Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

As we celebrate the 175th Anniversary of the Archdiocese, we look back… on July 20, 1971 when parishioners settled on a site for the new St. Thomas the Apostle Church, Oxford.
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"Religulous," a film by Bill Maher, is an unrelieved attempt to ridicule and reject all religion. The hybrid word indicates that "religion" and "ridiculous" are identical. Although it is categorized as a "documentary," it does not document what it purports to prove.

 

In one vignette, Bill Maher conducts a brief interview with Senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas. Maher acknowledges that as a United States senator, he is "one of the very few people" who is "really running the country." But then, acknowledging that Senator Pryor is a Christian, delivers a blistering indictment: "It worries me that people who are running the country who think, who believe in a talking snake." The Arkansas senator, apparently not knowing how to respond to a question he did not expect, resorted to light, self-deprecatory humor: "You don’t have to pass an IQ test to be in the Senate." Pryor’s response was surely ill-advised.

This brief segment has received a great deal of exposure, first in the "documentary" (shown in theaters and on TV), then on the "Larry King Show," next on "YouTube," where it has elicited no end of responses. Some of these responses have been cruel. "Pryor has the IQ of a fence post," wrote one respondent. On the other hand, someone stated that he did believe in talking snakes because he saw one hosting the TV show "Politically Incorrect."

It is ironic that some who criticize Christians for interpreting Scripture literally themselves interpret it literally. Bill Maher was setting Senator Pryor up to agree with a notion that most Christians themselves do not accept, namely a strictly literal interpretation of the Bible. The senator would have been on more solid ground if he had challenged Maher to defend his own literal interpretation. Had he done that, however, the clip would not have been used in the "documentary."

Maher should have no problem with the metaphorical use of the word "snake." "Snake eyes" does not mean that they are literally staring at us from the pips of dice. The 1948 film "The Snake Pit" is not at all about "snakes," but inmates in an insane asylum. A "snake in the grass" does not necessarily refer to a snake. And "Jake the Snake" refers to wrestler Jake Roberts, as well as NFL quarterbacks Jason Plummer and Kenny Stabler.

Scripture is divinely inspired. But its message is conveyed in human terms. Therefore, it would be a grave mistake to interpret Scripture only in a literal fashion. St. Augustine understood this quite clearly. The Bishop of Hippo realized that the first task of the theologian is exegesis, that is, of going beyond the literal meaning of words by various stages of analogous interpretation.

At the same time, this 4th-century Doctor of the Church explained that a particular interpretation of Scripture should be abandoned if it could be proven to be false. Augustine, quite sensibly, did not want the Church to be exposed to the ridicule of nonbelievers. In other words, faith and reason cannot contradict each other.

Genesis does not refer to a "snake," of course, but a "serpent." Concerning the latter, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) provides some important illumination in his book, ‘In the Beginning . . .’ A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall.

"The image of the serpent," he writes, "is taken from the Eastern fertility cults." These fertility religions had been strong temptations for Israel over the course of centuries. They were urging Israel to abandon its covenant with God and conform to the religious milieu of the time. After all, the Jewish religion imposed many restrictions on its people and, presumably, deprived them of the fullness of life. Then-Cardinal Ratzinger, therefore, views the serpent "as a symbol of the attraction that these religions exerted over Israel in contrast with the mystery of the God of the covenant."

Claus Westermann, in his Commentary on Genesis, explains that the function of the serpent derives from the structure of the narrative. For example, there was no other person in the Garden to confront Adam and Eve. Furthermore, an animal that talks is characteristic of a fable or tale. By virtue of this fairy tale device, the narrator carries us far beyond the here and now and back into the realm of the primeval. This literary device of the animal that talks was common to primitive narrative.

"Wherever man and serpent meet," writes the distinguished Biblical scholar Gerhard von Rad, "the meeting always involves life and death." The "cunningness" of the serpent, to use Genesis’ descriptive term, is associated with its ability to produce poison and to change its skin. The portrayal of the serpent and the temptation it offers mankind is rich in suggestion and profound in implication. The isolation of any one particular element makes the significance of Scripture incomprehensible.

Scripture prevails despite the many mistakes that are made in trying to discredit it. It is not to be taken only literally. Exegesis often requires analogical and metaphorical interpretations. Scholarship vindicates its integral and realistic meaning. Finally, faith in Scripture as an expression of the Word of God does not exclude reason. In fact, reason comes to the defense of Scripture.

Dr. Donald DeMarco is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell and Mater Ecclesiae College in Greenville, R.I.

 

 

 

 

alertAt the Spring Assembly of the U.S. bishops, Cardinal Joseph Tobin suggested that a delegation ofbishops go to the border to see for themselves what was happening to newly arrived immigrants, families and children. On July 1 and 2, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. bishops conference, and five other bishops conducted a pastoral visit to the diocese of Brownsville, Texas. Stops included Mass at the Shrine of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle with the community, a visit to anHHS/OBR Shelter and Mass for the families there, a visit to the Customs and Border Patrol processing center in McAllen, TX, and a press conference at the end of their visit. Catholic News Service accompanied the bishops on their border trip. 

  1. Backgrounder and analysis of the bishops’ trip to the border: Cardinal DiNardo told CNS, “You cannot look at immigration as an abstraction when you meet” the people behind the issue.
  2. At final press conference, Cardinal Daniel Dinardo said the church was willing to be part of any conversation to find humane solutions because even a policy of detaining families together in facilities caused “concern.”
  3. Bishops serve soup to immigrant families at a center run by Catholic Charities and listen to their stories. Scranton Bishop Joseph Bambera said he found hope in hearing the people in the room talk about what’s ahead. They didn’t speak of making money but of finding safety for their children, he said, driven by “the most basic instinct to protect your family.”
  4. At an opening Mass he Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle-National Shrine near McAllen, Texas, Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville told Massgoers, “The bishops are visiting here so they can stop and look and talk to people and understand, especially the suffering of many who are amongst us,”

A delegation of U.S. bishops goes on a fact-finding mission at the U.S.-Mexican border to learn more about Central American immigration detention.

Following their visit to an immigrant detention center, U.S. bishops said they are even more determined to call on Congress for comprehensive immigration reform.