Quite some time ago, during his seminary days, a young priest friend of mine attended an introductory lecture on Revelation and the Scriptures. The lecturer told the class that there is considerable distance between God’s actual message and instructions and the texts we have in the Old and New Testaments. The lecturer wasn’t saying, like the Jesuit superior general, that we don’t know what Christ taught because they didn’t have recorders then, didn’t have phones to capture the moment. But she was heading in that direction.
My friend inquired innocently whether the Second Vatican Council had said anything on this topic. The lecturer, confident in her expertise, explained that it had. What was the document called? Quick as a flash the reply came: “Dei Verbum,” the Word of God. It was only when she stopped to smile and enjoy her contribution that the lecturer realized she had been decapitated. The Scriptures are God’s words for us, written in different forms and styles and in different ages by human authors. Although they were not dictated by the archangel Gabriel, as the Muslims claim the Quran was, they remain for us the Word of God.
The two major themes that ran in creative tension through the four sessions of the Second Vatican Council in Rome (1962–65) were “aggiornamento,” or bringing things up to date, and “ressourcement,” or going back to the sources for inspiration. Both terms, of course, cover a multitude of senses. 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? In what period and places is the truth found?
For Catholics, what are the sources? In contrast to the Protestants, Catholics had appealed explicitly, as taught by the Council of Trent, to both Scripture and Tradition. Dei Verbum, or the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, developed over the four sessions, was one of the Council’s best contributions, 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 bound together, come from the same divine wellspring, and move toward 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 make up a single sacred deposit of the Word of God” (Dei Verbum, 7–8). These perspectives were reaffirmed almost unanimously in the Roman Synod of the Word of God in 2008.
In these post-conciliar times, the Catholic Church, like the other churches and denominations in the West, is facing something new in her history. She is living in some countries where many, occasionally a majority, are irreligious, when not anti-religious. The ancient pagans of Roman times were not irreligious—most were superstitious, believing in many divinities. All those who love Christ and their Christian communities grieve over Western unbelief, but are often bitterly and fundamentally divided on the best way to turn this situation around.
The problem can be stated in a number of ways. Are the teachings of Christ—and especially Catholic ideas on sacrifice and sexuality, on the need for prayer and repentance—simply outdated, superseded just like the belief that the sun revolves around the earth? Has the theory of evolution and millions of years of dinosaurs knocked Judeo-Christian mythology off its perch? Are people compelled to believe with Comte that the age of religion has passed, that it is no longer possible to keep Christianity up to date?
Believers, of course, reject these radical forms of unbelief and confront the situation in more nuanced terms. The modern world has made remarkable progress in reducing poverty and illiteracy, diminishing hunger and increasing longevity. The spectacular advances in science, technology, and medicine cannot be denied. In these areas we certainly know much more than our ancestors, although too many of our young people are fragile and miserable, chained by habit in various unsavory ways. Youth suicide rates in Australia, for instance, are much too high. Why this contrast between progress and increased suffering?
While we continue to believe in our loving Creator God and continue to admire the beautiful teachings of Jesus, Mary’s Son, who was crucified by the Romans and Jewish religious authorities nearly two thousand years ago, don’t we realize better than ever that while Jesus was a genius and a prophet, he was a man with the limitations of his age, culture, and religion? Are Christians therefore allowed, with high-ranking German-speaking prelates, to reject basic Christian teaching on sexuality because they believe such teachings no longer accord with modern scientific knowledge? More than that, are Christians obliged by modern science to reject such and similar Christian teachings?
Two recent developments are remarkable. At the recent assembly of the German Synodal Path, nearly two-thirds of the German bishops seemed to have moved some distance in the direction of rejection, and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has not commented. Now the Belgian bishops are on the move. Those forces who 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 outlines the duty of the Successor of Peter, the man of rock, the foundation stone (Mt. 16:18), to strengthen the faith of his brothers—especially when some are weakening (Lk. 22:32). There is now a need for decisive action from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to prevent further deterioration and to correct error.
The declaration by Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich that he no longer wants to change Church doctrine is welcome, and Cardinal Reinhard Marx has also moved some way in this direction. These are good developments; but what of the majority of the German bishops?
Who has the truth in this dispute? Enlightened Western opinion and its German Catholic sympathizers, or traditional Christian teaching, which is supported by the overwhelming majority of worshipping Catholics? How does a Christian decide? What are the criteria? We could return initially to the Catholic Catechism, or the Code of Canon Law, but a return to the terminology and teachings of the Second Vatican Council is also useful.
Where is the last word to be discovered? The answer depends on the truths under discussion, as the Church has no particular expertise to decide truths of science, or history, or economics. However, both the Old and New Testaments teach, with the Catholic magisterium, that revelation has competence in morals as well as faith. Therefore moral truths are to be recognized and acknowledged in the apostolic tradition.
It is Catholic teaching that the pope, bishops, and all the faithful are servants and defenders of the apostolic tradition, with no power to reject or distort essential elements, especially when the tradition is being developed and explained. What is in dispute when we reject fundamental moral teaching on sexuality (for example) is not a paragraph in the Catholic Catechism, or a canon of Church law, or even a conciliar decree. It is the Word of God itself, entrusted to the apostles, which is being rejected. We don’t know better than God.
If divine revelation, as found in the Scriptures, is accepted as God’s Word, we submit and obey. We stand under the Word of God.
George Cardinal Pell is prefect emeritus of the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy.
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