By Steve Landregan
Special to The Texas Catholic
Fifty years ago if a Catholic family had a Bible, it was probably large, sitting on a table, used to record births, marriages and deaths and preserve memorial cards, but seldom, if ever, was it read.
Catholics accepted the Bible as the inspired word of God and understood and practiced its message, but Bible drills and Bible study were not a major part of Catholic religious formation that was centered on the catechism.
For that reason, the development of historic and textual Biblical criticism which spawned major controversies among Bible churches and helped trigger the fundamentalist movement, went largely unnoticed by most Catholics. Not so the Vatican, which took a cautious and skeptical approach toward “higher criticism” and Pope Leo XIII established the Pontifical Biblical Commission (PBC) in 1902 to ensure that God’s words “be shielded not only from every breach of error but even from every rash opinion.”
Claims that higher criticism proved the Bible was not true clouded the picture. Still, the value of historic and literary criticism began to emerge and modern Catholic Biblical scholarship took shape in institutions like the Dominican L’Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem and the Pontifical Biblical Institute at Gregorian University in Rome. Their work was recognized in 1943 by Pope Pius XII in his encyclical Divino aflante Spiritu that sup¬ported and encouraged Catholic scholars in the “right use” of scientific methods of criticism.
Despite the encyclical, there continued to exist within the Roman Curia and among some at the Lateran University doubts concerning the writings of some Catholic biblical scholars on the historicity of the Gospels, the sources of Divine Revelation and the inerrancy of the Bible. This resulting polarization would define the debate on the Document on Divine Revelation at the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council.
When Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani introduced the schema “De Fontibus Revelationis” (On the Sources of Revelation) prepared by the Theological Commission at the Council, many complained that it took no account of new biblical scholarship. Opposition, particularly among the Northern European bishops, took the form of an unofficial alternative schema which was circulated prior to the debate. (One of the authors was Father Joseph Ratzinger).
Cardinal Ottaviani maintained that documents from his Theological Commission, including De Fontibus, which had been approved by the pope, could not be rejected by the council. Aware of the alternative schema, which he claimed was contrary to Canon Law, he attempted to limit discussion to the Theological Commission’s document.
Reaction to the document and Cardinal Ottaviani’s claims was immediate and intense. It was led by one of the church’s most-respected biblical scholars, German Jesuit Cardinal Augustin Bea, S.J., former rector of the Pontifical Biblical Institute and president of the Secretariat for Christian Unity. Cardinal Bea, noted that De Fontibus not only failed to recognize contributions of new scriptural scholarship, but was not pastoral in nature and failed to address the ecumenical dimension stating: “This schema does not correspond to the purposes which the pope determined for the council, which should reflect a concern for the pastoral ministry and unity.”
Objections to the schema centered on its position that Scripture and tradition are two separate sources of Divine Revelation, (based on a disputed passage from the Council of Trent), the nature of how the scriptures are without error (inerrant), and the historicity of the Gospels. Recalling Pope John XXIII’s words in the opening address that “the substance of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another,” the debate centered on whether the traditional understandings of the issues would be confirmed or they should be restated to reflect newer understandings. The outcome promised to impact future ecumenical relations and dialogue.
Many consider the debate the turning point of the council because Pope John XXIII overturned a vote to reject the schema that failed to win the necessary two-thirds majority and returned the schema for revision to a new mixed com¬mission, with Cardinal Ottaviani and Cardinal Bea as co-presidents. The pope’s action was seen as his endorsement of the position of the Northern European bishops and a rejection of strong efforts by some of the Curia to retain the status quo.
When the revised schema was presented, it represented a more moderate position reflecting the intervention of Chicago’s Cardinal Gregory Meyer that “it was the heart of God that was revealed, not propositions.” Among the council fathers there was a strong majority in favor of contemporary Biblical scholarship, despite valiant attempts by some bishops to retain traditional understandings. When the final formal voting on the Constitution, now called Dei Verbum, the Constitution largely reflected new scholarship and understanding. The final vote was 2,344 for, 6 against.
Following the Second Vatican Council, there was a great increase in the reading and the study of scripture among Catholics. Shortly after the council ended, the Jerome Biblical Commentary was published in 1968 reflecting the new biblical scholarship, Father John McKenzie published his excellent Catholic Dictionary of the Bible in 1965 and the English edition of the Jerusalem Bible was published in 1966. Many Bible study programs were developed like the Little Rock Scripture Study program in 1974, and in-depth Bible Study Courses like the four-year program developed by the University of Dallas School of Ministry.