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In an address to the Pontifical Biblical Commission (of which Dutch Bishop Jan Liesen is a member), Pope Francis shone a light on the Catholic understanding of the Bible. This is an ever-necessary effort, as there is still much confusion and misunderstanding on exactly how the Bible fits in our faith and tradition.
In his address, the Holy Father explained:
“As we know, the Holy Scriptures are the testimony in written form of God’s Word, the canonical memorial that attests to the event of Revelation. The Word of God, therefore, precedes and exceeds the Bible. It is for this reason that the center of our faith is not only a book, but a history of salvation and especially a Person, Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh. Precisely because the Word of God embraces and extends beyond Scripture to understand it properly we need the constant presence of the Holy Spirit who “guide us to all truth” (Jn 16:13). It should be inserted within the current of the great Tradition which, through the assistance of the Holy Spirit and the guidance of the Magisterium, recognized the canonical writings as the Word addressed by God to His people who have never ceased to meditate and discover its inexhaustible riches. The Second Vatican Council has reiterated this with great clarity in the Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum: “For all of what has been said about the way of interpreting Scripture is subject finally to the judgment of the Church, which carries out the divine commission and ministry of guarding and interpreting the word of God “(n. 12).”
What we may gather from this is that the Bible does not exist in isolation: it is not a book that came into being as we know it today. Instead, it grew, developed and exists not for its own purpose, but to communicate the Word of God. And a second important point is the role of Tradition, the magisterium, and – not least – the Holy Spirit, which act as interpreters of this Word.
We are a Religion of the Book, but our religion is not about the book. It is about what – who – the book is about. And that gives us a hint about how we should relate to the Bible. As Pope Francis explains later:
“The interpretation of the Holy Scriptures cannot be only an individual scientific effort, but must always confront itself with, be inserted within and authenticated by the living tradition of the Church. This norm is essential to specify the correct relationship between exegesis and the Magisterium of the Church. The texts inspired by God were entrusted to the Community of believers, the Church of Christ, to nourish the faith and guide the life of charity.”
The nature of the Bible tells us how it relates to us and the greater body of faith. We should receive it as it was given: the testimony of the Word of God for the community of faithful.
There has been much talk about the new prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Gerhard Müller, but we haven’t heard much from him. Hence, as a sort of introduction, my translation of this interview, courtesy of Johannes Schidelko of Kath.net.
KNA: My Lord Archbishop, what do you feel in the face of your appointment?
Müller: Gratitude for the confidence that the pope gives me. It is not an easy task, considering the entirety of the World Church; but it is a beautiful assignment to be able to serve the pope in his teaching. The office has a universal ecclesiastic dimention – and has nothing to do with centralisation.
KNA: When did you know that you would be going to Rome?
Müller: For a while already. But the change of office needs to run its ordered course.
KNA: Do you know why the pope has appointed you? Did he want a German, a theologian, someone he trusted?
Müller: It certainly wasn’t about the nationality, and as Catholics we all belong to the world Church. But the Holy Father knows me and my theological work, not only as an author, but also as an expert of the Synod of Bishops in Rome and in the committees of Ecumenism and Faith of the German Bishops’ Conference.
KNA: When do you begin in your office?
Müller: I have already begun, on July 2nd.
KNA: You are now one of the most important people in the Vatican, and one of the closest collaborators of the pope. What are your first steps?
Müller: I have already met with the leaders of the Congregation, to get an overview of the daily procedures and responsibilities. The scope is very broad: the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith consists of three departments: the doctrinal, disciplinary and marriage departmentd. The prefect is at also president of the Bible Commission and the International Theological Commission. We have about fifty immediate employees. Then there are the “Feria quarta”, the meetings of cardinals, which takes place every four weeks.
KNA: What are your substantive priorities?
Müller: The Congregation is responsible for the promotion of the doctrine of the faith, and not only for its protection. The 1965 reorganisation of the agency has placed this positive aspect in its heart. It is about the promotion of theology and its basis in Revelation, to ensure its quality, and to consider the important intellectual developments on a global scale. We can’t simply and mechanically repeat the doctrine of the faith. It must always be associated with the intellectual developments of the time, the sociological changes, the thinking of people.
KNA: What do you want to emphasise especially? What do you want to especially deal with in the near future?
Müller: The Congregation has the task of supporting the pope in his Magisterium. We must orient ourselves on the emphases he makes in his proclamations. During his journey to Germany, Benedict XVI put the question of God at the centre. He also spoke of the ‘worldliness’ of the Church – a topic not only intended for Germany. It is about a right understanding of the nature and mission of the Church; about finding the right balance between shutting out the world and adapting to it – so that we can truly serve the world in the name of Jesus Christ. In particular, we have to counter a widespread apathy in matters of faith. The ‘Year of Faith’, with the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Council and twenty years of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, will be an essential contribution to this.
KNA: You begin your service in a turbulent time for the Vatican. Or is the Vatican currently back on its feet again?
Müller: I don’t know much about this concretely. It remains to be seen what the investigations reveal. What seems important to me is that the good works of the many hundreds of employees in the Curia are not overlooked. They are unfairly associated with these individual actions; the impression is created that everyone is involved. That is totally out of the question.
KNA: Another major topic in Rome is the anniversary of the Council. What do you expect from looking back?
Müller: We do not need a hermeneutic that is imposed upon the Council from outside. It is important to explore the hermeneutic that is included in the Council itself: the hermeneutic of reform in continuity, as the Holy Father has repeatedly underlined. A Council is the execution of the highest magisterium of the Church in the communion of the bishops with the Pope.
In this sense, the Second Vatican Council was a wonderful event, albeit from a somewhat different type than some previous councils. It was its legitimate intention to respond not only to certain errors and correct them, but to provide an overall view of the Catholic faith. It wanted not many individual elements, but the big picture, the great architecture of the present church with large rooms where you can feel at home and gladly live.
KNA: The Council, however, also created problems, for example for the SSPX.
Müller: Everyone who calls himself Catholic, will also have to keep the principles of the Catholic faith. These are not pre-formulated by the CDF or anyone else, but given to us in the Revelation of God in Jesus Christ, which has been entrusted to the Church. One can therefore not simply pick from it what fits in a given structure.
Rather, one must be open to the whole of the Christian faith, the whole profession of faith, the Church’s history and development of her teaching. One must be open to the living Tradition which does not end somewhere – say in 1950 – but goes on. Inasmuch as we appreciate history with her great achievements, we must also see that every era is also directly related to God. Every era has its own challenges. We can not explain a historical era according to the classical pattern, but we walk from one summit to the next.
Photo credit: Armin Weigel dpa/lby
With the appointment, just before the Vatican comes to a virtual Summer standstill – of the new heard of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – in times past know as the Universal Inquisition (which never fails to raise hackles in some media) – there is the question: who is Bishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller?
On the website of his former Diocese of Regensburg we find an extensive biography in English which shows that Bishop Müller is very much the pope’s man. Like Benedict, he is a professor, at home in the world of academia. A former position as professor of Catholic dogmatics at Munich, and since a few years as the official coordinator of the publication of Pope Benedict’s collected works, cements this theological and academical closeness to the Holy Father.
Another aspect of the new prefect’s career coincides with the pope’s priorities of advancing ecumenism with the Orthodox Churches of the East. Within the German Bishop’s Conference, Bishop Müller, who received the personal title of archbishop upon his appointment, was co-responsible for contacts with the Orthodox.
There are more elements in his biography which gel well with his new duties as the Church’s ‘third man’. Succeeding Cardinal Levada, a red hat is a certainty for Bishop Müller, as are the presidencies which come with his new position: those of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, the Pontifical Commission “Ecclesia Dei”, and the International Theological Commission.
Photo credit: Reuters/Tony Gentile
In a short message to the Pontifical Bible Commission (translation), Pope Benedict XVI addresses the topics of inspiration and truth in the Sacred Scriptures, and how both these elements are “constitutive characteristics of [their] nature”. He makes some very interesting points which we should keep in mind when reading the Bible and studying or applying the texts in it.
First, there is the following statement:
“[T]he topic of inspiration is decisive for the appropriate approach to the Sacred Scriptures. In fact, an interpretation of the sacred texts that neglects or forgets their inspiration does not take into account their most important and precious characteristic, that is, their provenance from God.”
Essentially, what the pope seems to be saying here, is that the inspiration of a Biblical text, that is its origin and source, as well as the process by how it came into being, should dictate how we read those texts. Sacred Scripture ultimately finds its source in God. That is not the same as saying that He personally dictated the words to whichever scribe first committed them to paper, but He is behind it, so to speak. His truth is in those words. They are His Word, written down by man. It is not a thesis by which someone tried to defend his position or ideas. It is not a human construct, and neither is it academic. The texts in the Bible are grounded in historical reality, a reality in which God played an important part. The texts, in their nature, are characterised by that reality.
“Because of the charism of inspiration, the books of Sacred Scripture have a direct and concrete force of appeal.”
Their inspiration gives the books of the Bible their living authority. The Holy Father writes that their relevance did not end at the death of the last Apostle, but it continued through the constant proclamation and interpretation through the ages.
“For this reason the Word of God fixed in the sacred texts is not an inert deposit inside the Church but becomes the supreme rule of her faith and power of life. The Tradition that draws its origin from the Apostles progresses with the assistance of the Holy Spirit and grows with the reflection and study of believers, with personal experience of the spiritual life and the preaching of Bishop.”
This process of interpretation occurred within the framework of the Tradition of the Church which, the Holy Father notes, has progressed with the assistance of the Holy Spirit given at Pentecost, and grows via four means: reflection, study, experience and preaching. ‘Reading the Bible’, then, engages the entire person, not just the intellect. We read or hear, we feel, think and, certainly not least, we experience.
The reference to “the preaching of the Bishop” is interesting in its own right. Just as the Apostles were the first to proclaim the Word of God in the Tradition that we still enjoy. This work was later performed by their successors: the bishops. Our Tradition is so much more than a collection of old habits and customs: it is a living organism built around the Word of God that we find in the Bible, but also in the Tradition, in its interpretation and truth.
“[I]t is essential and fundamental for the life and mission of the Church that the sacred texts are interpreted in keeping with their nature: Inspiration and Truth are constitutive characteristics of this nature.”
Photo credit: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images
I came across a pretty nice-looking website that heralds the publication of an extensive biography of a forgotten Catholic great: Willem Marinus Cardinal van Rossum (1854-1932). Born a year after the Catholic hierarchy was re-established in the Netherlands, his career coincided with the period we now call the ‘rich Roman life’ (Rijke Roomsche Leven), when Catholics took full advantage of their newfound freedom to form all kinds of Catholic associations, unions and other clubs, to organise processions (if only below the great rivers) and take their devotions out of centuries of secrecy and hiding.
Cardinal van Rossum, then, was one that Dutch Catholics took pride in. His return to the Netherlands in 1924, as the papal legate to the Eucharistic Congress of Amsterdam, was basically the next best thing to the pope himself visiting. And his career was impressive in any case. In 1911, he was the first Dutch priest to be created a cardinal since the Reformation. He wasn’t a bishop then yet (something that is customary today, but less so in the past), but was appointed as President of the Pontifical Bible Commission in 1914, and two years later also as Major Penitentiary. In 1918 he also became Prefect of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (the current Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples), and his consecration to bishop followed in that same year. There’s a fuller list of his various duties on the biography page on the website I linked to above.
The titular churches he held (first as Cardinal-deacon and later as Cardinal-priest) were suitably high profile. From 1911 to 1915 he held the S. Cesareo in Palatio, which was later held by Blessed Karol Wojtyła, for one. From 1915 until his death in 1932, the cardinal was cardinal-priest of S. Croce in Gerusalemme (right), which before him was held by two later popes (Innocent VII and Benedict XIV) and today by Cardinal Miloslav Vlk, the emeritus archbishop of Prague.
As bishop he was the titular archbishop of Caesarea in Mauretania (there it is again), later held by to name but two, my own Bishop Gerard de Korte and Cardinal Walter Brandmüller.
Willem Cardinal van Rossum, because of his pioneering role for the rejuvenated Dutch Church, is deserving of a proper biography, and judging by the website above, this could be it.
Photo credit:  incaelo.wordpress.com,  Anthony Majanlahti/Wikipedia