St. Pius X: On Biblical Studies

Taken from the Angelus January 2004 Volume XXVII,  Number 1

When Giuseppe Sarto was elected pope on August 4, 1903, the crisis that was shaking the world of Biblical exegesis, albeit limited to a small number of savants, was nonetheless to have far-reaching consequences for the universal Church. In fact, the Biblical question is intimately tied to the modernist crisis, as the case of Alfred Loisy bears witness.

Clearly, Biblical modernism did not appear out of nowhere. It was the product of a long intellectual evolution that, over the course of the 19th century, united and melded two apparently antinomic currents of thought. On the one hand we find the rationalist current, with its origins in the Enlightenment and German philosophy, denying the supernatural both in the Bible and in human history, and glorifying on the contrary man's advances in scientific knowledge, advances that, sure enough, quickly reduced Biblical revelation to the rank of fairy stories for children...or rather for adults; on the other hand, there was the current of romanticism, which established the primacy of the heart over the intellect; the subject and his consciousness over the objective reality of the world, and effectively replaced the faith with "religious sentiment."

The union of these two currents of thought creates a system distinct from its two sources. Unlike the followers of Voltaire, a modernist claims to defend "faith" in the divine word. Better yet, he claims to engage in apologetics as he breaks with that naivete that accepts the miraculous in Holy Scripture, and instead proposes scientifically acceptable explanations. Already, in 1863, Ernest Kenan's Life of Jesus called out for this respectful and benevolent union of contraries and created the scandal of a certain pre-modernism.

It would therefore seem that one of the immediate causes of the modernist crisis in the Church was a sort of Catholic inferiority complex faced with the rising tide of archeological discoveries; a certain shame in maintaining the inviolable doctrine of inerrability, not only touching faith and morals but also in the historic or scientific domain, while unbelieving researchers aggressively affirmed their discovery of multiple contradictions between archeology and Holy Scripture. A first sort of modernism, full of good intentions, became something of a fall-back position for intellectuals and cultivated men, prepared to reach an understanding on the general teachings of Revelation, by way of symbols, images, and the immanent word. Anything rather than simply professing that God had spoken to man!

Obviously, no one denies the reality of scientific progress nor the intellectual shock produced by the staggering archeological and philological discoveries of the 19th century.

Ever since Champollion and the Egyptian campaign, a vanished universe had suddenly begun to rise from its grave with every new archeological dig: in Mesopotamia and in Palestine civilizations came to light that had been contemporaries of the epic of the Hebrew people, civilizations that until then had been known only through Biblical allusions.

Modern philology discovered new languages and new collections of texts as old as the Bible, sometimes much older. The Biblical account found an echo-or a rival, according to the positivists-in other accounts.

The understanding of the mechanisms by which texts are transmitted, and of written tradition; the discoveries of papyrology and epigraphy, all made enormous progress; some are troubled by the question of the letter itself of the Biblical text and its conformity to an original.

Unfortunately, these objective discoveries were taken in hand by a philosophy of subjectivism, essentially Kantian, and were integrated into a system of agnostic interpretation, based on preconceptions and the rejection of tradition. Such are the documentary hypotheses of Wellhausen, the axiomatic belief in the popular "creation" of texts by oral tradition, etc. Moreover, the Bible was not the only target of this theory, since all the great texts of antiquity were caught up in the same destructive whirlwind: the works of Homer and the Song of Roland became, alongside the Pentateuch, the product of a collective creation built around a primitive element laboriously isolated by the genius of modern researchers!

Little by little, the cultivated elite adopted the more or less explicit conviction that modern science is opposed to Revelation and that in any case, where there is a dispute, the Bible is automatically wrong!

St. Pius X, in the line of Leo XIII and his great Biblical encyclical Providentissimus Deus (Nov. 18, 1893), was to respond to these methodological and doctrinal deviations, and reaffirm Biblical inerrancy as well as the harmony between the divine Word and the established truths of human science.

To do this, he was simultaneously to make use of defensive means (condemnations, titles placed on the Index) and offensive means (the creation of Institutes, directives for the formation of exegetes). These are the two themes that we will pursue in this overview of the Biblical question under St. Pius X.




The Works of Loisy Placed on the Index

To follow the chronological order of events— which in our opinion reveals the patience and the pedagogy of Rome in this affair—the first measure taken against modernism was the placing on the Index of the five works of Alfred Loisy on Dec. 23, 1903.

This is not the place for a full description of the personality of the man and the scholar. Let it suffice to point out that, as a professor of exegesis at the Catholic Institute of Paris, he and several others represented great hopes of a renewal of the intelligence and of Catholic science in France at the end of a very positivist 19th century.

With the creation of the Catholic universities, the renewal of Benedictine studies, the restoration of Thomism, the foundation of the future Biblical School of Jerusalem, the names of Duchesne, Battifol, Lagrange, and Loisy became the pride of the French Church, at least for a time. However, very rapidly, several of them began to be worrisome for the authorities, more in reason of their doctrinal "state of mind" than of their explicitly professed doctrines. Loisy in particular saw himself deprived of his teaching chair at the Catholic Institute of Paris after the publication of Providentissimus Deus: his teaching was dangerously far from that of the Supreme Pontiff. He continued his researches during this forced retreat and in November 1902 published The Gospel and The Church, which contains the famous phrase "Jesus announced the Kingdom, and what we got was the Church." The work was presented as apologetic, in the service of an evolving Church that finally recognizes that dogmas themselves evolve and respond—or ought to respond-to the needs of believers throughout a changing history, etc.

The book was a bombshell. Loisy-attacked or supported from all sides-answered his detractors the following year by publishing About a Little Book (Oct. 1903) in which he persists in his claims and stands behind what he had written, with an offensive sarcasm, insisting on the symbolism of the Gospels ("Christ is God for the faith"), and immanence ("Revelation was nothing other than the consciousness acquired by man of his relation to God").

When the condemnation to the Index was pronounced, it was in fact an entire exegetical school-not to say an exegetical mafia-that was targeted in the person of Loisy; his friends were quite aware of the fact and were to launch a campaign, throughout Europe, in his defense, presenting all the signs of that "solidarity" of which the present age has since given us innumerable examples. Nevertheless, Rome has spoken and henceforth no doctrinal doubt was possible.


The Decree
Lamentabili Sane Exitu

After four years of labor and patience appeared the first systematization of modernist doctrine. With the decree Lamentabili Sane Exitu of July 3 and 4, 1907 (final drafting July 3, signed July 4), 65 propositions were solemnly condemned, of which about 40 touch directly on Biblical questions. A large number of these propositions are pure and simple transcriptions of Loisy's works, from which they were extracted by Frs. Letourneau and Bouvier, theologians from Paris, who had submitted all 33 of them to Cardinal Richard. Modernism, in its most acute form, is indeed a French disease! Frenchmen were to be its first doctors.

The following gives an idea of the type of propositions condemned by the decree:

IX. They who believe that God is really the Author of Holy Scripture give evidence of excessive simplicity or of ignorance.

XI. If the exegete wishes to undertake Biblical studies of any utility, he must first set aside any preconceived notion of the supernatural origin of Holy Scripture and must not interpret the latter any differently than other human documents.

XVI. The accounts of John are not properly speaking historical, but are a mystical contemplation of the Gospel; the discourses contained in his Gospel are theological meditations on the mystery of salvation, devoid of any historical truth.

XX. Revelation was nothing other than the consciousness acquired by man of the relation that exists between God and himself.

XXIII. Between the facts recounted in Holy Scripture and the dogmas of the Church to which the former serve as a foundation, there could exist, and there really does exist, an opposition, such that Biblical criticism could reject as false certain facts that the Church holds to be true.

XXVII. The Gospels do not prove the divinity of Jesus Christ; rather it is a dogma that the Christian consciousness has deducted from the notion of a Messiah.

XXXVI. The resurrection of the Savior is not properly speaking an historical fact but a purely supernatural fact, one which is neither proven nor able to be proved, and which the Christian consciousness has little by little deducted from other facts.

LIX. Christ did not teach a determined body of doctrines, applicable to all times and to all men, but rather inaugurated a certain religious movement adapted—or which ought to be adapted—to the diversity of times and places.


The Encyclical
Pascendi Dominici Gregis

However, the great theological work against modernism only appeared two months later, once the groundwork had been laid. There is much we could say about this huge encyclical, Pascendi Dominici Gregis, of September 8, 1907, not only because of its philosophical and theological profundity, but even because of its literary qualities: irony, false naivete, indignation, caustic humor in the analysis of the modernist psychology, avenging faithful Catholics for the thousand insolent remarks they had suffered from these masters of exegesis!

If the encyclical is not consecrated first and foremost to Biblical questions, it broaches them often and inevitably, since the modernist "faith" founds a new conception of Revelation and then builds on this foundation to explain the origin of dogmas and their later "evolution." Thus the principal points underlined by St. Pius X are the following: agnosticism, immanence, and evolutionism.



The modernist exegesis begins as an agnostic: it denies a priori that God could reveal Himself to humanity and make Himself known in an extrinsic and explicit way. The "word of God" can only be a manner of speaking; human reality excludes all untimely intrusion of the divine:

God, and all intervention of God in human affairs, ought to be referred to the faith, with which they are exclusively concerned. If there appears a case in which divine and human are confused—Jesus Christ, for example, or the Church and the sacraments—it will be necessary to split apart this composite and dissociate the two elements: the human will remain in the domain of the historical, the divine will be referred to the faith.



Once Revelation ceases to be the very word of God passed down to men by the intermediary of the inspired writers, it becomes the immanent expression of a certain interior experience-common, moreover, to all religions: The books of the Bible "are collections of lived experiences within a given religion, not at all vulgar experiences accessible to all, but extraordinary and rare." "It is God Who speaks in these Books, through the believer, but, according to modernist theology, by way of immanence and vital permanence." "The inspiration does not differ, except in its intensity, from the need that every believer feels to communicate his faith, in writing or by the spoken word. We find something like it in poetic inspiration...."



As for this immanent faith, its point of departure is Biblical Revelation and it develops throughout the ages according to the needs of the believing soul; textual criticism can attest to such an evolutionary construction of the Holy Text, a sort of disparate mosaic somehow elaborated by various "believers" in the history of the Hebrew people or the primitive Church.

They do not hesitate to affirm openly that the books in question, especially the Pentateuch and the first three Gospels, were slowly formed by various additions to a very brief primitive account: interpolations in the form of theological or allegorical interpretations, or simple transitions and efforts to stitch together parts of the text.

As the encyclical progresses, it presents an admirable evocation of the complex, paradoxical image of the modernist savant, a veritable schizophrenic personality, forever dissociating the object of faith from the object of science in his studies—never denying the supernatural or a given dogma, but always creating a separate category of natural reality, just as true as supernatural reality but within a different order. "Thus when asked if Jesus Christ truly performed miracles and uttered veritable prophecies; if He was raised from the dead and ascended into heaven: no, answers agnostic science; yes, answers the faith."


The Excommunication of Alfred Loisy

Five years had gone by since the works of the French exegete were placed on the Index; five years during which Rome hoped in vain for a retraction on the part of the Biblical scholar.

The priest Alfred Loisy, presently living in the diocese of Langres, has taught orally and often published theories that undermine the principle foundations of the Christian faith; this fact is already universally known.

Nonetheless, we remained hopeful that, drawn to such theories perhaps by the love of novelty rather than driven by a certain perversity of mind, he would conform himself to the recent declarations and prescriptions of the Holy See in this matter; and that is why we have not sooner had recourse to the most serious canonical sanctions. But the contrary has proved true; with a universal disdain, not only has he refused to renounce his errors, he has not feared to reaffirm them with obstinacy in new writings and in letters to his superiors.

With this in mind, the following remark by Fr. Dubarle, the famous exegete, becomes very enlightening:

In wishing to resolve by the force of her authority the problems raised during the time of modernism, the Church has deprived herself of the mercy of history, which gave rise, 50 years before its time, and within limited circles, to what would one day be the questions of the majority.

As if the questions posed by "the majority" had not been instilled insidiously and at length by those "limited circles," condemned and secretly in revolt during those "50 years"! In a word, Loisy was persecuted as a prophet! Such is the admission of his contemporary biographers, by the way, who do not hesitate to say that Vatican II was the rehabilitation of Loisy.

In contrast to that improbable "mercy of history," I would hold up the authentic mercy of St. Pius X, when he recommended to the new bishop of Chalons, the diocese of Loisy: "You are going to be Fr. Loisy's bishop. When the occasion presents itself, treat him with kindness: and if he makes one step toward you, make two toward him." (Loisy, Memoires pour servir a I'histoire religieuse de notre temps, vol. Ill, Paris, 1931, p.27)