedience of faith” that we give to God as He reveals Himself to us (DV, no. 5). As our Lord Himself says, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it” (Lk 11:28).
It is the great mission of the Holy Spirit, the “soul of the Church,” to reveal Christ to us and bring us into communion with Him and all His holy ones. As St. Paul says, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (2 Cor. 12:3). The gift of the Holy Spirit to the Apostles and to the entire Church surely includes the singular blessing of Sacred Scripture, but encompasses the totality of what Christ bequeathed to His Church, including the sacred liturgy. In this regard the Holy Spirit “is the Church’s living memory” (Catechism, no. 1099), making present and effective in our lives the saving work of Christ. Dei Verbum therefore affirms that Sacred Tradition and Scripture are bound closely together and flow from the same divine wellspring, which is none other than the Holy Spirit (no. 9).
While Catholics do not limit God’s self-revelation to the Bible alone (“sola scriptura”), we must affirm with St. Jerome that “ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.”
The fact of the matter is that Catholics have not been well “versed” in Sacred Scripture. Surely, Catholics know much more of the Bible than we think we do–to the extent we’ve stayed awake at Mass and catechism class. Still, we experience something of an “inferiority complex” when it comes to the Bible. When challenged on the more controversial aspects of our faith with the dreaded “Where in the Bible . . . ?” questions, we are needlessly bewildered and intimidated.
Tragically, there are millions of Catholics raised since the mid-20th century in this country who have left the Church. Many, for one reason or another, have simply abandoned all religious practice, as the poor formation many Catholics have received has proven to be no match for the relentless secularism of our society. Some, however, have met “Bible Christians” who have found in these biblically hapless Catholics easy targets for their proselytism.
In my own life–despite 12 years of Catholic school–I found myself as a young adult woefully ignorant of Christ. Scripture was not a priority in our home and was not convincingly proclaimed at school or at Sunday Mass. Our beautiful, large, family Bible was used mostly to keep important documents and newspaper clippings flat (because of its size), and safe (because no one would ever think of opening it).
Even as the Holy Spirit was gently leading me home in the 1980s, it was difficult to find sound Catholic materials on Scripture. The first book I picked up discussed how St. Paul didn’t write many of the Epistles the Church attributes to him. The second book said we had to focus on the human Jesus and proceeded to explain away the miraculous occurrences in the Gospels. The third book went so far as to deny the Resurrection, saying that it wasn’t a historical event, but basically, “It’s the Church’s story and we’re sticking to it.” These were all considered mainstream “Catholic” books that I later encountered, among others, in seminary. No wonder we’re confused!
While there’s much more work to be done today, the climate is already subtly but unmistakably changing. My kids (not just Sr. Evangeline!) and their friends not only know the Catechism, but are quite at home–where they should be–in the Bible, and in fact have more of it memorized than I do. The Liturgy of the Word–not just at Mass, but also in other sacramental celebrations and the Liturgy of the Hours–now receives greater attention. The faithful are exposed to more of the Bible than before, and in its natural habitat to boot: the sacred liturgy. Catholics in unprecedented numbers are engaged in life-changing Bible studies. Catholic apologetics, thanks to Karl Keating, Pat Madrid, and so many others, has undergone a remarkable renaissance, such that Catholics are increasingly able to explain the biblical basis of our beliefs. Continue reading