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Inter Praecipuas: On Biblical Societies by Pope Gregory XVI

Pope Gregory XVI (b. 8 September 1765 – d. 1 June 1846), born Bartolomeo Alberto Cappellari, began his pontificate on 2 February 1831. On 8 May 1844, he issued a papal encyclical regarding so-called biblical societies.

This encyclical is approximately 3,100 words in 17 paragraphs. These “biblical societies” sound innocuous enough—after all, numerous translations are the norm today—but these translations were (and still are) used to promote certain slanted views or at least to confuse.

Gregory XVI introduces the topic with a general description of the problem.

Among the special schemes with which non-Catholics plot against the adherents of Catholic truth to turn their minds away from the faith, the biblical societies are prominent. They were first established in England and have spread far and wide so that We now see them as an army on the march, conspiring to publish in great numbers copies of the books of divine Scripture. These are translated into all kinds of vernacular languages for dissemination without discrimination among both Christians and infidels. Then the biblical societies invite everyone to read them unguided. Therefore it is just as Jerome complained in his day: they make the art of understanding the Scriptures without a teacher “common to babbling old women and crazy old men and verbose sophists,” and to anyone who can read, no matter what his status. Indeed, what is even more absurd and almost unheard of, they do not exclude the common people of the infidels from sharing this kind of a knowledge. 2. But you know the aim of these societies. In his sacred writings, Peter, after praising the letters of Paul, warns that in these epistles “certain things are difficult to understand, which the unlearned and the unstable distort just as they do the rest of the Scriptures, which also leads to their destruction.” He adds at once, “Since you know this beforehand, be on your guard lest, carried away by the error of the foolish, you fall away from your own steadfastness.” [2 Peter 3:16–17] Hence it is clear to you that even from the first ages of Christianity this was a skill appropriate for heretics. Having repudiated the given word of God and rejected the authority of the Catholic Church, they either interpolate “by artifice” into the Scriptures or pervert “its meaning through interpretation.” Nor finally are you ignorant of the diligence and knowledge required to faithfully translate into another language the words of the Lord. In the many translations from the biblical societies, serious errors are easily inserted by the great number of translators, either through ignorance or deception. These errors, because of the very number and variety of translations, are long hidden and hence lead the faithful astray. It is of little concern to these societies if men reading their vernacular Bibles fall into error. They are concerned primarily that the reader becomes accustomed to judging for himself the meaning of the books of Scripture, to scorning divine tradition preserved by the Catholic Church in the teaching of the Fathers, and to repudiating the very authority of the Church.

Part of the aim is to disparage papal authority. This is attempted not just by the translated bibles but also by the myth that the Catholic Church has deliberately withheld the Scriptures from the faithful, hence the excuse for these translations. It should be noted that the Catholic mentality regarding Scripture is typically more conservative, but that is not the same as withholding it.

3. For this end the same biblical societies never cease to slander the Church and this Chair of Peter as if We have tried to keep the knowledge of sacred Scripture from the faithful. However, We have documents clearly detailing the singular zeal which the Supreme Pontiffs and bishops in recent times have used to instruct the Catholic people more thoroughly in the word of God, both as it exists in writing and in tradition. The decrees of the Council of Trent even commanded the bishops to see to it that “the sacred Scriptures and the divine law” are preached more frequently in the dioceses. …
4. Moreover, regarding the translation of the Bible into the vernacular, even many centuries ago bishops in various places have at times had to exercise greater vigilance when they became aware that such translations were being read in secret gatherings or were being distributed by heretics. Innocent III issued warnings concerning the secret gatherings of laymen and women, under the pretext of piety, for the reading of Scripture in the diocese of Metz. There was also a special prohibition of Scripture translations promulgated either in Gaul a little later or in Spain before the sixteenth century. But later even more care was required when the Lutherans and Calvinists dared to oppose the changeless doctrine of the faith with an almost incredible variety of errors. They left no means untried to deceive the faithful with perverse explanations of the sacred books, which were published by their adherents with new interpretations in the vernacular. They were aided in multiplying copies and quickly spreading them by the newly invented art of printing. …

Gregory XVI then shifts to the implications. By promoting “freedom” to interpret, it is not very far from “religious indifference” and “freedom of conscience”.

9. Now, however, these sect members are deprived of their expectations and regret the immense outlay of money spent in publishing their Bibles and spreading them without success. Some have now been found who have directed their efforts toward Italians, especially the citizens of Rome herself, after the manner of a new first assault. Actually We learned from reports and documents just received that a number of men of various sects met in the city of New York last year on June 12 and founded a new society called Christian League. Their common purpose is to spread religious liberty, or rather an insane desire for indifference concerning religion, among Romans and Italians. They assert that the institutions of the Roman and Italian peoples have been so influential that anything of any consequence that has happened in the world had its origin in Rome. They arrive at this conclusion not because the Supreme See of Peter is here according to the plan of the Lord, but because there has been a certain residue of ancient Roman domination, usurped by Our predecessors, as they often repeat, but still active. Therefore they are determined to give everyone the gift of liberty of conscience, or rather of error; they liken it to a fountain from which political liberty and increased public prosperity may spring forth. But they feel that they can accomplish nothing unless they make some progress with Roman and Italian citizens, thereafter using their authority and efforts to influence other nations. And they are confident that they will achieve this easily, since there are so many Italians everywhere on earth, many of whom will return to their fatherland. Of these, some are attracted to new things, some have corrupt morals, and some are oppressed with poverty and may thus be lured to join the society voluntarily or to join for a price. Therefore the societies have concentrated on these people so that they will bring corrupt, vernacular Bibles here and secretly spread them among the faithful. They will also distribute other evil books and pamphlets composed with the aid of some Italians or translated into Italian in order to alienate the minds of the readers from the Holy Church and from obedience to it. …

Gregory XVI, not surprisingly, condemns this effort:

11. Therefore, taking counsel with a number of Cardinals, and weighing the whole matter seriously and in good time, We have decided to send this letter to all of you. We again condemn all the above-mentioned biblical societies of which our predecessors disapproved. We specifically condemn the new one called Christian League founded last year in New York and other societies of the same kind, if they have already joined with it or do so in the future. Therefore let it be known to all that anyone who joins one of these societies, or aids it, or favors it in any way will be guilty of a grievous crime. Besides We confirm and renew by Our apostolic authority the prescriptions listed and published long ago concerning the publication, dissemination, reading, and possession of vernacular translations of sacred Scriptures. …

Gregory XVI concludes by repeating the warning that “liberty of conscience”, mayhem in the political sphere will result (under the guise of “liberty”, of course):

14. … Experience shows that there is no more direct way of alienating the populace from fidelity and obedience to their leaders than through that indifference to religion propagated by the sect members under the name of religious liberty. … As complete liberty of conscience, as they call it, spreads among the Italian people, political liberty will result of its own accord.

Pope Gregory XVI
Pope Gregory XVI

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