Today’s important news is that I ate my first ripe tomato of the 2008 season last night. Now we can get back to the Catholics. When last we left off in this little exercise, Pius X had dealt rather, er…firmly…, with Modernism. In addition to excommunicating many of the Modernists, he condemned much of their thought. He also required the clergy to take an anti-Modernist oath. These folks seem to have complied, but not so enthusiastically, and once Pius X passed away things began to change.
So. Pius X was succeeded by Benedict XV in 1914. Benedict XV had been made an archbishop by Pius X, but he was also the target of a report rendered by one the “vigilance” committees. Under his pontificate, some of the worst excesses of the anti-Modernist movement were ended. Pius XI followed Benedict XV in 1922. His attention was pretty well captured by the need to deal with Fascism and Communism. Mit brennender Sorge called Nazism a new form of paganism and Divini Redemptoris condemned Communism. His successor was Pius XII (1939-1958). When folks discuss the response of Christianity to the Holocaust, it is this gentleman who often comes up at some point in the conversation.
And here we again pick up the story of how Catholics deal with scripture…
In 1943 Pius XII published his encyclical Divino afflante Spiritu. Its first purpose was to commemorate the publication of Leo XIII’s Providentissimus Deus, which had recognized significant new results in archeology and philology, but had been cool about higher criticism. In Divino Pius XII once again noted that since the time of Leo XIII there had been significant advances in archeology and languages. The results of this work had a profound impact on how we deal with the OT. Pius XII recognized these changes and cast them as the motivation behind a shift in Catholic study of the Bible:
11. There is no one who cannot easily perceive that the conditions of biblical studies and their subsidiary sciences have greatly changed within the last fifty years. For, apart from anything else, when Our Predecessor published the Encyclical Letter Providentissimus Deus, hardly a single place in Palestine had begun to be explored by means of relevant excavations. Now, however, this kind of investigation is much more frequent and, since more precise methods and technical skill have been developed in the course of actual experience, it gives us information at once more abundant and more accurate. How much light has been derived from these explorations for the more correct and fuller understanding of the Sacred Books all experts know, as well as all those who devote themselves to these studies. The value of these excavations is enhanced by the discovery from time to time of written documents, which help much towards the knowledge of the languages, letters, events, customs, and forms of worship of most ancient times. And of no less importance is papyri which have contributed so much to the knowledge of the discovery and investigation, so frequent in our times, of letters and institutions, both public and private, especially of the time of Our Savior.
Palestinian archeology and the discovery of ancient texts in various places in the Near East forced folks to realize that the OT was not historical in the way that the modern world thinks about historicity, nor was it unique among ancient texts. How folks react to this news is one of the major fault lines in Biblical studies. Down one road lie critical approaches, including the historical-critical family, and down the other is fundamentalism. (Yeah, that’s a broad brush approach, but you get the picture.) Note that Pius XII describes this situation positively, rather than as something to be feared or avoided:
12. …All these advantages which, not without a special design of Divine Providence, our age has acquired, are as it were an invitation and inducement to interpreters of the Sacred Literature to make diligent use of this light, so abundantly given, to penetrate more deeply, explain more clearly and expound more lucidly the Divine Oracles…
Based on all the changes and new information, and in light of the advantages that accrue to a person who reads the Bible closely, Pius XII felt it appropriate to give some counsel to Catholic exegetes:
13. We also, by this Encyclical Letter, desire to insure that the work may not only proceed without interruption, but may also daily become more perfect and fruitful; and to that end We are specially intent on pointing out to all what yet remains to be done, with what spirit the Catholic exegete should undertake, at the present day, so great and noble a work, and to give new incentive and fresh courage to the laborers who toil so strenuously in the vineyard of the Lord.
The idea that the pope should, even symbolically, point out issues to challenge the Catholic exegete is a major step forward. The simple act of admitting that they didn’t have all the answers gave Catholics the opportunity to seriously engage scripture rather than prooftext in support of dogma.
Pius XII first noted that since the time of Leo XIII there had been a great deal of work done with languages. Now, however, the situation has changed radically and for the better. That being the case, Catholic exegetes were required to get on with serious study of languages:
15. On the contrary in this our time, not only the Greek language, which since the humanistic renaissance has been, as it were, restored to new life, is familiar to almost all students of antiquity and letters, but the knowledge of Hebrew also and of their oriental languages has spread far and wide among literary men. Moreover there are now such abundant aids to the study of these languages that the biblical scholar, who by neglecting them would deprive himself of access to the original texts, could in no wise escape the stigma of levity and sloth. For it is the duty of the exegete to lay hold, so to speak, with the greatest care and reverence of the very least expressions which, under the inspiration of the Divine Spirit, have flowed from the pen of the sacred writer, so as to arrive at a deeper and fuller knowledge of his meaning.
16. Wherefore let him diligently apply himself so as to acquire daily a greater facility in biblical as well as in other oriental languages and to support his interpretation by the aids which all branches of philology supply…
So…if you fancy yourself an exegete and you don’t know the languages, you are guilty of “levity and sloth.” It is your duty as an exegete to “lay hold” of the “very least expressions” so that you can arrive at some knowledge of the meaning of the author! (How do Mormons talk about exegetical studies? Hm.) What this will eventually do is allow the Catholics to reclaim the Bible, which they more or less gave up in the chaos of the Reformation, and begin to make it their own.
Then Pius XII goes on to direct Catholic exegetes to use their education, training, judgment, and faith to determine two facets of the text. The first is what he called the literal meaning and the second is the spiritual meaning. By the literal meaning he meant the “plain religious meaning” of the text, or what we might call a critical reading of the text in its historical, cultural, and literary context. This reading specifically includes the theological import. Here is his directive concerning the literal meaning of the text:
23. Being thoroughly prepared by the knowledge of the ancient languages and by the aids afforded by the art of criticism, let the Catholic exegete undertake the task, of all those imposed on him the greatest, that namely of discovering and expounding the genuine meaning of the Sacred Books. In the performance of this task let the interpreters bear in mind that their foremost and greatest endeavor should be to discern and define clearly that sense of the biblical words which is called literal…
24. …With special zeal should they apply themselves, not only to expounding exclusively these matters which belong to the historical, archaeological, philological and other auxiliary sciences — as, to Our regret, is done in certain commentaries, — but, having duly referred to these, in so far as they may aid the exegesis, they should set forth in particular the theological doctrine in faith and morals of the individual books or texts…
25. By making such an exposition, which is above all, as We have said, theological, they will efficaciously reduce to silence those who, affirming that they scarcely ever find anything in biblical commentaries to raise their hearts to God, to nourish their souls or promote their interior life, repeatedly urge that we should have recourse to a certain spiritual and, as they say, mystical interpretation…
The second aspect of the text to which Pius XII called his exegetes was the spiritual meaning. There were, however, some limits on this. Exegetes must take care not to introduce a spiritual meaning that is foreign to the text:
26. For what was said and done in the Old Testament was ordained and disposed by God with such consummate wisdom, that things past prefigured in a spiritual way those that were to come under the new dispensation of grace. Wherefore the exegete, just as he must search out and expound the literal meaning of the words, intended and expressed by the sacred writer, so also must he do likewise for the spiritual sense, provided it is clearly intended by God…
Missing from Divino was any reference to the allegorical sense, which had indeed been found in Leo XIII’s Providentissimus. Pius XII acknowledged that such readings might be useful in preaching but they are “extrinsic to [the text] and accidental.”
What Divino really described and prescribed was the historical-critical method, although it never used that term. Fr. Joseph Fitzmyer writes concerning the results of Divino:
As a result [of Divino], the interpretation of the Bible by Catholic scholars in the second half of the twentieth century began to rival that of their Protestant and Jewish peers. It also invigorated the study of Catholic theology, for it provided it with a solid biblical basis. This change in the mode of Catholic interpretation of the Bible was noted above all at the Second Vatican Council by the Protestant observers, who gradually realized that Catholics were now venerating and interpreting Scripture the way that they had been. This change led not only to the Second Vatican Council, but also in due course to the ecumenical openness of the Catholic Church to other Christian ecclesial communities.
In the twenty or so years between Divino and Vatican II, Catholic Biblical scholarship grew and matured at a remarkable rate. Catholic exegetes, who had been confined to working on grammars and lexicons because the information derived from reading the Bible closely contradicted dogma, were prepared by this rigorous study to make tremendous progress when Pius XII unleashed them. How did the Catholics go from Pius X’s condemnation of modern biblical scholarship to Pius XII’s relatively warm embrace? It simply became impossible for folks who read the Bible closely and seriously to ignore what archeology, philology, and Protestant Biblical studies were accomplishing in explaining the features of the text coherently.
Next Up: Vatican II