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Part II: Are Catholics Allowed to Read the Bible?

It is the wish of the Church that her children should know the Bible.

In the Past. Pre-reformation literature is satu¬rated with Bible quotations. Much that is left to us consists either of books of the Bible or breviaries which are almost wholly made up of Scripture. The sermon literature of the Middle Ages was a mosaic of Scripture texts. Preachers used the Bible much more than is customary today in any pulpit. Half an hour’s perusal of the sermons of a Bernard or a Bonaventure shows us that the preachers almost thought in Scripture texts. For those who could not read, the Church moreover, provided a knowledge of the Bible by means of mystery plays, illustrated editions of parts or the whole of it the paintings, sculptures, and stained glass windows of her churches: the statuary of one great cathedral is known as the Bible of Amiens. Of the Bible in pictures, the Synod of Arras (1025) said: “The illiterate contemplated in the lineaments of painting what they, having never learnt to read could not discern in writing.”

To the man of the Middle Ages the Bible was a living reality.

In the Present. Priests are obliged to read Scripture in their Office, or daily prayers, for about an hour and a half every day.

The laity are more than encouraged, they are urged to read the Bible. By Pius VI (1778), bv Pius VII (1820), they were earnestly exhorted to read it, by Leo XIII a special blessing was given to all who would read the Gospels for at least a quarter of an hour daily. Benedict XV (himself the founder of the Society of St. Jerome for distributing the Gospels in Italian, which sells great numbers every year sent, by the Cardinal Secretary of State, the following message to the Catholic Truth Society:

“It was with no little gladness of heart that the Holy Father learned of the work of the Society and of its diligence in spreading far and wide copies of the Holy Gospels, as well as of the other books of the Holy Scriptures, and in multiplying them so as to reach all men of good will. Most lovingly therefore his Holiness blesses all who have put their hand to this very excellent work; and he earnestly exhorts them to persevere with ardor in so holy an enterprise.”

The Catholic Truth Society has, in fact, sold nearly 500,000 copies of various books of the Scriptures, especially of the Gospels, and the sale still continues. These must have been bought by Catholics, for Protestants have their own version, and their circulation affords in itself a sufficient answer to the Protestant tradition.

The best proof of the Church’s care to provide her children all over the world with the Bible is given by the confession of non-Catholic missionaries and others. “The best translations of foreign Bibles issued by our Bible Societies” (said one of them, Dr. Wolff), “are reprints from those made by the Propaganda of Rome.” A short list may be given of some striking instances in which the British and Foreign Bible Society made use of translations which they found had been made by Catholics many years before their Society came into existence. These facts are chiefly testified to by non-Catholic writers:

The Armenian Testament, bought by the British and Foreign Bible Society, 1818, from the Armeno- 
Catholic College, Venice.

The Amharic Version (chief Abyssian dialect) prepared at Cairo by the French.

The Arabic, printed at Rome, 1671.

The Ethiopic N. T., translated by the Jesuits.

The Tartar, published nearly 500 years before Pro testant Missions began.

The Chinese Catholic version, two centuries prior to any other.

The Cingalese, at least equally early, found by a Protestant Missionary.

The Persian, published at Kaffa, 1341.

The Russian, printed at Alcala, 1515;Venice, 1518.

The authorities for these facts are given in Marshall’s Christian Missions, vol.1. The same thing occurred in the cases of the Coptic, Tamil, Annamite, Malayalim and many other Oriental versions. Moreover, when the British and Foreign Bible Society penetrated to Poland, they found four editions of the whole Bible and two of the New Testament issued by the Catholics (Herbert Marsh, D.D., Enquiry relative to the B. & F. B. S., p. 67)

What has caused the general impression that the Church does not wish her children to read the Bible ?

Her claim to guide and teach them in the reading and interpretation of it: Danger is incurred in many ways by putting the Bible, without guidance, into the hands of children or the unlearned. No one would maintain that the Old Testament in its entirety is suitable for the young even to read; again, some ex¬planation is absolutely necessary f or many parts of both Old and New Testaments).

Her refusal to allow her children to use false and incomplete translations. At one time Bible translations were falsified in the interest of certain heresies Tyndale, for example, always substituted the word “congregation” for ” Church”; and “ordinance” for “tradition,” because of the Catholic connotation attached to these words. He also translated “Little children, keep yourselves fromimages,” instead of using the more accurate rendering “idols.” Again the authorized Anglican version translated I Cor. 11:2; e.g., “and drink this cup,” so that the Catholic custom of Communion under one kind should seem to be condemned by it. The Revised Version has corrected this, and the text now stands “ or drink this cup.”

The harm done by bad translations and by want of an interpreter may be specially seen if we examine the efforts of various Bible Societies and non-Catholic missionaries in the last century. In China, India, and elsewhere, they either altered the Catholic versions or wrote new ones in various dialects before they had acquired real knowledge of the language into which they were translating; these they scattered broadcast, without explanation. Educated natives declared that in many cases the translations were so bad as to make absolute nonsense, and in other cases were even b.asphemous: they derived from them nothing but contempt for Christianity. Moreover, the way in which these sacred books were distributed shocked all, especially the Mahommedans, who declared nothing would induce them to give the Koran to anyone unless they were certain it would be treated respectfully. These Bibles were often used as wrappings for drugs and other merchandise, wallpapers, or covers for cartridges (See Marshall’s Christian Missions, vol. 1., chap. 1).

It may perhaps, be allowed that at some periods and in some countries this caution of the Church has been carried to excess; but in the long run the realization of the existence of difficulties and of the need of an interpreter has preserved the Bible for Catholics when others are losing it. (For fuller treatment of this point, see Part I).

III—How should Catholics read the Bible?

Ordinary Catholics should be guided by the Church in the reading of the Bible. Let us begin with the Missal. Then, for those who have time, the Breviary shows us the Church’s mind from the beautiful way in which the Scriptures, the lives of the saints, and the thoughts of the great Doctors and Fathers are brought together in a living unity. By following the seasons year by year in Missal and breviary, we are using one of our most precious Catholic privileges. The meaning of the great feasts becomes more actual to us and illustrates the Bible for us.

We can, of course, read the Bible as literature, as a series of documents of surpassing human interest.

Our chief profit, not for ourselves only, but also in our work for others, will lie in reading it devotionally.

Some must, of course, undertake the work of the revision of texts, higher criticism, etc., but this is the office of experts. IV. Above all and finally:

If we are to understand a book we want to know the aim for which it was written; if to understand a man, we ask what is the leading thought and aim of his life. In trying to g.asp a system of thought we look for that which is central and around which all else is grouped.

What is the center of the Bible? The Son of God made Man for us. It is only in the light of that central Figure that we can understand the Old Testament, as well as the New. All the great personalities of the Old Testament are vivid to us chiefly as types of him. He speaks through the words of Prophet and of Patriarch. His voice is heard in the Psalms of David. The whole of the Old Testament is a looking forward to and a preparation for Christ’s coming. The New Testament looks back and tells the history of that coming and of the fulfillment of Christ’s mission in his Church, and then looks forward once more to that glorious second coming, when all things shall be made visibly subject to him, and God shall be all in all.

Stretching across the mountains and the plains of Israel, dimly visible at times, at times clearly seen, goes that Way which is also the Truth and the Life. And in one simple sentence Christ tells us his divine secret: “Before Abraham was made, I am.”

It is this that gives the Bible its amazing unity; it is in his light that we see light and tile Bible becomes alive to us read in that light which is the life of men.

“In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. . . . And God said: Let there be light; and there was light” (Gen. 1:3).

“In the beginning, was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . . That was the true Light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.” (John 1:9).

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