Remnants of Modernism in a Postmodern Age: The Pontifical Biblical Commissions Centennial

On Oct. 30, 2002, the Pontifical Biblical Commission, established by Pope Leo XIII at the very end of his unexpectedly long pontificate, will be 100 years old. Though probably few Catholics have ever heard of this commission, its importance in promoting a deeper understanding of the Bible within the life of the church cannot be overestimated. The history of the commission comes out well in the end, but its progress along the way also included a number of detours and reversals that in many ways reflected the shifting fortunes of the church in the last century.

For better or worse, the Pontifical Biblical Commission will always be remembered for its early responses to a series of critical questions about the Bible posed by Catholic scholars during the first two decades of the 20th century. Unfortunately, these answers created more problems than they solved. Subsequent efforts by the commission and other Vatican officials to explain and clarify these early responses became the source of a long and at times bitter controversy whose final resolution would require Catholic exegetes to exercise the very best of their skills in interpreting the meaning and authority of ecclesiastical documents.


Although not a Roman congregation in the strict sense, the Pontifical Biblical Commission was set up in a way similar to other Curial congregations, with cardinal members assisted by consultors chosen from among the eminent biblical scholars of the time. The mission entrusted to the commission was twofold. On the one hand, its members were to promote the scientific study of the Bible in accordance with the forward-looking directives laid out in Leo XIII’s Providentissimus Deus (1893), and so to encourage Catholic scholars to keep abreast of recent advances in textual criticism, the study of ancient languages and kindred sciences, and historical and archeological research. Regarding the numerous passages of Scripture for which the church had not yet given a fixed and definite interpretation, the commission was to moderate free and open debate among Catholic exegetes before reaching a final resolution of the issues. On the other hand, the commission was also charged with the task of guarding the Bible against false interpretations. In reaction especially to current theories of biblical inspiration that departed from the church’s traditional view, Pope Leo XIII emphasized the need for an active and careful vigilance in safeguarding the authority of the Scriptures, and he called upon the members of the commission to assist the church’s teaching office in declaring what ought to be inviolably maintained by Catholics, what ought to be reserved for further research, and what ought to be left for the judgment of each individual.

In the years immediately after its founding, and especially during the contentious pontificate of Pius X (1903-14), the Pontifical Biblical Commission played a significant role in the church’s efforts to refute and suppress the errors of the Modernists, a term of opprobrium loosely applied to a growing number of scholars both in Europe and the United States whose use of new scientific methods of exegesis often occasioned critiques of the church’s traditional teaching about the inspired and inerrant character of the biblical texts and the circumstances of their composition.

In its role as guardian of the church’s traditional beliefs about the Bible, the commission published in the years 1905-14 a series of 14 responses, which, for many years after, became its hallmark. Formulated as carefully worded questions, to which a simple response of affirmative or negative was given, these responses addressed many of the controverted introductory issues within biblical interpretation, such as the authorship, time of composition and integrity and historical character of the major books of both testaments. They were never considered to be infallible teachings, for generally they did not deal with dogmatic issues pertaining to faith or morals.

Nevertheless, these responses provided important and very influential guidelines for teachers of Scripture in seminaries and universities throughout the church. In almost every case, they laid out the various objections raised by historical criticism and denied that such objections compelled abandonment of traditional opinions. In the main, these conservative responses were so defensive and wary that they left very little room for scholarly investigation of the disputed issues.

Despite the fact that these responses were issued with the full approval and authority of the Holy See, the reception given them was never unproblematic. In 1907 Pius X issued an official papal letter stating that the refusal of some to accept the decisions of the commission with the proper obedience compelled him to affirm and clarify the authority of these responses. Upon noting the practical nature of the recently published decisions, Pius X went on to make the following declaration: We declare and prescribe that all are bound in conscience to submit to the decisions of the Biblical Commission, which have been given in the past and shall be given in the future, in the same way as to the decrees pertaining to doctrine issued by the Sacred Congregations and approved by the Sovereign Pontiff (italics in original).

To those outside the church, the early decisions of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, together with other, equally conservative documents issued by Vatican officials in the years that followed, created the impression of a monolithically reactionary attitude actively resisting the open discussion of biblical issues among Catholic exegetes. Within the church, these same responses were often (mis)used by those who were zealously trying to silence and eliminate every trace of Modernism. This left little or no room for loyal Catholic biblical scholars, like M.-J. Lagrange, O.P., who argued that the methods of historical criticism could be used by faithful Catholics without adopting the rationalist and reductivist presuppositions of those exegetes clearly hostile to traditional Christianity. Sadly, this resulted in the emergence of a repressive atmosphere within the church. The fear of incurring suspicion and, in some cases, ecclesiastical censures deterred many Catholic exegetes from addressing the important issues and questions raised by the advance of historical criticism.

This dark cloud was happily lifted during the pontificate of Pius XII (1939-58), whose numerous efforts to promote among the faithful an active interest in the Bible helped to inaugurate a renaissance in Catholic biblical studies. Chief among Pius XII’s interventions in the promotion of biblical scholarship was the promulgation of his encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu on Sept. 30, 1943. The expressed purpose of the encyclical was to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Providentissimus Deus. While emphasizing the lines of continuity linking this encyclical with the teachings of his predecessors, Pius XII openly acknowledged that much had changed since 1893 in the historical situation confronting the church. In light of the numerous advances in archeology and historical research, together with the rapid and complex development of biblical exegesis, it was now necessary, according to the pope, to confirm, further define and complete several of the recent papal directives on the study of Scripture.

Divino Afflante Spiritu initiated a dramatic shift in the Catholic Church’s estimation of biblical studies. Whereas Leo XIII had permitted scholars to consult the original texts of Scripture for help in clarifying ambiguities in the Vulgate (the authorized Latin translation of the Bible), Pius XII expressly obliged Catholic exegetes to explain the original text, which, having been written by the inspired author himself, has more authority and greater weight than any of even the very best translations, ancient or modern. Following the lead of his predecessors, Pius XII went on to reaffirm the importance of textual criticism and to promote the study of ancient languages and kindred sciences.

Moreover, whereas Leo XIII had intended Providentissimus Deus to provide Catholic scholars with guidelines for the defense of the Scriptures against the attacks of rationalist critics opposed to the church’s dogmatic tradition, Divino Afflante Spiritu was occasioned, at least in part, by a reaction to certain Catholics who sought to steer the faithful away from the scientific method of biblical interpretation in favor of a more meditative or spiritual type of exegesis.

In a section of the encyclical addressed directly to those who rejected the scientific study of the Bible in favor of a more personalist and spiritual exegesis of the text, Pius XII expressly affirmed the primacy of the literal (i.e., historical) sense of Scripture. While making clear that the interpretive task is not complete until the exegete has expounded the theological and moral doctrine contained in the text, the pope insisted that the interpreter must first search out the literal meaning of the words intended and expressed by the sacred writer. By summoning Catholic exegetes to investigate fully the peculiar character and circumstances of the sacred writers, the age in which they lived, the written and oral sources they used and the various literary forms they employed, Pius XII gave a clear endorsement of the methods of historical criticism, the legitimacy of which the church, up until this time, had been reluctant to accept.

Furthermore, Pius XII openly acknowledged that many important questions and difficult problems in the interpretation of the Scriptures remained yet unresolved. He encouraged Catholic exegetes to grapple with these issues and to find satisfying solutions that will be in full accord with the doctrine of the church and at the same time will satisfy the indubitable conclusions of profane sciences. Calling to mind that there were, in fact, very few passages of Scripture whose sense had been defined by the authority of the church and very few instances in which the teaching of the Fathers on a given passage is unanimous, Pius XII did much both to expand the field of Catholic exegesis and to free scholars from a former reluctance to investigate all but the safer topics in biblical criticism.

The lasting effects of Divino Afflante Spiritu were as salutary for the rejuvenation of Catholic biblical scholarship as they were surprising and, at times, unsettling for those who had lived through the difficult years of the Modernist controversy. By bringing to an end the atmosphere of fear and suspicion that prevented Catholic scholars from making full use of the modern tools and methods of historical criticism, Pius XII’s encyclical set the church on a path of biblical scholarship that, in the opinion of many, has borne great fruit.

Included among the lasting effects of Pius XII’s efforts to encourage a full-scale renewal of Catholic biblical studies was a shift in the role assumed by the Pontifical Biblical Commission. Formerly the protective and vigilant guardian of traditional opinions about the Bible, the commission now began to take up the more positive task of promoting a modern approach to biblical scholarship in accordance with the progressive directives expressed in Divino Afflante Spiritu. This shift was first signaled in the commission’s 1941 letter to the Italian bishops, condemning an overly conservative distrust of scientific biblical criticism. The same trend continued in later documents issued by the commission after the promulgation of Divino Afflante Spiritu, including its carefully nuanced letter to Cardinal Emmanuel Suhard of Paris, dated Jan. 16, 1948, which provided liberalizing guidelines for investigating further the sources of the Pentateuch and the literary form of Genesis 1-11. These letters and instructions, remarkably different in form and tone from the terse, largely unqualified responses to juridically worded questions that were issued earlier, gave further proof that a new era had dawned in the development of the church’s efforts to guide and direct the study of the Bible among Catholics. Catholic scholars were now encouraged to reexamine the many difficult questions and issues in biblical interpretation, once avoided as potentially harmful to the purity and integrity of the church’s faith, and to do so by applying the tools and methods of modern historical criticism.

In the closing decades of the 20th century, the various instructions issued by the Pontifical Biblical Commission accurately reflected the church’s growing confidence in the work of Catholic biblical scholars who now hastened to take up and use the tools and methods of modern scientific exegesis. The timely appearance of the commission’s instruction On the Historical Truth of the Gospels (April 1964), which boldly endorsed modern views of the historical development of the Gospel tradition, proved instrumental for the final draft of the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation approved by the Second Vatican Council in November of 1965. As part of his postconciliar reorganization of the Roman Curia, Pope Paul VI reconstituted the Pontifical Biblical Commission in 1971, making it part of, and subordinate to, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The purpose of this change, as Paul VI later explained in a 1974 address to the members of the commission, was not to infringe upon the special character of their research and initiatives but to foster within the internal workings of the Holy See a healthy collaboration...between specialists in exegesis and those of other theological disciplines. Clearly, the time when the church needed a watchdog commission on biblical issues had passed.

The most recent contribution of the Pontifical Biblical Commission is a very expansive document entitled The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church. Published in 1993, the year when many were expecting a papal encyclical on biblical studies to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Providentissimus Deus and the 50th anniversary of Divino Afflante Spiritu, this document offered a broad, descriptive survey of the numerous methods and approaches to biblical exegesis that have developed in recent decades. Although in some cases it expresses reservations about the narrowness of certain methods and the dangers of philosophical presuppositions that exclude the theological import of the biblical texts, the document openly embraces the use of scientific methods to uncover the historical meaning of the Bible and calmly endorses the recently developed hermeneutical strategies that seek to explain the abiding relevance of the Bible for modern believers. The published form of the document included a preface by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who technically remains the commission’s presiding officer. While making clear that since its reconstitution by Pope Paul VI, the Pontifical Biblical Commission is not an organ of the church’s teaching office but rather a commission of scholars who, in their scientific and ecclesial responsibility as believing exegetes, take positions on important problems of scriptural interpretation, he nevertheless praised the document as very helpful for the important questions about the right way of understanding Holy Scripture. Cardinal Ratzinger’s expressed endorsement was echoed in remarks made by Pope John Paul II upon receiving a copy of the completed text during an audience on April 23, 1993. The pope warmly commended the commission for its recent labors in producing a document that he praised for its spirit of openness and its balance and moderation.

Established back in 1902 as part of the church’s efforts to protect the faithful from a hasty and uncritical acceptance of new ways to study the Bible, the Pontifical Biblical Commission now begins its second century of service within a community whose leaders are far less wary of what exegetes will find in the sacred text.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
17 years 1 month ago
An Influencing Factor Over Looked

There was a certain feeling of dissatisfaction on reading Dean Bechard's article in the Feburary 4, 2002 edition of America. The dissatisfaction comes not because of what was said, but what was left unsaid. Namely, that Protestant biblical scholarship had greatly out paced Roman Catholic scholarship of the day and this situation was a source of real influence in bringing about the shift in Roman Catholic Biblical Studies, introduced by Divino Afflante Spiritu. Thanks, however, for an othewise good read!

D. MacPherson, SA Director For Ecumenical and Interfaith Affairs-RC Archdiocese of Toronto

17 years 1 month ago
An Influencing Factor Over Looked

There was a certain feeling of dissatisfaction on reading Dean Bechard's article in the Feburary 4, 2002 edition of America. The dissatisfaction comes not because of what was said, but what was left unsaid. Namely, that Protestant biblical scholarship had greatly out paced Roman Catholic scholarship of the day and this situation was a source of real influence in bringing about the shift in Roman Catholic Biblical Studies, introduced by Divino Afflante Spiritu. Thanks, however, for an othewise good read!

D. MacPherson, SA Director For Ecumenical and Interfaith Affairs-RC Archdiocese of Toronto


The latest from america

Israel’s upcoming election, which takes place on April 9, is casting uncertainty over House of Grace’s future.
Eloise BlondiauMarch 26, 2019
The freshness and wonder, the way that what was there before still exists but is now shot through with newness. The city glitters. Why not? Lent is the season of baptismal preparation as much as penance.
We have experienced God’s benevolent interventions in our own lives.
Lucetta Scaraffia, editor in chief of "Women Church World" a monthly magazine distributed alongside the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, poses in her house in Rome. (AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis, File)
"We are throwing in the towel because we feel surrounded by a climate of distrust and progressive de-legitimization," founder Lucetta Scaraffia wrote in the open letter to Pope Francis.