The Understanding of Revelation in “Dei Verbum” and the Response of Faith

While this notion of revelation, understood as the manifestation of … Christ himself, has been with the Church since the very beginning. There have been many confusions and reductions over time that have altered the very essence of the faith.

What Constitutes Revelation?

For the Christian, what constitutes God’s revelation, and how that revelation is mediated and perceived by man, is a long-standing problem that continues to reframe established principles of metaphysics and epistemology. What can be known of the unknowable God, and what kind of creature is it that has been given the capacity to experience and know not only things about God, but to know God in himself?

The Scriptures themselves tell of God’s revelation, his own Divine pedagogy, and his ultimate self-communication in the person of Christ Jesus. The author of the letter to the Hebrews opens by stating that, “In many ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son…” (Heb 1:1-2). Christ, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, the incarnate Word of God, is both the object and the medium of God’s Self-Revelation. St. John of the Cross, commenting on the aforementioned opening passage in the letter to the Hebrews, wrote that:

In giving us his Son, his only Word (for he possesses no other), he spoke everything to us at once in this sole Word—and he has no more to say … because what he spoke before to the prophets in parts, he has now spoken all at once by giving us the  All, Who is his Son. Any person questioning God, or desiring some vision, or revelation, would be guilty not only of foolish behavior, but also of offending him, by not fixing his eyes entirely upon Christ, and by living with the desire for some other novelty. 1

While this notion of revelation, understood as the manifestation of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, Christ himself, has been with the Church since the very beginning. There have been many confusions and reductions over time that have altered the very essence of the faith. Many of these misunderstandings were addressed as part of the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council (Vatican II), 1962-1965.

Dei Verbum and the Ressourcement Movement

In the teachings of Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum,the council fathers sought to address certain veins of thought running through Baroque and Neo-scholastic theology, then popular in Catholic seminaries and universities, and “debunk” the Scriptures coming from liberal protestant theologians and Scriptural exegetes, which were slowly infiltrating Catholic academia. Hearkening back to the Fathers of the Church, and the great medieval theologians, Sts. Thomas and Bonaventure, they attempted to reclaim a broader, and more personal notion, of revelation.

One of the goals of Dei Verbum was to correct a misunderstanding of the nature and content of revelation which had come to permeate the Neo-Scholastic seminary training and theological manuals of the 19th and 20th centuries. The misunderstanding, as it stood, was built on the teaching of the influential Jesuit theologian, Francesco Suárez (1548-1617), who saw revelation less as the person of Christ, and more as a simple list of propositions about God. This concept of revelation, which was formally taught in a variety of theology manuals, used in seminaries throughout the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, had a direct impact on the understanding, and subsequent practice of, faith and faith sharing. “For Suárez, revelation does not disclose God himself, rather it concerns pieces of information which God has decided to disclose and, whereas, for Saint Thomas, things revealed led to faith, for Suárez faith confirms what is revealed.” 2

As mentioned above, according to this Suárezian understanding, revelation points the faithful to facts about God, rather than actually revealing God himself. This notion of revelation was, among other things, the cause of much consternation amongst many of the most prominent of Catholic theologians in the 20th century. 3 These theologians sought the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, and the ancient writings of the Fathers of the Church, in a more direct fashion, rather than through the lens of the various manuals which formed the basis of their seminary training. In doing so, they attempted to recover a more spiritual dimension to the reading of Sacred Scripture, and an understanding of God’s self-revelation. Their methodology was to attract some significant criticism, as it was perceived by many, including some within the pontifical Holy Office, as a further manifestation of the modernist heresy, and a revolt against the Angelic Doctor. For many of these theologians, however, the aim of this academic work was not to debunk the Scriptures, nor to usurp St. Thomas, but rather simply to recover a more ancient tradition—reading Thomas and the Fathers in their original setting without the commentary of the manualists.

Chief amongst these scholars of the ressourcement movement, as it came to be known, was the Jesuit priest, Henri de Lubac. De Lubac’s work concerning the understanding of revelation in the Fathers, most notably Origen of Alexandria, led to a recovery of the understanding of the five different senses of Scripture. 4 De Lubac’s “return to the sources” fuelled an increasingly spiritual understanding of revelation than what was presently popular in the seminary theology manuals of the time, and became tremendously influential amongst a growing circle of young scholars. Most notable among this group was the then Jesuit Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar and, also, the young Fr. Josef Ratzinger, who later became Bishop, Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and eventually Pope Benedict XVI.  In a footnote of his book on the work of de Lubac, theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar highlights that for de Lubac, as for many of the great thinkers and saints of the Church throughout history, “Christianity is not, properly speaking, a ‘book religion’; it is the religion of the Word, but not uniquely, not even primarily, of the Word in its written form; it is the religion of the Logos, ‘not written and mute, but the incarnate and living Logos’” (Bernard). 5 This quote points out the Christocentric nature of the traditional understanding of revelation, which was the understanding of revelation that de Lubac sought to reclaim. As highlighted above, this is a concept that is, by no means, foreign to the great spiritual writers of the faith down through the ages, but which somehow was lost to the world of Neo-scholastic theology that followed Suárez. The impact of this understanding of revelation on the practice of theology, in itself, is tremendous, and recovers something of the ancient understanding of St. Evagrius Ponticus—the theologian as being one who prays, and the one who prays as being a theologian. 6

Revelation According to Saint Bonaventure

It was the young Fr. Ratzinger who, in his postdoctoral  second dissertation, or “Habilitationsschrift,”  he took up this notion of revelation in a study of the theology of history and revelation as presented in the writings of St. Bonaventure. 7 His studies, up until that point in his life, had led him to the conclusion that “Revelation now appeared no longer simply as a communication of truths to the intellect, but as a historical action of God, in which truth becomes gradually unveiled.” Continuing, he writes that he “was to try to discover whether in Bonaventure there was anything corresponding to the concept of salvation history, and whether this motif—if it should exist—had any relationship to the idea of revelation.” 8

In this thesis, amongst other insights, the Suárezian notion of revelation was challenged, and what could be considered as a personalist understanding of God’s self-revelation, is developed. He writes that, for Bonaventure, “‘revelation’ is synonymous with the spiritual understanding of Scripture; it consists in the God-given act of understanding, and not in the objective letter alone.” 9 This spiritual (or anagogical) sense of Scripture that Ratzinger discusses in his treatment of Bonaventure is essentially that which de Lubac had recovered in his study of Origen. 10

Challenging the established and long held understanding of revelation as being synonymous with the objective letter of the Scriptures was a somewhat risky academic project for a young German scholar, and in the midst of the Modernist crisis, concerns were raised about his findings leading to the “subjectification of the concept of revelation.” 11 It becomes easy to see how Ratzinger’s thesis, containing such bold assertions, was considered by one of his supervisors at the time to be flirting with a “dangerous modernism.” 12 Cardinal Ratzinger, reflecting on the controversy surrounding his paper describes his project.

I had ascertained that in Bonaventure (as well as in theologians of the 13th century) there was nothing corresponding to our conception of “revelation,” by which we are normally in the habit of referring to all the revealed contents of the faith: it has even become part of linguistic usage to refer to Sacred Scripture simply as “revelation.” Such an identification would have been unthinkable in the language of the High Middle Ages. Here, “revelation” refers to the act in which God shows himself, not to the objectified result of this act. And because this is so, the receiving subject is always also part of the concept of “revelation.” Where there is no one to perceive “revelation,” no re-vel-ation has occurred, because no veil has been removed. By definition, revelation requires someone who apprehends it. These insights, gained through my reading of Bonaventure, were later on very important for me at the time of the conciliar discussion on revelation, Scripture, and tradition. Because, if Bonaventure is right, then revelation precedes Scripture and becomes deposited in Scripture, but is not simply identical to it. This in turn means that revelation is always something greater than what is merely written down. And this again means that there can be no such thing as pure sola scriptura (by “Scripture alone”), because an essential element of Scripture is the Church as understanding subject, and with this the fundamental sense of tradition, is already given. 13

This dense quotation brings out some of the key themes in Ratzinger’s Habilitationsschrift thesis, most particularly his understanding that revelation is something that precedes Scripture, and is deposited within it. A second key theme here is the notion that revelation refers to the act in which God shows himself,  and that by its nature, this act requires a receiving subject. The act of reception is, according to Ratzinger, the act of faith, and is part of what actually constitutes revelation. It is this notion of faith as the subjective response to revelation as a key component to revelation itself that was, no doubt, the cause of some consternation by Rev. Michael Schmaus, his supervisor. 14

In his thesis, Ratzinger presses into the mystery of revelation according to St. Bonaventure, and makes clear the distinction between revelation and Scripture. “Bonaventure holds that the content of faith is found not only in the letter of Scripture, but in the spiritual meaning lying behind the letter. Furthermore, we can see why it is that for Bonaventure, Scripture, simply as a written document, does not constitute revelation, whereas the understanding of Scripture, which arises in theology, can be called revelation, at least indirectly.” 15

The Nature of Revelation

Revelation, according to this account, requires the activity and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, both within the hagiographers, and also in the believer’s faith-filled reading of Scripture within the tradition. In coming to write of their experience of God’s self-revelation, the writers of Sacred Scripture necessarily had to clothe the naked spirituality of the Word that had been revealed to them. “This means that that which truly constitutes revelation is accessible in the word written by the hagiographer, but that it remains, to a degree, hidden behind the words, and must be unveiled anew.” 16 While the implications of this for exegetical work, and the methods of historical critical interpretation are far-reaching, for the theologian, and the ordinary believer, as well as for the professional exegete, what this really means is that the primary hermeneutic of Scripture must be that of faith. 17

Implications for the Historical Critical Method of Scriptural Exegesis

The increasing popularity of contemporary historical critical methods of Scriptural exegesis in the early-mid 20th century seems to have been among some of the principle concerns of the drafters of the Dogmatic Constitution, Dei Verbum. The heresy of modernism, which had been of considerable concern to the Church earlier in the 20th century, had seen an emphasis on the use of the social sciences and scientific methodologies to interpret, or debunk, the Scriptures in a way that treated them, not as the divinely revealed word of God for all men of all times, but as merely human writings of their time. Firmly acknowledging their inspiration and inerrancy, 18 Dei Verbum was careful to allow for the best of contemporaneous methodology to be applied to the study of the sacred page, all the while insisting that “Holy Scripture must be read and interpreted in the sacred spirit in which it was written.” 19

Ratzinger’s Theory of Revelation at the Council

As mentioned in the above quotation from his memoirs, Ratzinger’s work on the theology of history and revelation in St. Bonaventure, became tremendously influential for him in his assignment as a conciliar peritus, or theological expert, at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). 20 As personal theologian to the influential Cardinal Frings, Ratzinger was assigned to the preparatory commission for the council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum. To achieve some understanding of how this notion of revelation came to influence the young Fr. Ratzinger, and subsequently his work on the Dogmatic Constitution, Dei Verbum, it is helpful to look at some of the texts by Ratzinger as peritus, both before and during Vatican II.

Commenting on the Preparatory Theological Commission’s schema on revelation, Scripture, and tradition, Ratzinger advised Cardinal Frings that the title of the schema, De fontibus revelationis (On the Sources of Revelation), was itself problematic. “(T)he formulation,” he writes:

…even though it has become common, is not without its dangers, since it entails an astounding narrowing of the concept of revelation, which then has a decisive effect on the understanding of all that follows. Actually, Scripture and tradition are not the sources of revelation but, instead, God’s speaking and manifesting of himself, is the unus fons (one source), from which then the two streams, Scripture and tradition, flow out. 21

Ratzinger is clear to point out, and is emphatic about this notion, that “Scripture and tradition are for us sources from which we know revelation, but they are not in themselves its sources, for revelation is, in itself, the source of Scripture and tradition.” 22

These ideas come to the fore immediately in the Dogmatic Constitution, Dei Verbum. Paragraph two begins with the statement, “In his goodness and wisdom, God chose to reveal himself….” It is clear here that the object of God’s revelation is in fact his very self; he is both the source and the content of revelation. While this is by no means a new concept in the Church—it is seen within Scripture itself—the emphasis here shows that the more ancient concept of revelation is taking precedence over the Suárezian influenced, Neo-scholastic understanding.

More so, paragraph nine of the document highlights this notion of revelation preceding both Scripture and tradition by stating that, “there exists a close connection and communication between sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture. For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity, and tend toward the same end.” 23 Revelation, the Word of God (cf. Jn 1), is that “divine wellspring.” This sentiment is affirmed in the document’s following paragraph where it states that “Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church.” 24 The univocal nature of both Scripture and tradition is the result of their unified origin in God’s self-revelation.

In commenting on Ratzinger’s fourth commentary on the “Schema de fontibus,” Fr. Jared Wicks, S.J., writes that the Schema “came from exponents of a teaching which consolidates more recent positions and formulations, especially those of the papal magisterium of the previous 70 years (i.e., the Suárezian notion of revelation as a set of propositions to which faith must give its ascent). But Fr. Ratzinger’s critique came from an exponent of doctrinal renewal by drawing afresh on the biblical, patristic, and liturgical sources of Catholic doctrine in ressourcement to produce simpler, more attractive, and spiritually more nourishing teaching.” 25

This “simpler, more attractive, and spiritually more nourishing teaching” on revelation, referred to in Wick’s commentary above, is this more personalized notion of revelation referred to earlier in this essay, that being Christ himself as the fullness of God’s self-revelation. While not absent from spiritual writings within the Church prior to the Vatican II Council, it was, for the most part, absent from the manuals of theology, which were fundamental to the seminary curriculum at the time.

What did occur … in the drafting of the document Dei Verbum, was the presentation of an account of revelation, and its relationship to Tradition, which represented a return to a more Patristic, and authentically Scholastic, understanding of the topic than that which came to dominance in the post-Tridentine era … In Dei Verbum, the standard pre-Conciliar Suárezian account of revelation was overhauled. 26

Ratzinger’s theology of revelation, which was to heavily influence the formulation of the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, was not a novelty, nor was it something that emerged within his mind, or in the mind of De Lubac, independent of the tradition of the faith. Their discovery was, perhaps, more rightly considered a re-discovery.

In Dei Verbum, the distinction between the Sacred Scriptures and the Word of God, God’s self-revelation, is shown clearly and, yet, the necessity of the Scriptures, in the transmission of the Word, is clearly emphasized. This is seen in the quotation of St. Jerome in the document, that “ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” 27 Within this context, one can see that this refers to the understanding that it is in and through the Scriptures, read in the light of the tradition of the Church, that God’s self-revelation, the Word incarnate, is mediated to man.

God’s Self-Revelation: The Person of Christ

Far from God revealing merely knowledge about himself, God’s revelation is an act of superabundant love, revealing his very self (cf. 1 Jn4:16). Taking on human flesh, Christ is the essence and object of God’s self-revelation. He not only reveals the Father to man, but invites man to enter into the very life of the Most Holy Trinity, which is an eternal communion of love. “It pleased God, in his goodness and wisdom, to reveal himself, and to make known the mystery of his will. His will was that men should have access to the Father, through Christ, the Word made flesh, in the Holy Spirit, and, thus, become sharers in the divine nature.” 28 Revelation is then understood as the person of Jesus, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, who, being Love Incarnate, seeks to call man to himself and draw him into eternal life, and live with the Father in the Holy Spirit. This sentiment is echoed later in the first encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon, and a decisive direction.” 29 Elsewhere, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has elaborated:

(T)he light of the Pascal Mystery is fully revealed the center of the universe and of history: God himself, eternal and infinite Love. The word that summarizes all revelation is this: “God is love” (1 Jn 4: 8, 16); and love is always a mystery, a reality that surpasses reason without contradicting it, and more than that, exalts its possibilities. Jesus revealed to us the mystery of God: he, the Son, made us know the Father who is in Heaven, and gave us the Holy Spirit, the Love of the Father and of the Son. 30

The Role of the Receiver: The Response of Faith

As mentioned above, Ratzinger was quick to point out that “the receiving subject is always also part of the concept of ‘revelation.’ Where there is no one to perceive ‘revelation,’ no re-vel-ation has occurred, because no veil has been removed. By definition, revelation requires someone who apprehends it.” 31 The Word of God is, in its essence, both personal and relational, and it calls for a subjective response in the form of faith on the part of the hearer of the Word. This relational response is, in fact, essential to the structure of revelation. The question then arises: what does this subjective response to revelation look like? And, inevitably, this leads to a discussion on the role of faith and in revelation, and the role of faith in the study of revelation.

God cannot be reduced to an object. He is a subject who makes himself known and perceived in an interpersonal relationship. Right faith orients itself to open itself to the light which comes from God, so that reason, guided by love of the truth, can come to a deeper knowledge of God. The great medieval theologians and teachers rightly held that theology, as a science of faith, is a participation in God’s own knowledge of himself. It is not just our discourse about God, but first and foremost, the acceptance and the pursuit of a deeper understanding of the word which God speaks to us, the word which God speaks about himself, for he is an eternal dialogue of communion, and he allows us to enter into this dialogue. 32

Being both personal and relational, the document, Dei Verbum, affirmed that “prayer should accompany the reading of Sacred Scripture, so that God and man may talk together; for ‘we speak to him when we pray; we hear him when we read the divine saying.’” 33 In prayer, the reader or exegete of Sacred Scripture is united with the hagiographers, who wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It is in imitating the hagiographers in prayer that the believer, the theologian, and the exegete enter into the reality which they are studying, and in doing so, become the subject to which revelation is directed. Prayer, the manifestation of faith, is “the acceptance of revelation and the response to it.” 34

Bringing the teaching of the Council to his diocese, then Archbishop Wojtyła of Krakow, later Pope John Paul II, was to write that “the response to revelation is not simply a matter of intellectually accepting its content, but, as we read in the constitution Dei Verbum, is an attitude in which man ‘freely commits his entire self to God’” (DV §5). 35

One can see in this treatment that revelation is no longer understood merely as a list of propositions requiring a faith that is only the ascent of the will. Rather, revelation is now understood clearly as both personal and relational in the person of Christ, the Word of God Incarnate, to which the response of faith is not simply the ascent of the will, but the total commitment of self, in love.

God revealed himself, not only in order that all men should know him as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the unity of the Godhead, but also in order that through the Son—the Word of God made flesh—they might, in the Holy Spirit, have access to the Father, and become sharers in the divine nature, that is in the Godhead itself. 36

Hence, one can see, with Pope Francis, that “Faith is born of an encounter with the living God, who calls us, and reveals his love, a love which precedes us, and upon which we can lean for security, and for building our lives.” 37

Revelation, as understood from its presentation in the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation of Vatican II, Dei Verbum, is the personal communication of God’s very self to man, the only adequate response to which is man’s total self-commitment of faith in love (1 Jn4:16). As such, the model for this receptivity to God’s self-revelation is the Mother of God, Mary most Holy. Her response to the self-revelation of God was to keep “all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Lk2:19). Pope Francis, in closing his encyclical on faith, draws the reader’s attention to the parable of the sower in St. Luke’s Gospel. Mary, who in responding with such total self-surrender to the Word, is like the “good soil” of which Jesus speaks. “These are the ones who, when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance” (Lk8:15). 38

  1. St. John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mount Carmel 2,22,3-5 in The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, tr. K. Kavanaugh, OCD, and O. Rodriguez, OCD (Washington DC: Institute of Carmelite Studies), 1979, 179-180.
  2. Tracey Rowland, Benedict XVI: A Guide for the Perplexed. (London: T&T Clark International), 2010, 49.
  3. Fergus Kerr, Twentieth-Century Catholic Theologians: From Neoscholasticism to Nuptial Mysticism. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd), 2007, 26, 80, 101-102.
  4. Ibid, 80
  5. Quoted in, Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Theology of Henri De Lubac. Translated by Joseph Fessio and Michael Waldstein. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press), 1991, footnote 52, 76-7.
  6. Evagrius Ponticus, The Praktikos. Chapters on Prayer. Translated by John Eudes Bamberger (Collegeville: Cistercian Publications), 2006, 60.
  7. Published as: Josef Ratzinger, Theology of History in St. Bonaventure. Translated by Zachary Hayes O.F.M. (Chicago, Illinois: Franciscan Herald Press), 1971.
  8. Joseph Ratzinger, Milestones: Memoirs 1927-1977. Translated by Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press), 1998, 104.
  9. Ratzinger, Theology of History in St. Bonaventure, 63.
  10. Kerr, Twentieth-Century Catholic Theologians, 80.
  11. Ratzinger, Milestones, 113.
  12. Ibid., 106.
  13.  Ibid., 108-9.
  14.  Ibid., 109.
  15. Ratzinger, Theology of History in St. Bonaventure, 66.
  16. Ibid., 65.
  17. Joseph Ratzinger, “Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: On the question of the Foundations and Approaches of Exegesis Today”  January 27, 1988. http://www.christendom-awake.org/pages/ratzinger/biblical-crisis.htm (Accessed on 28 October, 2013).
  18. Vatican II, Dei Verbum: Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation. 1965, 11.
  19. Ibid., 12.
  20. Ratzinger, Milestones, 108-9.
  21. Jared Wicks, “Six texts by Joseph Ratzinger as peritus before and during the Vatican Council.” Gregorianum 89, 2 (2008) 233-311 – text 3 – Evaluation of the First Draft-Texts for Vatican II, prepared for Cardinal Frings and submitted by him to the Cardinal Secretary of State (September 1962), 270.
  22. Ibid., 270 (Emphasis in the original).
  23. Dei Verbum, 9.
  24. Ibid., 10.
  25. Wicks, Six texts, 243.
  26. Rowland, Benedict XVI: A Guide for the Perplexed, 49.
  27. St Jerome, Commentary on Isaiah, Prol.: 24,17. Cf. Benedict XV, encyclical “Spiritus Paraclitus:” EB 475-480; Pius XII, encyclical “Divino Afflante Spiritu:” EB 544, cited in Dei Verbum, n. 25.
  28.  Vatican II, Dei Verbum, 2; cf. Eph 1:9; 2:18; 2 Pt 1:4.
  29. Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est: God is Love, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press), 2005, n.1.
  30. Benedict XVI, Angelus Address of 22 May, 2005, http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/angelus/2005/documents/hf_ben-xvi_ang_20050522_holy-trinity_en.html (accessed October 23, 2013).
  31. Ratzinger, Milestones, 108-9.
  32. Francis, Lumen Fidei: The Light of Faith (San Francisco: Ignatius Press), 2013, n.36.
  33. Vatican II, Dei Verbum, 25.
  34. Karol Wojtyła, Sources of Renewal: Study on the Implementation of the Second Vatican Council. Translated by P. S. Falla. (London: William Collins Sons & Co), 1981, 53.
  35. Ibid., 53-4.
  36. Ibid., 54.
  37. Francis, Lumen Fidei, n. 4.
  38. Ibid., n. 58.
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avatar About Thomas Gourlay

Thomas Gourlay is the president and co-founder of the Dawson Society for Philosophy and Culture, www.dawsonsociety.com.au. He holds B.A. and M.A. degrees in education from the University of Notre Dame, Australia, and is currently the coordinator of the religious education department at a local Catholic secondary school in Perth, Western Australia. Thomas Gourlay is currently working towards an M.A. degree in theology at The John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family Studies in Melbourne, Victoria.

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