Interpreting the Scriptures
There are several imposing ceremonies at the ordination of a priest; and I will never forget the joy I felt when the Roman Pontiff, presenting to me the Bible, ordered me, with a solemn voice, to study and preach it. That order passed through my soul as a beam of light. When holding the sacred column, I accepted the command with unspeakable joy but I felt as if a thunderbolt had fallen upon me when I pronounced the awful oath which is required from every priest: "I will never interpret the Holy Scriptures except according to the unanimous consent of the Holy Fathers."
Many times the other students and I had discussed that strange oath. Alone in the presence of God, my conscience had shrunk in terror from its consequences. But I was not the only one who contemplated its evidently blasphemous nature.
About six months before, Stephen Baillargeon, one of my fellow theological students, had said to our superior, the Rev. Mr. Raimbault: "One of the things which my conscience cannot reconcile is the solemn oath we will have to take never to interpret the Scriptures except according to the unanimous consent of the Holy Fathers! We have not given a single hour yet to the serious study of the Holy Fathers. I know many priests and none of them has ever studied the Holy Fathers!
"In the name of common sense, how can we swear that we will follow the sentiments of men of whom we know absolutely nothing, and about whom, it is more probable, we will never know anything, except by mere vague hearsay?"
Our superior gave a weak answer, but his embarrassment grew when I said: "If you will allow me, Mr. Superior, I have some more formidable objections. Would to God that I could say, with Baillargeon, I know nothing of the Holy Fathers. But my regret is that we know already too much of the Holy Fathers to be exempt from perjuring ourselves, when we swear that we will not interpret the Holy Scriptures except according to their unanimous consent.
"Please, Mr. Superior, tell us what are the texts of Scripture on which the Holy Fathers are unanimous? You respect yourself too much to answer. And if you, one of the most learned men of France, cannot put your finger on the texts of the Holy Bible and say, 'The Holy Fathers are perfectly unanimous on these texts!' how can we dare to swear before God and men to interpret every text of the Scriptures only according to the unanimous consent of those Holy Fathers?
"The consequences of that oath are legion, and every one of them seems to me the death of our ministry, the damnation of our souls! Henrion, Berrault, Bell, Costel, and Fleury all testify that the Church has constantly been filled with the noise of the controversies of Holy Fathers with Holy Fathers. Some say, with our best modern theologians, St. Thomas, Bellarmine and Liquori, that we must kill heretics as we kill wild beasts; while many others say that we must tolerate them! You all know the name of the Holy Father who sends to hell all the widows who marry a second time, while other Holy Fathers disagree.
"Some had very different notions about purgatory. Others in Africa and Asia refused to accept the supreme jurisdiction of the pope over all churches. Several have laughed at the excommunications of the popes, and gladly died without doing anything to reconcile themselves to him! And have you not concluded that St. Jerome and St. Augustine agreed on only one thing, which was to disagree on every subject they treated? St. Augustine, at the end of his life, even agreed with the Protestants of our day, that 'upon that rock' means only Christ, and not Peter.
"And now we are gravely asked, in the name of the God of Truth, to swear that we will interpret the Holy Scriptures only according to the unanimous consent of those Holy Fathers, who have been unanimous but in one thing, which was never to agree with each other, and sometimes not even with themselves...If I cannot rely upon my private judgment when studying, with the help of God, the Holy Scriptures, how can I rely on my private judgment when studying the Holy Fathers?"