Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

A Wayward Turn in Biblical Theory

by Msgr. George A. Kelly


In the Jan/Feb 2000 issue of Catholic Dossier, Msgr. George A. Kelly examines Raymond E. Brown's Priest and Bishop: Biblical Reflections to every New York priest free of charge , and some theories posed therein, which call Church doctrine into question. Msgr. Kelly reiterates that Biblical theories must not take the place of Catholic theology.

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Catholic Dossier

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Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, January / February 2000

Many exegetes would say that I have as little reason to speak on "the state of Biblical Studies" as I had to write The New Biblical Theorists in 1983. If I do so, however, it is because my specialty is the priesthood, and any well-trained priest ought to be able to say something about the Word of God, and the book on which much of that Word is based. Furthermore, since biblical exegesis is a soft science at best, surely someone with a terminal degree in social science, another soft science, is qualified to know the difference between speculative theory and empirical fact. My thesis today is still what it was in 1983: Biblical theories are not a fit replacement for Catholic theology.

If this explanation does not suffice to explain why I am here, maybe I can excuse my presence as an accident of fate. During my early priestly years, I was involved in the Church's social apostolate, with activities like the implementation of Quadregesimo Anno in the United States, and with labor unions. I learned quickly in that world how "truth" and "right" were politicized almost everywhere. We "labor priests" were not right or wrong; we were right-wing or left-wing. A priest-advocate of Pius XI's program of reconstruction of the social order earned the label "progressive," but should he also favor with any vigor the same pope's reconstruction of the family in Casti Connubii, he was looked down upon as a reactionary. By 1940 some of us stood on Columbus Circle speaking on what labor unions could do for the American family, but not until 1970 did our attention turn to what the new biblical theories were doing to the family called Church and to the Church's right to speak authoritatively on the Bible as "the Word of God." So we learned all over again how to be right-wing or left-wing, never surely right or wrong.

In this latter year, Cardinal Cooke mailed a copy of Raymond E. Brown's Priest and Bishop: Biblical Reflections to every New York priest free of charge. My copy of the book lay unread on a table for many months, until a troubled journalist visited me to say that Priest and Bishop had shaken his convictions about the truth of Catholicity. Halfway through the book, I understood the journalist's concern: Fr. Brown could not prove on historical grounds, he said, that Christ instituted the priesthood or episcopacy as such; that those who presided at the Eucharist were really priests; that a separate priesthood began with Christ; that the early Christians looked upon the Eucharist as a sacrifice; that presbyter-bishops are traceable in any way to the Apostles; that Peter in his lifetime would be looked upon as the Bishop of Rome; that bishops were successors of the Apostles, even though Vatican II made the same claim.

Fr. Brown would call his statements "nuanced," based on scientific study — and passed on to budding priests as true. A dozen years or so went by before Cardinal Ratzinger chastised those historical critics who read Scripture "outside" the Church. But nuanced or not, those early re-readings disturbed more than a well-educated Catholic journalist.

Priest and Bishop was troubling for another reason. Many bishops besides Cardinal Cooke were giving free copies of the book to their priests. Who was underwriting this largesse of Paulist Press? When an advance copy of the book reached one prominent archbishop (the carload arrived later), he turned it over to his staff for analysis. The subsequent line-by-line critique of Priest and Bishop was sent to Baltimore's Lawrence Cardinal Shehan, Brown's bishop. In due course, it was Cardinal Shehan who challenged the Sulpician's biblical readings both on the episcopacy and the priesthood. In what became the first post-Vatican II critique by a bishop of a theologian, Shehan had a question of his own to counter Brown's speculations. Shehan especially challenged Brown's assertion that the Holy Spirit — not Christ — guided the creation of the episcopacy, priesthood, and Eucharistic sacrifice. The Cardinal asked Brown:

Where was the influence of the Holy Spirit when the original traditions were being formed among the early Christians? When the Gospels and other works of the New Testament were being written? When the canon of the New Testament was being formed? When the general Councils, including Trent, Vatican I and II were making their decisions for the Church?

Conversations with others indicated that Fr. Brown was a priest in good standing, an effective public speaker, whose scholarly world had moved away from Cardinal Shehan's St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore to the ecumenical Union Theological Seminary in New York (1971). He was proud of the Church and of his scholarship, sensitive also to the charges against him that he was a radical or heterodox exegete. Some of his critics, like some of his associates, were better at hurling epithets than at debating, but Fr. Brown was a match for them. He became one of the Church's best rhetoricians for biblical criticism, fully conscious of the strengths in his positions, unwilling to admit weakness in his method or to let his critics off his rhetorical hook. He publicly questioned the competency of bishops to deal with biblical questions. His favorite terms for the critics of his theories were the following: "ultra-right," "fundamentalist," "ultra-conservative," "right-wing vigilantes," and "extremists." Their opinions, he insisted, had "no scholarly respectability." Labeling like this, which in our society creates impressions not necessarily true or valid, raised doubts in many Catholic quarters about traditional religious formulas.

In the world beyond journalism, Fr. Brown did acquire his own share of scholarly critics, but he paid them no mind. Msgr. Jerome Quinn, at one time (1980) the only U.S. member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, disagreed with Brown's views on the ordination of women. Paulist Neil McEleney, a 1979 President of the Catholic Biblical Association, considered Brown's view of Mary's role in Christ's life as "minimalist." John McKenzie, S.J., author of the impressive Dictionary of the Bible, thought that Brown hedged his controversial conclusions with the appearance of objectivity, while marshaling his evidence in favor of the position to which he was committed. Dennis McCarthy, S.J., a professor at the Biblicum in Rome, suggested (1979) that Brown operated out of a "squirrel cage," i.e. he ran round and round in circles, always returning to the same place — doubt.

What really brought me into the world of biblical controversy was meeting Fr. Manuel Miguens, O.F.M., in 1975. Fr. Miguens had studied Scripture in Rome and Jerusalem, held doctorates in both Sacred Scripture (SSD) and Sacred Theology (STD), taught for thirteen years at Jerusalem's Studium Biblicum Francicanum and for six years at The Catholic University of America, where he was the highest degreed professor in his field, well-accepted by his students, and praised to me by the head of his department. He was the author of two books: The Virgin Birth: An Evaluation of Scriptural Evidence and Christian Ministries.

After his six successful years at Catholic University, Fr. Miguens was denied tenure because he was a critic of modern historicist exegesis as practiced, and of Fr. Brown. A Spanish-born visitor to the American Church, a private personality without powerful friends, he later came to St. John's University in New York, but never again taught students worthy of his intellect or his learning. The very academic freedom proposed in theory to protect unpopular opinion was no help to the modest Miguens. If his likes could be driven so easily from a bishop-owned university without defense by anyone in authority, and Charles Curran given tenure in the same period, the Catholic world was itself in a "squirrel cage." Miguens, a victim of politics, was himself uninterested in the politics of self-defense. He left CUA quietly.

Other veterans of ecclesiastical politics were not so retiring. Something had to be done, we thought, to offset the new biblical theories — guess-work with footnotes — which were making many Catholics doubt that their Church had a valid historical base or could be considered a credible voice of Christ.

Our first instinct was to persuade some American friends in the Catholic Biblical Association to do what foreign-born Miguens had tried to do: analyze the method and conclusions of historical criticism of the New Testament within the framework of the Catholic tradition, and publish their findings. The proposal went nowhere. The teaching load of some invitees was too heavy; others were working on time-consuming projects of their own. Actually, they were afraid that, by following the Miguens example, they would lose their standing with the American biblical establishment.

One veteran biblicist confessed he no longer wrote, because he could not take the heat of controversy. Nor could he take the abuse directed against Miguens for asserting that modern biblical criticism lacked a scientific base. In due time, Franciscan Miguens went home to his native Spain, depressed, wondering how many bishops understood the seriousness of what was happening to the biblical underpinnings of Catholic Christianity. As late as 1981 the criticisms he made were not subject to serious scholarly debate. The fact that bishops were being cited as favoring the critics, not Miguens' defense of Catholic teaching, upset him deeply. And Cardinal Ratzinger, with his devastating criticisms of the historical-critical method, was still far away.

At some point a seminary professor suggested to me that, if I wanted to appreciate what was wrong with contemporary Catholic theology, I should read everything ever written by Fr. Raymond E. Brown, S.S. I did, and the end result was The New Biblical Theorists. The book did not appear without wide consultation. Rene Laurentin told me in advance that such a book would raise the questions that needed raising. A member of the International Theological Commission added: "I am happy that you will publish a study of the biblical positions of R.E. Brown." Hans Urs Von Balthasar later told me it was the best thing I had done.

Fr. Brown did not ignore The New Biblical Theorists. He looked upon it as nothing more than "ultra-conservative propaganda." Nor could he resist adding: "It was astonishing to me that Rene Laurentin had written a foreword to such a book." Psychic transference of a kind also appeared in print, when Brown's friend, Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, O.P., who knew nothing about my psyche or me, analyzed my state of mind as follows: "Kelly's book generates anger; the thinly veiled animosity, the incessant slurs, the pervasive bitter righteousness." The same Murphy-O'Connor later accosted Laurentin in Europe, to whom he vented indignation that the Frenchman could have written such a foreword which, he said, places Laurentin outside of the mainstream of American biblical scholarship. By 1983 it was clear that "the knowledge class" had acquired in their own mind "counter-magisterium" status, and its chief spokesmen had come to resent challenges to their views of early Christianity.

Tension has always existed between thinkers, such as St. Thomas Aquinas, and the successors of the Apostles, especially popes. But then, as in the case of the Angelic Doctor, primacy of final decision about the Bible or the faith rested with Catholic hierarchy. Modern media, however, would change that perception, not by altering the Church's nature, but by providing would-be thinkers with a greater range of influence over popular opinion. As the evidence makes clear, regnant academics in our day exercise unusual authority over Catholic opinion, and have become somewhat choosy about who is allowed to criticize their work. They also take umbrage at critics outside their mainstream, and are not happy with the likes of Cardinal Ratzinger either.

In spite of these limits placed on amateur commentators, permit this outsider to critical exegesis to single out the kind of problem historicists create for the Church, which they do, not by educing new facts, but by spinning unprovable theories. And then calling their deductions "science."

Fr. Brown's position on the virginal conception of Jesus is a good example. The Sulpician believed, as a matter of faith, that the Church's teaching on this subject was true. At one point in his deliberations he also presumed that the teaching had been infallibly defined by the Church's Magisterium. However — because some Protestants and some Catholics deny it, we must study the question again. Brown studies it and finds (at first) that "the scientifically controllable evidence" leaves Mary's virginity an unresolved problem. Challenged by other scholars for ignoring the place of dogma in Catholic exegesis, Brown later modified his scholarly doubt by locating the problem instead in the lack of "scientifically controllable biblical evidence." At the end of his analysis he raises one more question: Suppose, in view of the new historical insights, that the doctrine of the virginal conception is not really infallible, after all?

It was such circular readings that prompted Jesuit Dennis McCarthy to suggest that Brown wrote out of a "squirrel cage."

In conclusion, permit me to capsulate the scientific conclusions of historical criticism about the origins of Catholicity, based on what Fr. Brown called "my detective work."

  • The stories of Christ's birth are dubious history.
  • Early Christians understood themselves as a renewed Israel, not immediately as a new Israel.
  • We must nuance any statement which would have the historical Jesus institute the Church or the priesthood at the Last Supper.
  • In the New Testament we are never told that the Eucharistic power was passed from the Twelve to missionary apostles to presbyter-bishops.
  • Only in the third and fourth century can one take for granted that when "priests" are mentioned, ministers of the Eucharist are meant.
  • The Twelve were neither missionaries or bishops.
  • Sacramental powers were given to the Christian Community in the persons of the Twelve.
  • Presbyter-bishops described in the New Testament are not traceable "in any way" to the successors of the Twelve.
  • The episcopate gradually emerged, but can be defended "as divinely established by Christ" only if one says it emerged under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
  • Peter cannot be looked upon as the Bishop of the early Roman Church community. Succession to his Church fell to the Bishop of Rome, the city where Peter died. However, that concentration of authority produces, says Brown, "difficulties such as those we are now encountering within Catholicism."
  • Vatican II was "biblically naive" when it called Catholic bishops successors of the Apostles.
  • It is dangerous to assume that second century structures existed in the first century.

Just imagine what these theories do for the Church, and people's piety, when they pass through her lifelines — seemingly with the by-your-leave bishops. It is another case of a modern society governed by its professionals more than by its designated overseers. Professionals may know a great deal about a limited area of knowledge but they are not ipso facto qualified by university degrees to care for the government of that society.

President Harry Truman, prior to an important political decision with economic import for the country, was once advised to meet with a half-dozen economists. "Why?" he asked. "I've heard them before. I'll get competing advice and have to make the decision on my own anyway!" No one truthfully gainsays the importance of professionalism to modern technological progress. It is the first fruit of hard science, whether it involves sending a man to the moon or curing a cancer. But whether "soft science professionals" — generals, psychiatrists, or exegetes — are as good waging war, raising children, or defining the Word of God — is a question better left unanswered with any finality. Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill did not leave their World War II to armchair tank experts, good mothers of large families do not trust permissive Freudians, yet American bishops bowed before professional moralists, catechists, canonists and liturgists in Washington, DC. A few consecrated Harry Trumans might have forestalled the crisis.

As a final note, let me be personal. My father, a bookkeeper by profession, maintained a detailed log of my earthly origins. I am the only one in my family who knows he was born exactly at 5:59 on a Sunday evening, on September 17, 1916 on the ground floor (west side) of a five-story walk-up at 152 East 123rd Street in Harlem. After I die, my living sisters will only know what I told them about this log. Without me, it is meaningless. As for the Church's beginnings, it is advisable, in the interest of reason as well as faith, that anyone bold enough to interpret the "baby records" of the Catholic community, at least before he publishes his readings, consult Mother Church, who was there then and is still very much alive.

Msgr. George A. Kelly is President Emeritus of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. This address was delivered on November 12, 1999 at the Conference on the Bible and the Church.

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