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No. 111Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study ProgramMay 2004


by John F. McCarthy

27. An Evolving Church? In viewing today the aims of Modernism as described in the Encyclical (see par. 13 above), we are aware that Scholastic philosophy is largely absent in many faculties of the Church today, that some Catholic Scripture scholars and theologians have been calling for a revision of the dogmatic teachings of the Church to correspond with what historical critics say is now known about the formation of the Scriptures, and that, in recent decades, the teaching of the dogmas of the Church has been downplayed in many catechetical programs in favor of the mere cultivation of attitudes as opposed to the conveyance of doctrinal formulas. Whether these phenomena of our present time reflect mediately or immediately the project of Modernism described in the Encyclical is a question that deserves study and meditation. Are there really any "laws of evolution" that could be functioning within the Church which, for the Modernist, "may be checked for a while but cannot be ultimately destroyed" (Pascendi 24-27, see par. 10 above)? Does the renewed emphasis on the secularization of society in the Western world stem wholly or even in part from a Modernist outlook on reality, and can some of the changes effected by interested parties upon the life of the Catholic Church in the implementation of the Second Vatican Council to any extent be traced to the influence of Modernist thinking within and without the Church? The key ideas of Modernism that may be suspect of lurking behind these changes are the superiority of modern man as the culminating product of evolution, denial of the real objective existence of God, and the dominating role of religious fantasy in the rise of religion.

28. Overt Modernism Beheaded. Undoubtedly, the writings of some influential non-Catholic Modernists and other Rationalists from the 1890s onward had then and continue to have now more than a little influence upon the thinking of many Catholic believers and writers. But if, to be a Modernist, a Catholic needs to possess all of the essential characteristics listed in encyclical Pascendi, or in the decree Lamentabili, or in the Oath against Modernism, then few, if any, would qualify. Therefore, in surveying possible signs of Modernism in the Church of our day, it seems important to keep in mind the additional words of Pascendi, where Pope Pius X expresses his sadness at the sight of so many other Catholics who, after having breathed in an atmosphere poisoned by Modernist ideas, treat biblical matters upon Modernist principles and write history with the studied intent to disparage the Church (Pascendi 43, see par. 16 above). Certainly, many Catholic dissenters of today are calling for radical changes of various kinds in the Church, but without claiming that God and all the other objects of Catholic faith have arisen purely from a subconscious religious instinct. Some deny the historicity of various events described in the Bible, but without claiming that God and all the other objects of Catholic faith have arisen purely from a subconscious religious instinct or calling for the removal of everything supernatural from our understanding of the Bible or of Catholic belief and teaching. Many accept biological evolution as a fact of nature without denying that the world was created by God, and some go on to advocate changes in the dogmatic and moral teaching of the Church, as though implying that the Church and her teachings are also evolving, but without actually affirming such an evolution or denying all objective truth in these teachings. In this sense they are not Modernists. But it is true also that most Catholics, even most educated Catholics, are not very philosophical in their thinking, and so it happens that Catholic dissenters are often working under the control of philosophical principles of which they may not even be aware, and that is what seems often to be the case in the present situation. Overt Modernism in the Catholic Church was effectively beheaded by the pastoral zeal of Pope Pius X, but out of the resulting situation in the Church there has grown up a movement of radical pluralism that has many of the practical characteristics described as Modernist in the anti-Modernist documents of the Holy See, but which lacks explicit profession or possibly even awareness of the theoretical elements of Modernism, such as the presumed intellectual supremacy of the thinking of modern men over the thinking of all pre-modern men (generic Modernism), and the belief that all religion stems from a subconscious and unscientific need to predicate the existence of God arising from a sub-rational religious instinct imbedded in the pure subjectivity of man (the specific Modernism of the early twentieth century).

29. Radical Pluralism in the Church Today. There tends to be, in the radical-pluralist Catholic of today, a certain feeling of the superiority of his modern world-view over the traditional outlook of the Church, not really because he is "a post-Conciliar Catholic," as he might claim, but rather because he adheres subconsciously to various non-traditional ideas that anteceded the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and which have an implicit link of origin with currents of thought that helped to produce the system of Modernism described in Pascendi. Contemporary reformers of the Church whose thinking coincides with some of the Modernist aims pointed out in the Encyclical, such as contempt for many of the external devotions approved by the Church or advocating the weakening of the power of the Pope and of the Holy See (Pascendi 38, see par. 13 above) are usually not Modernists, but they may be unwittingly dependent upon Modernist principles. The manner in which many have taken the actual provisions of the Second Vatican Council as being mere points of departure for a more radical revision of Catholic belief and practice, where the Council is seen as having simply begun to open doors of change that these reformers are intent upon opening ever more widely and beyond the limits set by the Council, may indicate radical pluralism of a Modernist bent. Such contemporary dissenters seem to be feeling this need of radical reform, not on the basis of reasoned truth, but rather as an emotion rising from a subconscious drive that other Catholic radical pluralists share with them and which is not distinct from the drive of an undetached mind and of undisciplined feelings tempted by the fascinating but unanalyzed idea of an essentially evolving Church. They are in some way making themselves the criterion of truth (cf. Pascendi 34, par. 12 above). For instance, those contemporary radical reformers who subscribe uncritically to the Darwinian theory of biological evolution are subconsciously being pulled toward the idea that everything else in the world is also evolving, unless they have trained themselves to resist this tendency to "go with the flow" and have taken a studied position for and against the theory. Again, if they are theistic evolutionists, they have not denied the existence of God, but any concrete presence of the power of God in the world they tend to make practically irrelevant, unless they have positively found a way to include God’s presence and power in the unfolding of history and of the world, which few of them have done. Some are constantly attacking this or that institution or teaching of the Church according to the unrejected idea lurking in their minds that, if all things in the world are evolving, then all things in the Church are also evolving. Thus, for instance, even though Pope John Paul II has declared definitively that the Church does not have the power to ordain women as priests, some continue to agitate for the ordination of women and many others continue to hope for this, as though, given enough time for the "laws of evolution" to take effect, even the definitive teachings of the Church can eventually be changed. As the Modernists of Pascendi would say to them, "Just keep agitating and the authorities of the Church are bound eventually to give in."

30. From Radical Pluralism to Modernism. A Catholic radical pluralist is a believer who keeps in his mind some system of thought that is radically opposed to his Catholic faith without striving to overcome the errors of the opposing system. By striving to overcome the errors one’s own faith is strengthened, but by not striving to defend one’s faith, the opposing system will grow and become dominant, because its errors are attractive and even fascinating to the undisciplined mind and will. A Catholic will become a Modernist at the moment in which he begins to believe that his modern knowledge of life is different from and superior to what Jesus and the Apostles thought about the meaning of life, or that the dogmas of the Church need to be turned into more modern expressions, or that God has had no active role in the real history of the world and of mankind. A Catholic pluralist becomes a Modernist at the moment in which he comes to believe that God is not truly the Author of the Bible, or that God has no real objective existence outside of himself, or that the Jesus of history was not really God, or that the contents of the Gospels evolved from the evolution of faith, or that the dogmas of the Church are subject to the laws of evolution.

31. Need of a New Apologetics. If we speak about the presence of a radical pluralism which is not Modernist for the simple reason that it does not consciously express any of the essential characteristics of Modernism but does imply them unwittingly, we are describing the presence of many perhaps well-meaning members of the Catholic Church who have not basically thought through the motives for which they are acting. And if this kind of mindlessness is in effect, then a large reason for it is the absence in the Church of a fully adequate apologetics capable of enabling educated Catholics to refute the program of Modernism. Mere prohibition of this program, which was expressed in Lamentabili, Pascendi, and the Oath against Modernism, cannot work successfully over a long period of time if it is not backed up by well-written arguments that fully refute the errors of the system. Certainly, the basic refutation is contained in the papal documents, and laudable efforts were made by many to explain and inculcate this refutation, so that enough information was always at hand for prayerful souls to avoid falling into these errors, but when we survey the prior and subsequent Catholic literature relating to the underlying ideas of this heresy, we find that certain currents of thought which led up to it had for the most part never been adequately refuted by Catholic writers in the thoroughgoing way that was required. By this I mean that the development of modern thinking by philosophers outside of the Church did elicit various critiques and refutations of Modernism on the part of Catholic writers, but painstaking analyses of the sources of Modernism were largely absent. And so these sources continued to grow and become ever more influential in the world at large, and, when they finally broke into the hitherto protected area of the Catholic Church, there was no great apologetic literature on hand to safeguard the members, above all in the area of the interpretation of Sacred Scripture. The various features of Modernism, as presented in the Encyclical Pascendi (see nos. 2-16 above) had been derived from thinkers outside of the Church and then applied by Modernist Catholics to the Catholic situation. What was needed then and what is even more needed now is a serious undertaking on the part of many Catholic writers imbued with the true tradition of philosophy and theology in the Church to analyze completely the most influential works expounding these heterodox systems, retaining whatever elements of truth are in them and rejecting with clear reason their elements of falsity.

32. The Need of Thoroughgoing Critiques. The "poisoned atmosphere" decried in the Encyclical (Pascendi 43, see par. 16 above) is an intellectual atmosphere that has been contaminated by the diffusion of harmful ideas contained in the writings of Rationalist thinkers over the past six centuries and brought to fruit in the heresy of Modernism. As these false ideas came out and gradually developed into what has been styled "modern thought," Scholastic philosophers and theologians systematically countered them with valid arguments, but the false ideas prospered anyhow in the non-Catholic world and soon began more and more to influence Catholic believers, partly due to a lack of thoroughgoing critiques. Of the many false systems of thought that have arisen in modern times we could mention as examples the writings of Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Freud, Jung, Darwin, Schleiermacher, Wellhausen, Gunkel, Heidegger, and Bultmann. The needed critiques would have carefully analyzed the respective writings, refuting the errors and sorting out the elements of truth contained in the false systems, so as to synthesize the elements of truth with the corpus of truth contained in the valid intellectual tradition of the Church. Where could one go, for instance, to find a systematic critique by a Catholic thinker of the writings of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, or Charles Darwin, in which each individual claim of the respective writer had been thought about in a Catholic mental framework, sifted and sorted, and then disproved or fitted into the larger Catholic synthesis? Descartes had something to offer, but his contribution need not have taken the totally idealistic turn that it did in the modern world, if Catholic thinkers had put the proper corrections into his ideas. The schools of psychology of Freud and Jung have wreaked and continue to wreak immense damage upon Western society, to the extent that their ideas are often taken even by educated Catholics to be the gospel truth of mental health, partly because no Catholics have produced adequate critiques of their systems. Evangelical Protestants have produced impressive critiques of Darwinian evolution by compiling scientific evidence against the theory, while most educated Catholics naively believe the theory to be scientifically proven. It is indeed a pity that long ago some Catholic writer did not publish a thoroughgoing critic of Darwin’s Origin of Species and his Descent of Man. And this list of absent thoroughgoing critiques could go on and on.

33. Catholic Historical Critics. The Encyclical observes that the historical-critical findings of the Modernists were but logical conclusions from their philosophical principles (Pascendi 30, see par. 11 above). Historical criticism is today not only active in Catholic biblical and educational circles, it is dominant, but it is by no means obvious that Catholic biblical scholars who are using the methods of historical criticism today are Modernists or are viewed as such by the Hierarchy of the Church. On the contrary, those who practice historical criticism of the Sacred Scriptures are viewed today with favor and esteem by many Catholic bishops and by the Holy See, as can be seen from a document published by the Pontifical Biblical Commission in 1993, entitled The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church. According to this document, "The historical-critical method is the indispensable method for the scientific study of the meaning of ancient texts."1 This judgment is not the official teaching of the Church, because, since 1971, the Pontifical Biblical Commission is no longer an organ of the teaching Church, but is rather "a commission of scholars who, in their scientific and ecclesial responsibility as believing exegetes, take positions on important problems of scriptural interpretation and know that for this task they enjoy the confidence of the teaching office."2 And thus ended in victory the seventy-year battle of Catholic historical critics for the acceptance of their method by the Hierarchy of the Church. But this approval is not exclusive or definitive. In the Preface to the document of 1993, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, President of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, said among other things: "The emergence of the historical-critical method set in motion at the same time a struggle over its scope and over its proper configuration which is by no means finished as yet." He went on to say that in the meanwhile "new methods and new approaches have appeared" and "there are also new attempts to recover patristic exegesis and to include renewed forms of a spiritual interpretation of Scripture." The Commission itself pointed out in the Introduction to this document that "at the very time when the most prevalent scientific method - the ‘historical-critical method’ - is freely practiced in exegesis, it is itself brought into question," to some extent through the rise of "alternative approaches and methods," but also "through the criticisms of many members of the faithful, who judge the method deficient from the point of view of faith," some of whom maintain that "nothing is gained by submitting biblical texts to the demands of scientific method," and who insist that "the result of scientific exegesis is only to provoke perplexity and doubt upon numerous points which hitherto had been accepted without difficulty."

34. The Challenge of Historical Criticism. Catholic historical critics, as a rule, emphasize the human element in biblical inspiration and de-emphasize the divine element, in the sense that they do not present their analyses as fitted into the larger context of Catholic exegetical tradition and of the moral impact of the sacred text upon the reader as this impact is included in the spiritual senses recognized in the interpretations of the Fathers of the Church, but they are not Modernists, because they do not, like the Modernists and other Rationalists, try to eliminate from their historical conclusions every element of the supernatural (Pascendi 9, see par. 4 above). Catholic historical critics maintain that the method of historical criticism can be employed without using any philosophical principles. Thus, the scholars of the reconstituted Pontifical Biblical Commission aver that historical criticism "is a method which, when used in an objective manner, implies of itself no a priori," and again that "For a long time now scholars have ceased combining the method with a philosophical system."3 This is a challenging claim that requires study and verification. In my own studies I have found that Catholic historical critics, while they usually do not express Modernist or Rationalist philosophical principles or draw Modernist or Rationalist conclusions, nevertheless are dependent in their thinking upon some of the Rationalist background and often implicitly seem to set up conclusions that they themselves do not draw. The impression this leaves is that the respective scholars are avoiding the use of any philosophical principles, but a look into the Rationalist writings from which they have ultimately drawn their ideas often shows that their ideas are dependent upon the same principles. This means that, if Catholic scholars are trying to avoid the use of these principles, it is incumbent upon them to clearly and explicitly distinguish their own position and to distance their conclusions from the Rationalism in their sources which has already taken possession of those conclusions and of that area of thought, but this is a step that Catholic historical critics seldom take. Catholic critics do make occasional brief statements countering here and there the stand of a Rationalist historical critic like Rudolf Bultmann or another of the hundreds of Liberal Protestant scholars who now dominate the field of biblical exegesis, but, for the most part, Catholic scholars rarely even cite the Protestant sources in which their ideas were earlier expressed and leave Catholic readers to think that what they say are original ideas of their own. In the Rationalist sources one can see that various conclusions are based upon the presupposition that miracles or anything supernatural could not really have happened, and so, Catholics who repeat some of these conclusions are often left without any credible reason to justify what they are asserting, except to call for belief and trust in "what the Scripture scholars are saying." Thus, to take a frequent example, when a Catholic teacher of the historical-critical school tells a class that Jesus did not really work a miracle in the so-called multiplication of the loaves, expressing a long-standing conclusion of Rationalist exegetes, whose reasoning is based on the principle that miracles cannot happen, as a Catholic he cannot base the conclusion on the impossibility of all miracles, and, therefore, since he frequently has no other solid reason for asserting this, he is forced to tell those who question his teaching that this is simply what the Scripture scholars have concluded and "you just don’t understand."

35. The Neo-Patristic Method. The historical-critical method is singled out in the Encyclical Pascendi as the prime expression and result of Modernism (Pascendi 30-33, see par. 11 above). In the preceding paragraph I have indicated that this is not necessarily true any more. But Catholic historical critics, while they seek to avoid Modernism, do also tend, in keeping with their method, to be highly critical of the text of the Scriptures, and they are usually quite uncritical of the logic of their own method. On the contrary, the neo-Patristic method of interpretation of Sacred Scripture places great emphasis upon the logic of exegetical method, and it is rising in the Church to become, hopefully, the dominant method of biblical exegesis in the twenty-first century. Neo-Patristic exegesis does not ignore the results of historical criticism. It carefully examines the results of historical-critical studies, assimilating elements that are in accord with what it considers to be sound exegetical method and rejecting elements that do not live up to this standard. It begins from a good acquaintance with the approach and content of traditional Catholic exegesis of the Sacred Scriptures. This includes the framework of Scholastic philosophy and theology and of the Four Senses of Sacred Scripture used by the Fathers of the Church and standardized by St. Thomas Aquinas. With this framework in place, neo-Patristic scholars carefully read the significant commentaries of historical critics, facing the challenges to traditional exegesis that these writings pose, and seeking solutions in keeping with Catholic tradition. The result is a solidifying of the Catholic tradition and its augmentation through new knowledge and insights provoked by meeting these challenges. It is a work that should have been done by Catholic historical critics during the whole of the past century, but was largely left undone, because of their growing fascination for the method of historical criticism.

36.The Historical Method. Marie-Joseph Lagrange, founder of the École Biblique of Jerusalem, in 1903 published a book in which he attempted to show "how the historical-critical method could be used in biblical interpretation without any detriment to Christian faith and Catholic life."4 Father Lagrange called his book The Historical Method, above All with Regard to the Old Testament,5 but in his book he did not really analyze the concept of historical method at all. What he did instead was simply to reproduce the thinking of Hermann Gunkel (who had published his famous work on Genesis in 1901) and other Liberal Protestant historical critics, while omitting presuppositions and conclusions that were contrary to Catholic belief, and he called this "historical method." From then on this method began to take hold among Catholic biblical scholars. Lagrange would have done better if, before he began to reproduce the writings of Liberal Protestant historical critics, he had first taken the time to develop a Catholic theory of history to use as a framework of analysis. Thomas Aquinas and other great Catholic theologians had never explicitly developed such a theory, even though they used good method in their historical writing. A Catholic theory of history would have provided clear and exact definitions of such terms as "history," "historical," "historical method," "scientific," "literary form," and "reality." In the absence of precise definitions, Catholic historical critics have been misusing these terms for more than a century.

37. Legends in Genesis. J.A. Howett, author of the article "Abraham" in The Catholic Encyclopedia (vol. 1, 1907), written shortly after Gunkel and Lagrange had published their commentaries, compares the results of archaeology with the results of historical criticism. He says that "there is no doubt that archaeology is putting an end to the idea that the patriarchal legends are mere myth," because "a state of things is being disclosed in patriarchal times quite consistent with much that is related in Genesis, and at times even apparently confirming the facts of the Bible." In contrast with archaeology he notes, without agreeing to this himself, that the idea of legend in the biblical account of Abraham is important because "it is so much discussed by modern critics and they all believe in it." To illustrate this, Howett quotes from the Introduction to the famous Commentary of Hermann Gunkel6 to the effect that "There is no denying that there are legends in the Old Testament." Hermann Gunkel is the founder of form-criticism, the principal expression of historical criticism during the twentieth century. In my study of this Introduction I have found the work of Hermann Gunkel to be replete with Rationalism and biased historical method.7 It is interesting to note that, according to Howett, all historical critics, including, therefore, Catholic historical critics as well, believed, to some degree at least, in the legendary character of the biblical account of Abraham and the other patriarchs of Genesis. They do not seem to have been sufficiently critical of Gunkel’s method or to have possessed an adequate historical method of their own with which completely to sift out the errors in Gunkel’s exposition.

38. The Modernist Exegesis of Hermann Gunkel. Modernism was functional in the form criticism of Hermann Gunkel. In contrast to the viewpoint depicted in the Book of Genesis and underlying the traditional outlook of Catholic faith and Catholic exegetical tradition, form-critic Hermann Gunkel declares: "Following our modern historical world-view, truly not an imaginative construct but based on the observation of facts, we consider the other view entirely impossible." As a modern man, he feels that the extraordinary events recounted in Genesis "contradict our advanced knowledge," to the extent that it would be doing an "injustice" to the text of Genesis if we were to "incorporate it into sober reality."8 It is clear from these words that Gunkel’s judgment is based upon the Rationalist presupposition that miracles and divine interventions could not have happened. This Rationalist premise is confirmed when he says: "We believe God works in the world as the quiet, hidden basis of all things. [ . . . ] But he never appears to us as an active agent alongside others, but always as the ultimate cause of all."9 Gunkel maintains that the patriarchal "legends" of Genesis are poetic, that is, fictitious recastings of vague historical memories, into which later popular elements and figures were interwoven.10 He thinks that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob probably never existed, but, even if they did, what they were like could not have been remembered, because over a period of so many centuries the personal characters of these persons could not have been preserved.11 To conclude this he had to assume that no handwriting was available to these shrewd traders and their successors, that an oral account could not be preserved intact by narrators with good memories, and that there could have been no divine inspiration or help of divine providence. But he had no external evidence to back up these assumptions.

39. The Response of Pope Leo XIII to Modernist Exegesis. In 1893 Pope Leo XIII had pointed out the defects of this method of biblical interpretation where he said that Rationalists (and therefore Modernists also) "deny that there is any such thing as revelation, or inspiration, or Holy Scripture at all; they see instead only the forgeries and the falsehoods of men; they set down the Scripture narratives as stupid fables and lying stories; the prophecies and the oracles of God are to them either predictions made up after the event or forecasts formed by the light of nature; the miracles and the wonders of God’s power are not what they are said to be, but the startling effects of natural law, or else mere tricks and myths; and the Apostolic Gospels and writings are not the work of the Apostles at all."12 At the same time Pope Leo called upon Catholic biblical scholars to rise up in defense of the truth of the Sacred Scriptures and to let their hearts be stirred up with zeal in order to oppose this Rationalist "pseudoscience" with "the ancient and true knowledge which the Church, through the Apostles, has received from Christ, and that Holy Scripture may find the champions that are needed in so momentous a battle."13 Having noted that the method of historical criticism (then known as "higher criticism") "pretends to judge of the origin, integrity, and authority of each Book from internal indications alone," he went on to say that in historical questions "the witness of history is of primary importance," whereas in this matter "internal evidence is seldom of great value, except in confirmation."14

40. The Response of Catholic Scripture Scholars to Modernist Exegesis. This was excellent advice from Pope Leo XIII as to correct historical method, and it was picked up by many Catholic scholars working along the lines of traditional Catholic exegesis, while Catholic historical critics struggled to hold and develop their critical ground, and the historical critics won the battle for the ear of the Hierarchy, not because the former didn't do excellent work in their own right, but rather because they pitched their polemic into accusations of heterodoxy against the Catholic historical critics and failed to carry out the more pressing job of analyzing and refuting in detail and on their own turf the "technical" reasoning and conclusions of the historical critics. Catholic historical critics do not consider themselves to be disciples of Hermann Gunkel, and they do not usually reproduce his Modernist presuppositions, but the fact is that, in the course of more than a century since the publication of his Modernist commentary on Genesis, neither have they produced one detailed analysis of his book, separating out the Rationalism from his exegetical method and expressing a Catholic position that showed the method to be something in itself. The historical-critical scholars of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, in their document of 1993, recall that, before the appearance of the form-criticism of Gunkel, "historical-critical exegesis could often seem to be something which simply dissolved the text." And they go on to say that "This was all the more the case when, under the influence of the comparative history of religions, such as it then was, or on the basis of certain philosophical ideas, some exegetes expressed highly negative judgments against the Bible. It was Hermann Gunkel who brought the method out of the ghetto of literary criticism understood in this way."15 But Gunkel did not in any way bring the historical-critical method out of the ghetto of Rationalism.

41. The Form-Criticism of Rudolf Bultmann. The Pontifical Biblical Commission points out that Rudolf Bultmann and Martin Dibelius introduced the form-criticism of the New Testament, and, in particular, of the Synoptic Gospels, one of whose results has been to demonstrate more clearly "that the tradition recorded in the New Testament had its origin and found its basic shape within Christian community, or early Church, passing from the preaching of Jesus himself to that which proclaimed that Jesus is the Christ." And the Commission expresses regret that "Bultmann combined form-critical studies with a biblical hermeneutic inspired by the existentialist philosophy of Martin Heidegger," so that, "As a result, Formgeschichte [form-criticism] often stirred up serious reservations."16 Now, the historical fact is that the writings of Bultmann from about 1941 onward were immersed in the existentialist philosophy of Martin Heidegger, but his famous History of the Synoptic Tradition, published in 1922, in which he used the method of form-criticism to expound a scathing attack on the historicity of the Synoptic Gospels, contained nothing of the philosophy of Heidegger. Rather, his form-criticism was replete with deductions from the philosophy of Rationalism, and all of his conclusions are based on the assumption that miracles, prophecies, and any intervention of God in human history are absolutely impossible.17 For a long time Catholic historical critics said almost nothing about this devastating book, then, after the publication of Divino afflante Spiritu in 1943, more and more references, mostly of a positive nature, were made by Catholic historical critics to the conclusions of Bultmann in his commentary, but they never were able to put out a precise and detailed refutation of the many fallacies and unfactual statements contained in his reasoning, with the result that, by default, the shadow of Rationalism has continued to hang over much of their work.18 As then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said in 1988 regarding the form-critical works of Bultmann and Dibelius: "But it is likewise true that their basic methodological approaches continue even today to determine the methods and procedures of modern exegesis," and their essential elements "have widely achieved an authority like unto a dogma." Cardinal Ratzinger asked "Why, even today in large part, is this system of thought taken without question and applied?"19

42. Conclusion. Modernism came into the Catholic Church in the late 1800s from the influence of Liberal Protestant biblical scholarship, and it continues to thrive outside of the Church. Modernism remains a threat and a great temptation to Catholics to the extent that they are exposed to its attractive but false ideas and are not prepared to counter them, either because their faith is weak or because they have not been given the arguments to refute it. Catholics who believe in biological evolution can easily begin to believe in an ongoing evolution of the Church and of its dogmas, unless they have trained themselves to resist this temptation. To have an education based on Scholastic philosophy and theology is the best means of understanding and opposing the errors of Modernism. This education would include formation in the traditional Catholic approach to the interpretation of Sacred Scripture, based on the teaching of the Fathers of the Church and of the great Catholic biblical commentators of the past. The historical-critical method, developed in a long tradition by Rationalist and Modernist non-Catholic scholars such as Hermann Gunkel and Rudolf Bultmann, has offered a great challenge to Catholic exegetes and theologians over the past century. Those Catholic scholars who have known how to preserve themselves from Rationalist and Modernist thinking have not fallen into error, but some of the conclusions of modern Catholic biblical scholarship remain ambiguous to the extent that historical-critical scholars have not developed an explicit critique of the Rationalism from which the system was born. What is waiting to be done is the perfecting of an updated Catholic historical approach to the interpretation of the Scriptures which will synthesize into the Catholic exegetical tradition the valid elements in the historical-critical approach, while explicitly rejecting the Rationalism which underlies it. As neo-Patristic scholars strive to meet this challenge, the input of many other Catholic biblical scholars would be of invaluable assistance.

The end.


1. Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (Rome: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1993), p. 34.

2. Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation ..., Preface by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, p. 26.

3. Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation ..., pp.39-40.

4. J.A. Fitzmyer, The Biblical Commissionís Document "The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church," (Pontifical Biblical Institute: Rome, 1995), p. 154.

5. M-J Lagrange, La méthode historique surtout à propos de l'Ancien Testament (Paris, 1903). This work appeared in English two years later under the title Historical Criticism and the Old Testament (London: Catholic Truth Society, 1905). In this celebrated work, Father Lagrange followed the method of Hermann Gunkel uncritically in that he did not undertake the preliminary task of determining from an analytical point of view what is history, and, therefore, what exactly is historical method. In this regard it is interesting to note that, in the title of the English translation of Father Lagrange's work, the translator dropped the expression "historical method."

6. Hermann Gunkel, Genesis (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, first edition, 1901). The references in this article are to the English translation from the third German edition, 1910. Hermann Gunkel, Genesis (Macon Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1997).

7. Cf. J.F. McCarthy, "Rationalism in the Historical-Criticism of Hermann Gunkel," Living Tradition no. 108.

8. Gunkel, Genesis, p. x.

9. Gunkel, Genesis, p. x.

10. Gunkel, Genesis, p. xvi.

11. Gunkel, Genesis, p. lxix.

12. Pope Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus, no. 10, in Claudia Carlen ed., op. cit., vol. 2, pp. 329-330 (Enchiridion Biblicum no. 100).

13. Pope Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus., in Carlen, op. cit., pp. 326, 330 (EB nos. 83, 101-102).

14. Pope Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus, no. 17, in Carlen, op. cit., p. 334 (EB no. 119).

15. Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation ..., pp. 35-36.

16. Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation ..., p. 36.

17. See R. Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition, trans. by John Marsh (Basil Blackwell: Oxford, 1963), throughout. For a longer exposition on Bultmann, see J.F. McCarthy, in Living Tradition 75.

18. A beginning of the needed self-criticism of the historical-critical method, coming almost sixty years late, may be seen in the doctoral dissertation of Reiner Blank at the University of Basel, entitled Analysis and Criticism of the Form-Critical Works of Martin Dibelius and Rudolf Bultmann, in Bo Reicke, ed., Theologische Dissertationen, vol. 16 (Basel, 1981), (recommended by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in Biblical Interpretation in Crisis).

19. J. Card. Ratzinger, Biblical Interpretation in Crisis (lecture delivered on Jan. 27, 1988, at St. Peterís Church, New York, NY).

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