ORGAN OF THE ROMAN THEOLOGICAL FORUM
|Editor: Msgr. John F. McCarthy, J.C.D., S.T.D.||Distributed several times a year to interested members.|
|Associate Editor: Rev. Brian W. Harrison, O.S., M.A., S.T.D.||Not to be republished without permission.|
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Living Tradition, Oblates of Wisdom, P.O. Box 13230, St. Louis, MO 63157, USA
|No. 60||Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study Program||September 1995|
by Brian W. HarrisonPart I. WAS SPIRITUS PARACLITUS RENDERED OBSOLETE BY DIVINO AFFLANTE SPIRITU?
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. 2In 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.
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. 7At 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. 9Now, 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.
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. 13B. 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.
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). 34In 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. 35The 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). 37Fr. 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
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)