The History of Higher Criticism in the Roman Catholic Church

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History will divide [the twentieth] century roughly into thirds as regards significant movements in the Catholic study of the Bible.  The first period (1900 – 1940) was dominated by the rejection of modern biblical criticism, an attitude forced on the Church by the Modernist heresy.  The second period (1940 – 1970) involved the introduction of biblical criticism by order of Pope Pius XII and the gradual but reluctant acceptance of that criticism by the mainstream of Church thought. The third period (1970 – 2000), if I guess right, will involve the painful assimilation of the implications of biblical criticism for Catholic doctrine, theology, and practice.

…In the second period (1940 -1970) the pontificate of Pius XII marked a complete about-face in attitude and inaugurated the greatest renewal of interest in the Bible that the Roman Catholic Church has ever seen.  His encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943) instructed Catholic scholars to use the methods of scientific biblical criticism that had hitherto been forbidden them.  It took a little over ten years for teachers to be trained in the new approaches and for their ideas to filter into Catholic seminaries and colleges, so that the mid-1950’s really marked the watershed.  By that time the critical method had led to Catholic exegetes abandoning almost all the biblical positions taken by Rome at the beginning of the century.

Obviously this turn-about was not without opposition and anguish.  In particular, clergy and religious (and thus many of the teachers of the people) were appalled at hearing a new generation mouthing the very ideas they had been taught to consider as wrong and even heretical.  Now it was permissible to think that the early stories of Genesis were not historical; that Isaiah was not one book; that Matthew was not the first Gospel and was not written by an apostolic eyewitness; that the Gospels were not four harmonious biographies and were sometimes inaccurate in detail.  Nevertheless, once the initial shock of unlearning was over and the positive insights of the new biblical movement were grasped, the mainstream of Catholic thought came to tolerate and, increasingly, to accept with joy the “new” biblical ideas.  An attempt to set back the clock after the death of Pius XII and in the first session of the Second Vatican Council was beaten back; and the final form of the Constitution on Revelation (Dei Verbum, 1965) gave the Council’s stamp of approval to the direction inaugurated by Pius XII.

…If we have reached the stage of an acceptance of the factual results of modern biblical criticism, the skirmishes are not over and so the third period into which we are now entering may yet be troubled.  There is always the massive problem of how to disseminate these results in the parish pulpit and in classroom catechetics, not by any harmful techniques of shock, but by way of positive formation of attitudes toward the Bible.

…[Traditionalists in the Church] found reassurance in face of an apparent defeat [at the Second Vatican Council] by contending that whatever this new breed of Scripture scholar might say about the Bible, the really important factor was the post-biblical Church dogma.  …They conceived of the exchange between Scripture and tradition as proceeding on a one-way street:  tradition could always correct Scriptural interpretation; but never vice versa.

…But here too, Vatican II upset this nicely ordered domesticity [in the Catholic Church]; for the statements of the [Second Vatican] Council raised biblical exegesis from the status of second-class Catholic citizenship to which it had been reduced by an over-reaction to the Protestant claim [in the Protestant Reformation period] for its autonomy.  …The Council professed that:  “Sacred theology rests on the written word of God, together with sacred tradition, as its primary and perpetual foundation” (vi 24).  Thus, the relation seems to be that of equality rather than of one-sided primacy of tradition over Scripture:  “Sacred tradition and sacred Scripture are to be accepted and  venerated with the same sense of devotion and reverence.” (ii 9).  …The model is not one of autonomy, either of tradition over scriptural interpretation (the popular Catholic model of post-reformation times) or of scriptural interpretation over Church tradition (a popular understanding of the Protestant position); the model is one of mutual influence.  And this mutual influence will involve tension when one serves to modify the other in promoting the Church’s grasp of God’s truth.

–Mainstream Roman Catholic New Testament scholar, Raymond Brown in The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus (1973), pp. 3-7


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