Literal or Literalist? Yes, Catholics DO take the Bible Literally!
Over the last few weeks, I've begun to notice a common refrain from my Hebrew Scripture and New Testament students. Very often, they will say things like, "Yeah, Mr. Duns, Catholics don't take the Bible literally." So, then, how do we take it?
You see, the trouble is that the students are not making a very important distinction (If they did this already, I'd be out of a job!). The distinction is between a literal and a literalist reading of Scripture. Allow me to put on my teacher hat and help to bring out the importance of this distinction.
Catholics associate a literalist approach to the Bible with fundamentalists. On this view, if the Bible says that the world was created in six days then it was created in 144 hours. If the Bible says that humans were present at the very beginning of Creation, then the entire fossil record that shows no presence of human life for millions of years must be false. One might summarize the literalist position by saying: "The Bible says it, I believe it, case closed."
It is, I fear, the literalist approach to the Scriptures that provides such rich ground for debates between science and religion, particularly in certain places where Bible-wielding Christians want evolution taught as "only a theory" and demand due attention to Creationist accounts of life on earth. Evolution, which posits a very long, slow process of ever-greater complexity in living organisms, surely did not take place over the course of six days. The literalist is thus forced to choose between science and religion and to advocate that religious faith be taught as science.
So I'm glad to report that the Catholic Church chooses a different path, one that does not have to pit science against religion. Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical Fides et Ratio, cites with approval the following passage from the First Vatican Council's Dei Filius:
Even if faith is superior to reason there can never be a true divergence between faith and reason, since the same God who reveals the mysteries and bestows the gift of faith has also placed in the human spirit the light of reason. This God could not deny himself, nor could the truth ever contradict the truth.
Catholic tradition recognizes God as the ultimate source of all that exists. Our scientific investigations begin with wonder and our curiosity impels us to probe deeper into the rich fabric of creation in order to know it better. Whether we explore the intricacies of the cell or the unfathomable expanses of the cosmos, the truth of science does not threaten to contradict the truths of our revealed faith, because the the author of the Book of Nature and the author of Book of Scripture is, ultimately, the same. Hence the wonderful insight: truth does not contradict truth.
What, then, is the Catholic approach to the Scriptures? We take it literally! But literal must be distinguished from literalistic. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says:
"The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation..."(CCC, 116)
The literal interpretation will try to understand what it is that the author wishes to convey the wide assortment of ways used to communicate its message to its readers.
Typically, we are quite adept at making the distinction between literal and literalistic speech. If I said, "That was a brilliant sunset" you would not think that I had somehow tested the IQ of the sun; you would, rather, know that I thought there was an arresting beauty to a natural phenomena. Or if I say that it's raining cats and dogs, you are not seized with a fear that canines and felines are somehow dropping out of the heavens. We know how to recognize metaphors. We take them literally - for they are metaphors - and not as literalist statements of what is happening.
When we approach the Scriptures, we shouldn't be surprised to see that it contains very many different literary forms: letters, histories, hymns, laws, prophecies, parables, genealogies, prayers, etc..! Each of these is a different way of communicating a message. The Bible, Catholics acknowledge, is comprised of many different books each of which shares the Truth of God in a variety of ways.
It is in this way that Catholics do take the Bible literally! We recognize that the Scriptures teach us the truth of who God is and what God has been and is doing in our history. Just as we read a recipe differently from a love letter, or a prayer different from fiction, so must we learn how to read the Scriptures in a way faithful to the many ways it communicates the truth of our salvation.
The Scriptures, Catholics believe, developed over a period of nearly 2,000 years (~1850 BCE - 100 CE) and are the primordial site of our faith and tradition, an inspired and inspiring site where we are drawn more deeply into the drama of salvation history. To understand the Bible literally frees us to explore the truths of nature because the ultimate author of the Scriptures and the ultimate author of Nature are the same; thus it is that the truth of nature and the truth of faith are not enemies and can, rightly pursued, both give glory to their author and Creator!