Rorate Caeli

"One must then bear in mind the living tradition of the whole Church"

In the November 2009 edition of Living Tradition, Msgr. John F. McCarthy reflects upon Pope Benedict XVI's address of 14 Oct. 2008, to the constituents of the Fourteenth General Congregation of the Synod of Bishops. The Holy Father's words, criticising Modernist interpretation of Sacred Scripture, anticipated in part that month Synod Proposition 12, requesting clarification of the Church's beliefs regarding the inspiration and truth of the Bible. Following the Oct. 2008 meeting of the Synod of Bishops in Rome, the Pope instructed the Pontifical Biblical Commission to prepare a study on the subject of Proposition 12, and the PBC had already prepared an early draft of the study by April 2009. Although this is certainly "old news," still the Pope's words of 14 Oct. 2008 illustrate his thinking on authentic and fruitful Catholic exegesis of Scripture, and on the relationship between the so-called historico-critical methodology and Catholic exegesis and theology, and could indicate in part what the final draft of the PBC study on the Bible's divine inspiration and truth will have to say. The Pope's address, from an unofficial English version provided by the Vatican website, is as follows (emphasis added):
Dear Brothers and Sisters, the work for my book on Jesus offers ample occasion to see all the good that can come from modern exegesis, but also to recognize the problems and risks in it. Dei Verbum 12 offers two methodological indications for suitable exegetic work. In the first place, it confirms the need to use the historical-critical method, briefly describing the essential elements. This need is the consequence of the Christian principle formulated in John 1:14, Verbum caro factum est [the Word was made flesh]. The historical fact is a constitutive dimension of Christian faith. The history of salvation is not a myth, but a true story and therefore to be studied with the same methods as serious historical research.

However, this history has another dimension, that of divine action. Because of this Dei Verbum mentions a second methodological level necessary for the correct interpretation of the words, which are at the same time human words and divine Word. The Council says, following a fundamental rule for any interpretation of a literary text, that Scripture must be interpreted in the same spirit in which it was written and thereby indicates three fundamental methodological elements to bear in mind the divine dimension, the pneumatology of the Bible: one must, that is, 1) interpret the text bearing in mind the unity of the entire Scripture; today this is called canonical exegesis; at the time of the Council this term had not been created, but the Council says the same thing: one must bear in mind the unity of all of Scripture; 2) one must then bear in mind the living tradition of the whole Church, and finally 3) observe the analogy of faith.
Only where the two methodological levels, the historical-critical and the theological one, are observed, can one speak about theological exegesis — of an exegesis suitable for this Book. While at the first level, today’s academic exegesis works on a very high level and truly gives us help, the same cannot be said about the other level. Often this second level, the level constituted of the three theological elements indicated by Dei Verbum seems to be almost absent. And this has rather serious consequences.

The first consequence of the absence of this second methodological level is that the Bible becomes a book only about the past. Moral consequences can be drawn from it, one can learn about history, but the Book only speaks about the past and its exegesis is no longer truly theological, becoming historiography, the history of literature. This is the first consequence: the Bible remains in the past, speaks only of the past.

There is also a second even more serious consequence: where the hermeneutics of faith, indicated by Dei Verbum, disappear, another type of hermeneutics appears of necessity, a secularized, positivistic hermeneutics, whose fundamental key is the certitude that the Divine does not appear in human history. According to this hermeneutic, when there seems to be a divine element, one must explain where it came from and bring it to the human element completely. Because of this, interpretations that deny the historicity of divine elements emerge. Today, the so-called “mainstream” of exegesis in Germany denies, for example, that the Lord instituted the Holy Eucharist and says that Jesus’ corpse stayed in the tomb. The Resurrection would not be an historical event, but a theological vision. This occurs because the hermeneutic of faith is missing: therefore a profane philosophical hermeneutic is stated, which denies the possibility both of the entrance and the real presence of the Divine in history. The consequence of the absence of the second methodological level is that a deep chasm was created between scientific exegesis and lectio divina. This, at times, gives rise to a form of perplexity even in the preparation of homilies.

Where exegesis is not theology, Scripture cannot be the soul of theology and, vice versa, when theology is not essentially the interpretation of the Scripture in the Church, this theology has no foundation anymore.

Therefore for the life and the mission of the Church, for the future of faith, this dualism between exegesis and theology must be overcome. Biblical theology and systematic theology are two dimensions of the one reality, what we call Theology.

Due to this, I would hope that in one of the propositions the need to bear in mind the two methodological levels indicated in Dei Verbum 12 be mentioned, where the need to develop an exegesis not only on the historical level, but also on the theological level is needed. Therefore, widening the formation of future exegetes in this sense is necessary, to truly open the treasures of the Scripture to today’s world and to all of us.

Previous posts on this subject:

Synod Retrospective: Proposition 12 on Inspiration and truth in the Bible

Pope addresses PBC on the Divine Inspiration and Truth of Scripture


  1. Anonymous4:47 PM

    Thank God for this Pope!

    I am making a pilgrimage today to a Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima, in Barnesville, Maryland, USA, and will remember his Holiness, all priests and bishops, and readers of this blog.

  2. Anonymous7:56 PM

    Yes, thank you very much, Anon 16:47. I can use every prayer I can get.


  3. Anonymous8:06 PM

    The use of the phrase "living tradition" is a bit worrisome. The "progressive" forces in the Church often use that phrase as a code word to inject modernism into the body of the Church. After all, the modernists argue, the traditions of the Church are not fossilized but living, and can grow into new things. And as our outdated understanding of old doctrine "evolves" and grows, we can add new perceptions that were never taught by the Church before...and thus gradually the true traditions of the Church are completely subverted. (This indeed is the complete antithesis of the idea of "tradition.")I don't think that the Holy Father is using this phrase in this sense, but others could manipulate it to seem so. We must be vigilant of such efforts.

    The "progressives" have also been using this strategy on the interpretation of the US Constitution for a long time. They pervert the original meaning of words until they have a completely different document which they call a "living constitution." Under such a philosophy, the constitution itself is soon subverted to the "dictatorship of relativism."

  4. Anonymous 31 May, 2010 20:06 said:

    The use of the phrase "living tradition" is a bit worrisome. The "progressive" forces in the Church often use that phrase as a code word to inject modernism into the body of the Church. After all, the modernists argue, the traditions of the Church are not fossilized but living, and can grow into new things.

    Is there anyone that does not think the Modernists will interpret "living tradition" to their advantage? One wonders why the adjective "living" has been used in the first place and it seems to replace the adjectives formerly used like "holy", unending, and so forth. I'll interpret it as meaning what the Church has always held, taught and professed to be true; they can interpret it whatever way they wish.

  5. Anonymous3:43 AM

    I know Monsignor McCarthy. Modernists twist words as you know. He simply means tradition is is living.
    It is not tradition to receive a tradition then after warping it or falsifying it hand it on. That would not be true "traditio".
    Modernists being fakes hide behind phrases and slogans.
    Let us all live tradition. Then it is alive not forgotten.

  6. Anonymous9:03 AM

    Ahem, whenever 'living' tradition is mentioned now, it carries with it a deliberate reference to "Ecclesia Dei', 2 July, 1988.

    Most transmitted things are not living. Letters are not living.

    Tradition is that which is handed down. I don't see in what sense it can be alive itself. If the thing transmitted is ever-changing, what or who is changing it, and why?

    As I see it, dogma is transmitted in a set formula and according to the sense in which it was first understood. Yes, we may deepen our understanding in it over time, but that is a change in us, not in the thing we are regarding.

    To say that the object transmitted is itself alive suggests that its content is changing. That cannot be. God Himself never changes. Hence He is symbolised by a rock, the rock of the Altar and the rock upon which the Roman soldiers threw our Lord and made into His throne. We can accept or reject the rock but the rock remains firm and irreformable. The stone that was rejected by the builders has become the head of the corner.

    If the thing transmitted is 'alive', this must mean that the deposit of Faith itself changes. I guess the devil wants it to change, since he doesn't like God's original gift!


  7. Anonymous1:47 PM

    Living things change, but not into some other thing--at least without dying.

    Anyway, St. Vincent de Lerins describes it as a living thing in his famous Commonitory:

    [56.] In like manner, it behooves Christian doctrine to follow the same laws of progress, so as to be consolidated by years, enlarged by time, refined by age, and yet, withal, to continue uncorrupt and unadulterate, complete and perfect in all the measurement of its parts, and, so to speak, in all its proper members and senses, admitting no change, no waste of its distinctive property, no variation in its limits.

    [57.] For example: Our forefathers in the old time sowed wheat in the Church's field. It would be most unmeet and iniquitous if we, their descendants, instead of the genuine truth of grain, should reap the counterfeit error of tares. This rather should be the result—there should be no discrepancy between the first and the last. From doctrine which was sown as wheat, we should reap, in the increase, doctrine of the same kind— wheat also; so that when in process of time any of the original seed is developed, and now flourishes under cultivation, no change may ensue in the character of the plant. There may supervene shape, form, variation in outward appearance, but the nature of each kind must remain the same. God forbid that those rose-beds of Catholic interpretation should be converted into thorns and thistles. God forbid that in that spiritual paradise from plants of cinnamon and balsam, darnel and wolfsbane should of a sudden shoot forth.

    Therefore, whatever has been sown by the fidelity of the Fathers in this husbandry of God's Church, the same ought to be cultivated and taken care of by the industry of their children, the same ought to flourish and ripen, the same ought to advance and go forward to perfection.

  8. Anonymous2:16 PM

    Oh, ecclesia reformata et semper reformanda. A posthumous victory of John Calvin.

  9. Anonymous3:32 PM

    Tradition is not dead but rather is alive.


  10. Anonymous5:58 PM

    Looking at the Pope's words carefully, by 'living Tradition', at least in this passage, he appears to mean nothing more than tradition as part of a living reality in those who adhere to it. It reminds one of the Biblical passage in which Christ condemns the pharisees for their 'dead traditions'. The implication is that the pharisees observed certain practices as mere ritual, without integrating the spirit and full implications of those traditions into their other actions and behaviour. If this is what Benedict XVI means by 'living tradition', we have no problem at all.

    Others have used the term in a dangerous way, however. They have insisted that the thing transmitted changes, and not only our understanding of it. If the thing tranmitted comes from God and God is constant as a rock, then the gifts of God are also unchanging and therefore completely reliable: we can know what they are and this knowledge will never fail us, even though it can be enriched over time by a deeper understanding in us (or our descendants).

    Metaphorically, the key to accepting a notion of 'living tradition' is to refuse to see it as the antipode to 'dead tradition'. Dead does not just mean something that is not alive; it means something that is NO LONGER alive, somethimg that was once alive but is no longer living.

    But many things are unalive without being dead. A rock is not alive but it is not dead, since it never was alive. Similarly, in this sense, tradition is non-living and yet not dead.

    As far as I can see, this entire dispute about the term can be resolved if we clarify what we mean by 'living tradition'. If we mean by this that tradition must be lived by those who adhere to it then, yes, tradition must be living to be valid. But if we mean that the divine deposit of faith itself is changeable or inconstant, so that we cannot assign any meaning to it or depend on it as a guide for faith, then we have the 'permanent workshop' mentality of the liberals: we can't know anything certain about anything, so everything goes. Kum-buy-ah. This mirrors liberals' ideas about reality itself: it is unknown and unknowable so we substitute for it whatever feels right.

    What can change is not the divine gift of the deposit of faith but our understanding of that gift. This can be enriched tomorrow without making invalid or inadequate what we know about it today. What is crucial here, however, is that the original sense of meaning of those who received the gift is valid and true for all time. Deeper or better understandings are superior but not strictly necessary ethically.


  11. A very good brief account of the genuine Catholic doctrine of tradition can be found in the Janary 1997 number of SiSiNoNo, which can be found on

    The fact that a pronouncement of the Pope can be given an orthodox interpretation does not mean that the Holy Father means for it to have an orthodox interpretation. Nor does it mean that the Holy Father means it to have an unambiguous interpretation.

    My own experience in reading the Pope's pronouncements is that a modernist reading generally has the better of the argument, although with sufficient exertion it can be read to have an orthodox interpretation.

    It is hard to avoid the conclusion that that is exactly the result that the Holy Father is seeking. He is a modernist who is seeking to build bridges -- or at least to be seen as seeking to build bridges -- with traditionalists.

    The Holy Father's embrace of the historical-critical method is a good example of the Benedictine touch. The historical-critical method is an instrument of heterodoxy if not apostasy: that is its origin, that is its application in most cases. Its strategy is to read scripture from a secularist perspective, and call it science. The fact that Verbum caro factum est and habitavit in nobis doesn't change the nature of the method; it just sprinkles holy water on it.

    In about 1990 or 1991, on a visit to the U.S., Cardinal Ratzinger embraced the arch-modernist "Catholic" biblical scholar Raymond Brown, S.S. (RIP), who spent the last quarter century of his life teaching at Union Theological Seminary in NYC, the most liberal Protestant seminary in our galaxy, and said that he was the great hope of Catholic biblical scholarship.

    If he's repented of that judgment, I haven't heard about it.

  12. P.K.T.P. said in part:
    Others have used the term in a dangerous way, however. They have insisted that the thing transmitted changes, and not only our understanding of it. If the thing tranmitted comes from God and God is constant as a rock, then the gifts of God are also unchanging and therefore completely reliable: we can know what they are and this knowledge will never fail us, even though it can be enriched over time by a deeper understanding in us (or our descendants).

    This is precisely the problem - the Holy Father's words can be interpreted one way by the modernists and quite another way by traditionalists. The same is true of documents since Vatican II. It is potential rupture for which participants in the doctrinal discussions are presumably trying to resolve. My hope is that one result of the discussions will be a statement of beliefs to which all Catholics can subscribe - but I wouldn't hold my breath on that.

  13. Anonymous9:58 PM

    Dear John McFarland,

    Perhaps you overspeak on behalf of the Supreme Pontiff.

    It is true that in his years as Fr and Cardinal Ratzinger he has complemented historical-critical "exegetes", Bultmann included.

    But please do read what he is saying here as Pope Benedict XVI, where he indicts irrevocably the heretical approach of historical-critical exegesis in general:

    "whose fundamental key is the certitude that the Divine does not appear in human history. According to this hermeneutic, when there seems to be a divine element, one must explain where it came from and bring it to the human element completely."

    This is an excellent summary of the heresy of historical-critical exegesis, and our Pope has phrased it excellently. Notably, that wherever a miracle or something Divine is revealed in SCripture, the a priori assumption of the historical-critical exegete is that there was no miracle or Divine Intervention at all, necessitating a demythologizing action to interpret "what really happened".

    IN this post, Pope Benedict XVI is clearly condemning the heretical aspect of historical-critical exegesis. Where he speaks in favor of a historical-critical approach it is in a most Traditional manner, namely that the Sacred SCriptures speak of historical events that can often be studied through established historical scientific methods. If Traditionalists did not accept that, how can we accept for example that Our Lady had a house in Jerusalem and Ephesus, or that St Peter's tomb is in Rome, or more to the point that God became flesh and lived among us at a certain time in history? That Caesar Augustus truly called a census "of the whole world" that forced Our Lady and St Joseph to travel to Bethlehem? This is true human history and a *faithful* historical-critical exegesis studies the scriptural accounts of history to learn the historical details of an historical event.

    So, friend, I urge you to retract your unintended (I Hope) calumny against Pope Benedict XVI in calling him a "modernist". IN his previous vocation, before succeeeding the throne, some may see "modernistic tendencies" in his writings (quite different from judging someone an outright modernist), although I would argue that even this requires some inexplicit and often uncharitable interpretation.

    The Holy Father here is clearly condemning modernism and insisting that to interpret Scripture faithfully it is an essential and non-negotiable that "one must ... bear in mind the living tradition of the whole Church". That includes the Church of St Peter, the martyrs, St Athanasius, St Gregory, St Pius V and Sts Pius X.

    That is Traditionalism at its best. "Living Tradition" is used by some to advance modernistic ideas. The Holy Father is absolutely not in this letter, and rather is doing the opposite. Condemning the heretical and promoting the good.

    Sincerely, MKT.

  14. Anonymous12:09 AM

    MKT thank you for you defence of the holy father. However, even in his recent trip to Fatima the Pope was fairly ambiguous and modernistic in his talks. I don't think you can relegate his modernistic tendency to his prior vocation only. It seemed to be alive and well at Fatima. Please read the discussion thread on this blog.
    God bless.

  15. John McFarland

    "the [pope] is a modernist who is seeking to build bridges -- or at least to be seen as seeking to build bridges -- with traditionalists."

    Indeed this is so. As I have stated for many years, he is a modernist in this sense unlike the neo-modernists who refuse to "dialogue" with traditionalists. Many late-coming traditionalists are unable to comprehend this but continually see a pope who is traditional due to the presence of a few dalmatics and some concessionary Latin Masses here and there even though he has no intention of saying one in public. He has no intention either of serving the cause of traditional Catholicism because for him the church is both traditional & modern in its very continuity.

  16. Anonymous2:49 PM

    Dear Anon 00:09,

    While the Holy Father did espouse some modernistIC tendencies recently at Fatima, particularly in his lavish praise of the separation of Church and State, and his apparent whitwashing of the impact to the Church of that separation. This is quite something different however than having a layman or any other Catholic for that matter judging him indiscriminately as "a modernist", as do John McFarland and Leon G.

    A Pope may espouse error in his views, writings and beliefs when speaking in a non ex cathedra way, but it is a heresy to believe that it is possible for the Pope to become a pertinacious modernist heretic.

    It also manifests the greatest lack of humility for a layman to pronounce declaration of heresy on a Pope, and moreover when this happens non chalance on blog sites on a daily basis.

    There is some merit to scrutinizing the writings of the Supreme Pontiff. As others have written on recent blogs, one's faith is already suspect however when one's first instinct is to sit in judgment of the Pope rather than seeking to learn from him. Moreover, it would behoove our bloggers on this site to espouse a more Catholic spirit - by all means ask if certain writings have *tendencies* towards heresy or modernism, but humble yourselves and refrain from pronouncing your own little anathemas against Christ's vicar on Earth, which no on earth has the authority to pronounce.

    Sincerely, MKT.

  17. John McFarland4:06 AM

    The Holy Father's thought on scripture is of a piece with his thought on everything else: an exercise in trying to work out some sort of accommodation with unbelief that does not seem to involve converting it, or even trying to convert it.

    When one speaks of the historical-critical method (hereafter HCM) in biblical scholarship, one is talking of a militantly anti-Christian methodology. It is no more like the methodology of real history than the methodology of evolution are like the methodology of real natural science.

    As for the supposed great things we have learned from the HCM, what things does the Holy Father have in mind? The dingbat speculations on St. John's gospel by the late Father Raymond Brown, of whom he was a great admirer? Father Brown taught for 29 years at Union Theological Seminary, the least Christian Protestant seminary in the galaxy.

    Here is the "methodology" in a nutshell: since the scriptures are not true, how can we explain their existence and their contents?

    In its application, this means that almost any sort of whackiness, at least if done in prestigious institutions, is acceptable, except that the scriptures mean what they say, and have their origins as the Church teaches.

    The HCM is not in any meaningful sense historical. For all practical purposes it doesn't study anything but the bible, because there's very little historical evidence that's arguably relevant to the scriptures; and where there is arguably some evidence, the relation between that supposed evidence and the scriptures is inevitably conjectural. For example, imagine a biblical scholar at Harvard Divinity School formulating a theory of the development of the Israelite religion based on the similarities and differences between certain words in Hebrew and words in other Near Eastern languages.

    But such a theory is inevitably just a learned conjecture -- that is, a guess by the holder of a Ph.D.; and it is hard to conceive how one would ever decide whether that guess is true or not.

    As I said above, the HCM is much like evolution: a matter of making up imaginative stories to combat Revelation.

    So why the Pope praises the HCM is hard to understand; and it's even harder to understand how he can integrate it with Catholic exegesis, unless Catholic exegesis is somehow also "historical critical."

    The Holy Father's remark about the events of the Faith happening in history -- already a cliche of the liberals during my undergraduate days forty -odd years ago -- is not much help. His kingdom is not from hence, and so the notion that it must adopt the ways of secular scholarship is not terribly plausible.