Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Hermeneutic of Continuity

Peter at the Catholic Restorationists blog has posted an assessment of the Holy Father's program of restoration. If I had anything to add, I would; but I don't, so I won't. I think Peter is spot on in his analysis.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Aaaaaggghh! Pod people!

I've been encountering an odd species of mushroom in my yard recently. I looked them up last year when we had a couple because they have a rather, uh, distinctive look about them. I tracked them down and found that they were variety of stinkhorn, phallus impudicus. I don't think I need to comment further on the name or the images. Clearly, though, it's not the sort of thing you want popping up (so to speak) in a respectable garden.

So when I pulled a few of these mushrooms, I noticed a hollow tube remaining underneath the surface of the soil. I decide to be adventurous and dig these tubes out. This is when I discovered that stinkhorns are really pod people. You see, under the surface were these sac-like objects filled with gelatinous goo. I am not putting the name of those sac-like things in this post for fear that I'll start attracting the wrong kind of traffic (that is, people who misspell the names of body parts).

Fleshy things filled with gelatinous goo aren't my favorite. They're not even my tenth favorite or my last favorite. They look just like the fleshy egg sacs from which alien creature burst forth—goo and all. I know those stinkhorns were just waiting for us to go to sleep so they could sneak in, parade around the house, and wipe their slimy caps on our fruit basket. Then, three days later, what comes bursting out of our solar pexi but more alien pod people.

None of that for me!

I caught another one today. I do catch-and-release with pod people, since I figure they don't survive outside of damp soil or people's intestinal tracks. Anyway, had to prove the existence of the pod people to my ever-so-skeptical wife, so I left it on the porch railing close to her gardening equipment. I'm sure she appreciated the positive proof, but for some reason, she hasn't been very talkative today.

So, note for you who have to remove "mushrooms" from your flower beds. Dig out the fleshy sac-like thingee or you'll continue having invasions... I mean, growths that you'll have to remove repeatedly.

Coming out of Semi-anonymity (sort of)

I've decided to dispense with the pseudonym and use my real name. I have my reasons for not doing so until now (and for not using my last name). However, I know that it rankles some bloggers that people hide behind pseudonyms. Probably not coincidental is that many of these semi-anonymous bloggers use the shield to lob shibboleths and firebombs at others. I hope no one has ever thought of my comments in this fashion. In any case, here I am, Bill B., the blogger formerly known as Theocoid.

Our bishop here in Boise recently published an article about many of the tensions in the Church and in our diocese. While he didn't point fingers at a particular group, he did mention electronic media and the potential for both abuse and for negative witness. I've tried to keep my comments here civil and will continue to do so. I want to post what I believe is the truth, and I am willing to discuss issues and be corrected. However, I don't want to be yet another voice ranting in the night. I don't think ill-tempered rants serve the Body of Christ well at all (although they can make for amusing reading).

Friday, May 25, 2007

Retroactive Intercessory Prayer

I was involved in a discussion on another blog recently concerning whether acts of vicarious faith or retroactive intercessory prayer can result in someone's salvation after that person has passed away. I used as an example of vicarious faith the healing of the paralytic in Matthew and Mark in which Christ heals the paralytic based on the acts and faith of his friends. This interpretation was disputed, but I've come across it enough that I'll let that point stand on its own. Marcellino D'Ambrosio elaborates on that passage here. I've read it in numerous other places, Protestant and Catholic.

The other question also surprised me because it seemed so obvious that I wouldn't have considered otherwise. Someone had mentioned having known someone who was essentially a notorious sinner and that person had passed away. The concerned friend had asked whether prayers of intercession after the fact of this person's death could do any good. I answered that, yes, prayers of intercession can have an effect on those who have died in the past. On it's own, this statement might appear to support the notion that God can change what happened in the past. That isn't what I'm claiming.

One of the commenters suggested that we are bound to statements that "are philosophically and scientifically meaningful." I found that a ludicrous proposition, not because we should make meaningless statements, but because theological positions do not fall by necessity under the constraints of science (that is, empirical proofs). (I mentioned that such constraints would leave us theologically impoverished. Science cannot prove matters of the spirit.)

However, we do have to make reasonable arguments for a position, so here's mine.
My understanding derives from a few points of belief that, taken together, warrant this conclusion:

- God exists and can act outside of the temporal limitations of time.
- God has foreknowledge of our future contingent actions. (Summa Theologica PI, Q14, A13)
- Intercessory prayer merits* graces that can be granted to someone other than the one saying the prayer. (ST, Part IIb, Q83, A15).
- God can act based on knowledge of events that are, to us, contingent.
- God can move someone to repentance through grace based on a contingent event.
- Therefore, intercessory prayers on behalf of the dead can be beneficial for the deceased.

Here's the sequence.

1. Notorious sinner (NS) is on deathbed, feels remorse, is moved to faith (baptism of desire?), and makes an act of perfect contrition with no external indications.
2. Friend in the future learns of NS's death and prays that something moved NS to repent.

Can the prayer have any effect?

God sees future contingent acts of ours as if they were actual. Because He's outside of time, He sees all, even those actions that we do not know we are going to choose. Mind you, he doesn't choose them for us. He simply knows we're going to do them. To Him, there is no past, present, or future. Everything exists in an instant. He hears the friend's prayer. He grants the grace merited by that prayer to NS prior to dying. NS feels moved to remorse and repents.

What's important here is that NS must still make a decision for or against repentance and faith. God will not force a conversion. However, nothing prevents God from using contingent future actions in the present to move someone to repentance. If the person had chosen to reject God and has passed away, then certainly, no amount of intercessory prayer would help.

Thoughts from any of my theologian friends? Dominicans? Countrymen?

*I use the term "merit" in the Catholic sense rather than the Protestant sense. Grace is a gift, plain and simple. However, God has promised to respond to our requests and to our obedient actions. When Catholics say "merit," that is what we mean. We "merit" something for our faithful works solely because God has promised to reward us, not because of anything intrinsic in us or our actions.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Movie Meme: the Answers

Elliot posted his answers, so I guess I'de better post mine, too.

1. skull crushing, cyberpunk, noir, megalopolis, dystopian = Bladerunner

2. famous score, Elba Island, Prussian, 1810s, Engaged Couple = Waterloo

3. Corporeal moritification, hunchback, autopsy, glasses, labyrinth = The Name of the Rose

4. peril, ancient sword, undead, giant spider, wizard = Return of the King

5. katana, captain, alcoholic, honor, redemption = The Last Samurai

6. Vietnam, brutality, cobra, poker, booby trap = Platoon

7. cautery, Scotland, Bannockburn, spear, weight throwing = Braveheart

8. soldier, racism, flogging, civil war, friendship = Glory

9. masked man, kissing, famous line, cliff, true love = The Princess Bride

10. Appalachia, drunkenness, pacifist, WWI, turkey shoot = Sergeant York

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Tolerance and Catholic Public Life

Archbishop Chaput has an excellent essay in First Things today on the need for Catholics to espouse their faith publicly and heroically. I'm trying more and more to live up to this ideal, but I have a long way to go.

Monday, May 21, 2007

One last MP Prediction

I indicated prior to Holy Week that I did not think the motu proprio would be coming until after Easter. So now I'll make my actual prediction, which is probably a bit anticlimactic. I think it will be released on or just shortly after Pentecost. It only makes sense to me that this document loosening the restrictions on the Tridentine Mass would be released in honor of the birthday of the Church.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Contraception: a Reformable Teaching?

I recently received a comment from John Kippley on an essay I posted concerning different levels magisterial authority and what we owe to each. I'm actually quite grateful that John's comment got me back to this question while it was still fresh in my mind. I long ago accepted the wisdom of Pope Paul VI's teaching on contraception, and I found Pope John Paul II's teaching on the theology of the body beautiful and compelling. So for me, although I was bothered by the idea that the prohibition could be reformable, I felt it was a wise teaching nonetheless and one that should be upheld and proclaimed.

However, John's comment impelled me to go back and reread Humanae Vitae, and I have to say I'm mystified that there could be any question of whether it's a reformable teaching.

First, if you read the Magisterium's reply in HV 6, it's clear that the Holy Father does not accept the findings of the commission convened to discuss the matter:

However, the conclusions arrived at by the commission could not be considered by Us as definitive and absolutely certain, dispensing Us from the duty of examining personally this serious question.


So the question fell to the Magisterium to settle. Pope Paul VI then notes several points:

- This teaching has been constant from the earliest days of the Church (and earlier) and conforms to natural law. (HV 11)

- This teaching is the promulgation of the law of God Himself. (HV 20)

- Since the Church didn't make this teaching up, She cannot be its arbiter and can only guard and interpret it. (HV 18)

John's NFP website points to some of the early Scriptural references to contraceptive methods, as well as the early Church's prohibitions against pharmakeia (sorcery), which many consider to be a reference to abortifacient herns or medicines (Galatians 5:20; Revelation 9:21 and 18:23. The Didache also makes reference to pharmakeia as well.

This teaching has all of the marks of dogma, except for the formal declaration.

I'm still looking for an explanation from the camp that claims this teaching to be reformable. John's essay points out a few claims, but most of these seem like the kinds of smoke and mirrors used by those pushing for women's ordination—in large, delay and denial tactics.

What was missing from Humanae Vitae was a definitive statement. HV 14 declares the position, but without a clear statement in the kind of faith with which the faithful need to hold this teaching, the question will continue to be unanswered in the minds of many.

The Code of Canon Law, canon 749 §3 makes it clear when a teaching is to be taken infallibly: "No doctrine is understood as defined infallibly unless this [a clear declaration that something is to be definitively held] is manifestly evident.

I think a definitive statement on the matter is overdue.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

More Motu Proprio Teasers

This one comes to us via Fr. Z. In an address to CELAM, Cardinal Castrillón Hoyos made specific references to the loosening of the restriction concerning the 1962 Missal. To the point...

For these reasons the Holy Father has the intention of extending to the whole Latin Church the possibility of celebrating the Holy Mass and the Sacraments according to the liturgical books promulgated by Blessed John XXIII in 1962. For this liturgy, which was never abolished, and that, as we have said, is considered a treasure, a new and renewed interest exists today and also for this reason the Holy Father thinks that the time has come to facilitate, as the first Commission Cardenalicia had wanted it in 1986, the access to this liturgy, doing of her an extraordinary form of the only Roman rite.


It will be interesting to see how this plays out here in Boise. Our cathedral is undergoing renovation of its lower chapel, which would've been an excellent place for the Tridentine liturgy. I can think of one other church (St. Mary's) that would be perfect, but it's about to undergo renovation as well.

I have no idea who would be qualified around here to offer Mass according to the Tridentine missal, but it would be lovely to experience it in one of our local parishes.

Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict XVI

I just received a copy in the mail yesterday and am reading during my break. I just came across something pertinent to the essay I posted here. And he also touches on something else I wrote about here.

In the Foreword, the Holy Father writes concerning the historical-critical method and the four senses of scripture:

There are dimensions of the word that the old doctrine of the fourfold sense of Scripture pinpointed with remarkable accuracy. The four senses of Scripture are not individual meanings arrayed side by side, but dimensions of the one word that reaches beyond the moment.


I love our German shepherd! I'm really looking forward to delving into this book.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Magisterial Statements and the Faithful Response

The Magisterium is the teaching authority of the Church, given by Christ to Peter in Matthew 16: 18–20 and guided by the Holy Spirit. The word “magisterium” comes from the Latin term magister, which means “tutor” or “teacher,” but can also mean “master.”[1] The term was once used for both the theological teaching office of academicians, as well as the Apostolic teaching office. For the sake of clarity, the term is no longer used by mainstream Catholics to refer to the teaching role of theologians. Since the 19th century, the term is used solely in reference to that Apostolic teaching office of the Holy Father and the bishops in communion with him.[2]

Magisterial teaching has varying degrees of authority, as well as varying scopes. Bishops exercise the Ordinary Local Magisterium when they teach in their diocese, write letters or columns for their diocesan newspapers and bulletins, give homilies at Mass, and release statements in conjunction with their brother bishops in regional conferences and synods.[3] Lumen Gentium states,

For bishops are preachers of the faith, who lead new disciples to Christ, and they are authentic teachers, that is, teachers endowed with the authority of Christ, who preach to the people committed to them the faith they must believe and put into practice, and by the light of the Holy Spirit illustrate that faith.[emphasis added][4]

Bishops exercise the Ordinary Universal Magisterium when they act in one accord when teaching matters of faith and morals. This authority is in effect whether they meet in a synod or council or even when dispersed and teaching in unanimous agreement.[5]

The Holy Father exercises his authority using the Ordinary Universal Magisterium whenever he teaches—most notably when he issues encyclicals, exhortations, or Apostolic constitutions, but also when he preaches or speaks extemporaneously to a private audience. He also exercises his authority in conjunction with bishops in synodal documents and catechetical works. The Holy Father can also exercise this teaching authority in an extraordinary way, referred to as the Extraordinary Universal Magisterium. Together with the college of bishops, the Holy Father exercises supreme solemn authority in the canons of ecumenical councils. However, he can also make pronouncements ex cathedra or “from the chair.” In these instances, the Holy Father exercises the Extraordinary Universal Magisterium on his own without the college of bishops.[6] Whether the Holy Father acts on his own or with the college of bishops, the role engaged is not one which expounds new revelation. This authority only interprets existing revelation handed on through Sacred Tradition or Sacred Scripture.[7] In these acts, the Sacred Magisterium is not master, but servant.

While the means for exercising this authority are many, the types of statements that pope and bishops make under this authority fall into four categories: infallible dogma, definitive statements, ordinary teaching on faith and morals, and ordinary prudential teaching on disciplinary matters. The manner of delivery (whether written or oral), the language used, and the frequency of repetition all have an impact on how a Magisterial statement should be interpreted. In addition, the object of the teaching (whether on faith, morals, or discipline) also indicates the level of authority with which the teaching is being presented.[8]

Infallible dogmas are statements that are revealed truths persistently held by the faithful. Dogma is not simply a teaching but a settled matter of faith declared in a definitive fashion and attributed directly to Divine Revelation. The faithful Catholic’s response to such statements is defined in part 1 of Canon 750 of the Code of Canon Law as follows:

Those things are to be believed by divine and catholic faith which are contained in the word of God as it has been written or handed down by tradition, that is, in the single deposit of faith entrusted to the Church, and which are at the same time proposed as divinely revealed either by the solemn Magisterium of the Church, or by its ordinary and universal Magisterium, which in fact is manifested by the common adherence of Christ’s faithful under the guidance of the sacred Magisterium. All are therefore bound to avoid any contrary doctrines.[9]

This “divine and Catholic faith” is also called “the obedience of faith”[10] or theological faith, which means “the acceptance of the truth revealed by the One and Triune God.[11] This level of adherence is highest primarily because of the degree of certainty concerning Divine Revelation. Dogmas represent the most certain truths of the Catholic faith.

Because dogma is, by definition, revealed truth, dogmatic definitions are irreformable and cannot be changed in substance. However, the understanding of a dogma can develop over time. An example of this development is the Church’s understanding of the phrase extra ecclesiam nulla salus. While the statements from Unam Sanctam and the Councils of Florence and Trent do not mince words,[12] some quarters characterize the current formulation in sections 846 through 848 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church as language purée. However, when one interprets the dogma in light of Sacred Tradition (for example, the acceptance by some early Church fathers of “righteous pagans” such as Socrates and Heraclitus or the Old Testament patriarchs[13])
and considers the historical conditions of the past and the current situation of the Church, the rigid phraseology of the Renaissance period becomes unacceptably harsh and uncharitable, not at all in line with the concept of a loving God who shows mercy to those who are invincibly ignorant of their errors. The Catechism positively restates this dogma in section 846 (“all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body”[14]). At the same time, the basic claim of the dogmatic formula still demands the obedience of faith from faithful Catholics. For theologians in a post-Reformation world, the ability to understand the temporal limitations of language are critical, not only for gaining converts, but also for promoting the faith of modern Catholic Christians.

Bishops and the Holy Father also employ the Ordinary Universal Magisterium when they make definitive statements about doctrine that is not in itself revealed truth but closely related to revealed truth.  Because the Magisterium is guided by the Holy Spirit in such matters, such doctrine is to be “firmly accepted and held.”[15] In 1989, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith promulgated a revised formula for the profession of faith during John Paul II’s pontificate. Concerning matters proposed definitively, the profession states, “I also firmly accept and hold each and every thing (omnia et singular) that is proposed by the same Church definitively (definitive) with regard to teaching concerning faith and morals.”[16] While this profession is made by those holding ecclesial offices, all Catholics are bound to the same requirements, as expressed in Canon 705, part 2 of the Code of Canon Law:

Furthermore, each and everything set forth definitively by the Magisterium of the Church regarding teaching on faith and morals must be firmly accepted and held; namely, those things required for the holy keeping and faithful exposition of the deposit of faith; therefore, anyone who rejects propositions which are to be held definitively sets himself against the teaching of the Catholic Church.[17]

This point is again made in Donum Veritatis section 23.[18] These definitive statements, while not divinely revealed truth, still require the firm adherence of the faithful.

An example of a definitive statement, the subject of which still draws considerable debate, is Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. This Apostolic letter was issued on May 22, 1994 to address the question of whether women could be ordained to the priesthood. The teaching is direct and, as should be expected, definitive:

Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.[19]

This statement was followed by a responsum ad dubium in October of the following year. In this response, written to clarify the level of authority of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith wrote, “This teaching requires definitive assent, since, founded on the written Word of God, and from the beginning constantly preserved and applied in the Tradition of the Church, it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.”[20] While some theologians and laity who consider themselves faithful Catholics still hold opposing opinions on the matter of women’s ordination, the documents on this subject and the law of the Church regarding definitive statements make clear that dissent on this subject is not an option for faithful Catholics.

Ordinary teaching on faith and morals includes those statements that are not definitive or irreformable but that lead “to a better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals.”[21] This level of teaching requires “adherence with religious assent”[22] or, as described in the 1989 profession of faith, “religious submission of will and intellect.”[23] Theologians and faithful alike must do their best to understand the Church’s teaching on the matter, as explained in Lumen Gentium section 25:

[T]he faithful, for their part, are obliged to submit to their bishops’ decision, made in the name of Christ, in matters of faith and morals, and to adhere to it with a ready and respectful allegiance of mind. This loyal submission of the will and intellect must be given, in a special way, to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff, even when he does not speak ex cathedra in such wise, indeed, that his supreme teaching authority be acknowledged with respect and that one sincerely adhere to decisions made by him, conformably with his manifest mind and intention[.][24]

According to Avery Cardinal Dulles, the meaning of “obsequium animi religiosum” (which translates roughly to “religious submission of the mind”) includes a range of responses depending on a variety of factors.[25] In such matters, informed disagreement can be acceptable.[26] However, as Donum Veritatis 24 states, “The willingness to submit loyally to the teaching of the Magisterium on matters per se not irreformable must be the rule.”[27] The most obvious example of an ordinary, noninfallible teaching on faith and morals is the Church’s teaching on contraception. This teaching, presented in Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, met with considerable resistance in the United States and Canada, and it is still a matter of serious contention.[*

The lowest level of Magisterial authority is exercised in ordinary prudential teaching on disciplinary matters. In the past, such matters have included the restriction of certain techniques for Biblical exegesis by the Pontifical Biblical Commission in the early 20th century. Like ordinary teaching on faith and morals, ordinary prudential teaching on disciplinary matters is reformable and often does change. Faithful Catholics are free to disagree with these teachings, so long as they do so in an appropriate manner. At the same time, external conformance to these teachings is required. [28] Currently, the issues of capital punishment and immigration reform reflect the exercise of ordinary prudential teaching on disciplinary matters. While faithful Catholics should always give an ear to what the Holy Father and the bishops say on these matters, the faithful can respectfully disagree so long as they are in external conformance.

While Donum Veritatis acknowledges the validity of private disagreement with matters of reformable teaching, making a public spectacle of disagreement is unacceptable, particularly when such actions are done for the purpose of exerting political pressure.[29] Dulles notes three conditions for acceptable dissent outlined by the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops in 1968: “(1) The reasons must be serious and well-founded; (2) the manner of the dissent must not question or impugn the teaching authority of the church; and (3) the dissent must not be such as to give scandal.”[30] Unfortunately, many who dissent do so in open rebellion against authority. This rebellious attitude runs counter to the spirit in which the Church should operate. As Donum Veritatis section 40 states, “[T]o pursue concord and communion is to enhance the force of her witness and credibility. To succumb to the temptation of dissent, on the other hand, is to allow the ‘leaven of infidelity to the Holy Spirit’ to start to work.” This document on the vocation of the theologian closes with a reminder of the perfect submission of our Blessed Mother. While few of us can rise to such perfection, submission to the authority of the Church and obedience to our Lord’s will should be our deepest desires as faithful Catholics.


[1]“Magister,” Handy Dictionary of the Latin and English Languages, (Philadelphia: David McKay, 1958), 68.

[2] Marcellino D’Ambrosio, “Lecture 8: Magisterium,” Norms of Catholic Doctrine, <http://home.comcast.net/~icuweb/c03608.htm>, 20 April 2007.

[3] —, “Lecture 9: Magisterium: Papal & Episcopal,” Norms of Catholic Doctrine, <http://home.comcast.net/~icuweb/c03609.htm>, 21 April 2007.

[4] Austin Flannery, ed., Lumen Gentium, Vatican Council II: the Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, (Northport, New York: Costello Publishing, 2004), 379.

[5] Ibid.

[6] D’Ambrosio, ibid.

[7] Flannery, 381.

[8] D’Ambrosio, “Lecture 11: Hermeneutics of Doctrinal Statements,” Norms of Catholic Doctrine, <http://home.comcast.net/~icuweb/c03611.htm>, 23 April 2007.

[9] John Paul II, Ad Tuendam Fidem, 18 May 1998, <http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/motu_proprio/documents/hf_jp-ii_motu-proprio_30061998_ad-tuendam-fidem_en.html>, 23 April 2007.

[10] D’Ambrosio, “Lecture 12: Conclusion,” Norms of Catholic Doctrine, <http://home.comcast.net/~icuweb/c03612.htm>, 24 April 2007.

[11] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dominus Iesus, 16 June 2000, <http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20000806_dominus-iesus_en.html>, 24 April 2007.

[12] Josef  Neuner, SJ, and Jacques Dupuis, SJ, eds., The Christian Faith: Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church, 7th ed., (New York: Alba, 2000), 308–310.

[13] Justin Martyr, First Apology, July 13, 2005, <http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.viii.ii.xlvi.html>, 28 April 2007.

[14] Catechism of the Catholic Church, (New York : Doubleday, 1995), 244.

[15] Ibid., 81.

[16] Neuner and Depuis, 31.

[17] John Paul II, 4.A.

[18] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Donum Veritatis, 24 May 1990, <http://www.ewtn.com/library/CURIA/CDFTHEO.HTM>, 28 April 2007.

[19] John Paul II, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, 22 May 1994, <http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/apost_letters/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_22051994_ordinatio-sacerdotalis_en.html>, 28 April 2007.

[20] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Concerning the Teaching Contained in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis Responsum Ad Dubium,” 28 October 1995, <http://www.ewtn.com/library/CURIA/CDFRESPO.HTM>, 28 April 2007.

[21] Catechism, 257.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Neuner and Depuis, 31.

[24] Flannery, 379.

[25] Avery Cardinal Dulles, “Authority and Conscience,” Fall 1986, <http://www.vatican2andbutler.org/conscience/dulles.asp>, 28 April 2007.

[26] Marcellino D’Ambrosio, “Lecture 12: Conclusion,” <http://home.comcast.net/~icuweb/c03612.htm>, 28 April 2007.

[27] Donum Veritatis, 24.

[28] D’Ambrosio, Ibid.

[29] Donum Veritatis, 30.

[30] Dulles, Ibid.

* When I wrote the essay above, I was responding to an assignment for a course on Catholic doctrine in which the question of the licitness of contraception was held up as an example of reformable magisterial teaching on faith and morals. I was not comfortable with that claim at the time, and after rereading Humanae Vitae, I cannot now accept the claim at face value that the prohibition of artificial contraception is a reformable teaching. Please see this post for an explanation.

The Four Senses of Scripture

Catholic scriptural hermeneutics from ancient times have consistently distinguished between two senses of scripture: the literal sense, which involves the literal or historical sense of the words on the written page, and the spiritual sense, which looks at the meaning beyond the words written by the sacred authors. This second sense is divided into three subordinate senses: the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogical. In total, the biblical scholar has four senses by which he or she can interpret Sacred Scripture. Distinct senses of scripture have been described as far back as the second century in the work of Origen, and later in the writings of St. Augustine and St. Jerome.

While each of the fathers treated scripture in both literal and spiritual fashions, each demonstrated a different understanding of the senses and relied in varying degrees on one sense or the other. A predilection for the grammatico-historical sense, as A.J. Maas points out, was typical of the Antiochene hermeneutical school,[1] while Origen, representing the Alexandrian school, seemed to rely more on the spiritual sense of scripture. Origen applied Plato’s three-fold distinction to the senses—body, soul, and spirit:[2] “For as man consists of body, and soul, and spirit, so in the same way does Scripture, which has been arranged to be given by God for the salvation of men.”[3] The “body” corresponds the letter or the literal sense, while the “soul” represents the moral and the “spirit,” the allegorical and anagogical.[4] Augustine’s divisions—history, analogy, allegory, and etiology—do not correspond as neatly to the four senses as do Origen’s. In Augustine’s own words,

It is a matter of history when deeds done—whether by men or by God—are reported. It is a matter of allegory when things spoken in figures are understood. It is a matter of analogy, when the conformity of the Old and New Testaments is shown. It is a matter of etiology when the causes of what is said or done are reported.[5]

St. Jerome, as Pope Pius X noted in Spiritus Paraclitus, emphasized the importance of the literal sense of scripture as the ground of interpretation.[6] Nonetheless, St. Jerome’s letter to Paulinus included clear references to allegorical, moral, and anagogical senses of scripture,[7] even if he made no specific mention of those categories.

While the early Church fathers understood these different senses of scripture in varying degrees, the four senses found their most clear definition during the scholastic period. These four senses were summarized in a well-known couplet in Latin by Augustine of Denmark:

Littera geta docet, quid credas allegoria,
moralis quid agas, quo tendas anagogica…
[8]

or as the U.S. English edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church renders it,

The Letter speaks of deeds; Allegory to faith;
The Moral how to act; Anagogy our destiny.[9]

St. Thomas outlined the four senses in article 10 of question 1 in the first part of Summa Theologica, making reference to Augustine’s four senses and affirming the acceptability of multiple, nonconflicting senses in Sacred Scripture:

Thus in Holy Writ no confusion results, for all the senses are founded on one—the literal—from which alone can any argument be drawn, and not from those intended in allegory, as Augustine says (Epis. 48). Nevertheless, nothing of Holy Scripture perishes on account of this, since nothing necessary to faith is contained under the spiritual sense which is not elsewhere put forward by the Scripture in its literal sense.[10]

Thus, the Catechism of the Catholic Church points us, in sections 115 through 119, to the richness of Catholic Tradition, which supports and reaffirms the perennial practice of the faithful in these four senses proposed for our hermeneutical use.

The literal sense is also referred to as the historical sense. This sense refers to the meaning of the words of scripture themselves, as opposed to extended metaphor, allegorical meaning, or an otherwise purely symbolic sense that can be taken from written narratives. While common usage would seem to suggest that the literal meaning is simply the meaning of an utterance as we understand it in plain language, this understanding is not correct. The “literal sense” refers instead to the meaning of a passage as immediately intended by the sacred author.[11] Fully understanding this literal sense requires several capacities not common to the average reader of scripture: knowledge of the original languages in which scripture was written, sufficient knowledge of the cultural context in which a book of scripture was written, and sufficient historical and archaeological evidence to inform one’s inquiries. For this reason, Pius XII rightly acknowledged, in Divino Afflante Spiritu, the necessity of the proper use of “history, archaeology, ethnology and other sciences, in order to discover what literary forms the writers of those early ages intended to use and did in fact use.”[12] His predecessor, Pope Benedict XV, stressed the importance of going to the original texts as well. Reiterating St. Jerome, he noted that “all interpretation rests on the literal sense, and that we are not to think that there is no literal sense merely because a thing is said metaphorically, for ‘the history itself is often presented in metaphorical dress and described figuratively.’”[13]

While the literal sense often admits figurative or metaphorical language, the meaning remains that which was intended by the human author. The spiritual senses go beyond the intentions of the human author and reflect the wisdom of the Divine Author. The spiritual sense is divided into three senses: allegorical, which consists of types or figures that find their parallels in the revealed truth of Christ; the moral or tropological, which treats the claims that scripture makes on us as Christians; and the anagogical, which points heavenward to transcendent truth and our eternal destiny.

The allegorical sense includes those matters of parallel narrative, parabolic content, prefiguration, or typological imagery that fulfills the Old Testament in the New and reveals the New Testament in the Old. As with the other spiritual senses, the allegorical sense uses a sign that points to a signified, usually but not always Jesus Christ. For example, Moses is frequently viewed as a type or figure of Christ, one who has led his people from captivity, through a baptismal crossing of the Red Sea to a promised land. Likewise, David is the King of Israel in all his human imperfection. However, he points to the true King of the Jews, the coming messiah, Jesus. Other Old Testament figures find parallels in the New Testament. Eliakim, the steward in Isaiah 22: 20–23, prefigures Peter in Matthew 16:18–19. The Passover of the Israelites prefigures the Paschal sacrifice of Our Lord. In every figure, the Old Testament is revealed in the New Testament and affirms the truth of Christ. For this reason, the allegorical sense corresponds to the theological virtue of faith,[14] as it reveals Christ in the history of the Chosen People.

The moral or tropological sense addresses matters, here and now, of right behavior and of application to Christian life. When interpreting the moral sense, theologians are attempting to determine how scripture tells people to live their lives. While many readers of the Bible might focus on scripture’s overt moral teachings in, say, the Decalogue, other teachings are present in a more figurative way. For example, Christ’s parables frequently teach lessons about behavior toward a neighbor, as in the stories of the good Samaritan and of Lazarus and the rich man. In other cases, a parable contrasts those behaviors that are pleasing to God to those that are not. The parable of the sheep and the goats, as well as the Pharisee and the tax collector are good examples of these. The Epistles of Paul present us with many tropological images: the body as a temple in 1 Corinthians 6, or the Christian life as a race in 1 Corinthians 9 and Hebrews 12. The moral sense reveals to the Christian what Christ means in Matthew 22: 37–40:

And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.”

It is no wonder, then, that this sense corresponds with the theological virtue of love.[15] Ultimately, all of the ten commandments reflect back on these two commandments of love.

The third of the spiritual senses is the anagogical. The anagogical sense is that which points to matters of Heaven and the afterlife or of spiritual realities that transcend earthly existence. While the allegorical sense points to Christ revealed in the Old Testament, and the tropological points to day to day Christian living, the anagogical points to those ends to which Christians aspire. The resurrection of Christ extends to us the promise of bodily resurrection in the end, as Catholics profess every Sunday in the Nicene Creed. The healing that Christ offers to the sick and infirm in the gospels points to the ultimate healing and freedom of the faithful from the bonds of sin and death, ultimately an undoing of what the first man caused in his disobedience. In this looking forward, the Christian engages in contemplation of eternal, Heavenly realities. The anagogical compels the believer to seek an experience of God here and now, as well as in the life to come. It is forward pointing, thus corresponding to the theological virtue of hope.[16]

While the literal sense of scripture emphasizes the specific, immediate meaning of the human author, the spiritual sense looks at the meaning of each passage in the context of the whole.[17] It is no surprise, then, to find resonances at many levels. The Lamb of God at the last supper has both allegorical and anagogical representations in the historical Passover lamb of Exodus 12, and the eternal slain lamb of Revelations 5. Catholics live this reality daily in the sacrifice of the Mass. Christ’s healing of the sick and infirm in the gospels points forward to the healing of the Christian faithful from the sickness and death of sin, as well as the healing Catholics gain through the sacrament of reconciliation. All the while, Christ as the new Adam points allegorically back to the first Adam, through whom all humanity became subject to sin and death. Where a single literal sense of scripture might theoretically have an interpretive endpoint, the four senses provide an interplay and dynamism that ensure a scripture of replenishment, a well of inspiration that never runs dry, a source of renewal and instruction that enlightens the first and the last of the faithful, and an inexhaustible source of truth for Christ’s Church.

[1] A.J. Maas, “Biblical Exegesis,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05692b.htm>. 17 March 2007.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Origen, De Principiis, from Fathers of the Third Century: Tertullian, Part Fourth; Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second, <http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf04.vi.v.v.ii.html>. 17 March 2007.

[4] Robert L. Bradshaw, “Origen of Alexandria,” EarlyChurch.org.uk, <http://www.earlychurch.org.uk/origen.php>. 17 March 2007.

[5] Saint Augustine, On Genesis: Two Books on Genesis against the Manichees; And, on the Literal Interpretation of Genesis, an Unfinished Book (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1990) 147, Questia, <http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=101602910>. 17 March 2007.

[6] Pius X, Spiritus Paraclitus, 15 September 1920, <http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Ben15/b15spiri.htm>. 17 March 2007.

[7] Jerome, The Principal Works of St. Jerome, 8, <http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf206.v.LIII.html>, 17 March 2007.

[8] “Interpretation of the Bible in the Church,” Pontifical Biblical Commission, April 23, 1993 <http://catholic-resources.org/ChurchDocs/PBC_Interp.htm>. 17 March 2007.

[9] Catechism of the Catholic Church, (New York : Doubleday, 1995) 39.

[10] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, <http://www.ccel.org/ccel/aquinas/summa.FP_Q1_A10.html>. 17 March 2007.

[11] Maas, <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05692b.htm>.

[12] Pius XII, Divino Afflante Spiritu, 30 September 1943. <http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Pius12/P12DIVIN.HTM>, 17 March 2007, 35.

[13] Benedict XV, Spiritus Paraclitus, 15 September 1920, <http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xv/encyclicals/documents/hf_ben-xv_enc_15091920_spiritus-paraclitus_en.html>, 17 March 2007, 51.

[14] Marcelino D’Ambrosio, “Lecture #5: Senses of Scripture and Hermeneutics,” <http://home.comcast.net/~icuweb/c03605.htm>. 17 March 2007.

[15] D’Ambrosio, <http://home.comcast.net/~icuweb/c03605.htm>.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

Scriptural Inerrancy & Vatican II

In his December 22, 2005 address to the Roman Curia, Pope Benedict XVI commented on two contrary strands of thought following the Second Vatican Council—one which caused confusion, and the other, which “silently and more visibly, bore and is bearing fruit.”[1] These two “hermeneutics” vary in their take on the effects of Vatican II on the doctrine of the faith and the perpetual teachings of the Church:

On the one hand, there is an interpretation that I would call “a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture”; it has frequently availed itself of the sympathies of the mass media, and also one trend of modern theology. On the other, there is the “hermeneutic of reform”, of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us. She is a subject which increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God.[2]

One of the many questions raised in the aftermath of Vatican II relates to the interpretation of scripture in light of new methods of biblical exegesis. Latching onto a phrase in section 11 of Dei Verbum, some scriptural scholars have seen a greater degree of freedom opened up in the study of scripture, a break from the dogmatism and literalism of the past, and an opportunity to inculcate a more modern, scientific perspective on Sacred Scripture. Others saw in the same phrase a continuation of the doctrine and Sacred Tradition as expressed in the writings of the fathers and the doctors of the Church. Was this new treatment of scripture a hermeneutic of rupture and discontinuity or a hermeneutic of continuity? Was this “development” actually a completely new development in scriptural hermeneutics, or was it simply the consistent practice in the Church cast into new language due to development in modern research and scholarship?

The traditional doctrine of in errancy was first explicitly taught by Pope Leo XIII in Providentissimus Deus in 1893. However, the grounds for this teaching extend far back to the earliest days of the Church. Prior to claims of inerrancy come the insistence on Divine inspiration, which is most clearly asserted in 2 Timothy 3:16: “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” but also in 2 Peter 1:21: “because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” Just as humans must breathe to produce speech, the Holy Spirit “breathes in” to scripture to make it the Word of God. This inspiration gives scripture a clear authority, demonstrated most clearly in its treatment by Christ in the gospels and by the apostles in their writings. While Christ and the apostles referred to Old Testament scripture, Clement of Rome in his epistle to the Corinthians clearly applied this tradition to the work of St. Paul as well.[3] Even prior to this claim, Clement introduced the notion of inerrancy: “Look carefully into the Scriptures, which are the true utterances of the Holy Spirit. Observe that nothing of an unjust or counterfeit character is written in them.”[4]

While the early Church fathers by no means ignored human agency in the writing of scripture, they clearly attested to inspiration by the Holy Spirit and Divine authorship by God. However, human agency, though prevented from error in the original writing of scripture, is not prevented from error in interpretation. Justin Martyr, in “Dialogue with Trypho,” noted his own fallibility in interpretation:

“[S]ince I am entirely convinced that no Scripture contradicts another, I shall admit rather that I do not understand what is recorded, and shall strive to persuade those who imagine that the scriptures are contradictory, to be rather of the same opinion as myself.”[5]

Irenaeus, writing at about the same time period, also confirmed the perfection of scripture and the imperfection and limited understanding of the human reader:

We should leave things of that nature to God who created us, being most properly assured that the Scriptures are indeed perfect, since they were spoken by the Word of God and His Spirit; but we, inasmuch as we are inferior to, and later in existence than, the Word of God and His Spirit, are on that very account destitute of the knowledge of His mysteries.[6]

Clearly established by the end of the second century, then, is a sense of the inspiration of scripture, its perfection or inerrancy, and the imperfection of the human reader in interpreting the true meaning.

This understanding also appears in the writings of the post-Nicene fathers. In the late fourth century, St. Jerome confirmed his belief in the perfection of scripture when he is accused by some parties of altering some of the text of the Latin Vulgate: “I am not, I repeat, so ignorant as to suppose that any of the Lord’s words is either in need of correction or is not divinely inspired[.]”[7] St. Jerome’s contemporary, St. Augustine, also made the same assertion in a letter to the former:

For I confess to your Charity that I have learned to yield this respect and honour only to the canonical books of Scripture: of these alone do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error. And if in these writings I am perplexed by anything which appears to me opposed to truth, I do not hesitate to suppose that either the Ms. is faulty, or the translator has not caught the meaning of what was said, or I myself have failed to understand it.[8]

While the term “inerrant” is not present in these translations, certainly the notion is present in the terms “perfect” and “free from error.” However, while the perfection of Sacred Scripture seems to be an article of faith, the ease with which one is expected to grasp the true meaning in scripture is not.

An appreciation for the literal sense is ever present in the writings of the early Church fathers and doctors. Pope Benedict XV in particular notes St. Jerome’s reliance on the literal sense in his encyclical Spiritus Paraclitus, as well as the need for a complete reading of the text, including “beginning, middle, and end.”[9] At the same time, he notes clearly that, for Jerome, the literal sense does not exclude figurative or metaphorical usage, “for ‘the history itself is often presented in metaphorical dress and described figuratively.’”[10] Other early Church fathers take considerable liberty with the sense of the text. Justin Martyr does not restrict himself to a literalist interpretation in all cases and explains that proper interpretation of scripture requires the reader to understand the intent of the author and the mode of expression. When questioned by Trypho how God in Genesis 18 could have eaten the food provided by Abraham, Justin resorts to a figurative reading of the text: “So that not even here should we be at a loss about anything, if we are acquainted even slightly with figurative modes of expression, and able to rise above them.”[11] Roland Teske explains, in his edition of two works by St. Augustine, that the Great Doctor wrote of figures in two distinctly different ways: “There are figures of speech (figurae locutionis) and also figures of things (figurae rerum). In DGnM [Two Books on Genesis against the Manichees] 1.22.34 he speaks of a figure of speech and stresses the importance of the rule of this expression for understanding many passages in Scripture.”[12]

That St. Augustine himself struggled with the difficulty of the literal sense is manifest in that he made no fewer than five separate attempts to provide a literal interpretation of Genesis.[13] However, he recognized the inherent problem in attempting to read Sacred Scripture as if one were reading a text on physics or biology, particularly when dealing with educated nonbelievers:

Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking non-sense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. [14]

Clearly, St. Augustine saw the absurdity of expecting scientific precision from Old Testament accounts, and his multiple works on Genesis demonstrate the problems one encounters in holding to an overly literalistic understanding of Genesis, without consideration for the modes of expression employed by the author, or the constraints imposed on narrative technique when describing events that precede time itself.

Eight centuries after St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas would reiterate the Great Doctor in what appears to be a narrowing of this concept of inerrancy to matters useful for our salvation:

Therefore, all those things the knowledge of which can be useful for salvation are the matter of prophecy, whether they are past, or future, or even eternal, or necessary, or contingent. But those things which
cannot pertain to salvation are outside the matter of prophecy. Hence, Augustine says: “Although our authors knew what shape heaven is, [the spirit] wants to speak through them only that which is useful for salvation.”href="#_ftn15" name="_ftnref15" title="">[15]

However, the Angelic Doctor notes that while the end of Sacred Scripture is not to relate scientific truths (or historical events, for that matter), such matters can be useful for salvation:

But many things which are proved in the sciences can be useful for this, as, for instance, that our understanding is incorruptible, and also those things which when considered in creatures lead to admiration of the divine wisdom and power. Hence, we find that mention of these is made in Holy Scripture.[16]

While assertions of scientific and historical fact are not the end of Sacred Scripture, these writings cannot be said a priori to speak untruthfully on such matters.

From the first 1200 years of writings by fathers and doctors of the Church, one can come to a few conclusions. First, the concept of scriptural inerrancy is clear. While the fathers and doctors recognized the role that human agency played in the writing of Sacred Scripture, the inspiration and inerrancy of the writings and their authorship by God is affirmed. Second, while the fathers and doctors understood the importance of the literal sense of scripture, this sense in no way excluded figurative language or modes of expression appropriate to the time of the original writing. The importance of literary and linguistic modalities were clear even in the past. Finally, all of the fathers recognized the difficulty of ascertaining the true meaning of scripture, particularly when appearances seemed to indicate errors in scientific understanding or when historical details seemed to be in conflict. In such cases, the early commentators assumed that they had erred and misunderstood the true sense of scripture rather than assuming that scripture itself was in error. Clearly, for both St. Augustine and St. Thomas, the treatment of scripture as scientific treatise would have been considered misguided. From the understanding of the fathers and doctors of the Church and from the analogy of faith, Pope Leo XIII would make his claim of inerrancy in Providentissimus Deus.

While the Council of Trent did not treat the scope of inerrancy, it did confirm the Canon of Scripture, as well as the authority of the Church as the final arbiter of the meaning of scripture.[17] With the storm of the Protestant Reformation gaining force, the fathers of the council focused on preserving those doctrines that were immediately threatened. The matter of scriptural inerrancy would have to wait more than 300 years to come to the forefront. With the impulse of Enlightenment scholarship pushing an evermore skeptical mindset toward matters of spirit, the fathers of the Vatican I council set to this work. In chapter 2 of Dei Filius, the council reiterated the findings of the Council of Trent, with an important addition:

These the Church holds to be sacred and canonical, not because, having been carefully composed by mere human industry, they were afterwards approved by her authority, nor merely because they contain revelation with no admixture of error[emphasis added], but because, having been written by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God for their author and have been delivered as such to the Church herself.[18]

While affirming the Divine authorship of scripture, this statement also introduces the terminology of inerrancy (“no admixture of error”) into the official doctrine of the Church. What had been held by the common consent of the faithful had now been officially declared as part of the deposit of faith. In addition, the council asserted the Church’s authority in determining the true sense of Sacred Scripture:

In matters of faith and morals, affecting the building up of Christian doctrine, that is to be held as the true sense of Holy Scripture which Holy Mother Church has held and holds, to whom it belongs to judge the true sense and interpretation of Holy Scriptures. Therefore no one is allowed to interpret the same Sacred Scripture contrary to this sense, or contrary to the unanimous consent of the Fathers.[19]

The juxtaposition of these two phrases, “no admixture of error” and “[i]n matters of faith and morals” would set the stage for additional dispute on the doctrine of inerrancy during following the First Vatican Council.

In 1893, Pope Leo XIII took up the pen in defense of scripture from those who deigned to cast doubt on its truth value, primarily rationalists and those of the school of “higher criticism.” The former he called “true children and inheritors of the older heretics.”[20] His assessment of the latter seems hardly more complimentary: “There has arisen, to the great detriment of religion, an inept method, dignified by the name ‘higher criticism,’ which pretends to judge of the origin, integrity and authority of each Book from internal indications alone.”[21] While the Holy Father certainly wielded his pen with the flair of a duelist, his intent was not simply to deride contemporary scholarship but to provide guidance, which he did. He confirmed both the value of knowledge of natural science[22] as well as the importance of “the witness of history.”[23] More importantly, he set guidelines for interpretation by the faithful:

But it is absolutely wrong and forbidden, either to narrow inspiration to certain parts only of Holy Scripture, or to admit that the sacred writer has erred. For the system of those who, in order to rid themselves of these difficulties, do not hesitate to concede that divine inspiration regards the things of faith and morals, and nothing beyond, because (as they wrongly think) in a question of the truth or falsehood of a passage, we should consider not so much what God has said as the reason and purpose which He had in mind in saying it—this system cannot be tolerated… and so far is it from being possible that any error can co-exist with inspiration, that inspiration not only is essentially incompatible with error, but excludes and rejects it as absolutely and necessarily as it is impossible that God Himself, the supreme Truth, can utter that which is not true.[24]

Pope Leo XIII confirmed (as this author noted earlier) the constant witness of the fathers and doctors of the Church who “agreed that the divine writings…are free from all error” and who “labored earnestly, with no less skill than reverence, to reconcile with each other those numerous passages which seem at variance[.]”[25] At the same time the Holy Father acknowledged that the Holy Spirit, in the inspiration of the sacred writers, “‘did not intend to teach men these things (that is to say, the essential nature of the things of the visible universe), things in no way profitable unto salvation’” and that they indeed used figurative language and modes of expression appropriate to their time.[26]

The doctrine of scriptural inerrancy would develop further during the pontificate of Pope Pius X. While Pius X condemned the errors of modernists in Lamentabili Sane, the findings of the Pontifical Biblical Commission during his pontificate seemed to demonstrate a greater willingness to consider the question of literal historicity. According to Aidan Nichols, the commission rules that “‘certain narratives thought to be properly historical had only the appearance of history.’”[27] In 1909, the same commission addressed questions about the first three chapters of Genesis. Confirming both the witness of the fathers and doctors of the Church, as well as Leo XIII’s acknowledgement of the proper sense of scripture, the commission noted that scholars did not have to take every word in its strictly literal sense and that some passages could be interpreted in their allegorical or prophetic sense. More importantly, the commission confirmed that interpreters were not required to seek the precision of scientific language in these passages:

VII: As it was not the mind of the sacred author in the composition of the first chapter of Genesis to give scientific teaching about the internal Constitution of visible things and the entire order of creation, but rather to communicate to his people a popular notion in accord with the current speech of the time and suited to the understanding and capacity of men, must the exactness of scientific language be always meticulously sought for in the interpretation of these matters?

Answer: In the negative. [28]

The commission, taking a lead from Leo XIII’s Providentissimus Deus, confirmed that the aim of the writers of Sacred Scripture was not to make scientific assertions but to teach those things profitable for our salvation. Nichols notes that Benedict XV was not quite so ready to make such concessions.[29] However, Leo XIII’s encyclical created an opening or aporia that led to diverging positions on the matter:

Pope Leo’s intervention at a crucial point in the development of Catholic biblical studies was, then, Janus-like. It pointed at once in two directions and was readily susceptible to both a conservative and a liberal interpretation. But it at least identified the problem—how could all Scripture be at every point inerrant if some Scripture were at some points materially errant?[30]

Whether Nichols can correctly assume the admission of material errors in scripture by any of the pontiffs or commissions is debatable. However, the two faces of this doctrine would continue to speak during the 20th century, first in the encyclicals of Pius XII, and then in the dogmatic constitution, Dei Verbum.

Pius XII continued the defense of scripture in his encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu. While his predecessors sought to protect scripture from improper interpretation by those employing historical or
scientific critiques, Pius XII enlisted these disciplines as means to better determine the literal sense of scripture.[31] Moreover, he insisted on the necessity of understanding the literary mode as a key to the true sense:

Hence the Catholic commentator, in order to comply with the present needs of biblical studies, in explaining the Sacred Scripture and in demonstrating and proving its immunity from all error, should also make a prudent use of this means, determine, that is, to what extent the manner of expression or the literary mode adopted by the sacred writer may lead to a correct and genuine interpretation; and let him be convinced that this part of his office cannot be neglected without serious detriment to Catholic exegesis.[32]

He would later renew his defense against various strains of modern philosophy and political ideology in Humani Generis. While allowing for Catholic theologians and scientists to engage in research and discussions regarding evolution, the encyclical continued to insist on the true historic sense of the first eleven chapters of Genesis. At the same time, Pius XII acknowledged that the sacred writers appropriated language suitable for communicating with the understanding of the people at that time:

[T]he same chapters… in simple and metaphorical language adapted to the mentality of a people but little cultured, both state the principal truths which are fundamental for our salvation, and also give a popular description of the origin of the human race and the chosen people. If, however, the ancient sacred writers have taken anything from popular narrations… it must never be forgotten that they did so with the help of divine inspiration, through which they were rendered immune from any error in selecting and evaluating those documents.[33]

The Pontifical Biblical Commission reiterated Pius XII’s call to employ, with caution, these new critical methods, to “diligently employ the new exegetical aids, above all those which the historical method, taken in its widest sense, offers to him.”[34] On the eve of Vatican II, the Church had officially condemned the improper use of science and historical analysis, had provided boundaries for the appropriate Catholic interpretation of Sacred Scripture, had identified some particular areas in which the exegete was permitted broader latitude, and finally had proposed legitimate application of historical-critical methodology to scripture, most specifically in the gospels.

With this openness to new methods of scriptural analysis, the Second Vatican Council began. While the First Vatican Council and Leo XIII’s encyclical focused on inerrancy, the second council focused more on salvific truth, as Depuis and Neuner note: “Instead of ‘inerrancy’, as in the biblical encyclicals, the Council affirms the saving truth of Scripture, as attested in 2 Tim 3:16–17 on the many-sided pastoral efficacy of the Bible.”[35] This refocus on salvific truth would bring its own complications and confusion. Part of this confusion came with the inclusion of a single phrase. Section 11 of Dei Verbum from the new revised edition of Vatican Council II, Vol. 1, contains the following statement concerning scriptural inerrancy:

Since, therefore, all that the inspired authors, or sacred writers, affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture, firmly, faithfully, and without error, teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation[emphasis added], wished to see confided to the sacred Scriptures.[36]

While some have taken the phrase “for the sake of our salvation” to designate the purpose of revelation in Sacred Scripture, others have sought to use this phrase to support the concept of limited inerrancy to those matters affecting salvation only.[37] As with the “Janus-like” intervention of Leo XIII, this statement in Dei Verbum would open up its own aporia.

Aidan Nichols acknowledges that considerable debate ensued over the inclusion of this sentence, as evidenced in Fr. Alois Grillmeier’s study of the drafting of Dei Verbum. Yet Nichols sees in this language an acceptable solution:

Yet the underlying theological principle seems eminently acceptable: if the Bible is the record of revelation then it must be ordered to the same goal as revelation itself, humanity’s salvation, and be evaluated in this light. The inerrant truth of Scripture is inerrant saving truth. This means that the absolute, unconditional inerrancy of the Bible is a formal, not a material, inerrancy[.][38]

He reiterates the words of Robert Gnuse from his book, The Authority of the Bible: Theories of Inspiration, Revelation, and the Canon of Scripture: “‘Thus the Roman Catholic Church has rejected several views in the last two centuries…subsequent approval…negative assistance…verbal dictation, inspiration of ideas, inspiration of faith and morals (only), and total inerrancy.”[39]

Thomas Bokenkotter goes a bit further in his assessment that Dei Verbum 11 “leaves room for the more liberal-minded to admit error in the Bible where this does not affect its essential message.”[40] Avery Cardinal Dulles, whom Bokenkotter cites, does not venture his own opinion but outlines three possible interpretations:

While some commentators interpret this sentence as excluding all error from the Bible, it may be read as asserting that, while there may be erroneous statements here or there, they are corrected elsewhere or do not affect the meaning of the whole. Further, the Council’s statement might seem to allow for errors in matters without importance for our salvation.[41]

Ultimately, then, while some such as Nichols see the way out in the difference between formal and material inerrancy, the precise meaning of this phrase from Dei Verbum 11 has not been established.

However, Dei Verbum 12 also provides a solution, one addressed by Pius XII in Divino Afflante Spiritu and Humani Generis and also acknowledged by Nichols,[42] notably the literary form and the medium of the words of the sacred writers: “Hence, the exegete must look for that meaning which the sacred writer, in a determined situation and given circumstances of his time and culture, intended to express and did in fact express, through the medium of contemporary literary form.”[43] What such an exegesis requires, of course, is a return to the literal sense of the scripture—the meaning intended by the sacred writer at the time of composition. Robert Murray points out the problematic term “literal” sense as it typically causes people to think of the factualness of the words on a page. He suggests that the term “natural” sense is more comprehensible.[44] In returning to the “natural” sense, the exegete can apply the tools of historical criticism, being cognizant of the literary form in use and the modes of expression at the disposal of the sacred writer. However, as the Pontifical Biblical Commission pointed out in its 1993 document “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church,” the historical-critical method must be “freed from external prejudices” and used “[a]long with other methods and approaches.”[45] Dei Verbum 12 also reminds the exegete that one must interpret scripture “taking into account the Tradition of the entire Church and the analogy of faith.”[46] Notwithstanding these warnings to the contrary, Cardinal Dulles, in the February 2006 issue of First Things, points out that some exegetes have tended toward the historical-critical method to the exclusion of traditional hermeneutics: “But unfortunately the post-conciliar reception has practically discarded the theological part of the council’s statement as a concession to the past, thus allowing Catholic exegesis to become almost undistinguishable from Protestant.”[47]

While clearly the notion of absolute inerrancy has come to be questioned following Vatican II, the doctrine of inerrancy appears to remain in a state of dynamic tension, perhaps more so from the point of view of those who lean more heavily upon the historical-critical methods of interpretation. While clearly difficult passages exist in scripture, the analogy of faith and the practice of the fathers and doctors of the Church should inform us to accept that our understanding is limited by the very nature of the object we seek to understand. By attempting to wrench scientific and historical fact out of every difficult passage, such critics commit a categorical error: they attempt to measure the truth statements of one epistemological system (Christian revelation) by another (contemporary empiricism). Leo XIII’s encyclical Aeterni Patris perhaps proves to be prophetic in its call for more emphasis in the study of philosophy.[48] Without a proper grounding in Catholic philosophy and theology, exegetes are bound to mistake one ground of study—revelation—for another and to create a rupture where a true continuity exists.

[1] Benedict XVI, “Address of His Holiness Benedict XVI to the Roman Curia Offering Them His Christmas Greetings,” 22 December 2005, <http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/speeches/2005/december/documents/hf_ben_xvi_spe_20051222_roman-curia_en.html>.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Clement, “The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians,” Ante-Nicene Fathers: The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Vol. 1. <http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ii.ii.xlvii.html>, 16 February 2007.

[4] Ibid., <http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ii.ii.xlv.html>.

[5] Justin Martyr, “Dialogue with Trypho,” Ante-Nicene Fathers: The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Vol. 1. <http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.viii.iv.lxv.html>, 16 February 2007.

[6] Irenaeus, “Against Heresies,” Ante-Nicene Fathers: The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Vol. 1. <http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.iii.xxix.html>, 16 February 2007.

[7] Jerome, Letter 27 to Marcella, Jerome: The Principal Works of St. Jerome,
<http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf206.v.XXVII.html>, 17 February 2007.

[8] Augustine, Letter 82 to Jerome, The Confessions and Letters of St. Augustin, with a Sketch of his Life and Work, ed. Philip Schaff. <http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf101.vii.1.LXXXII.html>, 16 February 2007.

[9] Benedict XV, Spiritus Paraclitus, 15 September 1920, <http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xv/encyclicals/documents/hf_ben-xv_enc_15091920_spiritus-paraclitus_en.html>, 17 February 2007.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Justin Martyr, “Dialogue with Trypho,” Ante-Nicene Fathers: The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Vol. 1., <http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.viii.iv.lviii.html>, 16 February 2007.

[12] Augustine, On Genesis: Two Books on Genesis against the Manichees; and, On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis, an Unfinished Book, (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1990) 21, Questia, <http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=101602784>, 17 Feb. 2007.

[13] Ibid., <http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=101602784>.

[14] ----, St. Augustine, the Literal Meaning of Genesis, Vol. 1, Ancient Christian Writers., Vol. 41., Trans. John Hammond Taylor (New York: Paulist Press, 1982) <http://www.holycross.edu/departments/religiousstudies/alaffey/Augustine-Genesis.htm>. 16 February 2007.

[15] Truth, trans. Thomas F. Aquinas and James V. McGlynn, Vol. 2, (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1994) 111, Questia, <http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=59845508>, 16 Feb. 2007.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Jacques Depuis and Josef Neuner, eds., The Christian Faith in the Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church, 7th edition (New York: Alba House, 2001) 102–103.

[18] Depuis and Neuner, 104.

[19] Ibid., 105.

[20] Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus, 18 November 1893, <http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Leo13/l13provi.htm>, 18 February 2007, 10.

[21] Ibid., 17.

[22] Ibid., 18.

[23] Ibid., 17.

[24] Ibid., 19.

[25] Ibid., 21.

[26] Ibid., 18.

[27] Aidan Nichols, The Shape of Catholic Theology (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1991) 135.

[28] “The Replies of the Biblical Commission,” Trans. E. F. Sutcliffe, S.J. <http://www.catholicintl.com/epologetics/articles/bible/pbc.htm>, 18 February 2007.

[29] Nichols, 135.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Pius XII, Divino Afflante Spiritu, 30 September 1943. <http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Pius12/P12DIVIN.HTM>, 18 February 2007, 10.

[32] Ibid., 38.

[33] Pius XII, Humani Generis, 12 August 1950. <http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Pius12/P12HUMAN.HTM>, 18 February 2007, 38.

[34] “Instruction Concerning the Historical Truth of the Gospels,” Pontifical Biblical Commission, 21 April 1964. <http://catholic-resources.org/ChurchDocs/PBC_HistTruthFitzmyer.htm#PBCText>, 19 February 2007, IV, 1.

[35] Depuis and Neuner, 120.

[36] Austin Flannery, gen. ed., Dei Verbum, from Vatican Council II: Conciliar & Post-Conciliar Documents (Northport, New York: Costello Publishing Company, 2004) 757.

[37] Jimmy Akin, “The Accuracy of Scripture,” This Rock, Vol. 16., no. 10, December 2005 <http://www.catholic.com/thisrock/2005/0512bt.asp>, 19 February 2007.

[38] Nichols, 137.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Thomas Bokenkotter, Essential Catholicism: Dynamics of Faith and Belief (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1985) 32.

[41] Avery Dulles, “Scripture: Recent Protestant and Catholic Views,” Theology Today, Vol. 37, No. 1, April 1980 <http://theologytoday.ptsem.edu/apr1980/v37-1-article1.htm>, 19 February 2007.

[42] Ibid., 135.

[43] Flannery, 757.

[44] Robert Murray, “The Human Capacity for God, and God’s Initiative,” Commentary on the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Michael J. Walsh, ed. (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1994) 24–25.

[45] “Interpretation of the Bible in the Church,” Pontifical Biblical Commission, April 23, 1993 <http://catholic-resources.org/ChurchDocs/PBC_Interp.htm>, 19 February 2007.

[46] Flannery, 758.

[47] Avery Cardinal Dulles, “From Ratzinger to Benedict,” First Things, February 2006. < http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=86>, 19 February 2007.

[48] Leo XIII, Aeterni Patris, 4 August 1879 <http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/leo_xiii/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_04081879_aeterni-patris_en.html>, 19 February 2007.

Monday, May 14, 2007

New posts soon

I got my semester grade today, which means I can safely post my papers. These should be going up in the next few days. With luck, I'll be a bit more consistent in my posts over the summer. A few matters that will be coming up...


  • My daughter made the junior-high cheerleading squad. Not sure how I feel about that just yet.

  • I'm going to have a lot of home-improvement projects this summer. Thereare drawbacks about not taking classes.

  • I have a new nephew named Clive. Clive. Who's publishing the baby-name books these days?

  • I'm going to be a step-grandfather. Whatever I may with about the circustances, at least that's one more choice for life.

What is Truth?

We've been having a little sidebar about extra ecclesiam nula salus (EENS) on this post. I've debated this dogma on various blogs and message boards, and it's one of those topics that tends to rankle people along the whole spectrum.

This dogma has always been a hard teaching for me. While I don't subscribe to the strict interpretation advocated by Fr. Thomas Feeney et al, I have to accept this dogma as I accept all other dogma of the faith. Here's how it is presented in Lumen Gentium 14:

Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and Baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through Baptism as through a door. Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.


Where I tend to get caught up is in the question of invulnerable ignorance. As I mentioned to Simon-Peter, though, culpabilty is not something we have the ability to assess. God doesn't determine someone's culpability on the same grounds as your average civil court. He sees all of the mitigating factors of which we are clueless. However, we don't have the luxury of omniscience. We have to operate on objective conditions. And if we believe someone is mistaken, invincibly ignorant or not, we have to attempt to bring them back. I believe the dogma EENS speaks more to our obligation to evangelize than to the fate of others who deny the truth of our faith.

So this brings me to the question of truth and what we owe to it.

As Catholics, we can take some guidance from the different levels of Magisterial teaching. Donum Veritatis 23 explains three levels of Magisterial teaching, two of which are pertinent to this discussion in that they fall into what we as Catholics are to accept as infallible teaching:

When the Magisterium of the Church makes an infallible pronouncement and solemnly declares that a teaching is found in Revelation, the assent called for is that of theological faith. This kind of adherence is to be given even to the teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium when it proposes for belief a teaching of faith as divinely revealed.

When the Magisterium proposes "in a definitive way" truths concerning faith and morals, which, even if not divinely revealed, are nevertheless strictly and intimately connected with Revelation, these must be firmly accepted and held.(22)

When the Magisterium, not intending to act "definitively", teaches a doctrine to aid a better understanding of Revelation and make explicit its contents, or to recall how some teaching is in conformity with the truths of faith, or finally to guard against ideas that are incompatible with these truths, the response called for is that of the religious submission of will and intellect.(23) This kind of response cannot be simply exterior or disciplinary but must be understood within the logic of faith and under the impulse of obedience to the faith.


Different levels of Magisterial teaching command different levels of adherence, as I mentioned in a previous post. Those teachings that are not infallible but are related to faith and morals require "religious submission of will and intellect." This is not the kind of commitment one expects of Truth but of facts. We might not understand all of what is being taught; we might not agree with it for various reasons; but we are willing to submit out of trust to our Holy Mother Church because She is the authority, and we trust Her.

But what, then, of the other two degrees of Magisterial teaching? Those things that are not divinely revealed must still be accept with firm assent. Those things that are divinely revealed (dogma) must be accepted with theological or "divine and Catholic faith": that is, without reserve, we must commit ourselves to these matters as Truth whether it matches our preferences—whether we like it or not.

When we read such words, it's easy for some of us to balk, to say "that's not what I signed on for." I didn't agree to set my brain on a shelf. I ddn't agree to give up free agency.

When we think along these lines, we're forgetting a very important detail. Above all, we should be seeking the Truth. A life that pursues anything other than the Truth is not worth living. No one wants to live in utter self-deception, although many people try. To live for anything but the Truth is to waste our lives.

That's a simple enough concept that enough of us get it wrong. It's deceptively simple. What's more basic is that most of us don't understand what the Truth is, or more correctly who the Truth is. The Truth is not a something but somebody. To deny the Truth is not to deny mere facts but to deny the One who is and was and always will be.

Jesus Christ is the fullness of revelation, the verbum abbreviatum or abbreviated Word of God. The dogmas of our faith are revealed truth, so in some way or another, they express some aspect of Christ Himself, not just a fact about something He said or a detail about what the apostles ate for breakfast one day. To reject dogma is to reject Christ. If we understand nothing else about our faith, we must accept this.

UPDATE: Doh! I nearly forgot to point to this post by Marcus Magnus at Dominican Idaho on Rejecting Error.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Cynicism: Spiritual Toxin

Jennifer F., newly minted Catholic, has an interesting commentary on cynicism today. I agree with her completely.

Cynicism is poisonous to the soul and destroys intimacy. Jennifer writes:

Not only do you close yourself to the possibility of wonder, selfless goodness, and hope, but you think you're doing so because you're intelligent and world-wise.


All true, but what I've found is that cynicism is also a typical response to fear or insecurity. The cynic isolates himself from others as a defensive measure. People use cynicism as a buffer to keep from being hurt, but in the process, they hold people at arm's length, and they deaden themselves to their own depth of feeling.

Hmmmm. More to think about. I might have to write an update later.

Vocations Crisis and the Fullness of the Faith

Adoro Te Devoto posted something today that I have been thinking for some time:

There's not so much a crisis in Vocations as there is a crisis in Catechesis. Those are two very different things, and those realities are bourne out very practically. For example, it is those parishes that are all about "Social Justice" divorced from Morality, Tradition, and Obedience, that are crying out about this "crisis." They are crying because they can only see what is in their own backyard because they have shut out the light that is the Truth. Their "solution" is "married priests", "women priests" and varying innovative liturgies and "theologies" such as "eco-spirituality" and other nonsense.


Occasionally, some of those active in Catholic social justice circles will bring up the "seamless garment" argument about social justice issues. While I agree that we need consistency, I think the garment envisioned often lacks fabric. Social justice cannot stand on weak Catholic moral teaching, which is the very foundation for our spiritual life. We must have more to give than material equality, and the way to do that is to ensure the whole Gospel is taught and lived.