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Pontifical Biblical Commission


In the history of the Pontifical Biblical Commission a sharp distinction must be made between its form and function before and after the Second Vatican Council.

Before Vatican II

The Pontifical Biblical Commission was created by Pope leo xiii in 1902 through his Apostolic Letter Vigilantiae (Enchiridium biblicum. Documenta ecclesiastica Sacram Scripturam spectantia [Naples-Rome2 1954] 137148). Its function was, according to this founding document, "to strive and effect with all possible care that God's words will both be given, everywhere among us, that thorough study that our times demand and will be shielded not only from every breath of error but even from every rash opinion."

The pre-Vatican II Commission consisted of a limited number of cardinals, named by the pope, the majority belonging to the Roman curia. To these members were joined as consultors Catholic biblical scholars from various tendencies and countries though most resided in Rome. The seat of the Commission was Rome. From 1938 until the post-Vatican reorganization the president of the Commission was Cardinal Tisserant. The last four secretaries were J. M. Vosté (193949); A. Miller (194958); A. Kleinhans (195862); and B. N. Wambacq from 1963 until the reorganization.

Activities. Between 1905 and 1953 a number of decrees or Responsa ("answers") were issued. Some of those from the period 19051915 are well known for their negative impact, e.g., the Responsa on the narratives in the historical books (1905; EB 161), on the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch (1906; EB 181184), on the authorship of the book of Isaiah (1908; EB 291295), and on the historical character of the first three chapters of Genesis (1909; EB 336343). Particular publications were judged to be inaccurate and their use in Catholic schools was forbidden.

The letter written by Commission's secretary to Cardinal Suhard of Paris (1948) struck a positive note. It allowed Catholic scholars considerable liberty "concerning the time of the documents of the Pentateuch and concerning the literary genre of the first 11 chapters of Genesis" (EB 577581). The last intervention of the Commission occurred during the Council by way of the instruction Sacra Mater Ecclesia (1964; DS 3999) on the historical truth of the gospels. The open-mindedness of the document was praised, especially because of its distinction among the three stages of the gospel tradition: what Jesus of Nazareth actually did and said, what the disciples and apostles preached about what Jesus said and did, and what the evangelists wrote down from that preaching. Consequently, the gospels cannot be regarded as direct reports of the facts about and the words of Jesus. The content of this instruction has been integrated into the Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum of Vatican II (1964, paragraph 19).

Before its reorganization by Pope paul vi, the Pontifical Biblical Commission functioned as an organ of the magisterium. Twice, in 1907 and 1910, pius x emphasized that the decisions of the Commission require religious assent: "All are bound in conscience to submit to the decisions of the Pontifical Commission pertaining to doctrine, whether already issued or to be issued in the future, in the same way as to the decrees of the Sacred Congregations approved by the Pontiff; nor can they avoid the stigma both of disobedience and temerity or be free from grave sin who by any spoken or written words impugn these decisions" (1910, EB 341).

The rise of modernism in the early years of the Commission explains, to a great extent, the defensive and apologetic character of many Responsa that caused serious conflicts of conscience for many Catholic scholars. Later letters and instructions manifested a more open approach, especially thanks to the encyclical Divino afflante Spiritu (1943; EB 538569).

From 1904 until 1928 the Pontifical Biblical Commission alone had the power to grant Catholic academic doctoral degrees in Scripture.

After Vatican II

The Pontifical Biblical Commission was restructured by Paul VI through the promulgation of the apostolic brief Sedula Cura in 1971. The stated reasons for this action were both the prescription of Vatican II, "that the rich treasures of the word of God be made more amply and plentifully accessible to the faithful," and the fact that "progress of modern scholarship daily presents new questions in this discipline which are not easy to solve."

The two most notable changes in the nature of the reformed Biblical Commission are its close linking with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the constitution of its membership by biblical scholars and not, as formerly, by cardinals, who were assisted in their function by scholars merely as consultors.

The new regulation, which can be compared with the statutes of the International Theological Commission (created in 1969), is set forth in 15 points. (1) The chief function of the Commission remains that "of rightly promoting biblical studies and of offering assistance to the magisterium of the Church in interpreting Scripture." (2) Its president is "the Cardinal Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith." (3) The membership is limited to 20 scholars "from various schools and nations," considered to be "outstanding for their learning, prudence and Catholic regard for the magisterium." (4) They are appointed by the pope on the recommendation of the cardinal president, "after consultation with the episcopal conferences," for five years, a term that may be renewed. (5) The secretary is appointed by the pope for five years; he is also named a consultor of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. (6) A plenary meeting of the Commission is to be convoked annually. (7) Subcommissions may be set up to study particular problems, and can consult "other experts, including non-Catholics." (8) Consultation of the membership by letter is made possible. (9) The pope or the president designate the questions to be studied. These may be proposed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, by the Synod of Bishops, the episcopal conferences, the Biblical Commission itself, or by Catholic universities and biblical societies. (10) Conclusions reached in plenary session are to be submitted to the pope for use by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.(11) This latter body may "publish with special mention of the Biblical Commission" instructions or decrees "which are the fruit of the scholarly investigation of the members." (12) Relations with "institutions of biblical studies, both Catholic and non-Catholic," are to be cultivated by the Commission. (13) Before new norms concerning Scripture are issued within the Church, the Commission is to be consulted. (14) The Commission continues to confer academic degrees in biblical studies, but its members do not, as such, conduct the examinations leading to these degrees, as formerly. (15) Finally, secrecy "in keeping with the character and importance" of its business is to govern its transactions.

Paul VI appointed the 20 members of the postconciliar Commission in 1972. Bishop A.-L. Descamps, former rector of the Catholic University of Louvain, was named secretary in 1973. Although the international and collegial character of this postconciliar body is assured, it has been more than once noticed that in the first five terms (19722000) no woman scholar was a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.

The first plenary session of the Commission took place in 1974; its activities were devoted to reviewing the norms for examinations and degrees in biblical studies. The investigation of the second and the third sessions concerned the Condicio mulieris in Sacra Scriptura (1975) and De munere mulieris in societate humana et in activitate religiosa ad mentem S. Scripturae (1976). It became known that a majority of the Commission was of the opinion that Scripture is not enough to exclude women from priesthood. In 1977 the first group of the Commission met for the last time. They dealt with the use of Scripture in the writings on liberation theology. No publication of texts followed. There was no plenary session in 1978 (nor for that matter in 1984, 1990, 1996 and 2001).

The second group also had Bishop Descamps as its secretary. The theme of the 1979 plenary session was acculturation in Sacred Scripture itself. The majority of the discussion papers have been published in revised form in Fede e cultura alla luce della BibbiaFoi e culture à la lumière de la Bible (1981). No common conclusions are offered. After the tragic death of Bishop Descamps in 1980, H. Cazelles replaced him as secretary. The four successive sessions (1980, 1981, 1982 and 1983) were devoted to recent questions concerning christology. The work of these sessions resulted in the publication of Bible et christologie (1984). The volume consists of two main parts: the official document of the Biblical Commission (in Latin and French, pp. 14109) and nine contributions by individual members (all in French, pp. 113287).

In 1984 H. Cazelles was named secretary of the Commission's third group as well. Four sessions (1985, 1986, 1987 and 1988) investigated the relation between local churches and the universality of the unique people of God. This examination led to the publication of the volume Unité et diversité dans l'Eglise (1989). The book contains the official French text of the Commission (pp. 928) and twenty contributions by individual members in different languages (pp. 31311). The ecumenical importance of this publication is recognized. In the fifth session (1989) a new theme was approached: the interpretation of the Bible in the Church; this work was interrupted at the end of the five-year term.

In 1990 Prof. A. Vanhoye was appointed secretary of the fourth group. Within three sessions (1991, 1992 and 1993) the same theme, the interpretation of the Bible, was further studied and a joint document redacted. On Saturday, April 24, 1993, during a solemn audience at the Vatican, a double anniversary was celebrated: the encyclical providentissimus deus (Leo XIII, 1893; EB 81134) and the encyclical divino afflante spiritu (Pius XII, 1943; EB 538569). This commemoration, however, did not take place with the issuing of a new encyclical. During that audience the Pontifical Biblical Commission submitted to Pope john paul ii its document The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church.

Why this new document? There have been, from different quarters, complaints about the scientific study of the Bible. Moreover, the historical-critical method is often attacked because of its so-called sterility; not seldom, it is said, doubt, if not unbelief, arises from its use. What about the new and seemingly more promising approaches? The Pontifical Biblical Commission was asked to reflect on this malaise. Could the Commission "indicate the paths most appropriate for arriving at an interpretation of the Bible as faithful to its character both human and divine?"

The Commission presented its considerations in a lengthy document consisting of four main parts. First there is a discussion of the different methods and approaches: thirteen of them are analyzed and carefully evaluated (e.g., rhetorical analysis, narrative analysis, the sociological approach, the liberationist approach, the feminist approach). Then the document investigates the philosophical question of what "hermeneutics" actually involves and it deals with the question of the meaning or meanings of inspired Scripture (the literal, spiritual and fuller senses). In the third part the characteristics of a Catholic interpretation of the Bible are considered: what has exegesis done during the long tradition of the Church and how can the task of the exegete be defined today? The last part is concerned with the interpretation of Scripture in the life of the Church: how can the Bible be actualized? What kind of attention must be given to inculturation? Which are the different uses of the Bible, in liturgy, in individual or communal reading, in pastoral ministry and in ecumenism?

In his address during the 1993 audience Pope John Paul II praised the document for the spirit of openness in which it was conceived, for its balance and moderation, for its stress on the fact that the biblical Word is at work speaking universally, in time and space, to all humanity. The reactions from both scholars and religious leaders, not only Catholics, underline the importance of this document.

In the sessions of 1994 and 1995 a new theme of discussion was brought forward: what does the Bible say about the universalism of salvation through Christ? Because of lack of time no final document could be achieved. The individual contributions, which had been updated after discussion in the plenary sessions, were brought together and presented to the Theological Commission.

A. Vanhoye remained the secretary of the fifth group. In the sessions of 1997, 1998, 1999 and 2000 the Commission investigated the place of Israel in Scripture and a final document is now ready. The publication of Le peuple juif et ses Saintes Ecritures dans la Bible chrétienne is announced for 2002. Its three main parts are: I. "Les Saintes Ecritures du peuple juif partie fondamentale de la Bible chrétienne"; II. "Thèmes fondamentaux des Ecritures du peuple juif et leur réception dans la foi au Christ"; III. "Les juifs dans le Nouveau Testament."

Bibliography: The postconciliar Commission published the five following documents: 1. Fede e cultura alla luce della Bibbia Foi e culture à la lumière de la Bible. Atti della sessione plenaria 1979, ed. j. d. barthÉlemy (Turin 1981). 2. Bible et christologie, preface by h. cazelles (Paris 1984). 3. Unité et diversité dans l'Eglise (Città del Vaticano 1989). 4. The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church. Address of His Holiness Pope John Paul II and Document of the P.B.C. (Città del Vaticano 1993). 5. Le peuple juif et ses Saintes Ecritures dans Bible chrétienne (Città del Vaticano 2002). a. vanhoye, "Passé et présent de la Commission Biblique," Gregorianum 74 (1993) 261275. j. a. fitzmyer, Scripture and Christology: A Statement of the Biblical Commission with a Commentary (New York/Mahwah 1986); The Biblical Commission's Document "The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church." Text and Commentary (Subsida biblica 18; Rome 1995).

[j. lambrecht]

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