Thursday, January 26, 2006

Part II: Pius XII and Thomas Aquinas

Pope Pius XII reigned as Pope from 1939-1958. On the 50th anniversary of Providentissimus Deus, Pius XII prepared an encyclical letter entitled Divino Afflante Spiritu. In it he recaps what Leo XIII had to say about the study of and meditation upon Sacred Scripture, and adds the reflections of other Popes of the past:

“Nor should We fail to mention here how earnestly these same Our Predecessors, when the opportunity occurred, recommended the study or preaching or in fine the pious reading and meditation on the Sacred Scriptures. Pius X most heartily commended the society of St. Jerome, which strives to promote among the faithful -- and to facilitate with all its power -- the truly praiseworthy custom of reading and meditating on the holy Gospels; he exhorted them to persevere in the enterprise they had begun, proclaiming it ‘a most useful undertaking, as well as most suited to the times,’ seeing that it helps in no small way ‘to dissipate the idea that the Church is opposed to or in any way impedes the reading of the Scriptures in the vernacular.’ And Benedict XV, on the occasion of the fifteenth centenary of the death of St. Jerome, the greatest Doctor of the Sacred Scriptures, after having most solemnly inculcated the precepts and examples of the same Doctor, as well as the principles and rules laid down by Leo XIII and by himself, and having recommended other things highly opportune and never to be forgotten in this connection, exhorted ‘all the children of the Church, especially clerics, to reverence the Holy Scripture, to read it piously and meditate it constantly’; he reminded them ‘that in these pages is to be sought that food, by which the spiritual life is nourished unto perfection,’ and ‘that the chief use of Scripture pertains to the holy and fruitful exercise of the ministry of preaching’; he likewise once again expressed his warm approval of the work of the society called after St. Jerome himself, by means of which the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles are being so widely diffused, ‘that there is no Christian family any more without them and that all are accustomed to read and meditate them daily.’” (Divino Afflante Spiritu, paragraph 9)

Pius XII proceeds to outline the responsibilities of the Catholic Scripture scholar. Near the end of the letter he exhorts bishops and priests with these words:

“Let priests therefore, who are bound by their office to procure the eternal salvation of the faithful, after they have themselves by diligent study perused the sacred pages and made them their own by prayer and meditations, assiduously distribute the heavenly treasures of the divine word by sermons, homilies and exhortations; let them confirm the Christian doctrine by sentences from the Sacred Books and illustrate it by outstanding examples from sacred history and in particular from the Gospel of Christ Our Lord; and -- avoiding with the greatest care those purely arbitrary and far-fetched adaptations, which are not a use, but rather an abuse of the divine word -- let them set forth all this with such eloquence, lucidity and clearness that the faithful may not only be moved and inflamed to reform their lives, but may also conceive in their hearts the greatest veneration for the Sacred Scripture.

“The same veneration the Bishops should endeavor daily to increase and perfect among the faithful committed to their care, encouraging all those initiatives by which men, filled with apostolic zeal, laudably strive to excite and foster among Catholics a greater knowledge of and love for the Sacred Books. Let them favor therefore and lend help to those pious associations whose aim it is to spread copies of the Sacred Letters, especially of the Gospels, among the faithful, and to procure by every means that in Christian families the same be read daily with piety and devotion; let them efficaciously recommend by word and example, whenever the liturgical laws permit, the Sacred Scriptures translated, with the approval of the Ecclesiastical authority, into modern languages; let them themselves give public conferences or dissertations on biblical subjects, or see that they are given by other public orators well versed in the matter.” (DAS, par. 50-51, emphasis mine)

The Popes have made it plain. The leaders of the Church must, first of all, have a love for Sacred Scripture themselves, and then encourage the faithful to foster this same love. I don’t see an attempt to keep the common man and woman from reading the Book. Certainly there were times in the past when they felt it was wise to shield people from what they felt were false translations of the Bible. If people misinterpret that to mean that all copies of the Bible are banned, then they need to rethink that position.

The writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, specifically the Summa Theologica, have been the foundation of Catholic theology for centuries. Aquinas himelf believed that the study of Sacred Scripture was the center of his studies. In an article entitled “St. Thomas and Sacred Scripture”, John Boyle of the University of St. Thomas offers these reflections on the importance of Scripture in the life and work of the Angelic Doctor:

He certainly understood the importance of articulating the intelligibility and coherence of the faith. But much of his time as a university master of theology was dedicated to commenting on Scripture. Indeed, Thomas may well have thought his Scripture commentaries to be his most important works. If we distinguish so sharply systematic from biblical theology, Thomas would not. Theology -- however one chooses to distinguish its parts -- is, for Thomas, a unified science. As the highest science, it is the most unified and unifying. As a theologian, Thomas always returns to the foundation of that science: Scripture.

The importance Thomas places on Scripture in theological argument suggests one needs to be careful in reading the Summa, especially the sed contra ("on the other hand") where the authority for the answer to the question is often to be found. The modern reader has a tendency to glide past the scriptural quotations (as instances, perhaps, of primitive "proof-texting") in order to get to the real meat of Thomas' arguments. This may, however, entail a subtle shifting of the weight of the text from Thomas' own intentions. For Thomas, the careful arguments and distinctions of his responses are in the service of the revealed truth made known in Scripture as the church reads it. Indeed, Scripture is not a proof text for the conclusion of his argument; rather, the argument is a defense and elucidation of Scripture itself.

All of this is to suggest that perhaps Thomas never intended for the Summa to stand as an independent work. Might it not be seen as a guide to understanding Scripture bringing to bear all that revelation and human science have to offer? Thomas characterizes the Summa as a work for beginners. And who are these beginners? They are beginners in theology, that science that stands grounded in and ordered to the study of sacred Scripture. In addition to its many other purposes, might not the Summa also stand as a guide, for the beginner, to the faithful and theological reading of Scripture? After all, the Summa was not alone on the altar at Trent; it accompanied sacred Scripture.

Part III will cover Vatican II and Pope Benedict XVI.


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