Catholics and the Bible

I was surprised to find an Anglican friend commenting, almost in throw-away mode, that Catholics don’t read the bible much, or at any rate, not as much as Anglicans do. Is that true? Certainly, the Church puts before us a great deal of scripture during the course of the year and the use of the vernacular means that no one should be put off by having little Latin and less Greek (to say nothing of Hebrew). What is often forgotten is that scripture in the vernacular is not new. The Rheims New Testament was published in 1582 and the Douay Old Testament in 1609/10, just antedating the King James version. My recollection of the Catholic homes of my childhood is of seeing copies of these Rheims/Douay bibles alongside copies of the Vulgate. They were often modest volumes, printed on thin paper in a minute type size and small enough to be secreted in a large pocket. The really radical probably had copies of Ronald Knox’s translation somewhere, but it was the old bibles that charmed me. They spoke of a faith kept alive under difficult circumstances, not quite ‘respectable’, often hidden, always slightly ‘alien’ to the mass of their fellow citizens.

Perhaps the ‘Catholics don’t read the Bible’ idea comes from the way in which different traditions approach the scriptures. Many Catholics I know can quote huge chunks of the text but glaze over if one gives them, literally, chapter and verse. That doesn’t happen with my Protestant friends, who can conduct whole conversations bandying references back and forth. Possibly, the rich devotional life of Catholics needs to be considered, too. For example, the Jesus Psalter incorporates a lot of scripture as texts to meditate on, just as the Divine Office is itself made up almost entirely of psalms and scripture readings, but neither is a lectio continua of the whole bible such as one finds in many Protestant and Reformed churches.

So, perhaps my friend was right? I don’t know. What I do know is that ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ.


14 thoughts on “Catholics and the Bible”

  1. Yes, I have come across similar comments in both Anglican and church of Scotland contexts. The convenience of the lectionary and the missal means there is no need to find book of Samuel for the first reading, which psalm is next, where do I find Hebrews and is Mark the first of the gospels? Maybe we have a knowledge of scripture but less sense of the Bible

  2. Guilty as charged of the throwaway comment!
    Actually, it is something I have been wondering about for some time. It is based on a remark to me by a Catholic nonagenarian friend who still drives herself to Mass every Sunday, even though the nearest Catholic church is three villages away. She claims, with a straight face, that she was not allowed to read the Bible as a child because there is too much in it that is improper.
    I know this is a joke but I do think there may be a sort of truth behind it. For hundreds of years, we were all Catholics listening to the Bible (and the service) in Latin – the intention was not that the hoi polloi should understand every word, still less get diverted into arguing about differing translations. Modern translations of the bible like ‘The Message’ mean that the Word of God is accessible to all, which must be a good thing. However, it also means that interpretations of the text can differ very widely. Two and two from different parts of the bible are put together to make seven and a half. Naturally few people agree on the seven and a half!

  3. In my experience, ‘ordinary’ Catholics do not consider themselves qualified to perform their own exegesis of the Scriptures in the same way that Anglicans, Methodists etc do. Protestant tradition seems to have encouraged every individual to explore the meaning of the text and be his or her own interpreter of the meaning, whereas Catholic tradition seems to encourage individuals to look to experts in the Church to ‘do’ exegesis and commentary. Certainly when I was a teenager and attending a Catholic church, this was the case.

  4. Although (as a former Anglican) I did regularly hear this sort of thing from fellow Anglicans and Presbyterians, I’m not sure how much is just myth: it’s easy to overestimate the amount of detailed Bible knowledge of the average Protestant. What you rarely find amongst Catholics -and do sometimes amongst Protestants- is the ability to quote Biblical texts and be exact about which chapter and verse they are (and you’ll find, particularly among older generations, that memorizing verses of scripture was part of (eg) Sunday School). But that is rare nowadays and confined (in my experience) to those denominations that focus on one translation -usually the King James.

  5. As an ex-Baptist, now Catholic, my view is that many Protestants misunderstand and so misrepresent the Catholic position.

    Certainly when I was a Protestant we were encouraged to read the Bible daily (although fewer do it than claim to, in my experience). Scripture was also more openly ‘signposted’ in sermons (which were longer) so that the congregation could ‘check’ the readings and thus the preachers exegesis themselves.

    In my experience of Catholic worship, scripture is less overtly signposted orally, and the people are not explicitly encouraged to go to their Bibles to ‘double-check’ (but then, given the Magesterium, why should they? It is only because Protestantism gives so much opportunity for heresy because of individual interpretation that this checking is needed). However, the Mass is SO MUCH more infused with Scripture than the Baptist services I went to. Especially for those of us who make use of Morning and Evening Prayer as well as Mass, the Word of God is much more a part of the air we breathe. It is ‘infused’ and ‘marinaded’ in the Catholic soul, giving a much more delicate and rounded flavour, rather than the more ‘sauce in a jar’ thrown on the top and immediately cooked Protestant approach. Sauce in a jar is more ‘in your face’ and immediate. Infusions need more time but give a much richer and deeper experience..

  6. The Orthodox often hear this as well, and I would say that it is actually most often true. I believe it was Fr. Alexander Schmemann who said that all of the Orthodox Church’s contemporary problems could be solved by curing ignorance of Scripture among the laity and clergy.

    On the other hand, as you said is the case for Roman Catholics, we often know whole passages of Scripture without knowing it – from the Liturgy. I’ve heard estimates that the Divine Liturgy contains 500 references to Scripture. Perhaps as Tricia says we do know Scripture, we just don’t know our way around ‘the Bible’.

    For myself, I do try to read a little Scripture every day, without huge success, but I figure even my most paltry efforts at least don’t contribute more to the problem of ignorance 🙂

  7. My experience is that in practice the Catholics that I have come in contact with put Church tradition or Church practice over the Bible. I am not saying everyone does this. I am not saying that is official Catholic Church policy. I am not saying that to be offensive. I am saying that is my experience.

  8. Quite right. Ignorance is indeed such, for Jesus is the Living Word – and Holy Spirit in print and within us keeps not only pointing to Him but also aligning us with Him.

    May I take opportunity to touch two birds in one stroke?First:
    “Why haven’t you got your Bibles?” asked Fr Nicholas, the Bendictine monk who led a retreat at Douai Abbey, Berkshire. “We’re Catholic priests!” came the reply, earning a sound rebuke from this erudite monk.

    Such was this dear monk’s pre-amble to leading an ALPHA course’s Holy Spirit day as he handed out Bibles. It sticks firmly in mind because I was assisting my Catholic friend in leading his local church Alpha group, most of whom were unfamilar with a Bible.

    This monk is an ace teacher and, as a Baptist, I admired his grasp of scripture and solid instruction on the Holy Spirit. Also, I recalled from an occasional dip decades ago into my 1956 Catholic family Bible that a couple of Popes officially urged Catholics to own and read a Bible. Furthermore, the repetition of scriptural reading in English during masses in Latin must have soaked into my spirit and stood me in good stead when I was later enchained by the enemy of our souls. It was the Lord’s good humour after rescuing me to drop me in with Baptists for the benefit of getting scriptural grounding. (Btw, I agree with David’s good comments.)

    Hence, dear sister, you will understand my appreciation of your blessing that ‘Holy Spirit guide your ways’ in starting up my blog. (Comment /10 Rules for Online Engagement)

  9. Thank you all for sharing your insights. Lots to ponder here and to take up in future posts, perhaps. One point I ought to make is that the distinction between the authority of the bible and the authority of the Church or tradition is a rather fluid one, since it was the Church which first decided which books of scripture were to be considered canonical, i.e. it was the Church which determined the content of what we call the bible. As I spend a substantial part of each day reading, singing or otherwise engaged with scripture, I do see the wisdom of the old Catholic prohibition on bibles without explanatory notes. While I can’t get greatly worked up over the modern equivalent of O.T. money values, learning about the scapegoat ritual from the footnotes of my then bible made the whole Crucifixion story come alive in a way it hadn’t before.

  10. Can thoroughly recommend the Loyola university at New Orleans Institute for Ministry I am taking their theology course as an extension programme (in Scotland) and the Old Testament module is challenging, demanding but very rewarding.

  11. My Catholic wife told me that she believed Protestants know their Bible better than Catholics, but after ten years of accompanying her to Mass, I disagree. In my Church, there was one reading from the OT and one from the NT (including the Gospels), In Catholic Churches, there is one from OT, one from NT and one from the Gospels. During the war (WWII) we were encouraged to learn passages of the Bible by heart, but I think that has faded away, now.
    I realise I am merely paraphrasing Lazarus, who has said it all, so I’ll quietly slip away!

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