Sept. 15 marked the 100th anniversary of the publication of Pope Benedict XV’s encyclical Spiritus Paraclitus(The [Holy] Spirit, the Comforter).
The Holy Father released the document to celebrate the 1,500th anniversary of the death of St. Jerome, who first translated the Bible into Latin. The publication of an encyclical is an important moment in the life of the Church, and it is a good practice, on the major anniversaries of encyclicals, to recall their teaching and apply it once again.
Benedict XV’s Spiritus Paraclitus is one of several important encyclicals released in the late-19th and 20th centuries on the topic of Scripture. These began with Leo XIII’s Providentissimus Deusin 1893, then Spiritus Paraclitus in 1920, and Pius XII’s Divino Afflante Spirituin 1943. All of these influenced Dei Verbum, the Second Vatican Council’s 1965 dogmatic constitution on divine Revelation.
We have not had an encyclical on Scripture since, but Pope Benedict XVI’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation Verbum Domini(2010) and Pope Francis’ recent apostolic letterentitled Aperuit Illis(2019) have provided welcome updates.
The reason the Church did not have an encyclical on Scripture until 1893 is not because, as some believe, Catholics didn’t start reading the Bible until long after the Reformation. Rather, two other factors were at work.
First, prior to the so-called “Enlightenment” period in Europe (1715-1789, really an “Endarkenment,” given the wholesale rejection of Catholic teaching which took place during that time), there was no significant distinction in Christianity between the study of the Bible and the study of theology generally. It would not have made sense to most medieval thinkers, for example, to carve out “Biblical Studies” as a separate discipline.
Secondly, the Enlightenment also went hand in hand with the rise of so-called “Higher Criticism,” a form of biblical study that treated the Scriptures as no different in origin and essence than any other piece of ancient literature, like Homer’s Iliad or the Code of Hammurabi.
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