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by Fr. Thomas McGovern

            The more one studies the new Catechism of the Catholic Church the more the conviction grows that it is truly what John Paul II calls it ,‘a service to the whole Church’. This is how the Holy Father describes it in the Apostolic Constitution Fidei Depositum, the document which introduces the text of the new Catechism.

            In a very real sense the Catechism is one of the mature fruits of Vatican II. It is there that we find the theological identity of the Catechism, and nowhere is this more evident than in the section dealing with Sacred Scripture, which gives a very complete synthesis of the Church’s teaching on the inspired text, drawing largely on the Vatican II constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Vebum, promulgated in November 1965.

            Putting the Catechism in its historical context we see that it has a direct parallel with the Roman Catechism. This document was distilled from the teachings of the Council of Trent and appeared for the first time in 1566. However, it is noteworthy that in the Roman Catechism, which is a model for the new Catechism in terms of structure, there is not a single chapter, section or paragraph dedicated to the theology of Sacred Scripture, although the inspired text impregnates and illustrates its every page. It doesn’t discourse directly about the fundamental aspects of Scripture - inspiration, inerrancy, criteria of interpretation, etc. Neither does it deal with the question of the biblical canon, a theme on which the Council of Trent delivered a dogmatic definition some twenty years before. [1] 

            The Catechism is a statement of the faith of the Church. While it is true that it derives its theological identity from the documents of Vatican II, it is also of interest to note how, in particular aspects, the Catechism represents a development of the conciliar doctrine. In this article I would like to illustrate how this is the case in relation to Sacred Scripture by drawing some comparisons between the text of Dei Verbum (DV) and the relevant sections of the Catechism.

            We find the teaching on Sacred Scripture in Article 3 of Chapter 2 (nos.101-141), which is immediately preceded by an exposition of God’s Revelation (art. 1) and the Transmission of Divine Revelation (art.2). It is of interest to note that the doctrine on Scripture is located in the more properly dogmatic part of the Catechism, under the general heading of The Profession of Faith. Thus it offers no hostages in the direction of biblical historicism; on the contrary it affirms very clearly the dogmatic nature of the fundamental concepts of Scripture such as revelation, inspiration, canonicity, and the principles of biblical hermeneutics.

            The Catechism constitutes an authorized expression of how the Magisterium of the Church understands, receives and expounds the content of Sacred Scripture today. It is clearly not an exegetical treatise, nor a biblical commentary, but ‘an organic synthesis of the essential and fundamental contents of Catholic doctrine’ (no.11).

            A number of historical factors contribute to explaining why the Catechism contains such a substantial treatment of Scripture by comparison with its predecessor:

            a) the attention paid by the Magisterium, particularly since Leo XIII’s encyclical Providentissimus Deus, to promoting and guiding biblical studies, as well as the reading of Scripture by the faithful. We could say that today Biblical culture is of particular interest for the enterprise of Christian formation.

            b) since the nineteenth century the application of critical methods to the study of Scripture has raised problems in relation to the faith, which have overflowed from scholarly circles into the domain of popular theology.

            c) the dubious hypotheses of much of contemporary biblical exegesis have filtered into theology and catechesis with, at times, very questionable results. As one theologian has commented: ‘the contributions of critical biblical scholarship either to real history or to authentic theology have not up to now been particularly impressive and have certainly not had the character of transmitting faith to succeeding generations’. [2]       

Christocentric nature of Scripture

            The Christocentric nature of the Catechism as a whole is reflected in its treatment of Scripture. What is striking is that the very first section in art.3 dealing with Scripture has the heading ‘Christ - the Unique Word of Sacred Scripture’.  This is cross-referenced to paragraph no.65 of the Catechism, where Christ is described as ‘the Father’s one, perfect and unsurpassable Word’. Both formulae affirm, in very radical language, that Christ is the fullness of revelation and the center of the entire biblical message.

            A fundamental text of the Catechism, one which does not appear in DV, would seem to be: ‘Through all the words of Sacred Scripture, God speaks only one single Word, his one Utterance in whom he expresses himself completely’ (no.102). This affirmation underlines the unbreakable internal unity of the revealed message - the one unique Word, Christ - and thus constitutes a clear refusal to admit any kind of antithesis or contradiction in the text, as the bultmann and post-bultmannian schools of exegesis have suggested. In the footnote we find a reference to Heb 1:1-3, where it is  affirmed that Christ, in continuity with the Old Testament, came to perfect the revelation manifested by God at other times through the prophets.

            The cross-reference to no. 2763 confirms this, where it teaches that ‘All the Scriptures - the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms - are fulfilled in Christ’. Christ is thus presented as the centre and the fullness of biblical revelation, and as the realization and the fulfilment of the truth which had been heralded. Any attempt to go beyond the New Testament revelation is therefore declared to be false, as is also the idea of considering it just as one of the peaks of revelation, important but partial nonetheless, and thus in need of subsequent correction or accommodation. The formula ‘one, perfect and unsurpassable’ implies that in Christ the Father says everything, and that there will be ‘no word other than this’. Christ completes the time of waiting, because he realizes in his own person the promises made many centuries before; and he could not but fulfil them being the Son of God, the Only-Begotten Word of the Father.

Sacred Scripture and the Incarnation

            From this centrality of Christ to the Bible two consequences derive - the veneration which is due to Scripture, and the constant use which the Church makes of it to draw nourishment and strength. However, before developing these implications, we should examine closely the introductory paragraph of this section - no.101, in which we find the well know text of DV 13 about the divine condescension.

            While this was added by way of appendix to the section of DV dealing with the interpretation of the Bible, in the Catechism it becomes the introductory text to the part dealing with the Christocentric nature of Scripture. This positioning is particularly appropriate for the section which provides a concise and complete synthesis of the parallelism which exists between the mystery of Scripture and that of the Incarnation, this latter being the culminating point of the manifestation of the Word of God in history. ‘Indeed the words of God, expressed in the words of men, are in every way like human language, just as the Word of the eternal Father, when he took on himself the flesh of human weakness, became like men’ (DV 13 quoted in no.101 of the Catechism). Scripture is a ‘quasi incarnation’ of the Word of God, because by coming close to, and being heard by men, the Word of God ‘entered’ into human words; that is, divine language assumes the language of men. As in the Incarnation, there was a real ‘humiliation’ (cf Phil 2:8) of God and of his word, but without his language losing its divine-supernatural character. With its human apparel, the Bible continues to be divine language. In this way, just as the humanity of Christ was not a veil which obscured his divinity but rather the most appropriate means by which man could come close to God, so, by means of human words, the divine language is manifested in a way which is very appropriate to our nature. [3]

            If this is the case, then one cannot but have a profound sentiment of veneration for Sacred Scripture. In the words of no.103: ‘For this reason, the Church has always venerated the Scriptures as she venerates the Lord’s Body. She never ceases to present to the faithful the bread of life, taken from the one table of God’s Word and Christ’s Body’. [4] The footnote at this point refers to DV 21, where the theme is developed of the normative character which Scripture, together with Tradition, possesses as a rule of faith, and the need which the whole Christian life has to be nourished and regulated by Scripture. The cross-references are to points in the Catechism which emphasise the great veneration with which the Church uses Scripture: giving it life in the liturgy (nos. 1100, 1378), and encouraging it to be preached from a suitable place (no.1184).

            In no.104 it is explicitly stated that ‘in Sacred Scripture the Church constantly finds her nourishment and her strength’, conscious that what she receives is not a mere human word, but ‘the word of God’. Thus the Catechism concludes that the Church, when reading the Bible, is aware of finding herself in loving conversation with God our Father and Lord, who comes to meet his children through its pages (cf no.104).

Inspiration and the Truth of Scripture

            As regards its teaching on scriptural inspiration, the Catechism basically reproduces the text of Dei Verbum on this doctrine. However, since a catechism by its very nature emphasises the didactic-pedagogical aspect, it breaks down DV 11 into its three main ideas:
            a) God is the author of Sacred Scripture (no.105)

            b) God inspired the human authors of the sacred books (no.106)

            c) the inspired books teach the truth (no.107).

            God the Author of Scripture:            With this approach we are presented with a concept of inspiration which emphasises its most important element i.e. its divine origin, the divine influence on the hagiographer, and its capacity to teach the truth. Because these elements are essential to it, they cannot be omitted from a theological statement of the Catholic concept of inspiration, nor from any enterprise which is properly exegetical in which the fact of inspiration demands the recognition of its particular hermeneutical significance.

            What primarily characterizes Sacred Scripture and what makes it different from any other kind of book is the fact of its divine origin. The Catechism (no.105) affirms the solemn declaration, made by Vatican I and taken up by Vatican II, on the sacredness and canonicity of all the books of the Bible in all their integrity because, ‘written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author, and have been handed on as such to the Church herself’.

            Their supernatural divine origin, and the fact that they have been entrusted to the Church as inspired, find a confluence in the concept of canonicity. The motive by which the Church accepts these books as sacred and canonical is based on the ‘faith of the apostolic age’.

            God inspired the human authors: The Catechism then introduces the second element about biblical inspiration: ‘God inspired the human authors of the sacred books’ (no.106), followed by the quotation from DV 11 which indicates how this was done: ‘To compose the sacred books, God chose certain men who, all the while he employed them in this task, made full use of their own faculties and powers so that, though he acted in them and by them, it was as true authors that they consigned to writing whatever he wanted written, and no more’. The transcendent activity of God takes up, directs and develops integrally the human activity of the sacred writers, while at the same time the hagiographers remain veri auctores, real authors of their respective books.

            The Truth of Scripture: Paragraph 107 of the Catechism tells us ‘The inspired books teach the truth’. Since everything the sacred writers affirm 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’. There is a causal unity between God and the action of the hagiographer in the composition of the sacred book, which gives rise to a deep interrelationship between the intentionality of both. The result is that what the sacred writer says is always the truth. However, the inspiration and the truth of Scripture have to be understood in the mystery of Christ, who is the foundation of the faith of the Church in the sanctity of the inspired text.

            Having affirmed all the foregoing, the Catechism puts it into perspective by saying that the Christian faith is not a book religion, but a religion of the ‘Word of God’. What it means is that the Church is conscious that its Scriptures are ‘not a written and mute word, but incarnate and living’ (no.108). However, the Catechism warns us, they will remain a dead letter unless Christ himself, by means of the Holy Spirit, opens our minds to understand the Scriptures. This leads on logically to the next section on the interpretation of Scripture.

Interpretation of Sacred Scripture         

            The very title of this section (nos. 109-114) is significant in itself: ‘The Holy Spirit, Interpreter of Scripture’. It is a very definite reminder that biblical exegesis is a very special hermeneutic which cannot be reduced to principles of general hermeneutics used in the analysis of ancient texts. In this relatively long section of the Catechism the different senses of Scripture are also dealt with.

            The catechism follows the schema of DV12 in its treatment of biblical interpretation. There are two basic hermeneutical principles developed in this section. The first is that the exegete has to determine carefully what the sacred writer intended to say by means of the human sciences. To do this there are certain literary and other criteria which he has to take account of - conditions of time and culture, literary genres, modes of feeling, speaking and narrating current at the time.  

            In addition to the human criteria which are applied to the interpretation of Scripture, the Catechism reminds us that, because Scripture is inspired literature, there is another and no less important principle necessary to achieve a correct interpretation of the biblical text, i.e. ‘Sacred Scripture must be read and interpreted in the light of the same Spirit by whom it was written’ (DV 12 quoted in no.111). The objective importance of the use of this hermeneutical principle is emphasised in the Catechism by its affirmation that otherwise ‘Scripture would remain a dead letter’. Hence the very limited effectiveness  which historico-critical methods of exegesis can achieve on their own in penetrating the depth of meaning of the inspired text, and hence too the sterility of much exegetical output divorced from considerations of the faith. 

            Both the Catechism and DV are agreed that there is an intimate relationship between these two fundamental principles of interpretation (the human and the supernatural) and the criteria derived from them, since both coincide in the same task of determining the correct meaning of the sacred texts. These principles and criteria constitute integral and complementary parts of the same hermeneutical process since on their own they are not autonomous or self-sufficient principles of interpretation.

            The immediate consequence of these considerations is that the hermeneutic proposed by DV 12 and the Catechism implies a unity of exegetical method and binding reciprocal dependence of the different criteria, required to work together, each according to its nature, but freely open to the demands of the other. That is to say, it is not possible for a ‘critical exegesis’ to properly exist, separate or parallel to a ‘believing exegesis’ or ‘exegesis of the faith’. There is only one unique Catholic exegesis which is conscious of the fact that the God who has spoken through the sacred writers in a human manner is the same Spirit with which Scripture ought to be read and interpreted. The process directed to extracting the intention of the sacred writer by means of historical and literary analysis is called upon to enter into a continuous dialogue with the other process which leads to knowing the divine intentionality by means of criteria which are properly theological. This is because they have the same objective: to ascertain what the sacred writers intended to signify and what it pleased God to manifest through their words. One could speak of an ascending and a descending exegesis: a) one which goes in search of what God intended (using the theological criteria) to what the hagiographer intended (using the data of the data of the human sciences; and b) the other which goes from the intention of the sacred writer to that of God. [5] 

Three Principles of Theological Hermeneutics            

            The three criteria for interpreting Scripture in accordance with the Spirit who inspired it, which are only mentioned in DV 12, are explicated more fully in the Catechism (nos.112-114):

            a) Be especially attentive ‘to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture’.  The Catechism is emphatic: ‘Be especially attentive’, it says, perhaps because modern exegesis tends to forget or reject this principle. And it offers this explanation: ‘Different as the books which compose it may be, Scripture is a unity by reason of the unity of God’s plan, of which Christ Jesus is the centre and the heart, open since his Passover’ (no.112). The unity of the design of the Author of Scripture, who is one in his infinite perfections, notwithstanding the variety of the books and the human authors, causes his works also to be ‘one’. Jesus is called the ‘centre and the heart’; here the Christocentric nature of the Bible is emphasised again, backed up by a quotation from St Thomas’ commentary on the psalms.

            b) Read the Scripture ‘within the living Tradition of the whole Church. To explain this principle the Catechism uses an original and incisive phrase: ‘Sacred Scripture is written principally in the Church’s heart rather than in documents and records’ (no.113). In fact ‘the Church’, it affirms, ‘carries in her Tradition the living memorial of God’s Word’, and it understands it thanks to the Holy Spirit ‘who gives her the spiritual interpretation of the Scripture’. This is the classical theological reason why Tradition is considered to have the function and the value of an authentic hermeneutical principle i.e. because it is the one and same Spirit who, after inspiring the sacred authors, acts in his Church in order that it would conserve the ‘memory’ and be able to interpret the gift offered by Him. Thus the Church, assisted by the Holy Spirit, is in possession of  the true meaning of the Scriptures as if by natural instinct.

            The Tradition which we are referring to has, both in DV and the Catechism, a capital ‘T’, because, as no.83 of the Catechism points out, ‘The Tradition here in question comes from the Apostles and hands on what they received from Jesus’ teaching and example and what they learned from the Holy Spirit’. This idea is developed in no.81, to which no.113 is cross-referenced: ‘Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which had been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit’, and ‘it transmits it integrally to the successors of the Apostles so that, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, they may faithfully preserve, expound and spread it abroad by their preaching’.

            c) Finally, in proposing that we be attentive to the analogy of faith (no.114) as a principle of interpretation, the Catechism offers us a positive definition of this principle: ‘the coherence of the truths of faith among themselves and with the whole plan of Revelation’. Thus it supercedes previous definitions which explained it in a negative way, i.e. as a principle which prevented the texts of Scripture being described in a manner contrary to the doctrine of the same Scripture or in opposition to the truths of the faith. [6]

            The paragraph to which it is cross-referenced (no.90) adds that ‘in Catholic doctrine there exists an order or “hierarchy” of truths, since they vary in their relation to the foundation of the Christian faith’. Here then is proposed a view of exegesis and theology by means of which ‘biblical truth’ and ‘theological truth’ ought to coexist and become integrated in the wider context of ‘revealed truth’. Specifically, from the perspective of a Catholic hermeneutic, the fruits of biblical exegesis are sterile if they are not in accord with the fundamental ideas of Revelation which the Church confesses at the level of the faith.

            The Catechism concludes this section by describing the ecclesial function of the exegete and the relationship between the Magisterium and the exegetical enterprise. In summary we can thus point to the completeness of the Catechism’s treatment of the criteria of biblical interpretation and how it has enriched at several points the teaching of Vatican II.

The Senses of Scripture        

            The section on the senses of Scripture in the Catechism (nos. 115-118) is an innovation by comparison with Dei Verbum, as biblical neomatics is not explicitly dealt with in the conciliar document. Referring to ‘an ancient tradition’, the phrase with which the topic is introduced, the Catechism distinguishes the two senses of Scripture, the literal and the spiritual, with the latter divided into allegorical, moral, and anagogical. In speaking about the two senses of Scripture, the Catechism reaffirms the doctrinal synthesis developed by St Thomas Aquinas about the two proper senses of the inspired text willed by God, as vehicles of his Word to better express salvific truth. [7]

            The literal sense is described as ‘the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation’; it completes this definition by reference to St Thomas’ principle that ‘all other senses of Scripture are based on the literal’. 

            Thus there are included in the literal meaning all the different levels of penetration of the biblical text, from the most obvious and extrinsic to the most internal and profound, always provided that it is the result of the scientific theologico-rational investigation of the words of Scripture.


Spiritual Meaning of Scripture

            The Catechism affirms that as a consequence of the unity of God’s plan, not only the text of Scripture, but also the realities and events about which it speaks can be signs pregnant with meaning for the explanation of future events. This is the basis of  the spiritual meaning of Scripture. The Catechism describes the traditional division of the spiritual sense under three headings (cf no.117):

            a) allegorical: it recognises the significance of events in Christ, e.g. the crossing of the Red Sea is a sign or type of Christ’s victory and of Christian Baptism;

            b) moral: the events described in Scripture should make us aspire to a more Christian way of life;

            c) anagogical: this helps us to see realities and events in terms of their eternal significance: thus the Church on earth is a sign of the heavenly Jerusalem, or apostolic celibacy is a sign of the new life where there is ‘neither marriage nor giving in marriage’.

            All of these classical notions about the meaning of scripture correspond to the ancient patristic analysis of this topic. The quotation by the Catechism of the mediaeval couplet summarizing the different meanings of  the inspired text (cf. no.108) confirms that the authors of the Catechism wanted to situate its doctrine within the context of traditional biblical neomatics. It is not without significance that the Catechism would clearly affirm that ‘the profound concordance of the four senses guarantees all its richness to the living reading of Scripture in the Church’. [8]  This can also be seen as an exhortation not to neglect the spiritual meaning in biblical exegesis, since it is an integral part of the fullness of Scripture.

The Canon of Scripture    

            This section (nos. 120-130) includes the general doctrine on the canon of Scripture, as well as specific teaching on the significance of the Old and the New Testaments and the unity of both.

            In the words of DV 8 the Catechism affirms the criterion of canonicity in Catholic Theology: ‘It was by Apostolic Tradition that the Church discerned which writings are to be included in the list of the sacred books’ (no.120). This is followed by a complete listing of the books of the Old Testament and the New Testament with reference to three texts of the Magisterium which were important stages on the way towards a definition of the biblical canon - the Decretum Damasi (350), the decree of the Council of Florence (1442), and the dogmatic definition of the Council of Trent on the content of the canon (1546).

            The Catechism text does not make any reference to the profound differences between Catholic and Protestant theology on the question of the criteria of canonicity, nor is the deuterocanonical problem mentioned. This is as it should be, since a catechism is not a theological treatise but rather a succinct statement of the Catholic faith.

            There is, however, a novel element in this section in that, by means of the cross-reference to no.1117, an analogy is established between the ‘canon of faith’, the ‘canon of the sacred books’, and the ‘canon’ of the sacraments.   

            As regards the Old Testament the Catechism synthesizes the teaching of DV 14-15: its permanent value; the preparatory function of the economy of the Old Testament; that it ‘bears witness to the whole divine pedagogy of God’s saving love’; the fact that the Old Testament ought to be venerated as the true word of God.  What strikes the reader is the emphatic tone with which the Catechism states that the Old Testament is an indispensable part of Scripture, with the reminder that the Church has always vigorously opposed the idea of rejecting it under the pretext that the New Testament has rendered it void. It emphasises this point by a cross-reference to no.702 where we are told, in a revealing phrase, that the Church in reading the Old Testament is ‘searching there for what the Spirit wants to tell us about Christ’.

            The Catechism emphasises some fundamental ideas in relation to the New Testament, again following the thrust of Dei Verbum : the centrality of the New Testament to the Scriptures as a whole; the fact that within the New Testament the four Gospels have a special importance - ‘the heart of all the Scriptures’; it distinguishes the three stages of the formation of the Gospels; and it underlines the historicity of the Gospels as a doctrine which the Church has always fully maintained.

Sacred Scripture in the Life of the Church

            The relationship between Church and Scripture is dealt with in some detail under of the heading of Divine Revelation (nos. 75-100), consequently there was no great need for further elaboration. Still the Catechism has three paragraphs under the heading ‘Sacred Scripture in the Life of the Church’ (nos.131-133), and refers to the extensive use which all the faithful should make of it, either for study or in the pastoral activity of the Church.

            The text outlines the four principal contexts in which Scripture is used in the Church: a) liturgy; b) liturgical preaching; c) theology, catechesis and all forms of teaching outside the context of the liturgy; d) the ordinary life of the faithful. The Catechism reaffirms that the faithful should have access to Scripture so that the Children of the Church can have the inspired text ‘as strength for their faith, food for the soul, and a pure and lasting font of spiritual life’ (no.131). Given the insistence on the importance of reading Scripture in the context of the Church, there is no question here of a sola scriptura mentality. As Vatican II pointed out, while venerating the Scriptures as  she does the Body of Christ, nevertheless it is only in conjunction with Tradition that they are the supreme rule of her faith. [9]

             This section finishes with a warm encouragement to the faithful to get to know the full truth about the Person of Christ through frequent reading of Scripture, reminding us, in that lambent phrase of St Jerome, that ‘ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ’.

            As one spiritual writer has put it ‘I advised you to read the New Testament and to enter into each scene and take part in it, as one more of the characters. The minutes you spend in this way each day enable you to incarnate the Gospel, reflect it in your life and help others to reflect it’. [10] 

            The Holy Father has frequently referred to the need  for a new evangelization, especially in the countries of the West. All Christians are called to it. However we will not be able to carry out that divine enterprise effectively unless we first re-evangelize ourselves. Prayerful reading of the Scriptures each day will open our minds to the need for personal holiness and, at the same time, will fill us with a supernatural enthusiasm to bring Christ to others, with all that richness of truth which we discover in the inspired word of God.  


[1] .  cf EB 57-60

[2] .  Avery Dulles, S.J., The Challenge of the Catechism, in ‘First Things’, January 1995, p.51.

[3] .  cf Tabet, M.A., La Sacra Scrittura nel Catechismo della Chiesa Cattolica, in ‘Annales Theologici’, 7 (1993) 1, pp.14 -15.

[4] .  In his 1986 Holy Thursday Letter to Priests, John Paul II quotes the Curé of Ars: ‘Our Lord, who is truth itself, considers his Word no less important than his Body’ (no.9).

[5] .  cf Tabet, ibid.,  pp.22-26.

[6] .  cf EB 109, 143, 551.

[7] .  cf S. Th. I, q 1, 9-10.

[8] .  For a detailed development of the concept of ‘reading Scripture in the Church’ (in medio Ecclesiae) cf  McGovern, T, Magisterium, Scripture and Catholic Exegetes, in ‘Homiletic and Pastoral Review ‘, July and August issues of 1991. 

[9] .  cf Dei Verbum, no.21.

[10] .  Blessed Josemaría Escrivá , Furrow, New York 1987, no.671.

The above article first appeared in Homiletic and Pastoral Review, May 1996, pp 8-16.

Copyright ©; Fr. Thomas McGovern 1996

This version: 1st December 2002

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