Catholic view of biblical inerrancy

I am aware that Catholics believe that the Bible is inerrant. However, I am not sure what this inerrancy means exactly and how this sort of inerrancy is different from the one that Christian Fundamentalists, who are normally Protestants, have.

While I was on my search for the answer, I discovered on Ebscohost three sources.

  1. DOYLE, R. (2003). Sizing Up Evangelicals. Scientific American, 288(3), 37.

  2. Gigot, F. (1907). The Bible. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved April 26, 2014 from New Advent:


The first source, Scientific American, writes that biblical inerrancy was “a creation not of the 16th century Reformation but of 19th century Princeton University theologians attempting to preserve traditional belief in divine origins.”

Then, the second and third sources suggest that the Roman Catholic Church has its own variant of biblical inerrancy. Is this the same doctrine? Assuming that the Catholic version is the true one, how is the Fundamentalist version different? What is the Catholic view of biblical inerrancy?

(To be honest, I am surprised that Catholics believe that the Bible is inerrant, for I have always thought that Catholics place heavier emphasis on the authority of the pope and the church than the scriptures. I would have thought that Catholics believe that the Bible is infallible, though.)

The Catholic Church teaches that authority is present in the “three-legged stool” of Magesterium (the Popes and Bishops), Sacred Tradition, and Scripture. None of these is higher than another, so the Pope and all Bishops combined are only 1/3 of the authority of the Church (they are, however, the only third that can really speak out, so they tend to get most of the attention, but they cannot speak in contradiction of Scripture or Tradition).

Catholics and protestants largely agree on the idea of inerrant, but Catholics restrict the inerrancy to matters of faith and morals (just as the Magesterium is similarly restricted).

Some protestants take the term to be strictly literal. For example, some protestants would claim that Jesus fed EXACTLY 5000 in the account of Matt 15, and the minor differences between the feeding of 4000 in Mark 8 means there must have been two such events. Catholics don’t feel the precise number is relevant to the divine truth that the passage intends to teach, and we’re happy to consider it an estimate, and that the events of Matt and Mark are one and the same.

I have heard that numbers in biblical times were all symbolic. 40 days of fasting in the wilderness. 40 years lost in the wilderness. The number of people who heard the gospel and got baptized in the Book of Acts. So… that’s really a Catholic interpretation then, or is that a general consensus of biblical scholars?

It is very simple.

The whole point of scripture is salvation. God gave us the Scriptures so that we might be saved. The things which God wanted in Scripture for the sake of salvation are without error.

That is exactly how it is stated in the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation. It does not need to be any more complicated than that.


No, we do not. In fact, that error was condemned:

…[It] is absolutely wrong and forbidden, either to narrow inspiration to certain parts only of Holy Scripture, or to admit that the sacred writer has erred. For the system of those who … concede that divine inspiration regards the things of faith and morals, and nothing beyond, because (as they wrongly think) … we should consider not so much what God has said as the reason and purpose which He had in mind in saying it — this system cannot be tolerated. (Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus, 20).

This teaching was reaffirmed by Pius XII in Divino Afflante Spiritu, and again in Vatican II’s document Dei Verbum (which has footnotes to the above).

In light of the Church’s authoritative teaching quoted above, Dei Verbum cannot mean what you say it means. But you are not the first to interpret it that way. In fact, for this very reason the Theological Commission’s footnote clarifies:

By the term “salvific” (salutarem) it is by no means suggested that Sacred Scripture is not in its integrity the inspired Word of God. … This expression does not imply any material limitation to the truth of Scripture, rather, it indicates Scripture’s formal specification, the nature of which must be kept in mind in deciding in what sense everything affirmed in the Bible is true - not only matters of faith and morals and facts bound up with the history of salvation. For this reason the Commission has decided that the expression should be retained. (AS IV, V, 708)

So the scope of inerrancy is not restricted to faith and morals.

As to the difference between the Catholic teaching on inerrancy and the Fundamentalist Protestant view, the three documents linked above should clear that up.

We might be pardoned for our confusion, since the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) says something very similar to what TimothyH wrote:
107 The inspired books teach the truth. “Since therefore all that the inspired authors or sacred writers affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures.

109 In Sacred Scripture, God speaks to man in a human way. To interpret Scripture correctly, the reader must be attentive to what the human authors truly wanted to affirm and to what God wanted to reveal to us by their words.

110 In order to discover the sacred authors’ intention, the reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking, and narrating then current. “For the fact is that truth is differently presented and expressed in the various types of historical writing, in prophetical and poetical texts, and in other forms of literary expression.”
Thus far I have not found that the CCC specifically addresses the historical accuracy of events, time spans, genealogies, etc., described in sacred scripture, but it seems to suggest that the Holy Spirit granted a certain literary license to the sacred authors as they expressed without error the intended truth.

There is no “view”. The teaching of the Catholic Church is as follows:

Question on 16/12/2007:
Does the Catholic Church still maintain that all of scripture is inspired and inerrant, or did this teaching change with Vatican II’s Dei Verbum #11, in which only the portions of scripture necessary for salvation are considered to be inspired?
Answer by Fr. John Echert on 20/12/2007 (EWTN):
'You are likely working off a badly translated version of Dei Verbum, which changed the word order of the original Conciliar statement, which some use–erroneously–to claim that inerrancy applies only to matters related to salvation. In the text below, I provide an accurate translation, with the correct order: The Church formally teaches that the Sacred Scriptures are absolutely without error. This teaching is not arrived at inductively–namely, that a careful study of the entire Bible has revealed no discrepancies or difficulties–but follows from the fact that God is the ultimate Author of the Bible and falsehood is incompatible with Truth Itself. As taught by the Second Vatican Council: The inspired books teach the truth. “Since therefore all that the inspired authors or sacred writers affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach the truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures.” ’

Certainly, and I apologize if I came across as judgmental. My remarks were meant as a judgment of the assertion, not the one asserting it. You are quite right; the CCC in fact quotes directly from the document in question. What TimothyH wrote is similar, but there is a subtle but substantial difference as pointed out above. The mistake is certainly pardonable, since it is what a lot of people think and what some persons of influence have asserted publicly, albeit mistakenly, as the authentic interpretation of the Council. The document went through like four drafts, and this passage in particular got tweaked several times. Even in its final form it is not entirely clear without the footnote.

Yes, I think it is difficult to get this right.

You are arguing with something I didn’t say. I did not say that the scope of inerrancy is restricted to faith and morals.

*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 (5) for the sake of salvation. *

I didn’t interpret anything. I said exactly what Dei Verbum said - salvation. I did not say faith and morals. Your argument is with someone else.


Ad Orientem (or others): As an aid to understanding this important matter of biblical inerrancy, please tell me how to interpret the account of God’s creation of the world in six days. I mean, use it as an example to illustrate how church teaching may be applied to a specific passage.

Sorry if I misunderstood. Given the context, your highlighting, and your changing of the word order, I took you to be saying, “[Only] those things in the Bible which are for our salvation are without error [whereas those things in the Bible that are not for our salvation may contain error].” If this has nothing to do with what you meant, I apologize. My point there was that the Council does not say or mean the above, according to its own notes.

Beryllos #11
As an aid to understanding this important matter of biblical inerrancy, please tell me how to interpret the account of God’s creation of the world in six days.

No. 141 Roman Theological Forum Study Program May 2009
by John F. McCarthy

21. If the long-period days are true, the natural days are false.
Answer: No. Both interpretations can be literally true. The image of the seven days is clearly intended to set up the calendar of the seven-day week ending on the Sabbath. Also, the hidden meaning is true only to the extent that the conclusions of mainline astronomy, geology, and biology are historically true, a fact that has never been absolutely proved but is assumed in modern culture. And, in any case, the possible subtle meaning shows that the story of Genesis 1 is not a myth from the viewpoint of empirical science.

“**22. If the long-period days and the theory of the Big Bang are true, the plain reading of Genesis 1 cannot be historically true. **
**Answer: **The plain reading of Genesis 1 would still be historically true, but the details of how the creation was accomplished would be differently understood. Genesis 1 is understood in either case to narrate divine creative interventions spread out over six successive periods of time, and this is the historical truth.”

Perhaps this is a simplistic view of the BIble, but it is what I was taught.

The Bible is the history of God and man.

It is not the history of biology. It is not the history of geology. It is not the history of astronomy. It is not the history on botany. It is not the history of language. It is not the history of medicine.

It is the history of God and man.

While what you do say here is true, it is also incomplete and IMO misleading in view of the OP’s question.

(1) It was the relator on behalf of the Council’s Theological Commission that stipulated how the Council’s teaching should be interpreted in the statement you cited.

(2) Cardinal Raúl Silva Henríquez from Chile subsequently suggested the following amendment after the second schema had been distributed:
My proposal is to replace the words “therefore … it follows” by “therefore the divinely inspired Scripture must be said to teach no error whatsoever.” Reason: the doctrine of biblical inerrancy is better expressed by speaking of the formal criterion of teaching, since it is according to that criterion that no error can be found. For, in another sense, i.e., the material sense, it is possible for expressions to be used by the sacred writer which are erroneous in themselves, but which, however, he does not wish to teach. (AS III, III, p. 799, emphasis in original)

In presenting the third draft of the sentence on inerrancy, the relator told the conciliar Fathers that the drafting Commission had accepted the Chilean Cardinal’s proposal “in substance,” (AS III, III, p. 192)

Such statements would include the author quoting someone (whose statement is false) but quotes him accurately, figurative literary devices, and individual propositions used by the author as part of a parable or other imaginative literary composition, in which the formally affirmed teachings it sets out to convey emerge only from the story as a whole.

(3) The role of the “formal specification” mentioned by the relator is well expressed by Brian W. Harrison: “The idea of salvific purpose as a “formal specification” simply means that the Bible sets out to be a book (or collection of books) whose master-plan or overall objective is to teach us what God has done in history for the salvation of the human race, and what we are to do and believe in order to attain that salvation. That is, Scripture does not set out to instruct us about science or history for their own sakes, as do textbooks dedicated purely to those branches of knowledge. In saying that this needs to be “kept in mind in deciding in what sense everything affirmed in the Bible is true,” the relator for Dei Verbum was alluding to the fact that, when physical or historical matters are in question, one cannot require from the Bible, as a condition of its inerrancy, the same kind of precision in detail, or exactitude in terminology, as one would require in a textbook of natural science or history–particularly a modern academic text.”

St. Augustine’s famous quote comes to mind: “We do not read in the Gospel that the Lord said: ‘I send you the Paraclete, that he may instruct you concerning the course of the sun and moon.’ For it was Christians he wished to make, not mathematicians.” De Actis cum Felice Manicheo I, 10]

In general since this is a technical question, I would encourage reading a fairly technical piece on the subject by Brian W. Harrison.


Inerrancy applies to what the biblical author intends/wishes to teach–“assert” as Dei verbum puts it–not what he materially uses in the process. So Ps 19:5-7 (“the sun runs from one end of the sky to the other”) is a hymn of praise to God for His creation as perceived, not a lesson in modern astrophysics. The biblical author is not asserting–intending to teach–that the sun goes around the earth.

Inerrancy applies to the God-given purpose of the Bible to teach salvific truth. Scripture does not set out to teach the full rigors of natural science or convey historical detail for their own sakes as only a modern scholarly treatise on these subjects would. This is not its purpose. So one cannot make inerrancy hinge upon the technical perfection of modern academic research and scholarship.

I followed your link and read most of it, not the whole thing but enough to figure out what bothers me about it: The author appears to assume that Genesis 1 is a sort of cryptic science book. He appears to assume that if we can only assign the correct meaning to specific words and phrases of the Bible, we can unlock the secret meaning, reveal the hidden message, and will find that it fits all that we observe and understand today concerning the origin of the world. Here are some examples:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
“In Sacred Scripture, the Hebrew word haarets sometimes means “the Earth,” but more often it means “the ground,” and, in a more subtle reading of Genesis 1:1, the divine Author could well intend here the primal matter which is the ground of all more highly formed material substances.”

and the spirit of God moved over the waters.
“In this verse the popular term “waters” may technically mean “fluids,” and the elemental particles are thus seen to have been in a fluid state. Even though this creative act could well have sent some kind of electro-magnetic “wind” through the elemental particles that composed the abyss…”

Let there be light.
“On a technical level, I would suggest, not only the light possibly flowing from the Big Bang or something like it, but also the endowing at this time by God upon primal matter of the forms of atoms and of the physical laws that go with them, and then the emission of light from these atoms in the course of the explosion. In this way the atomic order was created as formed above the chaos of the primal matter.”

Let there be a firmament made amidst the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.
"The hot swirling gases might be the “waters” above and below the firmament, where “below” is the biblical focus on the region of the Earth, and the firmament is the structure of the universe, as held firmly in place by the rest of the laws of physical nature created on this second day by God. "
The article goes on and on with many more linguistic and conceptual contortions so that every phrase can be interpreted in “scientific” terms.

I seriously doubt that this approach will lead to a good understanding of the world (science) or a good understanding of the Bible.

If you wish to learn about the world, look at the world. The world is like a book, written by God in the language of patterns and rhythms. It contains great and beautiful truths that may be discovered by observation, intellect, and inspiration.

The Bible is another book written by God, this time using stories, songs, and poems. The Bible tells about God and man, and the relationship and covenants between. It tells about God’s love for us. What could be more important than that? Why would we want to use that beautiful book as a science book?

Beryllos #16
I seriously doubt that this approach will lead to a good understanding of the world (science) or a good understanding of the Bible.

The Magisterium and faithful Catholic scholars help us to avoid simplistic views and to look more closely at realistic meanings in the Sacred Scriptures, as well as the sound interpretation of scientific explanations which cannot impinge against truth.

No. 120 Roman Theological Forum | Study Program November 2005
by John F. McCarthy

‘11. The first eleven chapters of Genesis are historically true, even though they are not written in the genre of precision that is required of modern historians. Let us take, for example, the first chapter of Genesis, which is the most controverted in the present discussion. Read correctly, the letter of the first chapter of Genesis is not out of keeping with the certified data of modern empirical science. While many Fundamentalist Christians and some Catholics adhere to the reading of Genesis 1 as meaning exclusively that the one true God created the world and all the generic species of its living inhabitants in six 24-hour days, this is not a good reason for others to denounce a broader literal reading of Genesis 1.

‘On the same June 30, 1909, the original Pontifical Biblical Commission asked: “Whether the word* yôm *(day), which is used in the first chapter of Genesis to describe and distinguish the six days, may be taken either in its strict sense as the natural day, or in a less strict sense as signifying a certain space of time; and whether free discussion of this question is permitted to interpreters.” The Commission answered: “In the affirmative.” ’

  1. What does the text of Genesis 1 literally say?
    If one looks carefully at the words, he will see that the word “day,” (Hebrew: yôm) as used in this chapter, is defined as “evening and morning” (“and there was evening and morning one day,” Gen 1:5, etc.). Thus, God “called the light day and the darkness night” (Gen 1:5). From these words one can gather that, for the six “days” of creation, a “day” is taken to mean a period of darkness, followed by a period of light, while only in a separate context on the fourth day alone is the 24-hour day mentioned four times. Otherwise, the length of time in any respective “day” of creation is not given. In fact, while the word “day” in human parlance is most often taken to mean a period of 24-hours, it can also have other meanings which are gathered from the context in which it is used. For instance, one can correctly say that the ancient Romans “had their day,” meaning their period of glory extending over hundreds of years. And that the word “day” in the six “days” of creation is not to be taken to mean the standard 24-hour day is confirmed in Gen 1:14, where God says: “*Let there be lights made in the firmament of the heavens to divide the day and the night, and let them be for signs and seasons and **for days *and years.” From this verse it seems to be clear that the 24-hour day was established only on the fourth “day,” and, therefore, is not the meaning of “day” in the “six days” of creation.

Interesting discussion.

We also need to keep this intervention by the PBC in mind.

“The question of the literary forms of the first eleven chapters of Genesis is a much more obscure and complex. These literary forms correspond to none of our classical categories and cannot be judged in the light of Greco-Latin or modern literary genres. One can, therefore, neither deny nor affirm their historicity, taken as a whole, without unduly applying to them the canons of a literary genre within which it is impossible to classify them. If one agrees not to recognize history in the classical or modern sense, one must also admit that the current scientific data do not allow giving a positive solution to all the problems they pose.
The first duty incumbent upon scientific exegesis consists above all in the attentive study of all the literary, scientific, historical, cultural, and religious problems connected with these chapters; one should then examine closely the literary processes of the early Oriental peoples, their psychology, their way of expressing themselves, and their very notion of historical truth; in a word, one should collate without prejudice all the material from the paleontological and historical, epigraphic, and literary sciences. Only thus can we look more clearly into the true nature of certain narratives in the first chapters of Genesis.
To declare a priori that their narratives contain no history in the modern sense of the term would easily convey the idea that they contain no history in any sense, whereas they relate in simple and figurative language, adapted to the understanding of a less developed people, the fundamental truths presupposed for the economy of salvation as well as the popular description of the origin of the human race and of the chosen people.”
Letter of the Secretary of the Pontifical Biblical Commission to Cardinal Suhard, Archbishop of Paris, January 16, 1948] AAS 40 (1948): 45-48. (DS 3864)

The same letter in preceding paragraphs noted regarding the composition of the Pentateuch that the PBC decree of June 27, 1906 “already recognized that it may be affirmed that Moses ‘in order to compose his work, made use of written documents and oral traditions’ and that modifications and additions after the time of Moses may also be acknowledged [DS 3396-7]. There is no one today who doubts the existence of these sources or does not admit a progressive development of the Mosaic laws due to social and religious conditions of later times, a development that is also manifest in the historical narratives.” (DS 3863)

As an aside, while I lean toward much of the analysis found in Living Tradition by the Roman Theological Forum, many of Msgr. McCarthy’s pieces betray an odd mistrust in the legitimate exercise of human reason. His reaction to theistic evolution is far beyond what is required by the documents of the Magisterium and he bends over backwards to present an all-but-fundamentalist, overly-literal reading of Genesis 1 tricked out with just enough window dressing of acceptable modern scholarship to sound almost credible.

His critique of theistic evolution consistently bollixes up the domains of empirical science, philosophy, and theology. Even Cardinal Schönborn doesn’t go that far.


In the former he says (#8) : “To take one example, in the fossil record, after the unearthing and examination of millions of fossil forms, not one transitional form has been identified, apart from a handful of specimens that are all contested as being misreadings or hoaxes.”

This is simply not true. Dr. Ken Miller, a devout Catholic and competent scientist is good on these here and here.

The big question that comes to my mind is why the hostility to theistic evolution? No formal documents of the magisterium display that hostility or require it. It seems, as with fundamentalists, what is at stake is his reading of Genesis 1 which goes far beyond the requirements of the Magisterium. And why that reading? It’s just odd.

Excellent point! Thank you for the information and link.

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