Pope Benedict XVI saught to heal scars and prepare for the future. CNS photo

Benedict brought back biblical theology

  • March 7, 2013

Before we receive a new pope, it is worthwhile to consider the impact of the pontificate itself.

There were several initiatives distinctive of Benedict’s priorities — restoring the liturgy, healing the breach with the Lefebrvists, pursuing unity with the Anglicans, speaking frankly with Muslims, challenging a ruthless secularism in public life. The great, overarching theme, though, is less about the current religious landscape and more about the broad sweep of Catholic history reaching back 500 years.

A recent book by George Weigel gives the context, which would be fruitful for the cardinals in Rome to be reading this week: Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st Century Church.

The short version of the book’s theme is one heard frequently enough, namely that the Church is no longer the custodian of a Christian culture but must become an evangelist to a secular one. Mission, not management, as the line goes.

Weigel creatively sets that in the broader context of the move from what he calls “Counter-Reformation Catholicism” to “Evangelical Catholicism.” He argues that the catechetical-devotional model of Catholicism that protected Catholic culture from Protestant challenge must now become a missionary Catholicism that presents the reality of God and the possibility of friendship with Jesus Christ to a culture which lives as if God does not exist.

An absolutely critical aspect of that new proposal must be the privileged encounter with Jesus in Sacred Scripture. So when Weigel discusses the end of Counter- Reformation Catholicism, and the beginning of Evangelical Catholicism, the Bible is at the heart of that project.

A few months back, Fr. Ron Knott of St. Meinrad Seminary, addressing young priests in Ontario, observed of the Reformation: “In a divorce there is always a property settlement. In the 16th century, Catholics got the altar, Protestants the pulpit. We got the sacraments, they got the Bible.”

Benedict’s central project, in continuity with not only Vatican II but his predecessors going back to Leo XIII at the end of the 19th century, was to bring back the Bible to the life of ordinary Catholics as the foundation of all reality. The Holy Father’s great project has been the renewal of biblical theology in the life of the Church — to liberate the Bible from its captivity in the hands of scholars alone, and to open it up again for the ordinary Catholic.

“Biblical theology refers to a unified understanding of the saving truths of the inspired Scripture as they have been handed down in the tradition of the Church,” writes Scott Hahn in Covenant and Communion: The Biblical Theology of Pope Benedict XVI. “This understanding is based on the unity of the Old and New Testaments, on Christ as the interpretive key of the Scriptures, and on the Church’s divine liturgy as the fulfillment and actualization of Scripture’s saving truths.”

The word of God as the foundation of reality, fully revealed in Jesus Christ who offers us friendship with God, and whom we encounter in the liturgy and sacraments — this is the heart of Evangelical Catholicism, as Weigel demonstrates.

“Humanly speaking, the word, my human word, is almost nothing in reality, a breath,” said Benedict at the 2008 synod of bishops on the word of God. “As soon as it is pronounced it disappears. It seems to be nothing. But already the human word has incredible power. Words create history, words form thoughts, the thoughts that create the word. It is the word that forms history, reality. Furthermore, the word of God is the foundation of everything – it is the true reality. Therefore, we must change our concept of realism. The realist is the one who recognizes the Word of God, in this apparently weak reality, as the foundation of all things.”

God’s word as the foundation of all things is why Benedict so marvellously and insistently defended the importance of reason, by which we come to know reality. It is why he defended truth against the “dictatorship of relativism,” for truth is our assent to what is real. And it is why Weigel describes Benedict as the “finest papal homilist” since Gregory the Great (590-604), while Hahn adds that he is the greatest biblical theologian since Gregory himself.

Healing the breach between the sacraments and the Bible is why Benedict devoted such attention to the liturgy, where not only is the word of God listened to in the life of the Church, but exercised in its creative power — “This is my body. This is my blood.”

Benedict’s great project was to heal the scars of the Reformation, and prepare the Church for the evangelical demands of the new springtime of which Blessed John Paul often spoke.

(This column is adapted from a forthcoming essay in Convivium magazine, www.cardus.ca/ convivium, of which Fr. de Souza is the editor-in-chief.)


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