For historians of Catholic thought, the century or so preceding the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) can easily appear to be a vast wasteland. From Pope Pius IX’s “Syllabus of Errors” (1864) to Pius X’s condemnation of theological Modernism in 1907, Church leaders seemed to offer a persistent and unrelenting “No” to every new development in modern thought. The Church’s hostility to all things new is perhaps nowhere more evident than in its attitude toward modern biblical studies, the use of the historical-critical method to examine sacred scripture with the same scientific objectivity that a historian would apply to any other text from the ancient Near East.
For scholars sympathetic to the Church, this period and the Church’s handling of these controversies are an embarrassment. For those unsympathetic, it is all an outrage and a symptom of the Church’s inveterate authoritarianism. In The Bible and the Crisis of Modernism: Catholic Criticism in the Twentieth Century, Tomáš Petráček revisits this material with sympathy and insight. Unlike scholars who write as if the Church should simply have given free rein to all scholarly inquiry, Petráček acknowledges that the Church, by its nature, had to approach these intellectual developments in a context broader than pure scholarship, a context he calls “the Teaching Order of the Church.” The status of scripture as revealed truth, inspired by the Holy Spirit, was essential to the Church’s mission to teach Catholic truth and evangelize the world. Scholarship was indeed instrumental to a higher end. For Petráček, the tension between scholarship as means and end takes on a tragic dimension since so many scholars eventually silenced by the Church believed their work was in fact serving the higher end of assisting the Church in proclaiming the truth of scripture. He presents the Church’s eventual embrace of some version of the historical-critical method as a vindication of these early pioneers.
Petráček’s account is detailed and nuanced. As in so many other areas of Church life, Leo XIII’s pontificate (1878-1903) marked a flowering of Catholic engagement with modern biblical studies. In 1890, the French Dominican Marie-Joseph LaGrange founded a Bible School in Jerusalem; LaGrange engaged not only new scholarly methods of textual analysis, but also promoted the rigorous study of ancient Near Eastern languages and encouraged participation in archeological excavations of ancient Biblical sites. Leo’s encyclical Providentissimus Deus (1893) provided in effect a papal endorsement of LaGrange’s efforts: affirming the infallibility of scripture, it nonetheless encouraged the pursuit of a deeper understanding of that infallibility through exegetical methods “both traditional and progressive” (70). Orthodoxy remained an issue and Leo founded a Pontifical Biblical Commission in 1902 to ensure that the new scholarly interpretations kept within the bounds of Church teaching. Petráček shows that this period actually saw a tremendous advance in modern Catholic biblical study while still managing to keep within the bounds of orthodoxy. A Czech national himself, Petráček highlights the work of four Czech scholars—Vincent Zapletal, Alois Musil, Jan Nepomuk Hejčl, and Vojtĕch Šanda—as examples of the compatibility of cutting-edge scholarship and fidelity to the Magisterium.
This golden age was not to last. Petráček provides fairly conventional explanations for this shift, including the temperamental intolerance of Pius X and the scandal of high-profile scholars such as Alfred Loisy, who publicly challenged Church authority. The bulk of the middle of the book recounts the intellectual stagnation that followed from Pius X’s condemnation of Modernism in 1907. The story has its happy ending with the Second Vatican Council, and particularly with the publication of Dei Verbum, the Council’s document on scripture, which constituted something of a recovery of the spirit of the earlier golden age of the 1890s.
Aside from his clear and detailed account of his subject, Petráček offers reflections and assessments that challenge the triumphalism of post-Vatican II scholars who see only authoritarian repression in the Church’s handling of the Modernist controversy. In a chapter titled, “Biblical Interpretation and the Teaching Order of the Church, he examines the pastoral and dogmatic concerns that led the Church to suppress modern biblical exegesis. At the end of the chapter, Petráček offers two contrasting assessments. First, he glosses a 2002 statement from then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, who at the time was serving as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: while Ratzinger conceded that “these developments could be interpreted as a tragic maltreatment of the freedom of theological thought . . . Nonetheless, [they] provided a necessary period of examination and maturation” (92). Second, he quotes renowned New Testament scholar Raymond Brown, who judges the restrictions of the early 20th century as nothing more than “reactionary conservatism,” which did permanent damage to the Church’s intellectual credibility in the eyes of secular and Protestant scholars (93).
The chapter gives the last word to Brown, but the book as a whole seems to side with Ratzinger. It is refreshing to read a scholar who at least tries to deal with the Church as it understands itself: not as a professional association of scholars but as a divinely ordained institution whose primary responsibility lies in the salvation of souls. One need not accept the Church’s self-understanding as true to appreciate that such a self-understanding would reasonably lead it to subordinate support for innovative scholarship to other, higher ends. In other fields of historical study, scholars generally assume that understanding past actors in their own terms first is essential to the art of interpretation. Histories of the Catholic Church in the modern era too often forget this virtue, seeing the Church only as a bastion of, well, “reactionary conservatism.” Petráček’s book offers a balanced alternative to such hostile histories, one that will benefit readers regardless of what they think of the truth claims of the Catholic Church.
Christopher Shannon is an associate professor of history at Christendom College.
Date Of Review:
July 27, 2023
Tomáš Petráček is a professor of modern social and church history at the University of Hradec Králové in the Czech Republic. He is the author of Church, Society and Change: Christianity Impaired by Conflicting Elites.
Addison Hart is an editor and translator who lives in Wooster, Ohio.
David Livingstone teaches English literature and other subjects at Palacký University, Olomouc, Czech Republic. He has translated a number of texts from Czech into English.
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