The 1909 PBC's decision on the Days of Genesis

Dear Robert, I am confused by the 1910 Pontifical Biblical Commission response to the question of the meaning of the word "day" in Genesis. If the Church Fathers were unanimous in their understanding of the word "day" in the natural sense, and Trent and Vatican I demand obedience to the unanimous teachings of the Fathers, then why did the Commission allow "free disagreement among exegetes"? I am troubled by this apparent contradiction as well as the seeming unwillingness of the Church to forthrightly condemn ideas such as evolution and heliocentrism. If these ideas are false, then why are they allowed to continue to lead people astray? It's been my experience that the lack of belief in the stories of Genesis is nearly complete. God bless your work!


R. Sungenis: Within the history of patristic exegesis and the dogmas of the Church, the 1909 PBC is not out of line in its recommendation, although it can be safely said that the 1909 PBC was not supporting the theory of evolution. Today, however, when modern theologians read the 1909 PBC regarding the possible meanings of “day,” they invariably infer from it that Pius X (who demanded our obedience to the PBC. See Denz. 2113) was allowing for evolution. But of all the popes, Pius X would have been the most reticent to have been interpreted in that manner. Unfortunately, by the wording of Question VIII at the 1909 PBC, I’m afraid Pius X left an unintentional loophole for these modernists to skate through.

I believe, however, that Pius X’s intentions were honorable, since, if he was paying attention to the patristics before he allowed the PBC to make its conclusion, he may have been merely trying to accommodate the view of St. Augustine who proposed that the world was created instantaneously, in one day, if you will, rather than six 24-hour days; and Pius X may also have been aware of the fact that the Church had never officially stated that the Days of Genesis were 24 hours long.

Having such high respect for Augustine (since he set the foundation for most of the other doctrines the Church has accepted and endorsed), it was inevitable that Augustine’s alternative interpretation of Genesis would be accommodated by Pius X. As such, it would require the PBC to say that the word “day” in Genesis 1 could refer either to 24-hours or “a certain space of time.”

Additionally, Pius X may have been aware that Scripture itself (outside of Genesis 1-2) uses “day” in various senses, some not literal.

Having said that, Pius X did not say that Catholic doctrine regarding the ex nihilo creation of the world was now changing or ever would change. Pius X was well aware of what both Lateran Council IV and Vatican I dogmatized about the ex nihilo and immediate creation of all things. And he was certainly aware that the Church had never even entertained the theory of evolution, much less endorsed it as a possible interpretation of Lateran IV and Vatican I, or even Genesis 1.

That being said, upon closer examination of the PBC’s wording, it says that “with regard to such a question there can be free disagreement among exegetes.” I think this wording is significant. “Free disagreement among exegetes” has been the Church’s normal and expected allowance unless a doctrine has been declared infallible. For example, before Pius XII made the Assumption of Mary an infallible dogma of the Church in 1950, “exegetes,” and everyone else, could freely disagree with the idea of Mary’s assumption into heaven. In other words, for about 95% of Catholic history, the Church allowed its members to discuss and take different sides on the issue! That’s quite a long time for a doctrine that was apparently important enough that the Church decided to make it a matter of the Christian faith. So what took the Church so long? The answer is: who knows? The fact remains, however, that exegetes could disagree up until 1950.

In the case of Lateran Council IV declaring the ex nihilo and immediate creation of all things, we come close to the position that the days of Genesis are 24 hours, but not close enough. The closest that Lateran IV comes to giving a distinct and sequential chronology of the events of the creation is to say that in one moment all spiritual and corporeal things, the angelic and earthly, were created, and “THEN” the human. The Latin deinde (“then” or “next”) shows that there is a chronological demarcation between the creation of the angels/earth and the creation of man. This would necessitate that Lateran IV accepted that the first five days of creation come under the heading of “angels/earthly” but that the sixth day is represented by the human and the animals.

Therefore, Lateran IV dogmatizes, at the least, a distinction between Days 1-5 and Day 6, but it doesn’t go as far as saying that the Days of Genesis are 24 hours.

Vatican I adds that, whatever was created during those two specific times, it was created “in its whole substance,” which certainly can be interpreted to mean that fish were created as fish and birds as birds and man as man, in their full and complete form, and thus not give any credence to the idea that they “evolved” from lower forms.

Interestingly enough, Lateran IV’s implied chronological distinction between Days 1-5 and Day 6 would, in my opinion, disqualify St. Augustine’s option of viewing the Days of Genesis as one day, since one day does not allow for any time demarcation demanded by the word deinde.

Still, the matter of whether or not the Days of Genesis were 24-hours was not specifically delineated by Lateran IV, and therefore, the 1909 PBC and Pius X were well within their ecclesiastical rights to at least allow “free disagreement among exegetes” over that one issue, at least until the Church would take up the issue in the future and make a more definitive declaration, which may include whether the Days are, indeed, 24 hours. If the dogmatizing of the Assumption of Mary is any indication of how long we may have to wait, then we might be in for a long haul.

Until that time, however, those in authoritative positions in the Church cannot take advantage of the slight ambiguity in the Church’s dogma and advance the ludicrous theory of evolution. There is enough patristic testimony, enough magisterial dogma, and enough scientific evidence to obliterate the idea that God created the world through evolution. We should then use this evidence to show both the hierarchy and the laity that they should not accept evolution as even a plausible interpretation of Genesis. That is the fight we are in, and it may continue until Christ returns.

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