Synod Decides . . . Not To Approve Restricted Inerrancy Doctrine
In what can be described as a modest but important victory in the post-Vatican-II battle to uphold the traditional Catholic doctrine that Sacred Scripture is free from error in all that its inspired writers affirm, the Fathers of the recent Synod of Bishops on "the Word of God" finally decided not to approve a proposed statement claiming that the biblical authors have sometimes fallen into error. Rather than issue an alternate doctrinal statement of their own, the Synod Fathers have asked the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to "clarify" the meaning of Vatican Council II's teaching on this matter.
The statement allowing for errors in Scripture was included in the Instrumentum Laboris ( IL) or "working document" that had been prepared for the Fathers' consideration and, hopefully, their endorsement by influential liberal biblical scholars and the Synod's own General Secretariat. In section 15(c) of the IL a document prepared with seemingly great care after worldwide consultation, and presented at a June 12 Vatican press conference by the Synod Secretary General, Archbishop Nikola Eterovi both the Bible's full inerrancy and the traditional understanding of what is meant by its divine inspiration were called in question.
Shortly after the IL was released, this writer reported on the serious concern being raised by these doctrinal novelties embedded in the document but never mentioned at the Vatican press conference (cf. "Synod Working Document Revives Biblical Inerrancy Controversy," The Wanderer, July 10, 2008, pp. 1- 2).
The main bone of contention was the IL's assertion that "Although all parts of Sacred Scripture are divinely inspired, inerrancy applies only to ' that truth which God wanted to put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation' (DV 11)." If this sentence had gone through to gain the approval of the Synod Fathers when on Saturday, October 25, they voted on their final list of propositions, an extremely serious situation would have come into being. The chosen representatives of the world's Successors of the Apostles would then have gone on record as teaching and indeed, as ascribing to the most recent ecumenical council of the Church a doctrine contrary to the whole of Sacred Tradition and clearly rejected as a modernist error just a century earlier by the holy Pontiff Pius X. For in article 11 of his decree Lamentabili of July 3, 1907, Pope St. Pius X condemned and "ordered to be held by all as reprobated and proscribed" the following opinion: "Divine inspiration does not extend to the whole of Sacred Scripture in such a way as to keep each and every one of its parts free from all error" ( DS 3411 and 3466). It is not difficult to imagine the confusion and shock such a contradiction of the previous Magisterium would have caused among many of the faithful. It would also have raised yet another formidable obstacle to the reconciliation of those dissident traditionalists and sedevacantists who are already only too eager to denounce Vatican II and the postconciliar Church as heretical.
However, we now know that opposition to this doctrinal novelty made its presence felt at the Synod almost from the beginning. Before proceedings began on October 5, a good number of Scripture and theology professors from various countries, as well as other members of the faithful, wrote in to cardinals and bishops who had been named as Synod Fathers, urging them not to endorse the IL statement restricting biblical inerrancy. (Daniel Cardinal DiNardo of Galveston- Houston told National Catholic Reporter journalist John Allen Jr. in an interview, "Before coming to the Synod I got a lot of letters, and many of them dealt with this point.") Then a priest reporting from Rome e-mailed this writer shortly after the Synod began with the news that already, on its second working day (Tuesday, October 7), the problem with the IL statement had come up at the one hour period for free discussion between 6:00 and 7:00 p. m. He and other journalists were informed at the daily press briefing the following morning that IL 15(c) and its teaching of restricted inerrancy had been mentioned critically by four bishops one each from Asia, Africa, South America, and Europe. Writing from the NCR's liberal standpoint, John Allen referred to these same interventions in his October 8 report from Rome under the headline, "Synod: Debate over inerrancy bubbles up around the edges." He quoted an unnamed cardinal as confirming to him that there had indeed been "some grumbling, especially from the more traditional Bible scholars," about the treatment of inerrancy in the Instrumentum Laboris.
Indeed, it soon became apparent that there was no unanimity on the inerrancy issue among the Synod Fathers and their periti (expert scholars). As well as talking with Cardinal DiNardo about this topic, Allen raised it in his interviews with Cardinals Francis George of Chicago and George Pell of Sydney. The latter apparently had some sympathy with the IL teaching: "One issue," he told Allen, "is to make clear that saying the Bible is 'inspired' is not necessarily the same thing as claiming that it's universally inerrant, in every way." Cardinal George, on the other hand, while mentioning the danger of "fundamentalism" and the need to avoid being bound to pre- scientific cosmologies held and hinted at by Old Testament authors, clearly distanced himself from the IL's paradoxical claim that the Bible is wholly inspired yet partly erroneous. George stressed to the NCR journalist "the affirmation in faith that inspiration and inerrancy go together, so that what is inspired is also inerrant." He also agreed with the idea of passing the issue on to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for judgment.
Some other Fathers, such as Cardinal DiNardo and Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, D. C., were more noncommittal in regard to the doctrinal point at issue, but agreed that further expert study of the inerrancy question outside the Synod might be worthwhile. Asked by Allen what he thought of passing the issue on to the CDF, Wuerl replied, "It might be helpful, though it's a fairly arcane issue, and not something that would make its way into a pastoral statement from the Synod itself. It might be something for the International Theological Commission to consider."
Catholics were not the only ones observing with great interest what the Synod might eventually say about biblical inerrancy. The flagship journal of American evangelical Protestantism, Christianity Today, quickly zeroed in on this controversy within Catholicism, conscious of the fact that over the last two centuries this has already been a crucial factor in the division of Protestantism into liberal and conservative camps. In an October 20 posting, CT writer Collin Hansen reported: "Inerrancy has emerged as a key issue in the Roman Catholic Church's Synod of Bishops, which started October 6 . . . [and] provides 180 Catholic bishops and other participants a rare opportunity to share their concerns and listen to colleagues from around their world. Pope Benedict XVI addressed the synod on October 14 and lamented the divide between biblical scholars and theologians. Church leaders have warned that this divide leads many Catholics to question the vitality and authority of God's Word."
Hansen also quoted a Protestant theologian who saw the discrepancies over inerrancy now coming to light among Catholic bishops as an inevitable result of Vatican II's own lack of clarity in article 11 of its Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum: "' It looks like the papered- over compromise from Vatican II is coming to the fore at the conference in Rome,' said John Woodbridge, research professor of church history and the history of Christian thought at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. 'After years of "don't ask, don't tell," they are asking and telling'."
In the end, the only agreement the Synod Fathers could reach was to pass this "hot potato" of restricted vs. unrestricted inerrancy on to the Vatican's doctrinal congregation, asking for a new decision. There were 53 propositions adopted on the final day of the Synod, for submission to the Holy Father to use as basic material for his expected post- synodal Apostolic Exhortation. Among these, n. 12, entitled, "The Inspiration and Truth of the Bible," reads as follows:
"The Synod proposes that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith clarify the concepts of the Bible's inspiration and truth, together with their reciprocal relationship, so as to enable a better understanding of the teaching of Dei Verbum, n. 11. In particular, there is a need to bring out clearly the originality of Catholic biblical hermeneutics in this field."
The Fathers do not explain what "originality," precisely, they have in mind in the last sentence quoted above. My own guess is that they are referring to the Council's introduction of the Bible's salvific purpose as a relevant factor in understanding biblical inerrancy; for this is a hermeneutical principle not found explicitly in previous official Catholic Church teaching, nor as an established position among Protestant and Orthodox scholars. The relator (official commentator) at Vatican II told the Fathers that the phrase . . . for the sake of our salvation," inserted into the final draft of the sentence affirming the Bible's freedom from error, "does not imply any material limitation on the truth of Scripture, but indicates its formal specification, which must be kept in mind when deciding in what sense . . . all those things affirmed by the sacred writers are true, not only matters of faith and morals, and facts connected with the history of salvation" (Acta Synodalia, IV, V, 708, emphasis in original).
More simply expressed, the point the Council is making is that the affirmations in Scripture, while never downright false, may sometimes be true only approximately, or expressed in a simple, popular way rather than with technical precision. For since the formal object of Sacred Scripture is to teach us God's plan of salvation for the human race, and not profane history, natural science, or other forms of merely worldly knowledge for their own sakes, one should not expect or demand, as a condition of the Bible's freedom from error when it touches upon these subjects, the same standards of accuracy and clarity in description and terminology as we would expect and demand in works (especially modern academic works) whose formal object is these "secular" branches of knowledge.
In short, the Catholic "originality" referred to by the Synod means (if I am not mistaken) the insight that, given the human as well as divine authorship of Scripture, we should not set the bar unreasonably high in deciding what is to count as truth, as opposed to error, when the sacred writers make statements about secondary matters that are only indirectly linked to the Bible's principal and overall purpose of teaching us what God has done, and what He expects us to do and believe, in regard to our eternal salvation.
From one legitimate standpoint it could be seen as disappointing that the Synod Fathers were unable to agree on a clear and positive affirmation of the perennial, orthodox Catholic doctrine of biblical inerrancy i. e., that everything affirmed by the sacred writers, regardless of its specific subject- matter, is guaranteed to be true. After all, the supposedly "unclear" sentence in Dei Verbum n. 11 declares very explicitly that "everything affirmed by the inspired writers must be held as affirmed by the Holy Spirit" who, obviously, can never err. However, given the massive confusion and error on this issue that has in fact reigned in the Catholic academy for over forty years, the simple fact that these leading Successors of the Apostles were given the grace and wisdom to abstain from endorsing the Instrumentum Laboris' false interpretation of Vatican II is a reason for great hope and thanksgiving to God.
Indeed, one very experienced, learned, and orthodox priest friend of mine, on the basis of his wide knowledge of the present decadence in Catholic biblical scholarship and its influence over the thinking of many bishops, was fully expecting the worst. He had repeatedly expressed to me in recent months his grave concern that the IL's restricted- inerrancy statement would probably coast through the Synod with little or no opposition from the Fathers, ending up as one of the approved propositions to be sent to the Pope. And now that this has not happened, he has joyfully described the Synod's decision not to endorse the IL statement as "almost a miracle of grace."
A Hard Saying
Perhaps he is right. The sad fact is that the Church's faith is at present being tested over the inerrancy issue in much the same way that it was tested four decades ago over the issue of birth control. At that time, many or even most bishops and cardinals never mind other clergy and the laity! were no longer sure what the moral truth was about contraception, even though the previous record of the Magisterium was really very clear on that issue. By 1965 there was not enough of a consensus among the Vatican II Fathers for them to issue a clear teaching on the matter, and so in Gaudium et Spes they referred the matter to the Supreme Pontiff for judgment a judgment Paul VI eventually handed down in Humanae Vitae three years later, confirming the perennial teaching.
Similarly, there is today no consensus left among the Catholic hierarchy and much less among most other Catholics as to whether Sacred Scripture is truly free from all error or not, even though the previous bimillennial record of Tradition and Magisterium is just as clear on this issue as it was against unnatural birth prevention. Now, as then, a major gathering of the world's hierarchy has found itself without any consensus, and so has felt obliged to refer the matter to the See of Peter for judgment.
The confusion and uncertainty over these two issues has undoubtedly been due in large part to the fact that the authentic Catholic doctrine is in both cases, frankly, difficult to defend. The teaching against contraception can sometimes require great sacrifices on the part of married couples (especially prior to 1968 when NFP methods were not as advanced as they are now), and the reasons for that teaching have not always proved easy for them to understand.
Likewise, the doctrine of unrestricted biblical inerrancy has always been a "hard saying" of Our Lord and His Church. It requires a real act of faith, just like believing in Jesus' Real Presence in the Eucharist against the witness of our five senses. For, as has been recognized from patristic times onward, Scripture presents a great many difficulties in the form of seeming instances of contradictions and other kinds of error. And I doubt that any believer so far has ever claimed to have found the definitive solution to every one of them. (A book that provides much valuable help, however, is Gleason L. Archer, New International Encyclopedia of Biblical Difficulties, Zondervan [Grand Rapids, Mich.], 1982, 476 pp.) Opting for the easy "solution" of restricted inerrancy (just like the easy "solution" of a merely symbolic presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and the easy "solution" of pills and condoms) will probably always remain a perennial temptation for Christians.
Nevertheless, we have Christ's promise to Peter that Satan's wiles and deceptions will never prevail. As faithful Catholics, therefore, we should now wait with calm confidence for Peter's Successor to confirm the faith of his brethren by reasserting the "hard saying" of the full and integral truth of God's written Word, just as his Predecessor eventually reasserted the "hard saying" against contraception in the teeth of this world's false wisdom.
In the meantime, I would like to conclude with a word of encouragement to faithful seminarians and other theology students who may happen to read this article. For over forty years, in the great majority of Catholic theological faculties, professors have been teaching their students that it is a matter of simple, undisputed fact that in Dei Verbum, n. 11 Vatican II discarded the Church's previous teaching (often dismissed now as "fundamentalism") in favor of restricted biblical inerrancy. That breathtaking confidence in proclaiming this error, and steamrolling it right through the worldwide Catholic academy for more than forty years, is the very reason it managed to get as far as the recent Instrumentum Laboris a document prepared and released proudly by an agency of the Apostolic See itself, and then published as a special supplement to the Pope's own newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano.
All that, however, has now changed overnight in Rome. Quite literally overnight after the night of Friday- Saturday, October 24- 25, 2008. So the next time, dear student, that any professor of Scripture or Theology tries to tell you dogmatically that Vatican II restricts biblical inerrancy "only" to what God "wanted put into the Sacred Writings for the sake of our salvation," you can calmly point out that this alleged "fact" of a conciliar about- face on inerrancy is precisely what leading cardinals and bishops from all over the world have, after careful deliberation, refused to confirm, choosing rather to submit the matter to the See of Peter for adjudication. And Peter will surely, in his own good time, adjudicate it well.
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(Fr. Harrison is an emeritus professor of theology of the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico.)
Copyright © 2008 The Wanderer Press
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