What to Do When Pope Francis Tells You Not to Pray the “Rogue” Psalms

Other than the obvious response -- "pray them more fervently."

Pieter van Lint, “King David Dances Before the Ark of the Covenant,” c. 1650

By Jules Gomes Published on June 27, 2024

“Do you not know that so much reading of Scripture ruins the Catholic religion?” an incandescent Pope Paul V asked the Venetian ambassador Francesco Contarini in 1606.

The Italian historian Gigliola Fragnito, in her captivating book on Rome’s censorship of the Bible La Bibbia al rogo: La censura ecclesiastica e i volgarizzamenti della Scrittura (1471-1605), records how the imperious pontiff “exploded furiously” at the hapless envoy.

Half a millennium later Pope Paul V’s successor, Pope Francis, is pulpit-bullying Catholics into blotting out the “offensive” psalms from their devotions.

Francis’s Health Warning on the Imprecatory Psalms

“Not all Psalms — and not every part of every Psalm — can be repeated and assimilated by Christians, and even less by modern man,” Francis preached at his General Audience on June 19, in a sermon bordering on the ancient Marcionite heresy (which treated the Old Testament as sub-Christian).

“At times, they reflect a historical context and a religious mentality that are no longer ours. This does not mean that they were not inspired, but in some ways, they are linked to a [particular] time and a temporary stage of revelation, as is also the case with a large part of ancient legislation,” Francis said.

The Catholic hierarchy is notorious for censoring the scriptures. In Italy, the 1596 Roman Index led to Bibles being publicly and ceremonially burned like heretics, notes Fragnito. The title of her Italian book uses a pun (which sadly doesn’t work in English): The Bible at Stake (al rogo). When the Bible is burned at the stake, biblical truth is at stake.

Rome’s Hatchet Job on the Psalter

Francis is echoing Pope Paul VI, who on November 1, 1970, passed his edict Laudis Canticum expunging 122 verses from the Psalter for use in the Mass and the Breviary because they are “somewhat harsh in tone” and “because of the difficulties anticipated from their use in vernacular celebration.”

Three psalms were canceled entirely (58, 83, and 109); three Psalms had more than five verses nixed (35:3a, 4–8, 20–21, 24–26; 59:6–9, 12; 69:23–29); six Psalms had three to five verses excised (21:9–13; 63:10–12; 79:6–7, 12; 137:7–9; 139:19–22; 140:10–12); and ten Psalms had one or one and a half verses deleted (5:11; 54:7; 55:16; 110:6; 141:10; 143:12; 28:4–5; 31:18–19; 40:15–16; 56:7b-8).

Long before snowflakes in universities began screeching about microaggressions, Rome’s hierarchy had done a hatchet job on the Psalter declaring these psalms to be piis auribus offensiva (offensive to pious ears), alleging them to be “psalms of malediction.”

But these are not “cursing” psalms, I wrote in my Masters in Theology dissertation on The Rhetorical Strategy of the Imprecatory Psalms. Because in these psalms, God’s oppressed people do not curse their enemies, but instead plead for vindication and call down God’s judgment on the wicked.

The Christian Witness to the Imprecatory Psalms

If only Paul VI and Francis had examined how their own tradition has interpreted the imprecatory psalms over the centuries: the Desert Fathers, who are said to have loved these curses against enemies, saw their enemies as spiritual forces of evil.

St. Benedict, interpreting the passage in Psalm 137 about dashing Babylonian babies against rocks, teaches his monks to take their temptations and evil desires while they are still young and dash them against the rock who is Christ.

Augustine (also Calvin) understood them as prophetic; Aquinas directed the imprecations at sin. Among evangelicals, Charles Haddon Spurgeon saw in them “expressions which may be lawfully used in the soul’s wrestling against spiritual enemies.”

Commenting on Psalm 137, C.S. Lewis urged Christians to direct the imprecations against our own wickedness:

I know things in the inner world which are like babies; the infantile beginnings of small indulgences, small resentments, which woo us and wheedle us with special pleadings and see so tiny. … Against all such petty infants the advice of the Psalm is the best, Knock the little bastards’ brains out. And “blessed” is he who can, for it is easier said than done.

Perhaps the censorship-happy popes could have examined the psycho-therapeutic benefits of such psalms, which allow the supplicant to unabashedly ventilate his or her anger and achieve emotional catharsis. Anger is not suppressed, but surrendered to God. This subverts the supplicant’s own desire to curse the enemy or take revenge, for “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord” (Deuteronomy 32:35, Romans 12:9).

“Is it not better to pray for vengeance than to take vengeance?” asks Old Testament scholar Walter Harrelson. The “expression of anger allows the psalmists to become agents of change in their relationship to God, self, and others.” Anger is displaced when it is directed to God.

Rome’s Track Record on the Scriptures

There are several problems with Francis’s exhortation. Who is to decide which verses are palatable and which are offensive? The Roman hierarchy has a track record of misinterpreting and suppressing the Scriptures. Most Catholic biblical scholars are embarrassed by this but honest enough to quietly set aside the grotesque errors of the past.

Rome refused to use the Bible’s Hebrew and Greek manuscripts for centuries, and banned biblical scholars from using scientific methods of criticism until the restrictions were lifted by Divino Afflante Spiritu in 1943. Only in the Nova Vulgata of 1979 did the Vatican correct the grotesque copyist’s error of Genesis 3:15: “she [Mary] shall crush your head” instead of “he [Jesus] shall crush your head.”

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How odd that God should inspire the Psalter for pre-modern man and not for Francis’s “modern man,” who is presumably far more enlightened and has the luxury of sanitizing the Psalter according to Enlightenment sensibilities. Francis’s appeal to novelty (argumentum novitatis) is a logical fallacy.

Of course, in one sense, the Psalms reflect a historical context and a religious mentality that are no longer ours. This is true of the entire Bible. But Francis would be surprised how the “religious mentality” of the Psalter that he so breezily dismisses is still very much alive in non-Western cultures.

How the Oppressed Pray the Imprecatory Psalms

In my dissertation, I attempted to show how one purpose of the imprecatory psalms was to fight off curses, witchcraft, and spells sent by the psalmist’s enemies. In India (or Africa), using such devices against one’s enemies is not uncommon. Thousands of Hindus are turning to Christ because they are delivered from demonic bondage by evangelists who pray for them, often using the imprecatory psalms.

Furthermore, victims of oppression in countries ruled by brutal dictators have found great succor in the imprecatory psalms. When the Muslim dictator Idi Amin launched a genocide against Christians in Uganda, many Christians prayed the imprecatory psalms. Such prayers of catharsis paradoxically enabled Anglican Bishop Festo Kivengere to pen his moving testimony I Love Idi Amin.

“The situations that triggered the imprecatory psalms were sociological situations of direct extremity,” I concluded in my dissertation. “The only way to combat such exigencies was to appeal to Yahweh calling to mind the glorious past traditions where he had demonstrated his power and righteousness.”

The Imprecatory Psalms Are Pregnant with Biblical Truth

I was able to identify three significant Old Testament traditions in the imprecatory psalms: the traditions of the Holy War, the legal/covenant, and the Wisdom traditions.

The Holy War tradition reminded the sufferers that it was Yahweh who actually fought Israel’s battles. The legal tradition reminded Yahweh that he had covenanted himself to Israel and to the maintenance of justice and righteousness in their society. The wisdom tradition reminded the supplicant of the surety of retribution which would befall the wicked.

When facing overwhelming evil, prayer was needed to energize and mobilize the force and potential of the tradition, and the imprecatory psalms succeeded in doing this because of their powerful and purposeful rhetoric — the only weapons at the disposal of the suffering supplicant.

The Imprecatory Psalms Are Ultimately Fulfilled in Christ

I’ve often wondered if the Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed at the Flossenberg concentration camp in 1945 for his role in the plot to assassinate Hitler, prayed the imprecatory psalms against the Führer.

In his book Psalms: The Prayerbook of the Bible, Bonhoeffer offers a sublime Christological interpretation of the imprecatory psalms showing how, ultimately, God does and did answer these prayers in Christ.

“God’s vengeance did not strike the sinners, but the one sinless man who stood in the sinners’ place, namely God’s own Son. Jesus Christ bore the wrath of God, for the execution of which the psalm prays,” Bonhoeffer writes.

“Thus the imprecatory psalms leads to the cross of Jesus and to the love of God which forgives enemies. I cannot forgive the enemies of God out of my own resources. Only the crucified Christ can do that, and I through him. Thus the carrying out of vengeance becomes grace for all men in Jesus Christ.”

I would humbly ask Francis to read Bonhoeffer before pontificating on the Psalter in future.

 

Dr. Jules Gomes, (BA, BD, MTh, PhD), has a doctorate in biblical studies from the University of Cambridge. Currently a Vatican-accredited journalist based in Rome, he is the author of five books and several academic articles. Gomes lectured at Catholic and Protestant seminaries and universities and was canon theologian and artistic director at Liverpool Cathedral.

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