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. 68 Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study Program January 1997


by Brian W. Harrison

(This article is an amplified version of Fr. Harrison's presentation of his
doctoral thesis in Theology at its public defense on January 23, 1997
at the Pontifical Athenæum of the Holy Cross in Rome.)

        In May 1996, at a meeting with representatives of the Episcopal Conferences of Latin America (CELAM) at Guadalajara, Mexico, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in an address entitled "Faith and Theology Today," 1 drew attention to some of the most pressing intellectual challenges confronting faith in Jesus Christ at the end of the second Christian millennium. While noting the recent decline of Marxist-based theologies of liberation, he spoke of the renewed attraction being exerted upon the West by both the classical Asian religions - which, like Marxism, stress praxis rather than creed or doctrine - and by the gnostic, syncretistic and anti-rationalist mysticism of the "New Age" movements. These trends undoubtedly encompass a great variety of ideas, but Cardinal Ratzinger stressed their common feature: a doctrinal relativism which denies that any one religion can claim to possess a definitive truth. He pointed to the recent "dissolution" of all Christology in the writings of two influential Western theologians, J. Hick and P. Knitter, and observed: "Relativism has thus become in fact the fundamental problem for faith in our time." 2

        The Cardinal then went on to look for the underlying source of this faith-dissolving relativism, and identified it as a combination of Kantian philosophy and powerful trends in modern biblical exegesis:

[Hick and Knitter] appeal to exegesis in order to justify their destruction of christology: exegesis has supposedly proved that Jesus did not consider himself the Son of God, God Incarnate, and that only subsequently was this status bestowed on him by his followers. Both authors - although Hick more clearly - also appeal to philosophical evidence. Hick assures us that Kant has irrefutably demonstrated that the absolute, or He who is absolute, cannot be known in history and as such cannot be found in history. Given the structure of our consciousness, according to Kant, the affirmations of Christian faith cannot be possible: miracles, mysteries, and the means of grace are all an illusion. . . . I think that these two problems - exegesis and the limits of the possibilities of human reason, that is, the philosophical premises of faith - in fact constitute the real 'sore point' of modern theology. This is why faith - including to an increasing extent the faith of ordinary people - finds itself in crisis. 3

        His Eminence went on to claim that these of two factors in the crisis of faith - rationalistic exegesis of the Gospels and Kantian philosophical premises - the first in fact depends on the second. Noting a study by M. Waldstein showing the overwhelming extent to which Rudolf Bultmann's ideas on what is possible or impossible were based on the neo-Kantianism of Marburg, Cardinal Ratzinger added: "Other exegetes may not always have the same clarity of philosophicalconsciousness, but the presuppositions deriving from Kant's theory of knowledge come through just as clearly, even if only in the background, like a spontaneous hermeneutical key which guides the course of their criticism." 4

        Already at the 1985 Extraordinary Synod of Bishops, called by John Paul II in order to assess the state of the Church twenty years after Vatican II, concerns similar to those of Cardinal Ratzinger were expressed by the then Prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education, Cardinal William Baum, who dedicated almost his entire report to the grave situation in many Catholic seminaries and universities resulting from widespread trends in exegesis:

There is a rupture between Bible and Church, between Scripture and Tradition. . . . In the name of science, many exegetes no longer wish to interpret Scripture in the light of faith, and the end result is that doubt is cast on essential truths of faith such as the divinity of Christ and his virginal conception in the womb of Mary, the salvific and redeeming value of Christ's death, the reality of his Resurrection and of his institution of the Church. The results of this so-called scientific exegesis are being diffused in seminaries, [theological] faculties and universitites, and even among the faithful, also by means of catechesis and sometimes even in preaching. Dei Verbum recommended scientific exegesis, but within the bounds of the faith, since the historical-scientific method alone is not sufficient in this field. 5

        I have dwelt on these penetrating observations of the Cardinal Prefects of two key Vatican Congregations, because I believe they serve well as a context for presenting my study of Pope Paul VI's teaching on the interpretation and use of Scripture, and for pointing out the far-sightedness and continuing relevance of that teaching. For, as I have shown in my thesis, the roots of the faith-crisis which Cardinals Baum and Ratzinger have pinpointed in the 1980s and 1990s were repeatedly identified in very similar terms back in the 1960s and 1970s by Paul VI. His warnings, however, seem to have fallen largely on deaf ears.

        Indeed, it seems symptomatic of this neglect that only now, nearly two decades after the death of Paul VI, a thesis has been written about his teaching on Scripture. There is already an abundant literature on this Pontiff and his teachings on many subjects: social doctrine, christology, ecclesiology, religious and priestly life, ecumenism, missiology, his role in the liturgical reform, and so on - even a study of his pronouncements on leisure, sport and recreation. And yet, in spite of the fundamental importance of Sacred Scripture in the life of the Church - especially with the Council's call for biblical renewal - scholars up till now have generally not bothered to give serious attention to what the Pope of Vatican II accomplished in this area by his words and actions. A search through all the volumes of the Pontifical Biblical Institute's annual Elenchus of publications relating to Scripture ever since Paul VI's accession has revealed no books and only three short journal articles dedicated expressly to his teaching on Scripture. Of these, one limits itself to Pope Paul's use of Scripture in a single document, the Encyclical Mysterium fidei, 6 while another, a commentary on the Pope's 1974 allocution to the Pontifical Biblical Commission, is inaccessible to most scholars outside Eastern Europe by virtue of being written in Polish. 7 Only one article, by the Rector of the Pontifical Biblical Institute at the time of Paul VI's death, attempts to give a more general appreciation of Paul VI's statements on biblical studies; but this consists of a mere nine pages. 8 Even more barren were the results of a computer search I carried out recently of those books, theses, and booklets held in all the major Roman ecclesiastical libraries in which the name of Pope Paul VI appeared in the cataloguing details: of more than two hundred such works, not one was dedicated to a study of this Pontiff's biblical magisterium.

        My hope, therefore, is that my thesis will help to fill a serious gap in recent biblical studies - one which was alluded to already in 1985 by the Bishops at the Extraordinary Synod. Taking up the concerns we have seen expressed by Cardinal Baum on that occasion, the Synod's Final Report affirmed:

Above all, the exegesis of the original sense of Sacred Scripture, which is strongly recommended by the Council (cf. DV 12) cannot be separated from the living Tradition of the Church (cf. DV 9), nor from the authentic interpretation of the ecclesiastical magisterium (cf. DV 10). 9

        II.  SOURCES  

        As well as examining Paul VI's personal contributions to the redaction of three passages in Dei Verbum dealing with the Bible (articles 9, 11, and 19), I have devoted particular attention to the Pope's main interventions on Scripture outside the Council. One of these was an administrative document, the Motu Proprio Sedula cura (27 June 1971), by which the status of the Pontifical Biblical Commission was changed from that of a distinct organ of the Magisterium to that of an advisory body under the direct authority of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Then, there were a number of important discourses to audiences consisting wholly or largely of exegetes: an address to a plenary session of the Pontifical Biblical Commission of 14 March 1974; 10 a series of five addresses given every two years from 1964 until 1972 on the occasion of the biennial Settimana Biblica ("Biblical Week") devoted to various scholarly exegetical themes, and organized by the Associazione Biblica Italiana; 11 an allocution of 19 April 1968 to an international congress on Old Testament studies organized by the Pontifical Biblical Institute; 12 an address on the theological and exegetical aspects of Jesus' Resurrection, given on 4 April 1970 to the participants in an international symposium on that topic; 13 and an allocution of 28 June 1974 to an international conference on Assyriology organized jointly by the University of Rome and Pontifical Biblical Institute.

        In addition to these papal interventions dedicated ex professo to biblical studies, I have also taken into account a great many other documents and allocutions of a more general or pastoral nature, addressed to non-specialists in exegesis, ranging in gravity from the most solemn ones (the five encyclical letters and the 1968 'Credo') to short Sunday 'Angelus' messages, in which Paul VI either referred explicitly to Scripture studies or their philosophical premises, or else cited and commented on particular passages of the Gospels in such a way as to reaffirm their historical character. A particularly rich source of such teaching is to be found in the Pope's Wednesday audience allocutions, which he personally researched and wrote every Tuesday morning. 14 We are indebted to a personal recollection of Cardinal Edouard Gagnon for revealing evidence as to how seriously the Pope took these discourses as occasions for teaching: in an interview given to the review 30 Giorni, His Eminence has recalled an audience with Paul VI in which the Pontiff confessed to him that some advisers tried to dissuade him from spending too much time or energy on these allocutions, on the grounds that the pilgrims assisting at the audience paid scant attention to them. But the Pope, recalls Cardinal Gagnon, told him: "I always reply to the effect that while that may be correct - for people often do not appreciate hearing the truth - it is nonetheless necessary to keep affirming it. When the need for truth is reawakened among the People of God, they will have to know where to look for it and how to find it." 15


        I have divided the thesis into three major parts, proceeding from more general to more specific considerations. Part I, consisting of two chapters, considers Paul VI's overall perspective and his general program regarding the role and use of Sacred Scripture in the Church of Vatican Council II. Chapter 1 reviews the Pope's pastoral program for bringing the treasury of the Scriptures more fully into the life of the Church, in accord with the Council's directives in Dei Verbum, Chapter 6, and the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium. Then, in Chapter 2, which I have entitled "The Challenge of Modern Biblical Scholarship," I have examined Paul VI's approach at the broadest or most general level to the questions raised by modern biblical criticism, considering first of all those magisterial statements and administrative decisions which tended to encourage some aspects of recent Scripture scholarship, and then his warnings against other tendencies in which he saw dangers to authentic Catholic faith.

        Part II of my study (Chapters 3-6) deals with the Pope's teaching on the fundamental principles or premises which he judged to be necessary as the basis of a soundly Catholic interpretation of Scripture, including those based on reason (the philosophical and hermeneutical underpinnings of exegesis, considered in Chapters 3 and 4 respectively) and those deriving from revelation: the divine inspiration and integral truth of Sacred Scripture (Chapter 5) and its intimate relation to Sacred Tradition and the Church's Magisterium (Chapter 6). Particular attention given in these last two chapters to Pope Paul's interventions in the redaction of certain key passages in article 11 (on the truth or inerrancy of Scripture) and article 9 (on the necessity of Sacred Tradition) of the conciliar Constitution Dei Verbum.

        Finally, in Part III (Chapters 7-10), I have considered Paul VI's more specific teaching about the Gospels - their formation and, above all, their historical truth. Here I have sought to illustrate, by means of concrete examples, the way in which the Pontiff understood and applied to a number of key New Testament passages those interpretative principles laid down in the teaching of Dei Verbum, in the Pontifical Biblical Commission's 1964 Instruction Sancta Mater Ecclesia on the Historical Truth of the Gospels, and in his own personal magisterial interventions already studied in Part II. Chapter 7 seeks to elucidate the Pope's own position in relation to Dei Verbum's teaching on the Gospels (article 19) and the P.B.C. Instruction, as well as an allocution which he dedicated to the origins of St. Mark's Gospel. Chapters 8 to 10, finally, examine in turn what Paul VI taught about a number of vitally important sections of the Gospels whose historical character has very frequently been called in question.


        (a)  Part I:  Pope Paul's General Approach to Scripture  
        In his far-reaching pastoral program, Paul VI's initiatives to implement the Council's call for a greater and more fruitful use of Scripture throughout the Church were both vigorous and enthusiastic. Given the far-reaching changes in Catholic worship brought about by the post-conciliar liturgical reform which this Pontiff guided and introduced, the following point brought to light by my research into his observations (both before and after election to the See of Peter) is, I think, of special interest: of all the many benefits and improvements which Pope Paul saw in the liturgical reforms, none was more valuable and important, in his personal view, than the new role given to Sacred Scripture - that is, the more extensive selection and use of biblical readings in the Mass and Office of the Roman rite.

        While this more ample use of Scripture in the Liturgy was undoubtedly the most historically important result of Pope Paul's desire to promote Scripture in the life of the Church, other pastoral initiatives included having the Vulgate Bible revised in accordance with up-to-date scholarship; urging a truly effective use of Scripture in catechesis, preaching and personal formation for all clergy, religious and laity; underlining its importance in prayer and Marian devotion, in fostering Christian unity (especially by means of inter-church biblical studies and common translations of the Bible), and in highlighting the central role of Scripture in the renewal of theological studies - especially moral theology - and canon law.

        In regard to the study of Scripture at the more specialized level of scholarly interpretation, Paul VI's stance was more complex and ambivalent. I have argued that the his approach to the problems arising from modern biblical science and criticism was entirely consistent with his overall vision and strategy regarding the needs of the Church for the latter part of the twentieth century - a vision and strategy set out lucidly, and in a deeply personal way, in his 'keynote' Encyclical Ecclesiam Suam of 6 August 1964.

        In general terms this strategy could be described an effort to balance and integrate two polarities which coexisted in mutual complementarity, but often in mutual tension as well. One polarity was Pope Paul's conviction that dialogue with all men of good will, especially separated Christians and men of science, art and letters, was a fundamental path for the Catholic Church of the future. In the field of biblical studies this implied the need to take very seriously the scholarship of modern Protestant as well as Catholic Scripture scholars in such areas as philology, historical and literary criticism, archaeology and hermeneutics, as well as a reluctance to resort to disciplinary sanctions on Catholic exegetes as a means of dealing with eventual errors or exaggerations. In the summer of 1964 this reluctance was reflected in a particular way by an important administrative act of Paul VI: his decision - on the advice, it appears, of Cardinal Augustin Bea - to reinstate two professors of the Pontifical Biblical Institute, Stanislaus Lyonnet and Maximilian Zerwick, who had been suspended from teaching there only three years earlier because of opinions on New Testament exegesis which the Holy Office had judged to be doctrinally unsound.

        This reinstatement could be - and no doubt was in some circles - interpreted as implying a significant, precedent-setting change on the part of the Church's magisterium regarding N.T. scholarship; 16 but I have argued that the publicly available evidence suggests that Paul VI had no intention of giving a nihil obstat, as it were, to the controversial exegetical positions which the two professors had been accused of promoting. Indeed, the other polarity in the Pope's approach to these matters was his constant awareness, from even before the beginning of his pontificate, that errors and exaggerations in this area were realities, not just hypothetical possibilities; and he became increasingly aware of their dangerous effects during the post-conciliar years, marked as they were by a wave of dissent against traditional doctrine, and in particular, by demythologizing interpretations of the Gospels which cast doubt even on truths pertaining to the revealed deposit. The Pontiff's own firm and unshakable faith - the faith of Peter - led him to reassert the truth and denounce such tendencies repeatedly.

        (b)  Part II:  Principles for a Correct Interpretation of Scripture  
        It is significant that in what Paul VI intended and understood as the most weighty and authoritative magisterial intervention of his entire pontificate, the Sollemnis Professio Fidei ('Credo of the People of God') of 1968, he began by diagnosing as the basic intellectual malady underlying sceptical currents in modern exegesis and theology that same philosophical trend which, as we saw, Cardinal Ratzinger identified as today's basic problem in his talk last year to the Latin American bishops: the Kantian epistemology which necessarily limits our knowledge to that of phenomena rather than reality in itself. Article 5 of Pope Paul's 'Credo' affirms:

. . . It is of the greatest importance to realize that beyond that observable level which is the object of scientific investigation, our God-given intelligence is capable of attaining that which is, and not only the subjective notions of the so-called "structures" and evolution of human consciousness. Moreover, it must be stressed that this applies to interpretation or hermeneutics: so that after having observed the words enunciated in a certain text, we must strive to discern and understand the text's own intrinsic meaning, rather than somehow altering that meaning to suit our free speculation. 17

        The necessity of the general and fundamental principles of the 'perennial philosophy,' with its epistemological realism, was stressed by Paul VI in many other documents of greater or lesser gravity. Two Apostolic Exhortations stressed the stability or continuity of meaning in the truths taught by the Church, and warned against a "radical demythologization" of Scripture. 18 Then, in a good number of less formal statements, Pope Paul pointed out how the decline of metaphysical thinking and the retreat to an analysis of empirically observable phenomena alone has given an exaggerated prestige and an unwarranted extension to the methods proper to the physical sciences.

        Not only did Pope Paul frequently rebuke the naturalism and historicism resulting from this approach; he also anticipated another aspect of Cardinal Ratinger's diagnosis of the contemporary theological scene in Mexico last year: the desire "to extend the principle of the majority to faith and morals, and thus to 'democratize' the Church decisively." 19 Pope Paul repeatedly warned against this false application of socio-political philosophies, warning in several Wednesday allocutions that 'democracy' cannot be a valid interpretative criterion for deciding matters of revealed truth, and that the kind of 'pluralism' which would admit contradictions of definitive magisterial teaching, on the basis of false parallels with the kind of civil community which currently prevails in Europe and North America, leads inexorably to mere confusion and doctrinal disintegration.

        As well as warning against these false philosophical trends infecting some areas of exegesis, Paul VI also commended certain positive modern developments in philosophical hermeneutics. Given their prominence in recent biblical literature, and the fact that no previous Successor of Peter had ever given any teaching expressly on modern hermeneutics, it is remarkable that the Pope's two main allocutions on these themes (to the Associazione Biblica Italiana in 1970 and 1972) have, it seems, been practically ignored and forgotten by scholars for a quarter of a century. 20 Pope Paul singled out certain aspects of the modern existentialist approach as both a new confirmation and an enrichment of the Catholic hermeneutical tradition: the need for biblical interpretation to be something more than an arid philological antiquarianism lacking actualization for the real life of believers; the need for a personal 'submission' of the interpreter to the text he studies, rather than an aloof attempt to 'master' or 'dominate' it as a mere object; and finally, the need for the interpreter to discern and enter into the mind and outlook of the ancient authors, especially since it is the one Spirit who both inspired their writings and guides the Church's understanding of them. Paul VI also drew attention to the link between this modern hermeneutical perspective and the patristic idea of God's "condescension" as manifested in Scripture: that same Spirit, whose supernal wisdom infinitely transcends mortal intelligence, nevertheless deigns to reveal the mystery of salvation in fragile and halting human language, using weak human instruments conditioned by the limits of a determined history, geography and culture.

        As well as the rational or philosophical principles necessary as a basis for sound biblical interpretation, revelation itself provides Catholics with two more truths which must be respected as hermeneutical principles: the integral truth, or inerrancy, of Scripture, and its inseparability from Tradition and Magisterium. Chapters 5 and 6 respectively of my thesis are devoted to what Pope Paul taught on these two principles.

        In regard to the first, I have argued that during Vatican II, Paul VI's personal contribution to the redaction of Dei Verbum 11 had the important effect of confirming with papal authority the official explanation of the text, given to the conciliar Fathers by the Council's Theological Commission, to the effect that in speaking of the Bible's "salvific" purpose, the Council refers to the Scriptures in their entirety, and does not mean to imply that the sacred writings can be divided into "salvific" or religious affirmations, guaranteed to be free of error, and supposedly "profane" affirmations which enjoy no such guarantee. During the conciliar debates themselves there were some voices reviving the latter idea, which had already been censured in a succession of papal encyclicals; and I have maintained that the difficulty of conveying the authentic meaning of the finally adopted wording in vernacular translations has helped to perpetuate in recent decades the false idea that Vatican II has on this point (i.e., the extent of biblical inerrancy) abandoned the teaching of those encyclicals. I have suggested the following new translation of the key sentence of DV 11 as one which more clearly expresses the sense in which Paul VI understood, approved and promulgated the Latin original:

Since, therefore, everything affirmed by the inspired authors, or sacred writers, must be held as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must in consequence acknowledge that the books of Scripture teach the truth firmly, faithfully, and without error, keeping in mind that it was for the sake of our salvation that God wanted this truth recorded in the form of Sacred Writings. 21

        During the Council Pope Paul also intervened in order to clarify the teaching of Dei Verbum 9 on the second of the aforesaid revealed premises for authentically Catholic biblical interpretation: the bond between Scripture, Tradition and Magisterium. He requested an explicit reference in the text to the effect that "Scripture alone" is not sufficient to provide the Church with a certain knowledge of all aspects of the revealed deposit. In personal teaching throughout his pontificate, the Pope often returned to this theme - the inseparable bond linking Scripture, Tradition and Magisterium. He recalled in particular the centrality of Christ as the leitmotif of Sacred Tradition in a Catholic interpretation of both Old and New Testaments, and reaffirmed more openly than the Council itself that the proximate norm of biblical interpretation is not that individual or 'private' judgement which has fragmented Christians since the Protestant Reformation, but rather, the Church's Magisterium. This charism of unfailing truth, the Pope recalled, remains in organic continuity with the Apostolic Tradition which was itself the earliest exercise of the Magisterium, and which predated the New Testament writings themselves.

        (c)  Part III:  The Composition and Historicity of the Gospels  
        I believe that this third and longest section brings to light the most important findings of my thesis, if we see them in the context of the recent expressions of concern by leading Catholic churchmen about the "dissolution of Christology" in modern exegesis which I noted at the beginning of this presentation. Chapter 7 introduces this section by considering the historical background to Pope Paul's more specific commentaries on Gospel texts, noting how serious tensions and disagreements over the nature of the Gospels among biblical scholars and high Church authorities alike marked the period from the death of Pius XII to the opening debates of Vatican II. Paul VI's response to this critical situation during Vatican II involved several elements: first, a great reliance on the advice and learning of Cardinal Augustin Bea, former Rector of the Biblicum; next, the approval and promulgation of a Biblical Commission Instruction which clearly reasserted the historical reliability of the Gospels while giving due weight to valid insights of modern scholarship regarding their composition and how they differ from modern academic historical writing; and finally, the Pope's own intervention in the redaction of Dei Verbum 19, so as to require an explicit affirmation in the text that the truth of the Gospels is specifically historical in character.

        In the last three chapters (8 to 10) I have examined in detail a large number of Paul VI's commentaries on selected Gospel passages which were chosen mainly on the basis of their problematical character: they are among those passages whose character as authentically historical records has most frequently been called in question by modern biblical criticism. These commentaries have been presented as concrete and detailed evidence of how the Pope of Vatican II understood and applied to specific texts the general teaching about the historicity of the Gospels which he himself had approved and authorized in the P.B.C. Instruction Sancta Mater Ecclesia and in article 19 of Dei Verbum. Chapter 8 considers Paul VI's comments on the Infancy Narratives of Matthew and Luke; Chapter 9 deals with the Resurrection narratives; and in Chapter 10 I have looked at the Pope's teaching on several quite heterogeneous Gospel texts (or groups of texts): first, the dialogue between Christ and Simon Peter in Matthew 16: 16-19; next, the accounts of Jesus' miracles and exorcisms in all four Gospels; and finally, the lengthy 'farewell discourses' ascribed to our Lord at the Last Supper in Chapters 13-17 of St. John's Gospel.

        What I have found, after endeavouring to read everything Paul VI said and wrote about the Gospels, can be summarized as follows: in all the many hundreds of comments made by this Pope on specific Gospel texts, I did not find a single instance in which he called in question the historical reality of the specific evangelical event, saying, or discourse which was under discussion. On the contrary, he repeatedly and energetically affirmed that reality. This is true not only of Pope Paul's comments about the central teachings, events and broad outlines of the evangelical narratives; it also applies to his frequent observations on points of secondary importance which modern criticism often sees as theologically-motivated, but nonetheless fictional or legendary, elaborations of some supposedly more primitive and prosaic stratum within the ancient tradition: for instance, the angelic appearances at Nazareth and Bethlehem; the star which guided the Magi; the disciples' sense-perceptible experiences of the Risen Lord (touching him, eating with him, etc.); miracles such as changing water into wine and walking on the sea; and the authenticity of the 'Magnificat' as being in substance the Blessed Virgin's inspired burst of praise.

        Certainly, Pope Paul showed his awareness, where this was appropriate to his didactic or homiletic purpose, of the process of selection, transmission, and redaction of the Gospel material by the respective evangelists, and of the way in which this may have influenced the form in which that material is finally presented to us in the four canonical books. He also gave explicit and public approval to Cardinal Bea's recognition that the historical interest of the evangelists "is not a historical interest in the sense of Greco-Roman historiography, that is, of a reasoned-out and chronologically arranged history which would be an end in itself." 22 But this qualification only serves to highlight the importance of the next sentence which he quoted from Bea's article on the same occasion: "Rather, it is an interest in past events as such, one which intends to report and transmit faithfully past events and sayings." 23 The Pope's abundant commentaries throughout the course of a fifteen-year pontificate bear eloquent witness to the seriousness with which he took both aspects of a true and contemporary reading of the Gospels: continuity with the Church's great tradition regarding their historical reliability, and recognition of the nuances which distinguish them from modern historiography.


        I would suggest that a study of Paul VI's teachings and other initiatives related to Sacred Scripture is important today for two main reasons: historical and doctrinal.

        First, let me summarize the historical significance of the material presented in this thesis. The fact that it has been neglected by a generation of scholars seems especially remarkable in the light of the fact that, in the area of Scripture, Paul VI's pontificate was arguably more historically significant than that of any of his predecessors since Leo XIII. It is often said that, as a result of the Encyclical Divino afflante Spiritu, it was Pius XII's pontificate above all that saw the most significant developments of this century in the field of Catholic biblical studies. But in fact, the challenges, dangers and opportunities of modernity did not present themselves fully and openly in the Catholic biblical arena until the conciliar and post-conciliar period guided by Paul VI. The fact that this Pontiff did not himself promulgate any Encyclical on Sacred Scripture should not obscure the cumulative historical impact of his many other teachings and decisions in this area: his intervention in, and approbation of, Dei Verbum and the Biblical Commission's Instruction on the Gospels; his repeated and express encouragement of ecumenical collaboration in the interpretation, translation and propagation of Scripture; his promulgation of a new Lectionary and Divine Office, as well as other sacramental texts, which opened up for hundreds of millions of ordinary Latin-rite Catholics as well as clergy and religious, new and regular contacts with a much broader selection of biblical readings than the Church's liturgy had ever previously offered; his alteration of the Biblical Commission's status from that of a magisterial organ composed of Cardinals to that of a consultatory body composed of exegetes; his revision of the Vulgate Bible; his decisions regarding persons to be entrusted with high ecclesial responsibilities in biblical matters - decisions which tended to encourage more freedom of expression among exegetes; and his allocutions to the Associazione Biblica Italiana on modern hermeneutics, which dealt with important themes his predecessors had scarcely touched upon. I would maintain that all of this, during the fifteen years of Pope Paul's pontificate, brought about changes in the biblical 'landscape' of the Catholic Church which were more profound and far-reaching than the changes which could be perceived during the previous fifteen-year period between the publication of Divino afflante Spiritu and the death of Pope Pius XII in 1958.

        The extent of these more recent changes, indeed, has undoubtedly exceeded what was desired and intended by Paul VI himself, precisely because the direction he gave to the Church in regard to Sacred Scripture has been only partially and selectively put into effect. While his desires in regard to the use of the Bible in such areas as the liturgical reform and ecumenical cooperation have been very thoroughly implemented, and while full advantage has been taken by exegetes of that spirit of openness and encouragement he wished to show toward some new developments in biblical scholarship, his frequent warnings against exaggerations, errors and the intrusion of unsound philosophical premises and 'protestantizing' tendencies (such as the divorce of Scripture from Tradition) into Catholic biblical studies have received much less attention. Even less attention, it seems, has been given to those many other documents and allocutions wherein Pope Paul, by commenting positively on specific biblical texts, gave numerous examples of a prudent and orthodox interpretation and application of the more general principles set out in the scriptural teaching of Vatican II and the Biblical Commission.

        This brings me to the second - and even more important - reason why I believe the material surveyed in this thesis is of continuing relevance: its doctrinal authority. Especially insofar as Paul VI was the Pope upon whose approval and promulgation the Vatican II documents depend for their magisterial authority, his own understanding of those documents should be seen as authoritative and normative. And in the particular case of Dei Verbum, article 19, on the historicity of the Gospels, the way Pope Paul did in fact understand the conciliar text can be clearly inferred not only from his own intervention in its redaction, asking for more explicit stress on their historicity, but also from his abundant commentaries on Gospel texts throughout his pontificate. Thus, these commentaries, brought to light in my study, help to clarify and to illustrate the authentic meaning of Vatican Council II's doctrine on the historicity of the Gospels. They show that the nuances in Catholic teaching about the Gospels which, as a result of sound modern scholarship, have been formulated in Dei Verbum 19 and the P.B.C. Instruction Sancta Mater Ecclesia, are not of such a kind as to represent a rupture or discontinuity with the great Catholic exegetical tradition represented by the Fathers, the mediæval and post-mediæval commentators, and those more recent scholars who wrote in conformity with the doctrine of the biblical Encyclicals promulgated by Paul VI's predecessors between 1893 and 1943.

        Someone could object that while all this may be true, it is of little importance, since no amount of such mere reaffirmation of an essentially traditional reading of the Gospels, not even on the part of a succession of Popes, can ever suffice to rebut the critical arguments against that reading which have been raised by so many 20th-century Scripture scholars in the name of exegetical science - arguments which, as Cardinals Baum and Ratzinger (among others) have been pointing out, are causing a grave crisis of faith by virtue of their 'dissolving' effect on christology.

        My reply to this objection would be twofold. First, as I have already stressed, Paul VI himself, in constantly reaffirming the Catholic tradition regarding the Gospels, did not appeal simply to his own and his predecessors' authority; he also pointed to the defective post-Kantian philosophical premises which prejudice the 'demythologizing' school of Gospel criticism.

        Secondly, I would argue that while the appeal to papal authority and to the continuity of Catholic tradition is not indeed sufficient for responding to exegetical arguments against that tradition, it is nevertheless necessary for that purpose. It is true that magisterial authority should not be understood as a substitute for sound exegetical scholarship. On the other hand, if it could be shown that the witness and tradition of the Church's teaching authority is not itself firm and constant on the historical reliability of what the Gospels tell us about Jesus, such inconstancy would itself strengthen immeasurably the case against their reliability; just as, in a court of law, the credibility of an alleged fact (or series of facts) is gravely weakened if it can be shown that the key witness is confused, vague, or self-contradictory in his testimony regarding these alleged facts. The analogy with a courtroom is relevant here, precisely because those exegetes who urge critical arguments against Gospel historicity, unlike researchers in the physical sciences, seldom claim to have demonstrated the truth of their contentions as conclusively as chemical or biological findings, which can be demonstrated beyond dispute by direct observation and repeatable experiments. Rather, like advocates, they can only formulate hypotheses whose greater or lesser credibility depends on a balance of probabilities, based on the critical evaluation of testimonies left by human witnesses. And in this context it must never be forgotten that the Catholic Church is in fact a witness to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus; she is, as it were, a two-thousand-year-old 'person' who remembers her Lord and hands on her testimony about his words and deeds generation after generation. But if, as St. Paul reminds us, 24 she should begin to sound an uncertain trumpet-call, who would heed her?

        This is the precise point where I believe the corpus of Paul VI's teaching on the Gospels is so relevant in the present critical state of christology. (It is worth mentioning in passing that I believe a similar thesis could be written on John Paul II's teaching on the historicity of the Gospels, showing its complete harmony with that of his predecessor. 25) There are many in recent decades who have maintained that, since Vatican II, the trumpet-call of the Church's Magisterium is indeed much more indistinct or uncertain than it previously was, in regard to the historical value of the Gospels. On the basis of inaccurate and selective readings of DV 19, especially its acknowledgement of the various sucessive stages of Gospel formation, they have claimed that the Catholic Church herself is now much less confident than she previously was regarding the extent to which the Gospels in their final, canonical form truly reflect the real events and teachings in the life of Jesus between 5 B.C. and 30 or 33 A.D. My hope - and my prayer - is that a wider knowledge of the clear and constant teaching of the Pope who signed and promulgated Dei Verbum will correct this impression of uncertainty on the part of the Church's Magisterium, and to that extent help to arrest the 'dissolution' of christology which remains such a serious challenge to Christian faith in our time.

1. "La fede e la teologia ai giorni nostri" (Italian translation of the original in Spanish, published in L'Osservatore Romano, 27 October 1996, pp. 7-8). English translations of citations from this article here and below are those of the present writer.

2. Ibid., p. 7.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid., p. 8.

5. G. Caprile, Il Sinodo dei Vescovi: seconda assemblea generale straordinaria: 24 novembre - 8 dicembre 1985 (Rome: La Civiltà Cattolica, 1986), p. 204.

6. F. Spadafora, "La S. Scrittura nella Enciclica 'Mysterium fidei'" (Divinitas 10 [1966] 349-361). In spite of the title, very little of this article actually comments on the use of Scripture by Paul VI in the Encyclical.

7. J. Chmiel, "Pawel VI o zadaniach wspólczesnej egzegezy biblijnej" (Ruch Biblijny i Liturgiczny 27 [1974] 265-271).

8. Cf. M. Gilbert, S.J., "Paul VI: In Memoriam" (Biblica 59 [1978] 453-462). This article was republished in Notiziario 10 (Brescia: Istituto Paolo VI, 1985) 100-106.

9. Second Extraordinary Synod of Bishops, Relatio Finalis, Part II, Section B (a) 1. This judgement was confirmed shortly after the Extraordinary Synod by Pope John Paul II in his allocution of 7 April 1986 to the World Catholic Federation for the Biblical Apostolate (cf. AAS 78 [1986] 1217).

10. AAS 66 (1974) 235-241.

11. AAS 56 (1964) 936-938; Insegnamenti di Paolo VI, 1966, 413-418; Insegnamenti di Paolo VI, 1968, 491-496; AAS 62 (1970) 615-619; AAS 64 (1972) 634-637.

12. AAS 60 (1968) 262-265.

13. AAS 62 (1970) 220-224.

14. Cf. J. Magee, "La vita quotidiana di Paolo VI" (in AA. VV., Paul VI et la modernité dans l'Eglise: Actes du colloque organisé par l'École française de Rome [Rome: l'École française de Rome, 1984] pp. 144-145).

15. "Ma io rispondo sempre che sì, forse è vero, la gente spesso non apprezza sempre le parole vere, ma nonostante questo occorre dirle. Quando nel popolo di Dio si risveglierà il bisogno della verità esso deve sapere dove cercarla, deve poterla trovare'" (Interview with Cardinal Edouard Gagnon in 30 Giorni, February 1989, p. 20).

16. Cardinal Franz König, a member at that time of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, has recalled to me in a letter of 29 March 1996: "The reestablishment of the two Jesuits Lyonnet and Zerwick caused much astonishment at that time and was understood by witnesses that Paul VI did not agree with the decisions of the Holy Office."

17. "Ad hanc rem quod spectat, summi est momenti animadvertere, præter id quod observabile est, scientiarumque ope recognitum, intellegentiam a Deo nobis datam id quod est attingere posse, non veri tantummodo significationes subiectivas structurarum, quas vocant, et evolutionis humanæ conscientiæ. Ceterum recolendum est, illud ad interpretationem seu ad hermeneuma pertinere, ut verbo, quod pronuntiatum est, observato, intellegere et discernere studeamus sensum textui cuidam subiectum, non vero hunc sensum ad coniecturæ arbitratum quodammodo novare" (AAS 60 [1968], 435, emphasis in original).

18. AAS 63 (1971) 99.

19. J. Ratzinger, op. cit., p. 7.

20. I have been unable to find even a single journal article devoted to these allocutions in the years since they were given.

21. This seems to me clearer and more accurate than the two most widespread English translations. The Flannery edition of the Council documents renders this sentence: "Since, therefore, . . . affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture, firmly, faithfully and without error, teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the sacred Scriptures" (p. 757). The Abbott edition translates it as follows: "Therefore, since . . . asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching firmly, faithfully, and without error that truth which God wanted put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation" (p. 119). In my alternate translation, the words "keeping in mind," while not literally in the text, reflect the purpose of an adjectival clause which merely describes, rather than identifies, its antecedent. In this case they also reflect the official commentary of the relator, who said that the salvific purpose of the Bible was something "to be kept in mind" (cuius ratio habeatur) in understanding its inerrancy.

22. Insegnamenti di Paolo VI, 1966, p. 678..

23. Ibid.

24. Cf. I Cor. 14: 8.

25. For example, there are few passages in the Gospels whose historical reliability has been more frequently called in question than Matthew's Infancy Narrative. Yet throughout his Apostolic Exhortation Redemptoris custos (15 August 1989) on the importance of St. Joseph in salvation history and the life of the Church, John Paul II clearly and consistently affirms the past reality of those events involving Joseph which are related in the first chapters of Matthew, and gives the same recognition to the historicity of similar material found in the second chapter of Luke (Cf. AAS 82 [1990] 5-34).

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