DCMission Statement

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Fr. Pacwa, S.J. on Verbum Domini #38:
On the "Spirit" of Sacred Scripture

One of the many features of the Catholic Church that I cherish is that the greatest biblical scholars are Catholic. It is a popular misconception that it is protestants who best know Scripture and that their extensive knowledge of it is something that Catholics should learn from them. But the evidence of the unrivaled excellence of Catholic biblical scholarship is readily available, now that we have in recent decades broken ground upon the Digital Continent and have access to the great writings and commentaries on Scripture by popes, bishops, and priests over the centuries. Although it may be true, in general, that the average protestant has more Bible passages memorized than the average Catholic (although even this fact may be debatable), rote memorization of the letter of Scripture is limited in usefulness if one has not begun to attain a spiritual comprehension of Scripture. But what exactly does the "Spiritual" comprehension of Scripture entail? Fr. Pacwa here has given us a discussion which addresses this very question.

I found this discussion to be particularly important today, as the idea of the "spirit" of the law - both in the context of Scripture and elsewhere - has been greatly misconstrued. We often hear of people referring to the "spirit" of the law as a means to relax the strictness embodied by a written rule when interpreted literally.

For example, let's consider a situation in which a police officer finds his friend's car parked illegally over the lines in a parking lot with no other cars in it. In such a situation, one might not be surprised if the officer were to pardon the offense on the grounds that, although the letter of the law has been broken, the "spirit of the law" allows him to excuse it. Although this may be permissible on the grounds of common courtesy, the truth of the matter is that such a pardon opposes both the letter and the spirit of the law, in their true senses.

To consider an ecclesial example, we hear frequently of certain questionable activities in the Liturgy being justified on the grounds that they are being done in the "spirit of Vatican II" (a talk by Bishop Athanasius Schneider in January on this topic can be found here). For one who has an apprehension of what the "spirit of the law" really means, this is quite confusing when it is used to permit actions that are not supported by the Council's texts themselves. Even more perplexing are cases in which the actions permitted by the "spirit" of the Council go so far as to contradict what is written in the conciliar documents. A particularly noteworthy example of this is the common practice of the complete elimination of the use of the Latin language from the Mass, a practice which is allegedly justified by the following of the so-called "spirit of Vatican II," while being expressly forbidden within the documents themselves (see Sancrosanctum Concilium, #36).

The truth regarding the "spirit" of the law - as presented by Pope Benedict in Verbum Domini, Fr. Pacwa here, and Eric Moore elsewhere - is that it builds upon and even transcends the letter - rather than working in opposition to it - and it is vital that we grasp this point.

Toward this end, in this episode of Threshold of Hope, Fr. Pacwa gives a discussion of paragraph 38: The Need to Transcend the "Letter," from Pope Benedict's apostolic exhortation Verbum Domini. You can follow along with Fr. Pacwa by reading the document online here.

Fr. Pacwa begins by emphasizing what is needed to gain a "Spiritual" comprehension of Sacred Scripture, which requires that one understands the text in four senses:
  1. The Literal Sense: To understand the "meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture" (CCC 117) - "All other senses ... are based on the literal" (St. Thomas Aquinas).
  2. The Allegorical Sense: To understand what we believe, the doctrines.
  3. The Moral Sense: To understand right from wrong.
  4. The Anagogical Sense: To understand life and the after-life, or what happens when we die.
As Fr. Pacwa mentions in the previous episode of Threshold of Hope, these four senses are presented in greater detail in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, #118.

Two important points Fr. Pacwa goes on to make are that:
  1. The "interplay between the different senses of Scripture is essential in order to grasp the passage from letter to spirit" (4:38).
  2. "...this is not an automatic passage, and it is not spontaneous - it takes some work." (4:55)
Fr. Pacwa then begins a discussion of what such an understanding of these senses entails. He emphasizes that we must look at the passages of Scripture in context: that is, "not only the context of the other words around it, but also to see various elements of the Bible in the context of the whole of Scripture and the whole development of the history of the people of Israel from Abraham forward..." (12:39). Hence, we see here the importance of not only the Scripture itself, but also of Sacred Tradition, which is rejected by many heretical teachings today. In this paragraph of Verbum Domini, Pope Benedict explicitly highlights the importance of Scripture through a reference to Pope Paul VI's 1965 dogmatic consitution Dei Verbum, and through making this reference, implicitly highlights the importance of Sacred Tradition. In opposition to this fact regarding the emphasis that the Church has placed on the study of Scripture, some protestants have propagated the falsehood that a distinguishing feature of Catholic Church history is that the Magisterium has discouraged or even forbade people from reading Sacred Scripture. To counter this, Fr. Pacwa mentions Pope Leo XIII's (R. 1878-1903) order to print in every Catholic Bible that Catholics would receive indulgences for reading Scripture (19:55). Although there may have been Catholic individuals who were discouraging laypeople from reading the Bible, this has not been the official teaching of the Church.

So we see here that the interplay of these two contexts illustrates the timelessness - manifesting itself through temporal universality - of the Truth embodied within Christianity. The Tradition of the Faith was an inextricable component of the Councils of the early Church at which the Bible was compiled, as it continues to be an inextricable component today, and will continue to be in the future life of the Church. However, this vitality of Scripture within the Church does not sustain itself automatically, but rather requires a volitional participation of learning and living the Scriptures from each of its members. Fr. Pacwa, quoting Verbum Domini, states, "There is an inner drama in this process, since the passage that takes place in the power of the Spirit inevitably engages each person’s freedom" (13:23). This deep level of understanding of Scripture will necessarily involve an act of one's will and will affect his daily decisions as he lives, "demanding full engagement in the life of the Church" (9:48, quoting Verbum Domini).

July 3 is the feast of St. Thomas the Apostle († 72) (General Calendar) and Pope St. Leo II (R. 682-683) (Traditional Calendar). Orate pro nobis.


Post a Comment