A goodly portion of the history of Catholicism in the last forty years is a history of ignorance. Not the ignorance of dogmatism, as many outsiders think, but an ignorance of basic human things. Women who faithfully observed the Virgin’s feast days years ago may have been unaware of much of the Bible or Church history, but they lived a true devotion. The men who fasted (or did not) from midnight to Communion on Sundays knew no ascetic theology, but they knew asceticism. When these Catholic practices were reduced or eliminated in the belief that they were old-fashioned or too difficult in modern circumstances, it did not make Catholicism more attractive. It made faith much less a part of life.
Nearly 250 cardinals, bishops, and invited guests have been meeting in Rome since October 5 at the World Synod of Bishops on the Bible. Their mission, quite an urgent one, is to find ways to make knowledge of the Bible more widespread among Catholics and modern societies in general. As Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George said, even formerly well-known Biblical figures like Moses or Job or Jonah (or Jesus?) are no longer the cultural backdrop for most people. Without an awareness of the basic shape of salvation history, how can people understand the meaning of faith?
Unless we have a general picture of God creating the world, of that world as going terribly wrong after we came on the scene, of the people of Israel as the special bearers of God’s promise, of Christ as the Redeemer, and of the Church as the continuing vehicle for the graces that free us from sin and death, what could possibly motivate someone to get up on Sunday for Mass rather than brunch or the golf course? Something like two-thirds of Catholics in America – an even higher percentage in Europe – seem to believe that there is nothing of such urgency to be found there.
The Synod on the Bible is clearly part of Pope Benedict’s larger aims at renewal, which include the liturgy, instruction in basics such as the theological virtues (he’s already done two in encyclicals), and confronting our skeptical culture head on with some very deft ideas. Several of the Synod bishops have also recommended better focused homilies that stick to Biblical themes. All these are good suggestions. But absent real-life practices, it’s hard to say what exactly Bible study will do.
We had some experience of that in the Reformation. One historian has discovered that within a century of Luther’s appearance, there were 243 different interpretations of the Eucharist. Sects arose with multiple wives. Some believed the Bible forbade all government, others that kings held power by divine right. The Jesuits who were founded and worked effectively to counteract these centrifugal Protestant influences did not proceed so much by Bible lessons as by word and example.
One of the dangers in talk about Bible study is that we risk turning the Scriptures into just another book at a time when books of all kinds – literature, philosophy, history – have a smaller and smaller influence on the world. A Protestant group is about to publish a Bible that tries to be relevant by using news photos, among them the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Angelina Jolie (let’s hope these are going to be images of justice and of the cult of celebrity). But even more sober approaches have to deal with the sheer fact that a text will have a hard time cutting through technological static. Some have proposed multimedia and other high-tech presentations of Scripture. But without proper preparation, the Bible then becomes just one more text message – good seed spread on poor ground.
Benedict, of course, is quite aware of this and said in his opening address to the gathering: “exegesis, the true reading of Holy Scripture, is not only a literary phenomenon, not only reading a text. It is the movement of my existence. It is moving towards the Word of God in the human words. Only by conforming ourselves to the Mystery of God, to the Lord who is the Word, can we enter within the Word, can we truly find the Word of God in human words.”
This gets to the heart of the matter. Yet how to get people not merely to recognize but to live this profound truth is another thing entirely. No one can do everything at once, and the participants in the Synod have made some quite astute proposals. But Catholics, with our belief in tradition and a life in communion with the Church correlated with the sacred texts, need to find an embodiment of Scripture in daily practices. Our whole tradition used to recognize that the vast majority of people do not have the gifts to be philosophers, or theologians, or Scripture scholars, but can lead rich, even saintly lives with basic instruction nonetheless.
Everyone who cares about the Catholic Church has a list of pet peeves about things that have gone wrong in the forty years since the Second Vatican Council. But somewhere near the top of the list has to be the notion that a superficial understanding of sacred things is an advance over longstanding practices that directly confront the evils we find in ourselves and in a fallen world. On the very first page of The Imitation of Christ, Thomas à Kempis writes: “I would rather feel contrition than know how to define it. For what would it profit us to know the whole Bible by heart and the principles of all the philosophers if we live without grace and the love of God?” That’s the old Catholic wisdom, and it would be good if we listened to – and figured out how to follow it – again.