Encyclical letter of Pope benedict xv concerning Biblical study, in commemoration of the 15th centenary of St. Jerome's death, published Sept. 15, 1920. Its background, contents, and results are treated here.
At the turn of the 20th century a lively discussion was in progress among Catholic Biblical scholars. The progressive school of thought, aware of the necessity of reassessing some commonly accepted notions regarding the historicity of the Bible, proposed various theories. One theory, for which the support of St. Jerome and Leo XIII's providentissimus deus was claimed, was that of historical appearances: the sacred writers wrote history as found in the popular traditions of their contemporaries. Another was the theory of tacit quotations: the sacred writer quotes without acknowledgment and without assuming responsibility for the content of the quotation. The third was the method of literary forms. By means of these theories the progressive school hoped to discover what the Biblical authors really teach, and thereby to know what is really inerrant. The weakness in these theories consisted in their tendency to determine a priori what is taught and what is not taught.
The conservative wing persisted in treating the Bible as a series of propositions: asserted or not, every statement must be accepted. They refused to grant that the Bible may have error, i.e., mistaken notions of the sacred authors that are not taught by them. In 1905 and 1909 the pontifical biblical commission carefully circumscribed the employment of the methods of "tacit quotations" and "historical appearances" (Enchiridion biblicum 160, 161, 336–343; H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum 3372–73, 3512–19).
The purpose of the encyclical is to promote study and reading of the Bible in the light of St. Jerome's teaching and example. After a brief biography of the Saint, the encyclical summarizes his doctrine on the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible, and contrasts it with some modern views. According to the Great Doctor, the Bible is inspired whole and entire and, as such, is inerrant. Some recent opinions, however, falsely claiming to stem from St. Jerome, tend to admit error in the Bible. The encyclical repudiates the theory that asserts a priori that only the religious element is taught and that, consequently, this element alone is inerrant. It likewise rejects the application of the principles outlined in Providentissimus Deus for the solution of difficulties in the field of natural sciences to problems created by historical research. It cautions, further, against the abuse of sound methods of exegesis, such as that of literary forms, tacit quotations, and pseudohistorical narratives.
St. Jerome's example is held up for our imitation. Great love for the Bible impelled him to study it constantly and deeply. According to the encyclical we must follow him in his humble docility to his predecessors and his obedience to the Church. Turning to the present, the encyclical praises the work of the Society of St. Jerome for its encouragement of daily reading of the New Testament. It exhorts priests to study the Bible, and bishops and religious superiors to send men to study at the Biblical Institute in Rome.
The next section deals with practical benefits deriving from greater knowledge of the Scriptures: spiritual life will be deepened, and the defense of faith made more secure; preaching, which should be simple and primarily concerned with the literal sense, becomes more effective.
The encyclical finally enumerates some of the effects of Biblical study: one experiences internal joy and consolation, one's love for the Church and apostolic zeal increase, and union with Christ grows in intensity. The Holy Father concludes by expressing the hope that greater knowledge and love of Jesus Christ found in the pages of the Bible will stem the waves of godlessness and bring peace among men.
While not condemning the method of literary forms and not affirming the inerrancy of every sentence in the Bible that is in the indicative mood, Spiritus Paraclitus did not open the door to a freer Biblical research among Catholics. The fear of modernism was as yet too strong.
Bibliography: benedict xv, "Spiritus Paraclitus," Acta Apostolicae Sedis 12 (1920) 385–422; tr. Rome and the Study of Scripture (5th ed. St. Meinrad, Ind. 1953). Enchiridion biblicum (Rome 1956) 444–495. j. linder, "Die absolute Wahrheit der hl. Schrift nach der Lehre der Enzyklika Papst Benedikts XV 'Spiritus Paraclitus,"' Zeigeist für katholische Theologie 46 (1922) 254–277. j. m. vostÉ, De Scripturarum veritate iuxta recentiora Ecclesiae documenta (Rome 1924). w. drum, "The Encyclical of Pope Benedict XV on the Fifteenth Centenary of St. Jerome," Homiletic and Pastoral Review 21 (1920) 278–291.
[a. m. ambrozic]