The Word and the Church

Although it was one of the signature innovations of the Second Vatican Council, the Synod of Bishops rarely receives the rapt attention of the people of the Church. Yet Synods have been the occasions for some of the most important decisions and documents of recent Catholic history.

The 1985 Extraordinary Synod, which marked Vatican II’s 20th anniversary, decisively shifted the interpretation of the Council from a template of discontinuity and virtual revolution to a template of continuity, retrieval, and renewal: the notion that the Catholic Church began anew between 1962 and 1965 was buried at the 1985 Synod, even if some people (akin to 90-year old Japanese soldiers on remote Pacific islands) haven’t gotten the word. The 1990 Synod on priestly formation led to the 1992 apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis (I Will Give You Shepherds), which confirmed the sacral character of the ordained priesthood and immensely influenced the “John Paul II generation” of younger priests. The 1994 Synod on religious life eventually yielded Vita Consecrata (The Consecrated Life), the magna carta of religious communities that are growing rather than dying. The pre-Jubilee regional Synods gave us, among other things, Ecclesia in Europa (The Church in Europe), John Paul II’s prescient analysis of Europe’s current crisis of civilizational morale.

What of this past year’s Synod on “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church”?

Writing in the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, Father Robert Imbelli of Boston College, a Synod observer, made several trenchant observations about key themes in the Synod that one hopes will take root in the “life and mission of the Church:”

The “Word of God” is a multi-dimensional concept. It includes holy Scripture but is not confined to it. The Bible is the written witness to the fact that “the Word of God is ultimately a Person. It is Jesus Christ himself who is the full and final embodiment of God’s Word ... [which] ‘became flesh and dwelt among us’ [John 1/14].”

Thus, as important as the Bible is, Christianity is not so much the “religion of the book” as “the religion of the person: the person of Jesus Christ who calls all into personal communion with the Father through him.”

Jesus is the key to unlocking the scriptural treasury. The Bible isn’t a random collection of books. Because the biblical witness always aims at Jesus and testifies to him, Jesus Christ is the “principle of interpretation” that should guide our reading of both testaments.

Historical-critical approaches to biblical study are important, because the Word came into history. Still, historical criticism has its limits; it can tell us important things about the past, but the Bible is not just a book about the past. It “challenges [us] in the present, and [it] opens [us] to a future fulfillment.” Therefore, the Eucharist, where the living Christ opens the book of the Word of God for his people, is a privileged place to “hear” the Scriptures. And because the Bible speaks of now and tomorrow, not just a distant yesterday, different methods of reading Scripture are important.

Biblical study and dogmatic theology need each other. If biblical scholars ignore theologians and approach the sacred text as an entomologist approaches a dead bug, Scripture will cease to be the “soul of theology.” Conversely, theology without Scripture is theology that “no longer has a foundation,” as Benedict XVI put it at the Synod.

Biblical preaching should be “mystagogic:” bishops, priests and deacons should break open the biblical texts so that they lead to “a life-giving encounter with Jesus Christ, the very Word incarnate.”

Receiving the Word of God in its many dimensions should make the Church less self-focused and more intent on its mission. Christ, not the Church, is the light of the world. By preaching and witnessing to the Word incarnate, the Church lives its vocation and best serves the world.

In sum: discipleship is not just a question of our “appropriating” God’s Word, but of letting the Word of God take hold of us -- and shaking us up, when and if necessary.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.