Buried Treasure: Why Catholics Should Learn More about Scripture

By Burton, William L. | Commonweal, April 6, 2007 | Go to article overview

Buried Treasure: Why Catholics Should Learn More about Scripture


Burton, William L., Commonweal


Does biblical scholarship benefit the church? Such a question seems ridiculous at first glance, yet it has often given me pause. While the church has placed a premium on learning, and the work of Catholic philosophers and theologians over the centuries has yielded rich insights into our relationships with God, nature, and one another, the value of biblical scholarship is not so immediately apparent. Certainly the church's moral and social teachings are based on Scripture, yet the import of biblical scholarship per se is generally not apparent to people in the pews. Why?

Scripture scholars research and write, but too often they seem to write only for one another. This is unfortunate because the achievements of Catholic biblical scholarship in the past century are one of the church's great success stories. A hundred years ago, Catholic Scripture scholars lagged far behind their Protestant counterparts. That began to change in 1909 with the establishment of the Pontifical Biblical Institute. It was founded to advance Catholic participation in the burgeoning study of ancient Near Eastern languages. By 1942, Pius XII's Divino aflante spiritu officially endorsed advances in biblical scholarship. Subsequent church decrees--Dei verbum (Vatican II's 1963 Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation) and, more recently, the virtually unknown but important The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (1993)--have broadened the frontiers of biblical learning. Today, Catholic scholars are second to none among leaders in the field.

What is the aim of this Catholic biblical scholarship? In an essay titled "Dei Verbum: Its Historic Break from Curial Theology and Its Subsequent Official Use," Francis Holland writes that Vatican II recognized that biblical exegesis has a necessary role in discovering the context in which the biblical authors wrote, and consequently in our understanding of what their words mean. As Holland notes, "Dei verbum concludes by affirming the ultimate goal of service to the word and its careful interpretation: The functions of reading and studying, and the pertinent roles of the magisterium and theologian are to allow 'the treasure of revelation [to] fill human hearts more and more.'" Yet despite Vatican II's efforts, four decades later the church's mission to "fill human hearts" with the treasure of Scripture remains largely unaccomplished.

There is, nonetheless, a significant segment of the laity with a genuine thirst for biblical study. If you want to fill a parish hall, advertise a Bible study session. Unfortunately, these events often turn out to be less than satisfying. Pastors are rarely present, and some study groups end up being led by parishioners who have little formal training in Scripture. As a result, Catholics have begun to look elsewhere. It is not unusual for Catholics to attend Bible study under the auspices of other denominations whose understanding of biblical revelation differs dramatically from our own. Often, the tenor of such groups is fundamentalist or literalist. And with no credible voices to challenge this perspective, Catholics who attend these programs may think they are deepening their understanding of the church's teaching of the Bible while, in fact, they are being shortchanged.

For many years, I taught biblical studies at Catholic universities. I discovered that there was less and less familiarity with the Bible in each incoming class. I don't mean that students were ignorant of complicated concepts like the four-source theory of the Pentateuch or that they failed to comprehend redaction criticism. That is fairly sophisticated knowledge. I mean that fewer and fewer incoming students knew even the major personages and narratives of the Bible. Most couldn't identify Abraham or recount the story of Joseph and his brothers. Many had heard of Moses, some even knew he had a connection with the Ten Commandments, but they were in the minority. Surprisingly, most of these students were raised in Catholic families and had graduated from Catholic schools. …

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