The words above are one of the most famous statements of St. Jerome, the great biblical scholar and doctor of the Church whose feast we celebrate today. One of the main criticisms I hear about Catholic social teaching from a number of people who do not find it relevant for today’s world is that it is based on an understanding of an outdated philosophical framework which few people accept today, namely, natural law. While there is no doubt that natural law arguments do play a large, and I would argue valuable, role in the Catholic Church’s reflection on social issues, in honor of St. Jerome today I would like to explore the use of Scripture in Catholic social teaching. Scripture offers us God’s vision for the potential of all of humanity and all of creation and does not fit neatly into any philosophical outlook. I offer the following reflections on the use of Scripture, as well as some potential misuses, that can challenge us to work for peace and justice in the world today.
Vatican II called for a greater use of Scripture in moral reflection (Optatam Totius 16). This challenge of the council fathers was to move away from the proof texting of many of the moral theology textbooks in existence prior to the council. These texts argued their positions based on tradition and one understanding of natural law, and then at the end threw in a biblical reference or two that would seem, at least on the surface, to support the position for which they had argued. One of the great insights Scripture scholars have offered us from their work is that we all bring biases and presuppositions to the texts of Scripture and frequently we find in the Scriptures only what we want to find there. We often overlook or do not even notice things with which we disagree. How can we reconcile a desire to grow in union with Christ with a closed attitude to Christ speaking to us in the Scriptures? As theologian William Spohn states, “If the reader merely seeks to find biblical support for moral positions arrived at on other grounds, Scripture no longer functions as an authoritative source.”[i]
In addition to the poor use of Scripture in moral reflection before the council, moral theologians also focused predominantly on case studies, applying the principles of natural law and tradition to specific situations. Today, moral theologians are more concerned with the type of person we are trying to become. In the early Church, there was not a distinction of disciplines between spirituality and moral theology; both were interrelated as a way of becoming a better Christian. Theologians highlight this link more today due in large part to the important role Scripture plays in theological reflection. While many of us still view morality as a list of do’s and don’t’s, this perspective limits our possibilities. Spohn states elsewhere, “When we examine how Scripture actually functions in moral reflection we must expand the scope of ethics to include convictions, dispositions, and imaginative models as well as norms and principles. An ethics of universal principles and rules artificially restricts the contribution that biblical materials can make to the moral life.”[ii] This biblical vision for humanity inspired Francis de Sales to be concerned with the formation of the entire human person, working from the inside out. He recognized that individual actions, as important as they might be, do not tell the whole story. Francis was concerned with the type of person people are becoming.
How, then, does this new approach to Scripture help us in our work for peace and justice? I would like to quote at length from an article by noted Scripture scholar Luke Timothy Johnson. Johnson is responding to many Scripture scholars who are obsessed with “truth” in relation to whether or not something in Scripture can be considered historical (e.g., did Jesus ever tell the parable of the Good Samaritan?). Johnson suggests an alternate approach to the question of truth:
“I would like to propose another approach to the truth of the Bible, one which works in and through literary imagination. Such an approach would focus neither on the world that created the Bible nor on the world that the Bible might predict, but rather on the world that the Bible itself creates. We can approach the Bible not as an anthology of compositions locked in the past but as a word that unlocks every present, not as a set of sources for describing reality, not as a set of propositions about the world but as an imaginative construction of a world. In every age and in every circumstance, it is possible to read the Bible as creating an imaginative world in which humans can choose to live.”[iii]
Johnson goes on to say that reading the Bible in this way makes demands on us that neither a fundamentalist approach nor the traditional historical-critical approach makes on its readers: the audacity to try to put the vision of the Scriptures into practice.
“But there is also a moral factor in our reluctance to embrace such a reading, for it demands of us that we put into practice the world thus imagined by the Bible. If the Bible is “true” as description or prediction, it demands nothing of us but intellectual assent; its truth is like that of a weather report or mathematical theorem. But if the Bible is true as prescription, then everything is demanded of us: we are called to embody that imagination, to bring it into existence by the pattern of our lives.”[iv]
It is easy for us to label people who believe in the vision of Scripture idealists, Communists, or utopians. Even the Scriptures do not make the claim that working for justice will be easy (Matt 5:3-10). However, if we are to be faithful to our baptismal call to follow Christ, we must constantly listen to the Scriptures with new ears, identifying and removing our moral blind spots that prevent us from attempting to put the vision of the Scriptures into practice in our own lives and communities. God’s vision for justice and peace will undoubtedly be different from our own, and does not fit neatly into any political party’s outlook. By constantly turning to the Scriptures so that we are not ignorant of Christ but are able to know him more deeply, we demonstrate that God is the Lord of our lives and not an ideology, philosophy, or political system. May Jerome’s love of Scripture inspire us all to that same love of God’s Word!
[i] William Spohn, “Scripture, Use of in Catholic Social Ethics,” pp. 861-74 in The New Dictionary of Catholic Social Thought, ed. Judith Dwyer. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1994. 863.
[ii] Ibid., 868.
[iii] Luke Timothy Johnson, “How is the Bible True? Let Me Count the Ways.” Commonweal, May 22, 2009. 14.
[iv] Ibid., 15.