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Posted February 18, 2008

Synod of Bishops on the Bible already causing ferment; Good Friday prayer revised

All Things Catholic by John L. Allen, Jr.

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Though it's still eight months away, next October's Synod of Bishops on the Bible is already causing ferment. The gathering will be the 22nd synod since Pope Paul VI created it in September 1965 as a means of giving bishops a voice in governance of the universal church (though it will be just the 12th "ordinary" synod). It is keenly anticipated for at least three reasons:

An eruption in Catholic appreciation for Scripture following the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), both in academic circles and at the grass roots, has had enormous impact in virtually every area of the life of the church, from moral theology to liturgical practice to popular prayer and devotion.

Especially for Western Protestantism, which launched the Reformation under the slogan of sola scriptura, the Bible is the most important terrain for ecumenical encounter, and any shift in emphasis from Catholicism would likely have strong ecumenical implications.

Since today's Catholic identity mega-trend has already transformed the way the church translates and interprets liturgical texts, it's reasonable to assume that a similar identity wave is poised to crest in Scriptural translation and exegesis.

Given what's at stake, it's hardly surprising that Catholics with an interest in Scripture are already mobilizing to try to steer the Synod's deliberations in one direction or another. So far, perhaps the most interesting examples have come from two of the hierarchy's best minds on Scripture, representing two distinct points of view: Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the emeritus Archbishop of Milan; and Cardinal Marc Ouellet, Archbishop of Quebec and Pope Benedict XVI's designee as relator, or chairman, of the synod.

Both Martini and Ouellet can stake a claim to expertise on the Bible. Martini, a Jesuit, is a former rector of the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome. After he stepped down from Milan, he moved to Jerusalem to resume his Scripture studies. Though Ouellet's degrees are in philosophy and dogmatic theology, he has long had a special passion for Scripture. As a Vatican official in 1997, Ouellet organized a symposium at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on Scriptural exegesis. He has also taken part in an international group called the "Scripture and Hermeneutics Seminar," composed of Biblical scholars and other academics who seek a "kneeling exegesis," a combination of rigorous academic investigation with deep faith in the Bible as the revealed Word of God. The main sponsors come from the Anglo-Saxon Protestant world - the British Foreign Bible Society, the University of Gloucestshire in the U.K., Baylor University in the States and Redeemer University College in Canada.

Martini's attempt to shape the upcoming Synod came with an essay in the Feb. 2 issue of La Civiltà Cattolica, a Jesuit-run journal in Rome that enjoys a semi-official Vatican status. In broad strokes, Martini urged that the Synod not revisit big-picture theological decisions made at Vatican II in its document on the Bible, Dei Verbum, but rather focus on pastoral application of that document's vision.

For example, Martini warned against prolonged discussion of two hot-button issues treated at Vatican II: the relationship between Scripture and tradition, and the use of the historical-critical method. Both topics, he argued, have been dealt with in authoritative church statements, and the Synod should restrict itself largely to affirming those teachings.

"It's important to take care that formulas not be used which would carry us backwards with respect to the Second Vatican Council," Martini wrote.

Instead, Martini emphasized the practical. For example, he proposed that the Synod call for a three-minute explication of the readings from Scripture every time daily Mass is celebrated.

My story outlining Martini's argument in greater detail can be found here: Martini's 'preemptive strike' ahead of Synod on the Bible.

Ouellet, meanwhile, entered the fray with an interview in the Jan. 31 issue of L'Avvenire, the official newspaper of the Italian bishops' conference. In a Q&A with veteran Italian journalist Gianni Cardinale - who is sort of the Larry King of the Catholic church, routinely delivering interesting conversations with major Catholic newsmakers - Ouellet briefly outlined his vision for the Synod.

The following are Cardinale's questions and Ouellet's answers, in my translation from the Italian.

Cardinale: How did you react to your nomination as relator?

Ouellet: "I was obviously moved by the kindness the pope showed by nominating me for this responsibility, even if it means I have more work to do. We're talking about an important synod, which is already generating enormous interest in the Catholic church and also among the other Christian confessions."

So we're talking about a synod with a strongly ecumenical character?

"Certainly. Let's hope that it will contribute to the growing closeness between Rome and the other churches and Christian communities. It would be wonderful if that happens, especially since the tragic separation of the Reformation was based on interpretation of Scripture. But it will also be a synod that has as its goal a re-launching of the missionary dimension of the church. The Word of God is intended for all people."

What are the themes that the Synod might address?

"A first point that could certainly be clarified regards the distinction between Scripture, which is a witness, and the living Word of God, who is the risen Christ present in his church, principally through the sacraments. This distinction must always be maintained.

Another question on which the Synod will have to try to offer a word of clarification regards the interpretation of Sacred Scripture. Such interpretation can never be merely individual, but must always be reconciled with the living tradition of the church. Further, such interpretation must utilize the scientific research of exegetes, but at the same time it must never place itself in rivalry, or opposition, to the magisterium."

While Ouellet's brief comments by no means constitute a rebuttal of Martini, their accents are nevertheless different. Most importantly, while Martini discourages a discussion of the relationship between Scripture and tradition, Ouellet welcomes it. To some extent, this contrast probably reflects a basic difference in attitude towards the hard-won autonomy achieved by Catholic Scripture scholars in the decades since Vatican II.

For Martini, the emergence of Bible studies as a separate enterprise, no longer merely a sub-discipline of dogmatic theology, meant liberation from the embarrassment of "proof-texting." It was also a needed reminder, as Dei Verbum put it, that church teachings and traditions must in some sense be measured against Scripture, rather than automatically interpreting Scripture in light of them. That's what some Bible experts mean when they talk about Scripture as a "purifying" element in the church, a perennial challenge to complacency and self-congratulation.

While Ouellet would no doubt applaud all that, he also sees a shadow side to what he perceives as a growing distance between scientific study of the Bible and the church.

"Faith is a basic principle to the scientific character of exegesis," he said in a 2005 address to the Scripture and Hermeneutics Seminar. "If we exclude faith, we are not being rigorous, we are misunderstanding the book. This point has to be made in the academy."

"We have to move," Ouellet said then, "we have to help each other come home to Scripture in the spiritual sense."

In all likelihood, both the Martini and Ouellet instincts will be represented in next October's Synod - one current hoping to concentrate on concrete pastoral matters, the other pushing for a ringing endorsement of "kneeling exegesis." Since Ouellet is the relator, however, at this stage one has to give the second school an edge in terms of capacity to shape both the agenda and the eventual result.

The lineamenta, or official preparatory document, for the Synod can be found here: Synod Lineamenta. The official title of the gathering is "The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church." In addition to Ouellet, Pope Benedict has also named Austrian-born Bishop Wilhelm E. Egger of Bolzano-Bressanone, Italy, as the Synod's special secretary. Egger served as president of the international Catholic Biblical Federation from 1996 to 2002, and has played lead roles in both the official Italian and German translations of the Bible.