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A question about Scriptural Inerrancy

05/11/2012 Comments (30)

He writes:

So I had googled the heck out the Pope Pius XII "polygenism" thing a while back, and today at my local Frassati chapter meeting some old guy showed up and wanted to argue against the Church on every point that his Jesuit education had taught him to argue.  He brought up polygenism and immediately everybody jumped on him saying "Pius XII condemned that in a papal encyclical."  I really didn't want to stand against the Church nor stand with an "anti-catholic" Catholic, but I didn't know enough about the weightiness of encyclicals to make a judgment call.  It seemed monogenism was becoming a lot like creationism from what I had read, i.e. bordering on blind/irrational/betting the farm faith, but I also knew that a Pope had spoken critically of it.  I found this post of yours and was delighted to see that I wasn't a heretic or even a heterodox Catholic, and it cleared up a lot surrounding the issue.

SO this got me thinking on another point about which I would like to ask you.  Pope Leo XIII was very strict in his statements about the inerrancy of scripture in every circumstance (i.e. history and science).  However, I read Fr. Ratizinger's essays during the Vatican II and he seemed to think that 1.) the Church did not teach complete inerrancy in any previous councils, 2.) there were very obvious historical errors (like mark 2), and 3.) this whole concept of inerrancy was based on St. Augustine's wrongful use of a pagan idea of how the scriptures were composed that wasn't Christian in nature (http://www.scotthahn.com/download/attachment/3345) (and it also seems like Vatican II skirts the issue in Dei Verbum 11 or 13, and if previous councils had really taught this as infallible then Dei Verbum seems unnecessarily vague).  I ask this because I'm being asked to sign a pledge to teach at a Catholic middle school, and I'm required to say that I believe in a historical Adam and Eve (monogenism type thing) and that I believe the Bible has no historical or scientific errors (utter and complete inerrancy beyond the scope of what is necessary for our salvation).  I'm as orthodox and conservative as they come, but I don't know what to make of all this stuff.  I don't want to stand against Popes Leo or Pius or question anything I'm not meant to question, but I also don't want to sign a pledge that seems to imply that those encyclicals as infallible.  Can you enlighten me on what I'm to do, or if there are any things I could read to clear up the state of the inerrancy stuff?

Without seeing the wording of the pledge, I’m not sure what to tell you.  If they are asking you to go beyond what the council teaches, it would appear to me they are being more Catholic than the Pope.  You might be able to get away with simply quoting the teaching of the council here, as well as the Catechism.  If they reject that, then… that’s kind of weird, isn’t it?  Do they really want a fight about monogenism?  What purpose would that serve?  You can certainly affirm a historical Adam and Eve (that was part of the point of the piece I quoted) without signing off on the increasingly-difficult-to-square-with-the-data notion of monogenism.  So it’s not a question of choosing between science and the Faith.  As to the idea of Cdl. Ratzinger’s discussion of “errors” in Scripture, you might do well to bring that up with them and suggest that this statement of faith is hard to reconcile with the actual status of real conversation in the Church among serious, orthodox theologians who are fully faithful to the Tradition.  You might point them to Ratzinger’s work here.  The question, I suspect, revolves around what we mean by “error”, rather than around the question of whether Scripture is actually in error.  So, for instance, when the gospels tell us the women came to the tomb at “sunrise” it is (by hyper-literalist standards) “erroneous” to say the sun rises when, in fact, the earth rotates.  But only a crazy person would assume that this is an “error” since the author has no intention of saying anything one way or another about astronomy.  Lots of “errors” in the Bible are, I reckon, in this category.

But you’d want a real scripture scholar for that.  I suggest Michael Barber.  You can google him.  He’s at the Sacred Page blog.
 

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About Mark Shea

Mark Shea
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Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.