Vatican II: Some Clarity, Please

Recently, I witnessed a very animated discussion between a Scripture scholar and a religion teacher. The subject of the disputation was Biblical inerrancy. The scholar is a highly intelligent man, but a liberal. (In fairness to him, I must say that he avoids the more ridiculous ideas of biblical scholars, such as the fantastic “Q Gospel” theory.) The religion teacher is less knowledgeable than the scholar, but is not a liberal.

To protect the identity of the scholar, I shall call him “Ray,” after the notorious Raymond Brown, whom he seems to like. To protect the identity of the religion teacher, I shall call him “Tom,” after Tomás de Torquemada, the fifteenth-century Spanish Inquisitor, who he seems to like.

Ray advanced the notion that the Bible is not, in fact, “inerrant.” “There are errors all over the Bible!” he said with an obvious delight in eliciting ruddy shock waves in Tom’s capillary-full sanguine face.

“Hogwash!” said Tom, and went on to assert that every magisterial pronouncement on the matter contradicted Ray. Ray agreed that Tom’s was the view “until Vatican II,” but added that nineteenth-century notions of inerrancy were facile, novel, and showed a lack of appreciation for the different genres employed in Holy Scripture.

Inerrancy was a word used only recently in biblical studies…. do you know when it was first used?” Ray asked. Tom did not know the answer, but pointed out that the fathers of the Church were certainly familiar with the concept. He cited a few fathers, including St. Augustine. Since that is the case, Tom argued, and since nobody of any authority contradicted the magisterial statements of Leo XIII, St. Pius X, Benedict XV, and Pius XII, then the theories “of the last century” (Ray’s description of his anti-inerrancy doctrine), are not Catholic. You cannot put something minted only in the last century against all Catholic tradition and the magisterium.

Recall the phrase, “until Vatican II.” It was Ray’s ace in the hole, for, according to him, Dei Verbum (DV, the Dogmatic Constitution on divine revelation), advanced a doctrine more in keeping with his own theories than the notions Tom was defending. Ray made the strategic blunder of asserting that DV did this “clearly.” Tom pointed out that the passage he had in mind was certainly not clear, but that it asserted the inerrancy of Scripture nonetheless. Further (argued Tom), the not-so-clear part should be read in light of the official footnotes that the council fathers themselves put in the Constitution. All of those footnotes assert the traditional doctrine of inerrancy, not Ray’s novelties.[1] Some of those footnoted sources explicitly condemned Ray’s theories.

Ray was unmoved. He conceded that the passage in DV was not as clear as he would have liked, but that it was clear enough, especially if one knew the background of the debates at Vatican II. He dismissed Tom’s footnote argument as inconclusive.

We will leave our bickering duo now in order to draw some conclusions; for, though the Tom-and-Ray argument happened in real life, it is also a parable of the status quo in the Church.

Tom is not a “professional academic,” but he was drawing arguments from reliable sources, including the highly qualified Father Brian Harrison, with his Roman Doctorate in Theology[2]. Ray is a professional academic – a seminary professor, in fact, with a Roman Doctorate in Scripture.[3] In other words, a Roman-trained biblicist and a Roman-trained theologian, both with the highest credentials, studied the same passage – in microscopic detail – and came up with entirely opposite conclusions:

Father Harrison: “The teaching of Vatican Council II in Dei Verbum, 11, is thus in complete harmony with the traditional Catholic understanding of the revealed truth that the books of Scripture are inspired by God and free from all error. ”

Ray: “There are errors all over the Bible!”

What lessons can be drawn from this? One comes out clearly: The texts of Vatican II are not entirely free of ambiguity. True, this is not a shocking new revelation, but it is one that bears repeating, not so much to complain as to reckon with reality, for we can only have an authentic reform in the Church if we squarely face what is: Reality.

Some recent developments suggest that the Roman Pontiff himself wishes to grapple with Vatican II’s ambiguities:

1) The agreement made between the Holy See and the recently founded traditionalist priestly society, the Institute of the Good Shepherd, which affirmed the following: “Each founding member personally agrees ‘to respect the authentic Magisterium’ of the Roman See, with ‘complete fidelity to the Infallible Magisterium of the Church’ (Statutes II §2). From a doctrinal point of view, in accordance with the address of Pope Benedict XVI to the Roman Curia on December 22, 2005, the members of the Institute, as far as they are able, are engaged in ‘a serious and constructive critique’ of the Second Vatican Council, in order to bring about an authentic interpretation of the Council by the Apostolic See.

2) The recent “Responses” document published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which affirmed, “that the Catholic church alone is the true Church of Christ.” Further: “there is one sole true Church of Christ; that this is the Apostolic Roman Church; that all must seek to know Her and enter Her in order to obtain salvation….” Lastly, “the Church governed by the successors of the Apostles with the successor of Peter as its head” is called “the sole flock of God” and “the one, sole Church of God.”

3) The Holy Father’s motu proprio, Summorum Pontificum, which liberated the use of the Classical Roman Rite Liturgy, which is part of a papal program of correcting the liturgical aberrations carried out in the name of Vatican II.

These recent events are part of a general orientation away from the liberal ecclesiastical chaos that is plaguing the Mystical Body in our day. We applaud them as we pledge to continue combating the revolution against Catholic tradition. At the same time, we will work for the conversion of America to the one, true Church – outside of which there is no salvation.

As for Ray, hopefully, the modernist scales will fall from his eyes when a reinvigorated Roman Magisterium confirms Catholic tradition on inerrancy. Hopefully, too, Tom will try not to gloat.

[1] An early posting on this blog, Biblical Inerrancy, treated this subject in some detail. For a much fuller and scholarly treatment see “The Truth and Salvific Purpose of Sacred Scripture according to Dei Verbum, Article 11,” by Rev. Brian Harrison, O.S., S.T.D.

[2] Father Harrison received his Licentiate in Theology at the Angelicum University in Rome, and his S.T.D. in Systematic Theology from the Pontifical Athenæum of the Holy Cross, also in Rome.

[3] He has an S.S.L. from the Pontifical Biblical Institute, and an S.T.D. from the Pontifical Gregorian University, both in Rome.