Here’s what the Catholic Church officially teaches regarding the inerrancy of the Bible.
When reading the Bible, there will be times when the biblical narrative appears to contradict recent developments in science or archeology. This is nothing new, as many people over the centuries have asked the question, “Does the bible contain errors?”
The Catholic Church has no problem answering this question and does so in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
God inspired the human authors of the sacred books. “To compose the sacred books, God chose certain men who, all the while he employed them in this task, made full use of their own faculties and powers so that, though he acted in them and by them, it was as true authors that they consigned to writing whatever he wanted written, and no more.”
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.” (CCC 106-107)
In other words, the Catholic Church believes that the bible teaches “without error” the truth God wanted to convey to humanity.
But what does that mean?
According to Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical on the study of scripture, “God, the Creator and Ruler of all things, is also the Author of the Scriptures — and … therefore nothing can be proved either by physical science or archaeology which can really contradict the Scriptures.” Pope Leo XIII goes on to explain how “If, then, apparent contradiction be met with, every effort should be made to” examine it and reconcile it with the truth of scripture.
Similarly Pope Pius XII spoke against any limitations to the inerrancy of the Bible, writing in Humani Generis how some scholars have “put forward again the opinion, already often condemned, which asserts that immunity from error extends only to those parts of the Bible that treat of God or of moral and religious matters.”
Pope Benedict XVI affirmed this teaching in his apostolic exhortation Verbum Domini, while also encouraging more research into how the inerrancy of scripture affects our reading of the Bible.
Nonetheless, one must acknowledge the need today for a fuller and more adequate study of these realities, in order better to respond to the need to interpret the sacred texts in accordance with their nature. Here I would express my fervent hope that research in this field will progress and bear fruit both for biblical science and for the spiritual life of the faithful.
Nevertheless, it can appear that this teaching of the Church is at odds with certain passages of scripture, such as the creation of the world in the book of Genesis. Was the world created in six 24 hour days, for example?
Literal vs. literalistic
Biblical scholar Dr. Edward Sri explains how “The Pontifical Biblical Commission’s 1993 document The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church makes the important distinction between the literal sense of Scripture and a literalistic interpretation.” A literal sense of scripture takes into account such things as the author’s historical context and the literary genre of the book of the Bible.
For example, the book of Psalms is generally regarded as poetry and so the author never intended it to be a scientific handbook on how the world works or to be taken in a literalistic way. When the psalmist writes, “every night I flood my bed with tears,” he does not mean that his bed is literally flooded with tears (which is not humanly possible!).
A literalistic interpretation tends to disregard the literary genre and would also take Jesus at his word that we must cut off our hands if they cause us to sin (please don’t do it!). This type of interpretation disregards metaphors, analogies or other figurative language used by the human author.
Pope Leo XIII further explained how the human authors did not intend to teach about the scientific ways of the universe.
[T]hey did not seek to penetrate the secrets of nature, but rather described and dealt with things in more or less figurative language, or in terms which were commonly used at the time. Ordinary speech primarily and properly describes what comes under the senses; and somewhat in the same way the sacred writers went by what sensibly appeared.
Sri adds, “The sacred writers reported without error what they intended to report — not natural science, but what really appeared to the senses.”
In this way, the Bible is “without error,” as the authors were inspired by the Holy Spirit and wrote down exactly what God wanted them to, using the scientific knowledge that they had at the time. While its true that science has progressed since then and various discoveries have been made, it does not negate the inerrancy of scripture.
To go back to a previous example, the author of Genesis did not define what a “day” consisted of, and so there is room for interpretation that does not contradict modern science and remains in line with the Church’s teaching.
To conclude, we should always approach the Bible as St. Augustine did. He wrote to St. Jerome in a letter, saying, “If I find anything in those writings which seems to be contrary to the truth, I presume that either the codex is inaccurate, or the translator has not followed what was said, or I have not properly understood it.”
Our own inability to fully grasp the truth found in the Bible is the source of any “error” we might find.