Tag Archives: Vatican II

The Book of God

30 Sep
St. Jerome

St. Jerome, Doctor of the Church

One of the central documents of the Second Vatican Council was its 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.

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 Liber (“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 works of Christ. Dei Verbum, no. 9 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.

Bible Christians

While Catholics do not limit God’s self-revelation to the Bible alone (“sola scriptura”), we must affirm with St. Jerome, whose feast we celebrate today, 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. Continue reading

Vatican II on Fostering Religious Vocations

3 Jun

religious sistersIn paragraph 24 of Vatican II’s Decree on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life (Perfectae Caritatis, 1965), we find this summary of what we might call ”vocation ministry”:

“Priests and Christian educators should make serious efforts to foster religious vocations, thereby increasing the strength of the Church, corresponding to its needs. These candidates should be suitably and carefully chosen. In ordinary preaching, the life of the evangelical counsels and the religious state should be treated more frequently. Parents, too, should nurture and protect religious vocations in their children by instilling Christian virtue in their hearts.

“Religious communities have the right to make themselves known in order to foster vocations and seek candidates. In doing this, however, they should observe the norms laid down by the Holy See and the local Ordinary.

“Religious should remember there is no better way than their own example to commend their institutes and gain candidates for the religious life.”

Three things jumped off the page to me when I recently reread this document:

(1) Vatican II encourages more preaching on the evangelical counsels and the religious state, yet how often do we hear anything from the pulpit on the splendor of consecrated life?

(2) Parents not only nurture but protect their children’s vocations by instilling Christian virtue. One wonders how many religious vocations have been lost by parents’ failure to foster Christian virtue in the home through their own words and actions, and through the appropriate exercise of discipline.

(3) Religious have the right to promote their community, but in the end the most effective means of attracting young men and women is through their own personal witness of lives completely and joyfully given to the Lord.

Psalmody to Love

9 Jan

billie hollidayTrivia question (answer at end): What would you have if Billie Holliday came back to life and prayed the Liturgy of the Hours?

I still vividly recall entering a religious community in the mid-1980s. A native of Los Angeles and a fairly recent law school graduate, I knew I was stepping into a very different environment. As I settled into this life, I realized that I was doing many of the same things I had been doing before entering this community. I had already become accustomed to daily Mass and holy hours. The studies (I was preparing for the priesthood) likewise came naturally to a “professional student” like me. And of course the meals and recreation times were very enjoyably spent with the great guys we had in the community.

The one thing that was markedly different for me was praying the Liturgy of the Hours (aka “Divine Office”) at set times each day with the other seminarians and religious. I had owned and used a breviary (a prayer book containing the Liturgy of the Hours) before entering seminary, but the regularity and fervor of this prayer of the Church was the most distinctive–and in many ways the most enriching–aspect of my seminary journey. This attraction to the Liturgy of the Hours has stayed with me ever since.

For that reason, the commitment of deacons and deacon candidates to pray the Liturgy of the Hours has fit me as an old, comfortable shoe as I’ve begun formation for the diaconate here in Kansas City. I especially enjoy the opportunity to pray the Liturgy of the Hours with my awesome brother candidates during our formation weekends and other occasions.

Still, the Church in our time, particularly since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), has encouraged all Catholics to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. While one may find one-volume and four-volume breviaries at any Catholic bookstore, there are also apps and websites available that add a further element of convenience. I’d also like to mention that my friend Daria Sockey has an excellent blog that gives terrific information and guidance to anyone who would like to take up this beautiful prayer of the Church.

Okay, here’s the answer to the trivia question: Psalm Sung Blue (Yes, my wife didn’t laugh either.) Lord, have mercy on me in your kindness . . .

Digesting the Content

27 Jun

Catechesi TradendaeChurch documents can seem a bit daunting at first, especially to lay people who have not studied Catholic theology for any length of time. Yet the writings of the Popes and other Church authorities are far too important to be left merely to scholars or so-called “experts.”

I received a tip many years ago that I have found very helpful: Most Church documents, including Vatican II documents and papal encyclicals, are divided into numbered sections. Each section is bite-sized, usually 1-4 paragraphs in length. The tip is to read the document one numbered section at a time, and then try to summarize the content in one sentence. This may be a little challenging at first, but eventually you will get the hang of it and quickly zero in on the main point of the section.

One of Blessed John Paul II’s longest documents is Catechesi Tradendae, a 1979 apostolic exhortation on Catechesis in Our Time. Below you will find my summary of this document, with a few memory verses thrown in at no extra charge. Especially during this “Year of Faith,” you might want to try this method with one of the documents of Vatican II or an encyclical on a topic you find most interesting. Continue reading

The Truth Will Set Us Free

28 May

Murray on TIME coverAfter a brief hiatus, we now continue our series on the documents of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) during this Year of Faith with the Declaration on Religious Liberty (Dignitatis Humanae). While the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy may be considered the most controversial document of Vatican II in terms of its implementation, Dignitatis Humanae is probably the most controversial in terms of what it actually teaches, and it is a “front-burner” issue for the Church today.

The reason Dignitatis Humanae is so controversial are that it (a) reflects new and diverse responses to changing social conditions (notably the contribution of American theologian John Courtney Murray, S.J.) and (b) strikes a very different tone from a series of papal documents from Gregory XVI to Pius XI on the social kingship of Christ and the desirability of a “confessional state” (i.e., what we would call a “Catholic country”).

Let me try to simplify the issue for us: “Religious liberty” looks one way when the Catholic faith is in power and most people are Catholic or at least Christian, and the issue is how to apply religious truth in a manner that is both robust and yet respectful of the rights of non-believers. It looks another way when, as is more typical in our experience, the Catholic faith is a minority position and the issue is to protect the fundamental rights of individuals and religious entities. As the first section Dignitatis Humanae teaches, “Religious freedom, . . . which men demand as necessary to fulfill their duty to worship God, has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society.”

Further complicating the situation is American jurisprudence, which today, in my judgment, improperly treats the “Establishment Clause” of the First Amendment as meaning that there must be an impenetrable wall between Church and State—and really between religion and public life. This distorted emphasis on the Establishment Clause to the detriment of the “Free Exercise” clause has led secularists to narrow the scope of “religious liberty” to what happens in the church building as they bully believers and churches out of the public square.

Exhibit “A” is the HHS mandate.

Another complicating aspect of religious liberty is the widespread misunderstanding of conscience, especially in dissident Catholic circles. I’ve addressed that issue here. The Catechism (no. 1792) acknowledges that “a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience” is a “source of errors of judgment in moral conduct.” Even more to the point, Catechism, no. 2039 teaches that “personal conscience and reason should not be set in opposition to the moral law or the Magisterium of the Church.”

We should not be forced to act against our conscience. By the same token, we are obliged to form our consciences well. Acting according to the dictates of conscience is about doing what is truly good, not whatever I feel like doing at the moment.

Let’s now briefly look at a “top ten” list of principles of religious liberty taken from the opening sections of Dignitatis Humanae. This is not an exhaustive list, but it contains principles that always apply even as cultural conditions change:

(1) We ordinarily cannot be forced to act contrary to our religious beliefs.

“All men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.” (no. 2)

(2) Religious liberty is an innate right known to us through both faith and reason.

“The right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself.” (no. 2)

(3) Governments have the duty to respect religious liberty.

“This right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed and thus it is to become a civil right.” (no. 2)

(4) We must seek the truth.

“It is in accordance with their dignity as persons–that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility–that all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth.” (no. 2)

(5) We must strive to live the truth.

“They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth.” (no. 2)

(6) God’s law is written on the human heart.

“The highest norm of human life is the divine law–eternal, objective and universal–whereby God orders, directs and governs the entire universe and all the ways of the human community by a plan conceived in wisdom and love. Man has been made by God to participate in this law, with the result that, under the gentle disposition of divine Providence, he can come to perceive ever more fully the truth that is unchanging. Wherefore every man has the duty, and therefore the right, to seek the truth in matters religious in order that he may with prudence form for himself right and true judgments of conscience, under use of all suitable means.” (no. 3)

(7) The truth must be sought freely.

“Truth, however, is to be sought after in a manner proper to the dignity of the human person and his social nature. The inquiry is to be free, carried on with the aid of teaching or instruction, communication and dialogue, in the course of which men explain to one another the truth they have discovered, or think they have discovered, in order thus to assist one another in the quest for truth.” (no. 3)

(8) We must adhere to the truth.

“As the truth is discovered, it is by a personal assent that men are to adhere to it.” (no. 3)

(9) Personal and societal harm comes from suppressing the free exercise of religion.

“On his part, man perceives and acknowledges the imperatives of the divine law through the mediation of conscience. In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of life. It follows that he is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience. Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious. The reason is that the exercise of religion, of its very nature, consists before all else in those internal, voluntary and free acts whereby man sets the course of his life directly toward God. No merely human power can either command or prohibit acts of this kind. The social nature of man, however, itself requires that he should give external expression to his internal acts of religion: that he should share with others in matters religious; that he should profess his religion in community. Injury therefore is done to the human person and to the very order established by God for human life, if the free exercise of religion is denied in society, provided just public order is observed.” (no. 3)

(10) Religious freedom applies to religious communities and groups (i.e., the Church), and not just individual believers.

“The freedom or immunity from coercion in matters religious which is the endowment of persons as individuals is also to be recognized as their right when they act in community. Religious communities are a requirement of the social nature both of man and of religion itself.” (no. 4)

Calling All Catholics!

4 Apr

Cardinal NewmanThe great 19th-century English convert, Blessed John Henry Newman, was a great proponent of the laity’s role in the Church. Once, when asked by his bishop what the clergy should think of the laity, Newman famously quipped, “Well, we’d look rather silly without them.”

A century later, the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), influenced in part by the writings of Cardinal Newman, announced that one of its goals was “to impart an ever-increasing vigor to the Christian life of the faithful” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, no. 1). Therefore, the Council charted a plan for renewal on the premise that every baptized Christian has a crucial role to play in the life of the Church. In other words, holiness isn’t the exclusive domain of “professionals” (i.e., priests and religious), but rather the goal of every human life. This principle became known as the “universal call to holiness” and was discussed at length in chapter V of Vatican II’s Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium).

Given the centrality of this theme, the vocation of lay people to holiness and to participation in the Church through the renewal of the family and society informs every conciliar document. However, in the 1965 Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity (Apostolicam Actuositatem), the Council addressed the subject directly.

When my children were young, I would go into their room at night and sprinkle them with holy water. Depending on how trying of a day it was, I would give them an extra sprinkle or two or three. (Sometimes I would be tempted to bathe them in holy water!) As I went through this ritual, I would ask them, “Whose child are you?” to which they would reply, “God’s.” The point was to link their being Christians to their being children of God through the waters of Baptism. And, as Vatican II stresses, it’s our shared Baptism–deepened through the sacraments of Confirmation and the Eucharist–that provides the basis for the entirety of the Christian life.

For that reason, as we continue our series on the Vatican II documents, I thought I would call us to reflect upon this passage from the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity:

“The laity derive the right and duty to the apostolate from their union with Christ the head; incorporated into Christ’s Mystical Body through Baptism and strengthened by the power of the Holy Spirit through Confirmation, they are assigned to the apostolate by the Lord Himself. They are consecrated for the royal priesthood and the holy people (cf. 1 Peter 2:4-10) not only that they may offer spiritual sacrifices in everything they do but also that they may witness to Christ throughout the world. The sacraments, however, especially the most holy Eucharist, communicate and nourish that charity which is the soul of the entire apostolate” (no. 3).

This is a broad topic, but here are a few thoughts to consider:

(1) Call to holiness means a call to apostolate. We notice that the document is not called the “Decree on the Holiness of the Laity.” Our pursuit of holiness cannot be seen in isolation from our participation in the Church, which exists to bring all men and women into full communion with Christ. Lay Catholics build up the Church through word and example in the midst of the world.

(2) It’s apostolate, not ministry. True, we often use “apostolate” and “ministry” interchangeably, and in fact “ministry” is the more commonly used term, especially in Protestant circles. Yet Vatican II intentionally refrains from using the term “ministry” in connection with the laity, as that term is ordinarily reserved for the sanctifying and teaching functions of the ordained. “Apostolate” is what we are all called to do by virtue of our Baptism. Here we see the Church balancing the “universal” call to build up the Church with the specific call of ordained ministers, whose participation in the one priesthood of Christ differs from that of the laity in essence and not merely in degree (Lumen Gentium, no. 10).

(3) It’s not about doing “Church” things. In recent decades the Church has seen an explosion of lay liturgical “ministries” as well as the growth of lay positions in the institutional Church (like mine!). These are good things in themselves, so long as we understand that when the Church calls for an active, engaged laity, she is speaking primarily of the role of the laity outside of the church building and church offices. The idea is not to have lay people look more like priests or religious–and certainly not more “lay bureaucrats”–but to encourage laity to “be what they are”: agents of the Gospel in the midst of the world. As Pope Pius XII noted back in 1946, laity must be “on the front lines of the Church’s life.”

(4) Renewing the temporal order. Priests minister to us, so that we in turn can bring Christ to the world. When the Church calls the laity to “renew the temporal order,” she is not being abstract, but very specific. We are called to evangelize our families, workplaces, social networks, and public places. Occasionally this may be a little more dramatic, but more often it takes place in the ordinariness of daily living, which when united with Christ becomes extraordinary and redemptive.

(5) It’s all about being united with Christ. Consider this analogy: Imagine there’s a mishap on an airplane and the craft begins losing cabin pressure. In the face of such a calamity, most of us would want to be courageous and help as many of our fellow passengers as possible. Yet, if we don’t use our own air mask first, in a matter of seconds we’ll be of no use to anybody. We would be among the first casualties. Similarly, our first responsibility as Christians is to open our own hearts to Christ each day, allowing Him to change us and work through us. Only then does “apostolate” happen!

How do you understand your baptismal vocation to holiness and to mission?

The Book of God

1 Apr

Sisters win!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).

Bible Christians

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

Vatican II on the Word of God

11 Mar

Pope with Book of GospelsIn my last post, I offered some reflections on how Catholics approach Scripture, calling to mind Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum). This particular document is one of the four central “constitutions” promulgated at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Given its significance, I thought that before we move on to the next conciliar document I would offer this “top ten list” of key teachings found in Dei Verbum.

The entire document is rich (and it’s by far the shortest of the four constitutions!), but I have found these particular passages especially enlightening as the Church boldly proceeds with a “new evangelization.” The texts in bold italics are direct quotes, with footnotes omitted.

(1) God’s Self-Disclosure

Through divine revelation, God chose to show forth and communicate Himself and the eternal decisions of His will regarding the salvation of men. . . . He chose to share with them those divine treasures which totally transcend the understanding of the human mind (no. 6).

Dei Verbum affirms, with Vatican I, that we can know God’s existence and other religious truths through the use of reason. However, in addition to truths “which totally transcend” human understanding, divine Revelation conveys truths already accessible to human reason so that everyone can know the truth with ease, certitude, and the absence of error (cf. Catechism, nos. 37-38).

(2) Tradition!

[T]he apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved by an unending succession of preachers until the end of time. Therefore the Apostles, handing on what they themselves had received, warn the faithful to hold fast to the traditions which they have learned either by word of mouth or by letter (see 2 Thess. 2:15), and to fight in defense of the faith handed on once and for all (see Jude 1:3) (no. 8).

Apostolic tradition includes everything that contributes to the holiness of life and increase in faith of the People of God. The Church, in her teaching, life and worship, perpetuates and hands on to all generations all that she herself is, and all that she believes.

(3) Deposit of Faith

Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church (no. 10).

The Church stresses the unity of the Word of God, as both Scripture and Tradition flow from the same divine wellspring (no. 9).

(4) Role of Magisterium

[T]he task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ (no. 10).

Further, this teaching office is not above the Word of God. The Magisterium serves the Word of God, teaching only what has been handed on. The Magisterium listens to the Word devoutly, guards it scrupulously, and explains it faithfully in accordance with her divine commission. With the help of the Holy Spirit, the Magisterium draws from this one deposit of faith everything which the Church presents for belief as divinely revealed.

(5) Inerrancy of Scripture

Therefore, since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation (no. 11).

This section has been a point of controversy, as the Church’s traditional understanding of the inerrancy of Scripture has come under attack in recent decades, and this particular passage can seem ambiguous on the point. Is Scripture without error (“inerrant”) generally (but properly understood, see no. 6), or is it without error only on matters concerning our salvation?

This controversy can’t be resolved here, but in favor of the former interpretation, DV 11 does footnote sources such as Leo XIII’s Providentissimus Deus that set forth the traditional teaching. In addition, in Latin, the “for the sake of salvation” (causa salutis) is a genitive of purpose. The grammatical construction conveys purpose or motive (why do we have Scripture?), not a limitation upon “that truth.”

(6) Literary and Historical Criticism

However, since God speaks in Sacred Scripture through men in human fashion, the interpreter of Sacred Scripture, in order to see clearly what God wanted to communicate to us, should carefully investigate what meaning the sacred writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words (no. 12).

This passage illustrates the Church’s balanced approach that recognizes not only God’s authorship of Scripture, but also the contribution of the human authors, including their historical and cultural context. The use of human sciences only creates difficulties when scholars adopt unscientific presuppositions that contradict the faith (e.g., miracles are impossible) and treat Scripture as merely an ancient human writing.

(7) Incarnation of the Word

In Sacred Scripture, therefore, while the truth and holiness of God always remains intact, the marvelous “condescension” of eternal wisdom is clearly shown, “that we may learn the gentle kindness of God, which words cannot express, and how far He has gone in adapting His language with thoughtful concern for our weak human nature.” For the words of God, expressed in human language, have been made like human discourse, just as the word of the eternal Father, when He took to Himself the flesh of human weakness, was in every way made like men (no. 13, quoting St. John Chrysostom).

Our God has come looking for us, and He reaches out to us, using our mode of communication!  By “condescension” we mean that God reaches down to us as a Father gets down to be on the level of his child, so that he can embrace him and raise him up.

(8) Role of Old Testament

God, the inspirer and author of both Testaments, wisely arranged that the New Testament be hidden in the Old and the Old be made manifest in the New (no. 16).

This beautifully summarizes our approach to reading the entire Bible, not just the New Testament.

(9) Centrality of the Four Gospels

Holy Mother Church has firmly and with absolute constancy held, and continues to hold, that the four Gospels just named, whose historical character the Church unhesitatingly asserts, faithfully hand on what Jesus Christ, while living among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation until the day He was taken up into heaven (see Acts 1:1) (no. 19).

The Church unhesitatingly asserts the historicity of the Gospels. They are reliable accounts of the life of our Savior, Jesus Christ. We should frequently meditate on these four books.

(10) Ignorance of Scripture Is Ignorance of Christ

Therefore, all the clergy must hold fast to the Sacred Scriptures through diligent sacred reading and careful study, especially the priests of Christ and others, such as deacons and catechists who are legitimately active in the ministry of the word. This is to be done so that none of them will become “an empty preacher of the word of God outwardly, who is not a listener to it inwardly” since they must share the abundant wealth of the divine word with the faithful committed to them, especially in the sacred liturgy (no. 25, quoting St. Augustine).

This is related to no. 22, which provides that “easy access to Sacred Scripture should be provided for all the Christian faithful.” Vatican II exhorted all the Christian faithful, especially religious, to learn by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures the “excellent knowledge of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 3:8), taking to heart St. Jerome’s famous expression: “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.”

Paragraph 25 urges us to immerse ourselves in Scripture, whether it be through the liturgy, rich in the divine Word, or through devotional reading, or through classes and Bible studies, all with the approval and active support of the shepherds of the Church. We are reminded that prayer must accompany the reading of Sacred Scripture, so that God and man may talk together. For as St. Ambrose wrote, “we speak to Him when we pray; we hear Him when we read the divine saying.”

Looking for Answers

6 Mar

Word of GodThe following article originally appeared in the October 2000 issue of Lay Witness magazine. I reprint it here as illustrative of Vatican II’s teaching on the Word of God as found in the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum). In my next post I will provide a “top ten list” of teachings from this important conciliar document.

My algebra textbook in ninth grade had an answer key in the back that enabled me to check my answers upon completing my homework assignment. Most of the time, the answer key simply served to verify that in fact I had arrived at the correct answer.

Sometimes, however, the answer given in the book was different from my answer. What would I do then?

I realized that 99.99 percent of the time the book was right. The book didn’t have to change–I did. I would rework the problem a little more carefully, and usually I would discover and correct my error.

There were still times that I didn’t get the right answer. In those cases I had to admit that maybe I didn’t quite understand the material well enough and needed to consult the teacher. I had a fundamental trust in the reliability of the answer key, as I was humble enough (barely) to recognize that the professional mathematicians who wrote the book were probably right, and I, a cocky adolescent, was probably wrong.

In a very real sense, God’s Word is our answer key, providing answers to our most basic, essential questions. Who made us? What is the purpose of our existence? What good must we do to attain eternal life?

I must admit that every so often there was a typo in the answer key of my algebra book, and I would proudly point it out to my teacher and classmates. But God’s Word is even more reliable. It is utterly free from error. God can neither deceive nor be deceived. His Word will not lead us astray. And that’s not all. We have the best of teachers, Mother Church, to ensure that the Word of God is faithfully communicated through all ages.

Do we take time each day to open the Bible, the written Word of God? Do we listen attentively to God’s Word proclaimed to us in the liturgy? Do we take the time to consider whether our actions are in accord with God’s plan for our lives? Do we accept the role of the Church to authentically interpret God’s Word?

Like the algebra student, there are various approaches we can take to the Word of God. There are, of course, students who are not motivated to learn algebra and don’t bother to do the assignment, let alone check their answers in the back of the book. Sadly, in the classroom of life, there are many who are indifferent to the Word of God. We need to fervently pray that they may have the grace of conversion, that the Lord will inspire them to discover “the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Ephesians 3:8).

Then there are those who do the assignment and maybe even check their answers in the back of the book on occasion. There’s no problem as long as the answer key agrees with their answers. However, when there’s a discrepancy, they too easily assume the book is wrong, or at least that their answer is equally valid.

This points to an analogous problem in the Church today. Many who consider themselves Catholics believe they are justified in rejecting those teachings with which they don’t agree. Often there is an inadequate understanding of the Church’s teaching, and unfortunately the Church’s teaching on issues such as contraception or homosexuality is caricatured in the media. Yet even the most honest and well-researched disagreement with the Church on an issue of faith or morals is problematic, because it involves replacing God’s laws with our own private judgment.

The antidotes to this problem are faith and humility. We all need to pray or an increase in faith. Faith means that we accept God’s Word not necessarily because we naturally agree with it, but because we accept the authority of God as the source of all truth. The virtue of humility, on the other hand, inclines us to recognize not only our God-given dignity and talents, but also our personal limitations and our need for divine wisdom and grace.

At the other extreme, there are those who short-circuit the educational process by looking up the answers and copying them down without learning and understanding the material. I had classmates who would take this a step further. They would look up the answer and then work backwards so that it would look like they actually solved the problem when they hadn’t. While the problems with these approaches are rather obvious, at least these classmates correctly identified the source of the right answers.

When it comes to God’s Word, we can be tempted to take similar approaches. These approaches are rightly criticized as being fundamentalist (inadequately taking into account the complexities of the human condition and the fact that revealed truths are at the same time “mysteries” of faith) and proof-texting (taking God’s Word out of context and improperly using a passage as a shortcut to defending our understanding of the Church’s teaching).

In a secular age characterized by what is sometimes called a “crisis of faith,” the affirmation of trust in the authority of God’s Word manifested by these approaches can be refreshing and praiseworthy. Yet in the end faith is not about knowing the right answers, but about growing in our relationship with the living God. He wants us to ponder the mysteries of faith in imitation of our Blessed Mother (cf. Luke 2:19, 51), using our intellect and will in cooperation with divine grace to wrestle with real-life difficulties.

Those who simply look up the answers in the back of the book not only cheat themselves, but also aren’t much help when it comes to teaching others. And so for us to participate most fully in the “new evangelization,” we must make our own the truths of the faith, and in word and action bear effective witness to the hope that is within us.

In approaching Scripture, we must avoid the pervasive skepticism and doubt that poison many biblical materials today. This theological skepticism has its roots in 19th-century biblical scholarship, but also draws upon contemporary secularizing tendencies. The answer is not fundamentalism, or a rejection of the various scientific tools that give us important new insights and which have the full blessing of the Church.

Rather, the appropriate response is a fundamental trust in our Lord Jesus Christ and in His Church, especially when we are tempted to doubt. St. Augustine, one of the most brilliant theologians in the history of the Church, aptly summarizes the humility and reverence we should have before the Word of God:

“On my own part I confess to your charity that it is only to those books of Scripture which are now called canonical that I have learned to pay such honor and reverence as to believe most firmly that none of their writers has fallen into any error. And if in these books I meet anything which seems contrary to truth, I shall not hesitate to conclude either that the text is faulty [a defective copy of the Bible], or that the translator has not expressed the meaning of the passage, or that I myself do not understand.”

May God’s Word be a light for our paths (cf. Psalm 119:105) and draw us all more deeply into the heart of His family, the Church.

Holy Terror?

25 Feb

Nostra AetateThe next item in our survey of the documents of Vatican II during this “Year of Faith” is the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate). It’s the shortest Vatican II document, containing only five numbered paragraphs. Schematically, it is a bridge between the Decree on Ecumenism, which pertains to fostering the unity of all Christians, and the Decree on the Missionary Activity of the Church, which pertains to bringing the Gospel to the ends of the earth.

Woe to the Church if she ever fails to proclaim Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 9:16), yet the Church recognizes that we must build on points of agreement with other faiths and work for the common good. In this regard, Nostra Aetate singles out Islam (no. 3) and Judaism (no. 4) for special treatment. The Declaration affirms that all people must be treated with respect, and the Church reproves any unjust discrimination based on race, color, condition of life, or religion as being foreign to the mind of Christ (no. 5).

The following quote in paragraph 2 aptly summarizes the approach of Nostra Aetate:

“The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in [other] religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ ‘the way, the truth, and the life’ (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself.

“The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men.”

Discussion of Nostra Aetate reminds me of the time that a student of mine asked me to explain how terrorism could possibly be justified as doing “God’s will.” I think that’s an important issue for us to consider at its root.

Obviously this issue arises in the context of Islam, since at least some adherents of that religion support—and act upon—the notion that terrorism can be justified as an act of jihad, or “holy war.”

Pope Benedict XVI addressed this complex issue in his widely publicized 2006 lecture at Regensburg University in Germany, in which he embodies the principles of Nostra Aetate. The Pope stressed Christianity’s view that God is intrinsically linked to reason. The Greek word for reason, rationality, and intelligibility is logos, which is commonly translated as verbum (Latin) or “word” (English) in Scripture. In fact, Christ is presented as the eternal Word of God incarnate. We see that point clearly made at the outset of the fourth Gospel:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (Jn. 1:1, 14).

I should clarify here that the God of Christianity is not mere rationality personified, but rather is more fundamentally a Father who acts in the objectively best interests of His children. Christ is the eternal Son of God who came to reveal the Father’s saving love for us.

Islam, on the other hand, stresses God’s absolute transcendence. The God of Islam immeasurably exceeds our limited human comprehension. That’s certainly true, as we all can agree that God’s ways are not our ways (cf. Is. 55:8-9). But the Muslim people do not see in Christ God’s incarnate love for man, which has led God to make Himself known to us. Instead, according to the Holy Father, Islam teaches that God’s “will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality.”

The risk of this image of the divine is that the irrationality of violence can potentially be justified if someone believes it is “God’s will” or the “will of Allah.”

So the question boils down to whether God can and does act irrationally (or super-rationally). We say no, but Islam says yes.

As Pope John Paul II stressed in his book Crossing the Threshold of Hope, at the heart of the fall of Adam and Eve is the rejection of God’s fatherhood. Pope Benedict, in his Regensburg lecture, was trying to explain how all this has played out on a philosophical level. He offers Christianity as a means of bridging the gap between an “extreme” faith without reason (“fundamentalism” or “fideism”) and “extreme” (and often impoverished) reason without faith (“materialism,” “secularism,” etc.).

Without some common ground, there simply is no basis for Islam and the secular West to understand each other and work toward the common good.

For the secularist, the rejection of God’s fatherhood is a rejection of God altogether, though such rejection is typically accompanied by idolatry (e.g., consumerism, hedonism, etc.) and diversions (e.g., TV). The former seeks to fill the void left by God, the latter seeks to ignore the emptiness.

For the Muslim, God is not a Father but rather a tyrant or task master in the sense that His sovereign will is not tethered to rationality or “the good.” God is so far removed from man that it’s offensive to Muslims even to suggest that that God may be our “Father.”

That’s the amazing thing about our faith. When Christ teaches us to pray, the first words out of His mouth are “Our Father.” And when He sends His Holy Spirit into our hearts, we instinctively call out “Abba, Father!” (Gal. 4:6) and become participants in God’s inner life (cf. 2 Pet. 1:4).

Muslims need reason. The decadent West needs God. And all of us need Jesus Christ, who shows us the way to the Father.