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Friday, October 7, 2011

Didn't the Catholic Church used to forbid the reading of the Bible?

“Love the Lord with all your heart, and with all your soul,
                                 and with all your MIND”--Matt 22:37

Short answer:  No, the Church never forbade the reading of the Bible.

Now, it is a sad testament that many a Catholic, prior to the reforms of Vatican II in the 1960s, hardly ever opened a Bible. And I do remember a beloved uncle telling me, "No, we're not supposed to read the Bible because we may be danger of misinterpreting it."

So, somehow the message was getting out to the flock that we were forbidden to open the Bible, but it was never a teaching of the Church. 

And it's true that most of our Protestant brethren can run rings around Catholics when it comes to quoting Scripture--this is something we Catholics could learn from our Protestant brothers and sisters.  (That, and the wonderful, welcoming atmosphere many Protestant churches have in comparison to the often un-friendly faces that fill many Catholic churches.  I remember hearing Catholic apologist and convert Tim Staples say, when he first went to Mass, "Why does everyone look so mad??" Sadly, this seems to be quite common in our Catholic churches.)

However, it is also true that most Catholics who attend Mass regularly can quote Scriptures, even if they don't know they can, and even if they can't cite the chapter and verse--we know it through the beautiful hymns we sing, which are often taken directly from the Bible (i.e. "You shall not fear the terror of the night nor the arrow that flies by day"--Psalm 91).  And the prayers we recite at Mass ("Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on earth!"--Luke 2:14) are lifted from the pages of Sacred Scripture.  In fact, practically everything the priest and the laity recite at Mass comes from the Bible!

So why is there the misconception that Catholics aren't supposed to read the Bible?

Firstly, it's because from the earliest days of Christianity most folks were illiterate, so no one (relatively speaking) read the Bible.  The gospel was orally transmitted during the Liturgy and pictorially depicted through the beautiful stained glass windows, statues and other religious artwork that the illiterate masses could view.  Secondly, before the invention of the printing press most Bibles would cost up to 3 years' wages.  Thus, very, very few Catholics were fortunate enough to have a Bible in their homes.

Also, partially in response to the Protestant Reformation, many Catholics, rightly or wrongly, had a reactionary attitude about reading the Bible--"Protestants believe we're supposed to be able to read the Bible and interpret it ourselves.  Well, we're going to respond by saying, 'No, we can't interpret it ourselves' because we're stopping this Protestant movement in its tracks!"

And while the Church may never have banned the laity from reading/owning a Bible, perhaps a parish priest, in a misguided attempt to steer his parishioners away the chaos and confusion of tens of thousands of Christian denominations that arose out of this error-saturated private interpretation paradigm, may have told his parish not to read the Bible. 

What the Catholic Church actually professes is Catholics see that the Scriptures as "strength for their faith, food for the soul, and a pure and lasting fount of spiritual life." Dei Verbum Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation  We can read and personally interpret what a chapter/verse is speaking to us. What we can't do, however, is interpret it independent of the voice of the Church.  That is, we are free to read about, say, the Multiplication of the Loaves and interpret it personally as saying, "I need not worry about having enough food for my dinner party.  God is telling me to chill out!" But not to read it and say, "Well, I now believe that the Eucharist is simply a symbolic multiplication of the loaves and Jesus was speaking only figuratively about the Eucharist." 

Here's some examples of the Church encouraging the reading of Scripture:
Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ--St. Jerome, 4th century
“Nothing would please us more than to see our beloved children form the habit of reading the Gospels - not merely from time to time, but every day.” --Pope Pius X
"...earnestly and especially urges all the Christian faithful, especially Religious, to learn by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures the "excellent knowledge of Jesus Christ" (Phil. 3:8).--Dei Verbum
In fact, the Catholic Church even grants indulgences for reading Scripture. The Handbook of Indulgences states, "A partial indulgence is granted the Christian faithful who read Sacred Scripture with the veneration due God’s word and as a form of spiritual reading. The indulgence will be a plenary one when such reading is for at least one-half hour" (p. 80).

For more in-depth study visit these websites:

Papal Encyclical:  On the Study of Holy Scripture

"Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect" - 1 Peter 3:15


  1. Some valuable points are missed in your explanation, and some are not quite accurate! Might have a look at Why Do Catholics Do That?, a book that explains this and a lot of the other most frequent questions about the Church. There's a whole chapter on this, and a lot more!

  2. Firstly, this post is not intended to be an in-depth narrative on a topic. In fact, the title of my blog--3 Minute Apologetics-- tells the reader that the nature of this discussion is cursory and SHORT.

    What in my post is "not quite accurate"?