In my ongoing interaction with my friend, Joseph, it is very clear that Joseph doesn’t want to believe what I say that the Catholic Church actually teaches with regard to the use of Holy Scripture. Fair enough. So I thought I would provide some further historical evidence to help us in our discussion.

It is well to remember Joseph’s recent question to me in order to understand his concern:

What makes Protestants able to offer their own interpretations of Scripture, and Catholics unable?

I explained earlier that the answer to that question is Rome itself, specifically in the canons and decrees of the Councils of Trent and both Vatican Councils as well as the dogmatic Creed of Pope St. Pius IV. That is the Tradition of the Roman Catholic Church.

But just to augment that further, I would like to focus some attention on another dogmatic Catholic document, “PROVIDENTISSIMUS DEUS, Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII on the Study of Holy Scripture.”[i] This is important for several reasons and the most important for our purposes is that this encyclical, like all others, is “irreformable”. That means that Catholics must believe it as if it were written today. Additionally, PD accurately cites Catholic Tradition to that point and provides the groundwork for the later second Vatican council.

So let’s see what Pope Leo XIII had to say about Catholics and Bible study:

1. “For the language of the Bible is employed to express, under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, many things which are beyond the power and scope of the reason of man…”[ii]

This should be helpful in understanding why it is that Catholics cannot rely on their own “reason”.

2. “Wherefore it must be recognized that the sacred writings are wrapt in a certain religious obscurity, and that no one can enter into their interior without a guide…”[iii]

This aligns clearly with what we saw earlier about the Magisterium being the “sole” (only) interpreter of Scripture. Even where Catholics are permitted to engage in the study of Scripture they must always adhere to the “true sense” which only the Magisterium can pronounce.

And then Leo goes on to lay out Catholic Tradition further….

3. “His [Irenaeus’] teaching, and that of other Holy Fathers, is taken up by the Council of the Vatican, which, in renewing the decree of Trent declares its “mind” to be this – that “in things of faith and morals, belonging to the building up of Christian doctrine, that is to be considered the true sense of Holy Scripture which has been held and is held by our Holy Mother the Church, whose place it is to judge of the true sense and interpretation of the Scriptures; and therefore that it is permitted to no one to interpret Holy Scripture against such sense or also against the unanimous agreement of the Fathers.”

Here we clearly see the use of the idea of the “true sense” of Scripture which Leo traces back to Irenaeus and which we have seen was codified at Trent. And it must be remembered that Trent put two qualifications on this “true sense”: it must be officially pronounced by the Magisterium and it must be consonant with Tradition. What else is clear is that “no one” may interpret Scripture against that sense, that is, in any other way.

The noted Catholic historian Dr. Garry Wills writes,

A further implication of Leo’s position is that the church, as the guardian of the historical tradition, holds a monopoly on the relevant evidence: [quoting from Providentissimus Deus] “The uncontaminated sense of Holy Scripture cannot be discovered at all [neutiquam] without the church. And laypersons cannot study scripture on their own since, “no one can penetrate its ambiguities without moral guidance [aliquo vitae duce].[iv]

Dr. Wills, it should be noted, was educated in a Jesuit seminary. He went on to earn one of his two Masters degrees at Xavier University in Cincinnati which is also a fine Jesuit institution.

What Happens when Catholics rely on Tradition and dispense with Reason

Shortly after Leo penned PD, he established the Pontifical Biblical Commission. The PBC’s function was to “police Catholic thought on the Bible, threatening and punishing any exegetes who departed from its directives.” In effect, Leo was using the PBC to enforce the “true sense” interpretation of Scripture that the Roman Catholics had reserved to the Magisterium for the last 500 years. So how did that work out? Not so well, it seems.

Dr. Wills, once more:

The pope did his most lasting damage to Bible scholarship when he set up the Pontifical Biblical Commission in 1902, which for decades would police Catholic thought on the Bible, threatening and punishing any exegetes who departed from its directives. These directives included, in the decades to come, that Catholic priests must be taught in their seminaries that the first five books were written personally by Moses, that Eve was literally created from Adam’s rib, and that the Beloved Disciple wrote the fourth gospel. Catholic professors, thus fettered, became a laughingstock in the world of biblical scholarship.[v]

This incident shows two things that are important for my interaction with Joseph. First, that the PBC under the direction of five popes guided Catholics away from using reason. Second, it shows that the final authority for interpreting the Scriptures is only the Magisterium – even when it contradicts reason.

Soli Deo Gloria


[i] http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/leo_xiii/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_18111893_providentissimus-deus_en.html

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Wills, Garry. Why I am a Catholic. New York. Houghton Mifflin Company: 2002. P. 202

[v] Ibid.

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