Sunday, September 13, 2009

Myth: Catholics are forbidden to read the Bible!

I've heard some anti-Catholic whoppers in my time (as short as it may be), but I think the one that humours me the most is when anti-Catholics claim that priests, bishops, the Pope, etc., forbid the faithful (the Catholic laity) from reading the Bible! Yeah, you read that correctly!

Now where I think this myth originates from is the time in Church history, before the invention of the printing press and the unavailability of having a Bible or the Sacred Scriptures made ready for the public.

There are stories of old Bibles (in Latin "Biblia Sacra" or "Holy Book") being chained to lecturnes, pulpits or tables in seminaries and monestaries, and many anti-Catholics believe this was done because the Pope and Archbishops did not want the faithful to read and therefore attempt to interpret scripture for themselves. In fact, the anti-Catholic will go on to say that Catholics were put to death, tortured and otherwise punished for attempting to interpret scripture for themselves! Now, let's not be naive: Yes, the Catholic Church has been responsible for persecuting and killing many of its own flock (it's not a history that I'm proud of, but I do know that experience/history is today's best teacher), and why? Not because of the attempt to interpret scripture for themselves by itself, no, but for misinterpretations of scripture that lead to heresies.

heresy (noun) (
1. opinion or doctrine at variance with the orthodox or accepted doctrine, esp. of a church or religious system.

2. the maintaining of such an opinion or doctrine.
3. Roman Catholic Church. the willful and persistent rejection of any article of faith by a baptized member of the church.
4. any belief or theory that is strongly at variance with established beliefs, customs, etc.

Am I condoning these persecutions and killings for heresies? No way, no! I think it's disgusting that they even happened in the first place, thus I'm not proud of this particular part of the the Church's history, and thank God we live in times where this doesn't happen anymore.

But what about those Bibles that were chained to lecturnes, pulpits or tables in seminaries and monestaries? Think about it: before the invention of the printing press, a Bible was a very rare thing to come by in those years where it was translated from Hebrew and Greek into Latin (382-396AD) and the invention of the printing press itself (1439AD by Gutenberg). Every Bible was hand-written, and copied hand-written, by monk scholars and so forth. This was a painstakingly long process and was done so with meticulous slowness and care. It was impossible for the Bible to be mass-produced like it would have been with the printing press, so obviously any Bible that was fully scribed and bound back then would be the equivalent to today coming across an original Shakespeare manuscript or the original US Constitution, which, I might add, is kept under lock and key, security guard upon security guard, laser infra-red detectors, etc., etc., at the National Archives, Washington, DC.

So why the security surrounding Bibles between the years of 396AD and 1439AD (i.e. invention of the printing press, but keep in mind the first printing press Bible wasn't produced until circa 1456AD with the same Gutenberg machine)? It wasn't because the Catholic Church didn't want the public reading the Bible, as in learning of its content, no; it was because of fear of theft and damage to the Bibles. It wasn't like pages could be sticky-taped back together if torn or a new copy could be ordered if the previous one had been damaged beyond repair. Each Bible took a long time to scribe and this was a very costly process (some have suggested the equivalent to three years' wages in today's money).

Would the National Archives let just anyone pick-up and have a read of the original US Constitution? Definitely not, and even those that are permitted to touch the document for restorative and preservational reasons, do so with great care and under hawkeye-like supervision! Why? For fear of theft and damage to the document.


A sad reality is that the Mass (Church) is the only exposure a portion of Catholics get to the Bible, and in saying so not a lot of Catholics actually take the time to read their Bible even when they are encouraged to do so by their priests, bishops, and especially by the Pope! I was quite fortunate to have been raised through the Catholic education system here in Australia, where I developed an appreciation for Sacred Scripture and have become quite fond of getting my face stuck into its pages during my formative and academic years. Reading the Bible is a habit that every Christian, not just Catholics, should develop because from it we have so much to gain!


So back to the myth, I think the most succinct way to respond to the idea that "Catholics are forbidden (or not encouraged) to read the Bible" would be to refer to what the Catechism of the Catholic Church (the official document outlining all of what the Catholic Church teaches across all four of its levels of teaching) says (points relevant to blog topic bolded for emphasis):

"And such is the force and power of the Word of God that it can serve the Church as her support and vigor, and the children of the Church as strength for their faith, food for the soul, and a pure and lasting fount of spiritual life." Hence "access to Sacred Scripture ought to be open wide to the Christian faithful." - par. 131

"Therefore, the study of the sacred page should be the very soul of sacred theology. The ministry of the Word, too - pastoral preaching, catechetics and all forms of Christian instruction, among which the liturgical homily should hold pride of place - is healthily nourished and thrives in holiness through the Word of Scripture." - par. 132

The Church "forcefully and specifically exhorts all the Christian faithful. . . to learn the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ, by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures. Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ. -par. 133


In summary:

a) Paragraph 131 informs us that the Sacred Scripture should be made readily available and accessible by the Church to all faithful (and implicitly this tells us that we should get ourselves a Bible!);
b) Paragraph 132 informs us that development of understanding of theology stems from the study of the sacred pages (Sacred Scripture);
c) Paragraph 133 inforums us that the Christian faithful is urged (exorted) by the Church to learn of the wisdoms of Jesus Christ by the frequent reading of Sacred Scripture.

To summarise: Yes, Catholics are encouraged to read the Bible; no, we are not forbidden to read the Bible.

We know that knowledge of scripture is useful/profitable in making the man of God complete and thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:15-17) and will allow us to be ready to make a defense if our faith is ever brought into question:

"But sanctify the Lord Christ in your hearts, being ready always to satisfy every one that asketh you a reason of that hope which is in you." - 1 Peter 3:15

We also know that the Church is the pillar and foundation of truth (1 Timothy 3:15) and a healthy devotion to both Sacred Scripture and the Church and her sacraments, offer us the fullness of the Christian faith. The Church and the Sacred Scriptures live together in a unique symbiosis, and it is in this symbiosis that we grow as a people of God, living in Christ.

Both the Bible and Church are important to me: both feed and nourish me spiritually; one is my home and community and gives me a family to share in public prayer and sacrament; the other I keep in my house and use in my private prayer and ongoing spiritual development.


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