Catholic Magisterium and Scripture

The problem with attempting to deal with the Magisterium of the Church is that it is so vast, that the only way to do it is as one would eat an elephant:  one piece at a time.  I propose to do just that.  Today’s contribution represents just the first course – more will follow.

As the people who insist we follow the Magisterium often also refer us to the Bible, I thought it would be helpful to begin with a look at what the Magisterium has to say about the interpretation of Scripture. Even this is a vast topic.  One good starting point is to look at the useful report of the Pontifical Biblical Commission in 1993, “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church” (which may be read in full at the excellent “Catholic Resources” website of Felix Just, SJ).

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This important document discusses several different approaches to biblical interpretation with their strengths and weaknesses, and offers an overall evaluation of each.  Broadly, the commission finds some difficulties and strengths with each, although some seem to find more favour than others.  I have no intention of attempting to provide a comprehensive review in a short introduction, but I do want to pull out some specific quotations which seem to me to be especially relevant to any discussion of sexuality and Scripture.

Possibly the most important single sentence to me comes right at the beginning of the Preface:

“The study of the Bible is, as it were, the soul of theology…. This study is never finished; each age must in its own way newly seek to understand the sacred books.

(Which is why I insist that we need to take seriously the findings of modern scholars on the old clobber texts, which cast an entirely new light on their interpretation.)

The INTRODUCTION then continues with an important warning:

“The Bible itself bears witness that its interpretation can be a difficult matter. Alongside texts that are perfectly clear, it contains passages of some obscurity “

(which is why we must be cautious of glib and superficial references to single verses or passages taken at face value.)

One of the reasons for the difficulty, of course, is that

“Readers today, in order to appropriate the words and deeds of which the Bible speaks, have to project themselves back almost 20 or 30 centuries”.

(Which is exactly what our critics seldom attempt to do.)

The first specific approach considered is that of the “Historical-Critical” method:

“Textual criticism….. begins the series of scholarly operations. Basing itself on the testimony of the oldest and best manuscripts … textual-criticism seeks to establish, according to fixed rules, a biblical text as close as possible to the original.”

(To which I would simply point out that the most explicitly erotic book in he Bible, the ” Song of Songs“, is seldom mentioned by religious conservatives discussing homosexuality.  But there are good reasons to believe that it was written as a love poem spoken by two men.  At least one scholar believes that the oldest available manuscript has a text with language that is unambiguously and exclusively masculine – and that later texts were effectively censored to hide the homerotic element.  See the The Song of Songs:  the Bible’s Gay Love Poem at The Wild Reed for a useful discussion and review of this book.)

“The text is then submitted to a linguistic (morphology and syntax) and semantic analysis, using the knowledge derived from historical philology”

(No translation which followed this principle would ever have inserted the modern term “homosexuality”  anywhere in the Bibple.  Not only the word, but even the concept as we understand it, would have been unknown in Biblical times.)

The report continues with a discussion of three forms of literary analysis:  rhetorical, narrative, and semiotic.

“Applied to the Bible, the new rhetoric aims to penetrate to the very core of the language of revelation precisely as persuasive religious discourse and to measure the impact of such discourse in the social context of the communication thus begun

“With respect to the narrative approach, it helps to distinguish methods of analysis, on the one hand, and theological reflection, on the other.”

“Connected with this kind of study primarily literary in character, is a certain mode of theological reflection as one considers the implications the “story” (and also the “witness”) character of Scripture has with respect to the consent of faith and as one derives from this a hermeneutic of a more practical and pastoral nature”

This approach of literary analysis as a basis for pastoral reflection surely supports the kind of Gospel reflections from a gay/ lesbian perspective offered by writers such as Richard Cleaver (“Know my Name“), Michael B. Kelly in “The Road from Emmaus” (reprinted in “Seduced by Grace”) or on -line by Jeremiah at “Gospel for Gays” – and many others.

The next group of approaches discussed are those based on tradition,  including the “canonical” approach, which begins

“within an explicit framework of faith: the Bible as a whole.”

to which I can add only, “Hear! hear!”)

We then go on to approaches from the human sciences, particularly the sociological and cultural anthropology approaches, which require

“as exact a knowledge as is possible of the social conditions distinctive of the various milieus in which the traditions recorded in the Bible took shape”.

and seeks

“to define the characteristics of different kinds of human beings in their social context….-with all that this involves by way of studying the rural or urban context and with attention paid to the values recognized by the society……. to the manner in which social control is exercised, to the ideas which people have of family house, kin, to the situation of women, to institutionalized dualities (patron – client, owner – tenant, benefactor – beneficiary, free person – slave)….”

(and, I should not have to add, to prevailing ideas of  “normal” sexual relations.  I do however, have to stress this point, because this is precisely what the standard view of the Bible and homosexuality ignores.  When one does indeed consider the social context of the times, the extraordinary thing about the Bible is not what it says about homosexuality, but how very little it says:  no more than six or seven verses, of dubious relevance, in the entire Bible – none of them from the Gospels- this when most societies in the Mediterranean world did not disinguish between the morality of same sex or opposite sex genital acts. )

Of  “contextual approaches“, the commission examined only “liberation theology” and “feminist theology”.  Since 1993, however, there has been an explosion of writing in areas known variously as gay & lesbian, queer, or indecent theologies, which are of particular relevance to us. As these have largely developed out of other contextual theologies, the remarks of the commission may be easilty extended to them too.

Liberation theology had its roots in Vatican II, and found its most famous expression in Latin America, later also in South Africa and Asia.

“…starting from its own socio-cultural and political point of view, it practices a reading of the Bible which is oriented to the needs of the people, who seek in the Scriptures nourishment for their faith and their life.

It seeks a reading drawn from the situation of people as it is lived here and now. If a people lives in circumstances of oppression, one must go to the Bible to find there nourishment capable of sustaining the people in its struggles and its hopes.”

It is of course true that liberation theology has drawn some strong criticism from the Vatican, particularly in some of its later excesses, and the Commission notes these “risks”.  Still, it observes,

“Liberation theology includes elements of undoubted value”.

Both of these observations (of risks simultaneoulsy with value) apply equally to Queer Theology.

Feminist readings, which began in the late 19th Century with the “Women’s Bible”  but took on fresh vigour in the 1970′s, especially in the US, emphasises the patriarchal conditions in which Scripture was written, and the resultant biases , requiring that one adopt a position of suspicion about the texts as they stand and instead look for

“look for signs which may reveal something quite different.”

We in the LGBT community would do well to adopt this attitude of suspicion not so much to Scripture, which was not writen with a specifically heterosexual bias, but to much of the traditional commentary, which certainly applied later prejudice retrospectively onto the text.

On the final approach, of fundamentalist interpretaion, the Commission is scathing in its criticism

“The basic problem with fundamentalist interpretation of this kind is that, refusing to take into account the historical character of biblical revelation, it makes itself incapable of accepting the full truth of the incarnation itself. As regards relationships with God, fundamentalism seeks to escape any closeness of the divine and the human. It refuses to admit that the inspired word of God has been expressed in human language”

Of fundamentalism, I say no more.

Where does this leave us?

I freely acknowledge that in going through the Commissions report, I have necessarily been selective and certainly display my own biases. This was unavoidable given the limitations of time and space.  By all means, go through the full report yourself, or if you want a full discussion on the contents, see  “Interpreting the Bible: Three Views” at First Things

I, though, must work with my own conclusions:

  • Biblical interpretation is tricky, and must be undertaken with care.  Simplistic use of  isolated texts is particularly dangerous.
  • No single approach is complete and sufficient to itself.  To one degree or another, all have weaknesses., and so need to be used in combination.
  • Particular sections, let alone single verses, must be evaluated in the context of the entire passage, or even of Scripture as a whole.
  • Careful attention must be paid to the social and cultural conditions of the time, and to the precise linguistic meaning of the words used.
  • The techniques of literary and contextual analysis are useful in providing pastoral reflections appropriate for our conditions and oppression as LGBT Christians in the Church.  There are however risks,  and approaches such as queer theology need to be balanced also by other approaches.

Finally, having considered what the Magisterium (as formulated in this one report) has to say about Scripture, I would like to reverse the question:  what does Scripture, and specifically the Gospels, have to say about  the Magisterium?

Noting the observations about context and the Bible as a whole, I ask you to consider the religious conditions of Jerusalem during Christ’s ministry there.  Consider the powerful Sanhedrin, the rabbinical hierarchy, the pharisees, sadducees and scribes who feature so prominently. Now consider Christ’s response to their challenges to His failure to follow the letter of religious law.  Time and again, He insisted that adherence to the fundamental law of love,  love of God, of one’s neeighbour, and of oneself, took precedence over merely literal adherence to religious regulation.

Now what do you suppose would be His response to those who insist on our blind obedience to the Catechism and to canon law, where it makes religious outlaws of people who are simply following their natural and god -given sexual orientation?

Just a thought.


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3 comments for “Catholic Magisterium and Scripture

  1. William D. Lindsey
    July 16, 2009 at 11:43 am

    Terry, this is an excellent introduction to the complexities of using scripture to ground a sexual ethic, whether gay-affirming or gay-denying.

    I hope it gets wide readership. I will try to draw attention to it on my own blog, in the hope that others will read and circulate it.

    • queeringthechurch
      July 16, 2009 at 12:37 pm

      Many thanks, William, for these kind words. As I stated at the start of this blog, I claim no particular training or expertise in any of these matters, just a natural ability to collect and think critically about the words of others. This is the approach I adopted to the report of the Pontifical Commission. It is reassuring to know that I have made some measure of sense, even through the fog of my own ignorance.

      Terence

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