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Light for our Path
In the years leading up to the Second Vatican Council, the Bible played a relatively
small role in the lives of most Catholics. Few Catholics were directly acquainted with
its content except for the Bible stories they learned in their catechism classes and the
readings they heard the priest proclaim on Sundays or major feast days.
Even then, a sermon based on these readings was rare. Sermons were usually
about Church teaching or practice.
Many people even felt that it was dangerous to read the Bible without the explicit
direction of the Church. Protestants may have been versed in biblical knowledge, but not
Catholics. In fact, many considered reading the Bible a Protestant devotion.
Circumstances are quite different today. Even those Catholics whose only experience
of religious practice is Sunday or feast day Masses have come to know quite a bit about
the Bible. The liturgy is full of biblical themes, we sing songs based on Bible passages,
and most homilies relate to the readings of the day. Many people today look to Sacred Scripture
for inspiration and guidance in their life decisions.
Turning to the Bible
The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) spearheaded a marvelous revitalizing of
the Bible in the Church. Both during and between its four general sessions, many Council
Fathers attended lectures given by prominent biblical scholars. This prepared them to consider
biblical revelation as they made decisions at the Council. Another indication of the Council's
"turn to the Bible" is that the Book of the Gospels was given a central place in the room
where the Council Fathers often gathered for general sessions.
In 1965, the Council document, The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei
Verbum), helped us see the importance of using the tools of history and literature
to achieve a better understanding of the Bible. The language in which the text was written,
the culture and times of the author, and the religious concerns of the people for whom
it was originally written were now to be taken into account. (The biblical study methods
that consider these elements are called "critical" approaches—not in the negative sense
of "criticizing" but that of "looking carefully.")
Interest now focused on the meaning intended by the original author, not just
on the literal meaning of the words. It was almost as if the Bible had been reborn and
those involved in any form of Bible study were reborn with it. The study of the Bible became
exciting and uncovered a profound hunger for the word of God among the people of God.
This hunger was evident in a phenomenon known as the "base Christian community." All
over the world small groups of ordinary Christians were meeting to discuss how the message
of the Bible could make a difference in their lives and call them to action. Although they
often had a group leader, the members were seldom trained in any form of biblical interpretation.
However, this did not deter them. They studied and they prayed. Various degrees of social
awareness grew out of these groups. Today similar groups can be found in parishes around
Feeding the hunger
This grassroots movement was beginning at the same time that the documents
of Vatican II were being released to the faithful. People gradually came to realize the
importance of more serious biblical study. Graduate programs sprang up across the U.S.
and beyond. These programs were usually open to lay women and men. Seminaries began to
revise their courses of study. No longer was the Bible taught primarily as a way of reinforcing
specific doctrines. It was now studied from an entirely different point of view: to seek
our best understanding of God's revelation through the word.
The Council recommended that "easy access to Sacred Scripture—be provided to
the Christian faithful" (DV, #22) and that a "warm and living love for Scripture" be
promoted (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, #24). As a result, catechetical programs
grounded in the Bible were established in parishes, a three-year lectionary cycle introduced
the people to more readings, homilies were rooted in Sacred Scripture and several translations
of the Bible appeared with study helps. The Bible itself ceased to be only a family heirloom
showcased on the coffee table and became a well-worn, dog-eared, frequently consulted best-seller.
The development of a more analytical/critical approach to Catholic biblical
scholarship actually began long before Vatican II. In 1893, Pope Leo XIII acknowledged
some of the achievements of Protestant scholars in this area. He later established the
Pontifical Biblical Commission. This group of biblical scholars has recently addressed
such topics as the distinctions between historical fact and truth in Scripture; how we
as a Church should interpret Scripture; and how ancient writings, sacred to the Jews, should
also be regarded as Christian texts. In 1943, Pope Pius XII wrote the first document devoted
entirely to the Church's position on biblical interpretation and opened a new era in Catholic
Uniting all God's people
In the past, the Bible often divided Catholics and Protestants. When differences
in understanding Scripture occur now they are more likely the result of the method used
in reading the Bible than of the Church to which one belongs. Some people choose analytical/critical
methods to discover the meaning of biblical texts; others base their interpretation of
passages on the literal meaning of the words only.
Since Vatican II, the study of the Bible enjoys considerable cooperation among
Christian Churches. This ecumenical and interfaith cooperation is evident in the membership
of biblical translation committees. Christians, and sometimes Jews, are found on these
committees. There are also written commentaries that are popular among both scholars and
In its most recent document, "The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church" (1994),
the Pontifical Biblical Commission insisted that, as important as it is to know what the
Bible originally meant, we must also be concerned about what it might mean in today's world—a
world embroiled in economic injustice, war and discrimination. This means that, in our
reading of the Bible, we must be sensitive to issues of gender, race, ethnic origin, class
and other political factors that make up the real world. These factors influence the way
women and men perceive reality and fashion their inner and outer worlds.
Such sensitivity is particularly difficult to develop when we read stories
that are clearly biased in favor of one group over another. For example, the Israelites
are too often chosen over the Egyptians, men preferred to women and physical disabilities
considered a form of punishment for sin. One of the pressing issues facing us today is
the challenge to be faithful to the meaning of the biblical narrative while at the same
time considering how we understand things in the world today.
We have come a long way in the area of sensitivity. The liberation theology
movement that appeared in Latin America in the early 1970s has significantly affected the
way we read the Bible. The experience of oppression and poverty brought people to a new
appreciation of the Bible stories of liberation. This in turn has inspired many people
to challenge governmental structures and policies that they believe to be unjust. Related
to this are the women's movement and its concern for inclusive language in both biblical
translations and the prayers used during liturgies. Some dismiss inclusive language as
being merely a matter of political correctness. But is it not rather about recognizing
the equality of all before God?
Looking to the future
What can we expect from biblical study in the future? Two topics come to mind:
biblical translations and sensitivity to the integrity of creation.
As already mentioned, the question of inclusive language is a burning issue
for some in the Church today. A particularly challenging aspect of the translation question
involves how we refer to God. Sacred Scripture uses male adjectives and pronouns when referring
to God. On the other hand, it does at times use descriptions of God that are feminine.
We are expected to understand the words used as inclusive in spite of our language's limitations
to fully express them as such. At present, the official Church decision concerning biblical
texts used in liturgy is to maintain the established gender usage. This means that we can
expect to continue hearing mostly masculine references to God in our liturgies.
While the Church can make decisions about the language used in our Bible translations
and liturgies, personal images of God cannot be limited. Many people, women and men alike,
find viewing and relating to God as both masculine and feminine to be important for their
growth as persons of faith. There are many sides to this issue, and people fervently argue
for each of them.
People may view this as a gender issue, but it carries broader significance.
It is probably true that sensitivity to gender-specific language spearheaded this concern,
but it has expanded to uncovering bias in other biblical expressions. For example, a passage
from the Song of Songs has traditionally been translated: "I am black, but beautiful" (1:5).
The conjunction "but"
suggests an exception, implying that black is not normally beautiful. A bias becomes evident
when we learn that the Hebrew conjunction used can also be translated "and." This yields
a very different meaning. A need for sensitivity to racial issues is clear, and many contemporary
translations of the Bible do use "and" rather than "but."
Another topic for future study is the biblical understanding of the relationship
between humankind and the rest of the natural world. Current threats to ecological balance
have forced a new look at the biblical foundation of our attitude toward the world. The
passage that is probably responsible for much of the misunderstanding of this matter is
the order given by God at the time of creation:
"...subdue it. Have dominion..." (Gen 1:28). This command has led some to believe that
the natural world is under the sovereign control of human beings who can do with it what
they wish. This attitude leads to disregard and exploitation. We need to place this passage
from Genesis alongside others that sketch a different perspective such as: "The earth is
the Lord's" (Ps 24:1).
The current concern for ecology has called for a reexamination of the biblical
stories of creation as well as other passages dealing with natural creation. We now see
that many of our attitudes toward natural creation have been grounded in faulty reading
of the biblical accounts. The development of an authentic biblical theology of ecology
is now in its infancy, but many believe that this topic will open up an exciting field
of examination and spirituality.
The Council threw the door to Scripture study wide open. Women and men, lay
and ordained, have committed themselves to various forms of biblical study and ministry
and have been enriched in ways far beyond their own imagining. What does the future hold?
What has been your reaction to the changes that new biblical
study methods have brought to the way we read and interpret Scripture? Have you
welcomed these changes? How have you been challenged by them?
How well is your parish community promoting growth in "a
warm and living love for Scripture"?
Have you taken advantage of local opportunities to grow in your
knowledge and understanding of the Bible? What more might you do in the future?
NEXT: Catholicism Welcomes the World by Virginia Smith
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