Catholicism and Bible Reading

Those who have engaged Catholic apologists and those who have followed their discussions likely have been exposed to the charge that the Catholic Church once forbade the possession or reading of the Bible. When that argument is presented the Catholic participant in the discussion will quickly respond, in my experience, by declaring that the Catholic Church has never proscribed reading of the Bible by Catholic laity. Then, in that aggressive style that is the hallmark of Catholic apologetics, the defender of Catholicism will demand that his non-Catholic antagonist show proof to back up his statement.

Often, the Romish apologist will seal his position with a citation from the current version of the Catechism:

133 The Church "forcefully and specifically exhorts all the Christian faithful. . . to learn the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ, by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures. Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ. [DV 25; cf. Phil 3:8 and St. Jerome, Commentariorum in Isaiam libri xviii prol.:PL 24,17B]Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed., © 1994/1997 United States Catholic Conference, Inc.

More often than not, in my observation, the non-Catholic apologist has no defensible response to this citation from the Catechism and he either concedes defeat or attempts to move on to a different issue.

“So,” one might ask, “what is the truth? Does the Catholic Church now prohibit, or has it ever prohibited the reading and possession of the Bible?”

The answer to this question is a resounding, “Yes it does and yes it has.”

The Synod of Toulouse, 1229, presided over by the papal legate, celebrated the close of the Albigensian crusades and perfected the code of the Inquisition. It has an unenviable distinction among the great synods on account of its decree forbidding laymen to have the Bible in their possession.--David S. Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. 5, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

I have encountered a number of supposedly knowledgeable Catholic apologists who deal with the above information by arguing that there never was a Synod of Toulouse. Granted, the gathering at Toulouse in 1229 was not an ecumenical council, but it certainly did happen, as reported by this Catholic source:

After the death of Innocent III, the Synod of Toulouse directed in 1229 its fourteenth canon against the misuse of Sacred Scripture on the part of the Cathari: "prohibemus, ne libros Veteris et Novi Testamenti laicis permittatur habere" (Hefele, "Concilgesch", Freiburg, 1863, V, 875). In 1233 the Synod of Tarragona issued a similar prohibition in its second canon, but both these laws are intended only for the countries subject to the jurisdiction of the respective synods (Hefele, ibid., 918).—A. J. Maas, Scripture Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. XIII, © 1912 by Robert Appleton Company; Online Edition © 2003/2004 by K. Knight; has Nihil Obstat & Imprimatur.

The Catholic apologist might next demand to know the wording of Canon 14, part of which is quoted in Latin in the above. This challenge may be effectively answered with this English translation of the full text of the canon:

Canon 14. We prohibit also that the laity should be permitted to have the books of the Old or New Testament; unless anyone from motive of devotion should wish to have the Psalter or the Breviary for divine offices or the hours of the blessed Virgin; but we most strictly forbid their having any translation of these books.--S. R. Maitland, Facts and Documents, Rivington, 1832, pp. 192-194.; cited in Heresy and Authority in Medieval Europe, Edward Peters, Ed. © 1980 by Edward Peters, pp. 194-195

A number of Catholic theological books support the allegation that reading vernacular translations of the Bible indeed was severely restricted throughout the Catholic Church for nearly two centuries; and absolutely prohibited in Spain until 1782.

The reading of the Bible in the vernacular was never unconditionally forbidden, though the reading of unauthorized versions was prohibited, and from 1564 to 1757 the reading of vernacular versions without permission of parish priest or confessor. This regulation, though technically withdrawn only in the latter year, had fallen into general deseutide for almost a century previously, and had been limited by many local exemptions. Only in Spain did a decree of the Spanish Inquisition totally forbid Bible-reading in the vernacular; this decree was withdrawn in 1782--John Gilmary Shea, Ed., The Catholic Educator: A Library of Catholic Instruction and Devotion, "Vernacular Bibles," (C) 1902 by Thomas Kelly, p. 544 has Imprimitur

For those seeking to overwhelm a Catholic antagonist in an apologetic discussion dealing with allegations of restricted access to the Bible, this reference might prove helpful:

Hence, Catholics may not read any Bible that has not been approved by the Church (can. 1398, n. I; 1399, n. 1), and even though it might be argued that Catholic and Protestant biblical scholarships are in overall agreement on the textual translation, particularly of the Old Testament, footnotes and glosses contained in Protestant Bibles naturally air Protestant views and doctrinal interpretations.-- Rev. Francis Spirago, The Catechism Explained, Translated by Rev. Richard F. Clarke, S.J., (c) 1899/1921/1949/1961 Benziger Brothers, Inc, p. 20. has Nihil Obstat & Imprimitur

FYI, a paragraph on the page whereon appear the ecclesiastical approvals reads:

The Nihil Obstat and Imprimitur are official declarations that a book or pamphlet is free of doctrinal or moral error. No implication is contained therein that those who have granted the Nihil Obstat and Imprimitur agree with the contents, opinions, or statements expressed. -- Ibid.

In the face of the foregoing quotations, it should be apparent that the Catholic Church has, at times and in some areas, placed severe limitations on access to the Bible in the vernacular. It is worth noting that, during much of these times, the Inquisition was at hand to enforce these limitations.

Before closing, I offer a few products of the research of a Christian theologian for whom I have great respect:

A Manual of Councils of the Holy Catholic Church, by Landon, informs us on the Synod of Toulouse: "Canon 14: Forbids the laity to have in their possession any copy of the books of the Old and New Testament (except the Psalter, and such portions of them as are contained in the Breviary, or the Hours of the Blessed Virgin), most strictly forbids these works in the vulgar tongue." (A Manual of Councils of the Holy Catholic Church, (Rev. Edward Landon. M.A., 1909, Edinburgh, v2, pp. 171-2)

The Catholic Encyclopedia confirms this and adds two more synods: "During the Middle Ages prohibitions of books were far more numerous than in ancient times. ...In this period, also, the first decrees about the reading of the translations of the Bible were called forth by the abuses of the Waldenses and Albigenses. What these decrees (e.g. of the synods of Toulouse in 1229, Tarragona in 1234, Oxford in 1408) aimed at was the restriction of Bible reading in the vernacular. A general prohibition was never in existence."(The Catholic Encyclopedia, (v3, pg. 520)

A History of the Inquistion of the Middle Ages states, "Allusion has already been made to the burning of Romance versions of the Scriptures by Jayme I of Aragon and to the commands of the Council of Narbonne, in 1229, against the possession of any portion of Holy Writ by laymen." (Henry Lea, (v1, pg. 554)--Timothy F. Kauffman, Conciliar Conundrum, Theo-Logical, 3rd & 4th Quarter 1996 edition

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