St. Paul alive: Scholars tell how his Christian teaching applies now

VATICAN CITY – By proclaiming a year dedicated to St. Paul, Pope Benedict XVI has brought attention to a figure who often has been off the church’s radar.

One noted U.S. Scripture scholar said most priests think preaching the Gospel means focusing on Jesus’ biography as recounted by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

This has meant St. Paul’s letters usually got “lip service” by most preachers and scholars, Father Raymond F. Collins told Catholic News Service.

Compounding the problem was that Martin Luther, the 16th-century leader of the Protestant Reformation, drew heavily upon St. Paul’s letters to the Romans and Galatians. This led many Catholics to feel Scripture was “Protestant” and St. Paul’s letters were “dangerous,” said Father Collins.

As a result, the apostle’s teachings “didn’t really enter into our Catholic thinking,” although in recent years the apostle’s letters have been getting more attention from Catholic scholars and theologians, he said.

Father Collins, a New Testament scholar retired from The Catholic University of America in Washington, was one of 30 international experts who attended a weeklong Pauline symposium at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in early September.

The St. Paul’s Colloquium is an ecumenical initiative sponsored by the basilica’s Benedictine community. Participants have been meeting every two years since 1968.

U.S. Lutheran and New Testament scholar Karl Donfried, a symposium participant, told CNS that the saint’s life and teachings are timely examples of dealing with a secularized world and healing a divided Christianity.

He said there is “a remarkable parallel” between the multicultural, secularized societies of today and the complex, pagan world of St. Paul.

Despite enormous challenges, St. Paul was “always proclaiming the Gospel – the good news of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ – in a very specific situation that is always complex, controverted and difficult,” said the retired professor of religion at Smith College in Northampton, Mass.

Father Collins said St. Paul was “a pathfinder,” showing today’s disciples that they need to find new ways to translate the Gospel message into different cultures and generational divides.

The Pauline year also is meant to focus on the saint’s call for Christian unity, and Father Collins and Mr. Donfried said St. Paul plays a significant role in fostering ecumenism.

Christian unity was a problem in the early church and the first-century saint proposed practical ideas for bringing Christians from Jewish, Greek and Roman cultures together “in a basic unity of faith,” Father Collins said.

Donfried said St. Paul warned against the “inherent contradiction between saying on the one hand we are in Christ and yet holding sharply diverging opinions and doing things … anti-Gospel.”

The Jewish-born apostle tried to strip away superficial, cultural baggage and drive his audience back to the central questions for all Christians about the Gospel, Jesus and what it means “to be transformed by the Holy Spirit into a new life and not be conformed to the world,” he said.

The problems preventing full unity 2,000 years later are similar, he said.

“Throughout the history of the church there are cultural ideologies … that people easily adapt to; they become a kind of ‘cultural Christian’ insofar as they have a superficial understanding of the Gospel and the church,” Mr. Donfried said.

When people become driven and motivated only by their culture, they risk drowning out Christ’s power to transform, he said.

He said the current fixation on social justice or the “political agenda of good works” is obscuring God’s true message and impoverishing spirituality.

Churches and the faithful should not be looking to see whether the Democratic or Republican parties resonate more with their beliefs; rather they should be asking, “How does Jesus Christ transform my understanding of the political, social or cultural” world, Mr. Donfried said.

Catholic Review

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.