In a recent survey published on Crux.com, about 50 percent of American Catholics correctly answered that during the Mass the consecrated bread and wine become the literal Body, Blood and Spirit of Jesus – a teaching termed as ‘transubstantiation.’ The other half erroneously believe the Catholic Church teaches that the bread and wine are merely symbols of the Body and Blood of Christ — a view strongly held by the majority of Protestant Christians throughout the world. The survey also revealed that Evangelical Protestants appear to be the most knowledgeable about the Bible and Christianity, surpassing the self-proclaimed One True Church.
For us Catholics, this is not good news.
It’s a common and lamentable stereotype that Catholics are often branded as people who have little to no biblical literacy. This isn’t to say all Catholics are like this, but it seems too common that Catholic laypeople simply don’t take the time to read and meditate over Scripture. The rosary may be an exception, which is a series of meditations over brief passages throughout the New Testament. But because it only covers limited ground, meditating upon the mysteries of the rosary repetitively does not suffice when it comes to expanding our biblical knowledge.
Many former Catholics who have converted to Protestantism often claim they never felt spiritually fed or heard the Gospel during Mass. Though I felt the same way when I left Catholicism to convert to Evangelicalism, I would have to admit it is largely to do with a lack of attentiveness or willingness to participate in the liturgy on my part. The very fabric of the Mass is lined with Scripture. The first and second readings dive into the Old Testament and Paul’s Epistles, along with Psalms being sung in between. The Gospel readings usually tie the first and second readings together, followed by a reflective homily by the priest. Granted this, I think it’s easy for Catholics to be complacent with having the Bible spoon-fed to them every Sunday — only to completely forget about it the moment they receive the Eucharist and head out the door.
After all, why read the Bible for ourselves when it is already being read to us every Sunday?
As someone who grew up in a rural Catholic setting, it came as a shock to me when my Catholic beliefs were challenged for the first time while I was in high school. I made many friends who were Protestant Christians, simply because our values were the most alike. The majority of my Catholic peers did not consider themselves religious (even to the point of poking fun at those who were devout). When topics about Purgatory, Holy Communion, the role of Mary and the saints or the Pope were brought up, I was often at a loss of words. I had no explanation that could be backed up with a reference to the Bible.
Part of my trouble with explaining my Catholic faith as a youth could have been because I lacked an attention span during religion class. Though another factor could be that Catholic parishes place so much focus on acquiring access to the Sacraments, yet do very little to further cultivate a person’s faith outside of the church environment. This is one of the reasons why Confirmation is often jokingly referred to as the ‘Sacrament of Farewell,’ and where Evangelical churches excel in producing biblically literate individuals through weekly Bible studies and regular Scripture devotions outside of their Sunday services.
There is a popular phrase, “Weak Catholics become Protestant, while strong Protestants become Catholic.” I think isolated Catholic communities in small towns and rural areas tend to produce the most poorly catechized parishes, whereas urban Catholic parishes tend to be much more vibrant in their knowledge of theology and Scripture. I have a theory this could be due to the complacency of being surrounded by many like-minded individuals and having no real need to give a defence for what they believe in. This could be why nominal Catholics tend to be the most likely to convert to Evangelicalism — because Evangelicals have nailed the formula of teaching bare-bones Christianity to a ’T.’ Pun intended. Though the most knowledgeable and genuinely Christlike Catholics I’ve ever known were actually former Protestants who craved the fullness of truth after living off spiritual pablum for so many years.
A common tactic Evangelicals rely on when using the Bible for evangelism is they tend to cite ‘pet’ verses to support their theology. What may seem like an impressive, rapid-fire response is actually a highly selective, almost robotic citation — while ignoring the many other passages that may challenge or refute their viewpoint. If someone brings up doing good deeds, out comes Romans 6:23 and Ephesians 2:8-9 among other relevant verses like a mantra. But when countered with such verses as James 2:24 or Hebrews 10:26 to name a couple, the responses are usually along the lines of, “Yeah, but…” as though faith and works were somehow inherently pitted against each other. When someone appeals to Scripture to refute a Catholic belief, no amount of referencing the Church Fathers, Church councils or papal encyclicals will convince them otherwise. The best way to respond to their arguments is to respond with Scripture.
Christians who read their Bibles regularly sometimes accommodate their devotions with a commentary. Similarly, one of the best aids for a Catholic to study the Bible is the Catechism. There will always be a moment when a passage may appear somewhat confusing or seemingly contrary to a preconceived belief. The Catechism is a summary of beliefs used to cross-reference passages in the Bible as well as any extra-biblical sources that may support them. It’s probably one of the most under-utilized sources next to the Bible itself.
Lastly, Catholics are often criticized for having a history of locking up their Bibles so laypeople couldn’t read them. This is one of the standard talking points for anti-Catholics who try to dupe Catholics into abandoning their beloved Church. In the days before the printing press, physical Bibles were painstakingly hand-written and often took years to complete a single copy. It was never because they weren’t ‘allowed’ to read them, but because these Bibles were invaluable and were often locked up to prevent people from stealing or desecrating them.
In light of its wide accessibility nowadays, the Catholic Church actually encourages its members to devote to reading Scripture. If Catholics seriously want to reclaim the Bible for themselves, what better way to break the cultural stereotypes than to immerse themselves into reading the Word of God?
“Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence.”
— 1 Peter 3:15 RSV