Without question, the Sulpician priest Raymond E. Brown (1928–1998) was the most celebrated, and in some quarters, the most excoriated Catholic biblical scholar of the late twentieth century. The publication of his massive two-volume commentary on the Gospel of John (1966, 1970) and his co-editorship of the Jerome Biblical Commentary (1968) signaled to his admirers that he and his colleagues represented the breakthrough that had been promised by Pius XII’s 1943 encyclical, Divino afflante spiritu, and that Catholic scholars were capable of doing historical-critical analysis of the Bible just as well as their Protestant academic peers had been doing for a century and a half.
For detractors, that was just the problem: the rush to embrace historical criticism—above all to embrace it to the exclusion of other approaches—seemed to repudiate the distinctive Catholic approach to Scripture, which, since the patristic era, had emphasized the liturgical, mystical, and allegorical dimensions of the text. The quest for human authors’ intentions, it was feared, would lead to seeking only the dimension available to historical inquiry, and that would be an impoverishment.
But for the vast majority of Catholic readers, eager to learn Scripture and avid for the new historical approach, the perennially youthful-appearing, energetic, and prolific Brown became iconic, a symbol of Catholic aggiornamento as he produced commentaries on the letters of John, studies on the birth and death of the Messiah, and, shortly before his sudden death at age seventy, a large Introduction to the New Testament. Mass admiration and, in some cases, adulation, overcame resistance.
The Passionist Donald Senior is himself a widely recognized and respected New Testament scholar, the editor of The Catholic Study Bible, and an important force within the Catholic Biblical Association of America. Here he has written a sturdy and well-researched intellectual biography. We learn only scraps about Brown’s personal life—his well-worn (out) wardrobe, his passion for opera, his jaunts with friends—and virtually nothing of his inner life. Brown was, from beginning to end, the good student, the meticulous researcher, the lucid explainer, whose life was swallowed by one publishing venture after another.
Senior does a singularly good job of tracing the development of each of Brown’s works, placing the progression of his career in the context of the ecclesiastical turmoil of the post–Vatican II Church, and showing how cannily Brown used his episcopal connections—and their willingness to support him with the nihil obstat and imprimatur—to shield him from the worst of his opponent’s efforts. Senior candidly acknowledges Brown’s faults: his irritability at what he perceived as obduracy, his preference for speaking rather than listening, and his generally dismal view of students. But he also shows that Brown truly wrote in service of the Church and, to the end of his life, was faithful to his vocation as a priest.
Senior’s excellent study, with a foreword by another Sulpician priest, Ronald Witherup, has led me, though, to this melancholy reflection: with very few exceptions, the leaders of “the Catholic biblical renewal” before and after Vatican II were members of religious orders, male and female alike. Such orders, flush with members and resources, generously supported scholarship among their members, and the scholars they produced were definably “Catholic,” not only in their allegiance but also in their sensibility. Today, the diminishment of religious orders has had an unanticipated effect. American universities have a fair proportion of “Catholic” scholars of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, but they are not, and cannot be, “Catholic” in the way that Raymond Brown, Joseph Fitzmyer, and indeed, Donald Senior, are Catholic.
Raymond E. Brown and the Catholic Biblical Renewal
Donald Senior, CP
$29.95 | 376 pp.
Julián Carrón is the second leader of the Italian (now international) Catholic lay movement, Communion and Liberation, assuming his position after the death of the movement’s founder, Luigi Giussani, in 2005. The movement has had tremendous success, enjoying the favor of pontiffs from John Paul II to Francis, and spreading to more than eighty countries; but with its success has also come its own set of predictable scandals, both sexual and political (in particular, the movement has been bruised by charges of inappropriate political entanglements). Carrón, educated as a theologian and biblical scholar in Spain, has the unenviable task of making the transition from a charismatic founder to a second generation, while also dealing with a variety of ecclesiastical conflicts.