On September 30, 1943, 18,212 days after Pope Leo XIII’s “The God of all Providence,” Pope Pius XII issued “Inspired by the Divine Spirit” known as Divino Affante Spiritu. [i] This encyclical built on “The God of all Providence,” which is listed by Catholic Exchange as one of 7 Papal Encyclicals that changed the world.[ii]
Pope Pius XII need not be insulted not being listed in the top ten as he did pen 42 encyclicals. Today, 26,505 days later, six Popes later (and only 34 encyclicals amongst them[iii]), the power of “Inspired by the Divine Spirit” is almost taken for granted. The text promoted and encouraged Catholics to partake in “genuine biblical scholarship”[iv] Catholicism struggled with unleashing its followers to apply historical and textual criticism to the sacred test or divine books.
However, these two encyclicals combined advanced the call to lay people to think critically, explore scripture diligently, and discern God’s revelations within the text with discipline. Catholics were called to understand their faith on a deeper level, and to not just accept the surface presentation, but to delve deep into the text, the context, the literary devices, and the overall intent of every word passed down to us by our traditions.
It opened up the flood gates for believers to transcend a perception of the divine books as being dead letters confined to history, to meaningful, living guidepost to a modern world. This encyclical may have paved the way for Vatican II and for St. John XXIII, St. John Paul II, and even our current Pope Francis.
It is no longer anathema to question teachings, to dialogue on interpretation, to seek out guidance and to apply rigorous analysis to our beliefs. Pope Pius XII walked a tight rope here. They did not give up the reigns on biblical interpretation and maintained the perfection of God’s message (inferring any error found in the text is an error of our own misinterpretation or application):
“On important issues of biblical interpretation and the growth of tradition, Dei Verbum remains dialectical, reflecting its origin as a document combining traditional perspectives with cautious openings to more progressive thought. The text states simultaneously that the “magisterium,” the teaching office, is not above the Word of God but serves it, and continues: “The task of authentically interpreting the Word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office [magisterium] of the church” (No. 10). Thus the teaching office is simultaneously the servant of the Word and its authentic interpreter. An important and often overlooked passage states that the apostolic tradition develops in the church with the help of the Holy Spirit, “through the contemplation and study made by believers who treasure these things in their hearts; through an intimate understanding of the spiritual realities they experience, and through the preaching of those who through episcopal succession have received the sure gift of truth” (No.8). Study, religious experience and community discernment are thus an important part of the development of tradition. Episcopal teaching is part of a larger process of growth rather than its sole agent.”
Chew on those words for a while! In human speak it says to me the church welcomes historical and contextual criticisms of the divine word. It also calls on believers to throw themselves into the wealth of traditions and scripture passed down to us. At the same time, it calls for the church to make sure its clergy are well educated, well trained, and at the forefront of guarding and interpretation divine text. It further maintains a circular authority of the church being in the service of the word and at the same time guided by the Holy Spirit, making the magisterium the final arbiter of all things theological. None the less at the same time it elevates the community to practice discernment. The latter will influence the magisterium and the magisterium the former, and if truly divinely inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit, true discernment will deliver and reveals God’s intent.
The end is a powerful, dialectical, living church that is not at odds with itself, with its progressive and conservative legacies. A church that is dynamically entrenched in the spirit of the word and is applied to the present moment and discerned through a spiritual lens that utilizes all the tools that modernity has to offer while embracing the unfolding mysteries of our faith. That is what people thought Vatican II would bring about and yet the Church is struggling today. Education in history, religion, and prayer is not sufficient today to promote Catholics to be prepared to embark on the very journey the encyclicals speak about wayfarers embracing.
We have a poverty of time (in addition to food, housing, education, healthcare) that undermines our ability to distil genuine and authentic spirituality from the synthetics that spring up on every street corner (serving as tax shelters for residentially depressed areas) or the politician promising deliverance from evil doers.
44717 days since “The God of All Providence” and we still have internal contentious debates on the religiosity of all things big and small rather than on stillness and silence to deliver us discernment on the critical issues of the day. Our Popes have issued nearly 300 encyclicals and a number of them are on social justice issues and a call to action. The combination is challenging when the pews are filled with people with short attention spans and facing a poverty of time and ambition. Without these encyclicals I would probably not have the benefit of reading and interpreting scripture historically or contextually. If you are Catholic, patience is a virtue.