Bishops and the Common Bible

From America, December 8, 1962, by Walter M. Abbott, S.J.: The Fathers of the Council discuss the Bible as a common Christian heritage

Each day at the Second Vatican Council begins with a dialogue Mass. The celebrant faces the Fathers of the Council. After the Mass there is a ceremony that impresses all who behold it, including the Protestant and Orthodox delegate-observers. An archbishop carries a book containing the Gospels up the aisle of the Council hall, the nave of St. Peter’s Basilica. In the address he gave on the fourth anniversary of his coronation, Pope John referred to the ceremony in these words:

With happy thought, and following what was done at the First Vatican Council, our general meetings begin with the enthronement of the Gospels, so that the sacred code of the teaching and laws of Christ may continue to shine and have its central place at our meetings. . . .

The Gospel book lies open on the altar all during the Council Fathers’ deliberations.

As the bishops and the delegate-observers know, the text of this Gospel book is in Latin. They know, too, that the Latin text with its many gold letters and gold titles was made into a book during the Italian Renaissance by Matteo de’ Cantugi di Volterra. What is more important, they know that the Latin text dates back to a time when Latin was the common language of the Western world. The Bible in those early days was, truly, a common Bible—common to all who professed Christianity.

With the development of modern languages, and the decline of Latin as a common language, it became necessary to have vernacular translations, in order that the Bible could continue to be the common heritage of people speaking the same language. The Protestant Reformation and its aftermath produced two different traditions of Bible translation and Bible study. In recent times, however, the careful, objective research of Protestant and Catholic scholars has resulted in such agreement about the original languages of the Bible books that there is now a real possibility Protestants and Catholics may soon have, again, a common Bible in the language of the country or region where they live. It is, in fact, a topic of serious discussion among Fathers of the Council and delegate-observers.

It has often been remarked in Rome how well the delegate-observers keep the secrecy they agreed to when they came to the Council. It was no violation of this secrecy when Bishop Fred P. Corson, president of the World Methodist Council and an official delegate-observer at the Vatican Council for his group, declared, on a trip back to Philadelphia late in October, that one of the results he hoped for from the Fathers was approval for the idea of “one Bible in the vernacular, prepared jointly by Catholic and Protestant scholars.” Bishop Corson and several other delegate-observers already had this hope when they came to the Council. One can conjecture—perhaps even discern—from Bishop Corson’s statement that there has been discussion about the common Bible among the delegate-observers at the Council and Fathers of the Council. Without revealing anything that is confidential, we may add that it is most likely that certain Fathers of the Council have been talking, at least among themselves, about the common Bible. It is likely from a look at what they had already done before they came to the Council.

Cardinal Frings, the Archbishop of Cologne, for example, announced shortly before the Council opened that he and the Bishops of Germany had given Catholic scholars permission to prepare a new translation of the Bible with the help of Protestant scholars. Cardinal Frings, chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference, revealed that the desired goal of this collaboration was to work out a translation at least of the most important parts of the Bible—the Our Father, for example—to be used by both Catholics and Protestants. “It would be very desirable,” he said at the September annual meeting of the bishops, “to work out together with Evangelical Christians common versions of important texts.”

The Cardinal and the bishops had been assured by Catholic biblical experts that the project was a real possibility precisely because Protestant and Catholic scholars had come to such substantial agreement about the objective facts of the ancient languages used in the Bible. In recent years, Protestant churchmen had been talking more and more about the need for a modern German translation of the Bible. By April, 1962, there had been so much discussion about the possibility of working this translation out with Catholics that a workshop on Catholic-Protestant relations at the annual conference of the Central Committee of German Catholics recommended a common Bible text for Catholics and Protestants. In September, Cardinal Frings made his announcement.

In the Netherlands, the Catholic Bible Society of St. Willibrord, established with the help of Protestants, has already completed a translation of the New Testament with the help of Protestant scholars. In February, 1961, Cardinal Alfrink, Archbishop of Utrecht, accepted the foundation deeds of the new society in the presence of the Papal Internuncio and nearly all the bishops of Holland. The Cardinal referred to the fact that the Protestant Bible Society had given help and support to the new venture, and he said: “I rejoice exceedingly that Christians have found each other in the Holy Scriptures. The Bible is always the starting point and the basis of every real meeting.” At the same time, the Dutch Bishops issued a joint Lenten pastoral letter in which they praised the work of Bible clubs in Holland and urged both priests and laymen to take the means that would “lead to more and better spiritual reading and understanding of Holy Scripture.” Exactly a year later, the truly common translation of the New Testament was presented to Cardinal Alfrink and the Dutch hierarchy. The bishops received the work with joy.

On a smaller scale, an event of similar ecumenical importance took place in France. A group of Catholic and Protestant scholars went to work and produced a French translation of the Gospel according to St. Luke. They came to final agreement and submitted their text for ecclesiastical approval. It was published by Unité Chrétienne, a Catholic organization working in Lyons for Christian unity. From the beginning, with the approval of the Catholic bishops concerned, the purpose was to bring out a text that could be distributed by Catholic and Protestant colporteurs.

Archbishop John Murphy, of Cardiff, Wales, and Bishop John Petit, of Menevia, agreed this year to explore the possibilities of a translation of the Bible into Welsh, to be done by a committee of Catholics and Protestants. The director of the translation board is to be W. R. Williams, principal of the Protestant Theological College at Aberystwyth. The Archbishop and the Bishop had been assured by Catholic experts that the project was a possibility because there was now such objective, scientific progress in the field of philology on the part of both Protestants and Catholics. The Archbishop declared that the work was “well within the vein of the current ecumenical spirit,” and he added: “With reservations to accommodate Catholic and non-Catholic requirements, the work may proceed.”

In his reference to “requirements,” Archbishop Murphy had in mind, for example, the present legislation of the Catholic Church that presentations of the Bible in the vernacular must be accompanied by notes. The nature and number of the notes are not specified by canon law. In general, Protestants have long resented this ruling, and some Protestant churches have legislated that their editions of the Bible are to have no footnotes at all. The American Bible Society and its counterparts in other countries have a rule forbidding them to publish translations with notes. It is no secret that a number of bishops have been requested by interested parties to consider changing the Church’s present law about the matter. Now that good Catholic commentaries on the Bible are available to the people, even in low-priced pamphlet form, the possibility of dropping the requirement for footnotes is more likely to be considered. At any rate, Archbishop Murphy’s willingness to enter into negotiations about a common Bible has encouraged the Anglican Archbishop of Wales, Dr. Edwin Morris, to say: “This is one thing on which we can co-operate, although it will mean working in co-operation for a long time. Let us hope it will work out all right. It will mean about ten years of hard work.”

Meanwhile, in the United States, encouraged by these reports, Bishop John J. Wright, of Pittsburgh, said: “A common Bible for Protestants and Catholics is very possible.” Interviewed before he gave the keynote address at the 19th biennial convention of the National Catholic Laymen’s Retreat Conference in Portland, Ore., the Bishop added that agreement on a common Bible would create a means of exploring the roots of the Christian tradition harmoniously, in contrast with the past practice of using the Bible in a polemical or defensive manner. The common Bible had been envisioned by this writer (AM. 10/24/59) as an accurate version acceptable to both Catholics and Protestants for use in discussions or “dialogues” between members of different churches. Such a common Bible would facilitate the dialogue by eliminating the confusion and awkwardness of different numberings for Psalms and Commandments, and different spelling for biblical names. In speaking out as he did, Bishop Wright underlined the importance of the idea for the movement toward Christian unity. It was with an eye on that connection with Christian unity that the Protestant Episcopal Bishops and the House of Deputies adopted a resolution at their triennial general convention, in Detroit, September, 1961, expressing the hope that a translation of the Bible could be produced which would be acceptable to all, including Roman Catholics.

Anglican, Episcopalian and Methodist bishops we have talked with look forward, like Bishop Corson, to the day when Cardinal Bea will present to the Second Vatican Council that part of his Secretariat’s announced agenda which deals with the Bible as a bond of unity. It is then, they hope, that the Fathers of the Council will consider making a statement about the common Bible.

In addition to those cardinals and bishops who, as we have seen, already favor the idea, it is known that some African and Asian bishops have been studying the idea. African bishops who have taken prominent part in recent liturgical and catechetical developments are known to feel that good, new translations of the Bible are urgently needed in many parts of Africa if the good work being done in catechetics and liturgy is not to be frustrated, since the Bible is so essential in both movements. They are faced with the fact that nearly ninety per cent—not only of Catholics but of the people as a whole—cannot be provided with a Catholic version of the Old Testament in their languages, but there are Protestant translations in many of those languages.

As long ago as December, 1960, the editor-in-chief of the Cape Town, S. A., Catholic paper, encouraged by news of common-Bible thinking overseas, suggested in an editorial that the possibility be explored of an “arrangement by which the existing non-Catholic translations in African languages could be made acceptable to Catholics.” He was thinking especially of the work Protestants have done on translations into Zulu, Xhosa, Sesotho and Afrikaans—major languages of his region in which no Catholic Bible has appeared. There are Catholic translations of the New Testament in English, Zulu and Sesotho. These languages are spoken by about 85 per cent of the Catholics in Southern Africa, but by only 40 per cent of the total population. The only Catholic translation of the Old Testament is in English, but English is the language of only about 12 per cent of the Catholics and 10 per cent of the whole population. These facts indicate why African bishops are thinking about using the latest objective results of Protestant scholarship. Some bishops in Asia are looking into the matter for similar reasons.

The fact that these bishops are seriously considering the adaptation of Protestant scholars’ work, which will be carefully checked by Catholic experts, could encourage reconsideration of the idea advanced by Thomas Corbishley, S. J., that the New English Bible, produced by Protestant scholars with approval of the churches of England, Scotland and Wales, be adopted by the Catholic Church in those countries as a common Bible. Earlier, Dom Bernard Orchard had proposed adoption of the Protestant Revised Standard Version for the purpose. On both of those occasions, I had felt it was not likely that the Catholic bishops would be interested in adopting the translations; the version by Msgr. Ronald Knox had so recently been adopted as the official version in England and Wales, and the Catholic scholars of America had not yet finished the Confraternity translation, which the bishops had commissioned as their official translation for the United States. Perhaps the climate of discussion at the Council will bring a certain number of new outlooks on the whole matter.

In my opinion, however, the project under the direction of William F. Albright and David Noel Freedman remains the most likely candidate for the title of common Bible for the United States and the rest of the English-speaking world. It does not have the official stamp of any church and could be considered, upon completion, for simultaneous endorsement by all the churches in a manner that would involve no appearance of yielding or surrender on the part of any of them. This project, first announced in America (10/22/60, p. 118), is the work of internationally respected experts—Catholic, Protestant and Jewish. The first eight of 30 paperbacks covering the complete Bible, in Doubleday’s Anchor Book series, were scheduled to appear in January, 1962, but illness on the part of two important scholars has delayed the date until, probably, the spring of 1963. The hope was that the project would be ended by 1966. It is clear now that it will take longer. It will certainly be worth waiting for.

Fr. Abbott, one of our associate editors, is author of The Bible: Road to Unity (America Press. 25¢). 

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