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A New And Orthodox Papal Document On Sacred Scripture

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By Fr. BRIAN W. HARRISON, OS

Increasingly, over the six years of the Francis pontificate, a lot of us have been asking, wearily, “Can anything good come out of Domus Sanctae Marthae”?
Well, something just did.
Everyone watching Rome lately has been focusing on the Ominous Amazon — the synod starting this Sunday, October 6 [Editor’s Note: This issue of The Wanderer went to press on October 3] that seems primed to discharge muddy and odoriferous waters contaminated by paganism, pantheism, and indifferentism into the clear sea of sound Catholic doctrine.
But now, practically on the eve of the synod, the Bergoglian “God of surprises” has given us a totally unexpected document on a totally different topic. Happily, however, there are no surprises at all in the doctrine it teaches; for this remains in clear continuity with what the Church has always taught about the inspiration, historicity, and even inerrancy, of Sacred Scripture. (Well, perhaps such traditional content is rather a surprise, coming as it does from the most un-traditional Pope in history.)
Dated and released on September 30, 2019, Feast of the iconic biblical scholar St. Jerome, Father and Doctor of the Church, the new papal document is an apostolic letter motu proprio, enttiled  Aperuit Illis, inserting a new liturgical observance into the Novus Ordo calendar. The theme of the new document is the vital importance of the Word of God in the life of the Church; and in order to give greater recognition and emphasis to its central role, Pope Francis here establishes that the Third Sunday of Ordinary Time is henceforth to be observed every year as “the Sunday of the Word of God.”
(It remains to be seen whether this new legislation will also be applied to one of the first Sundays after Epiphany in the Traditional Latin Rite.)
The Holy Father proceeds to explain that the liturgy on this Sunday “is to be devoted to the celebration, study and dissemination of the word of God. . . . The various communities will find their own ways to mark this Sunday with a certain solemnity. It is important, however, that in the Eucharistic celebration the sacred text be enthroned, in order to focus the attention of the assembly on the normative value of God’s word. On this Sunday, it would be particularly appropriate to highlight the proclamation of the word of the Lord and to emphasize in the homily the honor that it is due. Bishops could celebrate the Rite of Installation of Lectors or a similar commissioning of readers, in order to bring out the importance of the proclamation of God’s word in the liturgy.”
This seems to me an initiative that Catholics should warmly  welcome. I found myself encouraged from the outset by the forthright opening sentences of the motu proprio. For they assert plainly the historical character of a Gospel Resurrection narrative which all too many “Bultmaniac” biblical scholars, inside and outside the Catholic Church, have for the best part of a century reduced to the status of legend in the name of the “historical-critical method.” Indeed, these critics, who are now highly influential in most Western Catholic seminaries and theological faculties, tend to give all the Resurrection and Infancy narratives this same “demythologizing” treatment, often appealing to Vatican II or its alleged “spirit.” (Actually, the Council’s treatment of the Gospels in Dei Verbum n. 19 asserts their historicity from the beginning “until the day [Jesus] was taken up,” precisely in order to leave no doubt about the historical truth of the Gospels in their entirety.) The opening words and title of the motu proprio, Aperuit Illis, (“He opened unto them”), are a citation from St. Luke’s account of the appearance of Jesus on the road to Emmaus. Francis, speaking this time in continuity with all his Predecessors in the See of Peter, tells us:
“ ‘He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures’ (Luke 24:45). This was one of the final acts of the risen Lord before his Ascension. Jesus appeared to the assembled disciples, broke bread with them and opened their minds to the understanding of the sacred Scriptures. To them, amid their fear and bewilderment, he unveiled the meaning of the paschal mystery: that in accordance with the Father’s eternal plan he had to suffer and rise from the dead, in order to bring repentance and the forgiveness of sins (cf. Luke 24:26.46-47). He then promised to send the Holy Spirit, who would give them strength to be witnesses of this saving mystery (cf. Luke 24:49).”
I will not attempt here, in this brief introductory presentation, to give a comprehensive commentary on the entire motu proprio. I am focusing here simply on one aspect: its orthodoxy. Suffice it to say that the treatment of Sacred Scripture throughout the new document is completely sound and in accordance with Catholic Tradition. When the Old Testament is presented, for instance, it too is treated as true history: Ezra’s public reading of the Law after the Jews’ return from exile, and its profound impact on the people as recorded in Nehemiah, chapter 8, are presented as real events, and indeed, as a foundational precedent for the new liturgical honor the Pope is now prescribing for the Word of God over two millennia later.
This passage is in fact the first reading for the Third Sunday of Ordinary Time in Year C, and is probably one reason why this Sunday each year has been selected. The Gospel for that day in Year C is equally relevant: It’s the beginning of St. Luke’s Gospel, asserting the historical character, based on eyewitness accounts, of the events he is about to record, and part of chapter 4, which records our Lord’s first solemn proclamation of the Word of God — the prophecy of Isaiah — in his hometown synagogue at Nazareth.
(Francis also explains that this week has been chosen also because of its ecumenical significance — the week of Christian unity in January, in which the Scriptures are honored as points of contact with separated Christians and to a more limited extent with Jews.)
Finally, in view of more than half a century of seemingly endless debate over the meaning of the passage in article 11 of Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, which speaks of the Bible’s freedom from error, article 9 of Aperuit Illis seems worthy of special mention. Francis has this to say:
“In the Second Letter to Timothy, which is in some ways his spiritual testament, St. Paul urges his faithful co-worker to have constant recourse to sacred Scripture. The Apostle is convinced that ‘all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness’ (3:16). Paul’s exhortation to Timothy is fundamental to the teaching of the conciliar Constitution Dei Verbum on the great theme of biblical inspiration, which emphasizes the Scriptures” saving purpose, spiritual dimension and inherent incarnational  principle.
“First, recalling Paul’s encouragement to Timothy, Dei Verbum stresses that ‘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” (n.). Since the Scriptures teach with a view to salvation through faith in Christ (cf. 2 Tim 3:15), the truths contained therein are profitable for our salvation. The Bible is not a collection of history books or a chronicle, but is aimed entirely at the integral salvation of the person. The evident historical setting of the books of the Bible should not make us overlook their primary goal, which is our salvation. Everything is directed to this purpose and essential to the very nature of the Bible, which takes shape as a history of salvation in which God speaks and acts in order to encounter all men and women and to save them from evil and death” (bold type added).
The widespread misinterpretation of Dei Verbum n. 11 which has become dominant in Catholic theological faculties in recent decades can be called a theory of restricted biblical inerrancy. It’s based on the mistaken premise that only some of what the Bible records is there “for the sake of our salvation.” On that premise, DV 11 implies that whatever biblical affirmations an exegete considers irrelevant for salvation can be considered by him as not protected by the divine guarantee of inerrancy, and, therefore, as possibly erroneous.
But this interpretation, repeatedly censured in the pre-Vatican II papal encyclicals on Sacred Scripture, is manifestly indefensible, given that the very same sentence of Dei Verbum states that everything affirmed by the sacred writers must be held as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, who, obviously, cannot err. So the only coherent interpretation of the Council’s teaching — and the only interpretation consistent with the Church’s perennial Magisterium — is the doctrine of unrestricted biblical inerrancy, i.e., that all affirmations of the biblical authors are both affirmed by the Holy Spirit, their co-Author, and relevant in some way for salvation (at least within their context of a more extended passage of Scripture).
In other words, all biblical affirmations, regardless of their specific subject-matter, are guaranteed to be true, first, by virtue of their divine authorship, and secondly, by their relevance in some way for our salvation.
Now, what I find very encouraging in the Pope’s new motu proprio is that the passage cited above from article 9 is entirely in accord with this traditional doctrine of biblical inerrancy, as reaffirmed by Vatican Council II. As can be seen in the words placed in bold type above, Francis does not say that “some” truths contained in Scripture are profitable for salvation, rather, “the” truths contained therein are profitable for salvation. No restriction is placed here.
Indeed, “Everything,” he affirms, even in the historical sections of the Bible, “is directed to this purpose and essential to the very nature of the Bible.” The Pope also places great emphasis on St. Paul’s insistence to Timothy that “all Scripture” is not only inspired by God, but “profitable” for the kind of formation necessary for salvation. Francis even emphasizes that this scriptural passage, also quoted in DV 11, “is fundamental to the teaching of the conciliar Constitution Dei Verbum on the great theme of biblical inspiration.”
In short, Francis clearly implies here, as does St. Paul and the bi-millennial Catholic Magisterium, that everything affirmed by the inspired authors of the Bible is relevant in some way for our salvation, and is guaranteed by its co-Author, the Holy Spirit, to be free from error.
May this motu proprio, and the annual “Sunday of the Word of God” that it introduces to our liturgy, be a source of renewed appreciation for God’s inspired and inerrant Word as a wellspring of our life as Catholic Christians!

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