Catholic Culture Podcasts
Catholic Culture Podcasts

kindly disregard the gospel (the homilist regrets the clarity)

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Aug 15, 2006

"The bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world," says Jesus in last Sunday's Gospel (John 6:41-51), but Andrew Greeley, PhD, isn't so easily taken in. He doesn't want you to be, either:

One must not take this passage as a description of an actual dialogue between Jesus and some of those who followed him. Rather it doubtless refers to a difficulty in St. John's community over the Eucharist and the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, a difficulty which has plagued the Church through it's history, mostly because have tried to reduce mystery to prose, to explain the inexplicable.

But, Professor, why is it that we MUST NOT take this passage as a description of an actual dialogue? You may find the doubt permissible, or probable, or comforting, but why is it imperative?

In certain respects Greeley puts us in mind of the trendy vicar in the Screwtape Letters "who has been so long engaged in watering down the faith to make it easier for supposedly incredulous and hard-headed congregation that it is now he who shocks his parishioners with his unbelief, not vice versa." But Greeley's also part of a larger tradition of homiletics that seems to take a perverse delight in distancing the faithful from the sacred text. He speaks about "St. John's community" with airtight pedagogic self-assurance, as if it were a solid thing like the Parthenon instead of a provisional academic conjecture. He implies that the Gospel is a bumbling attempt at polemical catechesis. Viewed by this lens it's Jesus who fades away and biblical scholarship (to which only the experts have the magic key) that takes on solidity.

The result, in terms of the faith-lives of ordinary Christians, is "amputation without compensation": the words of Christ have been taken away from them, but they are given nothing in their place. Could anyone be nourished by the kind of explanation Greeley offers? Yet to this generation of churchman it seems strangely urgent that we not feed on the Verbum Dei: "one must not take this passage" as true.

In the aggregate, are biblical scholars more trustworthy than the text they claim to expound? One's answer to this question varies according to one's judgment about these scholars' overall grasp of reality. Adrian Green-Armytage's well known intro to his John Who Saw (London: Faber & Faber, 1952) raises some interesting doubts on the subject:

There is a world -- I do not say a world in which all scholars live but one at any rate into which all of them sometimes stray, and which some of them seem permanently to inhabit -- which is not the world in which I live.

In my world, if The Times and The Telegraph both tell one story in somewhat different terms, nobody concludes that one of them must have copied the other, nor that the variations in the story have some esoteric significance. But in that world of which I am speaking this would be taken for granted. There, no story is ever derived from the facts but always from somebody else's version of the same story.

In my world, almost every book, except some of those produced by Government departments, is written by one author. In that world almost every book is produced by a committee, and some of them by a whole series of committees.

In my world, if I read that Mr. Churchill, in 1935, said that Europe was heading for a disastrous war, I applaud his foresight. In that world no prophecy, however vaguely worded, is ever made except after the fact.

In my world we say, "The first world-war took place in 1914–1918." In that world they say, "The world-war narrative took shape in the third decade of the twentieth century."

In my world men and women live for a considerable time -- seventy, eighty, even a hundred years -- and they are equipped with a thing called memory. In that world (it would appear) they come into being, write a book, and forthwith perish, all in a flash, and it is noted of them with astonishment that they "preserve traces of primitive tradition" about things which happened well within their own adult lifetime.

In ages when self-taught exegetes were keen to identify the Whore of Babylon with the pope or the Beast of the Apocalypse with Gustavus Adolphus, the Church's admonitions against private interpretation were viewed by her adversaries as unlawful enchainment of the Word of God. Today the polemical shoe is on the other foot, and the Church stands as a vindicator of the truth of the Bible against (programmatically agnostic) critics. Thus Dei Verbum 11: "Since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation." Note where the "musts" are attached. No mention of the Johannine community.

"One must not take this passage as a description of an actual dialogue ..." Greeley's alarm (amply shared by Thomas Gumbleton), stems from uneasiness about his own compromises with orthodox belief. If one believed what Greeley or Gumbleton believe about the Eucharist, one might well feel uneasy about being placed under the judgment of the Gospel, even according to the naive reading of the ordinary faithful. Better to preach the gospel of hermeneutical discouragement. "Don't be fooled, little flock, by the one-syllable words: YOU can't understand the Bible."

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