Thursday, August 13, 2009

Providentissimus Deus

Pope Leo XIII's 1893 encyclical Providentissimus Deus is the first magisterial document on modern Catholic Biblical scholarship, and is absolutely crucial for interpreting later magisterial teaching, such as Vatican II's Dei Verbum. It's a rather lengthy document, but about a year ago I made a summary of it. Originally 10,505 words, my summary is 2,782 words. This summary is in the style of Squashed Philosophers, so none of these words are my own invention, I've just removed excess verbage from what Leo XIII said. So, for example, if he said: "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog," my summary might read "The fox jumps over the dog". It would not say "The fox leaps over the dog," because the only thing I've done is delete words, not edit words. Just imagine invisible elipses everywhere, that's pretty much what's going on here. So, without further introduction:

Providentissimus Deus
Copyright © Libreria Editrice Vaticana
Summarized by Peter Mottola (2008 – 2,782 words)

Revelation is contained both in Tradition and in written Books, which are canonical because, "being written under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, they have God for their author."(2) This has been perpetually held in regard to both Testaments. A letter, written by our heavenly Father, God Himself has composed them.

2. Scripture should be made accessible, but not suffer any attempt to defile it [with] imprudent novelties. It is Our wish to see labourers, especially those called to Holy Orders, display greater diligence in reading, meditating, and explaining it.

3. "All Scripture is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct,"(6) and to suppress heresy. Armed with spiritual weapons, novices of the ecclesiastical army will be "well grounded in the Scripture, the bulwark of the Church."(11)

4. Those preachers are foolish who use no words but those of human science, trusting their own reasonings rather than to those of God.

5. The Fathers never cease to extol the sacred Scripture, "an overflowing fountain of salvation."(17) "Let the speech of the priest be ever seasoned with Scriptural reading."(19) "Vainly does the preacher utter the Word of God exteriorly unless he listens to it interiorly."(21) Bring to divine reading docility and attention, for to understand such things is required the "coming"(24) of the Holy Spirit, sought by humble prayer and holiness of life.

6. The Church has ordered that her children be fed with the saving words of the Gospel.

7. All who have been renowned for holiness of life have given constant attention to Holy Scripture.

Catechetical schools taught the divine written word. In the twelfth century, many took up with great success allegorical exposition. The scholastics were solicitous about the genuineness of the Latin version. To them we owe the investigation of the objects of the writers, the demonstration of the connection of sentence with sentence, and clause with clause, all of which throw much light on obscure passages.

8. Clement V established chairs of Oriental literature to make more accurate investigation on the original text. The revival of Greek and the invention of printing gave a strong impetus to Biblical studies. The Vulgate diffused throughout the Catholic world during that very period against which the enemies of the Church direct their calumnies.

Many learned men did excellent work for the Bible between the Council of Vienne and Trent, when it almost seemed that the great age of the Fathers had returned. Editions of the Vulgate and the Septuagint are now in common use. From that time downwards, Catholics have defended Scripture against rationalism with the same weapons with which it had been attacked. The Church has never failed to bring the Scriptures within reach of her children.

10. In earlier times the contest was with those who, relying on private judgment and repudiating the divine traditions and teaching office of the Church, held the Scriptures to be the one source of revelation and the final appeal in matters of Faith.

Now the Rationalists, true children of the older heretics, have rejected even the remnants of Christian belief. They deny inspiration, they see only forgeries and falsehoods, stupid fables and lying stories. Prophecies are to them predictions made up after the event, miracles are mere tricks and myths, and the Apostolic writings are not the work of the Apostles at all – detestable errors obtruded as "free science." Some of them would be considered theologians and Christians, and disguise by such honourable names their pride.

Professors of other sciences attack the Bible by a similar intolerance of revelation, in schools taken by violence from the Church. They pervert the minds of the young to the contempt of Holy Scripture. Should not these things stir up every Pastor, so that "knowledge, falsely so called,"(28) may be opposed?

11. In Seminaries, teachers are to be appointed whose character and fitness are proved by their love of the Bible.

12. To provide for a continuous succession of such teachers, select young men of good promise and set them apart exclusively for Holy Scripture.

13. Train them to defend the sacred writings and to penetrate their meaning, to prove the integrity and authority of the Bible, with the assistance of Theology.

Avoid the mistake of giving a mere taste of every Book, and of dwelling at too great length on a part of one Book. Take the students through the whole of one or two Books in such a way that the students learn from the sample put before them and use the remainder of the sacred Book during the whole of their lives.

"In public lectures,"(29) the Vulgate is "authentic." Other versions which antiquity has approved should not be neglected, for the "examination of older tongues,"(30) will be advantageous. Prudence is required, for the "office of a commentator is to set forth not what he himself would prefer, but what his author says."(31)

Adhere to the received canons of interpretation. Whilst weighing the meanings of words, the connection of ideas, the parallelism of passages, use illustrations, but with caution not to bestow on this more time than [is] spent on the Sacred Books themselves.

14. Scripture [is] difficult, for the language is employed to express things beyond man, a hidden depth of meaning which the laws of interpretation hardly warrant. Moreover, the literal sense frequently admits other senses, adapted to illustrate dogma or to confirm morality.

No one can enter into their interior without the Church. St. Irenaeus laid down that Holy Scripture was safely interpreted by those who had Apostolic succession.(33) 'In things of faith and morals, the true sense of Holy Scripture is held by the Church, whose place it is to judge the interpretation of the Scriptures; and it is permitted to no one to interpret Holy Scripture against such sense or against the unanimous agreement of the Fathers.'(34)

This by no means restrains Biblical science, but protects it from error. The private student may, in those passages of Holy Scripture which have not yet received a definitive interpretation, bring to maturity the judgment of the Church. In passages already defined, the student may do work by setting them forth more clearly. Interpret passages which have received an authentic interpretation in the New Testament or from the Church, and prove, by science, that sound hermeneutical laws admit of no other interpretation. In other passages, the analogy of faith should be followed. Catholic doctrine should be held as the supreme law.

Seeing that God is the author both of the Sacred Books and of doctrine, it is impossible that any teaching extracted from the former shall be at variance with the latter. All interpretation is foolish which makes the sacred writers disagree or is opposed to doctrine. The Professor must be well acquainted with Theology and deeply read in the Fathers. 'What can be a greater sign of pride than to refuse to study the Books of the divine mysteries by the help of those who have interpreted them?'(37) The Fathers 'endeavoured to acquire understanding not by their own lights, but from the the ancients.'(38)

The Fathers are of supreme authority whenever they all interpret in the same manner any text pertaining to faith or morals, for their unanimity clearly evinces that such interpretation has come from the Apostles as a matter of Catholic faith. The opinion of the Fathers is also of very great weight because they are men on whom God bestowed a more ample measure of His light.

15. [It is] not forbidden to push exposition beyond the Fathers, provided he not to depart from the literal and obvious sense, except where reason makes it untenable or necessity requires;(40) a rule to which it is necessary to adhere strictly. Neither should passages be neglected which the Fathers understood in an allegorical sense. This method of interpretation has been received by the Church from the Apostles, and has been approved by her Liturgy; although the Fathers did not thereby pretend directly to demonstrate dogmas, but used it as a means of promoting virtue and piety.

The authority of other interpreters is not so great, but the study of Scripture has always continued to advance, and these commentaries have their own honourable place. It is unbecoming to pass by the excellent work which Catholics have left in abundance, and to have recourse to the works of non-Catholics – and to seek in them, to the peril of faith, the explanation of passages on which Catholics have successfully employed their talent. Although the studies of non-Catholics may be of use, bear in mind that the sense of Holy Scripture can nowhere be found incorrupt outside of the Church.

16. Theology should be animated by the divine Word. The Fathers desired to, chiefly out of the Sacred Writings, establish the Articles of Faith, and it was in them, with Tradition, that they found the refutation of error and the mutual relation of the truths of Catholicism. Without their use, Theology cannot be placed on its true footing. 'If the adversary do but grant any portion of the divine revelation, we have an argument against him. If our opponent reject divine revelation entirely, there is no way to prove the Article of Faith by reasoning; we can only solve the difficulties which are raised against them.'(44) Care must be taken that beginners approach the Bible well prepared; otherwise they will risk error, falling prey to the sophisms of the Rationalists. The best preparation will be philosophy and theology under the guidance of St. Thomas.

17. Maintenance of its [the Bible's] full authority cannot be done except by the Church. But since the magisterium rests on the authority of Scripture, the first thing to be done is to vindicate the trustworthiness of the sacred records at least as human documents, from which can be clearly proved the Divinity of Christ, the institution of a hierarchical Church and the primacy of Peter and his successors. It is desirable that the clergy enter upon a contest of this nature, not unaccustomed to modern methods of attack. 'For unless he knows every trick, the devil is well able, if only a single door be left open, to get in his fierce bands and carry off the sheep.'(48)

The study of Oriental languages and of the art of criticism are held in high estimation, and therefore the clergy, acquainted with them, will better discharge their office. It is most proper that Professors master those tongues in which the sacred Books were originally written, and students also. Endeavours should be made to establish chairs of other ancient languages, especially the Semitic, and of subjects connected therewith, for the benefit of those intended to profess sacred literature, thoroughly acquainted with the art of true criticism.

There has arisen, to the great detriment of religion, an inept method by the name of "higher criticism," which pretends to judge of the integrity of each Book from internal indications alone. In historical questions the witness of history is of primary importance; internal evidence is seldom of great value. To look upon it in any other light will be to open the door to many evil consequences. It will give rise to dissension and the elimination of all prophecy and miracle.

18. Those who scrutinize the Sacred Book to vilify its contents are peculiarly dangerous to the masses, for if they lose their reverence for the Holy Scripture on one or more points, [they] are easily led to give up believing in it altogether. Science is adapted to show forth the glory of the Great Creator, provided it be taught as it should be. If it be perversely imparted, it may prove fatal in destroying true philosophy and in the corruption of morality. Hence, to the Professor of Sacred Scripture a knowledge of natural science will be of great assistance.

There can never be any real discrepancy between the theologian and the physicist, as long both are careful "not to make rash assertions, or to assert what is not known as known."(51) 'Whatever they can demonstrate to be true of nature, we must show to be capable of reconciliation with our Scriptures; and whatever is contrary we must prove entirely false.'(52) The Holy Ghost "did not intend to teach men these things, things in no way profitable unto salvation."(53) Hence they described things in figurative language, in terms which in many instances are in use even by the most eminent men of science. Ordinary speech primarily and properly describes what comes under the senses; and the sacred writers "went by what sensibly appeared."(54)

19. The Fathers, in commenting on physical matters, expressed ideas of their own times which have been abandoned as incorrect. We must note what they lay down as belonging to faith, for "in those things which do not come under the obligation of faith, the Saints were at liberty to hold divergent opinions."(55)

20. The principles here apply to History. It is lamentable that many investigations on antiquity display not only extreme hostility, but the greatest unfairness: in their eyes a profane book or ancient document is accepted without hesitation, whilst the Scripture is set down as quite untrustworthy. It is true that copyists have made mistakes in the text of the Bible, but good hermeneutical methods assist in clearing up obscurity.

It is absolutely wrong and forbidden to narrow inspiration to certain parts only of Scripture or to admit that the sacred writer has erred. The system of those who concede that divine inspiration regards faith and morals, and nothing beyond, cannot be tolerated. All the books which the Church receives as canonical are written wholly and entirely, with all their parts, at the dictation of the Holy Ghost. Inspiration is incompatible with error. It is impossible that God, the supreme Truth, can utter that which is not true. This is the unchanging faith of the Church. 'The Books of the Old and New Testament, with all their parts, are to be received as sacred and canonical because, having been written under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, they have God for their author.'(57)

Because the Holy Ghost employed men, we cannot say that these inspired instruments have fallen into error, for, by supernatural power, He so moved and impelled them to write the things which He ordered, and those only. They rightly expressed infallible truth. Otherwise, it could not be said that He was the Author of the entire Scripture. "His members executed what their Head dictated."(58) "Most superfluous it is to inquire who wrote these things – we loyally believe the Holy Ghost to be the Author of the book. He wrote it Who dictated it for writing."(59)

21. Those who maintain that an error is possible in any genuine passage of the sacred writings pervert inspiration or make God the author of error. All the Fathers and Doctors agreed that the divine writings are free from all error, [and] laboured with reverence to reconcile with each other passages which seem at variance – which have been taken up by "higher criticism." God, speaking by the sacred writers, could not set down anything but what was true. 'If in these Books I meet anything contrary to truth, either the text is faulty, or the translator has not expressed the meaning, or I myself do not understand.'(60)

22. To undertake fully, with all the weapons of science, the defence of the Holy Bible is an enterprise in which we expect the co-operation of all Catholics. For nothing is better calculated to impress the masses with respect for truth than to see it boldly proclaimed by learned and distinguished men. Moreover, objectors will not dare to insist so shamelessly that faith is the enemy of science.

23. If apparent contradiction be met with, every effort should be made to remove it. Hostile arguments should be carefully weighed. Even if the discrepancy seems to remain, the contest must not be abandoned; truth cannot contradict truth, and we must suspend judgment for the time being. As time goes on, mistaken views die and disappear, but "truth remaineth and groweth stronger for ever and ever."(61) No one should be so presumptuous as to think that he understands the whole of the Scripture: 'It is better to be oppressed by unknown signs than to interpret them uselessly and be caught in error.'(63)

24. Put into practice the training of students, which is the Church's hope. Approach the Sacred Writings with reverence and piety, for it is impossible to attain understanding unless arrogance be laid aside.

2. Conc. Vac. sess. iii. cap. ii. de revel.
6. 2 Tim. iii., 16-17.
11. In Isaiam liv., 12.
17. S. Athan. ep. fest. xxxix.
19. S. Hier. de vita cleric. ad Nepot.
21. S. Aug. serm. clxxix., I.
24. S. Hier. in Mic. i., 10.
28. I Tim. vi., 20.
29. Sess. iv., decr. de edit. et usu sacr. libror.
30. De doctr. chr. iii., 4.
31. Ad Pammachium.
33. C. haer. iv., 26, 5.
34. Sess. iii., cap. ii., de revel.; cf. Conc. Trid, sess. iv. decret de edit. et usu sacr. libror.
37. Ad Honorat. de util. cred. xvii., 35.
38. Rufinus Hist eccl. ii., 9.
40. De Gen. ad litt. I, viii., c. 7, 13.
44. Summ. theol. p. i., q. i., a. 5 ad 2.
48. De sacerdotio iv., 4.
51. In Gen. op. imperf. ix., 30.
52. De Gen. ad litt. i. 21, 41.
53. S. Aug. ib. ii., 9, 20.
54. Summa theol. p. I, q. lxx., a. I, ad 3.
55. In Sent. ii., Dist. q. i., a. 3.
57. Sess. iii., c. ii., de Rev.
58. De consensu Evangel. 1. I, c. 35.
59. Praef. in Job, n. 2.
60. Ep. lxxxii., i. et crebrius alibi.
61. 3 Esdr. iv., 38.
63. De doctr. chr. iii., 9, 18.


  1. Thanks for doing this Peter. It just so happens I was looking for something like this this morning. Have you considered doing something similar with the other great papal encyclicals on Sacred Scripture?

    Pope Benedict XV,
    Encyclical Letter Commemorating the Fifteenth Centenary of the Death of St. Jerome,
    Spiritus Paraclitus, 1920

    Pope Pius XII,
    Encyclical Letter Promoting Biblical Studies,
    Divino Afflante Spiritu, 1943


  2. I've only recently been made aware of the Encyclical of Pope Benedict XV of which you speak, and mean to read it at some point in time. I would eventually like to give a similar treatment to Divino Afflante Spiritu and Dei Verbum as well, though I don't know when I'll get around to it. And of course, I'll be keeping an eye for our current Holy Father's forthcoming apostolic exhortation following the recent Synod on the Word.

    I'm glad you found this useful! Thanks for your interest.

    God bless,