A friend and I were talking about the Old Testament on the weekend, lamenting catholic ignorance of even the basics of Scriptural knowledge such as what books there were in it.
The current Pope has repeatedly emphasized the importance of Scripture for Catholics - just as ignorance of tradition has weakened the Church today, so too ignorance of Scripture, which is, as St Jerome famously said, ignorance of Christ.
Why are catholics ignorant of the Old Testament?
Catholic ignorance results, we agreed, in part because the (EF) Mass uses very few readings from it. The Office of course is very different, really assuming and requiring that knowledge, given that most of it comes from the Old Testament (in the form of the psalms) but unlike medieval catholics, few today are consistently exposed to the Office on a regular basis.
And, it might be noted, priests rarely link the Gospel readings with the Old Testament in their homilies, whether in the form of the Propers or other supporting texts. Yet such linkages are one of the basic principles of Catholic Bible interpretation: the New Testament is hidden in the Old, and the Old is made manifest in the New, shedding light on it and explaining it. The commentaries of the Church Father's are steeped in such linkages, but they almost invariably assume more knowledge than the modern catholic typically has, so simply reading the commentaries themselves from Matins or whatever is not normally enough to convey the depth of what is being said.
History or instructive stories?
One of the other reasons though that I think modern catholics tend to baulk at the Old Testament, though, is its tales of fabulous and miraculous events, and the morals drawn from them. Even amongst orthodox catholics, a kind of double-standard has developed: we accept the miracles of the New Testament because we believe that Jesus is God. But somehow we feel differently about stories of ordinary people performing the same such wonders in an earlier era (or for that matter in our own).
Far easier, for example, to believe that the writing on the wall at Belshazzar's feast is symbolic rather than real, an instructive tale of a king that never in fact existed historically. So it was fascinating to read recently of real archaeological evidence to support the existence of a leader historians had long decried as a fabrication.
Similarly, there is a vast industry that argues that the drying up of the Red Sea may have been a real event associated with an earthquake, but has been conflated later with the later (or earlier) story of the escape of the Hebrews from Egypt.
And we certainly can't be expected, of course, to take the six days of creation in Genesis too literally.
I may be verballing him a bit, since only the last was his example, but my friend gave me pause when he said, suggesting that if he were running a seminar series on the Old Testament, he would just avoid the whole question of the historicity of the Old Testament rather than getting into the endless debates involved. His view was that it is its catechetical significance that catholics needed to know about, not whether events happened when and where the Bible said they did.
I had to say I didn't agree - and I'm not sure that catholics are really free to hold such a view.
The Church's approach to interpreting Scripture
Not every word in the Old Testament needs to be taken literally of course. We do need to pay attention to literary genre and conventions, and some stories clearly are intended more for instruction than to be taken literally. Others, such as the Creation story, perhaps symbolically attempt to convey real events (I'm personally quite keen on St Augustine's line, for example, that the 'days' of creation can't mean twenty four hours since the first couple of 'days' happened before the sun was even in place, although my friend didn't find that a very compelling argument).
On the other hand, traditionalists, the much maligned Pontifical Bible Commission (in its earlier, magisterial form), and a string of Popes have consistently sought to resist those who have attempted to assert a purely spiritual interpretation of Scripture. And I'm firmly in this camp! But I'm curious as to where others stand, and whether I've understood the argument about avoiding historicity correctly...