On the PBC and Some Dangerous Tendencies in Biblical Scholarship


This post is going to move around a lot.  I just have some ideas I want to throw out and get some feedback about.  My reflections are prompted by the reappearance of an article about Tom Rausch, SJ, professor of theology at LMU, in the news as of late. Because he has played a prominent role in the recent dialogue with the Anglican Community, an old speech he gave in 1997 has been dug up.  Or rather an article written about the speech in the San Diego News. The first line of the article:

These are the men most dangerous to authentic Catholicism today: Karl Keating, Scott Hahn, Peter Kreeft, Dale Vree, and Thomas Howard.

According to the article, it is Rausch’s claim that Catholic converts have entered the Church without ever fully giving up their protestant way of thinking about theology. In his opinion, this has caused great damage to the Church and to theology.  Some examples he notes:

The “new apologists,” said Fr. Rausch, are out of touch with “contemporary Catholic theology,” influenced as they are by Protestantism (many of them are converts), and are unable to “reconcile faith with critical reason.” They seek to convert those of other faiths to the Catholic Church, he said, and are therefore in violation of the Church’s new spirit of ecumenism. They must be excluded from dialogue and development within Catholicism because they are “unable to enter into a real dialogue with modernity and with the critical questions it raises for faith.”

This group of Catholic “fundamentalists” (he also used the term “integralists”) are not authentically Catholic, said Rausch, because they “interpret Gospel sayings attributed to Jesus historically rather than theologically,” and are not able to discern “the historical context of a doctrinal statement, its degrees of authority and the possibility of doctrinal development or even of change.”

Said Rausch: “One wonders if any of them have read and assimilated documents such as the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s 1964 Instruction on the Historical Truth of the Gospels or its 1994 Interpretation of the Bible in the Church.”

Well, putting aside all of the claims that Fr. Rausch makes, he asks good questions. For example, recently I had a discussion with a friend who was given a document of the PBC from 1909 on the question of the historicity of Genesis 1-11. The man who gave it to my friend was himself a friend and disciple of sorts of Dr. Brant Pitre, a biblical scholar at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans.  Dr. Pitre is widely held to think that the earth is approximately 6,000 years old and to hold that Genesis 1-11 is primarily historical.  Apparently, his beliefs are based on the PBC’s “authoritative document” of 1909.  In this document, the following are some of the claims made:

  • Genesis 1-3 is not mythological in genre
  • Is not a redaction of pagan creation myths
  • Eve was actually created from Adam

Needless to say, such positions are no longer held to be the case.  On the other hand, at the time, the PBC held a certain authority in teaching that was not removed until 1968 when Paul VI took away its special magisterial authority.  So does that mean that whatever was said before must be held as binding?  So hold scholars such as Pitre.  And it is such a position that causes him and others to defend Matthew as the first gospel written (taught by the PBC in 1933) and that Hebrews was written by Paul (PBC – 1914).  Yet virtually no one else thinks that these positions must be held.  What is going on?

In his Theology of the Body, John Paul II calls Genesis 2 a myth.  Is he thereby rejecting the authority of the Church?  Well, I don’t think so.  As far as I can tell, he is allowing that the ordinary magisterium of the Church is not infallible and undergoes development as scholarship moves forward.  These statements were historically conditioned and doctrine has developed.  But Rausch has laid a finger on a problem: many of the protestant converts that have come into the Church bring with them the same fundamentalist reading of Church documents that they moved away from (somewhat) in the reading of scripture.  Such a tendency must be carefully avoided so as to allow for the proper development to take place within Church teaching.

That being said, converts have also brought tremendous vitality to the Church. While Keating may display uncomfortable tendencies, Chesterton’s writings have richly enhanced Catholic intellectual discourse — whatever you think of his sometimes pompous English prose style.  So while Fr. Rausch has manifested a characteristic Jesuit tendency to overstate his case, I think he has laid a finger on a new tendency in Catholic biblical scholarship on which we must keep a watchful eye.

24 Responses to On the PBC and Some Dangerous Tendencies in Biblical Scholarship

  1. Kurt says:

    I hope that you will permit a somewhat critical response to your post.

    This is not the place to engage in a detailed critique of Fr Rausch’s comments but I would note that Scott Hahn’s scholarly work does engage with historical-critical issues and in his more popular books (such as “A Father who keeps his promises”) he specifically warns against a fundamentalist reading of the early chapters of Genesis.

    Your comments focus on positions ascribed to Brant Pitre (or, as you call him on one occasion, “Petri”). Pitre obtained his PhD from the University of Notre Dame – hardly a hotbed of fundamentalism – and, while I do not know his work very well, nothing that I have read strikes me as even remotely fundamentalist.

    You write that “Dr. Pitre is widely held to think that the earth is approximately 6,000 years old and to hold that Genesis 1-11 is primarily historical.”

    What is the source for this claim? Can you point to something Pitre has written or said in public on this subject? Among what group of people is this account of Pitre’s thought “widely held”?

    The post creates a certain impression of Pitre without offering much evidence beyond the fact that a friend of yours was given a document by someone who is a “friend and disciple of sorts” of Dr Pitre.

    He has a right to have his positions represented accurately – not least because he makes a living in Catholic academia where insinuations of fundamentalism might be damaging. If he has made questionable statements, it would be helpful if you could reproduce them so that we can evaluate them and respond appropriately.

  2. Thanks Kurt.

    Sorry for the misspelling of Pitre.

    Hahn’s work does engage somewhat with the HC method. In this particular case, my concern is not so much Hahn as some of his disciples. I took a course with Hahn in college, and while I still don’t agree with many of his positions, as a scholar, he is as well based as biblical scholarship can be.

    Pitre worked with John P. Meier at Notre Dame, an excellent scholar who recently published the fourth part in his “A Marginal Jew” series. Unfortunately it seems, Pitre, though a good scholar himself, consistently holds some rather odd positions. My sources are good friends who have taken his classes multiple times, written papers for him, and engaged him in regular conversation. So when I say “widely known,” I mean among his students at Holy Cross College and Notre Dame Seminary.

    Of course, he is entitled to any and all of his opinions about authorship of dating of the Gospels. My wider concern is the latent fundamentalism I still see in his type, both toward Church statements – such as the PBC – and the Bible.

  3. bill bannon says:

    I’ll address not the scripture aspect but the fundamentalist aspect as carried into the Church. Some converts from fundamentalist churches can veer toward quoting documents of the ordinary papal magisterium as though they were quoting scripture because during their conversion, the Church leads them in that direction…that is why reverts share the same tendencies despite never having been fundamentalists: they are made aware by clergy and by documents of such passages as Lumen Gentium 25’s “religious submission of mind and will” to be given to the Pope even when he is not speaking infallibly under certain conditions (which conditions all actors seem to forget)…yet the converts are not made aware of the invisible reverse side so to speak of Lumen Gentium 25 (the right of sincere dissenting conscience within seminary moral theology tomes for decades) which seems at first glance to say the opposite of LG 25.
    Yves Congar had warned that Council statements are guided by God not inspired by God which means inter alia that they can be incomplete (think Florence and salvation outside the Church) and Lumen Gentium 25 certainly was incomplete as was Florence.

    Exceptions to mandates within the ordinary papal magisterium are allowed in conscience even in the most conservative seminary moral theology texts like Germain Grisez’s first volume of “The Way of the Lord Jesus” (page 854). I find literally no one on the internet who seems aware of this imprimatured position on sincere struggled dissent (nor does the catechism takes pains to reveal it)….and yet it is the very reason that Rahner and Haring suffered no papal discipline in their dissent on Humanae Vitae. But I’ve never heard a convert show evidence of being aware of it. So that the net result, is that they are led to overstate the papal ordinary magisterium as are reverts who neglected theological reading for years and then return with a vengeance but with a similar overstating of the ordinary papal magisterium. On the internet this has resulted in many including actual Catholic leadership figures denouncing people like Rahner as heretics while no Pope in 40 years said anything similar….with Archbishop Amato of the CDF saying Rahner was “orthodox” several years ago to John Allen at the Rahner conference at the Lateran.

    All schisms within Catholicism seem to originate in the fundy overstating of a document from the ordinary papal magisterium wherein a Pope e.g. writes that the Latin Mass is eternal and next you know, a zealous Catholic sees that papal document as infallible and schisms over an infallibility that was never there. Another sees the early 19th century encyclicals against governments supporting freedom of religion as infallible because there were at least three and its off to the races with the Levebrites holding to that position after Vatican II said the opposite.

    This is a recurring problem in Catholicism (reading encyclicals of the ordinary level as though they were the bible) and it preceded the conversion of fundamentalists. Schismatics for centuries have overstated the oridnary papal magisterium as though they too were literally reading the Bible rather than a non infallible document. And Rome seems to do nothing about this internal flaw since Rome will never promote the very exception to LG 25 that it permits in the moral theology tomes under imprimaturs that it does not gainsay. So you will always have the fundy problem within Catholicism as long as Rome wants most people to not know of the exception; and the problem predates the fundy conversion years because it is a human inclination given an uncertain world. And one can see it in probably all moments of schism of the last two centuries.
    In short Rome has done nothing to alter the mechanism of schism. LG 25 left in its incomplete state does nothing to alter the mechanism of schism. Rome feels an advantage in a Church of one billion people in having virtually none of them know of the exception within moral theology tomes. The disadvantage is that non promotion of sincere dissent by Rome leads to schisms….which in Rome’s view are much smaller than the problem she would have were she to round out LG 25. Except…She has that problem of the imagined chaos of varying moral positions already….even after hiding the right to sincere struggled dissent.

  4. Kurt says:

    Thanks for your prompt response.

    Fundamentalism is, of course, a serious error that fails to adequately acknowledge the role of human authors in the writing of the sacred scriptures. It fails to recognize the different genres employed in the Biblical text and consequently interprets it with an inappropriate literalism.

    I was pleased to read your clarification about Scott Hahn. The scholar you describe in your follow-up does not seem to deserve the description “dangerous to authentic Catholicism today” – a description given to him in the article you quoted.

    Thank you also for clarifying the source of your comments about Brant Pitre. I would be very concerned about “latent fundamentalism” in a Catholic writer and teacher. Unfortunately, I am not able to verify your claims about Pitre because the only evidence that you have presented to me is hearsay. What I do know is that I have read some of his published works without noticing any of the traits that you have identified. I would submit that a public expression of concern about him ought to be backed up with clear evidence.

  5. Virgil Kaulius says:

    Well, at least the opening line, inferring
    “relativity” to the essay, has merit, since
    the essay launches the discussion into many
    possible issues, directions of thought, and
    core epistemology underpinning our paltry sources
    for the little recorded “revelation” we have
    to sink our finite minds into, around, and through!

    For starters, for me, it seems we haven’t really
    moved that far, after some 2,000 years, on the
    academic scale of charity watch standards….lol!

    Where the greatest progress has occurred is not
    the academic, but the spiritual. And maybe that is
    as it should be?! After all, aside from all these
    academic perrenial rumblings, the Spirit nevertheless
    both resides, and works from within, as entrenched
    in Newman’s theology, that then made it into
    laity issues of Vat. II: ‘where would the Church
    be, without the Laity?!’

    As for fundamentalism, it’s time to stop the pablum
    flow and get serious in defining terms: hey, there
    are all kinds of different, plus differing,
    “fundamentalisms” out there! Regent College just
    a few years back put a dent into this with a whole
    Conference on this subject, to show its diversity
    and pervasiveness, in all times and cultures,
    and here to stay until the Parousia!!!

    If the Charity test fails being applied by those
    taking their credentialed academic positions just
    too seriously, then overly cerebral and emotionally
    cauterized intelligence will rule the pros, while
    the Pews go it alone, as they have for over 2,000
    years, listening to the promptings of the Spirit
    within one’s Conscience, and making it to heaven
    OK with or without Scripture Scholars and their ilk!
    Not to mention that reading or studying the Bible
    per se was forbidden the Pews until Divine Afflante
    Spiritu arrived on the scene in the early part of
    the just finished century: God help us!!!

    I’ll take any convert, or Anonymous Christian and
    work the gifts of the Holy Spirit with them,
    since God is the source of our Christian love;
    it is not ourselves! That distinquishes Christian
    Love from all other world religions!

    Our Pilgrim Church status won’t change. It’s our
    condition. Let’s bring our behavioural sciences
    into line therewith! – virgilijus

  6. Kurt,

    By copying Rausch’s statements, I was not thereby agreeing with everything he said. I have little love for Rausch’s work. It was more a segue to raise some concerns.

    For example, at the high school I teach at, we use a scripture text authored by Scott Hahn called “Understanding the Scriptures.” It is part of the Didache series. Now, besides being a bad text book I think, it also suffers from some of the problems I outline above.

    In a sidebar on what must be believed as truths of faith from Genesis 1-3, ninth graders are told this:

    “That the woman is formed from the body of man, from his very self.

    That all humanity is descended from Adam and Eve.

    That Adam and Eve were created without sin.

    That Adam and Eve were commanded to be obedient to God.

    That Adam and Eve sinned against this command.

    That, as a result of that sin, our ancestors fell from their state of sinless innocence.”

    Now, I cannot help but think that the first proposition about woman being created from man is taken straight from the 1909 PBC document. Yet how can anyone hold to this? On the other points, students are given no nuance as to whether Adam and Eve are actual persons or symbolic of humanity. Again, I think its because Hahn reads documents like Humani Generis with a fundamentalist streak. Later in the sidebar he quotes from Humani Generis to “prove” that all humans come from a historical man Adam and a historical woman Eve. I’ve dealt with this topic before, so I won’t do so here, but I think that same fundamentalist problem rears its head in his textbook, and by doing so, fails to answer the serious theological questions of my students.

  7. Kurt says:


    I appreciate that you did not endorse everything that Fr Rausch says. You did, however, quote his description of Hahn and it seems fair to ask you to make your own position clear.

    I have not seen the textbook you mention. It does not seem to be written in my own ‘style’ but I would hesitate to label the section quoted as fundamentalist.

    If I were writing it, I would have replaced the first point with something like this: “In God’s plan, man and woman form a unity. The fact that they are made for one another is illustrated in the creation story by the man’s need for a helpmate and the woman’s being formed from his body. She is ‘bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh'”.

    As for the other points, I would remind you that the Catechism of the Catholic Church uses exclusively monogenistic language. See, e.g., CCC 375 and compare it to Hahn’s third point. Is the Catechism fundamentalist?

    While it *may* be possible to square certain forms of polygenism with Catholic doctrine on original sin (Humani Generis certainly leaves this as a possibility and recent documents from the International Theological Commission may hint at this), that is a complicated discussion that I wouldn’t be inclined to bring up in a ninth grade textbook.

    On your broader point, I don’t doubt that ecclesiastical documents can be interpreted in a fundamentalist way. I agree that to do so is a mistake. The quotation from Joseph Ratzinger which Aaron Pidel cites is apposite. But I am concerned that we should not be too quick to throw around the accusation of fundamentalism. A conservative position is not necessarily a fundamentalist one.

  8. bill bannon says:


    I Corinthians 11:8
    “For man did not come from woman, but woman from man”

    Are you saying that there is no way to coordinate Paul’s view (not just Genesis’ view from long before him)….with a theory of evolution?

  9. Giovanni says:

    The fact that you don’t see why articles like this brings up questions as to the orthodoxy of the Jesuit Order is why so many of us are so suspicious of it.

    Wow I am beside my self. I just can’t, wow.

  10. Giovanni,

    I’m sorry, I’m confused. I take the Ignatian rules for thinking with the Church very seriously.

  11. Bill,

    Paul later goes on to say though that now man is born of woman, i.e., Mary, as I take him to mean. He is speaking theologically. And no, I don’t think that we can square a literalist reading of woman coming from man with evolution.

  12. bill bannon says:

    You are voiding one verse with another…he still maintains the verse I cited and he is using it to prove a point.

  13. brettsalkeld says:

    I also have come across similar issues with Hahn’s work. I used the Ignatius Press resources (including the Didache series you mention) that he had a major hand in to teach Confirmation and First Communion courses at my parish. There were many places where I need to qualify things for the students. I don’t have a list on hand, but the one that stands out the most in my mind is the claim that, before the fall, humans could literally talk to animals. Bizarre!

  14. Bill,
    I still think that Paul maintains the point, not in a historical sense, but, like most of the Rabbis at the time, as a story to make a point. He is doing midrash, just like all rabbis do, reinterpreting an old story in light of a new one. I see no driving reason to think that Paul thought any of this to be historical.

  15. bill bannon says:

    Presuming Paul knew that section of Genesis to be ahistorical and symbolic fiction, he was still quoting it as a reality and not as a delusion or as a careless observation in bad faith. He would have to be insane or a used car salesman to base his argument for women praying with heads covered on a concept that he stated but did not really believe in any real sense. In short, Paul believed within inspired scripture that woman is from man irrespective of whether that section of Genesis is fictional. And we know that because Paul uses the truth of woman coming from man as an argument for his conclusion which is distinct from that truth.

  16. He was quoting it as an inspired text. That is what Paul and all rabbis took the scriptures to be. The historical element was fairly unimportant to them. His concern was what the inspired text said about present, not the past. He bases his argument on an inspired text, which he continues to interpret to fit his current need. That is what midrash did.

    Further, Paul uses the story to even further retell it and overturn it in 1 Corinthians 11:12. Now, in Christ, man is born of woman, and all is from God. So it is nonsense to use those old arguments from Genesis for arguments about how women look in Church. Paul goes on to say, “you judge for yourselves.” Since in Christ, all come from God, he turns now, not to Genesis, but to the common practices in the churches of God.

    Paul does not see “the truth of woman coming from man” as a historical truth, but as a biblical “truth” in need of reinterpretation, which he does. I really think you have Paul all wrong, and his sense of the historical too.

  17. bill bannon says:


    You state: “Further, Paul uses the story to even further retell it and overturn it in 1 Corinthians 11:12.”

    Here is I Cor.11:12:

    For just as woman came from man, so man is born of woman; but all things are from God.”

    Let the readers judge if they see anything at all overturned there. I certainly don’t. He is complementing the one idea by adding another idea to it and that has the effect of balancing out the first idea with another additional consideration rather than overturning the first idea. Had he wanted to overturn it, he would never have cited it as relevant in the first place.

  18. Joe Johnson says:

    love ya breh.. keep up the good work.

  19. Joe says:

    “Paul does not see ‘the truth of woman coming from man’ as a historical truth, but as a biblical ‘truth’ in need of reinterpretation, which he does. I really think you have Paul all wrong, and his sense of the historical too.”

    I really think you have to turn the text into a pretzel to get anything approaching such an idea. Paul did not care about the historical? Fundamentalists may bring their own ideological grid to the table, but you seem to as well. No one not educated in a more liberal seminary class would come up with the above. It is imposing modern ideas on an ancient text, for starters.

    Not that it is a watershed issue. And I really don’t think Hahn’s ideas on Genesis are what concern so many people. It is his larger theology. Liberals do not like it. Conservatives resonate with it. George Kelly in his book “Inside My Father’s House” suggests that exegesis supplies the bricks with which we build our theology. So what people are really reacting to is how they think the building will be shaping up.

  20. “It is imposing modern ideas on an ancient text, for starters.”


    That is precisely what I don’t think I’m doing. We must remember that the discipline of “history” is very modern in the sense that we think of it. And many biblical scholars spend much too much time, I think, imposing the modern sense of history onto Paul and the gospels. For example, many try to make the gospels out to be biographies, which I think is silly. I am trying to read Paul on his own terms. This is hard, because there is still tremendous disagreement in the biblical world as to the genre of many New Testament texts. However, I think it is fairly well established that most Jewish writing employs midrash, which is basically reinterpretation of old texts and events for sake of the present. The question of “did this actually happen in the past” is a modern preoccupation, not a preoccupation of Paul’s. God works in history so as to speak to the present. Whether or not Paul thought that Adam and Eve historically existed I think was unimportant to him.

    I am basing my ideas on people I don’t think would be generally considered “liberal,” as you call them. I don’t generally think of N.T. Wright and Francis Martin as liberal scholars. Many “liberal” scholars were obsessed with the question of history, since liberalism comes out of the Enlightenment, and Enlightenment liberal biblical studies imposed quite a bit on the text that we are now recognizing was never meant to be there.

  21. Joe says:

    I do not think Wright OR Martin would argue the Fall was non-historical or the Infancy stories were Midrash. Ray Brown would… there is a 20 year cleavage there. As to confusion over the genre of NT Texts, only in more liberal circles. I am not arguing for exacting literalness, but for essential accuracy. As for the New Apologists, to think of Howard or Kreeft as fundies shows Rausch to not even know the source material.

    I realize Trad Catholics have often had a slash and burn strategy. But Hahn and Co. are so far from that. All I am asking is extend to them the same liberal charity we have bent over backwards giving to many who question rudiments of the Creed. Who is more rational, Hahn, or Luke Timothy Johnson. I’d argue both deserve respect.

  22. Mark Andrews says:

    Hahn, Kreeft and company are drawing thousands to the faith while the Jesuits reject dynamic evangelization. No wonder the order is withering on the vine. Each age of the Church has renewal movements that fit the times. The Jesuits, once a paradigm of missionary zeal, now condemn the very charism that made the order once so great.

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