The author answers Catholic creationists by arguing that contemporary exegetes have sufficient reason to go beyond a literalist reading of Genesis.
Reading Genesis with Cardinal Ratzinger
By Nicanor Pier Giorgio Fr. Austriaco
Fr. Austriaco: How is a Catholic supposed to read the first chapter of Genesis that details the six days of creation? In a lecture entitled, “Restoration of Traditional Catholic Theology on Origins," given at the First International Catholic Symposium on Creation held in Rome on October 24-25, 2002, Father Victor Warkulwiz, M.S.S., a priest with a doctorate in physics, argued that the Catholic Church needs to return to a traditional Catholic theology on origins, a theology that is “based on the literal and obvious sense of Genesis 1-11." 1 He is not alone in saying this. In recent years, Catholics of a more traditionalist bent have begun to embrace a special creationism — the belief that God created the different kinds of living things by divine fiat less than 10,000 years ago – that, in years past, was associated more with fundamentalist Protestants. 2
R. Sungenis: I was at the Symposium in Rome in 2002 and also gave a speech on this topic along with about 10 other Kolbe members, so I can vouch for Fr. Austriaco’s summation of Fr. Warkulwiz’s message.
Fr. Austriaco: Catholic creationists often claim that Catholics who seek to be faithful to the Catholic tradition need to interpret the six-day creation account of Genesis in its “literal and obvious sense" as most of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church had done. Thus, they argue that the first chapter of Genesis is an accurate historical narrative, a precise description, of an event that took place over a six-day period several thousand years ago. To justify this approach, Catholic creationists cite Pope Leo XIII, who in Providentissimus Deus, his 1893 encyclical on the study of sacred scripture, taught the following:
The opinion of the Fathers is also of very great weight when they treat of these matters [the interpretation of Sacred Scripture] in their capacity of doctors, unofficially; not only because they excel in their knowledge of revealed doctrine and in their acquaintance with many things which are useful in understanding the apostolic Books, but because they are men of eminent sanctity and of ardent zeal for the truth, on whom God has bestowed a more ample measure of His light. Wherefore the expositor should make it his duty to follow their footsteps with all reverence, and to use their labours with intelligent appreciation. But he must not on that account consider that it is forbidden when just cause exists, to push inquiry and exposition beyond what the Fathers have done; provided he carefully observes the rule so wisely laid down by St. Augustine-not to depart from the literal and obvious sense, except only where reason makes it untenable or necessity requires; a rule to which it is the more necessary to adhere strictly in these times, when the thirst for novelty and unrestrained freedom of thought make the danger of error most real and proximate. 3
Though Catholic creationists admit that Leo XIII permitted Catholics to move beyond the literal and obvious sense of Sacred Scripture — what modern biblical scholars would call a literalist reading of the text 4 — they respond by asserting that contemporary Catholic exegetes have failed to show that their non-literalist reading of Genesis is justified either by reason or by necessity as specified by Leo XIII.
R. Sungenis: Note that Fr. Austriaco said: “to interpret the six-day creation account of Genesis in its ‘literal and obvious sense’ as most of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church had done," showing he acknowledges that the consensus of the tradition is the literal interpretation of Genesis.
Fr. Austriaco: In this essay, I respond to the Catholic creationist movement by arguing that contemporary exegetes have sufficient reason to move beyond a literalist reading of the Genesis text. I will begin by summarizing the three hermeneutical principles employed by then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now the Holy Father, Benedict XVI, in his non-literalist interpretation of the six-day account of Genesis, traditionally called the Hexaemeron. I will then show that his method is faithful both to the teaching of the Catholic Church most recently articulated in Dei Verbum, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation of the Second Vatican Council, and to the teaching of his predecessor, Leo XIII, in Providentissimus Deus. Thus, I propose that Cardinal Ratzinger’s approach to reading Genesis, as a particularly noteworthy example of the hermeneutical method endorsed by Vatican II, should be paradigmatic for the contemporary Catholic exegete seeking to be faithful to the Catholic tradition.
First principle: The distinction between form and content
During the Lenten season of 1981, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, gave four homilies on creation in the Liebfrauenkirche, the cathedral church of Munich in Germany. 5 In his first homily, entitled “God the Creator," he discusses the principles that govern his reading of Genesis. He begins by recalling the opening words of the Sacred Scriptures that highlight the creative action of God “in the beginning." However, he goes on to ask the question that lies at the heart of the creationist debate: Are these words true? Do they count for anything? In order to answer these questions, he suggests three criteria for interpreting the Genesis text: the distinction between form and content in the creation narrative, the unity of the Bible, and the hermeneutical importance of Christology.
R. Sungenis: I should interject here that what Cardinal Ratzinger believed in 1981 in his personal opinions about biblical interpretation has little to do with what Pope Benedict XVI may or may not proclaim as the official doctrine of the Catholic Church. Although I do not want to accuse Fr. Austriaco of something he may not have intended, nevertheless, it seems that he seeks to imply that what Cardinal Ratzinger wrote in 1981 has more or less become the official teaching of the Catholic Church now that the Cardinal has been made pope. If so, this is not an appropriate way to argue one’s case, and it is disappointing to see Pope Benedict’s name used in this way. There is a vast difference between what a cardinal holds as his private opinion and what a pope teaches officially as Catholic doctrine. Fr. Austriaco should have at least pointed that out to his reader.
Fr. Austriaco: First, he proposes that the exegete “must distinguish between the form of portrayal and the content that is portrayed." 6 He must keep in mind that the Bible is, first and foremost, a religious book and not a natural science textbook.
R. Sungenis: Certainly, but when the Bible touches upon an area of science or history it is just as inerrant as its religious information. No Father, saint, doctor or pope has ever said any differently. The only ones to question it are today’s liberal exegetes who are steeped in the unproven hypotheses of Darwin’s evolutionary theory and who are desperately trying to recast Genesis into an ancient myth.
Pope Benedict XV (the pope from whom Benedict XVI took his name) said:
“…but they will wander pitifully from their purpose, if they disregard the precepts of Our predecessor and pass beyond certain limits and bounds which the Fathers have set. Yet by these precepts and limits the opinion of the more recent critics is not restrained, who, after introducing a distinction between the primary or religious element of Scripture, and the secondary or profane, wish, indeed, that inspiration itself pertain to all the ideas, rather even to the individual words of the Bible, but that its effects and especially immunity from error and absolute truth be contracted and narrowed down to the primary or religious element. For their belief is that only which concerns religion is intended and is taught by God in the Scriptures; but that the rest, which pertains to the profane disciplines [science and history] and serves revealed doctrine as a kind of external cloak of divine truth, is only permitted and is left to the feebleness of the writer…" (Spiritus Paraclitus).
Fr. Austriaco: Thus, Cardinal Ratzinger concludes that Genesis does not and cannot provide a scientific explanation of how the world arose.
R. Sungenis: That all depends on what one means by a “scientific explanation." The Bible doesn’t have to speak in mathematical equations in order to convey truth in history or science. When the Bible says that God created the sun and stars it doesn’t need to explain the intricacies of the hydrogen/helium relationship. When the Bible says that “there was then an evening and a morning the fourth day," it doesn’t need to get into the sidereal day versus the solar day and other such technical items. But the fact remains that Genesis is clear that God made them in one day, and unless science can prove that it wasn’t one day (which it hasn’t), we are compelled to understand the text literally, as all the Fathers and doctors and popes of the Catholic Church have done previously. In short, the Bible doesn’t need to speak like a science book in order to tell us basic truths about science. The Bible can tell the truths of science in its own simple way.
Moreover, if one insists that the Bible cannot give a scientific explanation for how the world began because it lacks scientific terminology, by the same token, modern science cannot give a scientific explanation for how the world began simply because it wasn’t there when God created the world, and thus it has no certain knowledge of what took place. The only thing science can do is hypothesize, but hypotheses do not make literal interpretations of Genesis “untenable," and that is the benchmark that Fr. Austriaco must reach.
Fr. Austriaco: Rather, it is a book that seeks to describe things in such a way that the reader is able to grasp profound religious realities. It uses images to communicate religious truth, images that were chosen from what was understandable at the time the text was written, “images which surrounded the people who lived then, which they used in speaking and in thinking, and thanks to which they were able to understand the greater realities." 7
R. Sungenis: Yes, the Bible gives us “religious realities." We can read Genesis 1:14, for example, and see the wonderful religious truth that it was God, not matter, that created the sun on the Fourth day. But none of this “religious reality" empties Genesis 1:14 of its basic scientific content, that is, that the sun and stars were created on the Fourth day while the Earth was created on the First day. Or perhaps Fr. Austriaco is trying to convince us that Moses was so primitive in his mathematical thinking that he couldn’t distinguish the three days between Day One and Day Four? All of Catholic tradition is behind the distinction. As Pius X warned against those who ignore this truth:
“In the Sacred Books there are many passages referring to science or history where, according to them, manifest errors are to be found. But, they say, the subject of these books is not science or history, but only religion and morals. In them history and science serve only as a species of covering to enable the religious and moral experiences wrapped up in them to penetrate more readily among the masses….We, venerable brethren…declare that this is equivalent to attributing to God Himself the lie of utility or officious lie, and we say with St. Augustine: ‘In an authority so high, admit but one officious lie, and there will not remain a single passage of those apparently difficult to practice or to believe, which on the same most pernicious rule may not be explained as a lie uttered by the author willfully and to serve a purpose.’ And thus it will come about, the holy Doctor continues, that ‘everybody will believe and refuse to believe what he likes or dislikes in them,’ namely, the Scriptures. But the Modernists pursue their way eagerly…" (Pascendi Dominici Gregis, 36-37).
Fr. Austriaco: In other words, the Catholic exegete is called to respect the text as it is. He is called to read Genesis as its human author wished it to be read, not as a scientific treatise, but as a religious narrative that communicates profound truths about the Creator.
R. Sungenis: In other words, Fr. Austriaco is trying to convince us that he has the inside track on how the “human author wished it to be read." How does Fr. Austriaco know what the “human author" intended? He doesn’t tell us. He just assumes that the “human author" wanted his text devoid of specific historical and scientific truth, and then he imposes that conclusion on his reader. This is a common ploy of exegetes who come to Genesis with a presupposition against the literal reading, and for the evolutionary theory. The constant appeal is to the “intent" of the author, as if theses exegetes are able to read the mind of the author who lived thousands of years ago and tell us what his exact thoughts were. The appeal to “intent" is a mine-field of subjectivity. Conversely, Pius XII declared that the way we know the intent of the author is by interpreting his words literally:
“Let the interpreters bear in mind that their foremost and greatest endeavor should be to discern and define clearly that sense of the biblical words which is called literal. Aided by the context and by comparison with similar passages, let them therefore by means of their knowledge of languages search out with all diligence the literal meaning of the words…so that the mind of the author can be made clear" (Divino Afflante Spiritu).
Fr. Austriaco: Cardinal Ratzinger’s first criterion for exegesis echoes the teaching of the Second Vatican Council. In Dei verbum, the Dogmatic Constitution on Revelation, the Council Fathers taught that,
Those who search out the intention of the sacred writers must, among other things, have regard for “literary forms." For truth is proposed and expressed in a variety of ways, depending on whether a text is history of one kind or another or whether its form is that of prophecy, poetry, or some other type of speech. The interpreter must investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express and actually expressed in particular circumstances as he used contemporary literary forms in accordance with the situation of his own time and culture. 8
R. Sungenis: Of course, but what does this prove for Fr. Austriaco’s case? The Fathers and the doctors of the Catholic Church, from the Church’s inception, understood the various types of biblical literature and they told us to determine this matter before we interpreted Scripture. They knew the difference between poetry and history. This is nothing new, and thus Vatican II is following in the tradition of the Church. But what Fr. Austriaco seeks to convey from Dei Verbum’s wording is that the Church of yesteryear didn’t have any notion of literary types, subsequently implying that they were at fault for interpreting Genesis 1 literally. This is typical of Raymond Brown’s approach to Scripture, only Brown adds the literary form of “fiction" to the possibilities that Fr. Austriaco stated above. According to Brown, the Genesis writer is merely telling a fictional story, but insists that no detail recorded in Genesis 1 ever happened. Similar to Fr. Austriaco, Fr. Brown resigns us to saying that the only truth we can get out of Genesis 1 is that “God created the world." Of course, this is just Brown’s imposition on Scripture, since Scripture never claims to be telling narratives that are mostly fiction. Not surprisingly, identical to Fr. Austriaco, Fr. Brown believed in the evolutionary theory, so in order to make his Catholicism consistent with evolution, one of them had to bend, and Brown made his Catholicism bend, not evolution. Fr. Austriaco seems to be of same persuasion. He has a Ph.D. in biology and he has most likely accepted the evolutionary hypothesis as more credible than the face value words of Genesis 1, and thus Fr. Austriaco will seek to interpret Genesis from that framework. He will then try to convince the reader that this type of exegesis is perfectly acceptable “because history and science were never the intent of the human author." Yet Fr. Austriaco offers absolutely no proof for his assertion.
Fr. Austriaco: Moreover, though Cardinal Ratzinger does not provide a theological justification for this criterion, the Second Vatican Council did. According to the Council, we need to respect the form of the text because “God speaks in sacred Scripture through men in human fashion." 9 Thus, the exegete “in order to see clearly what God wanted to communicate to us, should carefully investigate what meaning the sacred writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words." 10 In other words, the Catholic exegete should respect the form of the Sacred Scriptures because in doing so, he respects the action of God who authored the sacred text without violating the freedom, identity, and idiosyncrasies of the human authors who wrote in different forms.
R. Sungenis: Agreed. But what we disagree with is Fr. Austriaco’s arbitrary application of this principle to the first chapters of Genesis, guided as he is by his trust in the evolutionary theory.
Allow me to show you another case of the danger of Fr. Austriaco’s arbitrary applications can do to Scripture. Let’s say I wanted to apply Fr. Austriaco’s “literary form" idea to Matthew 26:26: “This is my body." When Jesus said, “This is my body," did he merely make a “religious" statement? If so, then we might be tempted to interpret “body" just like the Baptists do, as nothing more than a religious symbol of Jesus. How do we Catholics know, however, that it was more than a religious statement? Because the Fathers and doctors and councils of the Church told us so. In fact, they told us that it was also a scientific and/or metaphysical statement, such that the bread ceased being bread and became the actual body of Christ. We even used the non-religious yet scientific/metaphysical theory of Aristotle to help us understand this event. But if we were to follow Fr. Austriaco’s methodology to its logical conclusion, we wouldn’t be compelled to interpret “This is my body" as a scientific or metaphysical statement at all. Fr. Austriaco could claim that “This is my body" was merely a particular “literary form" that Jesus was using, and that He had no “intent" to convey to us that it was his literal body. In fact, this is precisely what non-Catholics do with this passage. They claim that it was never Jesus’ “intent" for us to believe that the bread was literally changed into his body. His “intent" was only to tell a fictional story, ergo, the bread does not really become the body of Christ. I hope you see how the word “intent" is the wax nose that any exegete can use to sway Scripture to his particular prejudices.
Second principle: The unity of the Holy Bible
Fr. Austriaco: Cardinal Ratzinger’s first criterion raises an important question: But how does one grasp the particular form of the sacred text? For instance, how do we know that the human author of the six-day creation account did not mean to write a bona fide historical narrative or a scientific treatise? He certainly could have. In his Lenten homily from 1981, Cardinal Ratzinger brings up the same question asking, “Is the distinction between the image and what is intended to be expressed only an evasion, because we can no longer rely on the text even though we still want to make something of it, or are there criteria from the Bible itself that attest to this distinction?" 11 In response, he proposes a second criterion for sound Catholic exegesis — the exegete should interpret a text from within the context of the unity of the Bible. Applying this criterion to the interpretation of the six-day creation account, we discover that the creation accounts in the Old Testament — the Hexaemeron is only one of several found in Genesis and in Psalms — are clearly “movement[s] to clarify the faith" 12 and are not scientific or historical narratives. For instance, the Ratzinger notes that a study of the origins of the creation texts in the Wisdom literature especially reveal that they were written to respond to the Hellenistic civilization confronted by the Israelites. 13 Thus, it is not surprising that the human authors of these accounts did not use the image of the six days to assert their faith in the one Creator God. This image would not have been appropriate for their time and would not have been understood by their Greek contemporaries. In contrast, a study of the origins of the Hexaemeron, the six-day account of creation, found in the first chapter of Genesis reveals that it was written to respond to the seemingly victorious Babylonian civilization confronted by the Israelites several centuries before their encounter with the Greeks. Here, the human author of the sacred text used images familiar to their pagan contemporaries to refute the Enuma Elish, the Babylonian creation account that claimed that the world was created when Marduk, the god of light, killed the primordial dragon. 14 Thus, as Cardinal Ratzinger points out, it is not surprising that nearly every word of the first creation account addresses a particular confusion of the Babylonian age. For instance, when the Sacred Scriptures affirm that in the beginning, the earth was without form and void (cf. Gen. 1:2), the sacred text refutes the existence of a primordial dragon. When they refer to the sun and the moon as lamps that God has hung in the sky for the measurement of time (cf. Gen. 1:14), the text refutes the divinity of these two great celestial bodies believed to be Babylonian gods. These verses, and they are only two of many examples, illustrate the intent of the human author of the Hexaemeron. He wanted to dismantle a pagan myth that was commonplace in Babylon and assert the supremacy of the one Creator God.
R. Sungenis: And who makes this claim? Certainly not the Genesis writer. Unfortunately, Catholic biblical scholars of recent years have followed the Protestant liberals and arbitrarily imposed the Enumu Elish account on Genesis without any proof whatsoever of its application. This is especially egregious since the oldest extant copies of Enumu Elish come from the 11th century BC, four hundred years after Moses, and twelve hundred years after Abraham! W. G. Lambert writes: “...has shown evidence that Marduk...rose to officially sanctioned preeminence only in the late 12th century under Nebuchadnezzar I" (New Catholic Encyclopedia). If anything, the likelihood is that the Hebrew tradition influenced the surrounding pagan cultures, rather than vice-versa, but modern Scripture scholars refuse to admit this possibility, since that would tend to make the Bible appear as a historically credible piece of literature.
Sir Frederic Kenyon put it this way: “There is almost nothing to link the [Babylonian] narrative to that of Genesis" (A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, London: Nelson, 1953, p. 184). Moreover, the 1909 Biblical Commission stated:
“Whether we may, in spite of the character and historic form of the book of Genesis...teach that the three aforesaid chapters do not contain the narrative of things which actually happened, a narrative which corresponds to objective reality and historic truth; and whether we may teach that these chapters contain fables derived from mythologies and cosmologies belonging to older nations...Answer: in the negative to each part."
It is amazing that modern biblical scholars claim so vigorously that Enumu Elish is the “model" of Genesis. If anything, Enumu Elish is a poor and embellished copy of the Biblical account. Enumu Elish is almost twice the length of Genesis 1, meandering from topic to topic; it is not a creation story, whereas Genesis clearly is; it is mythical poetry, whereas Genesis is didactic and academic, devoid of myth; Marduk appears on the scene very late, whereas Elohim is the only agent making his world; Marduk struggles, whereas Elohim merely speaks and the work is done; Marduk is picked by the gods because they want revenge, whereas Elohim is in competition with no one and serves no one; Marduk is a bloody warrior and creates mayhem, whereas Elohim creates beauty and order; Marduk is constantly agitated and anticipating his next battle, whereas Elohim rests contently after his constructive work. As it stands, Enumu Elish appears to be a corrupt form of Genesis 1.
Fr. Austriaco: Cardinal Ratzinger concludes:
Thus, we can see how the Bible itself constantly readapts its images to a continually developing way of thinking, how it changes time and again in order to bear witness, time and again, to the one thing that has come to it, in truth, from God’s Word, which is the message of his creating act. In the Bible itself the images are free and they correct themselves ongoingly. In this way they show, by means of a gradual and interactive process, that they are only images, which reveal something deeper and greater. 15
R. Sungenis: Yes, the Bible writers adapt and use different ways of expressing their thoughts, but none of this proves that the Genesis writer was not writing history as it actually occurred. Fr. Austriaco seems to be reading what he wants to see. Unless there is some scientific evidence to the contrary, the Catholic exegete is compelled to interpret the days of Genesis 1 as they literally read. The problem is that in 1981 Cardinal Ratzinger was heavily influence by the Pontifical Academy of Science who, in 1982, declared that they saw no competition against the evolutionary theory (ironically, the PAS made that statement just two years after the leading evolutionists in the world, Stephen Gould and Niles Eldredge, said that they needed to change the basis of evolutionary theory since they couldn’t find any intermediate fossils).
Fr. Austriaco: In sum, a comparative study of the different creation accounts scattered throughout the Sacred Scriptures reveal that they were not and are not historical or scientific narratives. They were theological arguments that used different images to communicate the same truth – the truth about the Creator and his Creation.
R. Sungenis: Does Fr. Austriaco show us how he arrives at this grand conclusion that sweeps away 20 centuries of traditional Catholic exegesis of Genesis? No, he merely makes an assertion and expects us to accept it based on nothing more than his interpretation of what a Cardinal said in his own private opinion in 1981. It appears that one can just wave his wand and dispense with the whole of Catholic history because he judges that the “intent" of the Genesis writer was not to write history, and he “knows" this to be the case because the Psalmist said things a little differently. Of course, this is all based on Fr. Austriaco’s claim that the Psalmist and the Genesis writer are in some kind of conflict regarding the actual history of Creation, yet Fr. Austriaco provided us no examples of such a conflict.
Fr. Austriaco: Again, Cardinal Ratzinger’s second criterion is not a novel invention. It echoes the teachings of Vatican II, which taught: “Since holy Scripture must be read and interpreted according to the same Spirit by whom it was written, no less serious attention must be given to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture, if the meaning of the sacred texts is to be correctly brought to light." 16
R. Sungenis: Certainly, but where does Vatican II teach that this allows us to reinterpret Genesis 1 as merely a mimicking of Enumu Elish rather than an accurate account of history, especially in light of the facts that the extant copies of Enumu Elish came 400 years after Moses, and that there is no proof for the evolutionary theory? Once again, Vatican II becomes the wax nose to be interpreted any way the exegete wants to form it.
Third Principle: Christ as the Interpretative key of the Holy Bible
Fr. Austriaco: Finally, the second criterion raises another important question: Why should the Sacred Scriptures be treated as a unity? What is the source of this unity? In response, Cardinal Ratzinger provides his third and final criterion for interpreting the sacred text: We are to read the Sacred Scriptures “with Him in whom all things have been fulfilled and in whom all of its validity and truth are revealed." 17 It is Christ who unifies the Bible. The entire Bible is about him. Thus, Genesis has to be read in the context of its fulfillment in Christ. Therefore, the Holy Father asserts that the first creation account cannot be read without reference to the conclusive and normative scriptural account of creation which begins: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made" (John 1:1;3, Revised Standard Version). For Cardinal Ratzinger, it is Christ who sanctions readings of the sacred text that move beyond a strict literalist reading because it is Christ who wishes to communicate profound theological truths that penetrate the human heart and soul: “Christ frees us from the slavery of the letter, and precisely thus does he give back to us, renewed, the truth of the images." 18 Again, the Holy Father’s third criterion can be found in the Vatican II documents: “God, the inspirer and author of both testaments, wisely arranged that the New Testament be hidden in the Old and the Old be made manifest in the New. For, though Christ established the New Covenant in His blood, still the books of the Old Testament with all their parts, caught up into the proclamation of the gospel, acquire and show forth their full meaning in the New Testament and in turn shed light on it and explain it." 19 The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains: “Different as the books which comprise it may be, Scripture is a unity by reason of the unity of God’s plan, of which Christ Jesus is the center and heart, open since his Passover" (no. 112). All of Sacred Scripture has to be interpreted in light of Christ.
R. Sungenis: Notice what Fr. Austriaco is trying to do. He is trying to persuade you that since Scripture relates primarily to Christ, this gives us license to dispense with the literal interpretation (especially when we have pet scientific theories that we want to impose on Scripture). But the Catholic Church has never taught this kind of hermeneutic. It is an egregious assault on the integrity of Scripture. Granted, almost any passage can be molded into a spiritual meaning concerning Christ and his mission, but that does not mean that the literal interpretation is to be set aside. We can have both a literal interpretation of the history and a spiritual interpretation relating to Christ. The Fathers and medievals did this consistently. In fact, the Bible does this itself. In Jeremiah 4:23, for example, God compares the apostasy of Israel to the time at Creation when the darkness was upon the face of the Earth in Genesis 1:1-2. In 2 Cor 4:6, St. Paul compares the light of Genesis 1:3 to the light of Christ coming into the world. But nowhere do either Jeremiah or St. Paul tell us that we can dispense with the literal meaning of the words of Genesis just because we want to apply them in the spiritual sense.
Fr. Austriaco: In sum, the Hexaemeron is true. However, it is true not because it communicates historical or scientific truth but because it communicates theological truth, the truth that the world was created by a God who is love. Reading Genesis with Cardinal Ratzinger’s three hermeneutical principles justifies this assertion and provides reasons for moving beyond a literalist reading of the sacred text. It is a reading of sacred scripture that is faithful both to faith and to reason.
R. Sungenis: No, Fr. Austriaco has simply not proven his case. The only thing he has done is make unwarranted assertions. It seems that Fr. Austriaco is bent on imposing evolutionary theory on Holy Writ, and the only way he can do so is by emptying Genesis 1 of history and reducing its detailed 31-verse account of creation to a nice little story that “the world was created by a God who is love." It will sound very sentimental to most, but it is an egregious attack on the veracity of Scripture.
Fr. Austriaco: Finally, how do we reconcile Cardinal Ratzinger’s interpretation of the six-day account of creation with Leo XIII’s teaching discussed above? Recall that in Providentissimus Deus, Leo XIII taught that Catholic exegetes are “not to depart from the literal and obvious sense, except only where reason makes it untenable or necessity requires." Catholic creationists have argued that this criterion has not been satisfied — natural science has not provided reasons for moving beyond the literal and obvious sense of the Hexaemeron. They argue that a literalist reading of the six-day creation account should only be abandoned when science has definitively disproved the narrative explicitly described in the Hexaemeron. Their argument, however, fails to recognize that Pope Leo XIII did not limit his statement to scientific reasons. A Catholic exegete has to interpret the sacred text in a manner that coheres not only with truths discovered by the natural sciences but also with truths uncovered by other fields of genuine human inquiry. In other words, interpreting the sacred text is a work of both faith and reason. As Cardinal Ratzinger has convincingly argued, in the case of the Hexaemeron, we have to depart from a reading that is limited to the literalist sense because studies of ancient texts and ancient cultures — and not natural science — have given us good and necessary reasons for doing so.
R. Sungenis: Unfortunately, the “fields of genuine human inquiry" concerning the “ancient texts and ancient cultures" are just as unproven as are the theories of evolution. Fr. Austriaco, like other Catholic exegetes, has accepted the JEPD theory of the Protestant liberal Julius Wellhausen. In the process they have totally distorted the origin and function of the Enumu Elish story. They simply don’t trust the Bible to give us an accurate record of history. They put more faith in the intellect of man than they do the inspired word of God. Until if and when Fr. Austriaco can show us proof for their “studies of ancient texts and ancient cultures," then, according to Leo XIII, there is no “reason or necessity" to cease from taking the word of God at face value. As Pius X once said:
You see clearly, Venerable Brethren, how mistaken are those who think they are doing service to the Church, and producing fruit for the salvation of souls, when by a kind of prudence of the flesh they show themselves liberal in concessions to science falsely so called [1Tim 6:20], under the fatal illusion that they are thus able more easily to win over those in error, but really with the continual danger of being lost themselves. The truth is one, and it cannot be halved; it lasts for ever, and is not subject to the vicissitudes of the times. (Iucunda Sane, 25)
Fr. Austriaco: Sticking to a literalist reading of Genesis would do violence to the original meaning of the human author and thus to the truth God wanted to manifest through his words.
R. Sungenis: The problem, of course, is that Fr. Austriaco doesn’t know what “the original meaning of the human author" is.
Fr. Austriaco: As Vatican II emphasized, like God, we too are called to respect the human author. Since he did not write a scientific or historical treatise in the Hexaemeron, we should not read it as one.
R. Sungenis: It is incumbent upon Fr. Austriaco to show us what pope, what council or what patristic consensus ever declared that the hexaemeron of Genesis was not a “historical treatise." Until if and when he finds such a statement, he has no right to make such assertions appear as indisputable truth. If Enumu Elish is Fr. Austriaco’s only case, then he doesn’t have any proof, simply because the placement of Enumu Elish prior to and the basis for Genesis 1 is an unproven historical hypothesis. And without proof, a literal interpretation of Genesis 1 is certainly not “untenable" and therefore we are required to heed Leo XIII’s words without qualification.
Robert A. Sungenis, Ph.D.
Catholic Apologetics International
Fr. Austriaco Notes:
1 Victor P. Warkulwiz, M.S.S., “Restoration of Traditional Catholic Theology on Origins," in Proceedings of the International Catholic Symposium on Creation, October 24-25, 2002. (Woodstock, VA: Kolbe Center for the Study of Creation, 2003), 17-35, p. 17
2 Dermott J. Mullen, “Fundamentalists Inside the Catholic Church: A Growing Phenomenon," <="" i=""> 70 (2003): 31-41. For a response to Mullen’s article from Catholics who claim to be creationists, see Hugh Owen and Robert Bennett, “Are Catholic Defenders of Special Creation ‘Fundamentalists’?" at www.kolbecenter.org/nor.response.htm. Last accessed September 1, 2004.
3 Pope Leo XIII, Encyclical letter, Providentissimus Deus, November 18, 1893, nos. 14-15. Translation of the Vatican website. Last accessed September 11, 2004.
4 Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, March 14, 1994, Section F: Fundamentalist Interpretation.
5 Joseph Ratzinger, ‘In the Beginning…’: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall, Trans. Boniface Ramsey, O.P. (Grand Rapids: William. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995).
6 Ibid., pp. 4-5.
7 Ibid., p. 5.
8 Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei verbum, November 18, 1965: AAS 58 (1966) 817-830, no. 12. All English citations from the texts of Vatican II are taken from Walter M. Abbott, S.J., ed. The Documents of Vatican II (New York: Guild Press, 1966).
11 Ratzinger, In the Beginning, p. 8.
12 Ibid., p. 14.
13 Ibid., pp. 14-15.
14 For an interesting essay on the relationship between the Hexaemaron and the Enuma Elish written for a popular audience, see Victor Hurowitz, “The Genesis of Genesis: Is the Creation Story Babylonian?" Bible Review 21 (2005): 37-48; 52-53.
15 Ratzinger, In the Beginning, p. 15.
16 Dei verbum, no. 12.
17 Ratzinger, In the Beginning, p. 16.
18 Ibid., p. 16.
19 Dei verbum, no. 16.
Reverend Nicanor Pier Giorgio Fr. Austriaco, O.P., received his Ph.D. in biology from M.I.T. in 1996 and his S.T.L. from the Dominican House of Studies in 2005. He currently serves as an assistant professor of biology and adjunct professor of theology at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island. His work previously appeared in the December 2003 issue of HPR.