Monday, 26 July 2021

Freedom in reading the Scriptures

I have recently been reminded, twice, of a thought that I not infrequently mull over. That thought relates to how one approaches Sacred Scripture as a Catholic. The reading of Scripture within the life of the Catholic Church's tradition and teaching authority at first sight suggests a serious restriction to how an individual Catholic, be they an ordinary member of the faithful or a Scripture scholar, may read the Scriptural text. But what I mull over from time to time is the thought that, though the life of the Church does define how some passages of Scripture are to be understood (for example, on the office of the successor of St Peter and the institution of the Eucharist), these passages are relatively few compared to the entirety of the Scriptural canon, and there is enormous freedom with regard to how much of the Scriptural text can be understood. The Catholic, who reads Scripture in the framework of the tradition and teaching authority, therefore actually has much more freedom in relationship with the text than the Evangelical Christian, whose only source of the content of faith is the text alone and whose relationship to the text is make-or-break on every question.

The first reminder came in a conversation with a lady I have only recently come to know. Over a lunch break, she steered conversation very quickly from asking whether or not I was a believer via the recent decision of the Methodist Church in the UK to allow same sex marriage to asking whether or not I thought the Catholic Church would give in on the issue as well. I pointed out that the arrangements which give the Holy See an existence as an independent state as well as a universal authority of faith protects the Church at a local level from political and social influences that might affect other ecclesial bodies - even if local bishops wanted to give in on the issue, they wouldn't be able to do so. But what struck me was this lady's very brief observation that same sex marriage was against Biblical teaching, which suggested that no other authority sat behind her belief on this question than that. The lady in question did not appear to recognise an insecurity that exists in that basis.

The second reminder came in the homily at Mass this last Sunday. Preaching on St John's account of the feeding of the 5 000, a visiting priest suggested that Jesus' intention in performing this sign was to teach the necessity for the Christian life of caring for the material needs of our neighbour. Noting St John's statement that the event occurred "shortly before the Jewish feast of passover", Father suggested that St John was putting this sign into the context of the first passover, where the Jewish people were to enter the desert with the need there for them to receive earthly nourishment. Father saw this as a first stage in St John's presentation of Jesus teaching, with the later parts of the chapter of his Gospel building up in steps from this first stage. This is not the customary Catholic reading of the text and its parallels in the other Gospels. The more usual reading sees in it, perhaps particularly in St John's Gospel, a sign of the abundance of the Eucharistic gift to the Church (cf Catechism of the Catholic Church n.1335, but see also n.1397, where commitment to the poor is indicated as one of the fruits of reception of the Sacrament). There is a question about the wisdom or otherwise of offering such an unusual interpretation (from the Catholic point of view) during a homily at Sunday Mass in a parish and in the context of a sequence of Sunday Gospel readings that are essentially eucharistic in their intent; but, if that question is put to one side, the interpretation lies within, but perhaps at the boundaries, of the range of freedom that a Catholic exegete has with respect to the Scriptural text.

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