July 21, 2014

A key Protestant belief is the priority of Scripture. Catholics, while not denigrating Scripture, have held to the crucial importance of Christ's real presence in the Eucharist.

The final chapter of the Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) raises the question of the relative importance of the two. It begins with the striking statement, "The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures as it has venerated the body of the Lord" (DV 21).

This statement, although well rooted in Church Tradition, raised fears among some bishops at the Second Vatican Council that such a pronouncement could lead to a diminished sense of Christ's presence in the Eucharist.

In fact, the opposite has been the case. While in the Western world there has indeed been a decline in the belief that the Eucharist is truly Christ's body and blood, one would be hard-pressed to link the decline to this statement in Dei Verbum.

The structure of the Mass has always linked the proclamation of the Word with the celebration of the Eucharist.

The structure of the Mass has always linked the proclamation of the Word with the celebration of the Eucharist.

Rather, what has occurred since Vatican II has been an increased reverence for Sacred Scripture. That is exactly what the fathers of Vatican II wanted. If traditional devotions have declined in prominence, prayer and study rooted in Scripture have undergone a resurgence.

The structure of the Mass has always linked the proclamation of the Word with the celebration of the Eucharist. The liturgical revisions following the council made this link even clearer.

Scripture, states Dei Verbum, is the living word of God. Far from being a collection of ancient texts of historical interest only, the Scriptures "make the voice of the Holy Spirit sound again and again in the words of the prophets and apostles.

"In the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven comes lovingly to meet his children and talks with them." The Bible is "a pure and unfailing font of spiritual life" (DV 21).

Paragraph 21 sets the foundation for the rest of this brief chapter on Sacred Scripture in the Life of the Church which describes the importance of the Bible in the lives of the faithful, in theology and in preaching.

The next paragraph stresses the importance of making the Bible available to all the faithful through "suitable and correct" translations.

This assertion eliminates the restrictions on Bible reading by the faithful which had been laid down by several popes until the mid-19th century. The Bible could never be the "unfailing font of spiritual life" if the laity were prevented from reading it.

The call for quality translations should be obvious. Yet, one only needs to recall the experience of St. Augustine in the late fourth century. Because of the poor quality of translations of the Bible into Latin available to the young Augustine, who could not read Greek, his conversion to the Christian faith was delayed.

Dei Verbum goes on to emphasize that the Bible belongs, not only to theologians and biblical scholars, but to the whole Church. The scientific explorations of the biblical text are important in helping to deepen our understanding of the meaning of Scripture, but they are not the final authority.

Instead, Scripture ought to be read in light of the reflections of the Fathers of the Church – sadly, the fathers are still too often ignored – the liturgy and, especially, the mind of the Church.

Dei Verbum says we ought to read Scripture "under the watchful eye of the sacred magisterium." It needs to be noted here that the pope and bishops almost never state how specific passages of the Bible ought to be interpreted and only rarely warn against false or misleading interpretations.

As for Scripture scholars, the Vatican II constitution urges them to think with the mind of the Church and to help the ministers of the Word communicate the Bible fully and accurately.


Theologians are exhorted to make "the study of the sacred page . . . the very soul of sacred theology." While such exhortations go back to Pope Leo XIII in the late 19th century, until Vatican II theology was based less on Scripture than on commentaries that interpreted (or misinterpreted) the works of St. Thomas Aquinas. Scripture now plays a much larger role in theology than prior to Dei Verbum.

Finally, the document describes the Bible as having special importance for the development of the spiritual lives of the faithful. All Christians are urged "to learn 'the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ' (Philippians 3.8) by frequent reading of the Divine Scriptures" (DV 25).

This reading aims not solely at an intellectual learning about the Lord, but most importantly at a dialogue between God and the human person who reads the biblical text. When one prays with Scripture, he or she aims not to read a large amount of a book in one sitting, but just short segments and to listen to how, in those few words, God is speaking to you and what you might have to say to God.


Dei Verbum concludes with the hopeful prediction that by giving Scripture a more central place in the life of the Church, including its devotional life, one may expect a spiritual renewal to occur.

Abundant signs of such renewal exist. If the Church does not seem totally on fire with the love of the Lord, it may be because Dei Verbum's exhortations to pray with Scripture and to treat it with the same reverence we treat the Eucharist have still not become central in the Church's life.