The window-opening council called Vatican II ended 50 years ago, blowing in the Spirit’s fresh air. We have had a half century to catch up with the surprises of its 16 documents, authored with much give and take by two popes and 2,000 bishops. The most immediate changes were the liturgical ones: Latin to English, laypeople reading at Mass, and singing as though we were Methodists. But some of the deeper ones involved the book we hesitated to pick up, the Bible.
Vatican II’s instruction was to read any and every passage as its human author intended us to understand it, and to take into full account its genres, or kinds of literature he used. Sounds simple enough. That’s after all what we do with anything we read. The newspaper has a front page which narrates historical facts of yesterday’s news. But the comics are never read literally, as though talking animals held conversations. And the editorial page presents opinion essays, not history-book narration.
Theologians saying as much before the council were put on the Index of Forbidden Books, whose passing is gone with the winds of Vatican II. The reigning thought was to read the Bible as though every syllable was to be read literally because it was thought unseemly of God to co-author anything in the thought patterns of humans. It would be undignified of God to teach as did, for instance, the Greek Aesop, who lived three centuries before Christ. His story of the tortoise and the hare was intended to teach adults, not children, the importance of persevering. While his audience had no trouble with a symbolic parable conveying valuable truth, we had that trouble with the Scriptures.
Catholics my age when instructed about this new and much more sensible way of reading the Bible tend to panic when they hear that the first 11 chapters of Genesis (Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the ark and the tower of Babel) are parable. It is not as though they had much invested in these famous persons from the beginning of God’s word. It is because they worry that all the rest of Genesis and in fact of both testaments are only parable, with no real historical people. A few other Old Testament accounts like Daniel and the lions’ den also qualify. They seem to draw little comfort that even hostile witnesses like Josephus Flavius, Pliny the Younger and others testify to Jesus as a real person.
Consider what happens when we read the Adam and Eve parable as though it were factual history. Among other things, we are compelled to deny the Darwin’s evolution of humans from other life forms despite the overwhelming evidence from the physical sciences and the near unanimity of world scientists. Scientists in turn scoff at us and our pre-Enlightenment gullibility, forcing them to reject all religion, a mistake as bad as our pre-Vatican II fundamentalism. Genesis, the word means origins, affirms that God created the world. It originated with and from God. Genesis has little interest in telling us how God did it. When we refuse to read the Genesis texts as their human author intended us to, symbolically, we end in error. Besides, Pope John Paul II ended the furor by saying we Catholics could believe in any of the several evolutionary theories as long as we posit God as humanity’s ultimate origin. But of course we have doubters who reject Pope Francis’s teachings about care for the environment. However that’s another column.
Some believers seem to find adjustment hard. Because they learned about Bible reading one way, they conclude that changing it is wrong. The same mechanism is at work keeping them from adjusting to even papal teachings, such as the retiring of the theological theory of limbo (Pope Benedict XVI), or joining with Protestants in ecumenical prayer, or the condemnation of capital punishment where states can securely imprison major offenders (John Paul II), or the vital need to eliminate carbon from the atmosphere if we hope to leave our grandchildren air fit to breathe (Francis), or the declaring of slavery to be intrinsically evil despite its appearances in the Bible (Pope John Paul II), or mercy tempering justice (Francis), or handgun possession (American bishops).
Oddly, those Catholics do not balk at other modern changes, like streamlined marriage annulment processes, or the burying in Catholic cemeteries of tragic suicides in the family, and many such improvements in our semper reformanda church.