Saturday, April 23, 2005

James Alison. Again.

I use the argument quite often that lesbianism is not forbidden anywhere in the Bible, and so neither, quite obviously, is "homosexuality" per se. That nobody in the Christian world - including Augustine and Clement of Alexandria, both of whom wrote on Romans 1 - read this passage as referring to lesbianism, until Chrysostom. That therefore the passages that we get hit over the head with constantly (all 4 of them!) refer to something else entirely. I first read about this in the article "A Catholic reading of Romans 1," by James Alison, a Catholic priest in Ireland. It's a discussion of the general assumption of what the "text plainly says," or doesn't say. Read the whole thing, as they say.

But I'm not going to argue about lesbianism this time. This time I'm interested in the όι Ίουδαιοι [hoi Ioudaioi] question: the issue of how to understand Gospel passages that refer to "the Jews" - and more generally, the issue of how modern people can read and understand Scripture. Here's what James Alison has to say on the subject:
According to the official teaching body of the Catholic Church, Catholic readers of the Scripture have a positive duty to avoid certain sorts of what the authorities call ‘actualization’ of the texts, by which they mean reading ancient texts as referring in a straightforward way to modern realities. I will read you what they say, and please remember that this is rather more than an opinion. This is the official teaching of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, at the very least an authorized Catholic source of guidance for how to read the Scriptures, in their 1993 document The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church:
‘Clearly to be rejected also is every attempt at actualization set in a direction contrary to evangelical justice and charity, such as, for example, the use of the Bible to justify racial segregation, anti-Semitism or sexism whether on the part of men or of women. Particular attention is necessary ... to avoid absolutely any actualization of certain texts of the New Testament which could provoke or reinforce unfavourable attitudes to the Jewish people.’2

The list which the Commission gives is deliberately not exhaustive, but it has the advantage of taking on vastly the most important of any possible improper actualization, which is that related to the translation of the words όι Ίουδαιοι [hoi Ioudaioi], especially where they are used in St John’s Gospel. I ask you to consider quite clearly what this instruction means. It means that anyone who translates the words όι Ίουδαιοι literally as ‘the Jews’ and interprets this to refer to the whole Jewish people, now or at any time in the past, is translating it and interpreting it less accurately, and certainly less in communion with the Church, than someone who translates it less literally as something like ‘the Jewish authorities’, or ‘the local authorities’ who were of course, like almost everyone in St John’s Gospel, Jewish.

Now, given how vitally important the Jewish people and the relation between the Jewish people and the Church has been in the development of Christian Doctrine, if we are urged to avoid absolutely any actualization of the text, then the following statement must, a fortiori, be at the very least perfectly reasonable, if not actually highly recommended, as a guide to a properly Catholic reading of a passage dealing with something rather less important. Here it is: given the possibility of a restricted ancient meaning in a text which does not transfer readily into modern categories, or the possibility of one which leaps straight and expansively into modern categories and has had effects contrary to charity on the modern people so categorized, one should prefer the ancient reading to the actualized one.

Isn't this instruction clear? And BTW, doesn't this lead in an authentically Christian direction? Why, then, this endless dispute? This is "the official teaching of the Catholic Church," and yet it's like pulling teeth to get anybody to pay any attention to it.

Secular people simply scoff when this issue comes up; they don't take what the Bible says literally in any case, or even very seriously, and think that the dispute is simply over a cultural code in the ancient world. They're right. But I do take the Bible seriously, if not literally, because this is where our faith originates. I want to understand what's being said, and to be taken seriously when I argue about it.