The temptation to instrumentalize Holy Scripture

Par Don Pio Pace

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Pius XII, in Divino afflante Spiritu, in 1943, told the commentators of Holy Scripture to remember “that here there is the question of a divinely inspired text, the care and interpretation of which have been confided to the Church by God Himself, should no less diligently take into account the explanations and declarations of the teaching authority of the Church, as likewise the interpretation given by the Holy Fathers, and even « the analogy of faith » as Leo XIII most wisely observed in the Encyclical Letter Providentissimus Deus.” This remark regarded the literal sense of Scripture, that is its direct theological sense. Furthermore, the pope asked of them not to forget to consider, notably in their predication, the spiritual sense (symbolic) wanted by God and consecrated by the Fathers. “A broader use of the Sacred Text in the figurative sense, provided this be done with moderation and restraint”, but remaining “extrinsic and accidental”.

Let us present two recent examples of a problematic free interpretation of Holy Scripture, the first example in relation to the spiritual sense, the second one in relation to the literal sense.

The absolutization of diversity

In a general audience on Wednesday 29 November 2023[1], Pope Francis mentioned the episode of the Tower of Babel, in Genesis 11, 1-9, where men filled with pride want to build a tower to reach the heaven, and then God intervenes to confuse their language thus punishing them.

“The account of the city of Babel and its tower comes to mind (cf. Gen 11:1-9). It narrates a social project that involves sacrificing all individuality to the efficiency of the collective. Humanity speaks only one language — we might say that it has a “single way of thinking” — as if enveloped in a kind of general spell that absorbs the uniqueness of each into a bubble of uniformity. Then God confuses the languages, that is, He re-establishes differences, recreates the conditions for uniqueness to develop, revives the multiple where ideology would like to impose the single. The Lord also distracts humanity from its delirium of omnipotence: “Let us make a name for ourselves”, say the ‘exalted’ inhabitants of Babel (v. 4), who want to reach all the way to heaven, to put themselves in God’s place. But these are dangerous, alienating, destructive ambitions, and the Lord, by confounding these expectations, protects mankind, preventing an impending disaster. This story really does seem topical: even today, cohesion, instead of fraternity and peace, is often based on ambition, nationalism, homologation and techno-economic structures that inculcate the conviction that God is insignificant and useless: not so much because one seeks more knowledge, but above all for the sake of more power. It is a temptation that pervades the great challenges of today’s culture.”

We see the shift in meaning: it is not so much the pride construction of the tower that is sinful but the unity of tongue, which becomes a metaphor for the “single way of thinking”, this being moreover justly denounced. As a result, what the traditional interpretation was considering as a punishment – God moves humanity from the fusion of tongues to their confusion to punish them of their pride – is in fact, according to Pope Francis, a restoration of Creation and of the desire for diversity inscribed in this creation.

Diversity can certainly express humanely in finite creatures the infinite richness of the divinity in its unicity – what the pope actually mentions when saying that diversity “recreates the conditions for uniqueness to develop” -, but diversity is also often sinful, prideful deviation in relation to the channels of divine unity, of rightful reason or Revelation.

And as such, comes to mind immediately the Abou Dabi “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together” of 4 February 2018 which derives diversity from Divine Wisdom, diversity including false religions, free will and religious liberty: “Freedom is a right of every person: each individual enjoys the freedom of belief, thought, expression and action. The pluralism and the diversity of religions, colour, sex, race and language are willed by God in His wisdom, through which He created human beings. This divine wisdom is the source from which the right to freedom of belief and the freedom to be different derives.” The text of the audience of 29 November 2023 does not got this far, far from it actually, but it is on the same idea of sacralization of diversity as such.

The “conversion” of Christ, from rigidity to mercy

Fr. Antonio Spadaro, former director of La Civilta Cattolica, Under-Secretary of the Dicastery for Culture has also given quite an extraordinary commentary in Il Fatto quotidiano of 20 August 2023 on the passage of the Canaanite woman asking help from Jesus because her daughter is tormented by the devil, and who though handled with an apparent hardness, in the end is granted her wish because of her faith that Christ was testing (Mathew 15, 21-28).

“Jesus is in Gennesaret, on the right bank of Lake Tiberias. The locals had recognized him and word of his presence had spread throughout the region, by word of mouth. Many brought him sick, who were healed. It was a land where people had to welcome and understand him. His actions were effective. But the Master does not stop. Matthew (15:21-28) – who writes for the Jews – tells us that he goes towards the northwest, the area of Tyre and Sidon, that is, in the Phoenician and therefore pagan area.

But behold, screams are heard. They are from a woman. She is Canaanite, that is, from that region inhabited by an idolatrous people that Israel looked upon with contempt and enmity. So, the story presumes that Jesus and the woman were enemies. The woman shouts: “Have mercy on me, Lord, son of David! My daughter is very tormented by a demon.”[…] “

“But he did not speak to her even a word”, writes Matthew laconically. Jesus remains indifferent. […] The silence is followed by Jesus’ angry and insensitive response: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”. The Master’s hardness is unshakeable. Now even Jesus is a theologian: the mission received from God is limited to the children of Israel. So, nothing can be done. Mercy is not for her. She is excluded. There is no discussion. [.. Jesus] replies in a mocking and disrespectful way towards that poor woman: “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs”, that is to domestic dogs. A downfall in tone, style, humanity. Jesus appears as if he were blinded by nationalism and theological rigor. 

[…] “It is true, Lord, and yet the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table”. Few words, but well posed and such as to upset the rigidity of Jesus, to conform him, to “convert” him to himself. Indeed, without hesitation, Jesus replies: “Woman, great is your faith! May it happen for you as you wish ”. And from that instant her daughter was healed. And Jesus also appears healed, and in the end shows himself free, from the rigidity of the dominant theological, political and cultural elements of his time.
So what happened? Outside the land of Israel, Jesus healed the daughter of a pagan woman, despised for being Canaanite. Not only that: he agrees with her and praises her great faith. Here is the seed of a revolution.”

Admittedly, Fr. Spadaro does say that going from rigidity to mercy Jesus is converted “to himself”, that he “seems” healed of his hardness. But, for the sake of the lesson he wants to teach his readers, he emphasizes the “conversion” of Christ, and at the same time denounces the “rigidity” of theologians. Definitely, Fr. Spadaro asserts that Christ in the end si mostra libero, “appears free” and not liberato, “liberated” from rigidity. But if for men converting means to remove oneself from sin, in this case from contempt, from the harsh rigidity, then the change of attitude seen in Christ can only be but a pedagogical manifestation of the divine plan of the mission to Israel and then of the mission to the pagans and, also, the perfection of His mercy (which manifests itself indeed in the severity He first demonstrated).

Spadaro embroiders the gospel story, like preachers do sometimes piously, but in his case he does it by lending Christ a “mocking and disrespectful way towards that poor woman,” assuming He is “as blinded by nationalism and theological rigor.” So much so that in the end his commentary, in all hypothesis gravely disrespectful, presents a rather suspicious Christology: the Jesus of the Gospel was morally perfectible. For Spadaro, was He already God or not yet?

Don Pio Pace

[1] https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/audiences/2023/documents/20231129-udienza-generale.html.