Living Tradition
Editor: Msgr. John F. McCarthy, J.C.D., S.T.D.Distributed several times a year to interested members.
Associate Editor: Rev. Brian W. Harrison, O.S., M.A., S.T.D.  Not to be republished without permission.
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No. 20 Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study Program November 1988

Reinterpreting the Resurrection
Catholic Bishops of the 1980s: Attitudes to Scripture and Theology

by John F. McCarthy

        A "new" decision of the Magisterium has been making news around the Catholic world during the last two months. Actually, it is not new at all. In substance, it simply repeats the oldest magisterial proclamation of all: "Christ is risen!" That, of course, has been the very heart of the "good news" which has been publicly proclaimed by the Apostles and their successors ever since the Day of Pentecost.

        Why, then, was there a need in 1988 for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to intervene? Was some Catholic theologian going so far as to deny that Christ had risen? Well, it seems that Fr. David Coffey, a professor in Australia's Pontifical Faculty of Theology, the Catholic Institute of Sydney, had been denying an essential part of the Apostolic faith in Jesus' Resurrection, thereby also removing the rational basis for believing in the other part. The end result, therefore, was to undermine the central message of the Gospel.

        Fr. Coffey has always claimed to believe firmly that the integral Christ, true God and true man, is indeed alive and reigning eternally in heaven, and his arrival at that state was what the Sydney theologian understood by the term "bodily Resurrection." So far, so good? Not quite. For, of course, the Church's understanding of what is meant by the term resurrexit ("He rose") in the Creed includes not only Our Lord's arrival at eternal life, but how He arrived there, namely, by the miraculous raising of his crucified body, which had been laid in the tomb. And this is precisely what Fr. Coffey had ceased to profess after years of studying the works of theologians and exegetes influenced by liberal Protestant thinkers like Rudolf Bultmann.

        According to Rudolf Bultmann, the world-view of "modern scientific man" excludes the idea of a God who sometimes acts directly and miraculously on the physical world, without the intervention of secondary natural causes. Bultmann believed that Christians too must accept this new world-view, and "reinterpret" their "mythological." dogmas accordingly. But as Pope John Paul II has recently declared, this world-view (which in fact is not that of "science," but of a very serious misunderstanding of science) "clashes with the most elementary philosophical and theological idea of God, infinite, subsisting and omnipotent Being, who has no limits except in regard to non-existence and therefore the absurd" (L'Osservatore Romano, English edn., 14 December 1987, p. 3).

        Fr. Coffey had adopted a similar outlook, along with a similar method of analysing the Gospels, to the extent of doubting the historical reliability of the canonical Resurrection narratives, and holding that, although Jesus' tomb probably was found empty, this was not due to the Resurrection, but simply to the fact that Jesus' mortal remains were by that time lying somewhere else - for reasons historians can now only speculate about. However, as noted above, Fr. Coffey continued to profess firmly his belief in Jesus' "bodily Resurrection," in the sense that the total or integral Person of Our Lord lived on in glory, even while his mortal remains presumably underwent the same fate that ours will after death.

        However, Fr. Coffey never satisfactorily answered the question as to why, if Jesus' bones are still lying around somewhere in Palestine, we should continue to believe even in this "demythologized" version of the Resurrection which he was proposing as more credible for modern man. He doubtlessly saw himself as believing it by faith, on the authority of the Church. But the Church never proposed to us any such understanding of the Resurrection, and in her Ordinary Magisterium for nearly two millennia had in fact vigorously rejected any suggestion that Jesus' corpse was left to decay on earth. Moreover, Fr. Coffey's theory itself implied that the Church's constant and emphatic belief in the historical reliability of the Gospel accounts (reasserted by Vatican II in article 19 of Dei Verbum) was simply mistaken. But in that case, why should we place confidence in any doctrine whatsoever which the Church expects us to believe solely on her authority? What court of law trusts anything else a witness says, once he has been proved untrustworthy on a single point? Thus did Fr. Coffey's attempt to "reinterpret" the Resurrection threaten the intellectual coherence of Catholic belief, turning it into arbitrary wishful thinkinq. A logically consistent thinker who accepted his premises would necessarily end by abandoning Catholic belief altogether.

        The inevitable decision of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was announced recently by the Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal Edward Clancy. While paying tribute to Fr. Coffey's gifts as a theologian, and praising him as "a devout priest and a loyal son of the Church," the Cardinal stated. "I have advised Dr. Coffey to align his teaching with that of the Magisterium of the Church, which is that the physical remains of Jesus, placed in the tomb after His death, were raised in His resurrection. Hence, the empty tomb. This, Dr. Coffey has readily undertaken to do" (Sydney Catholic Weekly, 28 Sept. 1988, p. 9).

        Since Fr. Coffey is by no means the only theologian in recent years to have taught, or at least insinuated, that Our Lord's crucified body was never raised to life, it is to be hoped that this clarification by the Magisterium will be made as widely known as possible. The false doctrine in question is not going to vanish overnight, and there will be a continuing need for the Catholic faithful to be on their guard to defend this central truth of the Resurrection.


by Brian Harrison

        Given the fundamental importance of Scriptural studies for the health of Catholicism, it should be a matter of interest and importance to know what the pastors of the universal Church are thinking about the knowledge and use of the Bible amongst Catholics today. How do they view our contemporary response to the Word of God in the broadest sense - the study, diffusion and faithful preservation of divine truth? And how concerned are they about this issue in comparison with other issues?

        The 1985 Extraordinary Synod of Bishops provided a unique opportunity to gain some insight into these questions. Twenty years after Vatican II the Catholic Church was engaging in her first major appraisal of the impact of the Council on all areas of her life. While the Synod's Relatio Finalis ("Final Report") was duly published at the end of this historical gathering, very little has been made known, in the English-speaking world at least, about the reports of individual delegates to the Synod, speaking on behalf of local episcopal conferences and other important organisms in the Church. Their speeches were delivered behind closed doors, and only brief, thumbnail summaries were released to reporters at the time and published in L'Osservatore Romano. Fortunately, much more ample documentation is now available in Italian. Fr. Giovanni Caprile, S.J. has edited a thick volume recording the preparation for the Synod, its actual progress, and its immediate aftermath (Il Sinodo dei Vescovi: Seconda Assemblea Generale Straordinaria; Rome, Edizioni "La Civiltà Cattolica," 1986). While not reproducing the complete texts of the individual speeches and written reports, Caprile gives a much fuller paraphrase of them than is otherwise available to the public. His book is thus a potential goldmine for religious sociologists interested in making further in-depth studies of the state of the Church and its worldwide leadership in the mid-l980s.

        Let us, then, devote some attention to what was said at the Extraordinary Synod about the state of Biblical knowledge and studies in the contemporary Church. Having done that, we shall briefly look at the Bishops' attitudes towards the wider field of theology in general. (Translations from the Italian in what follows are those of the present writer.)

        To begin at the end, so to speak, we cannot fail to notice that in its Relatio Finalis the Synod had nothing positive to say about current Biblical scholarship in the Catholic Church. It issued a brief but significant warning in its section on "The Word of God," which received an almost unanimous positive vote from the assembled Fathers. 1 The Council's Constitution Dei Verbum on Divine Revelation had been "too much neglected," said the Relatio Finalis - a judgement confirmed not long after the Synod by Pope John Paul II in an allocution to the World Catholic Federation for the Biblical Apostolate. 2 In regard to this key conciliar document, the Synod continued,

In the case of this Constitution, too, a partial reading is to be avoided. Above all, the exegesis of the original meaning of Sacred Scripture, which was earnestly recommended by the Council (cf. Dei Verbum, 12) cannot be separated from the living Tradition of the Church (cf. DV, 9), nor from the authentic interpretation of the Church's magisterium (cf. DV, 10).3

        Behind this terse statement in the final Synodal declaration lay a number of specific interventions by participants. Since we are attempting to form a global picture of the state of Catholic Biblical studies in the 1980s, it may be useful to observe how this vital area of the Church's life was viewed at the Synod by authorities from different parts of the world.

        The general impression which emerges from the Extraordinary Synod interventions is that of a noticeable difference between reports given by bishops from the Churches in Third World or developing countries on the one hand, and those coming from the more affluent Western and European societies on the other. In both cases, however, the great majority of reports and interventions said nothing at all explicitly about Biblical knowledge and studies, and concentrated instead on ecclesiological issues of one sort or another. This seems to provide strong support for the bishops' eventual self-criticism concerning the "neglect" of Dei Verbum. However, this silence about Scriptural studies and formation was more in evidence, paradoxically, amongst Synod participants from those countries where modern Biblical criticism has been better known and more hotly debated - the ethnically European societies. Furthermore, amongst the few prelates from these nations who did have something to say on this topic, voices of concern and caution were much more prominent than among their Third-World brethren.

        Some statistics will help to bear out the foregoing remarks. There were 25 Synodal representatives from the developing countries of Africa, Asia, Central/South America and the Pacific who mentioned the state of Biblical knowledge in their local Churches. This represented only 28% of the total spokesmen for those parts of the world, but the majority of their comments were generally positive and optimistic. These bishops reported greater interest, wider diffusion, improved translations, and better knowledge of the Scriptures as a result of initiatives undertaken since Vatican II. 4 Only a few Local Church leaders from these Third-World countries felt the need to highlight problems and difficulties in this field: continuing ignorance of Scripture due to inadequate formation; or insufficient attention to inculturation in presenting the Bible to young Churches; or confusion resulting from conflicting and arbitrary interpretations of Scripture - sometimes on the part of proselytising fundamentalist sects.5

        On the other hand, Synodal representatives from the richer and more developed countries, where the general level of education is higher and where the new approaches to Biblical criticism have been much more influential and widely diffused, seemed much less interested and less enthusiastic about the current use and knowledge of the Bible. A mere 10% of Synod representatives from these ethnically European societies even mentioned Scripture or the Word of God, and of these, 3.5% expressed satisfaction with recent developments while 5% expressed dissatisfaction. The overall state of opinion can be represented schematically as follows:


total comments no comment total interventions
(60% of total)
16 7 2 25
(28% of region)
(72% of region)
"old Christian"
(40% of total)
2 3 1 6
(10% of region)
(90% of region)
Totals 18 10 3 31
(21% of total)
(79% of total)

        What interpretation, if any, can reasonably be given to these statistical data regarding Synod interventions on Sacred Scripture? Before answering this question it will be best to complete our survey of what was actually said at the Synod by considering the six interventions by Bishops from European societies which mentioned Scripture or the Word of God.

        Three of these statements were very brief. Cardinal Ugo Poletti, speaking in the name of the Italian Bishops, mentioned "the Biblical apostolate," along with the liturgy and preaching, as one avenue which needs to be developed in order to "make the Word of God more widely known."6 Next, Bishop Bernard Hubert, on behalf of Canada, mentioned "the direct contact of the faithful with the Word of God" as one of the "positive effects of the Council." 7 Striking a more cautious note, Cardinal Augustin Mayer, speaking as Prefect of the Congregation for Sacraments and Divine Worship, warned that the positive emphasis given to Scripture since the Council should not detract from the importance of the sacraments, or from the recognition that the principal end of the liturgy "always remains that of latria - adoration, praise and thanksgiving to the Father, through the Son and in the Holy Spirit."8

        Cardinal Tomasek of Prague, on behalf of the Church in Czechoslovakia, gave high priority to the need for clearer directives from the Church's teaching authority on Biblical interpretation:

Above all there is a need for a greater understanding of the Word of God. For this purpose there should be courses of Biblical culture for both clergy and laity, according to authentic ecclesial exegesis, and with the appropriate vigilance on the part of Bishops, so as to avoid the errors and confusion sown by "progressive" exegeses. The Synod should therefore give opportune directives in this field, in the spirit of Dei Verbum.9

        The two major Synodal interventions on the subject of Sacred Scripture, however, came from Fr. Henri Cazelles, P.S.S., Secretary of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, and the Prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education, Cardinal William Baum. There was a marked contrast in the tone and general perspective of these two interventions.

        Fr. Cazelles expressed what could be described as a qualified optimism about the present state of Biblical studies. There was a certain apologetic note about his comments (as summarized by Caprile), as if he felt the need to vindicate modern Biblical criticism against some who were suspicious or even opposed to it, even while admitting that there had been some confusion and mistakes. According to Fr. Cazelles, the primary purpose of the Constitution Dei Verbum was to vindicate the historical-critical method. This major conciliar document, he said,

was composed with three things in mind:

        a) to show that Catholic doctrine in no way impedes scientific research into the human aspects of written revelation, with the help of sound philosophical, literary and historical criticism;

        b) to promote knowledge of the Scriptures amongst the faithful, both directly and by means of the liturgy, in collaboration with the separated brethren;

        c) to promulgate general norms on the principles of biblical interpretation, by means of which we discover the faith which the sacred authors wished to inculcate.10

        Fr. Cazelles was quite decisive about the successful implementation of these aims:

These aims have been achieved. Even though there are some Catholic exegetes who still appear doubtful, nevertheless the study of the Bible according to different methods is being put into effect; translations - including ecumenical ones - are proliferating; the faithful are discovering previously unknown aspects of Revelation; and now that a certain moralizing character has been discarded from preaching, Sunday homilies are opening up an awareness of the mystery of Christ which was foretold in the Old Testament, and is present in the New Testament. Without Dei Verbum the Church of the present century would not have access to her biblical fonts, in the midst of today's profound cultural changes.11

        If there has been "some confusion" in recent years, continued Fr. Cazelles, this should not be ascribed either to the Council or to the community of exegetes, but to the inherent difficulties of the subject-matter: that is,

to the difficulty of understanding the language and mentality of historical eras so far removed from our own. From this factor there arises the difficulty experienced by the experts in reaching agreement about explanations and methods - and this is reflected in preaching.12

        Therefore, said the speaker, "the present-day confusion was inevitable, but it can be overcome with the help of the Council and of the Apostolic charism."13 As well as attention to "the living Tradition of the Church," Fr. Cazelles saw the solution to current difficulties mainly in terms of a better communication of modern Biblical studies to the ordinary faithful by means of

the many existing aids: Biblical atlases, introductions which explain the life, history and customs of the environments in which the Biblical texts were composed, as a response to the needs of faith. There are journals suited to different categories of readers, and readily accessible commentaries by experts. Of great value also are talks explaining the link between the first and third readings in the Sunday liturgy.14

        If Fr. Cazelles saw the answer to modern confusion over the Bible mainly in a better education of the faithful so as to initiate them more effectively into the new Biblical knowledge, Cardinal William Baum, commenting on the present state of Catholic education throughout the Church, felt that the main problem lies with what is being taught, not just with the method of teaching it. In one of the most strongly-worded interventions of the Synod, Cardinal Baum devoted his entire report to a message of alarm and grave warning: in modern exegesis a rupture has arisen between Bible and Church, Scripture and Tradition, and this is casting doubt upon essential truths of faith. In spite of the "most valid assistance offered by the Pontifical Biblical institute and the Pontifical Biblical Commission," he said, the concrete situation is one in which Dei Verbum has not been understood and applied correctly:

Today a new problem is being raised: that of determining the limits of historical-critical method. We often hear accusations that scientific exegesis has become closed in on itself, becoming autonomous and torn away from the faith. There is a rupture between Bible and Church, between Scripture and Tradition. Frequently the work of exegetes is purely critical - dealing with the original formation of the text - and makes little effort to penetrate its inner meaning. Bowing before the exigencies of "science," exegetes are no longer disposed to interpret Scripture in the light of faith, and hence they end up calling in question essential truths of faith, such as the divinity of Christ, the Virginal conception, the salvific and redeeming value of Christ's death, the reality of the Resurrection, and the institution of the Church by Christ.

The results of this so-called scientific exegesis are being diffused in seminaries, theological faculties and universities. They are reaching the ordinary faithful now, by means of catechisms and even at times in preaching. Dei Verbum had recommended a scientific exegesis, but within the limits of our faith: in this field the mere application of the historical-critical method is not enough. For that very reason the Council had insisted on the unity between Scripture and Tradition (nos. 9-10), requiring that Scripture be read and explained "in eodem Spiritu quo scripta est" - in the same Spirit in which it was written (no. 12). Insisting on the unity of the whole of Scripture, in the light of the Church's living tradition and the analogy of faith, the Constitution laid down norms for theological and ecclesial exegesis which should assist in deepening our faith. A fruitful result of this Synod would be for the Bishops to take this situation actively in hand, with a view to promoting the understanding and reception of what remains one of the fundamental documents of the Council - perhaps the most important. This responsibility lies first and foremost with the Bishops - masters and teachers of the faith - rather than with theologians and exegetes. In preparing manuals of theology for instructing candidates for the priesthood, one must be very conscious of the teaching of the Council and of the rich theological patrimony of the Church based on the Fathers and Doctors this should be done in a spirit of fidelity to Dei Verbum, especially as regards the relationship between Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium.15

        Apart from interventions by individual Synod Fathers, the question of Biblical studies arose again in several reports from the Circuli Minores (small discussion groups divided according to languages). It seems that, having listened to the individual interventions we have noted, more Synod Fathers came to feel that indeed the Biblical question should be given more attention. The German language circle, consisting of fourteen European Cardinals and Bishops, and Cardinal Kim of Seoul, Korea, noted modern Biblical exegesis as one of the areas in which dissent from the Magisterium was leading to "chaos" amongst the faithful:

The so-called pluralism of the last twenty years, manifesting itself everywhere in exegesis, dogmatic, and moral theology, cannot be reconciled with the doctrine of the Council and with the constant teaching of the Magisterium. These tendencies are surfacing in journals and in the mass media - and from there they flow on into preaching and catechesis. The result, for the faithful, has been the present chaos!16

        The Latin language circle, consisting of three European Cardinals and two Eastern-rite Indian Bishops, made similar remarks:

Exegesis cannot be reduced to a merely philological-historical exposition. That would be a purely rationalistic method. Interpretation must be done in the global context of the faith. The conciliar documents on divine inspiration should not be forgotten, especially the Constitution Dei Verbum (no.12) and Pius XII's encyclical letter Divino Afflante Spiritu...

Exegesis and theology should be carried out in the light of the faith, keeping Scripture, Tradition and Magisterium inseparably linked. The Council's teaching on this close bond in Dei Verbum, nos.9 and 10, should be attentively read and kept in mind...

It is also important to promote the reading of Scripture with appropriate commentaries. It is very useful for the faithful to learn to read Scripture with approved commentaries, under the guidance of the Magisterium.17

        Finally, English-language-group B, with seven Cardinals and Bishops from European societies and sixteen more from Asia, Africa and the Caribbean, reported:

Our group is convinced of the importance of the constitution Dei Verbum, of the need for a correct preaching of the Word of God, and of the important role of the Magisterium.

The good news of Vatican II has been quickly communicated to the whole world. Unfortunately, certain distortions of the Council's teaching have also been diffused very rapidly, along with a secularization of the truth regarding the Church and her mission.18

        Even before the Synod began, authoritative voices had highlighted the danger emphasized by Cardinal Baum - that of a "rupture' between Scripture and the Church's tradition. Caprile records that the Synod Secretariat circulated a letter in February 1985, "inviting...eleven eminent scholars, theologians and pastors of souls to set down concisely their suggestions and indications as to how the concrete theme of the coming Synod could be precisely dealt with." 19 Over fifty typewritten pages were received in answer to this request, and when a synthesis of this material was made, one of the main points that emerged was that, along with Lumen Gentium, the Constitution Dei Verbum formed "the vertebral column of the entire conciliar magisterium." One of the main tasks confronting the Synod, it was said, was that of how to overcome "the present crisis in catechesis" and of ensuring the "authentic transmission of Revelation by means of an ecclesial reading of the Bible, in fidelity to the Magisterium."20

        One of these eleven eminent Church leaders, the late Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar, was interviewed on the eve of the Synod and was asked what particular hopes he had in regard to the forthcoming assembly. In reply, the Swiss theologian stressed his hopes for a better knowledge of the Bible on the part of the faithful, and for a rediscovery of a sound balance between

the so-called scientific exegesis, which does not nourish the faith of believers, and a spiritual exegesis which is simpler, less technical, more in conformity with the great patristic tradition, and better equipped to nourish the interior life of the faithful. 21

        In another interview, von Balthasar affirmed that the "proof of courage" which he wanted to see from the Synod was

that of returning to the pure Gospel. In Dei Verbum there are some very central things in regard to this: the indissoluble unity between Scripture, Tradition, Magisterium. It is a single living reality. One cannot deal with Scripture without Tradition and the Magisterium. All three include each other.22

        How can these data from the Extraordinary Synod best be interpreted? As we saw, only a small fraction of the Synod Fathers, in their individual interventions, mentioned Biblical questions specifically. This certainly suggests some neglect of the central role of Scripture, and of the profound (if not always immediate) ramifications which Biblical studies inevitably have - for good or ill - in the wider field of theology and the Church's life in general. The Synod Fathers themselves ended their deliberations by admitting that Dei Verbum had been "too much neglected"; and, perhaps, there had been a particular neglect of the conciliar Constitution's statement that the "study of the sacred page" ought to be "the very soul of sacred theology."23

        However it seems that while relatively few individual interventions (only 2l% of the total) mentioned Scripture at all, and still fewer (7% of the total) were mainly critical in their assessment of the current state of Biblical knowledge, these few interventions found much sympathetic resonance among the Synod Fathers, as if many of them felt they had been reminded of an important problem which - like Dei Verbum itself - they had perhaps been neglecting in favour of less strictly theological and more immediately obvious practical concerns. In the Circuli Minores which followed the individual reports, three of the nine groups (containing nearly 30% of the Bishops) echoed the call of Cardinal Baum and Cardinal Tomasek for greater attention to Church tradition and the Magisterium in Biblical exegesis, and their call was eventually endorsed, in more muted tones, by the Synod as a whole in the Relatio Finalis. It seems significant that while most Bishops apparently did not feel quite as alarmed about the situation as the two Cardinals just mentioned, nobody felt inclined to challenge them in any very obvious way. With the exception of the report given by the exegetes' own representative, Fr. Cazelles, not a single individual or group intervention felt it opportune to praise or defend explicitly the work of post-conciliar exegetes in general; or to suggest that problems or abuses in this area were of a minor and probably transitory nature; or that certain commentators had been exaggerating the dangers inherent in contemporary historical-critical exegesis. Apart from Fr. Cazelles' intervention, all of the positive comments on the Bible in today's Church were very brief, and referred not to the quality of present scholarly exegesis, but to a greater and more effective diffusion of the Scriptures amongst the ordinary faithful. Moreover, nearly all these brief positive comments came from third-World regions, where historical-critical exegesis is not yet as widely-known as it is in the more highly-developed European societies.

        All in all, the general picture to emerge from the 1985 Synod - a most important picture, if we believe that the Holy Spirit guides the People of God in a special way through the successors of the Apostles throughout the world, and in the Roman Church especially - is that of a gradually growing sense of uneasiness and uncertainty amongst the Church's pastors as to where current trends in this field are leading. The community of exegetes is not as yet involved in any direct confrontations with the Magisterium: there have been no disciplinary actions taken by Rome with regard to professional exegetes since the Council, as there have been with regard to a number of dogmatic and moral theologians. But a slight "cooling-off" seems to be taking place in the relations between the Biblical "establishment" and the hierarchy in the late 1980s, as the thorny question of how "science" and Church tradition should be related in Biblical interpretation is becoming increasingly difficult to avoid.

        A recent series of catechetical discourses by Pope John Paul II has stressed the historically factual nature of the miracles attributed to Jesus in the Gospels 24 - something which the dominant trend in exegesis has tended to put very much in question. And in January 1988 the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith gave an important address in New York on the biblical question in which he highlighted some of the problems raised by Cardinal Baum and others during the Synod, and admitted that there are serious difficulties for which "a truly convincing answer has yet to be formulated."25 Cardinal Ratzinger affirmed:

In order to arrive at a real solution, we must get beyond disputes over details and press on to the foundations. What we need might be called a criticism of criticism... We need a self-criticism of the historical method which can expand to an analysis of historical reason itself, in continuity with and in development of the famous critique of reason by Immanuel Kant... The self-critique of historical method would have to begin, it seems, by reading its conclusions in a diachronic manner so that the appearance of a quasi-clinical scientific certainty is avoided. It has been this appearance of certainty which has caused its conclusions to be accepted so far and wide.26

        If an analysis of the Extraordinary Synod interventions and Final Report on Scripture reveals a gradually awakening - though far from fully aroused - awareness that all is not well in the field of Biblical studies, the Synod Fathers' views on the state of theology in general suggest widespread satisfaction, even complacency, with current trends. Instances of undue confusion and dissent were seen basically as a few clouds in a generally sunny sky. The Final Report stated:

We gladly acknowledge what has been done since the Council by the theologians to expound its documents, to ensure their faithful interpretation and fruitful application. But, on the other hand, we regret that theological discussions have sometimes been the cause in our day of confusions among the faithful. Closer exchange and dialogue between bishops and theologians are required towards a building-up and deeper understanding of the faith.27

        This final agreed synthesis reflects fairly accurately the picture that emerges from a study of the individual speeches and reports delivered by Synod delegates. For purposes of analysis they were divided into three groups:

        Group I - theologically "liberal" interventions, characterized by a definite preference for innovation and local diversity in the life of the Church, and the expressed desire for greater acceptance of, and adaptation to, some aspects of human and worldly culture. In Group I were placed those Church leaders whose interventions gave definite priority to one or more of the following themes:

        - desire for greater autonomy for local Churches in relation to the universal Church or the Holy See, with a stress on collegiality, the importance of episcopal conferences, the principle of subsidiarity, pluralism, participation, or co-responsibility.
        - desire for bolder initiatives in inculturation, ecumenism, dialogue with non-Christians, recognition of good outside the Catholic Church and outside Christianity.
        - desire for relaxation of some existing Church teaching and/or discipline regarding marriage or sexual ethics.
        - desire for more emphasis on social justice, disarmament, option for the poor, theology of liberation, struggle on behalf of those oppressed by wealthy classes, capitalism, or racism.
        - emphasis on the Church as People of God, base communities, increased activity of laity and women in ministry, creativity in liturgy.
        - criticism of "pre-conciliar" attitudes, the Tridentine Mass Indult, Catholic "fundamentalism," resistance to change, undue readiness of Rome to question the orthodoxy of modern theologians.

        Group II - theologically "conservative" interventions, stressing tradition, universality and Roman authority in the life of the Church, and the need to stress the primacy of the spiritual and supernatural. In this group were placed those Synod participants who gave definite priority to one or more of the following themes:

        - the need for a strong sense of God and the supernatural, the call to sanctity and the sense of the sacred.
        - emphasis on the Church as the Body of Christ, on the Magisterium, and the importance of unity and loyal collaboration with the Successor of Peter.
        - the need for clear inculcation and guarding of orthodoxy in faith and morals, and/or the desire for a new universal catechism.
        - the value of traditional spiritual life, centrality of Christ, grace, prayer, sacraments, devotion to Our Lady and the saints, consideration for those attached to the Tridentine Mass.
        - desire for clear distinction between the roles of priests and laity, importance of distinct clerical and religious garb and life-style.
        - need for a return to penance, frequent confession, theology of the Cross, self-sacrifice.
        - criticism of secularization in the Church, loss of Catholic identity and missionary zeal; of triviality and loss of the sense of the sacred in liturgy; of deviations, confusion and abuses in doctrine and discipline.
        - need to condemn communist oppression of believers and infiltration of Marxist and class-struggle ideologies into Catholic thought and praxis.

        Group III - theologically non-controversial interventions, or those more or less evenly balanced between conservative and liberal tendencies. In this category were placed those Synod interventions which were characterized by one or more of the following:

        - an emphasis on general truths which few Catholics could disagree with (e.g., need for deeper commitment, zeal, evangelization, further study and better application of Vatican II, the Church as a communion of love, calls for more dedicated discipleship and witness to the Gospel) and warnings against extremism in either direction.
        - more-or-less equal emphasis on calls for innovation in some areas and the upholding of traditional values in other areas.
        - practically or pastorally oriented reports - especially from Eastern and mission countries - focusing on successes and failures other than those directly connected with debates between innovative and traditional outlooks (e.g., fruitful implementation of the Council, shortage of manpower and resources, vocations and Church growth statistics, difficulties with surrounding culture or political regimes: consumerism, poverty, violence, lack of religious freedom, etc.).
        - perennial complaints from some Eastern-rite Churches about excessive domination or encroachments by the Latin Church (these of course were controversial interventions, but not theologically controversial, in the sense of dividing conservatives and liberals).
        - more specialized interventions which could not fairly be classified in terms of theologically liberal or conservative tendencies (e.g., reports of some Roman dicasteries, and those focusing on topics such as Oriental canon law, relations between religious orders and local Ordinaries, charismatic movement, etc.).

        The Synod interventions were further divided according to their place of origin - the overwhelmingly European or "old Christian" societies on the one hand, or the developing or "mission" societies on the other (Asia, Africa, the Pacific, Central/South America). Precise details regarding the nature and origin of each of the 150 Synod interventions analyzed are given in a footnote to this article, 28 although it is perhaps appropriate to mention here that five overwhelmingly white and economically developed countries of the Southern Hemisphere - Argentina, Australia, Chile, New Zealand and Uruguay - were classified with Europe and North America in the first of the two categories mentioned above.

        On the basis of the various classifications which we have enumerated and explained, the results of our analysis of the Synod interventions can be tabulated as follows:


Human values
values stressed
(60% of total)
25 20 45 45 90
"old Christian"
(40% of total)
11 17 28 32 60
Totals 36 37 73 77 150

        The above analysis necessarily manifests a certain degree of subjectivity, but nevertheless, the general picture that emerges of this cross-section of the Church's global leadership in the mid-1980s is clear enough in broad outline. Roughly half of the Extraordinary Synod representatives not only gave a very high priority to the issues raised by recent theological debates, but had taken up a definite overall position on one side or the other. This 50% in turn was divided about evenly between those urging further change, adaptation and local autonomy on the one hand, and those giving clear priority to continuity, unchanging truths and Roman authority on the other. (In contrast to the Synod delegates' attitudes to Scripture, however, no great difference was manifested in the break-down of opinion amongst the third-World Bishops on the one hand and those from European societies on the other: Church leaders in both major cultural blocs tended to fall into Groups I, II, and III respectively in broadly similar proportions, except that Group II Synod Fathers from European societies definitely outnumbered Group I Fathers from the same areas.)

        Table II thus shows the general theological profile of participants in the 1985 Synod: in very crude terms, one quarter showed marked conservative tendencies, one quarter marked liberal tendencies, and the other half were middle-of-the-road. But, it might be asked, how useful is this information? Does it really reflect the overall state of the Church's leadership? After all, the composition of the Synod was not like that of a modern democratic parliament, with proportional representation according to local population. Judging by that criterion, episcopal conferences (especially large ones) were under-represented, while the Pope - represented by 18 members of his Curia and 25 other personal nominees (totalling 29% of all Synod participants) was over-represented. In reply to this objection, the point should of course be made that, since the Catholic Church was never intended to be a parliamentary democracy, such a comparison has only partial relevance. Since the Pope has by divine right a primacy of jurisdiction within the College of Bishops as a whole, it is both theologically and sociologically correct to see such a weighted gathering as the 1985 Synod as fairly representing the overall state of the Church's leadership. And the picture which thus emerges is that innovative and traditional tendencies seemed to be about evenly balanced in the mid-1980s.

        Having said that, however, we must acknowledge that it is by no means irrelevant to analyse the Synod interventions also from the viewpoint of proportional representation. This is particularly important from a pastoral standpoint, because what local Bishops encourage, permit and forbid in their dioceses can have a much more immediate effect at grass-roots level than directives from distant Rome.

        It is therefore worthwhile to classify the Extraordinary Synod interventions according to another criterion: whether they came from locally elected heads of Episcopal Conferences or other groupings of Bishops on the one hand, or curial heads and papal nominees on the other. Then, in regard to the first group, account should be taken of how many Bishops they represent. Although the President of an Episcopal Conference cannot of course be taken to express the views of all the Bishops of his country or region, it seems reasonable to assume that he speaks for the most active and influential forces within his Conference - and in most cases that would probably be the majority. Our mode of proceeding, therefore, was to follow a system analogous to that of the "electoral college" which operates in American presidential elections: namely, a "winner-take-all" allotment of "votes," in which all the Diocesan Bishops of a region were placed in our liberal, conservative, or centrist categories, according to the ideas expressed by their elected representative. This of course would not reflect accurately the episcopate of any given region; but the overall picture it yields of the situation in our two main cultural groups (European and developing societies respectively) is probably not too far removed from the truth, and the degree of accuracy would be even greater when the figures from these two blocs are combined to give a world-wide picture. This is because the episcopal minority groups who are unrepresented in each particular case would to a large extent compensate for each other once the "votes" are totalled and a general picture is built up. When we take into account also the fact that Bishops whose views are in the minority are in any case usually subjected to strong pressure from their colleagues to conform their pastoral practice to the dominant trends within the Episcopal Conference, it would seem very likely that Table III below gives a fairly reliable indication as to how much or how little impact today's conflicting theological tendencies were having on the effective attitudes of Bishops around the world twenty years after Vatican II. The figures in the table represent bishops in charge of local areas, i.e., Diocesan Ordinaries and Vicars Apostolic.29 (Auxiliaries are not taken into account.)

(estimates based on the 1985 Synod)

Human values
values stressed
(58% of total
Catholic dioceses)
(51% of region)
(17.5% of region)
(31.5% of region)
"old Christian"
(42% of total
Catholic dioceses)
(42.5% of region)
(13.5% of region)
(44% of region)
Totals 1062 (47%) 370 (16.5%) 830 (36.5%) 2262

        Now, when compared to the following views expressed at the Synod by delegates who were either members of the Roman Curia or papal nominees and invitees, the above figures stand in marked contrast:


Human values
values stressed
(30% of total)
(8% of total
regional group)
(30% of total
regional group)
(62% of total
regional group)
"old Christian"
(70% of total)
(7% of total
regional group)
(33% of total
regional group)
(60% of total
regional group)
Totals 3 (7%) 14 (32.5%) 26 (60.5%) 43

        Certain very significant features emerge from a study of the data set out in Tables III and IV.

        First, the figures strongly confirm the general impression which many Catholics have received in recent years of a definite tension between the Vatican and large sectors of the world episcopate. Around half of the world's Diocesan Bishops now appear to be decidedly liberal in outlook. In stark contrast, not one of the Curial representatives at the synod gave a liberal intervention, and only 3 of the 25 papal nominees did so. Liberal Bishops at the global level are definitely more numerous than conservatives or centrists, while they are by far the smallest group among those whom the Pope has named as his closest advisers. (We apologize if some readers are annoyed by the above "labels," but some shorthand mode of referring to the different ideological groupings within Catholicism is a practical necessity. It is perhaps worth recalling that we are not using "liberal," "conservative" and "centrist" as mere vague catch-cries in this article, since we have defined very carefully what we mean by these three groupings on pp. 9-10 above.)

        Secondly, while conservatives are more strongly represented amongst the "Pope's own men" than they are amongst diocesan Bishops round the world, they remain a fairly small minority in both cases: amongst the former group they were outnumbered 2 to 1 at the Synod by centrists and liberals, and amongst the latter group by 5 to l.

        Finally, the distribution of opinion amongst Third-World and European prelates is of some interest. There was no significant difference in this regard amongst curial officials and papal nominees at the Synod, but there were some divergences amongst the world's diocesan Bishops. One sometimes hears the speculation that it is mainly "European" Bishops who are "going liberal," while those from developing countries are holding on more firmly to traditional ways. But the reality appears to be more complex than this. It is true that conservative Bishops are marginally stronger in Third-World and "mission" countries than in European societies, but they are still a small minority. Moreover, liberal Bishops also appear to be more numerous in the developing countries than in the "white" nations, perhaps even reaching an absolute majority. In other words, the developing countries as a whole are rather more polarized than the "older" Christian societies, wherein the largest single group seems to be that of the centrists or middle-of-the-roaders. It is also clear that the region wherein conservative Bishops are fewest in number is the developed, affluent West: of the small minority of "European" prelates who show a definite conservative outlook, a large proportion come from an East European, communist-dominated background: Poland, East Germany, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and the Ukrainian Bishops in the U.S.A. But in the Western bloc in general (Europe, North America and the "white" Southern Hemisphere nations), conservative diocesan Bishops in the mid-1980s appeared to be so scarce as to constitute an "endangered species" - perhaps 7% or 8% of the total.

        We would make no secret of the fact that we view this overall picture as a far from healthy one. The perennial truths and values which we are convinced are the most important to insist on today are very much those which were stressed by the Group II delegates at the Extraordinary Synod - the delegates we have labelled (for want of a better word) the "conservatives." And we see it as no accident that the regions in which conservative Church leaders are fewest or least influential, namely, the developed, white, Western nations, are precisely those regions where other symptoms of poor ecclesial health are most obvious: low rates of Mass attendance, defections from the priesthood and religious life, shortage of new priestly and religious vocations, fewer Church baptisms and marriages, low adult conversion rates, and so on.

        Perhaps, when more prelates come to realise the importance of Cardinal Baum's 1985 warning about the dangers of current Biblical scholarship, this will be a major factor in turning the tide. As its results become ever more radical, and ever more openly urged, one hopes that increasing numbers of Church leaders will be shocked out of their complacency, realizing that any method of exegesis which leads to such conclusions, for instance, as that Christ's (and therefore, no doubt, Our Lady's) mortal remains are still mouldering somewhere in Palestine has got to be radically faulty. If that is the destination we reach by a consistent following of Rudolf Bultmann's thought, then hopefully it will become increasingly obvious in Catholic circles that we should never have joined him as fellow-travellers in the first place. Certainly, the tide will not turn overnight, and things may get worse before they get better. But we have Christ's promises to Peter to reassure us that those who stand with him and his successors against the presently prevailing tide of worldly dissent and harmful innovation will never be engulfed.


1. Caprile, Giovanni, S.J. Il Sinodo dei Vescovi: Seconda Assemblea Generale Straordinaria (Rome, Edizioni "La Civiltà Cattolica," 1986), p.404.

2. This address of 7 April 1986 is reported by Caprile (op. cit.) on pp.431-32.

3. Relatio Finalis: Part II, Section B: (a) l.

4. cf. The Synod interventions paraphrased by Caprile from Peru (p.116); the Malabar-rite Metropolitan from India (p.146); the Antilles (p.147); Vietnam (pp.l58-9); Brazil (p.168); Burundi (p.l83); Venezuela (p.209); Bangladesh (p.232); Dominican Republic (p.244); El Salvador (p.255); Mali (p.257); Cuba (p.270), Gabon (p.272); Egypt (p.286); Uganda (p.291); and a further report from Brazil by Cardinal Aloysius Lorscheider (p.317).

5. cf. Caprile, op. cit., interventions from Indian Ocean islands (p.139); Equatorial Guinea (p.168); Papua New Guinea (p.192); Cameroon (p.197): Puerto Rico (p.198); Tanzania (p.202); and the Latin rite Churches in Arab countries (p.231). Bishops representing the Church in Togo (p.266) and Zaire (p.170) reported both positive and negative features in relation to the Biblical apostolate in their respective nations.

6. Caprile, op. cit., p.141.

7. ibid., p.154.

8. ibid., p.247.

9. ibid., p. 228.

10. ibid., pp. 171-2.

11. ibid., p. 172.

12. ibid.

13. ibid., p. 173.

14. ibid., p.l72.

15. ibid., pp. 204-5.

16. ibid., p.348.

17. ibid., p. 363.

18. ibid., p. 370.

19. ibid., p. 8. The eleven were Cardinals Garrone, Suenens, and Konig, Bishops Colombo and Gargitter, and the theologians Betti, von Balthasar, Congar, de Lubac, Kasper and Thils. (p.7).

20. ibid.

21. ibid., p. 62.

22. ibid.

23. Dei Verbum, 24.

24. cf. L'Osservatore Romano, (English edn. ) 28 January 1988.

25. Ratzinger, Joseph. "Foundations and Approaches of Biblical Exegesis. " Lecture to the Rockford Institute's Center on Religion and Society, 27 January 1988. Published in Origins (NC Documentary Service), 11 February l988, p. 595.

26. ibid., p. 596.

27. Relatio Finalis, Part II, Section B: (a) 3.

28. For purposes of these analyses, the "European" societies were taken as including not only the nations of Europe and North America, but five countries in the Southern Hemisphere where the culture is overwhelmingly white and European: Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay.

The reports classified as Group I were as follows:
European societies: Canada (Ukrainian rite), U.S.A., Scandinavia, France, Canada (Latin rite), Scotland, Austria, New Zealand, Australia.
In addition, the following papal nominees: Fr. Cazelles (Pontifical Biblical Commission), and Archbishop Hayes (Canada).
Developing societies: India (Latin rite), Peru, South Africa, Ghana, Antilles, Ethiopia, Equatorial Guinea, Korea, Brazil, Indonesia, Kenya, Ivory Coast, Burkina-Faso, Bolivia, thailand, Japan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Mali, Mexico, Uganda, Sudan, Pacific Islands, Congo.
In addition, the following papal nominee: Cardinal Aloysius Lorscheider, also from Brazil.
The reports classified as Group II were as follows:
European societies: U.S.A. (Ukrainian rite), Poland, West Germany, Yugoslavia, East Germany, Argentina, Czechoslovakia.
In addition, the following members of the Roman Curia: Cardinal Ratzinger (Doctrine of the Faith), Cardinal Baum (Catholic Education), Cardinal Mayer (Sacraments and Divine Worship), Cardinal Oddi (Clergy).
In addition, the following papal nominees and invitees: Cardinal Law (U.S.A. ), Cardinal Wetter (Germany), Fr. Delhaye (International Commission of theologians), Cardinal Siri (Italy), Archbishop Stroba (Poland), Bishop Quarracino (Argentina - CELAM).
Developing societies. Senegal-Mauritania, Pakistan, Costa Rica, Philippines, China, Nicaragua, Guinea, Burundi, Cameroon, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Latin rite Arabs, Syrian Antioch Church, Angola, India (Malankara rite), Ecuador.
In addition, the following member of the Roman Curia: Cardinal Castillo Lara (of Venezuela - Canon Law).
In addition, the following papal nominees and invitees: Cardinal Araujo Sales (Brazil), Bishop Castrillon Hoyos (Colombia - CELAM), Cardinal Munoz-Vega (Ecuador).

The reports classified as Group III were as follows:
European societies: Ukrainian rite, Italy, ireland, Holland, Spain, Switzerland, England & Wales, Chile, Malta, Uruguay, Bulgaria, Hungary, U.S.A. (Armenian rite), Portugal.
In addition, the following members of the Roman Curia: Cardinal Palazzini (Saints' Causes), Archbishop Foley (Communications), Cardinal Poupard (Non-Believers), Cardinal Pironio (Laity), Cardinal Garrone (Culture), Cardinal Willebrands (Christian Unity), Cardinal Hamer (Religious and Secular Institutes), Cardinal Etchegaray ( Justice and Peace), Cardinal Dadaglio (Penitentiary).
In addition, the following papal nominees and invitees: Fr. Vigano (Italy, religious superiors), Cardinal Lustiger (France), Cardinal Suquia (Spain), Fr. Dammertz (Germany, religious superiors), Fr. Kolvenbach (Holland, religious superiors), Cardinal Suenens (Belgium), Cardinal Volk (West Germany), Cardinal Marty (France), Sr. MacDonald (U.S.A., women religious superiors).
Developing societies: Panama, Indian Ocean islands, India (Malabar rite - 2 representatives), Maronite-Antioch, Vietnam, Zaire, Haiti, Papua New Guinea, Mozambique, Tanzania, Venezuela, North Africa, Gambia/Liberia/Sierra Leone, Turkey, Iran, Hong Kong, Rwanda, Malaysia/Singapore, Dominican Republic, Chaldean rite (Iraq), Egypt (Coptic rite), Zambia, Paraguay, El Salvador, Zimbabwe, Benin, Togo, Chad, Cuba, Gabon, Central African Republic, Lesotho, Cambodia, Malawi, Syria (Melkite), Nigeria.
In addition, the following members of the Roman Curia: Cardinal Arinze (Nigeria, Non-Christians), Cardinal Gantin (Benin, Bishops), Cardinal Tomko (Czechoslovakia, but classified under "Developing Societies" insofar as he represents the Congregration for Evangelization of Peoples), Cardinal Lourdusamy (India, Oriental Churches).
In addition, the following papal nominees and invitees: Archbishop D'Souza (India), Bishop Doumith (Lebanon, Maronite), Bishop Eid (Maronite - Oriental Canon Law), Mr. T. Sulik (Brazil, Latin American workers).

(Page numbers of the above-mentioned Synod interventions can readily be found by consulting the indices in Caprile, op. cit.)

29. The figures were compiled from Annuario Pontificio (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Vatican City, 1987), under the headings "Distribuzione Geografica delle Sedi" for the Latin Church and "I Riti della Chiesa" for Oriental Churches.

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