Q — Didn’t The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, published in 1994 by the Pontifical Biblical Commission, reverse the teaching on the inerrancy of scripture found in Providentissimus Deus, On the Study of Holy Scripture, an encyclical published by Pope Leo XIII in 1893?

For example, Providentissimus stated that: “He (the Holy Spirit) was so present to them-that the things which He ordered, and those only, they, first, rightly understood, then willed faithfully to write down, and finally  expressed in apt words and with infallible truth.”

But the instruction states that: It  (fundamentalism) refuses to admit that the inspired word of God has been expressed in human language and that this word has been expressed, under divine inspiration, by human authors possessed of limited capacities  and resources..... For this reason, it tends to treat the biblical text as if it had been dictated word for word by the Spirit.”

A — There can be no disputing the fact that considerable development has taken place in the history of biblical interpretation in the Catholic Church in the last 100 years or so. As Frs. T. A. Collins and R. E. Brown write in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary: “Although all (the 20th century) documents demand respect and understanding, not all these statements require equal adherence” (p. 624). Thus, although Pope Leo XIII, in the encyclical letter Providentissimus Deus (1893) displays a certain hostility to biblical criticism, he notes the importance of scientific linguistic and exegetical studies. One might say that at the turn of the 20th century the official Catholic attitude to the study of holy Scripture was one of cautious advance, and at the same time of a growing appreciation of what had promise for the future.

In 1943, Pope Pius XII published his encyclical on holy Scripture, Divino Afflante Spiritu, often thought of as the Magna Carta of Catholic biblical studies in the 20th century. Now Catholic scholars were encouraged to use all the tools of modern biblical study, including all the apparatus of modern biblical criticism. The encyclical included the following issues: the study of the Bible in its original languages; the proper use of textual criticism; the interpretation of the Bible according to its ancient texts, and not merely the Latin Vulgate, which was to be understood to enjoy a juridical, not a critical authenticity; the interpretation of the Bible according to its literal sense; the role of patristic interpretation in the Church; the character of the sacred human writer; the proper regard for the ancient literary forms that the inspired human author had employed; the application to the biblical text of modern discoveries. This was followed up in 1955 when the secretary of the Pontifical Biblical Commission stated that now Catholic biblical scholars had complete freedom (plena libertate) in respect of the earlier decrees of the commission, especially between 1905-1915, except where they touched on faith and morals. In other words, considerable development has taken place in the way that Catholic scholars approach the interpretation of holy Scripture. This led Frs. Collins and Brown to conclude: “This period saw the renaissance of Catholic biblical studies… The pontificate of (Pope Pius XII) marked a complete about-face and inaugurated the greatest renewal of interest in the Bible that the Roman Catholic Church has ever seen” (p. 625).

This renewal in Catholic biblical studies supported by the magisterium of the church was to continue in 1964 with the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s statement, “The Historical Truth of the Gospels.”  This text did not merely reaffirm the historicity of the canonical Gospels, but also offered a nuanced, enlightened discussion of the three stages of the gospel tradition (from the historical Jesus, through tradition both oral and written, to the final redaction of the Gospels as we now have them). The following year, 1965, saw the promulgation of Vatican II’s “Constitution on Divine Revelation,” and finally in 1993, the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church.” What we are witnessing in all of these documents is an ongoing development and progression of understanding in the church’s approach to holy Scripture. Inevitably, if one contrasts the latest document and what it says with what Pope Leo XIII said in 1893, one will see a difference of perspective as the Holy Spirit leads the church into all truth.