Entering more deeply into the Bible

Jared Staudt

Catholics in the United States have been enriched in the last few of decades with a renaissance of biblical studies. The Denver Catholic Biblical and Catechetical Schools now enroll over 2,000 students. Many others have gone through Jeff Cavins’ Bible Timeline series or benefited from the many books and resources from Scott Hahn and his St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, including the Letter & Spirit journal and the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible. There have also been new opportunities for academic studies, such as through the Augustine Institute and Franciscan University of Steubenville.

To continue this renaissance, the first volume of A Catholic Introduction to the Bible: The Old Testament has been published, written by John Bergsma and Brant Pitre (Ignatius, 2018). This large book (1060 pages) is quickly becoming a Catholic bestseller, and for good reason. It is one of the best fulfillments of Pope Benedict XVI’s call for a renewed Catholic interpretation of the Bible, rooted in the Catholic tradition and liturgical life, guided by faith, and which makes use of modern historical and literary studies. The authors help bridge a gap that largely divides the academic and spiritual readings of the biblical narrative.

The introductory chapter of the volume explaining the vision of the work itself makes an important contribution to explaining the proper way to read the Bible. It speaks of being “self-consciously both historical and theological in its approach” and utilizing “all of the tools of natural human reason . . . but unites them to supernatural faith” (9; 11). This vision takes flesh by examining major historical questions and issues raised by modern scholarship while also engaging the Church Fathers and magisterial tradition. For instance, it explores five different theories for why certain foods are prohibited in Leviticus, from Mary Douglas’ anatomical explanation to St. Thomas Aquinas’ liturgical view (212).

For each book of the Old Testament, Bergsma and Pitre provide a brief introduction, details on its literary structure and outline, overview of its content, historical issues raised by modern scholarship, theological issues, relation to the living tradition of the Church, and explanations of how it appears in the liturgical readings. In the sections on theology and the tradition, they regularly cite the Church Fathers, the writings of saints, and teachings of the Church, including the Catechism. Each chapter also includes helpful tables and boxes which answer common questions, such as how we count the Ten Commandments, as there are a few variations (see 179).

A Catholic Introduction to the Bible makes the sacred text more accessible by drawing out key themes, answering difficult questions and misconceptions, and drawing us into ancient history. The authors describe how “the Old Testament is in fact an enormous library of books that were written by human beings and gathered together over the course of centuries. Unlike many ancient books, it was preserved through time and continues to be the object of intense study up to our own day” (16). They help us to enter into this study ourselves, not only in its historic dimensions, but also through faith, which enables us to participate in its realities.

We can see this in participation coming out the book’s explanation of Exodus, which “recounts the foundational historical events by which God formed the people of Israel into a nation and entered into covenant with them. These events are commemorated, celebrated and sacramentally experienced in the liturgy of Israel as well as in the New Covenant liturgy” (199). Likewise, we enter into the mystery of the Incarnation through Isaiah, known as the fifth Gospel, “read more frequently [during the Mass] than any other Old Testament book but the Psalms and . . . rivaling the four Gospels in its frequency” (758). The mysteries of the Old Testament, though rooted in ancient history, remain living witnesses and guides into the realities of our salvation.

As part of our efforts to grow in discipleship, we need to continue the renaissance of biblical studies in the Church. If you have gone through the Great Adventure timeline or read a shorter overview of the biblical narrative, such as Walking with God or A Father Who Keeps His Promises, and you want to go deeper, A Catholic Introduction to the Bible will serve as a great guide. It’s very readable and engaging, even as it wades into scholarly questions. This weighty introduction will prove a crucial resource for entering more deeply into the Bible.

COMING UP: Opinion: There is cause for hope amid dire reports of clergy sexual abuse of minors

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By Vincent Carroll

This Dec. 13, 2019 opinion column was originally published by the Denver Post.

When will it end, many Catholics must wearily wonder. And not only Catholics. Anyone who reads or listens to the news must wonder when the Catholic church sex scandals will ever be over.

But in one major sense, the crisis already has passed and what we’re witnessing — and will continue to witness for years — is the aftermath.

To see what I mean, go to Appendix 4 in the report on sexual abuse of minors by clergy in Colorado issued in October by investigators led by former U.S. Attorney Bob Troyer. There’s a bar graph highlighting the “number of victims by decade the abuse or misconduct began.” Towering above all other decades for the archdiocese of Denver is the bar for the 1960s, representing 74 victims. In second place is the 1970s with 25 victims, and the 1950s is third with 14. The 1990s had 11 victims and the 1980s three.

As the report observes, “Roman Catholic clergy child sex abuse in Colorado peaked in the 1960s and appears to have declined since. In fact, the last of the Colorado child sex abuse incidents we saw in the files were 1 in July 1990 and 4 in May 1998.”

In other words, nearly 70 percent of all the abuse documented in the attorney general’s report within the Denver archdiocese occurred a half-century or more ago.

Denver’s history differs somewhat from the national experience, but not wildly so. Researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice concluded in 2004 after examining the national data on accusations of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy between 1950 and 2002 that “more abuse occurred in the 1970s than any other decade.” The 1960s were also atrocious years for Catholic youth and so was the first half or so of the 1980s.

It appears that accusations in the years since have held to the same chronological profile. Mark Gray, a survey researcher at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, reported recently that CARA has analyzed 8,694 accusations of abuse made between 2004 and 2017 (compared to 10,667 earlier allegations studied by John Jay researchers). The result: The distribution of cases is “nearly identical to the distribution of cases, over time, in John Jay’s results.”

In other words, a large majority of the accusations of abuse that have surfaced in this century are also dated to the horrible era of 1960 to 1985.

This pattern even holds for incidents in last year’s Pennsylvania grand jury report, although news coverage often left the impression that it recounted a fresh flood of new incidents. The report’s scope and details were certainly new and devastating, but most (not all) of the incidents and perpetrators were old (or dead). Those accused of abuse in the Pennsylvania report, for example, were on average “ordained as priests in 1961,” according to Gray.

Given this context, it’s hardly surprising that “the most prolific clergy child sex abuser in Colorado history,” according to the special investigator’s report, namely Father Harold Robert White, was also ordained in 1961.  His depredations “continued for at least 21 years,” the heyday of sexual abuse and church complacency, during which time he “sexually abused at least 63 children.”

Chilling.

I am perfectly aware that the Colorado investigation hardly exhausts the number of victims of clergy sexual abuse. It covers diocesan priests but not those who served in religious orders. Records are likely incomplete and some perhaps destroyed. And the actual number of victims certainly exceeds the number who have come forward.

There is also the question of a reporting time lag — the fact that victims often don’t muster the courage to come forward for years. But if this had been a major factor in the reduced number of incidents after 1985 at the time of John Jay College’s 2004 report, that number would surely have seen a disproportionate surge by now. And yet it has not.

The authors of the state investigation emphasize that they are unable to reliably say that “no clergy child sex abuse has occurred in Colorado since 1998,” and warn against concluding that clergy child sexual abuse is “solved” given ongoing weaknesses they outline regarding how the church handles allegations.

Their caution is understandable given the church’s history in the past century (in the report’s words) of “silence, self-protection and secrecy empowered by euphemism,” and their recommendations to strengthen the diocese’s procedures are for the most part on point. But it is also true that child sexual abuse will never be “solved” in the sense of it being eradicated — not in religious denominations, and not in schools, daycare centers, scout troops, youth sports, and juvenile social service and detention facilities, to cite just some of the venues that predators unfortunately exploit and where an accounting for the lax standards of the past has not been undertaken.

John Jay College researchers also released a followup study in 2011 in which they noted, “the available evidence suggests that sexual abuse in institutional settings . . .  is a serious and underestimated problem, although it is substantially understudied.” Meanwhile, “no other institution has undertaken a public study of sexual abuse and, as a result, there are no comparable data to those collected and reported by the Catholic Church.”

Early this month, Bishop Richard J. Malone resigned from the Buffalo Diocese over gross mishandling of sexual abuse claims. He likely won’t be the last. Meanwhile, Catholics still await the Vatican’s promised explanation for how defrocked former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who allegedly preyed on seminarians for decades, could have been promoted time and again. Is there any credible defense?

So the bad news hasn’t stopped. But behavior in the priestly trenches actually is much improved, and that is surely cause for hope.

Email Vincent Carroll at [email protected]