Pope Pius IX (Nostis et Nobiscum) on vernacular bibles and Protestantism


This might seem a bit polemical, but I’m going to post it anyway. This is part of a response paper I wrote yesterday about papal infallibility. Part of the paper concerned comments (fallibly) made by Pope Pius IX in his 1849 encyclical Nostis et Nobiscum that are worth our attention in defending.
The 1849 encyclical of Pope Pius IX to the bishops of Italy, on the Church in the Pontifical States, Nostis et Nobiscum, is another example of a document that does not define or declare any doctrine of faith (at all, let alone infallibly). While the letter does indeed “[rail] against the proliferation of vernacular Bibles”38 and “indicate that Protestantism is not a valid or true form of Christianity”39, the context of these statements will reveal their nature.

Regarding the publication of Bibles in the vernacular:
[INDENT]The crafty enemies of the Church and human society attempt to seduce the people in many ways. One of their chief methods is the misuse of the new technique of book-production. They are wholly absorbed in the ceaseless daily publication and proliferation of impious pamphlets, newspapers and leaflets which are full of lies, calumnies and seduction. Furthermore, under the protection of the Bible Societies which have long since been condemned by this Holy See, they distribute to the faithful under the pretext of religion, the holy bible in vernacular translations. Since these infringe the Church’s rules, they are consequently ** subverted and most daringly twisted to yield a vile meaning**.40
It is not the mere printing of Bibles in the vernacular the Church condemned, but the very manner in which it was done. The Church, as the guardian of the faith (and thereby the Bible as well), must approve any translation of any sacred text (whether scriptural or liturgical) into the vernacular. The mistranslation of certain words and phrases, in an attempt to minimize or eliminate altogether the hierarchical structure of the Church, would lead to a breakdown in sacramental theology as well: if “bishops” were merely “overseers” and “priests” were merely “elders”, the belief in the Eucharist as a sacrifice instituted by Christ to be perpetuated (after the model of the Passover) would be the next to fall. Furthermore, the Bibles being published without the permission of the Church were in all likelihood incomplete Bibles, not comprised of all 73 books which the Catholic Church recognized as canon in the 4th century and ratified dogmatically at the Council of Trent. The spreading of mistranslated sacred scripture, the passing-off of incomplete books as “bibles”, and tendency for such books to have marginal notes defaming the Catholic Church constitute a “misuse of the new technique of book-production.”

Regarding the inferiority of Protestantism to Catholicism:
But these enemies realize that they cannot hope for any agreement with the Catholic Church, which allows neither tampering with truths proposed by faith, nor adding any new human fictions to them. This is why they try to draw the Italian people over to Protestantism, which in their deceit they repeatedly declare to be only another form of the same true religion of Christ, thereby just as pleasing to God. Meanwhile they know full well that the chief principle of the Protestant tenets, i.e., that the holy scriptures are to be understood by the personal judgment of the individual, will greatly assist their impious cause. They are confident that they can first misuse the holy scriptures by wrong interpretation to spread their errors and claim God’s authority while doing it. Then they can cause men to call into doubt the common principles of justice and honor.41
Here, Pope Pius is concerned with the inevitable decay of morals and decency that comes with a world full of personal interpreters of Scripture. This is already evident today, where Christian communities differ widely on teachings concerning abortion, artifical birth control, homosexuality, divorce, adultery, extra-marital sexual relations, masturbation, pornography, etc. By taking the authority to interpret the Bible away from the Church and placing it in the hands of every Christian, the individual’s conscience (enlightened by the Holy Spirit, they will say) becomes the supreme establisher of right and wrong, good and evil, moral and immoral. It is not unlike Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, plucking the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, instead of leaving it there as God commanded them.42

To claim that two Christian communities which differ on matters of faith and morals are simply “[forms] of the same true religion of Christ” is folly. For if, as the Apostle says, there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism”,43 and that the true Church “[has] the mind of Christ”,44 there can be no dissension in that faith and the morals which are derived from obedience to God. On the contrary, the same Apostle entreats the churches: “I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ** all of you agree** and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment”;45 and in another place: “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you stand firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel”;46 and finally “Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. … Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. ** Have this mind** among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus.”47 Surely, when personal conscience is the king of morality, we are no longer looking “to the interests of others”.

Any separation from the Church or dissension within her is contrary to the prayer of the Son to the Father: ut sint unum sicut nos unum sumus, “that they may be one even as we are one.”48 Objectively, therefore, any Christian community which denies any article of the Catholic faith is inferior to the Catholic Church, and in that regard not equally pleasing to God. Perhaps the most grievous deficiency is the failure of Protestant communities to offer a true Eucharist to God; if not that, then it is the utter blasphemy which some of their members speak about the Real Presence of our Lord in the Most Blessed Sacrament. This all stems, of course, from their obstinate denial of the Church’s teaching authority and her sacred Tradition, by which she interprets Scripture.

38 Barriers to Becoming Catholic, 1.2 (p. 4).
39 Ibid.
40 Pope Pius IX, encyclical on the Church in the Papal States, Nostis et Nobiscum, n. 14 (1849).
41 Nostis et Nobiscum, n. 6.
42 Cf. Gen. 3.
43 Eph. 4:5.
44 I Cor. 2:16.
45 I Cor. 1:10.
46 Phil. 1:27.
47 Phil. 2:2-5.
48 John 17:22.


His holiness certainly made a very fine case against Sola Scriptura.

It appears to me that his primary issue is not that the scriptures were in the vernacular, but that Protestants were using that translation and distribution as a platform for presenting their errant doctrines.

It’s actually pretty easy to be confused and deceived by well meaning people with Bibles.

Sola Scriptura, (as taught and believed by most n-Cs) is a fundamental doctrinal error, which, once embraced, has led to the myriad of cascading errors, (Examples: Sola Fide, OSAS/Eternal Security of believers, the Rapture, and the health & wealth gospels) we have seen since.


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