The Shift Toward Modernity

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

12 Replies to “The Shift Toward Modernity”

  1. Thanks again, Mogs. So, were there pockets of anti-modernist resistance in 1943 in the church hierarchy? How did they manifest themselves? What about today?

  2. I am sort of a slow duck. I am not following this rhetorical reference: “(How do Mormons talk about exegetical studies? Hm.)”

    I haven’t the slightest idea how Mormons talk about exegetical studies to contextualize this comment in the middle of the paragraph. could I get some help here?

  3. Resistance continued and continues, as it does throughout the Christian world. I should also note that in Humani generis (1950), Pius XII gave some instructions about points in which he, himself, thought that Catholic exegetes had not lived up to their obligation to exercise judgment, so it has not been a totally smooth ride. Anyway.

    Pius XII sought to mitigate resistance to critical studies before it appeared by including in Divino some instructions to those who would read and judge the efforts of his exegetes:

    47. Let all the other sons of the Church bear in mind that the efforts of these resolute laborers in the vineyard of the Lord should be judged not only with equity and justice, but also with the greatest charity; all moreover should abhor that intemperate zeal which imagines that whatever is new should for that very reason be opposed or suspected. Let them bear in mind above all that in the rules and laws promulgated by the Church there is question of doctrine regarding faith and morals; and that in the immense matter contained in the Sacred Books — legislative, historical, sapiential and prophetical — there are but few texts whose sense has been defined by the authority of the Church, nor are those more numerous about which the teaching of the Holy Fathers is unanimous. There remain therefore many things, and of the greatest importance, in the discussion and exposition of which the skill and genius of Catholic commentators may and ought to be freely exercised, so that each may contribute his part to the advantage of all, to the continued progress of the sacred doctrine and to the defense and honor of the Church.

    48. This true liberty of the children of God, which adheres faithfully to the teaching of the Church and accepts and uses gratefully the contributions of profane science, this liberty, upheld and sustained in every way by the confidence of all, is the condition and source of all lasting fruit and of all solid progress in Catholic doctrine, as Our Predecessor of happy memory Leo XIII rightly observes, when he says: “unless harmony of mind be maintained and principle safeguarded, no progress can be expected in this matter from the varied studies of many.”

    I like that bit about the “true liberty of the children of God.”

    As you might suspect, not everyone was convinced. The biggest brouha was over an article written by Alonzo Schokel, a Jesuit at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in 1960. He posed the question “where is Catholic Exegesis headed? and in twelve pages decided that it was heading precisely where Pius XII had intended.

    One Msgr. Antonio Rome0, a professor of scripture at the Latern University in Rome published a seventy page article entitled “The Encyclical ‘Divino afflante Spiritu and the ‘New Opinions.'” Romeo’s response was a conservative reaction that tried to suggest that Divino was, in fact, not an new direction, and that the “New Opinions” were not following Pius XII, but were a threat to the magisterium and the faithful, and a pernicious influence on the formation of the young clergy who came to Rome to study. Etc., etc.

    The Catholic scholarly world held its breath waiting to see what would transpire, because Romero wasn’t a nobody and his “opinions” might come from far higher up. Finally, the prefect of the Sacred Congregation of Studies and Universities “let it be known…that [Romero’s] article had been published without the knowledge of himself or the Congregation’s secretary and that it represented no more than the ideas of the writer.” And to close out the matter, the secretary of the Pontifical Biblical Commission sent a letter in the name of all the Consultors that mentioned Romero by name and deprecated his attacks as “uncharitable.” Since “charity” had been the word used by Pius XII to describe how Catholics were to deal with exegetical disagreements, the point was taken.

    In the next post, on Vatican II, you will see the curia try to sabotage the pope’s efforts to come to grips with the modern world in Vatican II. They got quite a surprise, though…

    Nowadays, we talk about continued resistance in terms of Catholic fundamentalism. Unlike Protestant varieties, which are focused on the inerrency of scripture, Catholic fundamentalism tends to objectify the magisterium, which is the teaching authority of the Church. In Mormon terms, it’s rather like defying the current prophet in favor of an older one whose “take” on some doctrinal matter is more congenial to your tastes. Distinguished scholars such as Raymond Brown were quite literally demonized by their fellow Catholics when they dealt honestly with the primacy of Peter and the NT readings on the Virgin.

  4. Thanks for the clarification.

    Would agree that what you say there makes a strong argument for Mormons being Post-modernist? That is, less interested in exegesis and author-intended meaning and more interested in scripture as an experience built of personal perception of meaning?

  5. Hi Trevor,

    The short answer to your question is probably “no.” But let me pull out a couple of ideas for you and maybe we’ll find out something else. I don’t work much in PoMo approaches, so we’ll see how its goes.

    First,there is no defined PoMo method of Biblical interpretation, just as there is no Modern method. Moreover, a PoMo approach does not surpass, improve, perfect, contravene, or undermine Modern approaches. In fact, PoMo tends to resist defining itself as a new, novel, or supersessionist approach because the passage of time is not so important it PoMos as it is to Moderns. What is critical to the PoMo is that there is no single interpretive approach with an exclusive right to determine interpretive legitimacy. As long as Modern interpretive readings do not insist on their primacy, PoMo is cool.

    Second, I am an exegete, and I read scripture as “an experience built on a personal perception of meaning.” I don’t know anybody who reads reflectively who thinks otherwise. This reflective reading does not preclude a choice to read based on features of the text interpreted in some estimation of their original setting in a search for a suite of meanings that might reflect some aspects of what the original author intended. Self-conscious readings are not limited to PoMo approaches, nor are author-centered readings the sole interpretive style in Modern approaches. Both approaches have exegetes. Nobody I know of reads under any illusion that we will ever know the Utterly Eternal True meaning intended by the original author, except perhaps the some fundamentalists.

    (Mogs winks at Todd after this edit…)

    Since PoMo approaches don’t recognize an interpretive authority, most Mormons who want to preserve the idea of authoritative prophetic interpretations would be uncomfortable with the PoMo approach. PoMos, on the other hand, would be perfectly happy about LDS interpretations as long as we didn’t insist that ours was the only legitimate answer. But I think we usually do. You can hear it strongly in the refrain “Scholars say but we know…”

    We could fire off an email to Elder Packer, ask him if he thinks there is such a thing as an authoritative reading, and see how it goes… 😉

    Also, I think most of the Saints believe that all of Scripture (and I mean all the Standard Works) are univocal. In my experience they can become quite tense when you point out the very real theological differences between Biblical authors, and even more so if you point out how modern scripture differs from the ancient. And it gets much worse if you point out that a single author is suppressing other legitimate voices in his quest for ideological domination!

    Now there is another aspect to reading scripture and that is personal meditative study. Sometimes there’s something of a “This is what it means to me” response. This, I think, is not an authentic PoMo approach. I think most folks believe that the meanings they find in personal study are somehow authoritative, at least for them, whether the authority is prophetic or the Spirit. In a true PoMo approach, readers resist and recenter assumptions, which I’m not at all sure is what Mormons are doing in their 20 minutes of scripture study.

    And that’s enough for now. TT will probably show up and add his thoughts. He may have other ideas.

    At the moment I think that the real distinction between LDS approaches to scripture and what the Catholics are doing is the distinction between critical and pre-critical reading, which is a matter of attention to thinks like genre and context in the interpretive process. PoMos wouldn’t have a problem with either, as long as neither tried to assert interpretive hegemony.

  6. One more thing I should add. There is often a playful, joyful, feeling in PoMo readings. Believe it or not, that usually comes from a very disciplined approach to reading. Personal, meditative readings by the average LDS reader are usually a bit on the random side. So I think that the similarities between PoMo approaches and LDS personal scripture study are more accidental than deliberate.

  7. Hi Mogget,

    I am going to lift this quote from you for my blog, Mogget: Nobody I know of reads under any illusion that we will ever know the Utterly Eternal True meaning intended by the original author, except perhaps the fundamentalists.

    It depends . . . I do believe God gives clear meaning on intended biblical fundamentals. But I share know absolutism on everything I believe, Mogs.

    My thoughts on any encroaching modernity is more of an “ugh”. But as you would guess, I greatly struggle with PoMo readings as well.

    Another fundamentalist friend just shared this with me directly, today:

    Modernism affirmed its confidence in “the omnicompetence of human reason.” It was the attempt to live in a world ruled by man rather than God. Predictably, that world proved to be very inhospitable. It ushered in some of the most horrific events in human history – such as the Stalinist purges and the Nazi extermination camps.

    The new cultural mood which developed in the 1980’s rebelled against modernism and its fraudulent claims to be able to remake the world on the ground of human reason.

    Thus, postmodernism was born. But it was no better than modernism. Modernism replaced God with human reason. Postmodernism replaces human reason with raw feeling. It affirms that truth is unknowable, that truth is anything anyone wants it to be. Postmodernism has been called the “thalidomide child” of modernism, the inevitable deformity that results from removing God from the picture. This is the kind of world we are inheriting in the 21st century. So what should our churches and servant-ministries look like as we move into this century? I believe they should take the shape described by Paul in 2 Timothy 4:1-8. This is an intensely personal and deeply autobiographical section of Scripture where Paul lays bare his heart for the next generation of Christians and the Christian faith. Paul’s world was much like ours. His world was pre-Christian, ours is post-Christian, but both our worlds share common maladies because both are non-Christian! In the face of such challenges, Paul was deeply burdened to have Timothy carry the Christian faith forward into the next generation.

    Mogs, thanks for letting your simplistic “fundamentalist” commenter slip in from time to time on the conversation here at FPR.

    a playful and joyful, fundamentalist outsider, 😉


  8. Hiya, Todd!

    Do you consider yourself a fundamentalist? I had pegged you as evangelical, but not really fundamentalist!

    Catholics hold that the Bible is inerrant when it comes to issues of our salvation, but they draw the line at gracing every past tense verb with the same gift. So I was thinking along those lines, rather than perhaps how you’ve read it. Sigh. It is always tough to characterize these things seriously and carefully.

    Anyway, drop by any time.


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