Constitution on Revelation born with labour pains

May 26, 2014

You won't have to travel far in the company of theologians before you find one . . . or many who declare that the Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) was the most important document produced at the Second Vatican Council.

To a casual observer, this may not seem so obvious.

It was the changes in the liturgy that had the greatest effect on the way we celebrate our faith; it was the document on the Church that cut a swath through clericalism and presented the Church as a communion first and a hierarchy second; it was the document on the Church in the modern world that really moved the Church out of the sacristy and into conversation with the secular movements of the time.

Yet, when all is said and done, Dei Verbum had a mighty effect on the Church. It put an end to squabble over what was most important – Scripture or tradition – by seeing them both as expressions of God's one Word.

It firmly established as Catholic teaching the contention that the Bible is a human document (or documents), although certainly one inspired by God.

Joseph Ratzinger is shown in this 1977 photo on the day of his ordination as archbishop of Munich. Ratzinger was decidedly cool to the original proposed document on revelation.


Joseph Ratzinger is shown in this 1977 photo on the day of his ordination as archbishop of Munich. Ratzinger was decidedly cool to the original proposed document on revelation.

Dei Verbum kindled a new Catholic appreciation and love for the Bible. As well, it led to massive changes in catechetics growing out of its contention that learning the faith is not an intellectual process so much as an encounter with the person of Jesus Christ.


Some theologians, however, would be reluctant to give primacy to any one document of Vatican II. All the documents, at least the major ones, they would argue, need to be read in light of all the others. There is, they would say, "an intertextual dynamic" that is greater than the sum of all the documents read separately.

Moreover, to understand the full meaning of the council, one cannot just read the words on the page; one must know the history of the council and how the documents evolved into their final shape.

This series of articles is clearly based on the assumption that this latter point is true. It is especially true of Dei Verbum whose approval amounted to a bold, unequivocal rejection of the type of theology that was being taught in the Roman pontifical universities at that time.

That does not, however, mean that the constitution rejected Church teaching, only that it implied an overhaul of the theological framework in which that teaching was passed on.

The first attempt at a document on divine revelation – De Fontibus Revelationis – came to the council floor in November 1962. A young Joseph Ratzinger called it "a canonization of Roman school theology," one that was impregnated with "cramped thinking" and filled with negations and prohibitions.

The council fathers rose up and, through a complicated process, rejected De Fontibus. It was the moment of liberation for the bishops who had come to the council; the defeat of De Fontibus made it clear that they would not be dictated to by the Roman Curia.


But once the bishops had rejected the document, it was not at all clear what they would put in its place. However, as Ratzinger later pointed out, there were three theological movements that had long been brewing that would add some zest to the process of discovery.

First, there was a new understanding of the nature of sacred tradition that had been percolating since the beginning of the 19th century. Rather than seeing tradition as fixed and immovable, the new view was that tradition was evolving in an organic way through the centuries. Tradition today is not the same as tradition in say, the fourth century.

Second, there was the rise of new historical and critical methods of studying the Bible – a movement at first sharply rejected by the Church and then cautiously embraced in Pope Pius XII's 1943 encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu. The Bible was no longer seen as a collection of writings dictated by the Holy Spirit, but rather as inspired documents that had nevertheless evolved through processes similar to those of other ancient texts.

Third, there was the rise of the modern biblical movement, a movement that maintained the Bible is God's living Word that can bring life to those who read, study and pray with it.


Ratzinger notes that, unlike the reform of the liturgy or even the theology of the nature of the Church, there was no one out there who had developed a "mature conclusion" about the nature of divine revelation.

The discussion of this topic at Vatican II "took place in an atmosphere of restless theological ferment and sometimes almost risked being overwhelmed by it."

The first efforts at providing an alternative to De Fontibus were seen as steps in the right direction, steps that nevertheless left no one satisfied. It would take until 1965 that the council came up with the final text of Dei Verbum, a text that Ratzinger said was "the result of many compromises," but which nevertheless brought Catholic theology into the 20th century.