St. Jerome and ‘Spiritus Paraclitus’ Are More Relevant Than Ever

COMMENTARY: Benedict XV’s encyclical is one of several important encyclicals released in the late-19th and 20th centuries on the topic of Scripture.

Benedict XV’s encyclical celebrates the 1,500th anniversary of the death of St. Jerome, who first translated the Bible into Latin, as shown in this Caravaggio painting.
Benedict XV’s encyclical celebrates the 1,500th anniversary of the death of St. Jerome, who first translated the Bible into Latin, as shown in this Caravaggio painting. (photo: Public domain)

Sept. 15 marked the 100th anniversary of the publication of Pope Benedict XV’s encyclical Spiritus Paraclitus (The [Holy] Spirit, the Comforter).

The Holy Father released the document to celebrate the 1,500th anniversary of the death of St. Jerome, who first translated the Bible into Latin. The publication of an encyclical is an important moment in the life of the Church, and it is a good practice, on the major anniversaries of encyclicals, to recall their teaching and apply it once again.

Benedict XV’s Spiritus Paraclitus is one of several important encyclicals released in the late-19th and 20th centuries on the topic of Scripture. These began with Leo XIII’s Providentissimus Deusin 1893, then Spiritus Paraclitus in 1920, and Pius XII’s Divino Afflante Spiritu in 1943. All of these influenced Dei Verbum, the Second Vatican Council’s 1965 dogmatic constitution on divine Revelation. 

We have not had an encyclical on Scripture since, but Pope Benedict XVI’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation Verbum Domini (2010) and Pope Francis’ recent apostolic letter entitled Aperuit Illis (2019) have provided welcome updates. 

The reason the Church did not have an encyclical on Scripture until 1893 is not because, as some believe, Catholics didn’t start reading the Bible until long after the Reformation. Rather, two other factors were at work. 

First, prior to the so-called “Enlightenment” period in Europe (1715-1789, really an “Endarkenment,” given the wholesale rejection of Catholic teaching which took place during that time), there was no significant distinction in Christianity between the study of the Bible and the study of theology generally. It would not have made sense to most medieval thinkers, for example, to carve out “Biblical Studies” as a separate discipline. 

Secondly, the Enlightenment also went hand in hand with the rise of so-called “Higher Criticism,” a form of biblical study that treated the Scriptures as no different in origin and essence than any other piece of ancient literature, like Homer’s Iliad or the Code of Hammurabi. 

This led to the rapid collapse of the authority of Scripture in politics, society and even in the Church. By 1893, the new secular approach to the Bible had become so pervasive, even inside the Church, that Leo XIII felt compelled to release an encyclical to address the situation and restate the Church’s traditional understanding of the origin, inspiration, inerrancy and interpretation of sacred Scripture.

As so often happens in the life of the Church, however, even clear papal teaching is not sufficient to put an end to popular errors and heresies. So, 27 years later, Pope Benedict XV saw September 1920 — the 1,500th anniversary of the death of St. Jerome, the first great biblical scholar of the Church — as an opportune moment to call the whole Church back to the veneration of Scripture and restate the traditional doctrines of Scripture already laid out by Leo XIII. 

Like Leo XIII before him, Benedict XV strove to reinstate a truly biblical piety among the Catholic faithful. He could hardly have chosen a better icon for this effort than the figure of St. Jerome, whose feast day is Sept. 30. Born around 347 in what is modern-day Bosnia, St. Jerome grew up in relative affluence and enjoyed a good literary education in Rome. However, after his conversion to Christianity in the 360s, Jerome gave up his secular studies and devoted himself increasingly to the translation and interpretation of Scripture. 

Unusual for the day, he took the trouble to learn Hebrew and eventually translated most of the Old Testament directly from Hebrew into Latin, as part of a commission from Pope Damasus I to produce a complete version of the Bible in the common (“vulgar”) language of the people. This was St. Jerome’s famous “Vulgate” (“common”) Latin Bible, which remains (with some revisions) the official liturgical translation of Scripture for the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church. 

St. Jerome spent the last decades of his life living in a cave in Bethlehem very near the birthplace of Jesus, finishing the Vulgate and other theological works. 

One of the major goals Benedict XV had in writing Spiritus Paraclitus was to hold up St. Jerome as an example of the devotion to Scripture that ought to characterize the true Catholic life. He sprinkles the encyclical with edifying quotes from the saint:

“Provided our bodies are not the slaves of sin, wisdom will come to us; but exercise your mind, feed it daily with Holy Scripture.

“We have got, then, to read Holy Scripture assiduously; we have got to meditate on the Law of God day and night so that, as expert money-changers, we may be able to detect false coin from true” (40).

Benedict XV was struggling against a phenomenon that had also troubled his predecessors: After the end of the Counter-Reformation or Catholic Revival (1545-1648), there arose a real aversion to personal Bible reading within popular Catholic culture. This was largely a reaction to the overemphasis on personal Bible study within Protestant movements. In some of them, the whole of the Christian life seemed almost reduced to personal meditation on Scripture. 

This led to the whole idea of daily private Bible reading becoming associated with Protestantism and therefore being perceived as “non-Catholic.” Many priests were suspicious of laypeople who read the Bible alone and discouraged them from doing so. Other devotional practices — like the Rosary, various novenas, Eucharistic adoration and many others — sustained people’s faith in the absence of meditation on Scripture. 

Of course, this was an unfortunate state of affairs and certainly not the result of the explicit teaching of the magisterium. The truly Catholic attitude toward Scripture is better expressed by St. Jerome’s words of advice for a Christian mother trying to raise her daughter in the faith: 

“Every day she should give you a definite account of her Bible-reading. ... For her the Bible must take the place of silks and jewels. ... Let her learn the Psalter first, and find her recreation in its songs; let her learn from Solomon’s Proverbs the way of life, from Ecclesiastes how to trample on the world. In Job she will find an example of patient virtue. Thence let her pass to the Gospels; they should always be in her hands. She should steep herself in the Acts and the Epistles. And when she has enriched her soul with these treasures she should commit to memory the Prophets, the Heptateuch, Kings and Chronicles, Esdras and Esther: Then she can learn the Canticle of Canticles without any fear” (41).

A second major concern of Benedict XV in writing Spiritus Paraclitus was to correct a widespread and persistent error concerning the truth of Scripture. Since the Enlightenment, it had become popular, even among Catholic theologians and clergy, to argue that the truth of Scripture was limited to its religious teaching alone, sometimes described as “faith and morals” or “matters of salvation,” and did not extend to issues of history, science and other disciplines. 

Leo XIII had been quite explicit in Providentissimus Deus (1893) that the freedom from error (inerrancy) that resulted from divine inspiration covered everything Scripture addressed, not merely matters of faith and morals. 

However, the same error continued to be taught in the Church’s schools and seminaries, so Benedict XV devotes a large part of Spiritus Paraclitus (14-30) to reaffirming the Church’s tradition on the full truth of Scripture:

“Those … who hold that the historical portions of Scripture do not rest on the absolute truth of the facts are … out of harmony with the Church’s teaching” (22).

Sadly, this same erroneous view of Scripture’s inerrancy continues to dominate Catholic education to this day. It even penetrates popular culture.

In the well-known Notre Dame football movie Rudy, the main character, Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger, is seen sitting one day in a theology class at Holy Cross College in South Bend while the professor explains that the truth of Scripture is limited to faith and morals. But Rudy isn’t paying attention, nor is most of the rest of the class. It’s an interesting and ironic snapshot of Catholic culture in the U.S. Hopefully, though, we may aspire to something better and holier than that, and the encyclical Spiritus Paraclitus, now 100 years old, can still help us. 

Today would be a good day for us to locate this encyclical online and give it another read-through: What Benedict XV says there is just as relevant today as it was in 1920.

John Bergsma is a professor of theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville. His latest book is Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls: Revealing the Jewish Roots of Christianity.