Living Tradition
Editor: Msgr. John F. McCarthy, J.C.D., S.T.D.Distributed several times a year to interested members.
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No. 60 Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study Program September 1995


by Brian W. Harrison

        September 1995 marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of a highly significant document of the Catholic Church's Magisterium: the Encyclical Letter Spiritus Paraclitus, issued by Pope Benedict XV on September 15, 1920, to mark the 1500th anniversary of the death of the greatest Scripture scholar of the ancient Church, St. Jerome. 1 The Pontiff took advantage of that landmark centenary for laying down in this encyclical further norms and guidelines for exegetes, a quarter-century after the promulgation of the great magna carta of modern Catholic biblical studies, Leo XIII's Encyclical Providentissimus Deus (November 18, 1893).

        There seem to be no signs that the Catholic press will be making any mention this year of the anniversary of Spiritus Paraclitus, which in truth is now an almost forgotten encyclical. Indeed, on the rare occasions when it is remembered at all by today's most prominent Scripture scholars, the context usually appears to be one of disdain for its doctrine and regret for its allegedly negative effect on biblical scholarship. For instance, Fr. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, in a recently published commentary on the 1993 document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, feels it appropriate to express quite the opposite of gratitude for Spiritus Paraclitus. He does not find Benedict XV's encyclical worthy of mention in the main text of his historical account of the Catholic biblical movement, but writes in a footnote:

If we are grateful today for the encyclicals of Popes Leo XIII and Pius XII on biblical studies, we have to recall that between them there also appeared the encyclical of Pope Benedict XV, Spiritus Paraclitus ..., commemorating the fifteenth centenary of the death of St. Jerome. In its reaction to the Modernism of the early decades of the century, this encyclical developed a negative approach to Scripture, insisting on its inerrancy and, in effect, denying that one had to interpret the Bible according to its literary forms. The impact of the encyclical of Pope Benedict XV was stifling. 2

        In spite of this currently fashionable disqualifying of Spiritus Paraclitus - or perhaps because of it - its message has arguably never been more relevant than it is now, and so its 75th anniversary seems a good moment for recalling the message of Pope Benedict's timely and forthright intervention. However, it will be opportune to do this by setting his encyclical, and the reasons why it has lately fallen into oblivion and even disrepute, in the wider context of the recent history of Catholic biblical studies - and, in particular, of the very one-sided version of that history which, although it has reigned practically unquestioned among Catholic Scripture scholars since the 1960s, stands in need of critical examination.

        A. The Revisionist Reading of Divino afflante Spiritu   Among exegetes and teachers of Scripture over the last three or four decades, it has become a commonplace observation that the year 1943 marked a watershed in the history of the Catholic Church's approach to the Bible. The vast heritage of biblical exegesis and commentaries produced by the great Fathers and Doctors of the Church over nineteen centuries tends to be regarded mainly as a collection of pious but "pre-critical" museum-pieces of little practical use to the modern student of Scripture; and, although Leo XIII's landmark encyclical Providentissimus Deus of 1893 is recognized as having begun a new chapter by prompting a more serious Catholic response to the challenges resulting from nineteenth-century scientific and historical research, scholarly progress is said to have been generally suffocated by the 'anti-modernist reaction' of Church authorities initiated by Pope St. Pius X in 1907, until Pius XII supposedly flung wide the gates of free enquiry and opened the door to 'scientific' biblical studies with his 1943 encyclical Divino afflante Spiritu. After a period of sometimes tense debate within the Church regarding the validity of these new and even 'revolutionary' orientations, Pius XII's 'liberating' vision, we are told, was vindicated triumphantly at Vatican Council II with the promulgation of the Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum. 3

        But what, exactly, was supposed to have been so radically new about Divino afflante Spiritu? It is significant that this characterization of Pius XII's encyclical seems not to have been expounded publicly before his death in 1958. Had there perhaps been some awareness, while Pius XII was still alive and active, that the Pope who had issued Humani generis not long after Divino afflante Spiritu, as a severe warning against new and perilous trends in theology and exegesis, might be more than a little displeased at being depicted as a bold innovator in biblical scholarship, intent on relaxing his predecessors' restrictions? Certainly, when Pius XII was first prominently portrayed in that light two years after his death (in an editorial in the prestigious Roman review La Civiltà Cattolica 4), this 'revisionist' reading of his encyclical on Scripture studies proved to be very controversial. 5

        Now, although such controversy appears to have long since subsided, with the revisionist view having now become totally conventional, this view is in fact historically very questionable, not only in regard to Divino afflante Spiritu itself, but also in regard to the relationship of this document to the two preceding papal encyclicals dedicated to Scripture studies. Admittedly, this writer has no particular quarrel with conventional modern accounts of the first of these, since they usually recognize the fact that Pope Leo XIII's aim in promulgating Providentissimus Deus (1893) was a balanced one: he sought to combat liberal interpretations of Scripture which effectively denied its inspiration and inerrancy; but at the same time he wished to promote sound critical scholarship as a means of refuting these attacks on the Bible's divine origin. 6

        The trouble begins with what today's biblical scholars usually say about the half-century after the publication of Providentissimus - in the middle of which period came Spiritus Paraclitus of Benedict XV. We are commonly presented with a starkly polarized view of the pre- and post-1943 periods respectively. Fr. Fitzmyer's portrayal of this contrast is rather typical by virtue of its exaggerations, and by the nonchalance with which it dismisses decades of grave magisterial teaching with pejorative labels. He writes:

It is difficult, however, for us today to realize the dark cloud of reactionism that hung over the Catholic interpretation of the Bible in the first half of the twentieth century. Part of it was occasioned by the Church's general reaction to the rationalism of the nineteenth century, especially to the Modernism that developed within the Church at that time. Part of it was the result of specific Church documents that stemmed from the highest authorities in the Church, from the Pope, Sacred Congregations, and the Biblical Commission. 7

        At this point Fr. Fitzmyer adds a footnote in which, after making the uncomplimentary remarks about Spiritus Paraclitus quoted at the beginning of this essay, he speaks with little respect about the original Pontifical Biblical Commission. This, unlike the body which bears that title today, was an organ of the Magisterium whose decrees were (and arguably still are, de jure if not de facto 8) binding in conscience on all Catholics. Our author asserts:

Between the encyclicals of Popes Leo XIII and Pius XII there was also the activity of the watchdog Biblical Commission with its responsa, issued over more than thirty years. They created fear and suspicion about everything connected with the Bible so that clergy and faithful alike suspected anyone who tried to interpret it as dangerous and almost unorthodox. The Apostolic Letter by which Pope Leo XIII set up the Biblical Commission was entitled Vigilantiæ ..., a title which set the tone and summed up the work of the Commission for close to forty years. 9

        Now, it is a historical fact that the overwhelming majority of the many learned articles, books and lectures produced everywhere by Catholic exegetes during that period loyally obeyed the pertinent magisterial documents and were never "suspected" of being "dangerous and almost unorthodox." 10 Fr. Fitzmyer's remarks therefore imply that, from his 'critical' standpoint, the magisterially-approved professors responsible for that extensive array of biblical material never even "tried to interpret" Scripture - much less succeeded in interpreting it! He cites no evidence in support of this aspersion cast upon a whole generation of his scholarly forerunners - probably because he is aware that his intended audience will need no convincing on this point. Those Catholics who question the 'established' thesis of a complete magisterial volte-face on Scripture after 1943 are few and far between, and are much more likely to be reading Faith & Reason, The Catholic World Report, or This Rock 11 than the writings of Fr. Fitzmyer.

        While Fr. Fitzmyer sees gloom and trepidation as having surrounded Catholic Scripture studies everywhere before the time of Pius XII, he applauds this pontiff as the author of the great "liberating document," 12 Divino afflante Spiritu. Still seeking an answer to the question we have already raised as to why this intervention is now judged to have been so "liberating" and "revolutionary" after the "stifling" and "negative" influence of Spiritus Paraclitus, we read:

Fifty years later [i.e., after Providentissimus Deus] Pope Pius XII composed another important encyclical on the promotion of biblical studies, Divino afflante Spiritu, issued on the feast of St. Jerome, 30 September 1943. That writing of Pius XII was likewise occasioned by the needs of the time, but they were of a different sort. They stemmed mainly from people within the Catholic Church, especially those who sought to steer the faithful away from the use of a critical-scientific method of interpreting the Bible toward a more "meditative" or "spiritual" type of exegesis. Pius XII's encyclical was in reality far more significant than that of Leo XIII and was, in fact, revolutionary. It set the Catholic Church on a path of Scripture interpretation that has borne great fruit. 13

        B. What Motivated the Publication of Divino afflante Spiritu?   This conventional view of what principally motivated Pius XII to publish his celebrated biblical encyclical also deserves scrutiny. For, on reading Divino afflante Spiritu itself, we do not find any indication that the Pontiff saw the "needs of the time" as stemming mainly from the trouble caused by ultra-conservatives opposed to scientific biblical scholarship. Indeed, the only one of such "people within the Catholic Church" of whom we have any specific and concrete evidence was a lone Italian priest, Dolindo Ruotolo, who in 1941 penned a pseudonymous and anti-intellectual attack on current biblical scholarship which he circulated to the Pope and Italian Church leaders. 14 But Pius XII's overriding motivation in issuing Divino afflante Spiritu, according to the encyclical itself, 15 was simply to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Providentissimus Deus, to confirm its teaching and that of other subsequent Popes, and to offer new encouragement and guidance for all students of Scripture. Far from providing the "main" stimulus for Pius XII's encyclical, the follies of Fr. Ruotolo (and of any others who might happen to agree with him) were alluded to in only two brief sentences of this 28-page document.

        One of these occurs in the context of exhorting exegetes to remember that their just concern to establish the literal sense of Scripture should not become an occasion for neglecting the true spiritual sense of Scripture. Among the many positive effects of giving due attention to the latter, said the Pope, would be that of "reducing to silence" those who complain that they find no spiritual nourishment in modern exegesis, and hence over-react by dismissing the importance of the literal sense and taking refuge in a vague, subjective and symbolic reading of Scripture: "a certain spiritual and, as they say, mystical interpretation." 16 The other passage is better known because although, when understood in its true historical context, it is no more "revolutionary" than the expression just cited, it has since been honed into a sharp apologetic weapon by exegetes who use it to strike with righteous indignation those members of the faithful who express alarm at their rationalistic theses (theses, in many cases, which are substantially the same as those condemned by Pius XII himself in his subsequent encyclical Humani generis of 1950). We are referring to the frequently quoted sentence in which the Pope calls on all Catholics to show charity and justice in evaluating the work of exegetes (those "strenuous workers in the Lord's vineyard" 17), adding that everyone "ought carefully to avoid that insufficiently prudent zeal which judges whatever is new to be, for that very reason, deserving of attack or suspicion." 18

        This one sentence has been elevated into a major locus theologicus in the conventional modern re-reading of Divino afflante Spiritu - a "magnificent principle," as Frs. Raymond Brown and Thomas Aquinas Collins call it. 19 Catholics have been assured by Fr. Brown that by these words Pius XII in effect censures the "right-wing vigilanteeism" of those "literalists," "ultra-rightists," and "fundamentalist editorial and column writers" 20 who dare to query the doctrinal soundness of the revisionist biblical scholarship which he so prominently represents. He goes on to charge such critics with constituting "a danger for the continuing progress of Catholic biblical studies in this century" and threatening "to frustrate the vision of Pius XII who may well prove to be the greatest Pope-theologian of the century." 21

        One cannot but marvel at Fr. Brown's audacity in claiming the implicit backing of Pope Pius XII for the kind of exegesis which casts doubt on the historical reliability of the Gospel Resurrection Narratives, and on whether the Virginal Conception of Christ can really be proved from Scripture. The gulf which separates this claim from historical reality in regard to Divino afflante Spiritu becomes even clearer when we realize what the encyclical's author really did have in mind in briefly warning Catholics not to be over-zealous in criticizing whatever is new in biblical studies. The truth is that the doctrinal position of the maverick Italian priest alluded to here by Pius XII had virtually nothing in common with that of those post-conciliar Catholic publications which habitually take issue with Fr. Brown and his like-minded colleagues.

        Already in 1941, two years before the encyclical was published, Fr. Ruotolo's pamphlet was actually rebutted by a minor document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, published only in Italian and sent out to the same audience to which the priest had distributed his own diatribe. From this rebuttal of his work we learn not only that he wanted exegetes almost to ignore the literal sense of Scripture in order to excogitate arbitrary allegorical and "mystical" interpretations; he also berated their "modern" zeal for studying ancient Oriental languages and literature, and for patiently comparing manuscripts to arrive at the most exact possible version of the original inspired text. Why? Because according to this "traditionalist" priest, all such "worldly" and "unspiritual" pursuits went contrary to the Council of Trent! Misconstruing that Council's teaching on the status of the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible, Fr. Ruotolo denounced all these modern scientific studies as worse than useless, because he thought the Vulgate text was already as perfect a version as one could ever wish for, and considered it dangerous to even contemplate correcting the Vulgate by reference to the original Greek or Hebrew. 22

        In the light of this background information, we can readily see how completely unfounded is the claim that Pius XII's brief admonition to Catholics who might be over-suspicious of anything new indicates some sort of "revolutionary" and "liberating" change of direction on the part of the Magisterium, and that a supposed conservative threat to "a critical-scientific method of interpreting the Bible" was what "mainly" motivated the Pope to produce his encyclical. Indeed, so minor was that threat perceived to be by Church authorities back then that the Biblical Commission's letter began by almost apologizing to the Italian Bishops for taking up their valuable time in rebutting the anonymous pamphlet they had all received a few weeks earlier! 23 And since that letter in any case took care of the matter quite adequately in 1941, how could it be credibly maintained that two years after this local storm in a teacup had duly been calmed, the Supreme Pontiff saw this issue as the "main" problem among those "needs of the times" which called for a full-scale encyclical addressed to the universal Church? 24

        In conclusion, it is worth noting that shortly after Divino Afflante Spiritu was published, that is, years before revisionist scholars began to portray it as predominantly 'anti-conservative' in content and motivation, a noted 'progressive' exegete, Fr. Jean Levie, who was certainly seeking to give full weight to anything innovative he could find in the encyclical, 25 acknowledged that, while Dolindo Ruotolo's recent attack on approved scientific exegesis was indeed implicitly alluded to and rebuked by Pius XII, it was only a "local incident" with no significant parallels outside Italy, and "was not the essential motivation for the publication of the encyclical Divino afflante Spiritu." 26

        C. Did Pius XII Relax His Predecessors' Prohibitions?

  It is of course true that Divino afflante Spiritu includes some observations and recommendations which had not been explicitly formulated in previous magisterial documents. It notes that many biblical questions remain open for future resolution, and that the meaning of only a few passages touching faith and morals has been authoritatively decided already by the Magisterium or by the consensus of the Fathers. 27 In particular, the encyclical states that exegetes should pay particular attention to the discernment of what literary genre is being employed by the inspired writer. 28

        It is significant, however, that, at the time the encyclical was published, none of the scholarly commentators saw anything particularly radical or "liberating" in this papal recommendation, as if the Pope had thereby permitted some previously forbidden exegetical novelty. This was hardly surprising in view of the fact that Pius XII repeatedly insisted in the first part of the encyclical that he wished to confirm and reinforce all that his predecessors since Leo XIII had laid down regarding Scripture studies. 29 In other words, it is obvious that the Pope intended his observations on the discernment of literary genres to be understood in harmony with, and not in opposition to, the previous statements of the Magisterium on such matters.

        Even scholars who subsequently became a good deal more (or more openly) liberal in their exegesis were unable, in the period immediately after the promulgation of Pius XII's encyclical, to find anything in it which permitted what had hitherto been forbidden. Fr. Jean Levie had by the late 1950s become known as a definitely "progressive" biblical scholar; but, in his own commentary on Divino afflante Spiritu published in 1946, Levie made no claims that it was opening any hitherto closed doors - much less that Pius XII had consciously intended to open them. While indeed using such adjectives as "progressive" and "broadening" to describe its general spirit, 30 Fr. Levie's extensive analysis of the encyclical uncovered nothing radical in it. In treating of an increasing tendency among exegetes over the previous half-century to appreciate better the "incarnational" and historically-conditioned aspects of biblical language and its various literary genres, he sums up the import of Pius XII's intervention by saying that it "consecrates" the "victory" of this approach over the older and excessively literalist approach. But he quickly adds that this "victory" is one which "was already virtually won many years ago." 31 Referring to the Magisterium's gradual change in this direction since the beginning of the century, when the Pontifical Biblical Commission first explicitly recognized the possibility - albeit very cautiously - that some parts of Scripture hitherto considered historical might turn out to belong to a non-historical genre, Levie recognizes that the progress has certainly been in the same direction and without any contradiction. Since 1905, he notes, certain applications of the principle of literary genres had been recognized as legitimate; but it is only in 1943 that it has been proposed formally by the Magisterium itself as the great means of "resolving many objections to the truth and historical value of the Sacred Writings." 32

        How can one speak of this as a "revolution" or "liberation" when it is a question of developments which not only have been "in the same direction and without any contradiction," but had in any case already been admitted years earlier by the Magisterium, and are now merely being "proposed formally" by the 1943 encyclical? It goes without saying that Pius XII, while giving greater stress than his predecessors to the importance of determining the literary genre of a given biblical passage, had not the remotest intention of rescinding or contradicting the 1905 Biblical Commission decision on this topic, which affirmed that the non-historical character of a book or passage hitherto considered historical is "not to be admitted easily or rashly," and needs to be "proved by solid arguments." 33

        In the name of the study of "literary genres" and "literary forms," we are commonly told today that perhaps the greater part of the Gospels - including certainly the Infancy and Resurrection Narratives - are quite unreliable guides to what the historical Jesus really did and said, because they have been thoroughly "reworked" by the "creative theological" input of the anonymous primitive Christian communities and redactors. Even more doubt is cast on the historical reliability of the Pentateuch and of virtually every other historical book of the Old Testament. The conclusion is drawn - quite logically - that the attempt to defend the historicity of any concrete affirmation in either the Old or New Testament, in the light of apparently conflicting profane sources or a seeming contradiction somewhere else in Scripture, is a futile and unscientific "concordism." Why? Because, so it is said, the "literary genres" used by the ancient authors required little concern for 'mere' historical facts: those authors were happy to 're-shape' and 're-read' the facts according to their overriding 'theological' concerns.

        How far this kind of hermeneutic was from Pius XII's intentions becomes obvious from those very passages of Divino afflante Spiritu where he stresses the importance of discerning literary genres. One result of recent scholarship in this area, he says, is the following:

The inquiry itself has demonstrated lucidly that among the nations of the ancient Orient, the people of Israel held an extraordinary eminence in the writing of history, in regard to both its antiquity and its faithful narration of the facts (ob fidelem rerum gestarum relationem). Such high quality, indeed, is what one can deduce from the charism of divine inspiration and from the specifically religious finality of biblical history (ex peculiari historiæ biblicæ fine, qui ad religionem pertinet). 34

        In other words, the Pope regards it as evident that the religious finality of biblical history, far from rendering the human authors more lax or indifferent regarding 'mere facts,' was an added motivation for recording the facts faithfully. History written for God had to be history written as truthfully as possible! In the next paragraph, when Pius XII goes on to stress that the discernment of literary genres cannot be neglected without great harm to exegesis, the one illustration he gives makes his thinking on this point very clear: such discernment is essential, not - as we are assured today - in order to relieve exegetes of the task of defending each specific historical affirmation in Scripture (the supposedly out-dated 'concordism'), but precisely in order to help them fulfil that task more effectively:

Indeed - to give just one example - it not uncommonly happens that when certain critics charge the sacred authors with error in some historical matter, or with having reported something incorrectly, the alleged mistake turns out to be nothing other than a case of that native manner of speaking or narrating which the ancients customarily used in their human ways of exchanging ideas, and which were in truth regarded as legitimate in common usage. ... Thus, assisted by this knowledge and correct evaluation of these ancient forms of speaking and writing, it will be possible to answer many objections raised against the truth and historical reliability of the Divine Writings (multa dissolvi poterunt, quæ contra Divinarum Litterarum veritatem fidemque historicam opponuntur). No less valuable will such studies be as a means of arriving at a fuller and more luminous understanding of the inspired writers' thinking. 35

        The Pope also mentioned in this context "certain characteristics typical of Semitic languages, certain approximate, hyperbolical, and sometimes even paradoxical forms of expression, which serve to impress what is said more deeply on the mind." 36 So non-revolutionary was all this that Fr. Jean Levie felt constrained to express a certain disappointment at the Pope's caution:

There is in fact in the encyclical a real disproportion between the breadth of the principles laid down (la largeur des principes posés)- which deeply affect extensive and essential parts of the Old Testament - and the simplicity, indeed, banality, of the examples adduced by way of illustration (la simplicité, voire la banalité des exemples de-ci de-là allégués); without doubt this page was attentively examined and carefully reworked - as was appropriate - while taking into account various opinions, and with the concern to exclude in advance every excessive interpretation (et avec le souci d'écarter d'avance toute interpretation excessive). 37

        Fr. Levie insinuates here his personal opinion that the principle of literary genres has more radical implications for Old Testament history (today the New Testament is treated similarly); he is honest enough to recognize, however, that Pius XII, whose mind is manifested in the very cautious illustrations he gives of that principle in Divino afflante Spiritu, is not opening any new doors along those lines, and "in no way intends to give a carte blanche to exegetes as regards the extent and breadth of the applications." 38

        This is not to imply that Pius XII was ruling out the idea that longer passages, or even whole books, of the Old Testament (as distinct from mere words and phrases here and there) might also be shown, in the light of solid argumentation, to belong to a genre less strictly historical than classical commentators had supposed. But the point we are stressing is that this had already been recognized in principle by the Church's Magisterium ever since 1905, and was by no means an innovation of Pius XII. Fr. Alonso Schökel, for instance, in his memorable 1960 enunciation of the revisionist thesis, 39 hinted that one of the "novelties" now able to enter the exegetical door thanks to Divino afflante Spiritu was permission to question the full and literal historicity of the Book of Judith. But Msgr. Romeo's rebuttal pointed out that the literary genre of this book had long been recognized as obscure and debatable by approved Catholic authors, and that already in 1933 the renowned biblical scholar G. Ricciotti "was able to write ... with full ecclesiastical approval: 'Today scholars in every field agree on this as a minimum, that the Book of Judith makes no sense if we interpret it literally.'" 40

        That Pius XII did not teach anything "revolutionary" in his 1943 encyclical is also borne out by the best-informed commentary on Divino afflante Spiritu that has ever been published, namely, an article by Father (later Cardinal) Augustin Bea which appeared in La Civiltà Cattolica in the same issue as the Italian version of the encyclical itself, thus being clearly presented as an authoritative commentary. 41 It is quite likely that the Pope himself read Fr. Bea's article before it was published. The latter was at that time Rector of the Pontifical Biblical Institute and was in constant personal contact with Pius XII by virtue of being his regular confessor. Moreover, it was no secret in Rome that he had been the main biblical scholar whose assistance the Pontiff had sought in the preparation and drafting of his new document on Scripture.

        Nobody, therefore, was better situated than Fr. Bea to know and explain what purposes the Pope had in mind in promulgating Divino afflante Spiritu. Yet he gave not the slightest hint that Pius XII had any intention of "opening doors" that had hitherto been closed to Catholic exegetes by the Magisterium. On the contrary, Bea began his article by pointedly affirming that Providentissimus Deus, the 50th anniversary of which was the occasion for the new encyclical, "fixed for all time the fundamental lines of biblical studies in the Catholic Church." 42

        Bea's commentary is basically a review of the progress made in the last half-century along those same "fundamental lines," and stresses that the main difference between Divino afflante Spiritu and Leo XIII's great encyclical is one of emphasis and tone. The new document, Bea observes, is indeed more serene and less apologetic in tone than Providentissimus, precisely because the principles laid down by Pope Leo to defend Scripture against the nineteenth-century rationalist attack have since been faithfully and fruitfully implemented by a generation or more of erudite studies under the vigilance of the Magisterium. Now that so many old and new objections to the truth of Scripture have thus been effectively answered, Pius XII feels it opportune to confirm this progress of the last fifty years, and to stress the importance of recent scientific advances (in textual criticism, archaeology, linguistics and knowledge of ancient Near Eastern literary forms) not only for their value in defending biblical inerrancy, but now, more positively, as a means of understanding the sacred texts more profoundly. 43

        Far from providing any support for today's conventional wisdom, in which Pius XII is depicted as a proto-liberal "mainly" or "primarily" concerned to combat the dire threat to 'critical-scientific' exegesis posed by 'ultra-conservative' and 'fundamentalist' obscurantism, Bea spends only half a page in commenting on the encyclical's brief warnings about a false "mystical" reading of Scripture, and simply mentions in passing, without comment, the Pope's admonition against an over-zealous suspicion of anything new. 44 That amounts to just 5% of his thirteen pages of commentary. Bea concludes his article with words which, by stressing Divino afflante Spiritu's continuity with the unchangeable teaching of previous Successors of Peter, present the encyclical unmistakably as a decidedly non-revolutionary document. He affirms that "its doctrine will certainly enter into the series of those pontifical documents which will forever remain the guide and norm of biblical teaching." 45

        Someone might wish to argue that the publication of Divino afflante Spiritu in 1943, considered as a historical event within a continuing nexus of causes and effects, proved during the succeeding years to be an important factor favouring a far wider circulation of form-critical and other radical biblical theories than was ever possible in the Catholic Church before World War II. Similarly, it is not merely arguable, but undeniable, that Vatican Council II has, de facto, been the historical occasion for a great relaxation of Church discipline and for a radical pluralism of doctrinal theses, liturgical practices and ecclesial lifestyles that was unheard of before the Council. But just as this by no means proves that such a state of affairs was the one intended and objectively inculcated by the Council Fathers in their sixteen magisterial documents, so the historical effects of Divino afflante Spiritu - whatever careful research may reveal them to have been - cannot simply be presumed, by virtue of their de facto occurrence, to reflect faithfully the objective teaching of that encyclical.

        Now, the thesis sustained in the present essay is that, if any "revolutionary" trends in post-war Catholic exegesis were in part caused by Divino afflante Spiritu, they were in no way whatever justified by that encyclical, but rather, resulted from selective and abusive interpretations of it. But the revisionist thesis commonly advanced by modern biblical scholars is precisely the opposite of ours: such scholars maintain that the kind of thoroughgoing criticism they now apply to both Old and New Testaments - "revolutionary" indeed when compared with the traditional Catholic exegesis that prevailed until about mid-century - is in fact a perfectly faithful application or logical outcome of hermeneutical principles consciously laid down by Pius XII, who, we are told, knowingly permitted - and even mandated! - what earlier Popes such as Benedict XV had forbidden. Fr. Raymond Brown, for instance, manages to find in Pius XII's teaching a flat contradiction of his predecessors' position: we are told that his pontificate saw "a complete about-face in attitude" on the part of the Magisterium, given that Divino afflante Spiritu "instructed Catholic scholars to use the methods of scientific biblical criticism that had hitherto been forbidden them." 46

        It should be clear from the documentary evidence already adduced that all such self-serving interpretations of the encyclical are flagrantly unhistorical. Let Pius XII himself have the last word in this regard. Only seven years after Divino afflante Spiritu, his encyclical on contemporary errors in theology and exegesis denounced, among other things, those currents of scholarship which minimized or restricted biblical inerrancy, belittled the approved Patristic and ecclesial interpretations of Scripture, and abandoned the very attempt to defend the truth of the literal sense of Old Testament history. 47 Having drawn attention to these opinions - and they are much the same as those now propagated in the name of Divino afflante Spiritu! - the Pope went on:

Everyone can see how far these opinions depart from the principles and hermeneutical norms justly laid down by Our predecessors of happy memory: by Leo XIII in the encyclical Providentissimus Deus, by Benedict XV in the encyclical Spiritus Paraclitus, and in Our own encyclical Divino afflante Spiritu. 48

(to be continued)

N.B: Translations from Latin, Italian and French originals in this paper are those of the present writer unless otherwise stated.

1. Cf. AAS 12 (1920), pp. 385-422, and EB 440-495. "Enchiridion Biblicum," abbreviated as "EB" in this paper, refers to the latest edition of this standard collection of Church documents on Scripture: Enchiridion Biblicum: Documenta della Chiesa sulla Sacra Scrittura, Bologna, Edizioni Dehoninane Bologna, 1994 (second bilingual edition, in Latin and Italian). The numbers refer to the paragraphs, not the pages, of EB.

2. J.A. Fitzmyer (ed.), The Biblical Commission's Document, "The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church": Text and Commentary (Rome: Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 1993), p. 20, n. 10.

3. For typical expositions of this interpretation of the recent history of Catholic biblical studies, see R.E. Brown, The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus (New York: Paulist Press, 1973), pp. 3-9; also R.E. Brown & T.A. Collins, "Church Pronouncements," Jerome Biblical Commentary (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1969), pp. 624-626; New Jerome Biblical Commentary (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1990), pp. 1167-1168.

4. Cf. L. Alonso Schökel, "Dove va l'esegesi cattolica?", La Civiltà Cattolica, III, quad. 2645, 3 September 1960, pp. 449-460. Fr. Alonso claimed that back in 1943 Pius XII himself "was very conscious of opening a new and wide door through which many novelties would be entering the precincts of Catholic exegesis - novelties that would have surprised excessively conservative minds (... si rese ben conto di aprire una nuova ed ampia porta, e che attraverso di essa sarebbero entrate nel recinto dell'esegesi cattolica molte novità, che avrebbero sorpreso gli animi eccessivamente conservatori)" (p. 456).

5. Another prominent Scripture scholar, Msgr. Antonino Romeo, quickly published a detailed and indignant rebuttal of Fr. Alonso's thesis ("L'enciclica 'Divino afflante Spiritu' e le 'Opiniones Novæ,'" Divinitas, 4 [1960], pp. 387-456). This heated exchange produced repercussions which echoed around Rome and abroad for years afterwards.

6. As Fr. Fitzmyer rightly observes, "That encyclical responded in part to problems that were raised by the rationalistic interpretation of the Bible in the nineteenth century and to many historical and archaeological discoveries, scientific advances, progress in textual criticism, and by the comparative study of ancient religions. But Leo XIII was also moved in part by a desire 'to give an impulse to the noble science of Holy Scripture and to impart to Scripture study a direction suitable to the needs of the present day'" (op. cit., pp. 17-18).

7. Fitzmyer, op. cit., pp. 19-20.

8. In the latest edition of the Enchiridion Biblicum (cf. note 1 above), all the early decrees of the Pontifical Biblical Commission are reproduced in full, together with Pope St. Pius X's Motu Proprio Præstantia Scripturæ (18 November 1907), which declares the Commission's decisions "binding in conscience on everyone (universos omnes conscientiæ obstringi officio)" (EB 271). No subsequent official document has ever hinted at any rescinding of any of these decisions: they are simply no longer enforced. (The Commission's 1948 Letter to the Cardinal Archbishop of Paris on the early chapters of Genesis made it clear, in response to the Archbishop's request that one or more of the early decisions be rescinded, that the 1905, 1906 and 1909 decisions still remained in force. Cf. EB 579.) Indeed, Vatican II cited the Commission's Response of 18 June 1915 on the nature and effects of Scripture's divine authorship - obviously considering it still valid (cf. note 1 to Dei Verbum, 11, citing EB 420 {415 in 1994 edn.}).

        It is sometimes said that Pius X himself quickly mitigated his initial rigour in the subsequent Motu Proprio Illibatæ custodiendæ of 29 June 1910, which promulgated the text of an oath to be taken by all those about to receive doctoral degrees in Sacred Scripture. In this text the words of the 1907 Motu Proprio are included in the oath, but with a slight change: the decrees of the Biblical Commission now said to be binding in conscience are those "pertaining to doctrine (ad doctrinam pertinentibus)" (EB 341). Thus, it is said, the Pope was already in effect ruling that every exegete could henceforth feel free to dissent from past (and future) decrees of the Commission in matters which he might feel do not involve doctrine of faith and morals. But this cannot be the true interpretation of the 1910 Motu Proprio, because: (a) it would be absurd to suppose that the post-1910 decisions of the Commission, worded in exactly the same form as those before 1910 (i.e., with clear-cut affirmative and negative answers as to what opinions could be sustained) were intended to be subject to the personal judgment of each exegete; (b) the Commission itself continued to regard the 1907 Motu Proprio as still in force even after its 1910 counterpart, citing the wording of the former (i.e., without the three additional words) as binding in a 1923 decree (cf. EB 503); and (c) it was not until 1954 that the Biblical Commission considered the proposal - supported by its Prefect, Cardinal Eugene Tisserant - of limiting the binding force of the previous decrees in this way (cf. F. Spadafora, Leo XIII e gli Studi Biblici, Rovigo, Istituto di Arti Grafiche, 1976, p. 178). The Commission in plenary session actually rejected this proposal, but in 1955 the Secretary and Undersecretary of the Commission both published articles claiming that its decrees could be considered no longer binding except insofar as faith and morals might be involved. This was considered by some to be "semi-official" (cf. ibid., 178-180, and Fitzmyer, op. cit., p. 21, n. 11), even though these articles have no juridical force whatever. The true import of the altered wording in the later Motu Proprio comes to light when it is recalled that by 1910 it was foreseen that the Biblical Commission would sometimes be bringing out purely administrative documents, like the 1911 decree setting out examination procedures for degrees in Scripture (cf. EB 344-382). It appears that the words "pertaining to doctrine" (i.e., to biblical interpretation as such) were added to the 1907 wording in the 1910 oath simply in order to exclude such merely administrative documents from the category of those which were binding in conscience on exegetes.

9. Fitzmyer, op. cit., p. 20, n. 10.

10. Many theses were censured in decrees of the early Pontifical Biblical Commission; but such decrees did not of themselves silence any particular author or prohibit any particular book. Indeed, of all the thousands of works on Scripture published round the Catholic world throughout that pre-1943 period, only four books and two articles were ever specifically censured by name in decisions published by the Holy See. This seems a very modest tally of book-bannings for a Magisterium which was supposedly spreading "fear," "suspicion" and a "dark cloud of reactionism" which is "difficult ... for us today to realize." Fr. Fitzmyer seems not to have given much thought to the possibility that most Catholic exegetes of that period simply gave their assent to the Magisterium's teachings on Scripture in a spirit of humility, thus continuing their scholarly labours with a sense of being assisted, rather than "stifled," by those teachings. (The four books reprobated by name were: Holzhey's Kurzgefasstes Lehrbuch on the O.T.; Tillmann's Die Heilige Schrift des Neuen Testament; {both condemned in 1912; cf. EB 400a}; Brassac's Manuel Biblique, condemned by the Holy Office in 1923 {cf. EB 497-504}; and Schmidtke's Old Testament history entitled Die Einwanderung Israels in Kanaan, censured by the Biblical Commission's response of 27 February 1934 {cf. EB 515-519}. In all cases the principal charge was that the authors had failed to uphold the integral historicity and inerrancy of the biblical accounts they expounded. The two articles censured {both in 1919} were on the authorship of the Pentateuch: one was "Moïse et Josué" in Dictionnaire apologétique de la foi catholique and the other was "Moïse et le Pentateuque" in Revue du Clergé français {cf. EB 439s}).

11. This fine monthly magazine of Catholic apologetics and evangelization is edited by Karl Keating, whose best-selling book Catholicism and Fundamentalism (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989) is one of the works mentioned by Fr. Fitzmyer as examples of a new trend which he finds disturbing and describes as follows: "Unfortunately, Catholics in recent times have been developing their own form of fundamentalist reading of the Bible" (op. cit., p. 107, and cf. n. 143 to that page). These recent Catholic apologetic movements, which have arisen in the last decade or so in response to the renewed and aggressive challenge of Protestant fundamentalist proselytism, customarily proceed by assuming as common ground with their opponents the historicity of the biblical records, disputing only the anti-Catholic interpretation of those records. In particular, they share with their sectarian adversaries the belief - which indeed is the authentically Catholic one - that the Gospels in their canonical form are historically reliable accounts which always tell us the honest truth about what Jesus really did and said (cf. Vatican II, Dei Verbum, 19, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, passim). But, for Fr. Fitzmyer, this belief held by the new Catholic apologists is one of the reasons for branding them as "fundamentalists," for one of fundamentalism's deficiencies, he tells us, is that it "equates the final stage of the gospel tradition (what the evangelists wrote down, ca. A.D. 65-95) with the first stage of it (what Jesus of Nazareth did and said, ca. A.D. 1-33). Consequently, it ignores the way the first Christian communities understood the impact produced by Jesus and his message" (op. cit., p. 106). At that point Fr. Fitzmyer recommends as a commentary on such "dangerous" and "pre-critical" fundamentalism (ibid., pp. 106-108) a group of works which include a book by the Episcopalian Church's most notoriously radical bishop, John S. Spong, entitled Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: a Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture (ibid., p. 106, n. 141).

12. Op. cit., p. 20.

13. Ibid., pp. 18-19.

14. Cf. ibid., p. 19, n. 9.

15. Cf. EB 538.

16. "... spiritualem quamdam et mysticum, ut aiunt, interpretationem" (EB 552).

17. "... strenuorum in vinea Domini operariorum" (EB 564).

18. "... qui quidem ab illo haud satis prudenti studio abhorrere debent, quo quidquid novum est, ob hoc ipsum censetur esse impugnandum, aut in suspicionem adducendum" (ibid).

19. Op. cit. (cited in n. 3 above), p. 626.

20. R.E. Brown, op. cit. (cited in n. 3), p. 13.

21. Ibid., pp. 13-14.

22. Cf. the Pontifical Biblical Commission's Letter to the Bishops of Italy, Un opusculo anonimo denigratorio ("An anonymous and defamatory pamphlet") (20 August 1941), EB 522-533. Because of their doctrinal defects, Fr. Ruotolo's own 13 volumes of Scriptural commentaries (Genesis to Sirach), entitled La Sacra Scrittura, psicologia-commento-meditazione, had been placed on the Index of Forbidden Books donec corrigatur ("until corrected"). Cf. AAS 32 (1940), p. 554.

23. The letter admitted that even the inept way in which this anonymous diatribe was presented had probably been sufficient to demonstrate immediately to many or most Bishops that it was something inconsequential, and "could well dispense one from making further remarks about it" (potrebbero dispensare da altri rilievi). However the letter went on to explain that the Commission was taking the trouble of responding to the pamphlet in case "some Shepherd or other" (qualche Pastore) might have been disturbed by its denunciations. Cf. EB 522.

24. Unfortunately, this historically unfounded view has succeeded in distorting the official English translation of Pope John Paul II's allocution of 23 April 1993 celebrating the 100th anniversary of Providentissimus Deus and the 50th of Divino afflante Spiritu (EB 1239-1258). The allocution is reproduced at the beginning of the Vatican-published booklet giving the text of the Biblical Commission's 1993 document (The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1993). On p. 9 of the booklet, as in Fitzmyer, op. cit., p. 3, we read that His Holiness said: "Divino afflante Spiritu was primarily concerned with defending Catholic interpretation from attacks that opposed the use of science by exegetes and that wanted to impose a non-scientific, so-called 'spiritual' interpretation of Sacred Scripture." The word "primarily" is an unjustifiable translation of the French original, the word davantage, which means "rather," or "more" (correctly translated into Italian as piuttosto in EB 1241). The context of the Pope's observation is a passage wherein he is comparing a certain part of Pius XII's encyclical (not the whole document) with the corresponding part of that of Leo XIII, namely, "the polemical, or to be more exact, the apologetic part of the two Encyclicals." John Paul II says that while the apologetic aspect of Providentissimus Deus was concerned "to protect Catholic interpretation of the Bible from the attacks of rationalists," that of Divino afflante Spiritu "was more (davantage) concerned" with protecting it from the opposite sort of attacks, namely, those "that oppose the use of science by exegetes." While the Holy Father alludes to the anti-scientific pamphlet by Fr. Ruotolo, he never says that rebutting it was the "main" or "primary" concern of his predecessor in writing Divino afflante Spiritu.

25. See p. 9 below.

26. "... ce n'est pas cet incident local qui a motivé, pour l'essentiel, la publication de l'encyclique 'Divino afflante Spiritu'." J. Levie, "L'Encyclique sur les Études Bibliques" (Part I), Nouvelle Revue Théologique, Vol. 68, No.6, Oct. 1946, p. 652.

27. Cf. EB 565. In speaking of these "few" passages whose meaning has already been decided, Pius XII says he is speaking of the "legal, historical, sapiential and prophetic" books. This choice of words suggests that he had in mind principally the Old Testament.

28. Cf. EB 555-561.

29. Cf. EB 539-545.

30. "... progressiste, élargissante," see Levie, op. cit., p. 655.

31. "C'est la victoire de cette seconde mentalité, déjà virtuellement acquise depuis bien des années, que consacre l'encyclique" (op. cit. note 26 above, Part II, Vol. 68, No.7, Nov.-Dec. 1946, p. 781).

32. "Certes le progrès est dans la même ligne et sans contradiction aucune; dès 1905 certaines applications du principe des genres littéraires avaient été reconnues légitimes; mais ce n'est qu'en 1943 qu'il est proposé formellement par l'autorité elle-même comme le grand moyen de 'résoudre beaucoup d'objections contre la vérité et la valeur historique des Saintes Lettres'" (Levie, op. cit., p. 782 - emphasis in original).

33. Cf. the Pontifical Biblical Commission's response of 23 June 1905, dealing with "narratives which are historical only in appearance" (EB 161). The Commission decided that as a rule the existence of such genres should not be admitted in Scripture, but it allowed that there might be exceptions, if it could be proved with solid arguments that in particular books or passages "the inspired writer did not intend to write history in the true and proper sense."

34. Divino afflante Spiritu, EB 559.

35. Ibid., EB 560.

36. Ibid., EB 559.

37. Levie, op. cit., pp. 787-788 (emphasis added).

38. "... n'entend nullement donner carte blanche aux exégètes quant à l'étendue et à la largeur des applications" (ibid., p. 788).

39. Cf. note 4 above.

40. Cf. Alonso, op. cit., p. 457, and Romeo, op. cit., pp. 434-435, n. 113 (cited in notes 4 and 5 above). Ricciotti was undoubtedly referring to such facts, for instance, as that the Book of Judith depicts Nebuchadnezzar as king of Assyria, living at Nineveh (1:1), when he was in fact King of Babylon - and at a time when Nineveh had already been destroyed (in 612 B.C.) by his father Nabopolassar. Furthermore, Judith 4:3 and 5:19 state that by the time the events described in the book took place, the Jews had already returned from the Babylonian exile. But that return was in fact nearly a century after the fall of Nineveh. These elementary historical facts would surely have been well-known to the ancient scholars who admitted Judith to the canon, so it seems entirely plausible to maintain that certain striking discrepancies from history were deliberately included as a literary device for letting readers know that the book is not intended as true history, even though it would almost certainly have a historical basis. The commentary on Judith in A. Jones (ed.), The Jerusalem Bible (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1966) states: "The author seems deliberately to have defied history to distract the reader's attention from the historical context and focus it exclusively on the religious conflict and outcome" (p. 603).

41. Cf. A. Bea, "L'enciclica 'Divino afflante Spiritu,'" La Civiltà Cattolica, No. IV, quad. 2242, 10 November 1943, pp. 212-224.

42. "... fissò per sempre le linee fondamentali dello studio biblico nella Chiesa cattolica" (ibid., p. 212).

43. Cf. ibid., pp. 216-217.

44. Cf. ibid., pp. 220-221. Fr. Jean Levie, whom no one will accuse of having been on the conservative side of biblical scholarship, also recognized in his 1946 article that Fr. Ruotolo's recent attack on approved scientific exegesis had no significant parallels outside Italy and was not a major factor motivating Pius XII's encyclical. He wrote: "...this local incident was not the essential motivation for the publication of the encyclical Divino afflante Spiritu (ce n'est pas cet incident local qui a motivé, pour l'essential, la publication de l'encyclique 'Divino afflante Spiritu')." Op. cit. (Part I), p. 652.

45. "... entrerà certamente nella serie di quei documenti pontifici, che rimarranno per sempre guida e norma dell'insegnamento biblico" (Bea, op. cit., p. 224).

46. Brown, op. cit., p. 4.

47. Cf. Encyclical Humani generis (12 August 1950), EB 613.

48. Ibid.

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