In 1893, Pope Leo XIII issued the Encyclical: Providentissimus Deus. It condemned any theory of the history of the Gospels which was based on internal evidence alone.

“There has arisen … an inept method, dignified by the name of the ‘higher criticism,’ which pretends to judge of the origin … of each Book from internal evidence alone. It is clear, that in historical questions, such as the origin and handing down of writings, the witness of history is of primary importance; … internal evidence is seldom of great value except as confirmation. This vaunted ‘higher criticism’ … will not throw on Scripture the light which is sought, or prove any advantage to doctrine, it will only give rise to disagreement and dissention, those sure notes of error …”  [Emphasis added by]

The same Pope established the Pontifical Biblical Commission in 1902 and Pope Pius X issued ‘Praestantia Sacrae Scripturae’ in 1907. A slightly amended version of this was published in 1910 and includes the passage:

‘… We now declare and expressly enjoin that all without exception are bound by an obligation of conscience to submit to the decisions of the Pontifical Biblical Commission on matters of doctrine, whether already issued or to be issued hereafter, exactly as to the decrees of the Sacred Congregations approved by the Pope; nor can anyone who by word or writing attacks the said decrees avoid the note both of disobedience and of rashness or be therefore without grave fault’. ((CCHS 47c)).

It is beyond our scope to discuss the relationship of the PBC to the ordinary Magisterium of the Church.  The Commission was very cautious.  For example it did not say that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, but that arguments put forward against his authorship were not strong enough to justify teaching that he was not the author.

An explanation and analysis of the purpose and work of the Commission is provided on pages 67-75 of the 1953 Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture.

In 1912 the Pontifical Biblical Commission issued a reply to the question:   As regards the chronological order of the Gospels is it right to depart from the opinion supported by the very ancient and constant testimony of tradition, which avers that after Matthew, who before all others wrote his Gospel in his native tongue, Mark was the second in order, and Luke the third to write?     Answer: In the negative.

We now know that this was mistaken advice for teachers, but we must remember that the PBC had the task of keeping false theories from being taught in Catholic educational establishments. In 1907 the President of the Commission had written that its duty was:

‘Providing Catholic teaching with wise and safe norms’, and giving ‘a directive norm’ to students ((CCHS 47f)).

While this was laudable motive, the Commission did carry it out in an over cautious and conservative manner.  In making sure the schools were ‘safe’ it had the unfortunately secondary effect of hindering the free research of the scholars trying to solve the problem. An exegete could privately disagree with the statements of the Commission but not oppose them in public.

There was the beginning of a less restricted attitude in ‘Divino Afflante Spiritu’, issued in 1943. It permitted the use of new methods of research, but also praised ‘Providentissimus Deus’ and insisted that the basic Catholic principles set out by the Biblical Commission had not been revised.

At the second Vatican Council it was realised that the teaching function of the PBC was causing problems. So it was abolished in all but name. But the years of frustration led to a spirit of distrust of any guidance from Rome. In this atmosphere many sincere lecturers, who had adopted Markan Priority and Modernism, felt free to spread their views within Catholic Institutions.

It is easy to criticise the work of the Biblical Commission at the turn of the century. It was overcautious and this did hamper research. But the Church is primarily a teaching body assisting people to know, love and serve God. It is not a society for theological research and debate. The PBC was fearful that unproved theories would be taught in Catholic schools as facts.

It was in 1971 that the nature of the Pontifical Biblical Commission was changed. In 1993, when Cardinal Ratzinger contributed the preface to: ‘The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church’, he wrote:

 “The PBC, in its new form after the Second Vatican Council, is not an organ of the teaching office, but rather a commission of scholars who, …take positions on important problems of scriptural interpretation …”

In 2002 Cardinal Ratzinger admitted the PBC had impeded Catholic exegesis.

In his report entitled: Relationship between Magisterium and exegetes, he said:

…., not only those decisions of the Biblical Commission which had entered too much in the sphere of merely historical questions were corrected; …

     30th May 2015  [G305]