Monday, February 22, 2010

Sharing the Gospel at Religious Education

I have been teaching religious education this year.  Specifically I am teaching a combined class of older (beyond 3rd grade) students who have not been catechized.  Half of my 8 students were baptized Catholic as infants and are preparing for First Communion.  The other Half are either unbaptized or were baptized Protestant and are planning to enter the Church at Easter.  We call the second group RCIC, although I have now learned that RCIC doesn't exist.  RCIA - Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults is the only model for people over the age of reason (beyond 6 or 7 years old) to systematically enter the Church.  So what I am really teaching is RCIA adapted for youth. 

It isn't an easy task, and I am prone to complain a little because I have a broad age range, and varied backgrounds. Also, I am actually teaching two groups, but the needs are exactly the same between the RCIA students and the First Communion students.  Education is never perfect. 

My RCIA students are getting ready for the Rite of Election this week.  This is the point in the process where their sponsors declare that they are prepared to enter the Church, and the catechumans declare that they intend to be received into the Church.  The Bishop then declares them to be the Elect - those called by God.

I haven't taught them nearly as much as I would like.  Worse, I am realizing that whatever I have taught them, I have missed the most important part.  Not that I have ignored it, but that in all their questions and my long explanations I haven't testified clearly to the one thing that matters most. 

The Gospel - God Love for us.  I've talked about it, but have I really evangelized? 

Friday, February 19, 2010

Today's News - Tiger Woods (Really about Addiction and Recovery)

Addiction is UGLY and Vicious and is a very nasty disease in what ever form it takes.  Ultimately addiction will take everything an addict has away.  Dignity, pride, family, self-respect, career, money are likely to be lost along the way, and finally addiction takes our lives.  I've watched hundred of men and women try to recover from addictions to get their families back.  I myself have tried to recover because I don't want to lose my family.  In nearly every single case, the real progress did not materialize until the addict - me in my own case - surrenders the family, the spouse, the marriage and along with it the career and the bank account.  Once we realize that addiction has us in a death grip, and that family or no family, job or no job, our only hope is sobriety, then (and very often only then) we can really begin recovery.

Being an addict doesn't remove one from being responsible for their actions.  Tiger Woods was right to apologize without excuse for the double life he had been leading, if for no other reason that it is only by acknowledging that our problems originate with ourselves and are self-inflicted that addicts can begin to recover.  The fact that the media and the salivating public, not to mention scorned wives and sponsors, will accept no waffling is actually secondary to the addict's recovery. 

In my experience, when an addict faces such a situation where a humble and heartfelt apology is the only option it is difficult even for the addict to figure out how honest, genuine, humble and heartfelt the apology really is.  Untangling the desire we have to really change, and our true contrition for the damage we have caused from our need to regain our standing and restore our pride is near impossible.  Those experience in recovery will say "look for the changes."  These are changes that are difficult to discern through the lens of the media, unless of course Woods get's caught by the tabloids behaving badly.

The one observation on the press conference that I will make is that Woods hasn't decided to rush back into golf.  This may possibly be a decision that shows Woods is taking his own recovery seriously enough to acknowledge that being back in front of the public and back on tour is likely to end in disaster.  It has happened magnificently to other golfers with alcoholism, most notably John Daly.  Plenty of other celebrities and media personalities have suffered from repeated relapses and public downward spirals as they have resumed their careers.  So often you see the celebs doing the "30 day spin dry" and going back on tour, or back to the movie set.  The collapses are predictable to those of use who are fortunate enough to struggle through our sobriety without the pressure of multimillion dollar contracts, a small industry of support entourage depending on us, and the spotlight of the media and the paparazzi.

If I was able to be a friend to Tiger Woods, or if I saw him at a meeting I'd share with them the experience that I share with any other addict or alcoholic.  "Getting my wife and family back won't keep me sober, but if I'm not sober I'll never get them back and I'll be useless to them and everyone else.  Having my career back didn't keep me sober, and without sobriety I couldn't keep my career.  When  just staying sober became the best that I could hope for, I surrendered and fully conceded to myself that I was powerless over my addiction and everything else."  As a recovering addict all I get is today, and the chance to stay sober for the next 24 hours.  Anything beyond that is something to be grateful for. 

So I don't know the motivation for Woods making what appears to be the smart decision and staying away from golf indefinitely.  It could have been his sponsors and the PGA looking out for Tiger's best interest (and their long term investment) but I think that is unlikely.  It may have been a calculated move to try to restore his image.  I hope however, that the decision was largely Tiger Woods listening to the addicts who have gotten some time in recovery telling him to slow down. 

Recovery must come First.  Golf may or may not ever be part of Tiger Woods life.  From what I've seen in 12 step meetings Sex addiction is real and is probably at least as challenging as any substance based addiction to recover from.   One thing I've heard from sex addict is that the first 'drink' can happen without even a second thought.  Because the addiction revolves around lust and fantasy, there is no need to log on, or go to a dealer to get loaded.  I've heard stories of relapses that start with a look at a stoplight, or a commercial during the evening news.  Going back into the environment where he practiced his addiction might be something that Tiger Woods chooses to not ever do.  All addicts talk about being out of town, having success and extra cash, and staying in motel rooms as situations they often find prone to relapse and full of 'triggers.'

What ever the case, I wish Tiger Woods the best as he starts out on the road to recovery.

Lent Book Recomendation - Priest Block 25487

Priestblock 25487 by Jean Bernard is the auto-biographical account of Fr. Jean Bernard a Priest from Luxembourg who was arrested and imprisoned by Nazi Germans at Dachau from January 1941 until August 1942.  The book is an incredibly lucid and detailed account of his 20 months of imprisonment, torture and deprivation.   Fr. Bernard leaves us a great gift with his observation and insight into the psyches and the spiritual lives that he and his fellow Priests led while subject some of the most brutal treatment that humanity can provide. 

This story goes to the heart of what being a Christian means.  He Accepts the unacceptable and thanking God while being beaten, starved and worked to death.  He watches as some resist to the point of insanity and others lose not only Christian virtue but seemingly all humanity.  He himself fails in virtue and in action, but wills himself to chose his humiliation rather than lose the battle for his mind and soul. 

This example helps me to be more willing to chose a little suffering voluntarily, joyfully relying on God' grace to help me.  And truthfully I need God's grace to even make it through on afternoon without a snack.  Each of the 70 times a day I reach for the crackers, or pretzels, or raisins, or chips it is only by asking for God's grace that I can manage even such a pathetic mortification.   Thinking of the experiences of Fr. Bernard watching his friends, fellow Priests, die of starvation and infection without medical care amid stench and filth helps me to ask Jesus for enough love to bear some little suffering

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

How This Catholic Hacks Bible Study - Suggestions Welcome

When I finished my last post I realized as I was writing that I didn't have a good answer for the natural follow-up questions. "What 'hermeneutics' and framework do I use for understanding the Bible now?" At first I had to start thinking because I don't use anything consciously which is probably very similar to most Protestants. We are seldom as conscious as we should be about what we are bringing into the experience ourselves.

One official source you might find helpful that I haven't read yet "The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church" Presented by the Pontifical Biblical Commission to Pope John Paul II on April 23, 1993.

I haven't adopted or bought into any particular formal or rigid methodology or system. I have developed a 'critical-mass' of knowledge about basic history, types of literature, Jewish customs etc. and that helps. I have also become used to thinking about the four 'senses' of scripture that the Catholic Church has traditionally used From the CCC:Part I, Chapter I, Section 2, Article 3 Sacred Scripture
The senses of Scripture
115 According to an ancient tradition, one can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual, the latter being subdivided into the allegorical, moral and anagogical senses. The profound concordance of the four senses guarantees all its richness to the living reading of Scripture in the Church.

116 The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation: "All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal."83

117 The spiritual sense. Thanks to the unity of God's plan, not only the text of Scripture but also the realities and events about which it speaks can be signs.
  • 1. The allegorical sense. We can acquire a more profound understanding of events by recognizing their significance in Christ; thus the crossing of the Red Sea is a sign or type of Christ's victory and also of Christian Baptism.84
  • 2. The moral sense. The events reported in Scripture ought to lead us to act justly. As St. Paul says, they were written "for our instruction".85
  • 3. The anagogical sense (Greek: anagoge, "leading"). We can view realities and events in terms of their eternal significance, leading us toward our true homeland: thus the Church on earth is a sign of the heavenly Jerusalem.86
118 A medieval couplet summarizes the significance of the four senses:

The Letter speaks of deeds; Allegory to faith;
The Moral how to act; Anagogy our destiny.87
I sometimes formally think about a particular Hermeneutic - particularly Typology as practiced by Scott Hahn (although he didn't invent it) which falls I think under the allegorical sense category. I won't pretend to be able to use it well, much less teach about it, but the essential idea is to use 'type' to relate events. So taking from St. Paul's example in Romans you could say he was using typology when comparing Jesus to Adam. It is a traditional Catholic application of typology that calls Christ the New Adam. Adam the first Man was directly created and put into the world by God, Jesus was the Son of God and his human nature was directly created by God. They are of the same 'type.'

Just doing a little internet research for this post and I am well reminded of my amateur status.  It is readily apparent that one could spend several years seriously studying just the topic of hermeneutics.

A few things that evolved for me over time.  The Catechism came out, so for the first time in my lifetime I had a easy place to go to get a firm answer rather than someone's opinion or misinformation about what the Church teaches.  Before that I had discovered the Catholic Encyclopedia and the Fathers of the Church all of these resources are now available online at New Advent.  I learned about concordances (huge indexes of every word in the Bible and every verse they occur in) and topical concordances, and scripture commentaries.  Now, these resources are available online.  Key points in my approach and my advice:
  • Know you Catholic Faith - Until I had read the CCC and had that available as a reference it was much more frustrating, especially when Protestant commentaries are so much more readily available and Catholic commentaries are too often not very Catholic.  If I know my Faith well, I can recognize when an interpretation is justifying a false doctrine.  If I want to investigate it and evaluate the merits for myself I feel free to do so, but I keep in mind what the Church teaches.  I am willing to seriously question the Church and my Faith - but I'm going to do it fully understanding the Church's position and giving it a fair hearing.
  • Read the Black Parts First - I look at what the words actually say, I'm not a 'literalist' but I don't want to discount what the text actually says!  If I'm going to 'interpret' or ignore what the words actually say, I want to acknowledge why I am doing that and I want to be doing it because it gets to the larger and more central meaning that the text is pointing towards.
  • Context - I always read in context when trying to understand  a passage.  I definitely don't try to understand just one or two verses in isolation.  I look at that passage in context of at least the immediate Chapters, if not the whole book.  The Bible isn't written as PowerPoint slides, very, very few verses are 'stand alone' bullet points.
  • Connections - What is the place of that book in history, whats going on and how does this text connect to the History  What is the culture and the audience.  Then use that information judiciously to deepen my understanding what I'm reading.  I don't agree with the taking an "Historical-Critical" method that starts at the same place I do, but then uses the 'connections' in a relativist approach to convince myself that what the author is writing about no longer applies to our culture.
  • Reason -  I try to think about what the author or text is trying to accomplish.  What is the main message.  Particularly in the Gospels and the NT in general.  I consider that the NT was not written as a Catechism.  Every book was written for a reason.  Also, they didn't have word processor, photocopies or typesetting - every word and verse is important.  And, they didn't include redundant information - things that everyone already new were not spelled out, that would have been a waste of papyrus.  (BTW - just going through the Chronology - Paul spent 18 months his first visit to Corinth!  We can assume he explained a lot of things much more fully in that time that what got written in two short letters.)
  • Compare - I compare the meaning I'm deriving with other parts of the Bible.  So what I'm getting out of 1 Corinthians gets compared to the other Pauline Epistles, and the Gospel.  
  • Hermeneutic of Fulfillment - I read with the idea in mind that the OT and NT are not 'discontinuous'  but integral - The OT is fulfilled in the NT and the NT completes the OT.  Particularly for St. Paul I consciously try to read the NT in light of the OT.  St. Paul constantly refers back to the OT.
  • Fancy Stuff - Allegorical, Anagogical (I think of that as mystical) and Moral senses.  I'm no expert here, and whether I'm actually reading a commentary or not, I'm probably copying or rethinking something I've heard or read before.  In particular these would apply more to books I've been avoiding more or less, Danial, Amos, Revelation for example.
  • Greek / Hebrew - Lately I've been doing a little research on key verses looking up the original Greek and Hebrew.  What I've been finding is more a tendency to want to move away from tying to make meaning precise and more a desire to realize that God is bigger than any word or sentence - whether in Greed, Hebrew, Latin or English.  So I guess I'm reacting against the Protestant methodology there.
  • Consult References - I'm a learn by doing guy.  For the past few years I've been trying to apply what I already know until I get bored with that and then going to commentaries and other outside sources.  I have a strong preference for the Fathers of the Church.
Just to be clear, this isn't a pattern I had worked out in advance, it is how I meta-cognate on what I have actually been doing.  I've been working my way through the Pauline Epistles for some time and I'll write about how I've been approaching that and what I think I'm learning.   I also think I'll do a separate post about my favorite Bible research resources on the Internet and the books I've either used and want to buy.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Spanning the Protestant / Catholic Divide - Part III - From Confused Catholic to Competency - My Story

intro: I have been interested in improving communication and reducing confusion between Protestants and Catholics for some time. My pet theory is that we often misunderstand and talk at cross purposes because we have different 'culture' and language, and that even when we use the same words, we may not understand them the same way. So this series is not meant to be apologetic so much as it is meant to be focused on the differences in how we approach Faith and the world.

Part II Why Do Protestants Read the Bible So Much?
Part I - Why Catholics Don't Know the Bible.

I grew up in what I consider to be a pretty typical Catholic home in the 70s.  We had a few Bibles around the house, but they weren't conspicuous and the weren't often used.  There was a paperback pocket edition "Good News" Bible in my Dads nightstand.  We also had a paper back New American Bible (NAB) that was on the bookshelf in the living room.  Up until I was 13 I don't recall ever reading the Bible with my parents or ever seeing them read it.

My first, and most treasured, memories of the Bible are from my Grandmother's house when I was very young.  Every morning she would read from the big leather bound, illustrated family Bible she had.  When I stayed over I'd go in and sit beside her on her bed and after she finished reading we'd look at pictures.  The Bible was also a sort of scrap book of sorrow and woe, and a few blessings.  My Grandmother keeps all of her old funeral cards, obituaries, and news clippings about tragedies in her small town in her Bible.  The Blessings are the birth announcements and marriage announcements and any news clippings from college graduations or announcements that my Dad or uncle had joined such and such firm.  I still feel great sadness  thinking of all the deaths and accidents and heartaches.  That Bible and all it contains connects me to my Grandmother's life and through her to my ancestors. This was my Catholic grandmother BTW.  I spent a lot of time with my Protestant grandparents, and until now I've never given it any real though, but I don't remember anything about the Bible with them - although I know they were very religious.

Through childhood I did have a few bible stories.  I remember in particular the story of Zacchaeus the tax collector who climbed the sycamore tree to be able to see Jesus over the crowd.  These were several books in a series that my mother bought from little 'store' in the narthex at Church and as far as I recall they were the only introduction to the Bible I had as a toddler.  I must have started religious education in kindergarten or first grade, but have little recollection until prep for First Communion in second grade.  I don't recall anything about the Bible.  Up until 4th grade CCD (Catholic Catechetical Development) was taught by nuns in habits at my parish.  We had the ubiquitous workbooks with the fill in the blank questions and the 70s folksish representations of Jesus.  I think maybe after 3rd grade or so I remember sometimes having the Bibles handed out and going around reading from the Bible, but that was very rare at least.

My own Bible reading was really sparked by two totally random and unrelated events.  Early in summer of 1975 after 2nd grade my mom took us up to a small farm town to visit her cousin and her family on their farm.  The cousin was the church secretary (I've no idea what denomination - I'd guess Evangelical Lutheran) and the kids were in Bible school for one more day.  So they sent me to Bible school too.  And we did read the Bible.  And I didn't have one, and I probably (being a pretty big blabber mouth) mentioned that I didn't even own one and had never read it.  I went home with a brand new Tyndale "Children's Living Bible" paraphrased.   The next fall I sat next to a 'different' girl at school who always wore long, old fashioned style dresses and had really, really long hair.  I think that was the only year she went to our school.  Anyway, one day she's telling me all about how she has read the whole Bible 3 times.  I was a little sweet on her (I'm lucky I've always had a weakness for wholesome girls) so I figured she'd be more likely to like me if I read the Bible.  So that night I went home and started out to read the Bible cover to cover.  It didn't take me all that long.  And my Bible reading journey had begun. 

I read the Bible somewhat regularly after that.  I really liked the Psalms.  I had a difficult time with the other kids in school and was depressed at times.  I'd read the Psalms and that was always helpful.  One night I was up late, worried about school and life and friendships and a bully, and I read the Psalms.  I got a feeling of intense peace and the deep conviction that my suffering and tribulation wasn't pointless, that God had a plan for me and this was part of his plan.  That moment helped my then and still helps me today.

I was pretty serious about my faith through high school.  I went on retreats where we did more Bible reading.  I started a Bible study in my basement for teens one year, but we only managed about 5 meetings.  My parents stepped up the prayer life at home, and we did try to have some family Bible reading time.  For my confirmation at 15 I  got a New American Bible from my confirmation sponsor.  I think by that time I had been reading my parents NAB rather than my children's Bible. 

As I entered adult hood at various times I began to get more interested in really understanding the Bible.  I began to grow more frustrated that so many parts of the Bible seemed so contradictory and random or just weird.  I've never really thought of that as being much of an aspect of my drifting and weakened faith during my early 20's but it seems to me now that it probably was.  I did read the Bible less and less.

July of 1990 was a low point for me.  I was running and hiding from my responsibilities and the consequences of my actions.  I had recently decided that I needed to stop drinking and made an honest and absolutely firm commitment to stop.  And in less than 2 weeks I'd gone back to drinking, and found myself drinking even when I didn't want to.  Life seemed hopeless.  One afternoon I was going crazy with anxiety and couldn't figure out what to do.  Out of nowhere the idea came to read the Bible.  It had been years.  I turned to the Psalms and soon found an answer.
Psalm 27
11 Teach me your way, O LORD;
lead me in a straight path
because of my oppressors.
And that became a prayer and a mantra. For 3 days I read Psalm 27 and prayed my version of that "God show me the path you want me to walk, and give me the strength to follow you." I made an appointment and went to Confession on Saturday morning. Although I didn't initially confess anything about my drinking, my penance was 3 AA meetings! I wasn't planning to go but I had the phone number of the friend of a friend who had suggested I call him sometime. I called and we went out to dinner. It turned out he was in AA and he took me to my first meeting!

Another event that happened around this time was in the college cafeteria. I was reading the Bible while eating lunch and a classmate saw me and sat down. He pulled out Bible and started talking to me. It turned out that he was in "Campus Crusade for Christ" and when he found out I was Catholic he set out to Save me and prove the falsehood of the Catholic Faith. I didn't have any clue how to debate him, but I was pretty sure the Catholic Church read the Bible differently that Protestants. About the best I managed was "I don't understand that verse the way you do."

This began the period where I was really trying to learn more and read the Bible with a better understanding. What I see now partly as a result of my recent posts, is that I just didn't have the framework (hermeneutic) for constructing an understanding of scripture. Now I do think it is terrible to be locked into one hermeneutic, but I think you must have some framework to build on, especially to start. As a much better than average Catholic who had actually been reading the Bible since youth I just didn't have one!

That is really the story of the next 15 years! I asked for the New American Bible Study version for Christmas in 1990. That was good and bad. Good that I finally got a lot more background on the various books, and it had more notes. Bad - a lot of it wasn't as solid as it should be in either scholarship or Catholicism. I got involved in a few more Bible studies.

Unfortunately, what I recall of the various Bible studies was mostly very squishy and academically light. Mostly I think the focus was on reflecting on passages and coming up with what they mean to me and how to apply them in my life. This wasn't terrible really, but it didn't give me any new guidance on how to actually approach scripture in a serious way.

I think mostly what was encouraged is "lectio devina" which is a spiritual practice of religious and Monks, particularly Benedictines and in modern times Jesuits. And that was my main Bible study method for years. The problem is that short of "infused knowledge" I was never going to really learn how actually understand the more confusing, contradictory and cryptic aspects of scripture.

In the late 90s I began to notice a few more Catholic Bible Study programs showing up and I tried a few. Little Rock Scripture Study was one I remember. All of the programs I encountered were very basic. There was more supporting commentary and materials - like the videos in the Little Rock Scripture Study series. A little help, but very little. None of the series I encountered went beyond the basics. They had more commentary, but like the Little Rock Scripture Series it was often adapted from Protestant sources so in certain areas it tended to oppose a Catholic understanding of critical verses.

Finally, in 1998 a few things began to come together for me. I stumbled upon a copy of "Catholicism and Fundamentalism" by Karl Keating which didn't help with my Bible study directly, but it gave me great insight into Protestantism, and how evangelicals read the Bible and some of the Catholic counter arguments. Also we moved to a city with Catholic Radio and Catholic Answers was on every day. Again, it wasn't really good Bible study, but in the desert, a little puddle is a welcome as a swimming pool. Then Scott Hahn started writing books! That was the first real big help for me. Even learning that there was such a thing as hermeneutics and typology was helpful. Jeff Cavins came out with his "Great Adventure Bible Timeline" and though I have never used the whole series the parts I have used are helpful.  Just a photo copy of the timeline is a huge help.   The options have really become abundant in the past few years. The internet of course makes it easy to connect with all kinds of resources.

I've tried a couple of Bible Study groups recently, but was discouraged because I have no patience. The group was mostly people who are really at the beginning and I'm really looking for some meaty discussions. I find it too easy to dominate the group with my opinions and 'knowledge' and that is not what I want to do. So maybe I should look for a good study group.

Some closing thoughts. Part of the difference between Catholics and Protestants regarding scripture is that the Catholic Church is not tied to, and doesn't endorse or approve any particular hermeneutic or method. The Catholic Church actually takes a very broad approach to scripture. Since scripture does not stand alone, it stands with tradition and authority, there is actually more freedom to interpret scripture. That is one cause of my troubles. Because the Catholics and Catholic scholars use many hermeneutics, and also rely (openly) on tradition, there isn't a hermeneutic just lying there to pick up, or passed on naturally through our experience.  The approach to scripture was not consistent, because it doesn't have to be consistent.  So I was exposed to many hermeneutics at least indirectly, but I wasn't consistently seeing the same hermeneutic and method on a regular basis, which for all purposes made it seem like there really wasn't any systematic way to approach scripture.

Spanning the Protestant / Catholic Divide - Part II - Why do Protestants Read the Bible so Much?

So last night I blogged about Why Catholics Don't Know the Bible. So today it's time to approach the Bible study question from the Catholic Perspective.

Okay, these are my observations and they don't apply universally, and I mean to make them in charity. Please feel free to offer corrections and clarifications. I recognize that a couple of points are going to be controversial for many Protestants because it's how I view the Protestant world as an outsider who approaches Christianity from a very different perspective.

Answer Part A
Sola Scriptura or Prima Scriptura - Only Scripture or Scripture First.  The main idea being that in either case Scripture is the highest authority. The one thing we Catholics can be certain that all Protestant Churches agree on is that there is no greater authority than scripture. The authority of Pastors, Elders, Bishops, Steering Committees, the Pope and even ecumenical councils is subsidiary to scripture.

So right there you have the BIGGEST reason Protestants spend so much time reading scripture! What ever the question of Christian doctrine or practice, the answer in the Protestant world MUST be justified in scripture first and foremost! So every discussion or question starts with looking in the Bible (it doesn't seem to matter if the participants already know the answer). Concordances and commentaries are close at hand to identify chapter and verse and provide insight. Then once they have a collection of scripture passages they may consult other sources - usually their favorite theologian or favorite trendy pastor or perhaps their denomination's 'confession.'

Being the outside observer, what I see is that the result they gets is more dependent on the method of interpreting scripture that they have learned from their pastor or picked when they picked out this church and their choice of theologians to consult than what the scripture actually says - and that's leaving aside whether the question was prejudged in the first place.

Comparison / Contrast  We Catholics acknowledge the authority of scripture, but believe that the authority of scripture actually derives from the authority of the Catholic Church. The magisterium is the authoritative keeper of the 'deposit of faith' which includes both scripture and tradition. We get into speculation if we try to get too much deeper into it. Yes, scripture and tradition can't be contradictory and the Church does not have the authority to contradict either scripture or tradition. But scripture and it's interpretation, and tradition are all dependent on the Authority of the Church. They really can't be separated. Some ecumenical minded theologians have described the Catholic model as also being prima scriptura. The huge difference is that we believe the college of Bishops in cooperation with the Pope teach infallibly in matters of Faith and morals. Authority, tradition and scripture must harmonize, but in the Catholic model authority is required and present!

The result of that is that when we Catholics have a question about the Faith we very seldom start with only scripture, and for expediency we often skip actually looking up the scripture in the Bible. 2000 years of history, teaching and tradition go before us. We'd be spinning our wheels unnecessarily if we didn't consult other sources - the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Encyclicals, the Doctors of the Church might all consulted along with scripture. These sources will cite and quote the most relevant scripture passages. It's going above and beyond to actually dig up a concordance (which most Catholics have never used) and try to re-examine the whole Bible.

My personal observation and opinion From a Catholic perspective, I don't see any fundamental difference between 'scripture first' and 'only scripture' as I observe various Protestants using them. The scripture only groups - Baptists, Evangelicals, non-denominational Bible churches - place scripture as an authority above any traditional interpretation, scholarly approach or any authority. The scripture first groups use models where scripture is one part of authority along with tradition and reason - This is described as the 'Anglican Three Legged Stool', or the 'Methodists quadrilateral'(scripture, tradition, reason, experience). The idea seems to be that they are of comparable weight and value except that nothing can contradict scripture. However, if the interpretation of scripture changes and someone decides as a result that scripture contradicts what has been passed down by tradition, tradition loses. So the overall result is the same to me - what ever interpretation of scripture I can manage to justify (politically to my followers) is superior to any traditional Christian doctrine no matter how central, ancient or strongly proclaimed.

So extreme Fundamentalists who take a very strict literal interpretation of scripture and end up denying the sacramental nature of Baptism and preach a 'once saved always saved' Gospel are actually very similar to liberal Episcopalians lesbian priestesses who claim that Christianity is compatible with both Islam and a homosexual lifestyle because they both reject 2000 years of constant Christian tradition on the authority of scripture as they interpret it.

Answer Part B
Culture Speaking in broad generalities and some speculation: Protestants more often than Catholics grow up in a home where the Bible is read often and conspicuously. Where a really devout Catholic family might pray the rosary as a family, a devout Protestant Family would be more likely to read the Bible as a family. For devotional time a Catholic parent might read the Bible on occasion, but would be most likely to use a Missal and follow the Lectionary or the Liturgy of the Hours or might read books by or about the Saints. A Protestant parent is much more likely to make the Bible a mainstay and constant element of their daily prayer time.

So Protestant kids are just plain much more likely to grow up having the Bible read to them, seeing Mom and Dad reading the Bible, having discussions centered on the Bible. And when they go to Sunday school the education program is likely tied very very closely to the Bible and involves actually reading actual Bibles especially for older children. While Catholic Religious Education is more likely to involved crappy workbooks that might have some Bible readings or short quotations. Typically, at least until recently, you'd very rarely find Catholic students reading from actual Bibles in Religious Education.

I've also observed that Protestant (esp. evangelical) programs for kids often have very very effective educational approaches to teaching scripture. Effective use of Songs and visual aides using all learning modalities and using a very effective (if dentally hazardous) system of positive reinforcement.

For many of the non-liturgical varieties of Protestantism the Sunday service consists largely of a very good, probably lengthy and hopefully well prepared and researched sermon. Many in the congregation are likely to be following along in their own Bibles. It is common for these sermons to jump between several books and the OT and NT, and at least some of the time involve reading longer passages as opposed to 'proof texting.'

Answer Part C
Framework This is really a derivation of both Part A and Part B. Protestants whether formally or informally are much more likely to have acquired a 'framework' or hermeneutic (or a set of hermeneutics) for approaching scripture. Those Bible discussions they've listened in on, or participated in and sermon series "preaching through Ezekiel" have transmitted more than facts - they have transmitted a 'tradition' of how to analyze and interpret scripture! Sunday school has provided anchor points and familiarity navigating the Bible and the different types of books. You will seldom find the poster of a bookshelf showing all the books of the bible arranged and color coded for Pentateuch, History, Poetry, Wisdom, Major Prophets, Minor Prophets.. in a Catholic RE classroom.

As a result most protestants that grew up attending church have 'sea legs' when it comes to reading the Bible. They may not have "all the answers" but they rightly feel like they know the terrain.

My guess is that most Catholics can easily feel overwhelmed by reading certain parts of the Bible - particularly Leviticus, Numbers, the Prophets - especially Danial and Amos, the Pauline epistles, and Revelation. I think generally Catholics do Okay with most of the Psalms, Genesis, and the Gospels. Although some of the parables can seem confusing. I think Catholics get easily frustrated with it. Partly because we don't have a plan for understanding it. Where I think it is more typical that Protestants do have a plan and some tools.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Spanning the Protestant / Catholic divide - Part I "Why Don't Catholics Know the Bible"

Intro: I have been interested in improving communication and reducing confusion between Protestants and Catholics for some time. My pet theory is that we often misunderstand and talk at cross purposes because we have different 'culture' and language, and that even when we use the same words, we may not understand them the same way. So this series is not meant to be apologetic so much as it is meant to be focused on the differences in how we approach Faith and the world.

While eating Mexican fast food with a large group of guys after a 12 step meeting last night I got into a conversation with a knowledgeable and fairly open minded Protestant. John mentioned that he was impressed that I was well informed about my faith and that in his experience Catholics have not been able to answer his questions and they didn't know the Bible.

So John asked me “Why don’t most Catholic know the Bible? ” Also I think he asked if reading the Bible on one’s own was discouraged by the Church.Afterward I wasn’t satisfied with my answer, so now I’m blogging about it. The question is not as simple to answer as it is to ask! My response was (roughly): “Catholics should read the Bible more on their own, but probably most don’t read it often. The Catholic Church is a Church of the Bible. I think its partly that it’s very comfortable being a Catholic. The Sacraments are efficacious regardless of my personal understanding.” It was an inadequate response. We were one conversation in a group and it wasn’t a time when we could focus on really fleshing things out.

So I’d like to take a crack at it here. The problems and solutions for dialoguing with Protestants has been one of my main lines of thought over the past few years, so I am planning to make this a series.

Answer Part A
Catholics do know the Bible! Yes, contrary to what nearly all Protestants and most Catholics believe, Catholics do actually know the Bible. I would even say that it is reasonable that in general the average ‘practicing’ Catholic knows the Bible roughly as well as the Average Protestant!

Catholics just don’t ‘know’ the Bible the same way that Protestants ‘know’ the Bible, or at least the way Catholics think that most Protestants ‘know’ the Bible. Usually Catholics feel inferior about our Bible knowledge because we can’t turn right to the Chapter and Verse for hardly anything, and we don’t generally have any verses perfectly memorized.On the other hand, Protestants are often portrayed in fiction and film and occasionally turn up on our door step seeming to know Chapter and Verse all up and down and forwards and backwards through the whole Bible.

And it is generally true that many ‘serious’ Protestants especially those from very Evangelical or Fundamentalist backgrounds will have spent more time personally reading the Bible and will have memorized at least a couple of dozen verses up to maybe a hundred or so. Thus as a Catholic I feel very inferior because I just paraphrase, usually mix up passages from a couple of places and have a hard time locating any of it quickly by Chapter and verse.

On the other hand, Catholics who attend Mass every Sunday hear a lot of scripture! Three readings usually one Old Testament, one New Testament (epistles, Acts and Revelation) and one Gospel each between 5 and 15 verses or occasionally longer. In the 3 year cycle of readings for the Sunday Mass we hear a pretty healthy fraction of the Bible and certainly all of the most significant passages.

From the readings at Sunday Mass alone, nearly every Catholic who consistently attends Mass weekly is very familiar with all the really significant parts of scripture. I’m not implying in the least that we should call that “good enough” or that there is nothing of value or importance that we’re missing. What I am saying is that Catholics who actually attend Mass actually do know reasonably well what is in the Bible – we just aren’t very good at finding it.

At the same time, I’m not convinced that taken as a whole Protestants really know the Bible all that well. Certainly among certain branches of Protestantism there is a very strong tradition of Bible study, and there are Protestants who really do know the Bible in and out. But I have questions. How often is Bible knowledge heavily focused on particular passages and books – spotty? How often is Bible knowledge focused on memorizing isolated verses and proof texting? How often is Bible knowledge distorted by rigorous use of a particular hermeneutic or denominational understanding?

What I quickly discovered in my own journey is that often times the “Commanding Knowledge” of the Bible I was confronting was pretty easy to deflate. Just memorizing 7 verses supporting the Catholic doctrines and insisting on reading verses in context, and having confidence to know that there are answers and I found that most debates with Protestant Bible thumpers ended very quickly and they seldom make another run at me.

Answer Part B
We have tried / are trying. All my lifetime I’ve known that reading the Bible either personally or in a study group is very much encouraged. Certainly since Vatican II the Church has strongly encouraged Bible reading. Every parish I’ve ever attended was continually offering and starting Bible studies.

I think a healthy majority of practicing Catholics have made an effort at one time or another to ‘read the Bible’ and a pretty good percentage has joined a Bible Study group at least once. Yet overall, it doesn’t seem like serious Bible reading has ‘caught on’ among Catholics. Still, I think most Catholics have managed to read Genesis, the Gospels, a healthy selection of the Psalms and a spattering of everything else.

Answer Part C
Basic Explanation: Reading the Bible is HARD. It’s difficult to build a habit. The Bible is readable in some areas, but many books are very dry, or confusing. Some parts of the Old Testament are difficult to relate to the present. We don’t know the history and background well enough to really keep track of what is going on in the historic books. Romans in particular and large parts of the other Pauline epistles are very confusing to follow and sort out. Not to mention Revelation.

It is generally not something we grew up doing, and seeing our parents do, so we don’t have a framework for it. Generally, Catholic religious education both at the parish and at home, doesn’t focus on the Bible. One result is that the Bible isn’t seen as the source for what we need to know – which is partly true. Another result is that we don’t learn a basic familiarity with Catholic principles for interpreting scripture (literal, allegorical, moral and anagogical senses) and don’t get a ‘feel’ for the various types of literature in the Bible, and a general sense of the history of Israel and how the prophets fit in with the Chronology. Then when we come to the Bible as an adult, we have a hard time ‘developing our sea legs.’

Answer Part D
For Catholics there is no ‘need’ or question that drives us to read the Bible! This is the answer I was trying to get at with my initial reply. As Catholics, we are content with our 'uncertain' salvation. We accept our Sacramental System and that's that. We just don't worry about Calvin, vs. Zwingli vs. Luther vs. Wesley vs. NT Wright when it comes to salvation. The average Catholic seldom or never gets into theological debates unless we’re “attacked” by Protestant evangelizers.

And this is actually HEALTHY. We know that we are justified through Faith in Jesus Christ. We know that we were Baptized and that we receive Communion and go to Confession and most of us have been Confirmed. We know that these Sacraments are Mysterious and real symbols of God’s grace and that we receive the free gift of God’s grace through the sacraments. We understand that our minor sins are forgiven in the two confessions we make during every Mass and that we are united to Jesus Christ by receiving His Body and Blood in the Eucharist. We understand that when we confess serious (or minor) sins to a Priest and receive absolution we don’t have to worry anymore if we are “truly sorry;” the sacrament is not dependent on our subjective emotional feelings. Once we’ve received absolution – from Jesus through the Priest we know for sure that we are forgiven from ALL our sins.

The average Catholic could use a refresher course on the details of being in a “state of grace” and how that relates to what Paul is talking about in Romans regarding being in the Spirit and the Obedience of Faith as opposed to being “a slave to sin” or “in the flesh.” I think that nearly all practicing Catholics have the essential understanding intuitively, even if they are pretty fuzzy on the details and vocabulary. And again, grace doesn't require our knowledge or comprehension.

Having the Sacraments, particularly Baptism, Confession and Eucharist leads to a great sense of security. Catholics who actually attend Mass regularly at least intuitively understand the Sacraments and as a result, the questions, theological or personal or ecclesiastical , that might make Bible study an urgent priority just aren’t there for us.

That leaves a perfect lead in for Part II in this series: Why Do Protestants focus so much on reading the Bible?