The Bible-reading habits of Catholics lag far behind those of Evangelical Protestants. For their part, Evangelicals are usually ignorant of Church history, at least those nearly fifteen centuries before Martin Luther came along. It’s a sad fact of human nature that people tend to pit things against each other that don’t need to be opposed logically (or biblically). It should be both/and, not either/or. Catholics ought to do more Bible reading, and Evangelicals ought to read more Church history. We can learn from each other.
Of course, some Catholics read their Bibles, but they are sadly too few in number. It is not at bottom a “Protestant” thing to love the Bible, and the falsity of sola scriptura does not mean that Catholics ought to underemphasize Holy Scripture. Our Church officially encourages such reading and familiarity, but old habits die hard.
Lest anyone think this is my own opinion (perhaps brought along from my Protestant days), let me cite Pope Leo XIII, who in 1893 wrote in his encyclical Providentissimus Deus (On the Study of Holy Scripture):
“There are not a few Catholics, men of talent and learning, who do devote themselves with ardor to the defense of the sacred writings and making them better known and understood. . . . We cannot but earnestly exhort others also, from whose skill and piety and learning we have a right to expect good results, to give themselves to the same praiseworthy work. It is our wish and fervent desire to see an increase in the number of the approved and persevering laborers for the cause of Holy Scripture” (PD 54).
The history of Protestant divergent interpretation (where error must be present, because Protestants contradict themselves) proves that the Church is necessary for the proper interpretation of Scripture. The formal system of sola scriptura has failed abysmally. But Scripture itself is not obscure or difficult to understand, at least not in its main outlines. I have never found that to be the case in any serious Bible study I have undertaken on my own.
One should, of course, become acquainted with basic hermeneutical and exegetical principles (guidelines for how to properly interpret the Bible). And that takes a little study too, but one book on the subject would suffice: Making Senses Out of Scripture: Reading the Bible As the First Christians Did by Mark P. Shea.
When I posted my thoughts on the relative lack of Bible reading among Catholics on the Catholic section of a Protestant weblog, several Catholics criticized me, saying that it does no good to read the Bible more if one is getting the wrong message from it due to the lack of authoritative guidance from the Church. My points were:
- It is good to read the Bible, because it is God’s inspired revelation to mankind.
- Catholics (even solid, orthodox ones) read it far less than typical Evangelicals do, and that is a bad thing.
My critics’ points were:
- It is good to read the Bible, but one also needs the Church’s guidance to do it properly and to get the most out of it.
- Catholics do better than Evangelicals in this regard, because they have more guidance and hence are less prone to various false interpretations.
This second point was a different, more particular proposition. That it is a good thing to read the Bible more is indisputable, and the Catholic Church teaches this. It also teaches that one should submit one’s theology as a whole to the Church and not oppose one’s own theology to that of the apostolic Tradition of the Church.
Furthermore, my own opinion—I don’t claim to speak for the Church on this—is that it would be a better thing to read the Bible without “outside” guidance than to not read it. That endeavor is filled with dangers of false teaching taking hold, because people often distort biblical teaching to their own ends. But such is life; anything can be distorted and twisted (notably love, sex, the use of money, and patriotism). Bible interpretation is one of the many things that human beings distort and abuse.
But the “solution” of many Catholics—to not read the Bible at all so as to not be “confused” or “led astray”—is lamentable, “kindergarten Christianity” laziness. The same people who are guilty of this shortcoming usually find plenty of time to devote to the “study” of sports, politics, their latest boyfriend or girlfriend, their lawns and gardens, and so on. Yet somehow they can’t find any time to read their Bibles and soak in the words of the very Lord they worship and receive every week.
Why? This practice is not in accordance with Catholic teaching. Catholics have the Church to guide them, but that doesn’t mean that they should sit and let the Church do everything for them with regard to biblical learning and literacy.
My guess is that many Catholics simply don’t want to do the work. They are content to let Mother Church spoon-feed them. (They want to remain “babes in Christ” who drink “milk,” as Paul says.) That is not Catholicism in essence. Catholics are to work and strive to understand their faith just as much as any Evangelical Protestant does, and that includes Bible reading. The fact that they often don’t do so is an indictment of Catholic catechesis in the last generation, but not of the Church’s teaching itself—because that is not what is taught.
The fathers of the Second Vatican Council urged Catholics to read Scripture with greater frequency: “The sacred synod forcefully and specifically exhorts all the Christian faithful, especially those who live the religious life, to learn ‘the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ’ (Phil. 3:8) by frequent reading of divine Scripture. . . . Therefore, let them go gladly to the sacred text itself, whether in the sacred liturgy, which is full of the divine words, or in devout reading, or in such suitable exercises and various other helps that, with the approval and guidance of the pastors of the Church, are happily spreading everywhere in our day” (Dei Verbum 25).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, Vatican II, and any papal encyclical on a theological topic are all filled with scriptural references. Even the homilies at every Mass are supposed to be (if they aren’t always in practice) based on the biblical text just read. I hear more Scripture at every Mass—in the readings, the liturgy, and the homily—than I ever did at the various Protestant services I attended for the thirteen years prior to my conversion. But we Catholics need to read our own Bibles as well. If we don’t, then we don’t love God as much as we think, because love demands that we want to know more and more about the one we love, all the time. The Bible is God’s very inspired words. How then can any Christian not be passionately interested in it?
Even the principle of sola scriptura (“Scripture alone”), according to the sharpest Protestant scholars, means that the Bible is the ultimate authority—above councils and popes and any tradition—but not that no commentary or tradition may be cited or utilized. That argument is more properly attributed to an extreme Bible-only position, more characteristic of a low-church, Fundamentalist, Anabaptist type, almost completely anti-institutional and ahistorical in mindset.
Catholics believe that the same Holy Spirit who protects the Bible from error protects our Church from error, so that we can trust that it teaches us true theology. It is not a trust in men; it is a trust in God, a trust that he has the power to preserve his truths in a human institution, by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, despite human sins and shortcomings (just as he preserved his word in Scripture by using sinners like David, Paul, and Peter to write the inspired words).
Protestants often find it difficult to reconcile Catholics’ lack of Bible reading with our claims to possess the fullness of Christian truth. Any viewpoint that is self-confident and healthy needs to engage criticism openly and honestly, no matter what the forum is. Protestants do that all the time. They write whole books about problems in their ranks. It is a sign of health and vigor.
Protestants often think that it is official Catholic teaching to not read Scripture lest one be led astray, and that we are not urged to read Scripture (or even worse urged to not read it) for fear that it would convince Catholics of the errors of their Church. It is important to make this observation, because it is a significant problem in dealing with Protestants. One must emphasize that the Catholic system does not condone this viewpoint. I readily admit as an apologist that Catholics fall short in practice on any matter that could be mentioned, just as all Christians do.
For non-Catholics to respect us, they have to see us criticizing ourselves and not closing ranks and pretending that we are above all the errors with which everyone else struggles. This truth is obvious, and outsiders see it already, so we have to deal with it frankly. I’m not advocating a neglect of anything else in the Catholic spiritual or liturgical life. I’m maintaining only that too many Catholics neglect or try to minimize or de-emphasize the Bible.
If a Catholic truly does know Scripture, he also needs to demonstrate that in conversation: “Walk the walk,” don’t just “talk the talk.” The more we show that Bible and Catholicism are not contradictory terms, the more we appeal to Protestants with the truth of our overall message. A Catholic who is properly prepared can easily go head-to-head with a Protestant exegete.
We can show how it is possible to break out of the stereotype by example, and by demonstrating in argument that the Catholic Church is far more the truly “biblical” Church than any form of Protestantism. We take all of Scripture into account, not just our favorite verses and proof texts. We laboriously preserved Scripture all those hundreds of years before Protestantism ever saw the light of day; we canonized it; we developed all the major branches of theology based upon it before Luther and Calvin even existed. The Catholic need not yield an inch in this regard to the Protestant.
It’s good to reject sola scriptura and submit to the mind of the Church, but it is also good to show forth a positive love for Scripture. That comes only by reading it and becoming better acquainted with its contents. If the Mass alone were sufficient for that end, then Catholics would already know their Bibles better than Protestants. But they obviously don’t. So I regard it as a self-evident truth that Catholics need to do more study apart from the liturgy, prayer books, and rosaries. We need to read the Bible itself, frequently and often. Merely reading a Bible doesn’t prove love of God, but a person who truly loves God will long to read the words of his beloved.