Friday, August 7, 2015

On the Interpretation of Sacred Scripture, or The Fissure of Pope Paul VI

[Note: The following article, which treats the crisis of biblical exegesis in the century preceding Vatican II, is something I originally posted over a year ago on Louie Verrecchio's blog - on April 11, 2014 to be precise, just a few months before I decided to start The Radical Catholic. I hesitated to re-publish it here, mainly because I wanted to undertake a more comprehensive treatment of the subject at some point. I still do. In fact, I've since collected enough raw material for a medium-sized book. But the circumstances of my off-line life have changed recently, and I don't know when I'll be able to get back to working on that project. In the meantime, I present to you, gentle reader, the original unedited article for your consideration. - RC]

It is often claimed that the changes made to the Sacred Liturgy in the wake of Vatican II have had a devastating effect on the life of the Church. That these two things - the liturgical changes and the devastation - were historically concomitant is clear enough. But are the two things connected as a cause to its effect? Or are they both rather effects of some other cause?

For those who have spent any time researching the matter, it is clear that trouble was brewing long before the opening of Vatican II. Many point to Pope St. Pius X’s 1907 encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis as a key document in the Church’s war against Modernism, and rightly so. But that work is often treated in a way which removes it from its historical context.

Even a superficial examination of the reign of Pope St. Pius X reveals a man fighting a veritable hydra of heresy. It is clear that the matter weighed heavily on him, and he devoted a tremendous amount of energy to combating it. But the focal point of his energy is often overlooked: biblical exegesis.

Pascendi has to be read in light of the documents with which it appeared. Of central importance here is the 1907 syllabus of errors, Lamentabili Sane Exitu, nearly all of which treat errors pertaining to the interpretation of Sacred Scripture. Of equal importance are the documents Praestantia Scripturae (1907), which bound all Catholics to submit to the decisions of the Biblical Commission, and Vinea Electa (1909), which established the Pontifical Biblical Institute. Taken together, these documents reveal that Pope St. Pius X clearly recognized biblical exegesis as the crack through which Modernism was attempting to enter the sanctuary of the Church.

Pope St. Pius X was not the first to recognize that biblical exegesis was to be the Modernist’s chosen point of entry in their campaign to "reform" the Church from within. Under Blessed Pope Pius IX, the First Vatican Council promulgated Dei Filius, which forcefully restated the Church’s position on Sacred Scripture. This, however, seems only to have emboldened the Modernists. As a counter-measure, Pope Leo XIII delivered his encyclical Providentissimus Deus in 1893, which deals extensively with the study and interpretation of Sacred Scripture.

Providentissimus, while laudable in its treatment of the potential errors in regards to biblical exegesis, appeared to leave just enough wiggle-room for Modernists to continue spreading their errors. In 1902, Leo XIII delivered Vigilantiae Studiique, which officially instituted the Pontifical Commission for Biblical Studies. This Commission, it was hoped, would close the crack and thwart any future advances of the Modernists in the field of biblical exegesis. As it set about its work, however, one thing became perfectly clear: the extent of the errors promulgated by "Catholic" exegetes had been grossly underestimated. The very foundation of the faith was under full assault, and the Church was doing little to nothing to combat it. This recognition is what prompted Pope St. Pius X to issue Lamentabili Sane Exitu in 1907 and found the Pontifical Biblical Institute in 1909. For the time being, the Church closed ranks behind its leader. It would also prove to be the last time.

The period of superficial calm ended with the death of St. Pius X in 1914, and the Modernists returned to their work with renewed vigor under Pope Benedict XV. Taking advantage of the occasionally vague language of Leo XIII’s Providentissimus, the Modernists pushed ahead with their advocacy of the methods of historical criticism. This prompted Benedict XV to deliver the encyclical Spiritus Paraclitus in 1920, which set about to give an official clarification of the intent behind Leo XIII’s encyclical. Benedict roundly condemned once again the errors of modernist biblical exegesis, but the warnings fell on deaf ears. The modernists held so many key positions in institutions of higher learning that dissent from Rome on this point had become commonplace.

The ultimate turning point in the battle is marked by Pope Pius XII’s 1943 encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu. This document essentially removed every defensive measure the previous Popes had put in place to safeguard Sacred Scripture from the attacks of modernist criticism. It was, by and large, drafted by Cardinal Bea, who served as Rector of the Pontifical Biblical Institute from 1930 to 1949 and was later to become instrumental in the drafting of several key documents of Vatican II, including Nostra Aetate and - most significantly - Dei Verbum, the Council’s "Dogmatic Constitution on Sacred Scripture". It is questionable whether Pius XII had much to do with the Divino at all prior to putting his signature on it. Of course, the person of Cardinal Bea needs little in the way of further introduction. He was Pope John XXIII’s closest adviser, and was appointed as the first President of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity. Cardinal Bea was, indeed, one of the major players in the tragedy of Vatican II.

If there is one central fact which could be used to illumine all of the events leading up to and transpiring after Vatican II, it is this: the members of the Church, clerics and laity alike, have, by and large, lost all sense of supernatural faith in Sacred Scripture. Even among the most staunch supporters of Tradition and the time-honored form of the Divine Liturgy, there are exceedingly few who would maintain anything resembling a traditional interpretation of Genesis 1-11. Countless are those who run to St. Augustine or - incomparably worse - Origen, hoping to find something there which will allow them to read a big bang, billions of years, evolution, and any other modern scientific theory into Sacred Scripture. Little do they realize that, in doing so, they have already capitulated to modernism inasmuch as they grant the underlying thesis that modern science and Sacred Scripture are telling the same story. They are not.

When we give up the plain historical sense of Genesis - the same sense taught by Our Blessed Lord - we open up the very real threat of giving up the plain historical sense of the Gospel. Without a historical Adam, without a historical Eden, without a historical Fall, there is no New Adam, no New Jerusalem, no Eternal Salvation. There’s just a Jewish carpenter’s son preaching social justice in the countryside of Judea 2,000 years ago.

Already now, theologians are working feverishly to remove the biblical foundation of traditional soteriology and eschatology. For example, Benedict XVI made no secret of his desire to rehabilitate the work of the heretic evolutionist Teilhard de Chardin. For anyone familiar with the work of the latter and capable of thinking the system through to its logical consequence, the prospect is horrifying. For the uninformed, let it suffice to say that this is most emphatically not the faith of the Apostles.

So, my question is this: How can the call to traditional liturgy be made without an equally forceful call to traditional exegesis?


  1. Great post. So, are you a young earth creationist?

  2. Hi Oaks,

    I've framed out most of the logical and physical requirements of what's sometimes referred to as fiat creationism - which is, from what I gather, similar but not identical to young earth creationism - but there are some aspects which I have yet to nail down. I do think that historical uniformitarianism is one of the great blunders of modern man, especially in light of the general thrust of Sacred Scripture. And - perhaps unsurprisingly - the method of historical criticism operates, among other things, on the assumption of historical uniformitarianism. I'm a fan of the Roman Theological Forum's attempt to revive the Patristic Method of biblical exegesis, and I'd love to see their work get more support than it currently does. My greatest concern, however, is the trivialization or banalization of Sacred Scripture, and young earth creationism as it is commonly presented is not entirely free of this defect. We need to re-discover the depth and richness of traditional exegesis - particularly Patristic exegesis - every bit as much as we needed to re-discover the depth and richness of traditional liturgy. I can't see us being able right the 'ship of our souls' (St. Gregory of Narek) without it.

  3. Good article, and the Bear think you have everything spot on. The Bear reads his Bible every day, and he has settled on reading it as he has it without giving much thought to debates, which are, in the end, irrelevant and ultimately destructive of the faith. (There are some minor exceptions, such as recognizing Semitic exaggeration of numbers in some army descriptions.)

  4. All Church Fathers and Scholastic Doctors were YEC.

    St Augustine was combatting Egyptian and Sumerian Old Earthers as "bragging about age to seem to be profound", and St Thomas was battling Sorbonne Averroist believers in an Eternal Universe.


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