ROME — Four decades after the close of the Second Vatican Council, some theologians believe that Dei Verbum, the document on divine revelation issued in December 1965, may prove to be the council’s most important development.
The “Dei Verbum revolution” will come, they say, when its call for a wider and deeper reading and understanding of Scripture is fully rooted in the Church, especially among laypeople.
According to Dei Verbum, “Easy access to sacred Scripture should be provided for all the Christian faithful.” But 40 years after its release, do lay Catholics really know the Bible any better than the pre-conciliar generation?
Scott Hahn, a professor at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, said that lay encounters with Scripture are “exploding” in some areas. Examples include the increased amount of the Bible that is read at Mass, parish-based Bible study groups that were unheard of before the council, and a bevy of Catholic books on the Bible and Scripture studies on the Internet.
Still, Hahn insists, “the vision of Dei Verbum has yet to be implemented. It is virtually inexhaustible. I have been teaching it for 10 years, and I always find something new.”
Hahn recently released Letter and Spirit, a journal based on Dei Verbum. He also heads the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, which offers books for parish study and online resources, and has written a high school textbook on Scripture that also has been adapted for adult use.
Lay Catholics also have access to Scripture through Mother Angelica’s worldwide network, EWTN. Many EWTN programs cite Scripture, and there are regular shows that deal specifically with the Bible. One of the most popular is a discussion of Scripture by Timothy O’Donnell, president of Christendom College in Front Royal, Va.
Catholic News Service, run by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, offers a biblical study series as part of its “Faith Alive!” feature that it sends out to Catholic diocesan newspapers and other Catholic media outlets throughout the United States and Canada. And the number of authorized translations of the Bible has increased dramatically over the past 40 years, Hahn noted, with footnotes and study guides that are the result of recent biblical scholarship and archeological findings.
“Dei Verbum was the crown jewel of Vatican II because it gave the faithful the foundation to dispel ignorance of Christ and his teachings,” said Kelly Bowring, a professor at the new Southern Catholic College outside Atlanta, who previously worked at the U.S. bishops’ conference. “It answered the most fundamental questions of our faith: How can we know God, and what has he revealed about himself for our salvation?”
According to Cardinal Avery Dulles, Dei Verbum was revolutionary as the first magisterial statement to declare exactly what divine revelation is — by defining the relationship between the written word of the Bible, the sacred Tradition handed down from the apostles and the ongoing development of doctrine guided by interpretative authority of the Church’s magisterium.
“The canon of Scripture has been set for centuries,” said Cardinal Dulles, the McGinley Professor at Fordham University in the Bronx, “but the document clearly states that revelation is more than just the written Word of God. Scripture is the norm, but that’s not all we need to understand God’s revelation to man through the Church.”
Cardinal Dulles said Dei Verbum was a breakthrough in scholarship because it resulted from the input of two theological factions working at the council. Some Scripture scholars, in keeping with the Church Fathers, wanted to retain the practice of interpreting the Bible in a symbolic or typological manner, whereas some systematic theologians wanted to admit only a literal interpretation of what the human author meant to say.
Dei Verbum “settled that dispute by taking a median position that satisfied both,” Cardinal Dulles explained. “It said that there are various levels of interpretation, and that all shed light on the meaning of the Word, although the literal is normative.”
According to Hahn, the “Dei Verbum revolution” began in 1970 with the revised Lectionary, which contains the biblical readings for Sunday and weekday Masses. Instead of a one-year cycle of limited readings, in which the same Scripture passages generally were read in the same order each year, the new Lectionary instituted a three-year cycle for Sundays and a two-year cycle for weekdays.
The result: “Catholics now read and hear more Scripture during their liturgies than any other Christians,” said Hahn, a former Protestant minister whose conversion was prompted by his study of Scripture. “Many other churches have adopted the Catholic cycle of readings for their own use. This is revolutionary when you consider that Protestants have objected for centuries over what they perceived as a lack of Scripture in the Catholic Church.”
As Catholics have heard more from the Bible at Mass, they have also desired to learn more about it in parish settings, Hahn said.
Little Rock Scripture Study, the longest-running and largest Catholic Bible course for lay- people, was founded in 1974 upon the principles of Dei Verbum. Available in English and Spanish, the Little Rock program is used in 7,000-9,000 parishes in all 50 U.S. states, Canada and dozens of other countries.
Created by the Diocese of Little Rock, Arkansas, the course has 35 study programs covering most of the New Testament and portions of the Old Testament. It operates in small-group settings, training parish facilitators and providing reading schedules and discussion guidelines, along with videotapes and audiotapes of biblical experts.
The heart of the Little Rock method, however, is a small group of average Catholics opening the Bible with the guidance of a volunteer facilitator and encountering the Word of God as it is read and discussed
“We believe in the collective wisdom of the participants,” said Cackie Upchurch, director of Little Rock Scripture Study. “We provide materials for guidance, and of course we follow the teaching authority of the Church in all matters, and we try to lead people to make the Scriptures personal, to apply them to their own lives and situations, and to grow as disciples by bringing the Word of God to life in their daily experience at home and work and in their communities.”
Maria Caulfield is based in