We don’t have to be theologians, but we do have to be in touch with our experience of what helps us to love. A test to discover whether we are properly understanding a scripture passage (or a private revelation such as those given at Fatima or Medjugorje) is to judge our interpretation by its fruits. Since the most important fruit is love, we can ask ourselves, “When someone who loves me is loving me the most, would he or she act in this way?” And, since every authentic aspect of Christianity is good news, we can also ask ourselves, “Is it good news?” If the answers to these questions are “Yes,” we probably understand the passage. If not, we are probably making a mistake, such as taking something literally which is really intended as an image.
Down through the centuries, failure to ask such questions has often resulted in literally interpreting scripture. This has caused many abuses, such as the consignment of all Jews to hell at the Council of Florence in 1442, the imprisonment of Galileo, and support for slavery. The scriptural foundation for the inquisition was a literal understanding of “A man who does not live in me is like a withered, rejected branch, picked up to be thrown in the fire and burnt” (John 15:6). Another example is Pope Alexander VI, who took literally, as applying to himself, Matthew 28:18: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Alexander therefore decided that he had personal jurisdiction over every human being. So, he gave half of the globe to Portugal and the other half to Spain.