Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Papal Encyclicals on the Bible: Does Anybody Ever Read Them?

Sorry I've been quiet for a while; I'm in the midst of adjusting to my new job at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans. A new job means new classes, which means new preps, and new work!
Right now, I'm working up a new course on Biblical Methodology, which has been a ton of fun so far. In it, we are currently doing a close reading of the three papal encyclicals on the Bible.
These are:
1. Pope Leo XIII, 
Encyclical Letter On the Study of Sacred Scripture,
Providentissimus Deus, 1893
2. Pope Benedict XV, 
Encyclical Letter Commemorating the Fifteenth Centenary of the Death of St. Jerome,
Spiritus Paraclitus, 1920
3. Pope Pius XII,
Encyclical Letter Promoting Biblical Studies,
Divino Afflante Spiritu, 1943
As I'm reading through these encyclicals again, I'm struck by what a treasure trove of teaching they are on a whole host of issues: inspiration, inerrancy, interpretation, the literal and spiritual senses of Scripture, the role of the Scripture in the spiritual life and mission of the Church, and on and on. 
But I'm also struck as I look around in secondary literature, both Catholic and Protestant, that no one seems to be actually reading these encyclicals and engaging them. This is an odd situation, one that seems to be peculiar to biblical studies. At least in Catholic circles, no moral theologian worth his or her salt would ever presume to speak about, say, the Church's teaching on contraception without reference to Paul VI's Encyclical Letter Of Human Life, Humanae Vitae (1968). Likewise, Catholic philosophers regularly make their students study John Paul II's Encyclical Letter On the Relationship between Faith and Reason, Fides et Ratio (1998), in close detail. 
By contrast, when it comes to introductions to the Bible, including Catholic ones, authors often precede blissfully along as if no detailed papal teachings on Scripture have ever been penned--or at least they mention them only in passing without any detailed analysis. Why? 
So, here's my questions:
If you are a Catholic, have you read any of the papal encyclicals on the Bible? Why or why not?
And if you are not Catholic--in particular, if you are a Protestant biblical scholar--have you ever read the papal encyclicals on the Bible? If not, why not?

P.S.: If actually you want access to these encyclicals on the Bible, you can find them all online at the Vatican website, or, even more handy, in Dean P. Bechard's excellent book, The Scripture Documents: An Anthology of Official Catholic Teachings (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2002).


Doug Chaplin said...

Well, I've read Divino Afflante Spiritu, since you seem to want answers to your questions, and I was tracing developments between the Modernist controversy and Vatican II and Dei Verbum at the time.

Moonshadow said...

I read prefaces and introductions ... to books ... even Bibles, so a Catholic Bible I read in some time ago mentioned DAS and since I was in grad school and knew about the Vatican's online documents (and was reading DV and others), I looked up and read portions of DAS.

Yes, these are treasure troves but I find church documents tricky to read ... it seems to me that reading portions isn't good enough. It's too easy to quote out of context. Also, I find PBC's IBC covers the needed ground in simpler language.

Sárie Mirime said...

Dr. Pitre,

I hope that things are going well at the Seminary, despite the new/additional work.

I want to say that I've read parts of the encyclicals that you mentioned when I was in high school and taking an intro to Scripture course, but I could be wrong. There are several encyclicals that I would like to read, but I simply do not have the time.


Brant Pitre said...

Doug and Moonshadow (if that's your real name),

Thanks for the feedback. It's interesting that you both mention Divino Afflante Spiritu; it seems to me that DAS seems to be the one most people are familiar with, even though Divino itself describes Providentissimus Deus as "the supreme guide in biblical studies" (DAS 2). Anybody reading PD?

That being said, I rarely encounter anyone who's read the encyclicals from "cover to cover," so to speak, even though their not long. This again is different from moral theology and philosophy, where a detailed reading of entire papal encyclicals tends to be very common.

Finally, at the risk of being contrary, Moonshadow, I actually had the opposite experience with the encyclicals and the PBC document on the Interpretation of the Bible in the Church. I found the papal encyclicals extremely clear about exactly what Catholic exegesis looks like, whereas parts of the PBC document are not only very technical (check out the section on Semiotic exegesis) but the overall piece reads like a list of disjointed fragments... More to the point, the PBC IBC does not cover the same ground as the encyclicals; the encyclicals tend to focus in great detail on the doctrines of inspiration and inerrancy, neither of which is addressed in that document. But perhaps you put your finger on it: maybe readers assume the 1993 document is a summary of earlier papal teaching rather than simply a survey of the predominant methods in the early 90s?

Maria--always good to hear from you! It's through no fault of your own that you never read whole encyclicals in school, since I was your undergraduate professor! :)

Sárie Mirime said...

Dr. Pitre--That's right you always assigned us a massive reading list for class! I hope that your new classes are having as much fun as we did with your reading assignments. :)

Nathan Eubank said...

I have read these encyclicals, but only because you, Brant, once suggested it to me. Thanks again for that.

Perhaps Bible scholars tend to ignore these documents because they think Dei Verbum made Scripture, as interpreted by historical critics, the sole source of revelation. This is an indefensible reading of DV, but it seems fairly common.

There may be a weightier reason, however; the other encyclicals you mentioned were written after Vatican II. If another Council (Vatican III?) were called which addressed the very issues addressed by Humanae Vitae or Fides et Ratio, the prominence of those encyclicals would lessen somewhat, would it not? Of course, if moral theologians began ignoring Humanae Vitae completely that would be a mistake - just as we are mistaken to neglect the pre- DAS encyclicals, but some relativization would be inevitable.

Fr. Marshall said...

I have read all three. Of course, I read them because I was greatly struggling with the "historical critical method is the ONLY way to interpret scripture" attitude that seems prevalent in Biblical studies so my motives were not exactly pure. I completely agree that they are well worth investing the time it takes to read them.

Rudy said...


I am neither a biblical scholar nor an ordained minister. I am just a Catholic lay person. I've read the three encyclicals in the last ten years or so. You can find these documents in old bibles printed long ago.

Reading the documents along with other teachings of the Church that most of us Catholics ignore, has been a very important part of my faith journey.

I hope more biblical scholars and reseraches would read and guide their reasearch in them. Unfortunately most biblical research these days seems intent on debunking and ignoring what these documents affirm.

Jason Gennaro said...

I've read all three. They were included with my excellent Douay-Rhiems Bible from Baronius Press.

Anonymous said...

I think the representation that there is no serious engagement with these is somewhat misleading.

Classics in the world of Catholic biblical scholarship are fully immersed in these documents like Schöckel's "The Inspired Word" and McKenzie "The Two-Edged Sword". More recently, citing them may not be as popular but the spirit of grappling with their implications is clearly evident in Opening the Scriptures: Joseph Ratzinger and the Foundations of Biblical Interpretation. To not cite the documents does not mean scholars are not struggling with their application. Surely I would not accuse Ratzinger in his essay in the above work of not seriously engaging with these documents.

Also note the sessions at this years CBA on the relationship between theology and biblical studies. (notably the panel discussion and the separate presentation Peter S. Williamson)

On the protestant side they are in a deep debate about these things and the Peter Enns situation reflects this. There is actually a renaissance of such going on with Protestants in which Kenton Spark's "God's words in Human Words" seriously cites and adopts Dei Verbum as a solution to problems in his own tradition. Finally, while not cited the influence of these documents I think are evident on Barton's "The Nature of Biblical Criticism"

One could add to the above list:
Dei Filius "Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith" 1870).
As for Papal documents one could also read
Pascendi Dominici Gregis "On the Doctrines of the Modernists" 1907
Humani Generis
"On the Biblical Sciences and the Teaching Office of the Church" 1979 JP II

Especially Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger: "On the Relationship between the Magisterium and Exegetes" (2003)

and even if it is not a papal document, The "Interpretation of the Bible and The Church" may also be included.

But I agree, they are important for the formation of catholic biblical scholars and while they should be incorporated into the spirit of ones work, they need not be required citing for any article a biblical scholar writes unless they are being discussed specifically.


Anonymous said...

I am Catholic, and would Dei Verbum be considered an encyclical on the Bible? I actually found this page by doing a search of "encyclicals on scripture". I agree with Fr. Marshall's statement on the "historical critical method", and also that I am curious as to the role of prayer and revelation from God in the canonization process, which of course we assume occurred, but it seems that this is not mentioned or downplayed, in favor of more "rational" processes.

John Bergsma said...

Who reads 'em? Everyone who takes a bible course with me, that's who! I've run Pauline Press out of print on a couple of them.

Doug Chaplin said...

Sorry for the delay in coming back to this one. I think the point made above that people seem to give more attention to ethical encyclicals is true. Perhaps because they often receive a great deal of attention outside the Church and touch more directly on people's lives. For example, among older encyclicals, Rerum Novarum continues to be a significant reference point, and among newer ones I would say Veritatis Splendor got a great deal of attention.

Evaluations of encyclicals says at least as much about the evaluator as the evaluatee! (I was surprised to see Pascendi being favourably mentioned above!) It also says something about what is being studied. For example, Mit Brenneder Sorge regularly gets discussed by historians, but usually as an example of too little too late.

I think in that context historians, more than biblical exegetes, see DAS as important as helping row back from Pascendi and Lamentabili and towards Dei Verbum.

Oh, and for what it's worth, I do recommend the wonderfully naughty descriptions of Xavier Rynne for an understanding of the politics of Dei Verbum

Anonymous said...

Great observations about encyclicals which are focused on or not.
But note I did not suggest Pascendi Dominici Gregis in a favorable light, I only said it should be read. As you point out, knowing it and developments from it is key to understanding the "canon" of encyclicals. Just because someone says a book should be read does not reveal their evaluation of it.


Doug Chaplin said...

Sorry for getting you wrong there, Shawn

Unknown said...

I've read "The Scripture Documents" from cover to cover. But, of course, I did have Dr. Hahn for Biblical Foundations, so it was required (fortunately)!