The Testimony of the Magisterium from the 1909 Pontifical Biblical Commission

The Pontifical Biblical Commission (PBC) rulings on the interpretation of the book of Genesis are—together with Humani Generis, but even more sosome of the last authoritative magisterial statements on the subject.  In the Motu proprio, Praestantia Scripturae,” on November 18, 1907, Pope St. Pius X declared that no one could contest the rulings of the PBC without “grave sin.”

The PBC’s answers to several questions establish certain truths unequivocally.

Its reply to Question I establishes that the literal historical sense of the first three chapters of Genesis cannot be called into question.

Its reply to Question II establishes that Genesis contains “stories of events which really happened, which correspond with historical reality and objective truth,” not “legends, historical in part and fictitious in part.”  In short, the PBC definitively excludes the possibility that even a part of the Genesis 1-3 narrative could be fictitious and non-historical.

The PBC’s answer to Question III establishes that the literal and historical truth of the following facts cannot be called into question:

1)    “The creation of all things wrought by God in the beginning of time”

Comment: This passage upholds the Lateran IV doctrine that all things were created by God “in the beginning of time.”

2) “The special creation of man”

Comment: This excludes any process in the formation of man and requires that the creation of man was immediate and instantaneous.

3) “The formation of the first woman from the first man”

Comment:  This, too, excludes any process in the formation of the first woman and requires that the creation of Eve was immediate and instantaneous.

When, in 1948, Cardinal Suhard attempted to get the PBC to renounce its earlier rulings on Genesis, he was rebuffed and told that the PBC did not wish to issue “new decrees on these questions” (Denz, 2302).  Consequently, the next magisterial document dealing explicitly with the historical events recounted in Genesis 1-3, Humani Generis, must be understood in the context of the 1909 PBC rulings.  It is in this context—and ONLY in this context—that Pope Pius XII’s permission to inquire “into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter” can and should be understood.  In view of the Vatican’s refusal to change its 1909 decrees on Genesis One, Catholics are still bound by them.  Pope Pius XII himself in Humani Generis condemned those who transgress legitimate

freedom of discussion, acting as if the origin of the human body from previously existing and living matter, were already certain and demonstrated from certain already discovered indications, and deduced by reasoning, and as if there were nothing in the sources of divine revelation which demands the greatest moderation and caution in this thinking (DZ, 2327)

Although Pope Pius XII charged “exegetes” with the task of determining in precisely what sense the first eleven chapters of Genesis are history, he insisted that the first eleven chapters of Genesis are “a kind of history” and that they contain a popular description of the origins of the human race and of the chosen people.  He also upheld the constant teaching of the Church that these chapters are “free from all error” (DZ, 2329).

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