By Andrew Willard Jones and Louis St. Hilaire
Dr. Andrew Jones holds a PhD in Medieval History from Saint Louis University and is an expert on the Church of the High Middle Ages. He is the author of Before Church and State: A Study of Social Order in the Sacramental Kingdom of St. Louis IX and the pioneer of the Formed In Christ series of faith formation texts, as well as the author of several books in this series.
Louis St. Hilaire is the co-author of Evidence of Things Unseen: An Introduction to Fundamental Theology and translator of The Literal Exposition of Isaiah: A Commentary by St. Thomas Aquinas (forthcoming from Emmaus Academic). A graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, he works as a web developer and digital editor for the St. Paul Center.
Catholics are often criticized for the way we approach the Bible. These criticisms normally come from two directions. From one direction some Protestant Christians, who disagree with Catholic doctrine concerning tradition and with the Catholic approach to Scripture, charge the Church with neglecting Scripture. These charges come through both scholarly debate and popular polemics (the latter often containing a great deal of false information). From another direction, the Church is sometimes criticized by people who suppose that Catholics approach the Scriptures with blind faith—unthinkingly and unquestioningly believing things that that seem to contradict both science and reason.
Catholics, therefore, find ourselves in an interesting situation. We are simultaneously charged with paying Sacred Scripture too little attention and with paying it too much attention. The truth, though, is that the Catholic Church pays Sacred Scripture a great deal of attention, but it pays attention to it in the proper manner.
Catholicism is soaked in Scripture, and the central rite of Catholicism—the Mass—is profoundly biblical. It is not only derived from the history of Israel, but it also uses Scripture throughout—bringing the Bible to life in a way not seen anywhere else. Likewise, Scripture is an encounter with Jesus, the Word of God, and the Eucharist is taking the Word of God into our very selves! In the Mass, our encounter with God is complete.
It’s not just in the liturgy that Catholics encounter the Bible. Catholics use the Scriptures for the study of theology, for personal devotion and prayer, and for public prayer. Moreover, many Catholic parishes offer Bible study groups and Vacation Bible School so that the faithful not only encounter the Word of God but also learn how to take their study of the Word deeper. As disciples of Christ, we are continually spurred on to a deeper knowledge of Scripture, for, as St. Jerome reminds us, “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.”
So where does the charge that Catholics don’t read the Bible come from? This criticism originates from a certain Protestant point of view and it is based on various bits of half-truths or mistakes. Prior to the advent of the printing press (mid-1400s) and widespread literacy, it was true that most Catholics never read the Bible. But this was because most Catholics couldn’t read anything; the majority of people were illiterate. Moreover, for those few who could read, Bibles were hard to come by; each one had to be painstakingly copied by hand.
Printing technology, as well as more widespread literacy rates, developed at the same time as the Protestant Reformation. These developments aided the spread of the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura—the belief that the Bible is the only source of divine Revelation—as well as their belief in the individual interpretation of the Bible—the idea that every Christian can interpret the Bible for himself. The Church rejected this new and Protestant understanding of the Scripture. The Bible, the Church believed, was not the only source of revelation about God: God also revealed himself in nature and through Sacred Tradition. Catholic catechesis, then, included truths not drawn directly from the Bible. To sola scriptura Protestants, this looked like the Church was prioritizing man-made traditions over biblical teaching. The Church’s warning that the Bible was often hard to understand and its subsequent mandate that the faithful approach it with the guidance of the magisterium, looked equally bad to Protestants. In their eyes, the Church was trying to keep the Bible from the faithful or prejudice their interpretation of it.
Likewise, unlike the Protestants, the Church maintained that biblical reading was not the only form of praiseworthy devotion. The Catholic faith also embraced (and still does) many devotional practices, from attending Mass to making the Way of the Cross to reciting the Rosary. As we have seen, none of these devotions are at odds with the Bible; in fact, they are profoundly scriptural. However, they differ from the individual reading and interpretation of the Bible advocated by the Protestant reformers.
Aside from these doctrinal issues, the widespread belief that Catholics don’t read the Bible does have some foundation in reality. For a long time, much of the laity did not engage Sacred Scripture as much as they probably should have. However, what truth exists in these criticisms has been grossly overblown. The Church, especially in the twentieth century, has never tired of encouraging the faithful to read the Bible.
Another truth that has contributed to the perception that Catholics don’t read the Bible is the fact that the Catholic Church is far larger than any single Protestant community, and has an inclusive understanding of its membership. As the Church sees it, anyone who is baptized and has not formally repudiated the Church is Catholic. Accordingly, the Church is like a nation, full of all kinds of people of varying degrees of education, piety, and enthusiasm. Many people who do not practice their faith will, when asked, identify themselves as Catholic. This is a wonderful characteristic of the Church. Catholicism has room for people in every stage of the spiritual journey—it is the “universal” Church, after all. But one of the consequences is that people end up encountering Catholics who know very little about their faith and who have perhaps never opened a Bible.
All these factors have come together to create the common misconception that Catholics don’t read the Bible and that the Church doesn’t really want them to. Yet, while Catholics don’t approach the Bible in the same way as Protestants, the Scriptures nevertheless are of supreme importance in the life of the Church. All Catholics are encouraged to read and learn them.
You Might Also Like
In his recent Apostolic letter Aperuit Illis, Pope Francis established the Third Sunday of Ordinary Time as the Sunday of the Word of God. As we celebrate the inaugural feast on January 26, find a few ways to follow Pope Francis’ call to make Scripture a part of everyday life throughout the new year.