Heading into the Synod on the Family in 2014, many people were expecting fundamental changes in church teaching. Such hopes were unrealistic, since a synod is not the kind of assembly from which major changes can be expected. Still, one might wonder why, after an initial week when big questions were raised, the synod’s final report seemed to pull back. And a year later, the 2015 session’s report showed little change from the first.
At the center of the synod’s discussions, in fact, was the idea of change itself. Can the Catholic Church change its doctrines? While some bishops insist that church doctrine is unchangeable, most at some level recognize such a claim as both unacceptable to the great majority of church members and historically indefensible. The issue leaves the bishops facing a dilemma: they believe their job is to transmit the truth, as revealed by God in the first century and preserved in the New Testament and early church tradition. But such an understanding of how God has revealed himself is fatally flawed. The Catholic Church has an intellectual crisis grounded in the failure of its leaders to confront the question of what exactly the church understands revelation to be.
Theologians have provided little help. Among the big questions that the Second Vatican Council admirably took on was that of “sources of revelation,” and while the council made a start, it could not complete the task. The document produced in committee was mostly a restatement of the Council of Trent’s assertion that revelation is contained in both Scripture and tradition, and was sent back to committee for a rewriting that took three years. While a big improvement over the initial version, the resulting draft—written mainly by biblical scholars—was still severely limited. Its first chapter, titled “Revelation Itself,” consists of six paragraphs of biblical language, and does not even raise the question of revelation itself, let alone answer it.
“Revelation” is not a major idea in the Bible. The term came into Jewish tradition shortly before the Common Era via religions that surrounded Israel. In those religions, apocalypse or revelation (“unveiling”) was a central idea that reflected a preoccupation with the end of the world, when the truth would be unveiled. As a visual metaphor, revelation conflicted with the Bible’s central metaphor of God speaking and humans responding.
Revelation’s main appearance in the early Christian movement, of course, was as the name of what became the last book in the New Testament, with its promise of a revealing or unveiling of a new heaven and a new earth, to be realized at the completion of history. The Book of Revelation was something of an embarrassment in the early church—and remains one for the contemporary Catholic Church. Indeed the Vatican II document on revelation seems to pretend that it does not exist. And yet the Book of Revelation has long been attractive to many Christians, and still is. For the vast majority of Christians, “revelation” refers to the Book of Revelation.
After somewhat reluctantly including the Book of Revelation in the canon of Scripture, early church officials had to struggle against the concept of revelation taking over the Christian movement. Then as now, the idea that the world is coming to an end had a seductive appeal. If a new earth is just around the corner, why exert yourself taking care of this one? If you know how the story ends, why bother with the details of history? The struggle went on for several centuries as the church sought to domesticate the idea of revelation. Though as metaphor they were fundamentally opposed, the terms “revelation” and “word” were conflated in meaning, and revelation could now be assigned to the past when God was said to have spoken. It was a clever move, but one that never resolved the clash between the unveiling of truth and the seeking of truth through speaking and listening.
Augustine posited that the thousand years alluded to in the Book of Revelation referred not to what follows history, but to the church’s history, in which the truth has already been unveiled; in this construal, the church’s mission is understood to be protecting and transmitting the revealed truth. The church’s official tilt on revelation likewise located it in the past. The Middle Ages, especially in the mystical tradition, saw sporadic eruptions of protest against this confinement of revelation to the past. Within the church the liturgy has always been a quiet protest in the name of a living God.
THE FACT THAT the term “revelation” is not often brought up in today’s church might seem to suggest that the problem has been resolved. More likely, it is the result of not wishing to stir up old problems that may cause new doubts and difficulties. The bishops continue to talk about the revealed truths they are committed to preserving. With that assumption it is hardly surprising that they see no room for changes in church doctrines.
And so the question of what place the term revelation should have in the church needs to be debated. The church cannot eliminate either “revelation” or “word” as metaphors for divine activity. But it should acknowledge that the terms are not equivalent. One of them inevitably takes precedence; and starting with the first sentence—“In the beginning, God said let there be light”—the Bible leaves no doubt about which one that is.
Two guidelines for the Christian use of “revelation” suggest themselves. First, the term should be restricted to a verb form. Revelation is a fairly common term in secular speech; it usually refers to what has been a secret and has now come to light. If the Christian Church uses the word that way, then Christianity becomes a collection of truths from the past. But the church does not possess a revelation, and certainly not “the Christian revelation” (a term of sixteenth-century origin).
Christian religion can speak of God revealing, and humans responding with the act of believing in God. The Bible and the earliest tradition of the church are a deposit of faith, not a deposit of revelation; there is no object that is a divine revelation. If doctrines are recognized as formulas of belief, instead of revealed truths, change can be looked at in a different light.
A second guideline is that church use of revelation as a metaphor of divine activity should always be in the singular, never the plural. There is one God, one creation, one revelation to which Jews, Christians, Muslims, and others respond. The church has to listen for a divine speaking and look for a divine revealing throughout all creation. Since other religious groups have a legitimate claim on the term revelation, the church would do well to listen to other voices, in addition to its own, for understanding the revelation of God.
Consider two statements that approach the problem with widely different degrees of effectiveness. Archbishop William Temple, in his 1935 classic Nature, Man and God, writes that “Only if God is revealed in the rising of the sun in the sky can He be revealed in the rising of a son of man from the dead.” The revealing of God can be perceived in the daily lives of everyone; the revealing of the son of man from the dead has to be in the context of a divine revealing throughout creation. Temple affirms a Christian expression of belief in a divine revealing within a context that invites other particular affirmations. There is no denial of any Christian doctrines, but no claim that the Christian church possesses the final truth about God.
Now consider Pope Francis’s assertion, in Laudato si’, that “Alongside revelation, properly so called, contained in Scripture, there is a divine manifestation in the blaze of the sun and the fall of the night.” The clumsy syntax of the pope’s sentence, compared with the poetic flow of Temple’s, indicates confused thinking. Its effect is to undermine the point of the encyclical—namely, that God is revealed throughout the creation that humans have a responsibility to care for. A “divine manifestation” is contrasted with “revelation properly so called,” which the church alone claims to possess. In a twenty-first century encyclical on the environment addressed to the whole world, the pope’s formulation is disastrous.
AN INADEQUATE UNDERSTANDING of the meaning of revelation is impeding four dialogues that the Catholic Church must engage in. First, the way that church officials currently refer to revealed truths creates unnecessary conflict with the secular world. There is no revealed truth about homosexuality, contraception, or other moral issues. Whether a church doctrine is compatible with contemporary developments depends on a thorough knowledge of church tradition as well as a thorough examination of contemporary data.
Second, the present use of revelation as something that the church alone possesses—“the Christian revelation”—makes badly needed dialogue with other religions all but impossible. Each religious group interprets divine revelation in its own way. That diversity can be a source of conflict, but with an adequate context for discussion, differences can become a source of mutual understanding.
Third, more dialogue within Christianity is needed for the benefit of both Protestants and Catholics. The increased appreciation of the Bible in the Catholic Church during the past fifty years has been a big step in the right direction. And although Protestants are often bewildered by Catholic Church pronouncements on unchangeable dogmas, the stability and consistency in Catholic Church teaching are a good challenge for Protestants. Catholics understandably find it difficult to converse with fundamentalists, but not all evangelical Protestants are fundamentalist. The great reform movements in U.S. history have often been led by evangelical Protestants whose attending to the word of God can inspire acts of dedication, courage, and forgiveness.
Fourth, and finally, revelation construed as truths revealed in the past makes dialogue within the Catholic Church all but impossible. If divine revelation is an activity that still occurs in the present, however, then church officials—as members of the faithful—have to listen. Instead of reciting revealed truths, church officials need scholars to help them interpret the rich store of Catholic tradition. At the synod, the bishops were largely on their own, without the “experts” who played a major role at Vatican II. Future synods and councils will need a much more diverse group of men and women to act as responsible listeners to a divine revealing. For that to occur, the Catholic Church has to face the intellectual crisis surrounding the very basis of its teaching.