Why Don’t Catholics Read the Bible?
by Dwight Longenecker
The independent Evangelical church I went to as a boy gave me a fantastic amount of Bible knowledge. There were Bible drills in Sunday School classes, Bible memory contests and Bible quizzes, not to mention a complete grounding in all the Bible stories—illustrated with those wonderful flannelgraph figures. As I got older I listened to long Bible sermons, went to home Bible studies, youth Bible camps and a Bible holiday club. I ended up going to a Christian University where Bible study was part of our everyday schedule.
Our Christian home wasn’t particularly anti-Catholic, but some of our preachers were, and the general impression I got was that Catholics not only didn’t read the Bible, but that they weren’t allowed to. They didn’t go to church with their big black Bibles under their arm. They didn’t have long Bible sermons or home study groups or youth Bible camps. How could Catholics believe the Bible if they didn’t read it and study it like we did?
Its true that many Evangelicals know their Bible upside down and backwards, and compared to them Catholics sometimes seem ignorant of the Bible. But that's only an appearance.
The truth is simply that Catholics and Evangelicals use the Bible in different ways and therefore have different kinds of Bible knowledge. Evangelicals use the Bible as a source book for doctrine and right moral teaching, and that's good. 2 Timothy 3.16 says the Scriptures are 'useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.' Evangelicals also use the Bible for personal devotions and inspiration. This too is Biblical. Psalm 119.27 says, 'Let me understand the teaching of your precepts; then will I meditate on your wonders.'
Ordinary Catholics might not be so adept at quoting chapter and verse, but they do know and use Scripture regularly. Its just that they use it in a different way. For a Catholic, Scripture is not so much a book to be studied as a book to worship with. (Ps. 119.7) For Catholics the Bible is almost always used in the context of worship. Did you know that a survey was done to check the amount of Scripture used in the Catholic Mass? The Catholic service was almost 30% Scripture. When the same writer checked his local Bible-based Evangelical church he was surprised to find the total amount of Scripture read took just 3% of the service.
When Catholics go to mass they hear a reading from the Old Testament, they say or sing one of the Psalms, then they listen to a reading from the epistles, then a gospel reading. The whole structure fits together so the communion service if focused on Christ in the gospels. Catholics follow a three year cycle of Scripture reading so a Catholic who goes to church faithfully will--over the three years--hear almost all of the Bible read. Furthermore, the responses, and the words of the communion service are almost all from Scripture. So a church-going Catholic does know and use Scripture--its just that he uses it primarily for meditation and worship (Ps.119.48)--not for personal information and instruction.
And when you think about it, isn't this actually the way Scripture is meant to be used? The Jews recite the Old Testament law in their worship daily. The psalms were the hymn book of the Jews. In the New Testament church they read the letters of the apostles, recited the psalms and used portions of Scripture to praise and worship God just as Catholics do today.(Eph.5.19) We know from the records of the early church that Scripture was used primarily for worship, and only secondarily for study.
Of course, like Evangelicals, Catholics also use the Scripture to determine doctrine and moral principles--its just that the Catholic lay person or pastor doesn't do so on his own. As Paul gave Timothy the apostolic authority to 'rightly divide the word of truth' (2 Timothy 2.15), so Catholics believe their bishops have inherited the authority of the apostles to teach doctrinal and moral truth faithfully. They base this on Paul’s clear instructions to Timothy, ‘the things you have heard me say …entrust to reliable men so that they man in turn teach others.’ (2 Timothy 2.1-2) Therefore, it is the bishops—living, praying and working in a direct line from the apostles-- who use the Bible to determine Christian doctrine and moral principles. That Catholic doctrine and moral teaching is biblically-based is easy to see. Try reading any official Catholic teaching documents and you will find they are--and always have been--permeated and upheld with Scripture.
Nevertheless, memories are long. Some extreme Protestants like to say that the Catholic church not only forbade people to read the Bible, but they deliberately kept the Bible in Latin, chained it up in churches and even went so far as to burn popular translations of the Bible. Its true Bibles were chained in churches. Before the days of printing presses books were precious items. They were chained for security reasons—the way a phone book is secured in a phone booth—to make it available to everyone. The Catholic Church allowed translations into the vernacular from the beginning. The earliest English version of the Bible for instance, is a paraphrase version of Genesis dating from the year 670. In a few places the authorities did burn some translations of the Bible which were deliberately faulty or which carried heretical notes, but this was an attempt to preserve the purity of the scriptures, not to keep it from God’s people. Remembering that in the Middle Ages most people were illiterate, the pastors and teachers of the Catholic Church instructed the people about the biblical stories in many creative and dramatic ways—not unlike my Sunday School teacher’s use of the flannelgraph.
But in saying all this, ordinary modern Catholics could learn a few lessons from Evangelicals about Bible knowledge. We Catholics need more Bible scholars amongst our pastors. We need more resources for personal Bible reading. We need to understand the Scriptures better to see how our faith is rooted and grounded in the Bible. Our own official teachings encourage us to read, study and learn the Scriptures. Dei Verbum--a document about the God's Word from Second Vatican Council says, "...all clergy should remain in close contact with the Scriptures by means of reading and accurate study of the text...similarly the Council earnestly and expressly calls upon all the faithful...to acquire by frequent reading of holy Scripture the excellent knowledge of Jesus Christ (Phil 3.8) for as St.Jerome said, "Ignorance of the Scriptures is indeed ignorance of Christ."'
Ecumenism is a two way street. If we have lessons to learn from Evangelicals, many Evangelicals could learn fresh ways of using the Scriptures from us too. Singing the psalms in worship is something Catholics can share with Evangelicals, using a lectionary helps pastors choose Biblical readings which harmonise Old Testament and New Testament, taking the congregation on a logical process through each year of worship. Finally, using chosen readings from the Old Testament, the epistles and then the gospels helps focus the worship on Jesus Christ. Using the Scriptures like this is a practical way for the whole word of God in Scripture to point to the Word of God in the flesh-- our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
Catholics and the Bible
- The Catholic Church finally agreed on which writings should go into the Bible at the Council of Rome in 382 AD during the time of Pope Damasus.
- Damasus encouraged St Jerome to translate the Scriptures into Latin since Latin was the common language of all educated people.
- In the mid-1400s the Bible started to be translated into European languages.
- Some Reformers published Bibles with bits missing, faulty translation work and subversive notes.
- The authorities tried to regulate which Bibles were acceptable in order to control erroneous teaching.
- Throughout the years the Catholic Church encouraged Bible reading, but kept control of the interpretation of the Bible as part of her inspired authority to teach the truth and preserve the unity of the church.
- Pope Leo XIII published a letter in 1893 encouraging Bible study.
- Pius XII in 1943 also encouraged the faithful to study and love the Bible.
- The second Vatican Council in the 1960s encouraged all the clergy and people to study the Bible faithfully.
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Copyright © Dwight Longenecker. All rights reserved. Dwight Longenecker is a Catholic writer and broadcaster working and living in England. Check his website
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