7

I feel humiliated when I ask people to explain Adam and Eve, Noah's Ark, and the temptations of Christ in the desert and people say something like "I'm bored by questions about Adam and Eve and Noah's Ark. Of course those stories didn't 'really' happen. Why do you ponder such things? They shouldn't be taken literally." But then, with equal fervor, they say, "Of course Christ was tempted by the devil in the desert! Don't you believe the Gospels?"

So has the Catholic Church outlined specific Biblical passages which should not be taken literally?

And if not, then why not?

  • Closely related (and certainly relevant to the examples you mentioned): christianity.stackexchange.com/q/6490/20 – Flimzy Mar 7 '15 at 7:19
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    Not being taken literally has nothing to do with whether it's historical or not. Literalness has to do with the relative amount of figurative language, not whether it's talking about historical, invented, allegorical or symbolic things. – curiousdannii Mar 8 '15 at 0:34
3
+25

Many teachings of the Catholic Church are held ambiguously or pronounced in such a way that their meanings can be revised with the passage of time. Only when the pope speaks ex cathedra does he speak infallibly for the Catholic Church, and this has not happened on the matter of biblical hermeneutics.

Pope Leo XIII preferred the Bible to be read literally at all times, but accepted that this would not always be possible. He made specific exceptions for cases where:

  • reason makes a literal reading untenable or necessity requires;
  • the early Church Fathers have understood in an allegorical or figurative sense;
  • Other Catholic interpreters, although with less authority than the Church Fathers, advance the study of scripture.

In his Encyclical On The Study Of Holy Scripture, Providentissimus Deus, Leo says:

  1. 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. Neither should those passages be neglected which the Fathers have understood in an allegorical or figurative sense, more especially when such interpretation is justified by the literal, and when it rests on the authority of many. For this method of interpretation has been received by the Church from the Apostles, and has been approved by her own practice, as the holy Liturgy attests; although it is true that the holy Fathers did not thereby pretend directly to demonstrate dogmas of faith, but used it as a means of promoting virtue and piety, such as, by their own experience, they knew to be most valuable. The authority of other Catholic interpreters is not so great; but the study of Scripture has always continued to advance in the Church, and, therefore, these commentaries also have their own honourable place, and are serviceable in many ways for the refutation of assailants and the explanation of difficulties.

It appears that Pope Leo did not have any specific passages in mind, being careful not to define the scope of his pronouncement, but his successors have accepted evolution as a meaningful explanation for life on earth. Evolution of course means that the biblical creation of Adam and Eve is not to be read literally. The position of the Church is that evolution can be accepted as long as Catholics believe that Adam and Eve were the first humans to have souls. We do not inherit our souls from our parents, in the way we inherit our bodies, because our souls are created immediately by God. Pope Pius XII said in Humani Generis that belief in the evolution of humans is acceptable as long as Catholics accept that God created our souls:

  1. For these reasons the Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions, on the part of men experienced in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter - for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God.

One of the Church Fathers to whom Leo could have referred was Origen, who not only treats the Genesis story as allegorical, but says (De Principiis, Book 4.23 [Translated from the Latin of Rufinus]):

Nay, the narratives of the events which are said to have happened either to the nation of Israel, or to Jerusalem, or to Judea, when assailed by this or that nation, cannot in many instances be understood as having actually occurred ...

Finally, the Second Vatican Council stated in the Dogmatic Constitution On Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, that the Bible should be understood as inerrant only after we understand the literary intentions of the writers. This means that what we understand the intentions of the writers, whether literal, allegorical or figurative, must in all cases take precedence over the apparent meaning of a passage:

  1. However, since God speaks in Sacred Scripture through men in human fashion, the interpreter of Sacred Scripture, 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.

To search out the intention of the sacred writers, attention should be given, among other things, to "literary forms." For truth is set forth and expressed differently in texts which are variously historical, prophetic, poetic, or of other forms of discourse. The interpreter must investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express and actually expressed in particular circumstances by using contemporary literary forms in accordance with the situation of his own time and culture. For the correct understanding of what the sacred author wanted to assert, due attention must be paid to the customary and characteristic styles of feeling, speaking and narrating which prevailed at the time of the sacred writer, and to the patterns men normally employed at that period in their everyday dealings with one another.

But, since Holy Scripture must be read and interpreted in the sacred spirit in which 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 worked out. The living tradition of the whole Church must be taken into account along with the harmony which exists between elements of the faith. It is the task of exegetes to work according to these rules toward a better understanding and explanation of the meaning of Sacred Scripture, so that through preparatory study the judgment of the Church may mature. For all of what has been said about the way of interpreting Scripture is subject finally to the judgment of the Church, which carries out the divine commission and ministry of guarding and interpreting the word of God.

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As I am not a Catholic I may not have the right to answer this question. My practicing Catholic brothers and sisters are more qualified than I am qualified to answer it. Anyway, I will take a stab at it.

As of your question 'has the Catholic Church outlined specific Biblical passages which should not be taken literally' the answer is there is no official Catholic Church statement as such. Many a Jewish and a Christian (including liberal Catholics) do not take many of Bible stories literally (you probably already know this). That said, the only such official Catholic statement I am aware of is late Pope John Paul 11 statement on evolution which implies a non-literal understanding of Adam and Eve creation passages (this is at least my understanding). In addition, this very important and well-written document has an important paragraph related to your question:

For my part, when I received the participants in the plenary assembly of your Academy on October 31, 1992, I used the occasion—and the example of Gallileo—to draw attention to the necessity of using a rigorous hermeneutical approach in seeking a concrete interpretation of the inspired texts. It is important to set proper limits to the understanding of Scripture, excluding any unseasonable interpretations which would make it mean something which it is not intended to mean.

2

All scripture is to be understood literally

When the term are properly understood, all passages of the Bible should be taken both literally and spiritually. As the Catechism says:

According to an ancient tradition, one can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual, the latter being subdivided into the allegorical, moral and anagogical senses. The profound concordance of the four senses guarantees all its richness to the living reading of Scripture in the Church. [115]

Properly understood, the literal sense

is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation. [116]

And in indispensable because

All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal. [116]

Thus, the correct answer to the original question of "has the Catholic Church outlined specific Biblical passages which should not be taken literally?" is no, because ALL scripture should be taken literally.

Proper understanding of "literal" and guidelines for application

The "problem" arises from an improper understanding of what "literal" means. It does not mean "shut off your brain and take the words at face value regardless of context." (Commonly called a "literalistic" reading.) At places, such an interpretation would be absurd. Instead, one should:

be attentive to what the human authors truly wanted to affirm, and to what God wanted to reveal to us by their words. [109]

and

take into account the conditions of their time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking and narrating then current. [110]

Additionally,

Sacred Scripture must be read and interpreted in the light of the same Spirit by whom it was written. [111]

For example, when a Biblical author uses a metaphor to describe something, taking it "literally" means recognizing the author is using a metaphor to convey truth, not describing the physical characteristics of the situation in view. Of course, no one would disagree with that. The difficulty arises when an author's intent is not readily apparent. To help decide how to view a particular passage, the Second Vatican Council came up with three guidelines, outlined in Der Verbnum as summarized by the Catechism as follows:

  1. Be especially attentive "to the content and unity of the whole Scripture". Different as the books which compose 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. [112]

  2. Read the Scripture within "the living Tradition of the whole Church". According to a saying of the Fathers, Sacred Scripture is written principally in the Church's heart rather than in documents and records, for the Church carries in her Tradition the living memorial of God's Word, and it is the Holy Spirit who gives her the spiritual interpretation of the Scripture (". . . according to the spiritual meaning which the Spirit grants to the Church"). [113]

  3. Be attentive to the analogy of faith. By "analogy of faith" we mean the coherence of the truths of faith among themselves and within the whole plan of Revelation. [114]

It is up to the interpreter to use these principles, guided by the Holy Spirit, to help the Church better understand the Bible. [119]

In practical terms, the first principle is that all scripture was be interpreted in the light of all other scripture. If a literalistic reading of a particular verse doesn't make sense in context or in light of other passages, the author must have not intended it to be read that way.

The second principle basically means, one should not rely exclusively on their own understanding, but instead read the Bible in light of the many great commentators that came before them. If the Church Fathers viewed a passage as being a story intended to convey truths, that is a strong indication it is not literalistic history.

The third principle refers to the official teachings and doctrines of the Church. Because the dogmas and creeds of the Church have been established by received apostolic teaching, through sacred Tradition, if an interpretation of a Bible passage seems to contradict such teaching, the interpretation is wrong.

More details

Readings desiring more details on proper understanding of Catholic Bible interpretation should consult Der Verbnum and The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church. It is well beyond the scope of this answer to completely summarize these documents, but I will add a few quotes from the latter to give a more complete picture of how Biblical interpretation is understood within the Catholic Church.

The Church continually strives to better understand the scriptures - no interpretation is ever "set in stone:"

The study of the Bible is, as it were, the soul of theology, as the Second Vatican Council says, borrowing a phrase from Pope Leo XIII (Dei Verbum, 24). This study is never finished; each age must in its own way newly seek to understand the sacred books.

The Church understands that the Bible is the work of humans and believes apply critical methods to the text enhances our understanding of it:

Catholic exegesis does not claim any particular scientific method as its own. It recognizes that one of the aspects of biblical texts is that they are the work of human authors, who employed both their own capacities for expression and the means which their age and social context put at their disposal. Consequently Catholic exegesis freely makes use of the scientific methods and approaches which allow a better grasp of the meaning of texts in their linguistic, literary, socio-cultural, religious and historical contexts, while explaining them as well through studying their sources and attending to the personality of each author

However, Church history is also invaluable to understanding:

What characterizes Catholic exegesis is that it deliberately places itself within the living tradition of the church, whose first concern is fidelity to the revelation attested by the Bible... Catholic exegetes approach the biblical text with a pre-understanding which holds closely together modern scientific culture and the religious tradition emanating from Israel and from the early Christian community. Their interpretation stands thereby in continuity with a dynamic pattern of interpretation that is found within the Bible itself and continues in the life of the church.

As previously discussed, the literal sense is key, but must be properly understood. Correct literal understanding leads to correct spiritual understanding, "the meaning expressed by the biblical texts when read under the influence of the Holy Spirit."

The document reaches the following conclusions (among others) that are especially relevant the the original question:

  • the interpretation of the Bible should likewise involve an aspect of creativity; it ought also to confront new questions so as to respond to them out of the Bible.

  • Granted that tensions can exist in the relationship between various texts of sacred Scripture, interpretation must necessarily show a certain pluralism. No single interpretation can exhaust the meaning of the whole, which is a symphony of many voices.

  • the interpretation of sacred Scripture requires full participation on the part of exegetes in the life and faith of the believing community of their own time.

Conclusion

With these guidelines in mind, it should be clear why the Church does not release lists of passages that should be interpreted as "literal" or "non-literal" history, for example. The correct interpretation is a dependent both on the historical situation in which a passage was written and the current faith community. Because of its inspired nature, the scripture adapts to new situations and answers new questions the original authors could not have envisioned.

To ask whether there was a "literal Noah's Ark," for example, completely misses the point of the scripture according to the Catholic Church. The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the story of Noah's Ark. Whether there once was a person named Noah is irrelevant and cannot be determined from the text. Both options are equally valid views as the "literalistic sense" is an invalid way to view the Bible.

To reiterate, all passages of the Bible should be understood literally in the sense the Church defines the word. The sense of the word the OP uses is considered an invalid interpretation method by the Church. Thus, it does not define whether passages should be understood as "literal" or not in this sense.

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    If someone feels this contradicts Catholic teaching, I would be very interesting in hearing why. – ThaddeusB Nov 25 '15 at 0:39
  • +1 from me for a good answer. There is some overlap with my own answer, but together I think these answers ought to satisfy anyone. – Dick Harfield Nov 25 '15 at 3:11
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The Catholic Church teaches, in the decisions of the 1909 Pontifical Biblical Commission (Latin original), that

The first three Chapters of Genesis contain narratives that correspond to objectively real and historically true events (rerum vere gestarum narrationes quae scilicet obiectivae realitati et historicae veritati respondeant), no myths, no mere allegories or symbols of religious truths, no legends.

  • Could not myths, allegories or symbols of religious truths also correspond to objectively real and historically true events ? The events they correspond to could be very different from the picture painted in the stories. – Matthew Mar 9 '15 at 19:17
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    I don't see how this answers the question, which is about what passages should not be taken literally. – Mr. Bultitude Nov 18 '15 at 23:24
  • @Mr.Bultitude The literal sense is the bases of all the other senses. Your question is like asking: "Which verses of Holy Scripture are meaningless?" – Geremia Jul 28 '17 at 21:20
  • It's not my question. – Mr. Bultitude Jul 28 '17 at 22:55

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