Question: Doesn't Apocalypse 20 speak of the thousand year reign of Christ [at the end of time]? Is Apocalypse 18 the destruction of the Vatican? Doesn't 1 Corinthians 11 say that women should cover their hair? Could a priest keep a wife and qualify with what is said in Luke 14: 25-35?
Answer: We will return to the specific questions momentarily, but first a few words about how the Catholic Church interprets the Scriptures.
The Catholic Church claims the exclusive right to interpret what is found in the Bible and in Its unwritten Tradition. This is a fundamental difference from Protestantism, which generally claims the ability of all Christians to interpret the scriptures under the personal guidance of the Holy Ghost, and rejects any authority apart from the Bible. In history, this private interpretation quickly led to a proliferation of religions (most of which insisted on the "private" interpretation of their founders). The Church claims this right of interpretation of Scripture and Tradition as part of the mission entrusted to it by Jesus Christ. The New Testament was written by Catholic bishops and by their protégés, the Church decided which books would be included in the Bible and which would not, and painstakingly preserved it over the centuries when only handwritten copies could be made. And, of course, not everything could be written in the Bible, for "not even the world itself ... could contain the books that would have to be written."1
For the most part, the Church's method is to state the doctrines and moral teachings that are found in Scripture and Tradition, rather than to annotate the written sources with notes explaining what they mean. Only in a few cases can we find the Church commenting directly on how a certain book, chapter, and verse are to be understood. There are exceptions, though -- for example, the Biblical Commission's letter on how the first eleven chapters of Genesis are to be interpreted.2 The more common procedure is that of Pope Pius XII, who spoke to what Catholics were expected to believe about evolution and polygenism (concerning races of man not descended from Adam) in general terms, rather than annotating specific books or chapters.3
The Church's authority extends infallibly to matters of faith and morals, and She is competent to prescribe discipline for Her members. Faith and morals, which have to do with what is "true in the mind of God" can never change; disciplines, being expedient or not, are subject to modification. We have written at greater length in the September 2000 Parish Bulletin on these distinctions.4 The Church claims no special competence in other areas, but does insist that scholarship in areas that seem to bear on faith or morals proceed respectfully, and make a clearly scientific case without relying on unproven assumptions or popular prejudices. The Galileo case is a good example -- the Church would not allow the upheaval of a changed understanding of the cosmos while the scientific theory remained speculative or was in a state of change (which it was until sometime in the twentieth century). Likewise the Church is not ready to accept the theory of evolution while it rests on mere inferences and a few pieces of fraudulent evidence, and appears to conflict with other, more well proven, scientific theories.
A marvelous source of information on how the Church interprets Sacred Scripture is the encyclical letter of the saintly Pope Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus, of 18 November 1893. Pope Leo recognized that scriptural interpretation is an on going thing -- some matters have been doctrinally decided, but others are still the appropriate province of scholars. He established a few common sense principles that ought to guide not only biblical researchers, but the average reader as well.
In that the Scriptures represent the revealed word of God, they cannot contradict any other sources of truth. Clearly, they cannot contradict themselves: Genesis cannot, for example, contradict the Apocalypse; Matthew 3 cannot contradict Matthew 9. Nor can the Scriptures mutually contradict the Tradition of Divine Revelation handed down from the time of the Apostles; e.g. the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, does not contradict the Bible, and the Bible does not contradict Mary's perpetual virginity. The Bible and the various sciences cannot contradict one another, provided that the scientific knowledge is clearly proven to be true.5 Simply stated, truth cannot contradict truth, no matter what the source of the truth might be.
From this "non-contradiction principle" it follows that one cannot take verses of Scripture out of context and insist on their apparent literal meaning. Make the "snippet" small enough and you can "prove" just about anything with a few words from the Bible -- including, "There is no God."6 Any reader of Scripture (or of most anything else) needs to step back and examine the entirety of what the divine Author has to say before drawing conclusions.
Pope Leo also called our attention to the need to appreciate the Semitic and Greek languages and literary styles. The inspired authors and our Lord Himself thought, spoke, wrote, and acted as members of their proper cultures. This doesn't make what they have to say any less true, but it does require us to have a grasp of these cultural elements if we are to successfully extract the truth from the Sacred Writings. By way of example, the Semitic languages are weak in superlatives ("good, better, best, poor, bad, worst"). They often made up the weakness by resort to "hyperbole" or exaggeration. Most folks understand that Christ did not really want us to "pluck out our eyes" or "cut off our hands" or to go naked like the lilies of the field -- but sometimes the hyperbole is a little less obvious, making the need for linguistic understanding and looking at "the big picture" more necessary. And, of course, no one should be tempted to explain away passages concerned with faith or morals as hyperbole, just because they are unwilling to follow divine precepts.
The science in Genesis is not false for having presented creation in terms understandable to the man of Moses' time. The parables of both Testaments are not "lies" any more than a modern novel is a "lie" -- they are presented to elucidate some particular moral lesson, and may or may not have taken place in history. The apocalyptic genre of the Bible is probably without parallel in modern writing -- time is completely fluid, and there is little or no indication of where each statement fits into past, present, or future. About the only thing certain in apocalyptic writing is that reading it as though it were a modern history book is doomed to failure!
Pope Leo further insisted that biblical scholars be reasonably familiar with the work of the physical sciences. Truth cannot contradict truth, and sometimes a knowledge of the natural sciences will help in determining the meaning of a biblical passages. And the Catholic apologist ought to know what the physical sciences believe to be certain, as opposed to being merely speculative.
Now, let us look at the passage proposed by the questioner in the light of Pope Leo's instructions:
The Apocalypse is the only New Testament example of the Jewish apocalyptic genre, with its non-sequential timeline, and verse 20 was the subject of some debate in the early centuries of the Church. It was written by Saint John in 96 AD, as a means of consoling those communities in modern day Turkey that suffered under Domitian with the knowledge that God is all powerful and all wrongs are eventually righted. It is a book of the first century AD, just as well as it is a book of the last. Many expected that the second coming of Christ would end the severe Roman persecution, and culminate in a thousand years of peace on earth under our Lord's rule. But in the early fourth century Rome itself was converted to Christianity, and the thousand year reign of Christ came to be understood by Catholics as the indefinitely long period of the reign of Christ's Church preceding the second coming and judgment day. Only those who claimed to have Gnostic information not available to the Church (e.g. Tertullian, Joachim of Fiore), or those who repudiated the authority of the Church (e.g. some, but not all Protestants), held to the idea that the thousand year reign would follow the second coming. We've treated this at some length in the March 1997 Parish Bulletin, copies of which can be had for the asking or read on the Internet.7 For Catholics the matter was settled by a decree of the Holy Office 21 July 1944, warning that Millenarianism may not be safely taught as a theological opinion.8
Apocalypse 18 refers to "Babylon," a sort of code word among the persecuted Christians. Historically, Babylon had been the land of aggression and Jewish captivity. At the end of the first century it cryptically refereed to pagan Rome, the current persecutor. Again, Saint John was assuring his readers that God would neutralize the power of the Empire to harm Christians. The apocalyptic genre makes it impossible to know whether the inspired author meant to include only this one tyrant, or intended "Babylon" to stand for a number of tyrannical powers. We have the same problem with the "number of the beast" in chapter 13: "666" can be derived using the traditional numerical values for the Hebrew letters spelling "Nero Caesar," but in later times and with other alphabets, writers have derived it from the names of various Popes, emperors, generals, tyrants, and heretics.9 Perhaps "Babylon" and "666" are both best understood in the knowledge that God will ultimately punish all tyrants, wherever they may be located (including, if necessary, the Vatican).
1 Corinthians presents the Corinthians with a number of disciplinary prescriptions. In his two epistles to them it is clear that Saint Paul recognizes them as volatile people. He prescribes the method they must observe when praying in tongues, tells them to do their feasting and drinking at home instead of at Mass, and distinguishes men from women according to the men's direct and the women's indirect relationship with God. The men are to pray with head uncovered, the women covered. Paul was also following the Jewish custom for modesty among married women. In that these things are cultural and disciplinary, rather than dogmatic or moral, the Church regulates them as it sees fit. Nobody had better start praying in tongues (at least not in our church!) during Mass. The Church increased Paul's Eucharistic fast from "eat and drink at home," to "don't eat or drink anything after midnight," and reduced it again to "don't eat for three hours before," and again to "don't eat on the way to Mass." The rules for head coverings have likewise varied with time and place. Saint Paul notwithstanding, the Church has prescribed head coverings for men -- monks, the clergy, and bishops -- hoods, birettas, and miters for some of Her liturgical ceremonies, and the zuchetto almost all of the time except during the canon of the Mass. The 1917 Code urged lay men and women to sit in separate sections of the church, and apart from strong local custom, required men to be bareheaded and women to cover their heads.10 The 1983 Code, issued when fewer men or women were wearing hats anywhere and head coverings had lost their cultural significance, chose to drop all of these prescriptions.
Luke 14 is a good example of hyperbole or exaggeration being required to take the place of missing superlatives in the Semitic languages. It is addressed to the greatest possible audience, "the great crowds [that] were traveling with Him," and not just to the narrower groups of disciples or apostles (who would be his future priests). Taken literally, everybody would be required to hate every one else as well as himself! And in verse 33 we hear (literally) that we must give up everything we possess to be our Lord's disciples. Certainly, neither hatred of everyone, nor the absolute renunciation of material things is consistent with the overall teaching of our Lord. Elsewhere we are told to "love one another," and the apostles and even our Lord made use of material possessions in their ministries. But there is no contradiction -- the command to "hate father, mother, wife, and children" is hyperbolic. Lacking good superlatives, our Lord is saying that we must make God the primary object of our affection and activities -- by saying "hate your mother and father..." He is saying "pay less attention to the people around you, and even to yourself and your possessions, and love God above all."