March 13, 2010

Sacred Scripture and the Catholic Church

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The 22nd meeting of Liturgy & Lager featured a discussion of the relationship between the Church and Scripture, with an emphasis on the Church's developing stance towards the critical methodologies used by biblical scholars.

In the 50 years following the foundational encyclical of Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus, the Church, through the organ of the Pontifical Biblical Commission (established in 1903), largely resisted the higher critical methods that had been almost universally adopted by Protestant biblical scholars. The PBC officially opposed many of the conclusions of modern(ist) biblical scholarship concerning the historicity of biblical events and the formation of the biblical texts, opting to affirm traditional assements (or assumptions) of date, authorship and historicity.

However, during the next 50 year period, inaugurated by the influential encyclical of Pope Pius XII, Divino Afflante Spiritu, the PBC adjusted to new insights concerning the applicability of higher criticism to Scripture. The new appreciation in the Church for higher criticism of Scripture is traceable in part to recognition of the objective gains made in understanding the Bible through these methods. Also, the Church was coming to the realization that some aspects of higher criticism did not necessarily depend upon the philosophical tenants of what had come to be called "modernism," which philosophy the Church had definitively rejected. Therefore, Catholic exegetes could employee certain critical methods while remaining faithful to the Church in upholding the historical integrity Scripture including the actuality of supernatural events recorded in the Bible.

Pius XII insisted that careful attention to the sacred authors' literary idioms and narrative strategies (as these came to be better understood through the discipline of comparative literature) would lead to a resolution of certain historical and interpretive difficulties. Such resolution would provide a firm defense of the Catholic Church's definition of the complete inerrancy of Scripture (cf. Vatican I, reaffirmed by Vatican II), without recourse to any equivocal use of the term "inerrancy" or restriction of its scope.

By 1993, exactly one century after the publication of Providentissimus Deus, the PBC was enthusiastically advocating the use higher of critical methodologies by Catholic exegetes (See the PBC document, "Interpretation of the Bible in the Church"). Unfortunately, in the intervening half century, many Catholic scholars had failed to heed the nuanced recommendations of Pius XII concerning the use of higher critical methods. Catholic biblical studies had been affected by the same systemic assumptions that characterized mainstream Protestant and secular scholarship. Catholic scholars were fighting for recognition and respect within the guild of modern(ist) biblical scholarship. Unfortunately, these assumptions (e.g., methodological naturalism) tend to radically undermine the integrity of Sacred Scripture and the authority of the Church.

In 1971, as the conflict between exegetes and the Church was beginning to escalate, the PBC was reorganized by Pope Paul VI, such that it no longer functions as an organ of the Magisterium. Instead of being comprised of Cardinals advised by scholars, the PBC became a consulting body attached to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and is comprised of biblical scholars. Since 1971, no document produced by the PBC has been, ipso facto, the teaching of the Church. Although in 1988 Pope John Paul II brought the PBC into a closer relation with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith by establishing the Prefect of the CDF as President of the PBC, thus allowing for more Magisterial influence upon the Commission, the PBC continues in its capacity as a consulting body, rather than an organ of the Magisterium. The difference can be appreciated by considering that before 1971, the Pope promulgated the decrees of the PBC. Since 1971, the Pope merely addresses the PBC, encouraging them to work for the good of the Church. (As of 2010, 36 documents have been published by the PBC. Thirty of these documents were promulgated before the reconstitution of 1971.)

The official reconstitution of the PBC distances the Biblical Commission from the Magisterium, and is reflective of a growing divergence between the interpretive opinions of many Catholic exegetes and the definitive doctrines of the Catholic Church. For the past generation or so, an uneasy truce, and in some cases an outright antagonism, has existed between the Catholic faith and Catholic biblical scholarship. This tension has been the subject of much reflection at the highest levels of the Church, including the 2003 document by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, "On the Relationship Between Magisterim and Exegetes."

Most recently, the mind of the Church on the subject of biblical exegesis has been expressed by Pope Benedict XVI in his Apostolic Exhortation, Verbum Domini (2010).

Here is our topic in outline form, featuring a list of the most important ecclesial documents of the past century, pertaining to the interpretation of Sacred Scripture (the material under headings I, II, and VII was discussed during the meeting, but has not been included in the above summary):

Sacred Scripture and the Catholic Church: A Century of Development

I. Prolegomena

The Irreducibly Ecclesial Context of Reading “the Bible”

II. The Rise of Private Interpretation and Higher Criticism

The Protestant Reformation and Private Interpretation

The Enlightenment and Higher Criticism

III. The Condemnation of Modernism (1893—1943)

1893 Providentissimus Deus (On the Study of Holy Scripture)

1902 Vigilantiae (On the Institution of a Commission for Biblical Studies)

1903 Pontifical Biblical Commission (PBC) established

1907 Lamentabili Sane (Syllabus Condemning the Errors of the Modernists)

1907 Pascendi Dominici Gregis (Encyclical on the Doctrines of the Modernists)

1907 Prasestantia Scripturae (Motu proprio on the decisions of the PBC and on the censures and penalties against those who neglect to observe the prescriptions against the errors of the modernists)

1920 Spiritus Paraclitus (Encyclical on St. Jerome)

IV. Reconciliation of the Church and Higher Criticism (1943—1993)

1943 Divino Afflante Spiritu (Encyclical on the 50th Anniversary of Providentissimus Deus)

1964 Instruction Concerning the Historical Truth of the Gospels (PBC)

1965 Dei Verbum (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation)

1993 The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (PBC document enthusiastically recommending higher critical methods of interpretation)

V. Development in Tension: Anti-Modernism and Higher Criticism?

1971 Sedula Cura (Motu Proprio, On New Laws Regulating the PBC)

1974 Address of Pope Paul VI to the PBC

1979 Address of Pope John Paul II to the PBC

1988 Pastor Bonus (Apostolic Constitution; Prefect of CDF established as President of PBC)

1988 Biblical Interpretation in Crisis (Cardinal Ratzinger, Erasmus Lecture)

1993 Preface to “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church” (Prefect of CDF, President of PBC)

2003 Relationship Between Magisterium and Exegetes (Prefect of CDF, President of PBC)

VI. Magisterial Synthesis: The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church

2010 Verbum Domini (Apostolic Exhortation; Pope Benedict XVI)

VII. Principles

Ancient Texts and Ecclesial Memory

Historical Reason and the Word of God