Thursday, 9 June 2011
Once was Octave Day of the Ascension...
I think this is especially important for those charged with catechesis, but also essential for would-be Catholic theologians.
Overcoming confusion and error
We live in an age of extremely poor catechesis. When most Catholics, even bishops and theologians, seem confused about the very nature of dogma, let alone its actual content.
The result being, as I've suggested in an earlier post, that even parish bulletin reflections and priestly sermons on the Ascension now often serve to subvert the Creed's assertion that the Ascension was a real historical event rather than teach it!
In an age where few Catholics are even all that familiar with Scripture, let alone the Catholic interpretation of it.
Particularly in those circumstances it is important to go back to basics - to walk before you run; to know your own tradition thoroughly before you look to someone else's.
Highly expert and orthodox theologians might be able to read heterodox works and pull the useful material out of it for us to draw on - but most of us, it seems to me, should focus first on acquiring a thoroughly catholic perspective on Scripture! To my mind that means reading the commentaries of the Fathers and Theologians, as well as the more modern commentaries that are firmly based on them and preferably have an imprimateur.
Playing in academia
The problem, in my view, is that Catholic exegetes have, for too long, allowed the agenda to be set by their protestant colleagues in the academy.
In the twentieth century, instead of rejecting modernism and rationalism for what it was, and pursuing the revival of patristics and setting their own agenda, they mostly sulked instead. Many went to teach at non-Catholic Universities to avoid the restrictions the Church placed on them.
And even now, bad theories (such as the theoretical 'Q' Gospel) are arguably advocated, as some have pointed out, not because of their plausibility or any evidence for them, but because they provide markers of being properly academic, a way to show you are part of the club! As a result, as some of its proponents have actually admitted and even advocated, modernism has become mainstream.
The problem is, that as the Holy Father and other theologians such as Fr Aidan Nichols have argued, this whole direction has proved to be pretty much a dead-end. Many of the older theories about the development of Biblical texts have been outright disproved by the Dead Sea Scrolls (not that that has stopped anyone, simply invent a new and just as implausible hypothesis!). And the whole direction of the academy has driven a deep and unhealthy chasm between 'exegesis' on the one hand and 'theology' on the other hand, with the former doing little to aid the exposition of the faith.
Orthodoxy is not the same as agreement!
That is not to say that one must agree with every word the more traditionally oriented commentaries say, far from it.
Personally, I've been doing a lot of work on the psalms over the last several months. I enjoy the takes of the Tradition - especially the major commentaries by writers such as St John Chrysostom, St Augustine, St Thomas Aquinas, St Robert Bellarmine and more. But they frequently don't agree with each other, and there are plenty of new insights to be gained by considering the psalms in the context of the challenges of our own time and problems, and adopting newer methods.
Of course there are some few useful insights to be gained from new methods of exegesis and more particularly, research on the historical and cultural context of Scripture, and the insights gained from the study of the Dead Seas Scrolls. So I've read some of the orthodox twentieth century and more recent Catholic commentaries that attempt to incorporate these, such as the Navarre Bible. I do think there is something of a lacuna in the literature for Catholics in this area, though some are working to address this.
All the same, my own view is that it is only once you have done the hard yards of looking at the entirely orthodox material that one should venture into the wider, more heterodox world of exegesis. I'll admit to having some of these works on my bookshelf, and to having consulted them in the library.
But what I've almost invariably found is that if you do the exercise as I've suggested of starting with the Tradition, when you do look at the latest protestant and other offerings, despite the vast volume of material on the market, most of it simply doesn't up to the great Catholic works of the past.
So my recommendation is to use resources like Bibliaclerus, the Congregation for the Clergy's links between bible texts and Magisterial teaching and the traditional commentaries on Scripture. Use resources like New Advent Fathers, or the CCEL collection of pre and post-Nicene Fathers. Buy a copy of some of the excellent new translations coming out of key Patristic commentaries.
In short, learn the Catholic faith first!
St Augustine on the Ascension
And so, to continue my series of Patristic readings relating to the Ascension at Matins, St Augustine's sermon that used to be set for today, the Octave Day of Ascension in the pre-1962 calendar.
"Dearly beloved, all the wonderful works which our Lord Jesus Christ did in this world, under the weakness of our nature, are most certainly profitable for us. When he exalted his Manhood above the stars, he shewed to believers that heaven could be set open to them. When, as the Conqueror of death, he entered into the heavenly mansions, he shewed to anyone that overcomes whither he also may follow. Therefore, the Ascension of the Lord is the seal of the Catholic Faith, which assure in us the hope of the gift which is yet to come to us, from a wonder whereof we already feel the fruits. Thus let every one that is faithful, having already received so much, learn to hope for that which is promised, on account of that which he knows to have been already given. And thus he will hold the goodness of God in times which have been, and times which now are, as a sure pledge of the same in times to come.
That earthly body, then, is set on high, above the heights of heaven; those bones, which but a little while before had lain within the narrow walls of the grave, have made their entry among the angelic hosts; human nature has been given a place in the lap of immortality; and therefore the Apostle whose account we have heard read, saith : When he had spoken these things, while they beheld, he was taken up. When you hear that he was thus taken up, know that this taking was the ministry of the angelic army; whose subservience to him revealed to us in this festival the mystery of him who is both God and Man. United in one and the same Person, ye should contemplate two things: in him that lifted up, the power of the divínity; but in him who was up-lifted, the substance of humánity.
Therefore we should thoroughly abhor those pestiferous teachings of Eastern falsehood, those brand-new inventions of ungodliness which dare to assert that he (who in one Person is both Son of God and Son of Man), hath but one nature. On the one hand, if a man say that Christ is not partaker of the divine nature, he hath denied the glory of his Maker; on the other, he who says that the Manhood is not the nature of man, has denied the mercy of his Saviour. On these points, it is well nigh impossible for an Arian to believe that the Gospel-writers are any better than liars, since the Evangelists distinctly assert in some places that the Son of God is equal, and in others, that he is ínferior, to the Father. Further, if a man be given over to this soul-slaying delusion of believing that our Saviour hath only one nature, he must of necessity profess, either that it was only God, or that it was only man, who was crucified. But such is not the truth. If he had been of no nature but the divine, he could not have suffered death ; and if he had been of no nature but the human, he could not have conquered death.