‘Dei Verbum’ gave new look at the Bible
by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Even a young man could find the work of the Second Vatican Council exhausting, and Cardinal Josef Frings of Cologne, West Germany, was not a young man.
In 1962, Cardinal Frings was 75 and nearly blind.
For help in assessing the schemata (preliminary drafts) of proposed council documents, Cardinal Frings turned to a brilliant young peritus (expert) — Father Joseph Ratzinger, a theologian who taught at the University of Bonn.
One of the schemata that Father Ratzinger (today known as Pope Benedict XVI) gave the thumbs-down to was “The Sources of Revelation.” It had, however, a few good ideas worth exploring.
“Thus, in a letter penned by peritus Ratzinger and signed by Cardinal Frings was an early call for Vatican II to give the church and to the world an updated account of Catholic teaching on God’s revelation,” wrote Father Jared Wicks, SJ, in the Sept. 1, 2010, issue of Theological Studies magazine.
Since a majority of the Council Fathers didn’t like this schema either, Pope John XXIII personally intervened. He scrapped it and appointed a new coordinating commission. This led to the writing of the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, “Dei Verbum” (“Word of God”), promulgated on Nov. 18, 1965.
“Dei Verbum,” although neither novel nor dramatic, was a hotly debated document. It is “one of the two most fundamental documents produced by the Second Vatican Council,” wrote Father R.A.F. MacKenzie, SJ, in “The Documents of Vatican II.”
“This [document] is, in fact if not in name, the Second Vatican Council’s pronouncement on the Bible,” wrote Father MacKenzie.
But it’s more than that.
Divine revelation has one source — God — and is communicated to humankind by the church through two streams: sacred Scripture and sacred Tradition. “Dei Verbum” had something to say about each and how they work together.
Despite the importance of the Bible to the church, ‘Dei Verbum’ represents the first comprehensive teaching on God’s Revelation to humankind made by an ecumenical council in the church’s history,” wrote Father Robert Murray, SJ, in “Vatican II and the Bible.”
The times were ripe for such a document, said Father Michael Stubbs, pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and Scripture columnist for The Leaven.
“In the years preceding the council, there had been a number of advances in Scripture scholarship,” said Father Stubbs. “The bishops felt there was a need to recognize those advances and to incorporate them into the life of the church.”
These advances included the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947, Pope Pius XII’s 1943 encyclical “Divino Afflante Spiritu,” and the historical and critical literary methods which came to prominence in the 19th century.
“Dei Verbum” has six chapters: Revelation Itself; Handing on Divine Revelation; Sacred Scripture, Its Inspiration and Divine Interpretation; The Old Testament; The New Testament; and Sacred Scripture in the Life of the Church.
“The document points out that sacred Scripture was transmitted to us in stages, and that’s very important,” said Father Stubbs.
“For a time, the words and actions of Jesus were passed down by word of mouth before they were committed to writing,” he continued. “Similarly, an oral tradition often preceded the writing of the books of the Old Testament.”
“Dei Verbum” maintains that sacred Scripture is inspired so as to present the truths that lead to salvation through their human writers — with all their limitations, and within their culture and social conventions.
“Understanding that helps us to understand Scripture,” said Father Stubbs. “That’s important. We believe Scripture is inspired, but that inspiration doesn’t preclude some historical inaccuracies or scientific understandings of the world.”
Or, as Cardinal Caesar Baronius said to Galileo, “The Bible teaches how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.”
Another important point made by “Dei Verbum” is that holy Scripture and Tradition are two parts of one package, not two separate sources of revelation, said Father Stubbs.
But the word of God is not merely an “it,” but a “Who,” said Msgr. Charles McGlinn, pastor of Curé of Ars Parish in Leawood.
“Revelation is really centered on Jesus, who is the fullness of revelation — the revelation of God, of the inner life of God himself and his eternal decrees in terms of our salvation,” said Msgr. McGlinn.
“It’s in Jesus we find the sum total and the fullness of the revelation of God,” he continued. “It’s God revealing himself to us, especially in Jesus. That’s what the Scriptures are all about.”
One of the goals of the Second Vatican Council was to make the Scriptures more accessible to the laity, said Msgr. McGlinn. Not only was the amount of Scripture increased in the Mass, but in “Dei Verbum,” Catholics were encouraged to do individual devotional reading and study of the Bible.
“If you were to ask most Catholics pre-Vatican Council II what was contained in the Scriptures, they wouldn’t know what to tell you,” he said.
“They weren’t encouraged to read or study the Scriptures themselves,” he continued. “We [growing up] didn’t study the Scriptures. We had ‘Bible history,’ a [paraphrase] of the Bible so we would know what some of the stories were. I think many people thought [individual Scripture study] was discouraged, perhaps because they were afraid of people misinterpreting Scripture.”
This “breaking open” of the word is, perhaps, the greatest legacy of “Dei Verbum.”
“It made Scripture a lot more accessible to ordinary Catholics,” said Msgr. McGlinn. “It helped us see the word of God as a fundamental pillar of personal spirituality.”
“And it has impacted catechetics tremendously,” he continued. “It has, of course, changed the liturgy dramatically, and so changed the face of parish life. More and more people are coming to know the word of God and grow in deeper studies.”
Although this key document was issued 50 years ago, it is still unfolding.
“It’s still being realized,” said Msgr. McGlinn. “It will be a long time before we can say that the whole church really understands the place and impact of the sacred word of God.
“And we still have a lot of work to do bringing the Scriptures more into the daily life and formation of our Catholic people.”