“Church vs. the Bible” (vs. Francisco Tourinho)

“Church vs. the Bible” (vs. Francisco Tourinho) June 5, 2022

Examining the Presuppositions That Lie Behind Past Catholic Recommended Restrictions on Individual Bible Reading

Francisco Tourinho is a Brazilian Calvinist apologist. He described his theological credentials on my Facebook page:

I have the respect of the academic community for my articles published in peer review magazines, translation of unpublished classical works into Portuguese and also the production of a book in the year 2019 with more than 2000 copies sold (with no marketing). In addition I have higher education in physical education from Piauí State University and theology from the Assemblies of God Biblical Institute, am currently working towards a Masters from Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary, and did post-graduate work at Dom Bosco Catholic University. Also, I am a professor in the Reformed Scholasticism discipline at the Jonathan Edwards Seminary in the postgraduate course in Philosophical Theology. [edited slightly for more flowing English]

This is a reply to his article, “Unigenitus” (1713) vs Estudo Pessoal das Escrituras: Resposta a Dave Armstrong [“Unigenitus” (1713) vs Personal Study of the Scriptures: Reply to Dave Armstrong] (6-4-22). I use Google Translate to transfer his Portugese into English. His words will be in blue. My words from my article that he is critiquing will be in green.

First, I would like to thank Mr. Dave Armstrong (“Armstrong” hereafter) for the opportunity to debate.

He is welcome, and I return thanks back to him. Recently, I attempted to critique the materials of eight Protestant apologists on YouTube. Only one out of eight made any response, or showed the slightest interest in dialogue (Gavin Ortlund, a Reformed Baptist pastor). Protestants these days are very reluctant to interact with Catholic apologists. So I commend Francisco for having the courage of his convictions.
The article [I chose to refute] deals with a defense against a Protestant blog that accuses the Church of Rome of having prohibited the reading of Scripture through the issuance of the Bull Unigenitus, an Apostolic Constitution promulgated by Pope Clement XI in 1713. [link to my article] My aim is not to make a systematic defense of the Protestant blog post, but to refute the claims made by Mr. Armstrong throughout the article. The quotes will be in quotation marks and italics.
Two central points are stated by Mr. Armstrong, the first is that the Church of Rome never prohibited the reading of Scripture.


As a blanket and universal statement (“No Christian is allowed to read the Bible on his own”, etc.), no: the Church did not ever make such a proclamation. Does anyone have to simply take my word for that? No. The Cambridge History of the Bible (not a Catholic work) stated that “no universal and absolute prohibition of the translation of the Scriptures into the vernacular nor of the use of such translations by clergy or laity was ever issued by any council of the Church or any pope” (p. 391). The 1910 New Catholic Dictionary (“Bible Reading by Laity”) reiterates this opinion:

In the history of the Church there never has been a general prohibition against the reading of the Bible by the laity. While the Church does not consider Bible reading necessary for salvation, she has always approved such reading under proper conditions.

This is what I meant, in stating at the end [this portion cited by Francisco]: “Did Pope Clement XI’s ‘Unigenitus’ (1713) forbid Bible reading? No.” He recommended restrictions on unrestrained, completely free and “unmonitored” or “unguided” Bible-reading, which is a different proposition, and one that can be fully defended, as I intend to do in this reply.  I’m grateful for the “golden opportunity” to make my argument even stronger than it was!
The second is that similarly the Calvinists did the same: “I also show how other Catholic decrees are not anti-biblical, & that Calvinists similarly criticized ‘erroneous’ works.”
In the first part of the article Dave Armstrong approvingly cites the arguments of the Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin, then makes his own remarks on Unigenitus and proceeds to make some observations on Calvinists. We will proceed with the explanation in that order and see whether Mr. Armstrong’s conclusions follow from his arguments.
And I will show that they do!
This article was chosen for several reasons. The first is that it was actually the first one I read. Second, he touches on the most important point of the Reformation after the debate on Justification by Faith Alone. Third, from it we can develop other themes such as Papal infallibility and the Roman magisterium and Sola Scriptura, points that we will develop during these days.
All good reasons, and I agree, too, that all these issues were central in the Catholic-Protestant debate then and now.
Unigenitus was a document issued by Pope Clement XI that condemned the reading of Holy Scripture by all Christians.
Well, it suggested supervision for less educated Christians and advocated against utterly unrestricted Bible-reading: not all Bible-reading.
The Bull carefully prepared in 17 assemblies of theologians and 23 of cardinals. The aforementioned is an “apostolic constitution”, that is, it is a solemn document issued by the Pope with the purpose of establishing a teaching of faith for the flock.
It’s not an infallible document because it was recommending practices of Bible-reading, which comes under the category of “disciplinary decrees”: themselves not infallible (celibacy of priests would be another issue in this category). As Francisco himself notes later in his article, the Catholic Church changed these views. We did so since Pope Leo XIII (r. 1879-1903) at the latest, and especially in Vatican II (1962-1965). Something that was intended to be infallible cannot change, by definition. So by Catholic criteria of the various levels of authority of documents, this one fails the tests as infallible.
The condemned theses were:


79. It is useful and necessary at all times, in all places and for all types of people, to study and know the spirit, piety and mysteries of Sacred Scripture.

Again, it is stating “negatively” the idea that not all people are qualified to engage in personal Bible reading with no outside guidance; that this can (and has in history) led to false doctrines. The decree was trying to protect the flock from error, not to bash the Bible, as if it were a bad thing. That’s the Protestant stereotype of these sorts of decrees (as if the Catholic Church feared that folks would conclude Catholicism is false by reading the Bible). But it’s clearly not the intent.

I cited Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin in my initial article, responding to each one of these “controversial” propositions (#79-85), because he provides such an excellent and helpful analysis of Unigenitus. His article is entitled, “Did the Church Forbid Bible Study?” (1-20-12). I need not repeat that. I direct folks to his article above. But here are a few highlights, for those who don’t follow the link. I’ll cite a portion of his commentary for each proposition:

[T]he concern with this proposition is quite likely . . . “we are worried about people reading and getting a wrong view so don’t read without proper preparation.” It does not seem to be “We reject the idea of individual study of Scripture since Scripture is unclear.”

80. The reading of Sacred Scripture is for everyone.

This seems to be objectionable on the same grounds as the previous proposition. Again: What about those unprepared for individual study?

81. The sacred obscurity of the Word of God is no reason for lay people to refrain from reading it.

[I]t’s okay for a person to say, “By God’s providence the Scriptures are not as clear as I would need them to be to study them on my own. I’m in the position of the Ethiopian eunuch [see Acts 8:27-31 below], who can’t discern important points on his own, without guidance.”

82. The Lord’s Day must be sanctified by Christians with readings from pious works and above all from the Holy Scriptures. It is harmful for a Christian to wish to withdraw from this reading.

It seems to be intended to protect Christians from the idea it is “harmful” if they feel the need to say, “I am not prepared to do unguided Scripture study on Sundays; therefore, I wish to withdraw from doing so.”

83. It is an illusion to be persuaded that knowledge of the mysteries of religion should not be communicated to women by reading the Holy Scriptures. Not from the simplicity of women, but from the proud knowledge of men came the abuse of Scripture and heresies were born.

This seems to be concerned to protect the rights of women to make the same objections discussed in the previous two propositions. . . .

84. To snatch the New Testament from the hands of Christians, or to keep it closed against them, depriving them of the means of understanding it, is to close the mouth of Christ to them.

. . . “captious” . . . means, roughly, uncharitably fault-finding. In other words, being unfair to those you are criticizing . . . I could easily see this proposition as being captious. It characterizes the Church as “snatch[ing] away from the hands of Christians the New Testament.”

85. To prohibit Christians from reading Sacred Scripture, especially the Gospels, is to forbid the use of light by the children of light and make them suffer a kind of excommunication.

The overall phrasing is hostile and contentious and seems, again, to  be casting the non-endorsement of universal, unguided Scripture study in the worst possible light. Yet there are good reason for not endorsing universal, unguided Scripture study. Some people are simply not prepared for it.

Then Jimmy summarizes:

It also seems to me that they [the above propositions] do not add up to a rejection of individual Scripture study for those who are properly prepared for this. They are merely rejecting the idea that unguided Scripture study should be universally engaged in by all Christians, regardless of their level of preparation, and Christians are not at fault if they do not feel themselves prepared to undertake this task and are content to learn the Scriptures under ecclesiastical guidance.

Now I’d like to step back and examine Francisco’s (and Protestantism’s) always casually-assumed premise with regard to Bible-reading. As a good “socratic” in my methodology, it’s what I do, very often. Can it stand up to scrutiny? Here is what they believe:

Individual Bible study ought to be utterly free and unrestricted, does not require any necessary guidance, in order to rightly, properly understand Holy Scripture in a non-heretical way [referring here to heretical views agreed-to by Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox alike, such as the denial of trinitarianism, the deity of Christ, etc.], and entails no spiritual danger whatsoever of the person falling prey to false doctrines due to their false interpretation of the inspired Scripture.

That is — at bottom — the premise behind all of this protest against restrictive recommendations such as that in Unigenitus. It’s assumed (seemingly without much reflection) that passing out Bibles to all and sundry (a practice that is never sanctioned in the Bible), to come up with theology on their own without ecclesiastical or scholarly guidance, is perfectly fine and dandy. How could any Christian possibly object to that!? Anyone who does object is obviously anti-Bible! So goes the reasoning. This is one reason why Francisco chose this article in particular, because he thinks it proves Catholic hostility towards the Bible: whereas Protestants regard themselves as uniquely the champions of Holy Scripture.

But is the proposition / premise above, true? I would say it clearly is not true, based on two considerations:

1) biblical teaching about Bible-reading.

2) the history of non-trinitarian cults, especially in America, as a result of these radically sola Scriptura views.

Let’s survey these in order:

Holy Scripture itself does indeed teach the principle of a necessity for authoritative guides with regard to reading and understanding Holy Scripture:

Exodus 18:20 (RSV) and you shall teach them the statutes and the decisions, and make them know the way in which they must walk and what they must do.

Moses was not simply to deliver and read the Law (Torah: first five books of the Bible) to the Hebrews, but also “teach them” about it. Since he was the Lawgiver and author of the Torah, it stands to reason that his interpretation and teaching would be of a highly authoritative nature.

Leviticus 10:11 and you are to teach the people of Israel all the statutes which the LORD has spoken to them by Moses.

Moses’ brother Aaron was also to teach the true meaning of the Torah. It was true at this early stage, just as it was in Jesus’ time, that believers were not simply given Bibles (as if it were a mass “Gideon’s Bible” crusade) to read. Authoritative interpretation was stressed as necessary from the beginning.

Deuteronomy 33:10 They shall teach Jacob thy ordinances, and Israel thy law . . .

Authoritative interpretation of the Torah was also the responsibility of the Levite priests. Compare this with 2 Chronicles 15:3; Malachi 2:6-8 — the latter calls them “messenger of the LORD of hosts”.

Ezra 7:6, 10 this Ezra went up from Babylonia. He was a scribe skilled in the law of Moses which the LORD the God of Israel had given; and the king granted him all that he asked, for the hand of the LORD his God was upon him. . . . [10] For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the LORD, and to do it, and to teach his statutes and ordinances in Israel.

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 7-8, 12 And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate; and they told Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses which the LORD had given to Israel. [2] And Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding, on the first day of the seventh month. [3] And he read from it . . . [7] Also Jesh’ua, Bani, Sherebi’ah, Jamin, Akkub, Shab’bethai, Hodi’ah, Ma-asei’ah, Keli’ta, Azari’ah, Jo’zabad, Hanan, Pelai’ah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places. [8] And they read from the book, from the law of God, clearly [footnote, “or with interpretation”]; and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. . . . [12] And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.

8:7 describes thirteen Levites who assisted Ezra, and “who helped the people to understand the law.” Much earlier, in King Jehoshaphat’s reign, we find Levites exercising the same function (2 Chronicles 17:8-9). There is no sola Scriptura, with its associated idea “perspicuity” (evident clearness in the main) here. The people did indeed understand the law (8:12), but not without much assistance — not merely upon hearing. Likewise, the Bible is not altogether clear in and of itself, but requires the aid of teachers who are more familiar with biblical styles and Hebrew idiom, background, context, exegesis and cross-reference, hermeneutical principles, original languages, etc.

Luke 24:25-27 And he said to them, “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! [26] Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” [27] And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.

Acts 8:27-31 And he rose and went. And behold, an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a minister of the Can’dace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of all her treasure, had come to Jerusalem to worship [28] and was returning; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. [29] And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go up and join this chariot.” [30] So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” [31] And he said, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.

2 Peter 3:15-17 So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, [16] speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures. [17] You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, beware lest you be carried away with the error of lawless men and lose your own stability.

It’s not just “the medieval Catholic Church” that came up with this concept. It’s clearly taught in inspired revelation. It’s also true that in the first five centuries of the Church, it was a deliberate and widespread practice to only gradually introduce new Christians to the “deeper” elements of Christianity. This practice was known as the Discipline of the Secret, or Disciplina Arcani in Latin.

Therefore, not only the Bible in both Testaments, but also the early Church for some 1500 years, held that not everyone should simply be given a Bible to read, with no authoritative guidance to steer them from erroneous interpretations (many of which have been observed throughout history, especially among schismatic and heretical “sects” or “cults”).

Now onto a brief consideration of the history of heretical sects: especially in the United States. Here in America, false sects are particularly prone to develop, because we are the quintessential Protestant country. Historical heresies in the early Church and these late-arriving cults both espoused sola Scriptura, just as Protestants do. From that premise they established their little heretical empires.

Charles Taze Russell founded the Arian Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1879. It now has about 21.3 million members worldwide.

Mary Baker Eddy founded the Gnostic-influenced Christian Science in the same year. It had a little under 50,000 members in 2009, down from a high of 270,000 in 1936.

Joseph Smith founded polytheistic Mormonism in 1827. It now has over 16 million members.

The United Pentecostal Church adopted the Sabellian heresy. It was begun by Charles Parham and now has 5.2 million members.

Christadelphianism is another Arian cult, begun by John Thomas in 1848. It now numbers about 50,000.

This is what can happen by allowing unguided, unrestricted Bible study and applying sola Scriptura (the denial that there is an infallible Church or tradition to guide one’s interpretation of the sole infallible rule of faith, the Bible), and a disregard for historical precedent (or apostolic succession).

The notion of complete, utterly unbounded individual religious freedom also has historical reasons for why it came to be. Protestants and Catholics alike used to practice persecution and intolerance of other Christians different from themselves. Both Luther and Calvin sanctioned the death penalty for Anabaptists, because they believed in adult baptism. I have an extensive web page, “Protestantism: Historic Persecution & Intolerance”: lest anyone doubt that Protestants persecuted just as much as Catholics did.

No one has a “perfect record” in this respect. And one only need to look at how Protestant England (where most of my ancestors came from) treated Ireland for 400 years. Catholicism was either outlawed outright, or Catholics disenfranchised from mainstream society in England from 1536 to 1829. I have documented on my web page above, 1275 Catholic martyrs by name, including 430 in just ten years by King Henry VIII,  312 under Queen Elizabeth I, and 444 Irish martyrs. Often, these executions for the “treasonous” crime of being a Catholic or a Catholic priest utilized the most barbaric, inhuman tortures, such as (notoriously), being hanged, drawn, and quartered, involving, in the worst cases, being disemboweled or having their hearts cut out, or both arms and legs cut off while still alive.

But we mustn’t think that all such executions were done out of hatred. There is a case that can be made for the general notion of capital punishment for heresy. I wrote about this in my paper, The Inquisition: Its Purpose and Rationale Within the Mediæval Worldview [2-21-06]:

In the Middle Ages, all heresy was pretty much regarded as obstinacy and in bad faith; evil will, etc. The Church today takes a much more psychologically nuanced approach: much heresy is believed in good faith; hence the adherent is less culpable; hence not guilty enough to be punished, etc. (i.e., on the human level: divine judgment being something else altogether). We have also learned that coercion is pointless, which was the original Christian position, anyway . . .

The medievals believed (with a great degree of justification from a Christian perspective) that heresy can be every bit as dangerous to individuals and societies as physical crime is (in fact, much more so, assuming the background premises). This inner principle has remained the same, while the application and particular understanding of it has undergone positive development. The belief that heresy is bad and soul-destroying is altogether in effect today in Catholicism, just as it always has been. But the understanding of the motives of the heretic and thereby the treatment or punishment changed (along with the relationship of church and state in modern societies). . . .

The killing of heretics was based on the notion that they were a menace to society, and would cause untold harm to society and souls, because in those days, heresy was considered as harmful and dangerous (if not more so) than physical crime is today. Humanists believe that the body dies and that is it. Christians believe that a deliberate, obstinate heretic will burn in hell forever; hence the high importance placed on preventing the spread of heresy. . . .

I don’t think that the Inquisition can or should be absolutely defended by the Catholic apologist. I don’t try to do that. I don’t like the Inquisition at all myself (as I view coercion in matters of religion and conscience as a contradiction in terms – precisely the position of Vatican II). But to say that there is no “essential” difference between the Inquisition and Communism or the Nazi Holocaust (as some critics of Christianity or Catholicism in particular try to do) is patently ludicrous and preposterous. . . .

The Church has come to realize that the rights of individual freedom and conscience are relatively more important than temporal punishment of heretics (because the causes of heresy are regarded as extremely complex and not given to harsh and swift judgment).

Christians of all stripes thought that religion was supremely important, and that fostering their brand of religion was good for souls and society. So they persecuted to the death, according to those goals, as they saw it, and Protestants and Catholics fought wars with each other almost continuously for 125 years or so, ending with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which “ended the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) and Eighty Years’ War (1568–1648), and brought peace to the Holy Roman Empire, closing a calamitous period of European history that killed approximately eight million people.”

I would trace the secularism that currently plagues all formerly Christian countries in the West as deriving from that time. The notion was that religious conflicts could not ever be solved. Everyone was exhausted by the endless fighting. It was basically decided that religion wasn’t worth fighting for anymore, and that every man ought to be free to believe and practice as he wished (except in England, where severe persecution against Catholics continued another 80 years). The French Revolution and so-called “Enlightenment” continued this rejection of the importance of religion, and fostered a rapidly increasing secularism.

Thus, total freedom of religion was the extreme reaction to the killing and capital punishment. One extreme to the other . . . It was now thought that no one (no matter how high of an authority) should tell anyone else how to believe, or guide them: at least not in an infallible, binding manner, and that religion was merely personal and subjective and had no particular relevance to larger society. But with that new understanding, came the advent of all the new heretical cults in the 19th century in America.

I believe that this thinking of “absolute religious freedom” (along with the prior sola Scriptura and its related idea of perspicuity or clearness of Scripture) lies behind much of the Protestant root assumption that individual Bible study must not be prohibited for anyone, and that anyone has the “right” to read the Bible without religious authority guiding it or limiting it to some standard of “orthodoxy.” Thus, decrees of the Catholic Church that seek this are automatically viewed as repressive “anti-biblical” / “fear of the Bible” measures. Yet the Bible itself never teaches any such thing, as already shown above.

Rightly or wrongly, Catholics and Protestants both now agree that religious freedom is a bedrock right and privilege. It was considered relatively better to allow religious liberty (though the Catholic Church always strongly suggests being guided by the Church, so as to remain orthodox), despite the dangers of heresy, than it was to persecute for what was considered heretical and dangerous belief. Neither approach is absolute or without serious problems. But both sides now advocate freedom of religion.

That’s why I have to defend what the Catholic Church decreed in the past, because it can’t be comprehended, given our present premises about religious freedom. I have to “get inside the thinking” of that time and try to objectively analyze it, rather than condemn it out of hand as outrageous and indefensible. This isn’t easy, because I myself, as an apologist, passionately advocate religious freedom and tolerance all around, while opposing what I think is theological error. But it’s necessary and important to do: out of charity towards my Christian brothers — Catholic and Protestant — in the past.

The Constitution is very clear, the Church of Rome prohibited the reading of Sacred Scripture by all Christians, by all men. This echoes the canons of the Council of Trent, in the Section Concerning Prohibited Books, Rule IV which says:

While it is evident from experience that, if sacred books are allowed indiscriminately in the common language, more harm than good accrues from them on account of the temerity of men, in this respect it depends on the discretion of the bishop or inquisitor, so that, with the on the advice of the parish priest or confessor, those who consider that they have not suffered harm, but an increase in faith and piety from such reading, grant them the reading of books translated by Catholic authors into the vulgar language; what power they can have with regard to the scriptures. But whoever dares to read them without such power, cannot obtain absolution from his sins, unless he has first returned the books to the ordinary. But the booksellers, who will sell the Bible written in the vulgar language, from the same bishop. But the regulars should not have the power to read them or buy them, unless they have the power to do so from their prelates. [link]

It is understood by reading the two documents that deal with the same topic, that the reading is only for authorized people, who have a certain type of knowledge, that is, the simple person cannot have a Bible at home, much less make their own reading without suffering a sanction from the Church of Rome.

I think that’s reading too much into it. The key phrase is “if sacred books are allowed indiscriminately in the common language.” It’s a question of degree. And that is justified based on my analysis above: what the Bible teaches about it, and the history of heresies arising from unrestricted application of the principles of sola Scriptura and “private, subjective religion with no legitimate oversight: either Catholic or Protestant. I deny the Protestant premise: that nothing bad can possibly come from such unrestricted Bible-reading.

I think it’s even self-evident that that is false. Once the falsity of the premise is granted, then it can be comprehended why the Catholic Church felt led to make such decrees and what motivated it to do so (the good of souls , rather than — as Protestant anti-Catholic myths would have it — its own supposed lust for power and fear of the vernacular Bible).

This is confirmed by the quotes from apologist Jimmy Akin made by Armstrong. The apologist says when commenting on the condemnation of thesis number 79:

79. It is useful and necessary at all times, in all places and for all types of people, to study and know the spirit, piety and mysteries of Sacred Scripture.

The most problematic word Quesnel put in this proposition is “necessary”. Is it really necessary that at all times, in all places, all kinds of people should study the mysteries of Holy Scripture? . . .

Similar problems recur if we focus on the useful word. Is it really useful at all times, in all places, for all kinds of people? And those who are not ready?

Akin is correct. It’s not necessary to this extreme: “at all times, in all places and for all types of people . . .” The condemnation dealt with a proposition that was extreme and obviously false in the first place.

Here it is clear that the Church of Rome does think that there are people who do not need the reading of Scripture,

That’s not true. This confuses what was stated. It’s not saying that some people don’t need Scripture at all. It’s saying that study of the mysteries of the Bible all the time, everywhere, and by all types of people is not “necessary.” These are two completely different propositions. that Francisco has illogically collapsed into one. As I said, the pope was dealing with extreme statements from Quesnel.

but worse still, that reading the Bible is harmful to some people.

It doesn’t say that here; it is merely read into it. The Bible itself doesn’t harm people, but people are harmed if they study it with false premises and false conclusions, leading to heresy that the Bible doesn’t teach. That is unarguable as well.

It is also confirmed, not only here, but throughout the text, that the Church of Rome defends that Scripture is not for all men, that knowledge is due to the few who belong to a certain group, basically this is gnosis.

Nonsense. These texts don’t say that it is reserved for “few”: as if it is like Gnosticism. Francisco is reading things into the documents that aren’t there, due to his Protestant bias. We mustn’t distort what sources state. That’s fighting straw men.

The question I have for Francisco is: why the focus on a papal document from over 300 years ago, when the Catholic Church has encouraged the widespread individual reading of Scripture since at least the 1890s? Why not rejoice that we all agree on this now, rather than revisiting past positions no longer held? What’s the point? A non-infallible document from 1713 is no more relevant to Catholicism today than citing Luther’s and Calvin’s persecution to the death of those who believed in adult baptism is relevant to Protestantism today.  Heaven knows we have enough real differences without concentrating on imagined ones that don’t exist anymore. So why was my paper on Unigenitus chosen to refute?

Francisco comments on Akin’s commentary on #80 by saying, the interpretation is Ad Hoc in order to defend the Church of Rome from something that it no longer defends, but defended in the past.” This is precisely related to the point I just made. He makes a cynical remark about Jimmy Akin’s explanation of a 309-year-old fallible papal document and then notes that the Catholic Church no longer teaches what it teaches. Why, then, would he be more concerned about Jimmy’s supposedly “ad hoc” interpretation than the fact that Catholics and Protestants are joyfully in basic agreement today, and for over a hundred years, about personal Bible-reading? Is that not misplaced priorities?

Francisco objects to the notion — described by Akin — that of a bunch of negative general judgments stated in Unigenitus, we aren’t sure which apply to which propositions. But if that’s the nature of the document it is. Obviously, exactitude was not of the essence of the document. It was a general condemnation of some false notions. This very vagueness, however, is another proof that the document is not infallible and binding forever, as Lawrence King and Robert T. Miller explain in their article, On Integralism, Religious Liberty, and the Authority of the Church: 19th Century Popes and 20th Century Popes Disagreed” (Public Discourse, 2-2-19):

And consider the constitution Unigenitus of 1713 (DS 2400-2502), in which Pope Clement XI condemned one hundred one propositions from a book by the Jansenist theologian Pasquier Quesnel. Unlike Auctorem fidei, which specifies the precise theological censure for each item, Unigenitus presents a list of Quesnel’s statements, and then offers a bevy of censures without indicating which censure applies to which proposition: . . .

All these propositions are errores in the original Latin sense: they “wander” or “stray” from the best path, and the pope is concerned because Catholics are being misled by them. Some are false, and some are even heretical. However, others are condemned merely as “offensive to pious ears” or “rash” —theological censures that do not completely rule out the possibility that these propositions might actually be true.

Catholics eager for certitude may wonder why Clement would condemn a list of propositions without specifying what’s wrong with each of them in a permanent, definitive manner. Recall that, as Vatican I taught, a pope has no source of new revelation. Before issuing a definitive judgment, a pope must investigate the matter and reach certainty regarding the truth. This may take a long time. For example, Trent deliberately remained neutral concerning the Immaculate Conception of Mary, which was being debated by theologians at the time; it would take three more centuries before the Church was ready to issue an infallible judgment on the matter.

Unigenitus does what Clement intended it to do: warn Catholics of ideas that were circulating and presented various dangers. If Clement had insisted that each of these hundred-and-one propositions be analyzed to the point that he could infallibly declare exactly what was wrong with it—whether it was false, or subject to misinterpretation, or true yet “offensive to pious ears” —how many decades would have passed before the document could have been released?

Papal documents condemning erroneous propositions are common enough to constitute their own genre, with variations in their arrangement. In one variation, a specific censure is attached to each thesis. Documents of this type include Auctorem fidei as well as In agro dominico (John XXII, 1329), Ex supernae clementiae (Urban V, 1368), and Cum occasione (Innocent X, 1653). In another variation, there are no individual censures, but only a global condemnation. This variation is more common and includes Exsurge Domine (Leo X, 1520), Ex omnibus (Pius V, 1567), Cum alias (Innocent XII, 1699), Unigenitus, and several others.

Let’s admit that this explains nothing, for if the purpose of an Apostolic Constitution is to exhort the faithful and establish a teaching of faith for the flock, then how can I exhort if I don’t know what condemnation each thesis falls into? The truth is that if all of them don’t fall under all the damning adjectives, at least most of them fall, that would be the natural reading of the text.

It is sufficient to serve its purpose, which was, according to the article above, to “warn Catholics of ideas that were circulating and presented various dangers.”

My view on this interpretation is that the apologist makes a defense of the document, but wants to water down his condemnation so it doesn’t look like what the document actually is: a full condemnation of the reading of Scripture by all believers without exception.

This is referring to #84 of Unigenitus. Remember, it’s not the document initially saying what is included in #84. It is condemning a false proposition by Quesnel, a Jansenist heretic. Therefore, #84 is his characterization of what the Catholic Church has done (that Akin characterized as “captious”): not any statement from the Church herself of its view on private Bible-reading. Here it is from the latest (2012) version of Denzinger, edited and translated by my very good friend (he’s been at my house many times and I regularly correspond with him), the systematic theologian, Dr. Robert Fastiggi, of Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit (I have a hard copy in my library):

84. To snatch away from the hands of Christians the New Testament or to hold it closed against them by taking away from them the means of understanding it is to close for them the mouth of Christ. — Mt 5:2. (p. 504)

More importantly, the author confirms my central point: the Church of Rome forbade the reading of Sacred Scripture by laypeople.

Where? It has never made such a statement, applicable to all lay Catholics. If I am mistaken, and it has done so, I’ll have to be shown that.

Reading Holy Scripture is not for everyone.

That is what has been said, at various times and in particular historical, geographical situations. But it’s perfectly defensible from the Bible and the history of false doctrine, as I did above. This sentence contradicts the previous one (unless it is a translation issue, which may be the case).

Mr. Armstrong is implying that no Roman Catholic was forbidden to read Scripture, whether lay or clerical . . . 

I am not stating that, as explained. Once again, when I stated in my Summary at the end that Unigenitus didn’t “forbid Bible reading” I meant altogether, not in isolated instances or with certain undereducated types of people.

Jimmy Akin, while trying to lighten the condemnation, was very honest intellectually in assuming that the Church of Rome does not advocate that all people read Scripture

Since I cited him in complete agreement, and since he is my friend (who is looking over my latest book right now, as part of its editing process), then it’s quite obvious I have no disagreement with him on this score. To imply otherwise is dead wrong. Francisco has simply misunderstood one or more of my statements (again, it may be a translation issue; always possible).

Vatican II and Pope Francis can and do contradict Unigenitus on this matter because the later is not an infallible document. That can be said, but saying that this is some problem with Catholic authority only betrays ignorance as to how it works. Nothing contradicts Trent in terms of Catholic authority and infallibility, etc., because that, too, was disciplinary: which instructions can and do change. Francisco is “barking up the wrong tree”, as we say in English.

nothing is seen in his article about the Bibles sold in Catholic stores for anyone to buy, in addition to the fact that no one today is excommunicated for having a Protestant translation.

He must not have read these two paragraphs near the end:

It is true, on the other hand, that in time the Catholic Church did become much more open to Bible study, reading, and even some non-Catholic translations (with some warnings and stipulations). The emphasis became more positive rather than “negative” in the sense that errors had to be vigorously condemned in order to protect the Catholic flock. It was time for a different approach.

Hence, along those lines we have the famous papal encyclicals Providentissimus Deus (Pope Leo XIII: 1893) and Divino afflante Spiritu (Pope Pius XII: 1943) and many other similar Church documents since then, including the wonderful reflections of Vatican II, the saint-popes (John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul II) and the excellent biblical exegesis of Pope Benedict XVI.

I didn’t use the exact terms he described, but the basic idea is the same. Francisco is getting way off course by this point of his article. It’s almost like he is not even responding to me at this point. The misunderstanding has gotten very deep. Hopefully, this reply will clarify my true positions.

The “Bibles sold in Catholic stores” comment is really funny, once one discovers (as Francisco will now) that my bestselling book of all 50 so far is  New Catholic Answer Bible (2005), which contains 44 of my apologetics inserts and also got an Imprimatur from a bishop. I also put out my own New Testament, which was simply my editing of various British English translations to maintain the “King James” and 19th-century British “flavor”: my Victorian King James Version (2014).

Only one of the two is right: either Unigenitus is right or the Pope is in heresy and the Church of Rome is colluding with the mistake of selling Bibles to anyone.

Once again: Unigenitus was not infallible. There is no issue or problem here. The discipline about Bible-reading changed in the 1880s onwards and now the positive good gained by private Bible-reading is considered a net gain compared to the danger of arriving at heretical views. I’m absolutely delighted by the present view of the Church, because it has always been my view, too. All this is, is a straw man. Francisco can certainly do better than that.

. . . the magisterium of Rome contradicts itself in allowing what was previously infallibly forbidden.

It wasn’t infallibly forbidden. His premise is wrong, which is why he’s out to sea without a life jacket in arguing this point. The very vagueness of the exact condemnation of the propositions in Unigenitus proves that. So does their disciplinary (not doctrinal) nature. It’s simply yet another case of an otherwise educated Protestant not knowing how infallibility works in the Catholic Church. There are many subtleties and nuances involved.

It’s okay not to know. We all have to learn lots of things. What matters now is whether Francisco accepts my clarifications of what we actually teach. If he doesn’t and claims that I don’t know what I’m talking about (as a professional, published Catholic apologist for 21 years), then our dialogue will be over, because it would go nowhere after that. If he wants to do a book with me, he’s going to have to do a much better job than this, because I would never agree to being in a book with a Protestant, where the Protestant misrepresents what we actually teach and believe.

After this, he keeps repeating the same falsehoods over and over: that supposedly the Catholic Church forbade the reading of Scripture to everyone [besides clergy] without exception” / “the question is whether reading must be forbidden to all, that we deny”etc. Repeating an untrue statement over and over doesn’t make it any less false or more true. If he doesn’t modify his misunderstanding on this, our dialogue is definitely over. I wouldn’t have anywhere near the patience to continue. Rule #1 in any debate / dialogue is understanding and accurately conveying the opponent’s views.

The Calvinist TULIP is not our topic. But I will note (since it’s been brought up) that I have shown the unbiblical nature of all five points many times in scores of articles on my Calvinism and Salvation web pages, and in three books:

Biblical Catholic Answers for John Calvin (March 2010, 388p)

Biblical Catholic Salvation: “Faith Working Through Love” (Oct. 2010, 187p)

A Biblical Critique of Calvinism (Oct. 2012, 178p) [which may soon be possibly translated into Portugese]

Nor is the topic predestination and our supposed semi-Pelagianism (a tired and false old saw of anti-Catholic rhetoric), nor ecumenical councils, nor sedevacantists, nor divisions in the Church “on the ground”, nor the nature of sacred tradition, nor sola Scriptura. This is just the “throw a bunch of horse manure at the Catholic Church at one time, and hope some sticks” technique. I don’t play that game. Try that with amateur or rookie apologists. It never works with me. I discuss one topic at a time.


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Photo credit: [Pixabay / CC0 public domain]
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