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Biblical Commission

Committee of cardinals charged with the proper interpretation and defense of Scripture

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Biblical Commission, the, a committee of cardinals at Rome who, with the assistance of consultors, have to secure the observance of the prescriptions contained in the Encyclical “Providentissimus Deus” for the proper interpretation and defense of Sacred Scripture. Its official name is “Commissio Pontificia de re biblica”. It was formally established by the Apostolic letter of Leo XIII, “Vigilantiae”, October 30, 1902.

Constitution.—The Commission was first appointed in August, 1901, with three cardinal members and twelve consultors. After the formal establishment two cardinals and twenty-eight consultors from various parts of the world were added to the first list. There is no limitation to the number of consultors. In June, 1907, the Commission was made up of five cardinals, Rampolla, Satolli, Merry del Val, Segna, and Vives y Tuto. The consultors were forty-three: Amelli, O.S.B. (Rome), Balestri, O.S.A. (Rome), Bardenhewer (Munich), Cereseto, Gong. Orat. (Genoa), Ceriani (Milan), Chauvin (Laval), Cornely, S.J. (Rome), Delattre, S.J. (Tronchiennes), Dusterwald (Cologne), Esser, O.P. (Rome), Fillion, P.S.S. (Paris), Fleming, O.F.M. (England), Fracassini (Perugia), Genocchi, M.S.C. (Rome), Gismondi, S.J. (Rome), Gonfalonieri (Florence), Grannan (Washington), Gutberlet (Fulda), Hoberg (Freiburg im Br.), Hopfi (Rome), van Hoonacker (Louvain), von Hummelauer, S.J. (Valkenburg), Janssens, O.S.B., Second Secretary (Rome), Torio (Palencia), Kaulen (Bonn), Lagrange, O.P. (Jerusalem), Lamy (Louvain), Legendre (Angers), Lepicier, S.M. (Rome), Lepidi, O.P. (Rome), Lesetre (Paris), Mangenot (Paris), Mechineau, S.J. (Rome), Mercati (Rome), Molini, O.F.M. (Rome), Nikel (Breslau), Poels (Washington), Prat, S.J. (Rome), B. Schaefer (Vienna), Scheil, O.P. (Paris), Talamo (Rome), Vigouroux, P.S.S., First Secretary (Rome), and Weiss (Braunsberg).

Method of Procedure.—The Commission is constituted on the lines of an ordinary Roman Congregation. The consultors in Rome hold meetings twice a month, at which the secretaries preside. The results of their deliberations are presented by the secretaries to the cardinals, who also meet twice a month, on the second and fourth Sundays. It belongs to the cardinals to propose the questions for the study of the Commission and they alone have a vote in determining the answers. They may sanction or modify the judgments of the consultors, or send back the entire question for further study, or may commission one or other consultor to make a special report. After the meeting, the secretaries report to the Holy Father, who may ratify the decision or remand the question for further consideration. Papers sent by consultors who live at a distance from Rome are read at the meetings of the consultors, when relevant to the subject under discussion.

Scope of the Commission.—It is the duty of the Commission: (I) to protect and defend the integrity of the Catholic Faith in Biblical matters; (2) to further the progress of exposition of the Sacred Books, taking account of all recent discoveries; (3) to decide controversies on grave questions which may arise among Catholic scholars; (4) to give answers to Catholics throughout the world who may consult the Commission; (5) to see that the Vatican Library is properly furnished with codices and necessary books; (6) to publish studies on Scripture as occasion may demand. It was the wish of Leo XIII that a periodical bulletin of Biblical studies should be published at Rome, and a special Institute for higher Biblical studies established. Lack of funds has made such an establishment impossible for the present, but the idea has not been abandoned. To the Commission has been entrusted the awarding of an annual prize, founded by Lord Braye, for the best essay on a Biblical topic. In April, 1907, the Commission, with the approval of the sovereign pontiff, invited the Benedictine Order to undertake a collection of the variant readings of the Latin Vulgate as a remote preparation for a thoroughly amended edition.

Degrees in Sacred Scripture.—On February 23, 1904, Pius X empowered the Commission to confer the degrees of Licentiate and Doctor in the faculty of Sacred Scripture on priests who, having previously attained the doctorate in theology, should pass successful examinations, oral and written, in matter defined by the Commission. The judges must be at least five consultors. Examinations have since been held twice a year, in June and November. The official announcements of the Commission are communicated to the “Revue Biblique”, which is not, however, the official organ of the Commission. (See “Revue Biblique”, 1905, p. 448.)

Decisions of the Commission.—Four important decisions on disputed Biblical questions have been issued by the Commission: (I) On the occurrence in Scripture of “implicit citations”, i.e. quotations from uninspired documents which the sacred writer does not vouch for, though he does not expressly acknowledge them as quotations. These may not be admitted unless proved by solid arguments (February 13, 1905). (2) On the historical character of certain narratives. It is not lawful to question the historical character of books hitherto regarded as historical, unless in a case where the sense of the Church is not opposed and where, subject to her judgment, it is proved by solid arguments that the sacred writer did not intend to write history (June 23, 1905). (3) On the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. This has not been disproved by critical arguments. Mosaic authorship, however, need not imply that Moses wrote with his own hand or dictated all of it; the books may have been composed by secretaries to whom he suggested the thoughts and whose work he approved as principal and inspired author. It is consistent also with the use by Moses of documents, oral or written, and does not exclude the presence of such additions or imperfections in the present text as would leave it substantially and integrally the work of Moses (June 27, 1906). (4) On the authorship and historical character of the Fourth Gospel. It is historically certain that St. John wrote it. The Gospel is an historical document, narrating the actual facts and speeches of Our Lord’s life (May 29, 1907).

Authority of its Decisions.—The Commission though formed like a Congregation is not a Congregation but seemingly of lower rank. Its decisions are approved by the pope and published by his command. Such approval, when given in forma communi, does not change the nature of the decisions as emanating from a Congregation or Commission, nor does it make them specifically pontifical acts; much less does it imply an exercise of the pope’s personal prerogative of infallibility. Hence they are not infallible or unchangeable, though they must be received with obedience and interior assent, by which we judge that the doctrine proposed is safe and to be accepted because of the authority by which it is presented. These decisions are not the opinions of a private assembly, but an official directive norm; to question them publicly would be lacking in respect and obedience to legitimate authority. We are not hindered from private study of the reasons on which they are based, and if some scholar should find solid arguments against a decision they should be set before the Commission.


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