I have noticed a worrying trend among some Catholics and other Christians as well to read scripture too much through the filter of the natural sciences. In other words, Christians look to science as a legitimate account of the world, a ‘book’ to be read which constitutes natural revelation. Thus, when they come to Genesis, as elsewhere, they make the mistake of reading scripture according to the litmus of current scientific paradigms – for example, when Catholics like Daryl P. Domning suggest that science tells us conclusively that there were no first two parents from whom the whole human people come, too many Catholics too easily run along with it. They do this despite the fact that it runs against the clear teaching of the Church, not to mention the (relatively) clear, and Traditional reading of scripture. The other extreme, of course, is reading scripture according to a plain and straightforward (or apparently straightforward – for as theologians can honestly testify to, it isn’t so easy as people might think) reading. Often it is Protestant ‘fundamentalists’ who are accused of being ‘literalists’ in this sense (though I dislike both of those labels).
This issue reminds me of the Hermeneutic of morality proposed by Origen, and then more strongly by Kant. The idea there was that since we know by the natural light of reason and conscience what is right and wrong, we ought to read the scriptures in such a way that our interpretation will never suggest that anything in scripture violates our moral sensibilities. For instance, if the Harem campaigns described in the Old Testament seem too atrocious for our moderns and ‘enlightened’ ears, then the appropriate interpretation is not that the text is historical, but rather it must be allegorical. The answer to this, as Aquinas says, is to say that all readings other than the literal are built upon it and presuppose its truth (here ‘literal’ should be understood as ‘that which the author intended to communicate). These two mistakes are analogous, and there are more instances of them in history as well. For instance, in the early modern period, and especially with Schleiermacher and Kant, there was the notion of ‘rational religion’ according to which everything in religion must be supremely rational, and in order to be legitimate at all it must be reducible to the rational. Here, one is tempted to employ a Hermeneutic of rationalism, according to which if there is anything in scripture suggestive of what our rational faculty could not have come to on its own then it isn’t to be accepted. The other extreme is adopted by the dialectical theologians (Karl Barth for example) who argued that paradox is welcomed, and that scripture is not supposed to be in any sense rationally comprehensible.
In light of all these analogous mistakes, what is an appropriate Hermeneutic for a Catholic to adopt? First of all, it is clear that Catholics are attempting ultimately to read the scriptures according to the ‘mind of the Church’ which is the mind of Christ. Though Catholics take moral conscience, the natural sciences, and the rational capacity very seriously, they also recognize that such things ‘go wrong’ from time to time. To read scripture in such a way that constrains it to the insights already available to us seems to make it impossible to act as revelation in the classical sense. Finally, Catholics who take their faith seriously recognize that today, as in times past, we are prone to fall into the ideological mistakes of our particular age, and thus the variety of ways of reading scripture should remain intellectually live, even if found to be disagreeable. For instance, I am not a young earth creationist, but I would like to think that I am able to listen to arguments for young earth creationism sympathetically (though only to some extent, as I think we have many reasons, theological and scientific, to be sceptical of YEC). The point is, if tomorrow the Church infallibly declared that YEC was true, I would be able to follow the Church.
What, though, is the Hermeneutical rule for a Catholic? Obviously it is to read scripture in company with our reason, our moral conscience, and our knowledge of the natural world. However, our reading of scripture is to follow a practical rule: that the plainest and most natural reading is to be preferred except where problems arise (such as apparent contradictions between passages of scripture, or contradictions between scripture and either moral sense, rationality, or else even what we think we know from natural science). Significant problems may arise, but I think the theologian must take the priority of theology over our peculiar rational ruminations, our (often naive or confused) moral sense, or most of all our paradigms earned by hard empirical work in the natural sciences.