Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

The Holy Office Monitum on the Teaching of Scripture

by Gerald T. Kennedy, O.M.I.

Descriptive Title

The Holy Office Monitum on the Teaching of Scripture


This article is just as useful today as when it was written. It principally concerns the Holy Office Monitum on the historical truth of Sacred Scripture issued on June 20, 1961 to address the modernist errors that were cropping up in various countries.

Larger Work

The American Ecclesiastical Review



Publisher & Date

The Catholic University of America Press, September 1961

Vision Book Cover Prints

The recent Monitum to biblical scholars issued by the Holy Office brings readily to mind the thought of the solicitude of Holy Mother Church for the purity of doctrine and the safety of Her children. Undoubtedly many will interpret the monitum as a slap on the wrist to those who tend to stray too far to the left in the search of innovation and novelty. The monitum was certainly that, but it was also much more. It was an unusually strong directive designed to reestablish a more prudent caution in the field of exegesis where the danger of novelty is all too evident and where a misguided step can lead to disaster. The customary prudence in matters so delicate has been lost in some quarters where a questionable enthusiasm for the new has led to an oversight or abandonment of what is old and solid. The monitum has proved again that the biblical scholar will be only as proficient in Sacred Scripture as he is proficient in dogmatic theology. Risking the wrath of my fellow biblicists, I make bold to state that in recent years we have tended to place the shoe on the other foot. Since the field of Sacred Scripture is no man's private domain we should study the monitum and apply its lessons to ourselves. The Holy Office has given us an opportunity for searching our souls. It has refocused research for those whose eyes are temporarily myopic.

The grass root dissatisfaction with both the technical and the popular presentation of recent scriptural studies has been growing apace. A remarkable lack of prudence on the part of some teachers has been very evident to those who have the office of the care of souls. Incidents of confusion, doubt and shakened faith have caused concern about what the young curate has been taught in the seminary. In defense of the curate it might be stated that the pastor in many instances was a priest before the curate was born and that scriptural studies have advanced remarkably in the intervening years. Nonetheless, some young priests have either stretched or shattered their prudence in presenting biblical material. A zealous enthusiasm is a poor substitute for prudence. It still remains true that certain areas of intellectual activity should be reserved for the treading of competent angels. The mimeographed notes of the majority of professors of Sacred Scripture should be stored in the young priest's desk and consulted when circumstances demand or when Junior Clergy examinations threaten. Then they should be taken out, read, digested properly and returned to their place. Our people are not theologians and their minds should not be bogged down with the perplexing questions that challenge the professorial minds. They should be given certain, solid material in the area of the intellect, just as they are in the area of the will. People with the capacity for fine distinctions are rare and can be treated according to their abilities. None should draw the conclusion that such a stand is anti-intellectual. It is simply prudence, tact or common sense. The young curate would do well to leave abstruse questions behind him in the rectory where they can enliven a dull meal or hone the minds of his fellow priests. Generally, the "working" priest has handled the Scriptures well. It remains to be seen if the "professional" has done the same.

Within recent years scriptural articles have appeared in abundance. Few theological conferences have been held without at least veiled references to the Dead Sea scroll material. Bibles have multiplied in marvelous fashion and family Bible reading has become common. So much interest has been fostered recently that the trend has become what some term the Biblical Movement. Interest in the liturgy prompted by the encyclical Mediator Dei has given it added impetus. The arrival of the monitum of the Holy Office has been providential, for the time was ripe for the prudent counsel of the Church.

At this time one should look to fundamentals for the purpose of reorientation. We would suggest the rereading of the discourses to the bishops by Pope Pius XII on May 31 and Nov. 2, 1954.1 The Holy Father outlined therein the magisterial, priestly and governing functions of the bishops. Once these truths are set in order, a theologian by profession or a teacher by occupation will find his proper place in the scheme of expounding truth and realize that his office is that of co-operator or collaborator with the hierarchy. In the earliest days of the Church, the teaching function was executed by the bishops who were especially endowed by the Holy Spirit with numerous charisms. As the day of the charism set, the extraordinary manifestations of the Holy Spirit diminished and an economy conforming to the habitual ways of divine providence came into operation. Almighty God then employed the talents of priestly minds collaborating with the successors of Peter and the apostles. This association of priestly work was not simply pastoral or sacramental. It was also strongly catechetic and academic. Long before the scholastics employed the phrase, faith was seeking understanding. The deposit of faith needed elucidation and application to the manifold problems of the nascent Church. The message of the Old Testament veiled both by time and a people with a darkened mind was brought into the sunlight of God's love by the coming of Christ.2 The mystery of Christ, His person, His redemptive work and the establishment of His kingdom, the Church, became the objects of intense study. Under ordinary circumstances the laborious task very often fell upon the shoulders of the bishops whose native talents and spiritual endowments singularly fitted them for the work.

An examination of any standard patristic textbook will reveal the glories of Latin, Greek and Syrian bishops who performed their magisterial functions through the spoken and written word. The complexities of ecclesiastical government occasioned by the interior and exterior development of the Church, the constant pressure of hostile forces outside and occasional recalcitrants within forged a strong bond between the bishops and the professional theologians, particularly in the area of writing. History has recognized the theological competence of those outside the episcopal ranks and the Church itself has officially declared them Doctors of the Church on the basis of their sanctity, their orthodoxy and the high theological quality of their writings. It should be noted quickly that co-operation with the hierarchy in the magisterial function was the accepted modus operandi. The theologians did not consider themselves intellectual mavericks endowed with superior intelligence apart from the general flow of ecclesiastical activity. They operated in a specific area but saw their work as an integral part of an organic whole. At this early stage in the intellectual life of the Church the possibility of insular thinking was remote, since theology was not compartmentalized. The function of the so-called scriptural theologian was to read, reread, study, restudy, interpret, reinterpret and write about the sacred text. He was obliged to state what was certain and what was doubtful, to present his findings soberly and exactly and then to present them for the spiritual nourishment of the people of God. Sacred Scripture was for him a golden lode to be mined and its treasures placed in the hands of the Church. These basic thoughts became the norms of the ecclesiastical writers, thus guiding them and enriching the Church. Whenever they have waned because of vanity or other species of human weakness, the people of God have been robbed of their inheritance. The recent monitum has sounded a warning note that some have started to stray from the path and need to reorientate themselves and their thinking.

The return to this former approach to the study and explanation of Sacred Scripture must be accomplished with prudence. Those who are mishandling the Scriptures should be given fair warning that they are treading on dangerous ground. For some a monitum is never sufficient and stronger action must be taken. The Church through the bishops will employ its diligence in such extreme cases and bring offenders to task. Perhaps the monitum will perform its function and separate sheep from goats. Much good will come from it.


One particularly distressing section of the monitum concerns the opinions and judgments that "endanger the true, historic and objective truth of the Sacred Scriptures, not only of the Old Testament . . . but also of the New, even as regards the words and deeds of Our Lord." These opinions and judgments flow from erroneous concepts of form criticism and historical method and their nefarious application to the sacred text. The preoccupation with literary form has been the bane of traditional scholars. Undoubtedly, literary forms having parallels in non-biblical material have shed light on the text. Preoccupation with them has been a curse. One is often reminded of the blind man in the darkened room looking for the black cat that is not there. The literary form method of interpreting Scripture, while helpful, is subtly dangerous and should be used almost as an exception to the rule. People generally say what they think and write what they want to convey. Scripture scholars might keep this in mind when reading the text and look to a literary form when the rules of logic and literary interpretation indicate that a literary form might be employed. The appeal to form on any occasion can be a subterfuge for lack of thought and proper diligence.

The reference to history brings immediately to mind the school of Bultmann, which seems to take more pleasure in the pursuit of truth than in its attainment. Most of the post-reformation errors are found in one place or another in the scriptural odyssey from doubt through numerous opinions back to doubt. Bultmann professed that Christ did not believe that he was the Messias, but that the Messias was created by the primitive Christian community. Bultmann would have the primitive communities construct the canonical gospels and devise an apostolic creed by some sort of wishful thinking. 3 Attempts to confute the claims of Bultmann have led to the acceptance of certain of his views. The adaptations of his biblical theology have found their way into occasional articles, which the uninformed have been unable to discern. It is in this particular area that the gravest harm is being done. A word of caution should be given those writing in this area. Once again such Catholic writers should remember their audience, and not portray as true what is in particular cases highly theoretical and most assuredly offensive to pious ears. The tendency to view things artificially and symbolically carries with it the danger of treating historical matters in a less than real fashion. There was nothing unreal about Our Lord and there was nothing artificial about Him. He was a real, concrete, historical character. The events of His life were real, concrete and historical. His death and His resurrection were real, concrete, and historical. Therein lay the mystery. This thought must have made a deep impression on St. John who, with a directness flowing from a real simplicity, wrote:

I write of what was from the beginning', what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked upon and our hands have handled: of the Word of Life.4

This was the same John who wrote that "the Word was made flesh," and who wrote the last Gospel containing the deeds and words of the "Word made flesh." This intimate connection between the Verbum and the historical account of the Gospel or the words about the Word should not be lost in an exegetical storm blown up by literary forms and historical methodology. This thought is beautifully portrayed in The Four Gospels, by Cerfaux:

And in the Gospel, too the word becomes flesh--it is a historical, concrete, factual record of our Lord. And the two are intimately connected. It would have been of no value to us that the Word became flesh if after a few years of his mortal existence we lost contact with him; if all that were left to us were "the Christ of faith." There are people who claim it was the faith of the Church, which created the gospels; that the gospels are wonderful legends, pious imaginations in which the Church expressed its devotion to its leader. They then dismantle the solid edifice of the gospels in an attempt to get back to the Christ of history behind the Christ of faith. And when they find that their meddling brings down the building in ruins about their ears, they console themselves with the theory that it is after all faith alone which counts--like people who would have a roof over their heads with nothing to support it. But the Christ of faith is the Christ of history. It is not the devotion of the Church which produced the gospels, but exactly the opposite--the gospels are the firm foundation of the Church's faith.5

The early Christians had more than a passing interest in the biographical accounts of the evangelists. They desired to know Christ as He really was and not as they might construct Him in their imaginations. The alleged transformation in post-apostolic thinking according to the theories of the radical form critics is based upon the rationalistic meanderings of minds intent on creating rather than finding truth. It is coupled with a false historical method fashioned by an arbitrariness born of the need to escape the consequences of accepting the historical Christ.

Much has been written on the value of analyzing ancient literature and its contribution to the understanding of Sacred Scripture. Much more value arises from analyzing the Scriptures as the Word of God. Intelligence and academic background, constant work and experience are not enough. They must be accompanied by a spirit of humility; for the problems of the text can try the keenest minds and the strongest wills. Those engaged in the work of explaining the Word of God need take the advice which St. Augustine directed toward them: "Orent ut intelligant." With a humble, prayerful mind, progress will be made. Without it, scriptural studies will be tedious and practically barren. The biblicist and those who profit from his learning may then proceed with the following thoughts in mind:

1) By reason of the fact of inspiration there is no formal error in Sacred Scripture.

2) Since Scripture is a source of divine revelation, it has been committed to the care and guardianship of the Church.

3) Since tradition is a font of revelation, the unanimous consent of the Fathers of the Church must be considered a norm of interpretation.

4) In parts of Sacred Scripture not defined by the Church and where there is no unanimous consent on the part of the Fathers of the Church, the interpreter should harmonize his conclusions with other elements of divine truth.

5) The New Testament compliments the Old and brings it to fulfillment.

In conclusion it might be well to recall the words of the Divino Afflante Spiritu:

The Sacred Books were not given by God to men to satisfy their curiosity or to provide them with material for study and research, but, as the Apostle observes, in order that these Divine Oracles might "instruct us to salvation, by the faith which is in Christ Jesus" and "that the man of God may be perfect, furnished to every good work." Let priests therefore, who are bound by their office to procure the eternal salvation of the faithful, after they have themselves by diligent study perused the sacred pages and made them their own by prayer and meditations assiduously distribute the heavenly treasures of the divine word by sermons, homilies and exhortations. . . Let them set forth all this with such eloquence, lucidity and clearness that the faithful may not only be moved and inflamed to reform their lives, but also may conceive in their hearts the greatest veneration for the Sacred Scripture.6

Gerald T. Kennedy, O.M.I.


1 These are the allocutions Si diligis and Magnificate Dominum. The Latin text and English translation of the former are to be found in The American Ecclesiastical Review, CXXXI, 2 (Aug., 1954), 127-37. The English translation of the Magnificate Dominum is printed in AER, CXXXII, 1 (Jan., 1955), 52-63.

2 Cf. II Cor., 3:12-20.

3 Cf. Bultmann, "History and Eschatology in the New Testament," in New Testament Studies, I (1954), 5-16, and Benoit, Exegese et theologie (Paris: Les editions du Cerf, 1961), pp. 62-90.

4 John, 1:1.

5 Cerfaux, An Historical Introduction to the Four Gospels (Westminster, Maryland: The Newman Press, 1960), p. xv.

6 Pius XV, Divino Afflante Spiritu (N.C.W.C. edition), par. 49-50.

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