What is the Catholic Church's view of Biblical inerrancy? She certainly holds to the view that the Bible is inerrant, but to what degree? Recently, I have been in email correspondence with a reader over this issue. He has pointed out that there is a great deal of Catholic Bible scholarship that holds to a more limited view on inerrancy, which, to him, seems to contradict the pronouncements by some Popes like Leo XII, but most notably Pius XII in Divino Afflante Spiritu. I produce that quote from the first paragraph of that document:
"Inspired by the Divine Spirit, the Sacred Writers composed those books, which God, in His paternal charity towards the human race, deigned to bestow on them in order "to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice: that the man of God may be perfect, furnished to every good work." This heaven-sent treasure Holy Church considers as the most precious source of doctrine on faith and morals. No wonder herefore that, as she received it intact from the hands of the Apostles, so she kept it with all care, defended it from every false and perverse interpretation and used it diligently as an instrument for securing the eternal salvation of souls, as almost countless documents in every age strikingly bear witness. In more recent Times New Roman, however, since the divine origin and the correct interpretation of the Sacred Writings have been very specially called in question, the Church has with even greater zeal and care undertaken their defense and protection. The sacred Council of Trent ordained by solemn decree that "the entire books with all their parts, as they have been wont to be read in the Catholic Church and are contained in the old vulgate Latin edition, are to be held sacred and canonical." In our own time the Vatican Council, with the object of condemning false doctrines regarding inspiration, declared that these same books were to be regarded by the Church as sacred and canonical "not because, having been composed by human industry, they were afterwards approved by her authority, nor merely because they contain revelation without error, but because, having been written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God for their author, and as such were handed down to the Church herself." When, subsequently, some Catholic writers, in spite of this solemn definition of Catholic doctrine, by which such divine authority is claimed for the "entire books with all their parts" as to secure freedom from any error whatsoever, ventured to restrict the truth of Sacred Scripture solely to matters of faith and morals, and to regard other matters, whether in the domain of physical science or history, as "obiter dicta" and - as they contended - in no wise connected with faith, Our Predecessor of immortal memory, Leo XIII in the Encyclical Letter Providentissimus Deus, published on November 18 in the year 1893, justly and rightly condemned these errors and safe-guarded the studies of the Divine Books by most wise precepts and rules."
Since then, however, the most notable contribution to this issue comes from the Second Vatican Council's Constitution Dei Verbum. Perhaps I am wrong, and please correct me if I am, but I believe this was the first statement on Biblical inerrancy found in a document of an Ecumenical Council. Concerning Dei Verbum and inerrancy, the main issues comes down on how one interprets Dei Verbum 11:
"Therefore, since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation."
There are some, like Fr. Raymond Brown and most notably some of the editors of the NAB commentary, which hold to a more limited view of inerrancy, which simply covers Biblical truth which God intended for our salvation. For them, this does not included apparent discrepancies, particularly in regards to historical or scientific information. They point out that the pre-vote debate on on Dei Verbum at Vatican II showed an "awareness of errors in the Bible (NJBC 1169)." Thus, for those who agree with the more limited form of Biblical inerrancy: "Scriptural teaching is truth without error to the extent that it conforms to the salvific purpose of God (Ibid)." For this view, you read more about it in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary pages 1168-1170, in the section on Church Pronouncements.
Then there are others that would hold to a more broad view of inerrancy, closer to the unlimited inerrancy as found in Leo XIII's encyclical. Those in this group contend that the Dei Verbum quote "for the sake of salvation" tells us not what is deemed inerrant, but rather why God wished the truth to be recorded in the Bible. They will point to the footnote to this statement in Dei Verbum, which references various Church Fathers, Popes, and Councils, which upholds the fuller form of inerrancy. Thus, unlimited inerrancy "is the belief that the Scripture is completely and comprehensively true in all that it intentionally affirms (Catholic Bible Dictionary 389)."
In some ways, there is still debate in the Church on this issue. Perhaps there is a desire, by the Church at this time, to be ambiguous on this issue. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in the section that deals with the inspiration of Scripture, paragraph 107, simply quotes from Dei Verbum 11 without any qualification.
It should be pointed out that the limited and unlimited view groups both recognize that there are difficulties in inerrancy. In addition, they both reject, in any case, that the Catholic Church's position is similar to fundamentalism. The key being that Catholic's are called to use modern Biblical scholarly methods in order to find out what is the literal not literalistic meaning of any given text. Certainly, this calls for the use of literary criticism, which seeks to find out what type of literary genre the author is using in his work. Thus, understanding the intent of the author and the literary form used in his writing can help to alleviate some of the difficulties in this area.
These are some of my opening thoughts on this issue. There is certainly more that can be said and added to this discussion, so I open this question up to you, my readers. What are your thoughts?
Divino Afflante Spiritu
Catechism of the Catholic Church
New Jerome Biblical Commentary, edited by Brown, Fitzmyer, and Murphy
The Catholic Bible Dictionary, edited by Hahn