Catholic or Catholic? Biblical Scholarship at the Center

By Osiek, Carolyn | Journal of Biblical Literature, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Catholic or Catholic? Biblical Scholarship at the Center


Osiek, Carolyn, Journal of Biblical Literature


The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church gives five definitions of the word "catholic": (1) universal, not local; (2) orthodox, not heretical; (3) the undivided church before 1054; (4) from 1054 to the sixteenth century, not Orthodox; (5) Western, not Protestant. This is a handy resume of the mutations in meaning acquired by this simple little word over the centuries, and it is ironic to note that this word, meant to be all-inclusive, in every case but one (the undivided church before 1054) is defined over against something else. While Ignatius and Polycarp back in the second century sound as if they mean the whole church, in effect they probably really mean that network of many local churches that profess roughly the same faith and are in communion with each other. Ignatius had some harsh things to say about those who disagreed with him about how to live the Christian life. They would probably not be included when he thinks about his universal church.

So the irony is that a word and an idea meant to include everyone have historically been used most often to delineate some against others. Most of us when reciting the Apostles' Creed say that we believe in the "holy catholic church," with small c or capital C, depending on our situation, but in this context it is intended to be restored to its original meaning of "universal." Yet the Catholic Church with capital C, more commonly known as the Roman Catholic Church, is in many respects universal and in some aspects quite particular. It is found in nearly every country in the world. With the changes of Vatican Council II, many Catholics lamented the loss of the Latin liturgy, which had become a universally recognized ritual, at least in the West. It was said that a Catholic could walk into a Catholic Church anywhere in the West and understand the progression of the ritual. Today the Roman Catholic Church is creeping slowly toward the particularity of truly indigenous liturgical traditions and practices, with the attendant losses and gains that this change implies.

It is the play on catholic with capital C and small c that forms the foundation for what I wish to explore this evening: biblical scholarship that arises from the traditions of the capital C but is at the service of the small c. Today, Roman Catholic biblical scholars are in a number of key posts in major university programs in biblical studies, in a position to influence significantly the next generations of biblical scholars. How will that influence play out? What contributions have been made and are being made by Roman Catholic biblical scholars to the wider field of biblical scholarship? How does this work and how might it work in the future?

First of all, what makes biblical interpretation Catholic (with capital C)? That it is done by someone who professes adherence to the Roman Catholic Church? And its teachings? By someone who has grown up with a Catholic cultural heritage? By someone who expressly and consciously holds in mind the major church documents of the last two centuries on biblical interpretation? By someone who simply interprets out of one's own academic and religious identity, the unarticulated "pre-understanding"? Several attempts have been made recently to describe or characterize Catholic biblical interpretation, and we will consider them in due time. First, some background.

The quality of Roman Catholic biblical scholarship in the past and present generation needs no special pleading to those acquainted with names of past SBL presidents such as John L. McKenzie (1967), Raymond E. Brown (1977), Joseph A. Fitzmyer (1979), Roland E. Murphy (1984), Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza (1987), Harry Attridge (2001), and John J. Collins (2002). Roman Catholic biblical scholarship is founded on the rich tradition of patristic and medieval exegesis, yet also embraces historical criticism. One sometimes sees histories of biblical interpretation that give minimal attention, if any, to patristic and medieval traditions in a meager introduction, then go on to develop the "real stuff" in the sixteenth, seventeenth, or even eighteenth centuries, as if nothing happened between the writing of the biblical texts and the rise of modern biblical criticism, or at least between Augustine and Luther.

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