Pope Leo XIII, Apostolic Letter, Vigilantiae - On the Institution of a Commission for Biblical Studies
October 30, 1902
Faithful to the tradition of watchfulness and zeal by which We, first of all, because of Our office, are bound to preserve the deposit of faith safe and inviolate, We gave to the world in the year 1893 the Encyclical Providentissimus Deus . In it We included, after due examination, a number of questions concerning the study of Holy Scripture. The grandeur and extreme utility of the subject impelled Us, in effect, to determine, as far as in Us lay, the directive principle of those studies so necessary now that the increase of erudition confronts Us every day with the consideration of novel questions which are sometimes in danger of being treated in a manner fraught with rashness.
Wherefore, We have warned all Catholics, and especially those in Holy Orders, of the work which each one should undertake in this matter in accordance with the abilities with which he is endowed, and We applied Ourselves with the greatest care to show how and in what manner these studies should be developed in conformity with the needs of our epoch. This document has not been without result, and it is with joy that We recall the testimonies of submission which the bishops and a great number of men eminent in science hastened to give Us while proclaiming at the same time the opportuneness and the importance of what We had written; and promising to conform with the greatest diligence to Our instructions. Another remembrance no less agreeable comes to Us in the fact that excellent beginnings were immediately made by some in the direction indicated, and an enthusiasm awakened in various places in the prosecution of such studies. Nevertheless, We remark that the causes which prompted Us to publish the previous letter are still persistent and more serious. It is therefore necessary to insist more emphatically on what has already been enjoined and more than ever to express Our desire that Our Venerable Brethren of the episcopate should watch with the greatest vigilance over these studies.
To ensure greater facility as well as fruitfulness, We have resolved to add new strength to Our authority in this matter. As the task now before Us of explaining these divine books and maintaining them ifact is too difficult for our Catholic interpreters to acquit themselves well of, if left to their individual efforts, and because the work is nevertheless so necessary on account of the manifold development of science and the appearance of such multitudinous error, it is deemed proper that a federation of energies should be made, and that assistance should be afforded under the auspices and direction of the Apostolic See. This result, it appears to Us, be easily attained if We make use in the present instance of the means which We have already employed for advancing of her studies.
Wherefore it has seemed good to Us to institute a council or, is it is termed, a Commission of men of learning whose duty shall to effect that in every possible manner the divine text will find here and from every quarter the most thorough interpretation which is demanded by our times, and be shielded not only from every breath of error, but also from every temerarious opinion. It is proper that the principal seat of this Commission should be in Rome, under the very eyes of the Sovereign Pontiff. As it is the seat of the mistress and guardian of Christian knowledge, it should also be the center from which there should flow through the whole body of the Christian commonwealth the pure incorruptible teaching of this science which is now so indispensable. The men of whom this Commission shall be composed, in order to satisfy fully the serious obligation which is laid upon them and which confers on them such distinction, should as peculiarly and especially their own the tasks which are here proposed to their zeal.
In the first place, having established exactly what is the actual inteIlectual trend of the present day with regard to this science, that they should bear in mind that none of the recent discoveries which the human mind has made are foreign to the purpose of their work. On the contrary, let them make haste in any case where our times have discovered something useful in the matter of biblical exegesis to avail themselves of it forthwith and by their writings to put it at the service of all.
Wherefore they should devote themselves with the greatest care to the study of philology and kindred sciences and keep themselves abreast of the progress of the day. As it is generally on this point that the attacks on Holy Scripture are made, it is there that we should likewise gather our arms of defense; so that there may be no inequality in the struggle between truth and error. Likewise they shall take measures that the knowledge of the ancient and oriental languages, and above all the art of deciphering the ancient texts, should be assiduously cultivated. In our contest with unbelievers, both of these kinds of studies are, as a matter of fact, a precious help in biblical studies.
In what concerns the integral safeguarding of the authority of the Scriptures, the members of the Commission will employ an active vigilance and unremitting assiduity. The main point to be attained is that Catholics should not admit the malignant principle of granting more than is due to the opinion of heterodox writers, and of thinking that the true understanding of the Scriptures should be sought first of all in the researches which the erudition of unbelievers has arrived at. Indeed, no Catholic can consider as subject to doubt these truths which We have elsewhere referred to at greater length, and they must know that God has not delivered the Scriptures to the private judgment of the learned, but has confided the interpretation of them to the teaching of the Church.
In the matter of faith and morals which pertain to the teaching of Christian Doctrine, the sense of Holy Scripture, which must be considered as the true sense, is that which has been adopted and is adopted by our holy mother, the Church, whose office it is to judge of the real meaning and interpretation of Holy Scripture. It is therefore not permitted to anyone to interpret the Holy Scripture in any way contrary to this sense, or even in any way contrary to the universal opinion of the Fathers (Conc. Vat. sess. III, cap. ii).
As We were saying, the nature of the divine books is such that in order to dissipate the religious obscurity with which they are shrouded we must never count on the laws of hermeneutics, but must address ourselves to the Church, which has been given by God to mankind as a guide and teacher. In brief, the legitimate sense of the divine Scriptures ought not to be found outside the Church nor be pronounced by those who have repudiated its teaching and authority.
The men who are to compose this Commission should therefore watch with great care to safeguard these principles and to keep them, as time goes on, with still greater strictness. And if certain minds profess an exaggerated admiration for heterodox writers, they must be led by persuasion to follow and to obey faithfully the direction of the Church.
Doubless there may arise an occasion when the Catholic interpreter may find some assistance in authors outside of the Church, especially in matters of criticism, but here there is need of prudence and discernment. Let our doctors cultivate with care the science of criticism, for it is of great utility in order to grasp in its complete sense the opinion of hagiographers; and in that they will receive Our warmest approbation. Let them draw from this science new resources by availing themselves even of the assistance of non-Catholic scholars. In doing so they need not fear Our disapprobation. They should, however, be careful not to draw from habitual association with such writers independence of judgment, for in point of fact the system which is known in our days as higher criticism frequently leads to such results. Its dangerous rashness We have more than once already condemned.
In the third place, it is of importance that this Commission should consecrate its most special attention to that part of these studies which properly concerns the explanation of the Scriptures and which opens to the faithful a great source of spiritual profit. In whatever touches the texts whose sense has been fixed in an authentic manner, either by the sacred writers or by the Church, the Commission, it is needless to say, should be convinced that only that interpretation can be adopted. Such is the rule of sound hermeneutics. But there exist numerous passages upon which the Church has not yet given any fixed or precise definition, with regard to which it is permitted to each doctor in his individual capacity to profess and to sustain the opinion which seems to be correct. They must know, however, that on these points they should keep as the rule of interpretation the analogy of faith and of Catholic doctrine. Moreover, we must be on our guard in this matter against transgressing in the excessive ardor of debate, the limits of mutual charity. It is also of importance not to seem to discuss revealed truths and divine traditions. If they make light of intellectual concord, and if these principles are not safeguarded, we cannot have any right to expect that the divergent labors of such a great number of scholars will accomplish any notable progress in this science.
Hence this Commission will have as its task to regulate in a legitimate and suitable manner the principal questions which are pending between Catholic doctors in order to arrive at a conclusion. To settle them the assembly will lend sometimes the light of its judgment, sometimes the weight of its authority. Their investigations will also have a result of the greatest advantage, namely, that of furnishing to the Holy See an opportune occasion to declare what ought to be inviolably maintained by Catholics, what ought to be reserved for more profound research, and what ought to be left to the free judgment of each.
Having, therefore, in view to ensure the maintenance of Catholic authority in its integrity, and to promote the studies which relate to Holy Scripture in conformity with the rules which have been herein laid down, We, by these present Letters, establish in this illustrious city a council or a special Commission. We wish it to be composed of some Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church who shall be chosen in virtue of Our authority. It is Our intention to add to them with the functions and titles of consultors, and to take part in the same studies and the sane labors, as it is customary in the sacred Roman commissions, certain eminent men who belong to different nationalities, who are recommended by their knowledge in sacred studies, and above all, in whatever appertains to biblical science.
The Commission will hold its fixed reunions and publish its writings, which will appear periodically or as need may require. If advice is asked of it, it will reply to those who consult it. In a word, it will labor by all means in its power to maintain and to develop the studies of which we speak. We desire that a report concerning all the questions which may be treated in common should be addressed to the Sovereign Pontiff by the Consultor to whom the Commission will have confided the office of secretary.
In order to furnish members of the Commission with available help, which will be of service to them in any of these studies, We herewith assign to them for this purpose a certain portion of Our Vatican Library. We shall take care that a numerous collection of manuscripts and volumes of every epoch which treat of biblical questions shall without delay be classified and placed at the disposition of the commissioners. It is very desirable that well-to-do Catholics should come to Our assistance to establish and enlarge this library in sending to Us resources to be employed for this end, or useful books, and in so doing they will render a service in a most fitting manner to Almighty God, who is the Author of the Scriptures and of the Church.
Moreover, We have confidence that divine Providence will amply bless this undertaking, which has for its direct object the safe-guarding of Christian faith and the eternal salvation of souls, and that Catholics who are devoted to the holy books will respond with an absolute and complete submission to the declarations of the Holy See on this point.
We wish and We ordain that all and everyone of these prescriptions and decisions which it has seemed good to Us to make and to formulate on this point shall be and shall remain ratified and confirmed in the manner which We have adopted and formulated, anything to the contrary notwithstanding.