In reading some articles presently published on Catholic websites, one might get the impression that the story of Cain and Abel is an apt parable for the state of the Catholic Church, especially in the United States. Who is to be identified as the victim and who as the aggressor would no doubt depend on who is speaking. Asked about a division in the Church, Archbishop, now Cardinal Pierre, said that there is no division, but that certain areas of the Church share in the political polarization present in the culture of those areas. It is difficult to avoid seeing that serious tensions exist between different groups of people in the Church, but how to characterize those tensions is not easy. What I want to do is to look more deeply at what I believe to be an underlying cause of these tensions, tensions that I believe have always been at work to tear the Church apart and which will no doubt continue to exist until the end of time.

In considering this, we will look at one source of tension, a distortion of the faith, that nearly became doctrine at the Second Vatican Council.

In this series of articles, “Union and Communion,” we started by considering the growing isolation in our culture. We saw that God did not intend humans to be isolated, but He created them in communion with Himself and with one another. This communion also gave them total transparency and openness, without any need for defensiveness or barricades, either psychological, physical, or spiritual. “They were naked and were not ashamed.”[1] They had nothing to hide, and nothing to hide from.

At the insinuation that God had not been open and truthful with them, that He had not in fact created them “like Himself,” our first parents rejected trust and transparency and withdrew behind protective barriers: “they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.”[2] They also hid from God out of fear, taking refuge in a purely natural environment.

This was not a total break, not a total rejection of communion. A relationship with God was still possible through sacrifice, a symbolic gesture of shared life. We find this with the offering of Abel. Yet we can also limit this sharing of life and reduce it to a mere sharing of goods, as we see in the offering of Cain. Objects, not life, became the bond between God and us. They could also be a protective barrier enabling us to keep God at arms’ length while maintaining a partial relationship.

This double choice of relationship is seen throughout the Old Testament. Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, in spite of temporary weaknesses and failings, trusted God and shared life with Him. Moses became a close friend and servant of God, who spoke with him “face to face, as one speaks to a friend.”[3]

Yet to imitate the choice made by Cain was always possible. We find this explicitly told in the account of Moses and the Israelites at Mount Sinai. After many miraculous events bringing them safely out of slavery, the Israelites still found it impossible to feel safe with God. At the theophany on Sinai, “When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, ‘You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.’”[4] The people chose to relate to God through a mediator and though they promised to listen to the mediator, they quickly changed their minds when he did not conform to their desires.

With this rejection of his chosen spokesman, God gave a further confirmation of His covenant with them in the form of a written law and from then on, the Law and the Prophets were the guiding principles of the people’s covenant with God. With time, the Law took on increasing luster until the prophet Baruch could write of the God of Israel, “This is our God; no other can be compared to him. He found the whole way to knowledge, and gave her to his servant Jacob and to Israel, whom he loved. Afterward she appeared on earth and lived with humankind. She is the book of the commandments of God, the law that endures forever. All who hold her fast will live, and those who forsake her will die. Turn, O Jacob, and take her; walk toward the shining of her light. Do not give your glory to another, or your advantages to an alien people. Happy are we, O Israel, for we know what is pleasing to God.”[5]

Prophecy ceased in Israel after Malachi around 400 B.C. From then on, the Law became even more important as the bedrock of religion. By the time of Jesus, obedience to the law was the litmus test of orthodoxy among devout believers. Though it would be only some 200 years later that the Mishnah formulated the 600 precepts culled from the five books of the Pentateuch, there was already a focus on the minutiae of various points of the law that made religious observance very challenging.

The text of the Law was clearly the most perceptible expression of God’s presence and action, and it is therefore easily understandable that it should have pride of place in religious study and teaching. At the same time, this did not eliminate personal piety, as we shall see in our next article. But personal piety did not possess the same level of authority as that of the written text, and we see in the case of John the Baptist, scripture-based teachers claimed the right to judge the authenticity of prophecy. This was a reversal from the earlier time when the prophets were judges of belief and behavior.

Scripture was recognized as the word of God, but Scripture was impersonal in its expression. It needed a personal form of expression. The prophets had provided this, and personal piety continued to provide it as the believer made the words of Scripture his own words in prayer and by putting them into action. Yet this personal piety was limited in its range of influence. The tension remained between the text of Scripture and the lack of authoritative interpretation. This tension was resolved when the Word of God in person became the fully human interpretation and interpreter of God. “For while gentle silence enveloped all things, and night in its swift course was now half gone, your all-powerful word leaped from heaven, from the royal throne, into the midst of the land that was doomed, a stern warrior carrying the sharp sword of your authentic command.”[6] When Jesus spoke, “the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.”[7] Word and interpretation were one and the same.

Yet for some, and these were deeply devout believers, the challenge was too great. An impersonal text is less invasive than a personal relationship. “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”[8] This can be too challenging. For those who fear such a vulnerable intimacy, they can take refuge behind the written, impersonal word. The Word of God inscribed became a shield against the Word of God incarnate. Until, like Cain, they killed the one who challenged their defensiveness.

Jesus in Himself was Word and its fullest interpretation. Death did not extinguish his preaching. Quite the contrary, for His death was the glorification that released His Spirit.[9] The Spirit of Jesus, who inspired the prophets and sacred writers, is the Spirit who creates the Church. He gives the insights into Scripture that lifts it from impersonal letters to personal witness. “For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”[10] This is the sensus fidei, the insight and understanding given by the one Spirit of God to the many members of Christ. The sensus fidei is confirmed by the Magisterium, the bishops in communion with the Pope. These two, the Scriptures and the sensus fidei confirmed by the Magisterium, give living and united harmonious witness to the Gospel. To become unanchored from either is to invite shipwreck.

This is seen throughout history by the various alterations of Christianity such as Docetism, Gnosticism, Marcionism and Montanism. It is seen more recently in the position of sola scriptura, which separates the written text from the sensus fidei and the Magisterium.

I began writing for Where Peter Is to clarify confusion about the Church’s recent documents concerning contemplative nuns. I continued writing articles for this site because I found that insights gained from my experience of contemplative life were applicable to the situation of the Church at large. Contemplative life in many ways is a microcosm that mirrors the macrocosm of the Church.

One study that I wrote for the situation in my Order was called “Solae Constitutiones”. It showed that the constitutions adopted by a group of Discalced Carmelite monasteries whose members had separated themselves from the charismatic authority of the Order had, unwittingly, fallen into the error of Luther of making a written text the sole authoritative expression of the charism. In doing so, of course, that text enabled everyone to interpret it as they chose.

I had forgotten about “Solae Constitutiones” until I was reminded of it recently when I heard that a document presented by the Roman Curia in the not-so-distant past had “clearly fallen into this trap [of sola scriptura].” [11] In chapter 12 of his biography, “Benedict XVI,” Peter Seewald tells of the lecture given to the German-speaking bishops by Professor Joseph Ratzinger on the evening of October 10, 1962, the day before the beginning of the Second Vatican Council. In that lecture, Prof. Ratzinger made that startling statement concerning the Vatican text.

The lecture is about the Schema De fontibus revelationis, “On the sources of revelation.” Prof. Ratzinger begins his lecture on the questionable areas contained in the Schema, and says “The title itself On the Sources of Revelation, immediately raises problems.”[12] While admitting that “all theological textbooks speak this way,” he insists that “the formulation, even though it has become common, is not without its dangers, since it entails an astounding narrowing of the concept of revelation, which then has a decisive effect on the understanding of all that follows.”[13]

This is a serious matter: if faith is founded on revelation, and our understanding of revelation is incorrect, then our faith and our living of the faith will be distorted. Prof. Ratzinger immediately corrects the position expressed in the Schema: “Actually, Scripture and tradition are not the sources of revelation, but instead revelation, God’s speaking and his manifesting of himself, is the unus fons [one source], from which then the two streams of Scripture and tradition flow out. This is the true way of speaking of tradition, which Trent used and took for granted.”[14] He situates the Schema’s understanding of revelation as dating from “the early phase of historicism, when people everywhere were asking about sources.”[15] Historicism, in the Catholic sense, is defined as “The theory that claims that the secular history of anything is an adequate explanation of its meaning; that the values of a movement or philosophy are adequately understood by tracing it to its origins; and that something is fully understood if its development has been historically accounted for. Prime examples of modern historicism are the philosophies of history of Georg Hegel and Karl Marx.”[16] Historicism springs from the historical-critical method of Scripture studies that began in the 17th century and became more common in the 19th and 20th centuries. If that is the case, then the Schema’s understanding of revelation only goes back a few hundred years at the most. This fits in with Henri de Lubac’s statement that, in the texts prepared by the Preparatory Theological Commission, “Only ecclesiastical documents, especially the most recent ones, count.”[17]

Prof. Ratzinger makes the essential distinction between revelation and the expressions of revelation that are Scripture and tradition. “Scripture and tradition are for us sources from which we know revelation, but they are not in themselves its sources, for revelation is itself the source of Scripture and tradition.”[18] He goes back beyond the period of historicism and shows that both Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas “know well that revelation is always more than its material principle, the Scripture, namely, that it is life living on in the Church in a way that makes Scripture a living reality and illumines its hidden depths.”[19] He then draws this conclusion: “This means, to be sure, that the three realities, Scripture, Tradition, and the Church’s Magisterium are not static entities placed beside each other, but have to be seen as one living organism of the work of God, which from Christ lives on in the Church.”[20]

That Joseph Ratzinger never changed his views on this subject is shown by Fr. Wicks’s statement that “The text’s author granted his permission [for the translation and presentation of the lecture in the present article] via letter from the Vatican Secretariat of State on January 21, 2008.”[21]

This is the source of what became the revolutionary shift of the Second Vatican Council, a shift that began with the debate on this very Schema, On Divine Revelation, in the first session and which would continue throughout its sessions until Dei Verbum was promulgated on November 18, 1965. Given Prof. Ratzinger’s lecture on Oct. 10, 1962, it is not surprising that Cardinal Frings, who had chosen Ratzinger as his theologian, together with Cardinal Lienart of Lille, spearheaded the movement to give the bishops a better knowledge of their options and the freedom to exercise them.[22] The result of this small beginning would be the truly traditional shift in the understanding of revelation. As Rene Latourelle described it: “The transition to a personalist, historical, and Christocentric conception amounts to a kind of Copernican revolution, compared to the extrinsicist, atemporal, and notional approach that prevailed until the 1950s.”[23] The shift in understanding can only be seen as a “Copernican revolution” by those who knew nothing beyond the views prevailing for the last couple of centuries. Those who, like Prof. Ratzinger, knew the traditional understanding of revelation held by the Fathers of the Church and the great theologians, will recognize in the Council’s understanding of revelation what the Church has always held and taught.

Avery Dulles, comparing De fontibus revelationis and Dei Verbum, wrote, “the view of revelation proposed by Dei Verbum may be characterized as concrete rather than abstract, historical rather than philosophical, biblical rather than scholastic, ecumenical rather than controversial, interpersonal rather than propositional.”[24] The important word here is “interpersonal.”

Ormand Rush summarizes the Conciliar understanding of revelation in these points: “(1) revelation is primarily a dialogic divine-human encounter, not only a communication of truths; (2) divine revelation, as God’s personal outreach in faith, is therefore also a saving encounter for those who receive it; (3) revelation takes place through divine actions in history and not just through the communication of words; (4) revelation is not only something that happened in the past but a present reality and indeed will only be fulfilled at the end of time.”[25]

We have been studying various ways in which we “defend” ourselves against God’s self-manifestation, and we see here how narrowly we escaped having this defense “given an ecclesial significance which from the tradition it cannot claim to have.”[26] There is a call to return to the traditional teaching of the Church, and this is excellent, as long as we return to the truly traditional teaching of the Church, and not to some recent ideas that only go back a couple of hundred years, even if they have “the backing of most all textbook of theology.”[27]

In our final article, we will consider some of the conclusions that can be drawn from these considerations and how they affect our understanding of the Church and our own relationship with God.


[1] Gen. 2, 25

[2] Gen. 3, 7

[3] Ex. 33, 11

[4] Ex. 20, 18-19

[5] Bar. 3, 35-37, 4, 1-4

[6] Wis. 18, 14-15

[7] Matt. 7, 28-29

[8] Heb. 4, 12

[9] Cf. Jn 19, 30

[10] 2 Cor. 3, 6

[11] Jared Wicks, “Six Texts by Prof. Joseph Ratzinger as peritus before and during Vatican Council II” Gregorianum, Vol. 89, No. 2 (2008), pp. 233-311 (79 pages), p. 271 (All italics are in the original.) https://www.jstor.org/stable/23582851

[12] Ibid. p. 269

[13] Ibid, pp. 269-270

[14] Ibid. p. 270

[15] Ibid. p. 270

[16] https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/dictionary/index.cfm?id=33935

[17] De Lubac, Carnets du Concile, I, 53-54. https://jakomonchak.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/preparatory-theological-commission.pdf

[18] “Six texts,” p. 270

[19] Ibid. p. 276

[20] Ibid. p. 277

[21] Ibid. p. 269

[22] https://www.smp.org/dynamicmedia/files/112297a8e618321ab6366a109ec81a6e/TX002186-1-content-Events_at_the_Second_Vatican_Council.pdf p. 3

[23]  “The Vision of Vatican II,” by Ormand Rush, Liturgical Press Academic, Collegeville, MN, 2019, p. 40

[24] Ibid. p. 40

[25] Ibid. p. 41

[26] “Six texts,” p. 278

[27] Ibid. p. 273

Image: Professor Joseph Ratzinger and Cardinal Joseph Frings of Cologne, during the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965).

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Sr. Gabriela of the Incarnation, O.C.D. (Sr. Gabriela Hicks) was born in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, in the Gold Rush country of California, which she remembers as heaven on earth for a child! She lived a number of years in Europe, and then entered the Discalced Carmelite Monastery in Flemington, New Jersey, where she has been a member for forty years. www.flemingtoncarmel.org.

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