“Why Don’t Catholics Read the Bible More Than They Do?”

“Why Don’t Catholics Read the Bible More Than They Do?” May 26, 2016
I originally posted this on the anti-Catholic Protestant discussion board, CARM and put it on my website shortly afterwards, on 26 June 2002. Another modified version was published in This Rock in February 2004.
Responses of other Catholics are in blue, red, and green. One Protestant’s response is in brown.
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Catholics don’t read the Bible anywhere near as much as evangelicals do, and that is to our shame.

I hasten to add that evangelicals usually are quite ignorant of Church history, at least those nearly fifteen centuries before Martin Luther came along in 1517.

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 both learn from each other. And I thank God that I was an evangelical (I converted to Catholicism in 1990), for this reason, among many others. I brought that love of the Bible with me into Catholicism. I’m not saying that you can’t find Catholics who read their Bibles. I know they exist. But — sadly — they are far 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 the Bible. Our Church certainly officially encourages such reading and familiarity. But old habits die hard.

Reading the Bible is good and instructive if you understand it correctly.

I completely agree.

The fact is, the number of people who can read the Bible without instruction on how to understand it is very small.

This is a long and involved discussion, but in a nutshell, I think the Bible is pretty clearly understood even if read on one’s own, provided that the person is truly open to what the Holy Spirit is trying to say to them and teach them through the words of Scripture (whether a matter of morals and Christian life, or theology). The fact that most people are not so open, and the nearly-ubiquitous presence of various biases they bring to Scripture from the outset is why the Church’s guidance is absolutely necessary.

The history of Protestant divergent interpretation (where error must be present, because Protestants contradict themselves) proves that beyond all doubt. Their formal system of sola Scriptura has failed abysmally and spectacularly. But I don’t believe that Scripture itself is all that 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 (and I have done dozens of them, believe me). One should, of course, become acquainted with basic hermeneutical and exegetical principles. And that takes a little study, too, but one book on the subject would suffice for that end.

The average evangelical may read the Bible more than the average Catholic, but if they are taught to derive the wrong message from it, how does that impute shame to the Catholic who reads less, but is taught correctly?

We are talking about two different things here. My point was the following, very general proposition:

1. It is good to read the Bible, because it is God’s inspired revelation to mankind.

2. Catholics (even solid, orthodox ones) read it far less than evangelical Protestants do.

3. This (given #1) is a bad thing, and we don’t do nearly as good as our evangelical brothers and sisters do in this respect.

Your point, on the other hand is:

1. 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.

2. Catholics do better than evangelical Protestants in this regard, because they have more guidance, and hence, are less prone to various false interpretations and sectarianism deriving therefrom.

I agree with this too, but it is simply a different (a more particular, “fleshed-out”) proposition from mine. That it is a good thing to read the Bible more, and a lot, as a bare proposition, is indisputable, and the Catholic Church teaches this wholeheartedly. It also teaches that one should submit their theology as a whole to the Church and not oppose one’s own theology to that of the apostolic Tradition of the Church (itself entirely biblical and able to be defended from the Bible, which is the emphasis of my books and website).

I would say, furthermore, that – all things being equal – 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. Love is, sex is, the use of money is, patriotism is, every good thing is, and that includes Bible interpretation.

But the “solution” of many Catholics – to not read the Bible at all, so as to not be “confused” or “led astray” – is a sort of lamentable, pitiful “kindergarten Christianity” and a laziness. The same people manage to find plenty of time to devote to the “study” of sports, politics, their latest boyfriend or girlfriend, or their lawns and gardens, or to 10,000 different subjects they will learn all about in high school or college, but 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? Something is out of whack there, wouldn’t you agree? This practice is not Catholic teaching. So Catholics have the Church to guide them. So what? That doesn’t mean they sit and let the Church do everything for them with regard to biblical learning and literacy; to get by on the bare minimum of effort.

They simply don’t want to do the work, and want Mother Church to spoon-feed everything to them (they want to remain “babes in Christ” who drink “milk,” as St. 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 don’t do so, for the most part, is an indictment of Catholic catechetics in the last generation, but not on the Church’s teaching itself, because that is not what is taught.

The Catechism, 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 have at various Protestant services I attended for 13 years. But the Catholic needs to read his own Bible 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?

Dave, thank you for your answer.

You’re welcome.

The main thorn that stuck me with your shorter statement was the comparison to Evangelical practice. With this elaboration you’ve accurately addressed Catholic practice and balanced the comparison with Evangelicals.

Great. Glad you liked it.

I wish the facts were different so that I could argue with you on this point. Unfortunately they aren’t.

That’s why you, I, and other like-minded Catholics need to do all we can to change the situation.

If there is any nit I would pick in your exposition, it would be over the clarity of the Scriptures relative to the preconceptions people bring to the Bible. It is hard to separate the two. People read from their cultural perspectives. (N.B. Cultural perspective doesn’t mean solely national culture, but includes social and religious subcultures as well). It is always a challenge to break outside that perspective.

I completely agree with this. No argument here. That is one reason why I would say an authoritative magisterium is absolutely necessary. The Bible in and of itself is pretty clear on most major things. But people’s biases and cultural slants and unwillingness to pursue holiness get in the way. And, let’s face it, we are all fallible and make mistakes (including logical and factual ones). But the Church is protected by the Holy Spirit and granted the extraordinary gift of infallibility, thus overcoming human weaknesses, foibles, and shortcomings. Praise God!

As you say, it requires reading at least a book on hermenuetics. How many people really do that? I sure haven’t. If you could recommend a reasonable one, I’d appreciate it. I think it requires more than just one book however.

Catholic: Making Senses Out of Scripture: Reading the Bible as the First Christians Did, Mark P. Shea, San Diego: Basilica Press, 1999, 262p.

Protestant: Exegetical Fallacies, D. A. Carson, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1984, 153p.

Protestant Biblical Interpretation, Bernard Ramm, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 3rd rev. ed., 1970, 298p.

People who are interested in what the Bible says read commentary as well as the Bible itself. This is, in fact, a strong proof of the lie of Sola Scriptura.

Well, not really, because sola Scriptura, according to the sharpest Protestant scholars, means that the Bible is the ultimate authority, above Councils and Popes and any tradition, not that no commentary or tradition may be cited or utilized at all. The latter is more properly attributed to an extreme, fringe “Bible Only” position, more characteristic of very low church, fundamentalist, Anabaptist-type, almost completely anti-institutional and a-historical in mindset. The Reformed decry that excess as much as we do, and in fact, Bernard Ramm (see above) rightly excoriates the “Bible Only” position as in opposition to a true sola Scriptura outlook.

Thank you, Dave!

If more Catholics can be encouraged to trust the guidance of the Holy Spirit while reading God’s Word we will be well on our way to finding effective

ways to recognize our unity in Christ Jesus, our Lord and Savior.

Evangelization is an important movement in the Catholic Church today. Dave, I hope and trust you are actively involved!

This is agreeable to a Catholic, as long as you aren’t trying to imply that a Catholic can go against his Church (thus pitting the Bible against the Church). We believe that that same Holy Spirit 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, 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).

While I respect and agree with your views on this, in what way does it serve the Body to lambaste Catholics, as you seem to have done here, on this forum?

Short answer: it needed to be loudly stated here, for the sake of Catholics who don’t understand this, and Protestants who are trying to reconcile Catholic behavior in this regard with our claims to possess the fullness of Christian truth.

Longer answer: Any viewpoint which 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, and I highly admire that. It is a sign of health and vigor. It’s important to point this out here because it is a huge problem, and one which several Catholics here have publicly illustrated by their own words. One must point out that the Catholic system does not condone this viewpoint.

I will admit every time that Catholics fall short in practice on any matter that could be mentioned, just as all Christians do, but my concern is to show that this point of view does not follow from official Catholic teaching. That’s what many Protestants believe about us: that we are actually taught to not read the Bible (whereas it is more accurate to say that we are not taught to read it, which is a logically different proposition). I’m sure many lousy catechists have taught these sorts of things, but it is not the teaching of our Church at the highest levels of magisterial authority.

The general stereotype may be factual to a great extent, but it seems that it would likewise undermine the position of any Catholic who is steeped in Scripture.

No it doesn’t. First of all, I never think that stating truth is a bad thing, no matter how many people might take it wrongly. Secondly, I believe in openness and free speech. For non-Catholics to respect us, they have to see us criticizing ourselves, just like every other belief-system does, and not closing ranks and pretending that we are above all the errors everyone else struggles with. This truth is patently obvious, and outsiders see it already, so we have to deal with it frankly. Thirdly, if a Catholic knows Scripture, then they need to demonstrate that in conversation: you know: “walk the walk,” not just “talk the talk.” So I would urge you to go and do that, just as I have been trying to do for eleven years now, since my conversion. The more we show that “Bible” and “Catholicism” are not oxymoronic contradictions-in-terms, the more we appeal to Protestants with the truth of our overall message.

It seems possible that it may precipitate any response that follows along the lines of “I, an Evangelical, know Scripture better than you do, Mr/Ms Catholic. Everyone knows Catholics don’t know Scripture.”

What I do with that mentality is quickly affirm the latter generalization as a proverbial truth (because it is undeniable). I then immediately dispute the particular claim in the first part by challenging the one who says this to do some comparative exegesis, or biblically based systematic theology. That disproves their point as to “them vs. me” and shows that a Catholic who is properly prepared can easily go head-to-head with a Protestant exegete.

In other words, all we can do as individual Catholics who recognize this deficiency in practice in our ranks is show how it is possible to break out of the stereotype, by example, and by demonstrating in argument that the Catholic Church is indeed, far more the truly “biblical” Church than any form of Protestantism. We take all of Scripture into account, not just our favorite pet verses and proof texts. We laboriously preserved the 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 existed and before Calvin was a twinkle in his daddy’s eye. I will not yield an inch in this regard to the Protestant. I am simply admitting the obvious fact: that Catholics read the Bible far less than Protestants do. There are many reasons for this; some understandable, but no real excuses. That is another discussion too.

Dave, I don’t know why you posted what you did.

I gave my reasons, very carefully, as I always do. If you can’t understand them (whether you agree or not), then why are you responding? On the other hand, if you do understand them, then why not reply to them point-by-point, rather than rail against my whole opinion?

Are you striking dialogue . . .?

I was issuing a rebuke and making a criticism of widespread Catholic practice, because I think self-reflection of any community of belief-system is crucial and a sign of intellectual vigor and (in this case) spiritual health.

I disagree with your assessment . . . you make your point worthless by making the leap that we don’t love God as much as we think if we ‘don’t read our own Bible’.

The point is not made worthless at all, because it is two different points. My immediate point above is that the Catholic Church is indeed a very biblically oriented Church. But my primary point in the thread, of course, is that Catholics ought to read Holy Scripture more than they do. Apples and oranges. What I find fascinating, though, is how and why you think one point renders the other “worthless”? You are simply adopting the false and unnecessary dichotomies that our Protestant brethren are notorious for.

What does that mean?? Do I fulfill my love for God more if I read a Bible that stands on my shelf at home instead of reading the Bible through proper Catechismal studies and Mass liturgical readings?

Did I say any of that? Of course I did not. This is simply you creating more dichotomies. I was very careful to also emphasize the supreme importance of reading the Bible with the aid of, and within the mind of the Church. All I was arguing was that for anyone who loves God, they would – as a matter of course – love His inspired Word, and want to read it more. To me, that is utterly self-evident and quite the no-brainer. Do you really want to disagree with that?

Now, I may desire to know more and more about God, but this is not to be found in some special and more elucidative position because I read the Bible in my bedroom.

I stand by my point. When it is rightly understood (within the proper Catholic framework, that I took pains to set out) I think it is absolutely undeniable. I’m not talking sola Scriptura; I’m not talking neglect of anything else in the Catholic spiritual or liturgical life. Quite the contrary. All I’m saying is that too many Catholics neglect or try to minimize or de-emphasize the Bible. The Church, however, does not do that. Your post proves it yet again. You are not helping the Catholic cause or finding common ground with Protestants (as Vatican II strongly urges) by writing about the Bible in the way you do.

It’s good to reject sola Scriptura, and to submit to the mind of the Church, but it is also good to show forth a positive love for Holy Scripture, and that comes 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 don’t, do they? So I see it as a self-evident truth that they need to do more study apart from the liturgy, prayer-books, Rosaries (and I pray the Rosary, in case you were wondering, and attend Latin Mass also), etc. They need to read the Bible itself: frequently and often.

And to make such a conclusion on your part is just informative for you.

I don’t write to inform myself, but to provoke dialogue, reflection, more understanding, to promote bridge-building, and to learn things myself, as a result of generated dialogue.

Perhaps for you personally, it serves you best to read at home, but this is not necessarily indicative of “proper love” shown of God.

Of course merely reading a Bible doesn’t prove love of God. But a person who loves God will be very interested in reading His words. Why do I have to even argue that?

This is obviously time to see what popes and Councils have to say on the subject. You (and other like-minded Catholics) are not simply opposing me on this point, but what your Church teaches you in its infallible magisterium as well:

1) Providentissimus Deus (On the Study of Holy Scripture): Pope Leo XIII, 18 November 1893

. . . there are not a few Catholics, men of talent and learning, who do devote themselves with ardor to the defence 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 . . .

Let all, therefore, especially the novices of the ecclesiastical army, understand how deeply the sacred books should be esteemed, and with what eagerness and reverence they should approach this great arsenal of heavenly arms . . . As St. Jerome says, ‘to be ignorant of the Scripture is not to know Christ’ [In Isaiam, Prol.] . . . ‘A man who is well grounded in the testimonies of the Scripture is the bulwark of the Church.’ [Ibid., 54:12] . . .

. . . the Church by no means prevents or retrains the pursuit of biblical science, but rather protects it from error, and largely assists its real progress. A wide field is still left open to the private student, in which his hermeneutical skill may display itself with signal effect and to the advantage of the Church . . . such labors may, in the benignant providence of God, prepare for and bring to maturity the judgment of the Church; on the other, in passages already defined the private student may do work equally valuable, either by setting them forth more clearly to the flock and more skillfully to scholars, or by defending them more powerfully from hostile attack . . .

. . . the studies of non-Catholics, used with prudence, may sometimes be of use to the Catholic student . . .

2) Divino Afflante Spiritu (The Most Opportune Way to Promote Biblical Studies): Pope Pius XII 30 September 1943

[section 9] . . . these same Predecessors of ours . . . recommended the study or preaching or in fine the pious reading and meditation of the Sacred Scriptures. Pius X most heartily commended the Society of St. Jerome, which strives to promote among the faithful — and to facilitate with all its power — the truly praiseworthy custom of reading and meditating on the holy Gospels . . . proclaiming it ‘a most useful undertaking, as well as most suited to the times,’ seeing that it helps in no small way ‘to dissipate the idea that the Church is opposed to or in any way impedes the reading of the Scriptures in the vernacular.’ [Letter to Cardinal Casetta, ‘Qui piam,’ Jan. 21, 1907, Pii X Acta, 4,23-25] And Benedict XV . . . exhorted ‘all the children of the Church, especially clerics, to reverence the Holy Scripture, to read it piously and meditate on it constantly’; he reminded them ‘that in these pages is to be sought that food, by which the spiritual life is nourished unto perfection,’ . . . he likewise once again expressed his warm approval of the work of the society called after St. Jerome himself, by means of which the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles are being so widely diffused, ‘that there is no Christian family any more without them and that all are accustomed to read and meditate on them daily.’ [Spiritus Paraclitus, Sept. 15, 1920, A.A.S., 12 (1920), 385-422]

[section 62] . . . ardently desiring for all sons of the Church, and especially for the professors in biblical science, for the young clergy and for preachers, that, continually meditating on the divine word, they may taste how good and sweet is the spirit of the Lord . . . .

3) Vatican II: Dei Verbum (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation): 18 November 1965

[section 25] “Therefore, all clerics, particularly priests of Christ and others who, as deacons or catechists, are officially engaged in the ministry of the Word, should immerse themselves in the Scriptures by constant sacred reading and diligent study . . . . Likewise, 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 the divine Scriptures . . . 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 which, with the approval and guidance of the pastors of the Church, are happily spreading everywhere in our day. Let them remember, however, that prayer should accompany the reading of sacred Scripture, so that a dialogue takes place between God and man. For, ‘we speak to him when we pray; we listen to him when we read the divine oracles.’ [St. Ambrose, De Officiis ministrorum, I,20,88]

It is for the bishops . . . suitably to instruct the faithful entrusted to them in the correct use of the divine books . . . They do this by giving them translations of the sacred texts which are equipped with necessary and really adequate explanations. Thus the children of the Church can familiarize themselves safely and profitably with the sacred Scriptures, and become steeped in their spirit . . .

[section 26 – last; ending of document] So may it come that, by the reading and study of the sacred books, ‘the Word of God may speed on and triumph’ (2 Th. 3:1) and the treasure of Revelation entrusted to the Church may more and more fill the hearts of men. Just as from constant attendance at the eucharistic mystery the life of the Church draws increase, so a new impulse of spiritual life may be expected from increased veneration of the Word of God, which ‘stands forever’ (Is. 40:8; cf. 1 Pet. 1:23-25).

I rest my case.

Thanks for the reply. Lengthy and too much info at one time, but thanks anyway.

You’re welcome.

I posted my questions and comments to you before you replied with your reasons for your post, so ease up.

Fair enough.

I also see that another fellow Catholic felt the same way that I did. You surely knew you would arouse some response in that area.

People like their comfort zones. I don’t think they have a leg to stand on, now that I have cited the highest authorities. The case is very clear-cut, in my opinion.

Your reasons you state for posting are mine as well, which I recently explained to another fellow Christian on this board.

Good; glad to hear it. That’s why further clarification is always helpful.

I think however, that you are talking to the choir, so to use a good ole Protestant expression. Most Catholics on this board are quite well read in Scriptures and have made note of their intense Bible studies. There are some, I know, that are not so like-minded.

I think Catholics who engage in discussion on the Internet are likely to be relatively more well-read in Scripture. But I don’t think that undercuts my overall point.

But, if you want to do something with your thought, take it to the catechists and the parish directors. That is where you will find the vacuum.

Well, I hope my website and books have that effect. That is how I am seeking to reach those folks. Looks like we agree for the most part.


Meta Description: Catholics ought to do more Bible reading, & evangelicals ought to read more Church history. We can both learn from
each other.

Meta Keywords: Catholics & the Bible, Catholics & Bible-reading, Bible Study, exegesis, hermeneutics, scriptural meditation, Bible-reading

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