Articles and Essays

The Decrees of the Pontifical Biblical Commission

Living Tradition



Editor: Msgr. John F. McCarthy, J.C.D., S.T.D.
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by Sean Kopczynski

[Editor's Note. The following article represents the typical situation of a Catholic student attending classes in a graduate school of theology and finding himself being presented with novel and even shocking ideas of biblical interpretation taken from that confused and often misleading area of thought known as Catholic biblical scholarship. Usually the student does not have the time or the ability to search into the background of these disconcerting affirmations to see where they came from and to test the solidity of their foundation. Father Sean Kopczynski, a missionary of the Congregation of the Fathers of Mercy ordained a priest on June 10, 2000, had been a student occasionally in this situation. In the instance discussed below he did take the time to study into a question regarding the decrees of the Pontifical Biblical Commission. How his research turned out is the subject of the following article. He now preaches parish missions, novenas, and retreats. This article is posted with the permission of Living Tradition.]

When I was studying for the priesthood, I was told that according to modern biblical scholars the 1911-1912 Pontifical Biblical Commission (PBC) decrees were no longer binding. I was also told that an abrogation regarding the decrees had been around since the 1950’s. My interest about the matter heightened when writing a paper on the Synoptic Gospel Question. Who wrote first — Matthew, Mark or Luke? I soon discovered that ‘who wrote first?’ simply cannot be determined based on internal evidence alone.1 In order to build a case for who wrote first, second and third, I searched for authoritative external evidence, which led me to the 1911-1912 decrees of the PBC. The only difficulty however was that, if these decrees had truly been abrogated, they could not be used as authoritative evidence. I decided to find the abrogation and see for myself what authority, if any, these decrees still had in the eyes of the Church.

My search led me to the opinions of Thomas Aquinas Collins, O.P. and Raymond Brown, S.S., found in the Jerome Biblical Commentary. According to them, "many of these decrees [of the Pontifical Biblical Commission] now have little more than historic interest, being implicitly revoked by later decrees, by Divino Afflante Spiritu, and by Vatican II. The early decrees must be evaluated according to the 1955 clarification issued in Latin and in German by A. Miller and by A. Kleinhaus, secretary and assistant secretary of the PBC."2 They go on to say that the clarification was printed in the German biblical periodical: Benediktinische Monatshcrift, the referenced article entitled "Das Neue Biblische Handbuch" (i.e., "The New Enchiridion Biblicum"). This article was later printed in other biblical journals such as The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 18, 1956, 24-25. Three things about this statement left me wondering. First, I was no longer looking for a decree of abrogation but a clarification of some sort. Second, could a previous teaching of the Church be implicitly revoked? Third, what authority could this clarification have if it was only printed in biblical journals?

Turning my attention first to the clarification and its authority, I found the relevant excerpts of the article mentioned by Collins and Brown in the appendix of Rome and the Study of Scripture: A Collection of Papal Enactments on the Study of Holy Scripture together with the Decisions of the Biblical Commission, 7th ed., 1964. The editors of this book made it clear that the article had only the initials "A.M." to indicate the author. They said: "The review is signed A.M., but there seems to be no doubt this is the Very Reverend Athanasius Miller, O.S.B., secretary of the Pontifical Biblical Commission." The excerpt reads as follows:


Inasmuch as it is a collection of documents which show how Sacred Scripture has always been the primary source and foundation of the truths of Catholic faith and of their progress and development, the Enchiridion renders great service first of all to the history of dogmas. It reflects clearly, moreover, the fierce battle that the Church at all times has had to fight, though with varying degrees of intensity, to maintain the purity and truth of the Word of God. Especially in this respect the decrees of the Pontifical Biblical Commission have great significance. However, as long as these decrees propose views which are neither immediately nor mediately connected with truths of faith and morals, it goes without saying that the scholar may pursue his research, provided always that he defers to the supreme teaching authority of the Church.

Today we can hardly picture to ourselves the position of Catholic scholars at the turn of the century, or the dangers that threatened Catholic teaching on Scripture and its inspiration on the part of liberal and rationalistic criticism, which like a torrent tried to sweep away the sacred barriers of tradition. At present the battle is considerably less fierce; not a few controversies have been peacefully settled and many problems emerge in an entirely new light, so that it is easy enough for us to smile at the narrowness and constraint which prevailed fifty years ago.

Finally, the Enchiridion has notable apologetic value, because it bears witness to the Church’s untiring vigilance and her perennial solicitude for the Scriptures. She is alert to defend their sacred character and to watch over their correct interpretation. Encyclicals like Providentissimus Deus and Divino Afflante Spiritu show how she exerts herself to promote in every way possible the solid and fruitful study of Scripture. These Encyclicals present with admirable clarity the basic principles of Catholic interpretation which hold for all times and effectively close the door to subjective and arbitrary expositions. Thus they point out the way to an interpretation and use of Scripture calculated to nourish the life of souls and of the Church as well as to utilize fully the gains made by modern research.

This same article had been printed in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly and commented upon by Edward F. Siegman, C.PP.S. Father Siegman, very much in favor of the "clarification," points out that

[t]o date it [the clarification] has not appeared in the Acta Apostolicæ Sedis and hence escaped the immediate attention of many scholars. It should not, perhaps, be called official in the strict sense ... because the writer is identified only by the initials ‘A.M.’ ... though there seems to be no doubt that the reviewer is the Very Reverend Athanasius Miller, O.S.B. Certainly we have here the mind of the Biblical Commission.3

As of 2001, this clarification has not appeared in the Acta Apostolicæ Sedis (A.A.S.). Clearly, this article must be identified for what it truly is — mere opinion and dangerous to the faith. There are at least five reasons for this conclusion.

First of all, as Fr. Siegman pointed out, how can an article printed in various non-authoritative biblical journals, signed only with the initials A.M., be a clarification on a ruling of the Magisterium? There was no undersigned Pontiff, cardinal or bishop. What is the author’s full name and title? Can this be the proper way to make a clarification of such profound and broad significance? If the Very Rev. Athanasius Miller wanted to make such a clarification binding or authoritative he would have had to enter it into the A.A.S. It is there that such decrees or clarifications become binding. When the very same Athanasius Miller published an instruction of the Biblical Commission in 1955, the instruction was both undersigned by Pope Pius XII and entered in the A.A.S. What is printed in this article signed by "A.M.," therefore, is nothing more than the personal opinion of whoever A.M. is.

Second, A.M. said that "the Enchiridion [Biblicum] renders great service first of all to the history of dogmas" (emphasis added). On the contrary, the primary purpose of the Enchiridion Biblicum has always been to preserve and maintain the integrity of Sacred Scripture. It is nothing else but a handbook (enchiridion is Greek for "in hand, close at hand") containing those essential extracts of all major definitions and declarations on faith and morals having to do with the Holy Bible. The Enchiridion Biblicum renders service "to the history of dogmas" only in as much as it shows at what times in history and in what areas of belief the Church was forced to come forward to preserve the deposit of the faith, but such service is secondary to its primary purpose. Furthermore, the Enchiridion Biblicum has always stood as a reminder of the Church’s unchanging teaching, because it merely presents what the Magisterium has taught on matters of faith and morals throughout the years. The Church has never retracted or revoked what she has taught on faith and morals. Thus the ancient saying: "Rome has spoken; the case is closed." To reduce parts of the Enchiridion Biblicum to having "little more than historic interest," therefore, is an attack on the whole Enchiridion Biblicum, which is an attack on the teaching authority of the Church herself. This article, therefore, is at least potentially dangerous to the faith.

Third, A.M. said that the PBC decrees have "notable apologetic value, because [they bear] witness to the Church’s untiring vigilance and her perennial solicitude for the Scriptures" (emphasis added). On the contrary, this "apologetic value" must extend beyond its ability merely to show "the Church’s untiring vigilance" to actually be used to defend the Scriptures against all impurities. In this regard, the PBC findings have a place alongside Providentissimus Deus and Divino Afflante Spiritu in that they too "present with admirable clarity the basic principles of Catholic interpretation which hold for all times and effectively close the door to subjective and arbitrary expositions," using A.M.’s own words. Rather than clarifying the Church’s teaching, A.M.’s "clarification" seeks to undercut "the Church’s untiring vigilance and her perennial solicitude for the Scriptures," and on that account this article should be rejected as dangerous to the faith.

Fourth, A.M. said that "as long as these decrees propose views which are neither immediately nor mediately connected with truths of faith and morals, it goes without saying that the scholar may pursue his research, provided always that he defers to the supreme teaching authority of the Church." On the contrary, consider the weight of authority given to the PBC decrees by Pope St. Pius X, who wrote:

We find it necessary to declare and prescribe, as We do now declare and expressly prescribe, that all are bound in conscience to submit to the decisions of the Biblical Commission, which have been given in the past and which shall be given in the future, in the same way as to the Decrees which appertain to doctrine, issued by the Sacred Congregations and approved by the Sovereign Pontiff. Nor can they escape the stigma both of disobedience and temerity nor be free from grave guilt as often as they impugn these decisions either in word or writing; and this, over and above the scandal which they give and the sins of which they may be the cause before God by making other statements on these matters which are very frequently both rash and false.4

Pope St. Pius X made the rulings of the Commission a part of the Magisterium, the supreme teaching authority of the Church. This extension of the Magisterium was later removed after the Second Vatican Council. Cardinal Ratzinger writes: "The Pontifical Biblical Commission, in its new form after the Second Vatican Council, is not an organ of the teaching office, but rather a commission of scholars ..."5 In other words, Pope St. Pius X made the Commission an organ and that organ taught us, publishing its decrees in the A.A.S. Its promulgated decrees were and remain to this day ordinary Magisterial teaching. But after Vatican II the PBC no longer enjoyed this authority.

Pope St. Pius X also mentions that the decrees of the PBC are "Decrees which appertain to doctrine" which clearly contradicts A.M.’s statement that some of the PBC decrees "are neither immediately nor mediately connected with truths of faith and morals." Once again, this article by A.M. shows itself as being dangerous and contradictory to the teachings of the Church.

Fifth, A.M. said that the Enchiridion Biblicum "reflects clearly ... the fierce battle that the Church at all times has had to fight, though with varying degrees of intensity, to maintain the purity and truth of the Word of God." A.M. goes on to say, "At present the battle is considerably less fierce ..." On the contrary, the "fierce battle" seems to have almost completely ended after A.M.’s "clarification" was spread abroad. The Magisterium endeavored a few more times in the 1950s and early 1960s to halt the spread of bad scholarship, but all her attempts were unsuccessful. One of these attempts was written by the Very Rev. Athanasius Miller himself with the permission of Pope Pius XII in 1955. An excerpt of this instruction reads as follows:

[I]t is to be regretted that these activities [meetings of various biblical associations] are not carried out in every area in full accord with the norms just laid down, and that there is the danger at times that such meetings, whether they be arranged by biblical associations or by other people, not only fail to be of sufficient value for all those who take part, but even reach the point of being for some people more in the line of "destruction" than of "edification" (cf. II Cor. 10:8). The speakers, we are told, are not always those men who are well versed in the matters of which they treat; some of them are entirely too ready to follow less reliable authors, or rashly and boldly accept and spread doubtful or false opinions, to recommend books or periodicals of doubtful value or reading matter either lacking ecclesiastical approval or laboring under positive disapproval—and all this at times in the hearing of people not at all prepared to weigh such things and pass judgment on them. We have even heard it to have happened that speakers paid little heed to those norms on which the Sovereign Pontiff now happily reigning again gravely insisted in his encyclical letter Humani generis, that they boldly set forth theories condemned by the Magisterium of the Church, or even went so far as to propose in place of the literal sense duly brought out under the Church’s watchful eye, some new sense which they call "symbolic" and "spiritual," by which difficulties inherent in the literal sense were supposed to vanish. There is no one who cannot realize how incalculably dangerous all these things are when proposed to hearers not thoroughly skilled in biblical matters.6

From this excerpt, one wonders if the Very Rev. Athanasius Miller is truly the "A.M." of the 1955 clarification. Following this instruction, which never seems to have been properly put into effect, all we have from the Magisterium about "the fierce battle" is a monitum of the Holy Office under Pope John XXIII issued to biblical scholars warning them "always [to] keep in mind the teaching of the holy Fathers and the mind and Magisterium of the Church. Otherwise, the consciences of the faithful will be disturbed and harm will come to the truths of the Faith."7 It is interesting to note that in the 1950’s, when A.M.’s "clarification" came along, evolutionary theory was the "in-thing." There was a fierce battle, but after 1955, few were found fighting on the Church’s side.

As a sign the battle is over, consider the fact that many, if not most, priests trained since the 1960s and seminarians today do not even know what the PBC decrees are. As a result, when taught various theories in the seminary which run contrary to the decrees, these men never knew that the Church holds them to be problematic and even harmful to the faith. As a prime example let us take a brief look at the evolutionary theories applied to the Sacred Scriptures that are very popular today, being openly taught and embraced in our seminaries. It is interesting to note that, in the 1950s, when A.M.’s "clarification" came out, evolutionary theory was the "in-thing." These evolutionary ideas were even being applied to the development of the Bible. For the Catholic scholar, however, the only road block to applying these theories to the Bible was the decrees of the PBC!

As a particular example, consider the authorship of the Pentateuch—the first five books of the Bible. Today it is held almost universally that Moses could not possibly have written the Pentateuch for various reasons such as his death reported in the last chapter of Deuteronomy. They argue, "how can Moses have written a book that recounts his own death?" Rejecting Mosaic authorship, modern scholars studied in the seminaries today, prefer to infer authorship from internal evidence alone. For example, in regard to the Pentateuch they identify at least three or more authors based upon style and content. Then they propose various theories to explain how we got the first five books of the Bible. One very popular modern theory, the Documentary Hypothesis, is evolutionary in nature and holds that the Pentateuch was not written by one author, but by three or four authors or traditions which modern scholars call J, E, P, and D. These stand for "Yahwist" ("J" is from the German form), "Elohist" (for E and P) and "Deuteronomic" (for D). These three or four authors or traditions sometimes had different stories and sometimes had conflicting versions of the same story. Eventually someone put all the different stories together while preserving their originality as much as possible. As a result, the final product is a patchwork of conflicting traditions, often contradictory, now hopelessly mixed and confused together by the final editor. In other words, the Pentateuch evolved over time from who knows how many contributing authors to reach finally the books we have today. The PBC decrees address this problem by narrowing down the possibilities. Consider the following decree of the PBC on the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch:

Whether it may be granted, without prejudice to the Mosaic authenticity of the Pentateuch, that Moses employed sources in the production of his work, i.e., written documents or oral traditions, from which, to suit his special purpose and under the influence of divine inspiration, he selected some things and inserted them in his work, either literally or in substance, summarized or amplified. Answer: In the affirmative. 8

In other words, the Pentateuch could have various sources but it has only one human author—Moses. Joshua or someone else could easily have added the last chapter recounting Moses’ death.

The same style of evolutionary theory is applied to various other books of the Bible such as Isaiah, the Psalms and even the Gospels. For example, today many hold that Isaiah has up to two or three authors due to various internal evidences such as style and language. Consider the following PBC decree on the unity of authorship of the book of the prophet Isaiah:

Whether the philological argument, one derived from the language and the style, and employed to impugn the identity of the author of the book of Isaiah, is to be considered weighty enough to compel a man of judgment, versed in the principles of criticism and well acquainted with Hebrew, to acknowledge in the same book a plurality of authors. Answer: In the negative. 9

In other words, there is just not enough internal information to prove that Isaiah is composed from various authors later united under one book by an editor. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote great theological works like the Summa Theologiæ and various songs and prayers like Lauda Sion. Do we doubt his authorship of both? No, because we have external evidence to the contrary. Yet, if we were only to consider internal evidence, we would surely doubt their unity of authorship and lean toward multiple authors. In a similar way, just because Isaiah has prose and poetry in the same book does not constitute a strong enough argument for two or more authors. This is the teaching of the Church.

To show the tendentious effect of A.M.’s "clarification," consider the following statement of Fredrick Gast, O.C.D. regarding the Synoptic Question:

In loyalty to the 1911 and 1912 decrees of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, Catholics have tended to support this solution to the Synoptic Problem [Mt-Mk-Lk]; but now that complete freedom with regard to such decrees has been granted, the limitations of such a solution are being honestly recognized [here Gast refers the reader to Collins and Brown which is quoted above].10

Clearly, these examples show that the battle was lost after the publication of A.M.’s "clarification" in 1955.

Giving these scholars the benefit of the doubt, I found the so-called "implicit" revocations in Divino Afflante Spiritu and Dei Verbum mentioned by Collins and Brown.11

Pius XII: Divino Afflante Spiritu:

46. But this state of things [difficulties not yet solved] is no reason why the Catholic commentator, inspired by an active and ardent love of his subject and sincerely devoted to Holy Mother Church, should in any way be deterred from grappling again and again with these difficult problems, hitherto unsolved, not only that he may refute the objections of the adversaries, but also may attempt to find a satisfactory solution which will be in full accord with the doctrine of the Church, in particular with the traditional teaching regarding the inerrancy of Sacred Scripture, and which will at the same time satisfy the indubitable conclusion of profane sciences.

47. There remain therefore many things, and of the greatest importance, in the discussion and exposition of which the skill and genius of Catholic commentators may and ought to be freely exercised, so that each may contribute his part to the advantage of all, to the continued progress of sacred doctrine and to the defense and honor of the Church.

48. This true liberty of the children of God, which adheres faithfully to the teaching of the Church and accepts and uses gratefully the contributions of profane science, this liberty, upheld and sustained in every way by the confidence of all, is the condition and source of all lasting fruit and of all solid progress in Catholic doctrine ... .

Vatican II: Dei Verbum

23. Catholic exegetes, then, and other students of sacred theology, working diligently together and using appropriate means, should devote their energies, under the watchful care of the sacred teaching office of the Church, to an exploration and exposition of the divine writings. ... The sacred synod encourages the sons of the Church and biblical scholars to continue energetically, following the mind of the Church, with the work they have so well begun, with constant renewal of vigor.

Pope Pius XII certainly encouraged further Scripture studies but always within the bounds of the Church’s teaching. The PBC decrees were included in the body of Church teaching as of his promulgating Divino Afflante Spiritu. If this document implicitly revoked these decrees, why does A.M.’s "clarification" not make this point, namely that it is clarifying what has already been made known in Divino Afflante Spiritu? Since Pius XII did not allude to the PBC findings as being abrogated in any way, they must remain in force and be held by all the faithful.

In writing these paragraphs, instead of implicitly revoking earlier decrees, Pius XII was responding to Catholic scholars’ lack of response to the Modernist Crisis which was once again starting to affect the Church. This time, however, the Modernism was not coming from inside the Church so much as it was from various Protestant sources outside. Rationalistic Protestant biblical scholarship such as historical critical methods and source theories were gaining ground in the world of theology. These popular and novel ideas constituted an attack on Sacred Scripture. Since the Catholic Church is the custodian and preserver of the deposit of the faith, which includes the written Word of God, Pius XII called scholars to engage in the battle to "refute the objections of the adversaries" and "repel attacks against the divinely inspired books."12 Rather than denying the PBC rulings and seeing them as a hindrance, the Catholic scholars really should have used them as guides and spent their efforts to explain why what they decree makes good sense. Would not such efforts constitute the "continued progress of sacred doctrine and ... the defense and honor of the Church" that Pius XII mentioned? Sadly, however, the scholars went modern and embraced the rationalistic Protestant scholarship. Consider the following from the Jerome Biblical Commentary under the title "Emergence of Catholic Critical Scholarship":

Over-all, modern Catholic NT scholarship has consisted in a judicious selecting and combining of acceptable elements in Protestant scholarship; it is not yet following its own new paths. It has succeeded in convincing more intelligent Catholics that the ultraconservative biblical positions of the past are no longer tenable.13

Using the words of A.M., our scholars — instead of promoting "in every way possible the solid and fruitful study of Scripture" and "effectively clos[ing] the door to subjective and arbitrary expositions" of the Modernists — helped to "sweep away the sacred barriers of tradition."

After Pius XII, the Second Vatican Council repeated the teachings of Divino Afflante Spiritu and even emphasized twice in a short space the need of keeping with the mind of the Church. Thus, the Council, while encouraging Scripture studies, also reminded scholars that all studies must be kept within the proper limits and that "appropriate means" be used. In fine, the Council taught that "the Catholic scholar must master the technical details of Sacred Scripture and also test the yield of that research against the witness of the whole of Sacred Scripture, the teachings of the Fathers, the Councils, the liturgies (East and West) and the lives of the saints."14 The new scientific methods, such as historical criticism, could be examined and used, but they must always be employed in keeping with the entire deposit of the faith.

Contrary to what Collins and Brown have said, there does not seem to be any implicit revocation of the PBC decrees in these two documents (i.e., Divino Afflante Spiritu and Dei Verbum). The best explicit revocation to be found is just an article published by someone calling himself A.M. in a non-authoritative German biblical journal. This means that there was no abrogation, no clarification, no implicit revocation. There was only a poorly penned journal article signed by the mysterious author "A.M.," expressing at best a personal opinion and at worst a dangerous attack on the teachings of the Church. Consequently, the PBC decrees must still be valid and relevant and in full effect. What other conclusion is possible?

To turn ordinary Magisterial teachings into being of "little more than historic interest" is a grave error and by no means a "clarification." When such things come our way, we have to take our pick between the "true liberty of the children of God, which adheres faithfully to the teaching of the Church," as Pope Pius XII said, or the "complete freedom with regard to such decrees" as held by writers like Collins, Brown and Gast.

By adhering faithfully to the teaching of the Church, I now had enough information to complete my paper on the Synoptic Question. In my paper on ‘who wrote first?’ I employed the PBC decrees and other authoritative external evidence from the Fathers and Tradition. Happily, I was able to argue for Matthew first followed by Mark and then Luke. This approach and solution soothed my conscience, strengthened my faith, and made me smile at the narrowness of using only internal arguments.




1. For proof see Davies and Allison, International Critical Commentary, Vol. I, p. 99.
2. Thomas Aquinas Collins, O.P. and Raymond Brown, S.S., "Church Pronouncements," Jerome Biblical Commentary, [72:25], p. 629.
3. Edward F. Siegman, C.PP.S. The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 18, 1956, p. 23.
4. Motu Proprio of St. Pius X, Præstantia Sacræ Scripturæ, EB 271.
5. Preface to The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, Pontifical Biblical Commission, 1993.
6. Enchiridion Biblicum, no. 625 [cf. Rome and the Study of Scripture, 7th ed., 1964, pp 169-170]. Cf. A.A.S., 48 (1956) 61-64.
7. Monitum of the Holy Office issued June 20, 1961.
8. Enchiridion Biblicum no. 183, cf. A.A.S., 39 (1906) 377.
9. Enchiridion Biblicum no. 279, cf. A.A.S., 41 (1908) 613.
10. Fredrick Gast, O.C.D., "Synoptic Problem," Jerome Biblical Commentary, [40:14], p. 5 (my emphasis).
11. Thomas Aquinas Collins, O.P. and Raymond Brown, S.S., "Church Pronouncements," Jerome Biblical Commentary, [72:16,22-23], pp. 627-9.
12. Pius XII, Divine Afflante Spiritu, nos. 46 and 6.
13. John S. Kselman, S.S., "Modern New Testament Criticism," Jerome Biblical Commentary, [41:71], p. 19.
14. Our Sunday Visitor’s Catholic Encyclopedia, Rev. Peter M.J. Stravinskas, ed., p 318 (under heading Divino Afflante Spiritu).



No. 94

Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study Program

July 2001

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