A Lenten Bible Story for Catholics: March 9, 2003

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Right in the middle of Times Square, in the heart of New York City is the statute of a Catholic priest Father Francis Patrick Duffy (1871-1932). Dedicated in 1937, Father Duffy was well-known to all New Yorkers as the military chaplain, from 1916-1917, for the “Fighting Sixty-Ninth” Regiment of the New York National Guard during World War I. Later, as pastor of Holy Cross Parish on West 42nd Street from 1920-1932 Father Duffy became an important spokesman for Catholic ideas during the era to the point where he became a trusted confidant of 1928 Catholic presidential candidate Governor Alfred E. Smith of New York. What, you might ask, does Father Duffy have to do with a Catholic understanding of the Sacred Scriptures in the Bible?

The best way to answer this question is to first provide an historical context for present day Catholic appreciation of Sacred Scripture. Simply put, one might say that growing up Catholic before Vatican II (1962-1965), meant church life and prayer centered around the Mass and devotions. Going to Mass on Sunday, or weekdays, allowed one to draw close to Jesus and God by receiving the Eucharist at communion time. For Catholics at St. Joseph Monastery Parish here in Irvington, Maryland this often meant participation in the weekly Monday night novena in honor of St. Joseph or participation in the Passion Play. Of course there was always an assortment of Marian devotions or a chance to make the Stations of the Cross. Frequent confession was a must!

Notably absent from Catholic life and culture in the era before Vatican II was a familiarity with the Bible. After all, quoting the Bible was an experience at the heart of Protestant life. In essence, a safe historical generalization is that before Vatican II the Mass and devotions were Catholic and knowledge of the Bible was Protestant. Only after Vatican II did Catholics become familiar with Sacred Scriptures.

But how did this shift whereby Catholics became more familiar with Sacred Scriptures in the Bible occur? This is the story that we will explore during in Lent. Each weekend during Lent an essay will be published in the church bulletin explaining the historical background of the papal encyclicals, personalities, and events which created the atmosphere for a Catholic awareness of the Bible. We will see that this Catholic understanding and acceptance was slow and often times filled with challenges. Hopefully, knowledge of such a background will make us have more reverence for Sacred Scripture in our own prayer life and allow it to be a leaven for increased understanding with other Christians who read the Bible and non-Christians who meditate on their own scriptures.

Part of understanding this Catholic Bible story leads us back to Father Duffy. For some years (1898-1912), he taught philosophy and theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary for the Archdiocese of New York in Dunwoodie, New York where he also served as associate editor of the New York Review. Published from 1905-1908 the Review was ordered to suspend operations because church authorities suspected the journal of Modernist tendencies.

Modernism was an intellectual movement, from 1895-1908, among a small group of priests in the United States, who attempted to apply a European based modern critical method, friendly to rationalism and scientific inquiry such as evolution, to the a variety of theological sciences which included Sacred Scripture. Because Roman authorities feared a distortion of Catholic truths so anchored in church dogma and tradition, in July 1907 Pope Pius X issued the encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis which announced Modernism as “the synthesis of all heresies.” Consequently, Father Duffy, was one of those who lost a means to advocate new directions in European Catholic scholarship associated with interpretations of the Bible.

Furthermore, this early twentieth century Modernist crisis most certainly relegated to the background any educational outreach on the study of Scripture by Catholics related to the encyclical Providentissimus Deus. Issued in 1893 by Pope Leo XIII, the content had set in place a vision for ongoing Catholic biblical studies to insure the respect that God, through the Holy Ghost had inspired the authors of the Bible. Likewise, sound Catholic understanding of the Scriptures rested in Church tradition and Thomistic theology. While the encyclical did face the new theories of German rationalism and scientific inquiry by urging that Catholic Scripture scholars be well-trained in Oriental languages such as Syriac, it was quite clear that “[t]here can never, indeed, be any real discrepancy between the theologian and the physicist, as long as each confines himself within his own lines.”

Consequently, the 1893 encyclical had opened for Catholic scholars a new way to study the Bible in the context of the late 19th century. Modernism slowed this process, directly impacting Father Duffy. While all this of course had little direct relationship to the average Catholic in the pew, it does help us appreciate the slow journey behind Catholic frequent use of the Bible in daily life.

by Fr. Rob Carbonneau, C.P.
Historian and Director of The Passionist Historical Archives.