QSome time ago, during his seminary days, a young priest friend of mine attended an introductory conference on Revelation and Scripture. The speaker told the class that there is a considerable distance between the true message and instructions of God and the texts we have in the Old and New Testaments. The lecturer wasn’t saying, like the superior general of the Jesuits, that we don’t know what Christ taught because they didn’t have recorders at the time, didn’t have phones to capture the instant. But she was heading in this direction.
My friend innocently asked if the Second Vatican Council had said anything about this. The speaker, confident in her expertise, explained that yes. What was the document called? Quick as a flash, the answer came: “Dei Verbum“, the Word of God. It wasn’t until she stopped to smile and appreciate her contribution that the speaker realized she had been beheaded. The scriptures are God’s words to us, written in different forms and styles and at different times by human authors. Although they were not dictated by the Archangel Gabriel, as Muslims claim in the Koran, they remain for us the Word of God.
The two major themes that ran in creative tension throughout the four sessions of the Second Vatican Council in Rome (1962-1965) were “updating“, or update things, and”healing», or to go back to the sources for inspiration. The two terms, of course, cover a multitude of meanings. We read the signs of the times to bring the Church up to date. But as the Swiss Protestant theologian Karl Barth asked Pope Paul VI: up to date with what? When and where is the truth found?
For Catholics, what are the sources? Unlike Protestants, Catholics had explicitly appealed, as the Council of Trent taught, to both Scripture and Tradition. Dei Verbum, or the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, developed over the four sessions, was one of the best contributions of the Council, resolving many intellectual tensions within the Church and ecumenically. The God of the Bible is not a human creation, nor an oppressor, but reveals himself and his message of salvation through Jesus Christ, “the mediator and the sum total of revelation”.
Scripture and Tradition are linked, come from the same divine source and tend towards the same goal. Tradition transmits the Word of God, which was entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit. “Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture constitute a single sacred deposit of the Word of God” (Dei Verbum, 7–8). These perspectives were reaffirmed almost unanimously at the Roman Synod of the Word of God in 2008.
In these postconciliar times, the Catholic Church, like other Churches and confessions in the West, faces something new in its history. She lives in certain countries where many, sometimes a majority, are irreligious, even anti-religious. The ancient pagans of Roman times were not irreligious – most were superstitious, believing in many deities. All who love Christ and their Christian communities mourn Western disbelief, but are often bitterly and fundamentally divided on how best to turn the tide.
The problem can be stated in several ways. Are the teachings of Christ – and especially the Catholic ideas about sacrifice and sexuality, about the need for prayer and repentance – simply outdated, outmoded, as is the belief that the sun revolves around the earth? Did the theory of evolution and millions of years of dinosaurs knock Judeo-Christian mythology off its perch? Should we believe with Comte that the century of religion is over, that it is no longer possible to keep Christianity up to date?
Believers, of course, reject these radical forms of disbelief and confront the situation in more nuanced terms. The modern world has made remarkable progress in reducing poverty and illiteracy, decreasing hunger and increasing longevity. The dramatic advances in science, technology and medicine are undeniable. In these matters we certainly know much more than our ancestors, though too many of our young people are frail and miserable, shackled by habit in various unsavory ways. Youth suicide rates in Australia, for example, are far too high. Why this contrast between progress and increased suffering?
As we continue to believe in our loving Creator God and continue to admire the beautiful teachings of Jesus, the Son of Mary, who was crucified by Roman and Jewish religious authorities nearly two thousand years ago, do we not realize- we no better than ever that while Jesus was a genius and a prophet, he was a man with the limits of his age, his culture and his religion? So are Christians allowed, along with high-ranking German-speaking prelates, to reject fundamental Christian teaching on sexuality because they believe that such teachings no longer correspond to modern scientific knowledge? More than that, are Christians compelled by modern science to reject such and similar Christian teachings?
Two recent developments are noteworthy. At the recent assembly of the German Synodal Path, nearly two-thirds of German bishops seemed to have gone some distance in the direction of rejection, and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith made no comment. Now the Belgian bishops are on the move. Those forces that want to destroy the monopoly of heterosexual marriage, that ancient Judeo-Christian moral teaching, and to legitimize homosexual activity, are working to spread their poison.
The New Testament describes the duty of the Successor of Peter, the man of rock, the cornerstone (Mt 16, 18), to strengthen the faith of his brothers, especially when some of them weaken (Lk 22, 32). There is now a need for decisive action by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to prevent further deterioration and to correct errors.
Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich’s statement that he no longer wants to change the doctrine of the Church is welcome, and Cardinal Reinhard Marx has also taken a step in this direction. These are good developments; but what about the majority of German bishops?
Who holds the truth in this dispute? Enlightened Western opinion and its German Catholic sympathizers, or traditional Christian teaching supported by the overwhelming majority of faithful Catholics? How does a Christian decide? What are the criteria ? We could return first to the Catholic Catechism, or to the Code of Canon Law, but a return to the terminology and the teachings of the Second Vatican Council is also useful.
Where is the last word to discover? The answer depends on the truths under discussion, for the Church has no special expertise in deciding the truths of science, history, or economics. However, the Old and New Testaments teach, along with the Catholic magisterium, that revelation has jurisdiction in morals as well as in faith. Therefore, moral truths must be recognized and accepted in the apostolic tradition.
It is Catholic teaching that the pope, bishops and all the faithful are the servants and defenders of the apostolic tradition, with no power to reject or distort the essentials, especially when the tradition is expanded and explained. What is challenged when one rejects the fundamental moral teaching on sexuality (for example) is not a paragraph of the Catholic Catechism, nor a canon of Church law, nor even a conciliar decree. It is the Word of God itself, entrusted to the apostles, which is rejected. We don’t know better than God.
If divine revelation, as found in the scriptures, is accepted as the Word of God, we submit and obey. We stand under the Word of God.
Cardinal George Pell is prefect emeritus of the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy.
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Picture by G.Garitan licensed through Creative Commons. Cropped image.