Writer explains why liberal Bible studies can be hazardous to your Catholic faith


1889 marked the opening of the Catholic University of America, designed in the hopes that it would be the intellectual center for the American church. It was decided as early as 1885 that the professor of Scripture for the university be a German, with no other concerns in regard to his training. George Mivart was chosen as the professor of science, although he was never officially offered a post. His work in biblical theology was listed on the Index of Forbidden Books before he had a chance to be offered a position, and he was excommunicated a few years later.

Bishop John Keane was the first rector of the Catholic University, and was counseled by such people as Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul, who encouraged Keane to pursue “good sound liberalism”, believing that confidence and the support of the American people would make his efforts successful. Bishop John Ireland and Fr. Issac Hecker, founder in 1858 of the Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle (The Paulists – Paulist Press) are primarily responsible for pushing the liberal agenda in the United States.

By this time, American bishops and professors involved in the university started to rely heavily on the liberal ideas in Europe (especially Germany), for guiding and directing their own biblical studies.

Catholic scholars, also continuing to enlist the aid of protestant theology, had already begun to relax the rule of traditional interpretation, which festered into a false view of inspiration, allowing that the Bible contained errors in matters of history and natural science.

These errors were the motivation for Pope Leo XIII’s 1893 encyclical Providentissimus Deus. “The chief purpose of this encyclical is to set forth and defend the Church’s doctrine on the absolute truth of the inspired Scriptures. There may be scribal errors in manuscripts, the meaning of a passage may be doubtful, a translator may be at fault; but in an original Scripture, as it left the hand of the hagiographer, there can be no lapse from truth. The ancient and constant faith of the Church peremptorily disallows any restriction of inspiration to certain parts of the Bible, such, for instance, as doctrinal parts only, and equally forbids the concesion that in some points – even a minor point or an obiter dictum – the sacred writer may have erred. The formula is that every Scripture is as necessarily inerrant as it is ecessarily impossible that God should be the Author of error.”

“After laying down the principles guiding the solution of the main difficulties Pope Leo went on to insist not only on close adherence to the Catholic tradition of interpretation, but also on the use of all modern helps, and especially on the utility of up-to-date introduction, of a knowledge of biblical and other oriental languages, of the critical establishment of the true text, of the rigorous application of sound hermeneutical rules, and of the external illustration of the Bible by apposite crudition – with the proviso that the doctrinal contents of the Bible be not swamped in a flood of philology, history, archaeology and the like.”

Like the Syllabus of Errors, many liberal theologians tried to ignore or explain away Providentissimus Deus. Adhering to the “Catholic tradition of interpretation” was something they were far from interested in. Two were forced to resign from their university positions – one from the Catholic Institute in Paris – the other, Bishop John Keane, rector of the Catholic University in America. He was dismissed in 1896.

But the battle wasn’t over. There had also begun a new over-reliance on the holy spirit as a “personal guide” in biblical studies. Somehow, the same liberal professors in Europe and America who had originally taught the Bible was scientifically inacurate suddenly became mystical theologians more graced and gifted than the whole of the Teaching Church, as this reliance on “holy spirit as personal guide” was believed by these theologians to even outweigh the authority of the teaching Church.

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