At the October Synod

Theologian Michael Waldstein, who participated in it, reflects on his experiences.

The 12th Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops took place at the Vatican October 5-26, reflecting on the theme “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church.” In addition to the more than 250 “synod fathers” (bishops, patriarchs, and representatives from clerical religious orders), also participating were approximately three dozen theological experts from all over the world. Michael Waldstein, Ph.D., the Max Seckler Professor of Theology at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, Florida, was one of those experts and spoke with Catholic World Report about his experiences participating in the synod.

CWR: First of all, what was the purpose of the synod?

Michael Waldstein: The purpose was to understand, more deeply and in a pastoral way, the role of the Word of God in the life and mission of the Church. So the synod was not only about Scripture, but it was also about the eternal Word of God, about the preaching of Jesus, the preaching of the apostles, and the continuation of that teaching in tradition and in the Magisterium. Scripture played a key role in the thought of the synod, but the theme was broader.

CWR: What were the phases of the experts’ work at the synod?

Waldstein: The first phase was summarizing and thinking in a reflective way about the contributions of the [synod] fathers on a particular topic. The instrumentum laboris [working document] was divided into sections, and the various experts could choose what section they wanted to work on to send a report to the general speaker of the synod, the relator. The next phase was for the experts to help the bishops in the 12 different language groups formulate propositions. After that, three groups of four bishops, one from each language, were formed, and they united the propositions across languages. The next major period of the synod was the modi, the modification and improvement of the propositions. Then experts again helped the bishops come up with good ways of formulating improved statements to present to the Pope.

CWR: The Holy Father, both before his election as pope and during his pontificate, has concentrated on revelation and Scripture in his main works. How did you see his influence at the synod?

Waldstein: It was clear that many of the synod fathers had read the Pope’s book on Jesus, and also a number of his other writings. Many of his ideas came to the fore in the synod, in particular his ideas about the close connection between the Word of God in Scripture and in the Eucharist. So the Pope’s liturgical interest came out very strongly in the contributions of the bishops. In addition to the liturgical theme, I also noticed the theme of the Pope’s Regensburg lecture about reason. At a certain point while the fathers were still giving their own contributions, he intervened—which was somewhat extraordinary—with a very beautifully worked out account of how, in order to read the Bible in the right way, you need both the historicalcritical method, purified from within, and a theological method that pays attention to the unity of Scripture and to the Church as the real subject of faith in the Scriptures. So there one could see his concern for the presence of reason, but of a purified reason.

CWR: Apart from the Holy Father’s intervention, how would you say these issues appeared in the rest of the synod among the bishops and the experts?

Waldstein: One of the pastoral concerns connected with the liturgy was preaching, and in talking about preaching many of the fathers talked about the need to form priests in the seminaries so that they can preach Scripture in the right way. According to many of them the experience of their seminarians in Scripture courses is either boredom— they don’t see the relevance of that approach to Scripture to their future pastoral work—or a tendency to make Scripture a dead letter, a matter only of the past. Then it becomes no longer possible to talk about Scripture as an act of communication between God and us today.

CWR: I’d like to ask you about the relationship between the Word of God in Scripture and in the Eucharist, in the liturgy. How was this theme discussed at the synod?

Waldstein: There was a lot of discussion in the synod of the relation of Scripture and the Eucharist. It also came up in the context of preaching. One bishop, Bishop Gregor Maria Hanke of Eichstätt in Germany, argued that the presence of God in Scripture is ordered to the presence of God in the Eucharist, somewhat like the way in which the marriage vows between a man and a woman are then consummated in the flesh in the conjugal act. The relationship between Scripture read at Mass and the Eucharist is similar. The origin of the Christian canon seems to lie in the decision about which books are to be read at Mass. So the Christian Scriptures are essentially a liturgical derivate, they are a liturgical entity. In their historical context, they are intelligible only in the context of the liturgy.

CWR: One of the hot button issues in Scripture scholarship, particularly since Vatican II, has been what inspiration and inerrancy mean in Scripture, especially in light of Dei Verbum 11, which reads, “Since, therefore, all that the inspired authors, or sacred writers, affi rm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error, teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the sacred Scriptures.” Was this issue taken up during the synod?

Waldstein: In the working document, one of the propositions was that the inerrancy of Scripture applies only to matters of faith and morals. The document
quoted Dei Verbum 11 in that context, implying that Dei Vebrum suggests as much. Before the synod even began there was a good amount of discussion of that point among the experts and bishops participating in the synod, and it came up at the synod in a very direct question by Cardinal Peter Turkson of Cape Coast, Ghana, who asked where the word “only” in the phrase “only in matters of faith and morals” came from, because it’s not there in Dei Verbum 11. In fact, in the footnotes of Dei Verbum, there’s a reference to a passage from an encyclical that explicitly rejects that understanding of inerrancy. Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, at a certain point explained that this is not the correct way of understanding the inerrancy of Scripture.

The first and fundamental point to be made about Scripture is that it’s the Word of God; that is, God himself speaks through the human authors. That fundamental truth must be preserved. Once you say that God speaks, it immediately follows that God won’t say what’s not true. It is incompatible with the very nature of God as eternal truth to say what’s not true. But in actual practice, it’s not as straightforward as it might seem. When you’re dealing with Genesis, for example, you’re not in the genre of history, but of sacred lore. It would be against the intention of the text to interpret it as affi rming that the world is only 6,000 years old; it would be imposing a literary genre on the text that doesn’t belong to it. Much of the traditional problems of inerrancy can be settled in that way, by paying close attention to what the real intention of the human author is. Historical- critical studies are absolutely crucial at that point. Unless you are very careful in situating and grasping the literary genre of the Scriptures you are likely to be misled and to create false problems, such as: God says the world is 6,000 years old, but the scientists say it’s millions of years old, so whom do I believe? It’s the wrong problem.

CWR: Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople was present. What was the significance of his presence?

Waldstein: There was a special Vespers sung by all the bishops and the Sistine Chapel choir at which Benedict presided and Patriarch Bartholomew co presided. He then gave a long, beautiful talk to the bishops. He said that he considers this a historic event because it was the fi rst time a patriarch of the Orthodox Church addressed a synod of Catholic bishops. In the talk, the patriarch refl ected on the synodal principle in relation to the primacy of Peter. He said that there was a real common ground between the Catholic synodal understanding and Orthodox synodal understanding. He expressed the hope that similar common ground will be found also on the question of primacy. That was an extremely important statement of ecumenical hope. I think that was one of the major events at the synod.

CWR: When the Holy Father releases the post-synodal exhortation, it will obviously include teaching. Will there also be pastoral implications?

Waldstein: There will be a lot on pastoral questions. One of the more controversial propositions was that the office of lector be given to women. A number of bishops felt that the office of lector primarily plays a role in educating priests as one of the stages toward the priesthood, and that opening this office to women could be understood by some to be a movement in the direction of women priests. That may have been one reason why this proposition had a substantial number of “no” votes attached to it. It passed by a two-thirds majority, but in contrast to that, most of the other propositions were passed without virtually any “no” votes.

CWR: The strong consensus seen at this synod, which has not been customary at previous synods, has been widely remarked upon. How do you account for it?

Waldstein: I was really struck by the spirit of collaboration among the bishops. There was a clear sense that there was a common concern, a common good that needed to be protected, developed, and proposed. That was the dominant tone: the sense of common responsibility for the presence of the Word of God in the Church’s life and mission.

CWR: This was your first synod. What were your dominant impressions?

Waldstein: An impression of real joy in the vitality of the Catholic Church and a perception that the Catholic Church in Europe and in the United States— which are really the only parts of the Church I was familiar with before—are relatively small pieces of the Church universal. Africa and Asia are substantial parts of the Church. The African bishops in particular radiated the vitality of faith, whereas many of the European bishops in particular, and also some North American bishops, were weighed down by the inroads secularism has made in their regions.


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About Thomas P. Harmon 17 Articles
Thomas P. Harmon is Associate Professor and Scanlan Foundation Chair in Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, TX. He lives in Sugar Land with his wife and five children.