Why Not Read Your Bible?

If I were still Catholic, I don't know that I would be eager to open a Bible and study the revelation contained therein. Likely, I would recall the admonition so often delivered to me by nuns and priests in catechism and CCD classes that everything a good Catholic needs to know is to be found in the Catechism, the Missal and the Liturgy. Those passages of the Scriptures considered useful to the laity would be read during Mass, so one need not risk falling afoul of Church Law by wrongly interpreting Scripture. By that was meant by interpreting a passage differently than did Mother Church.

My perception, and I suspect the perception of many Catholics today, was that the Magisterium had carefully examined the entire Bible and had an official understanding of every single passage. How is the diligent Catholic to learn whether he may fall under anathema by discovering some meaning in a passage that is contrary to the official interpretation of the Roman Catholic Church? Has Mother Church done much to help the wouldbe Catholic Bible student avoid violating the rules laid down by the bishops assembled at Trent?

There is an urban legend, of sorts, that maintains the false notion that the Roman Church has always vehemently opposed any notion that laymen should read the Bible. While there indeed may have been periods or regions when this view obtained, in my own studies I have discovered ample evidence that Catholic officialdom has actually encouraged Bible reading and study, though with stringent warnings against private interpretation. There was a period, in fact, when popes granted indulgences to Catholic laity for reading in the Scriptures. Pius XII really pushed lay Bible reading and study in his encyclical Divino afflante Spiritu (Denzinger 2293).

In contrast to earlier papal pronouncements, Divino afflante Spiritu was not one large protest against private readings and intuitive understandings of the Bible, independently reached. Divino afflante Spiritu gave the green light to modern methods of research, and in so doing it rejected those traditional Catholic notions which held the Vulgate (Latin) Bible of Saint Jerome to be the absolute depository of divine truth, the source, sole and authentic, of God's word. Pius XII's encyclical not only opened the door for a retranslating of the Scriptures, but it encouraged biblical scholars to return to the original languages of the Bible, the earlier, pre-Latin Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek manuscripts. "The sacred books were not given by God to men to satisfy their curiosity or to provide them with material for study and research," said Pius XII in the encyclical, "but, as the the Apostle notes, in order that these Divine Oracles might 'instruct us to salvation, by the faith which is in Christ Jesus' and 'that the man of God may be perfect, furnished to every good work. - John Deedy, Retrospect: The Origins of Catholilc Beliefs and Practices, Thomas More Press (1990), pp. 231-32

So you see, dear Catholic readers, there really is no reason why you should not take up the invitation so often presented on this board to search the Scriptures. Why not take a few moments right now to spend with God's written revelation?

Some might still hang back, fearful they could invite anathema by discovering some truth in the Scriptures that differs from the official RCC understanding. Not to worry. The odds against offending Mother Church in this way are slim indeed. Of all the multitude of passages in the Bible, the Magisterium has only definitively interpreted seven passages in defending traditional doctrine and morals--John 3:5, 20:22, 20:23; Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24; Romans 5:12; James 5:14.

Divino Afflante Spiritus (1943), Pope Pius XII, Bishop of Rome, 1939-1958

Permitted scholars to use original text of Scriptures. No claim was made that the Vulgate is always an accurate translation, but that it is free from any errors in faith or morals. The scholar must be principally concerned with the literal sense of the Scriptures; search out and expound the spiritual sense; avoid other figurative senses. Literary criticism should be employed. Stated that there are but few texts whose sense was determined by the authority of the Church (only seven biblical passages have been definitively interpreted in defending traditional doctrine and morals--Jn 3:5, Lk 22:19, 1 Cor 11:24, Jn 20:22, Jn 20:23, Rom 5:12, Ja 5: 14); this counteracts the frequent misunderstanding that Catholics have no freedom interpreting the Scriptures--Paul Flanagan and Robert Schihl, Catholic Biblical Apologetics , © 1985-1997)

When I read that assertion that the Magisterium has only definitively interpreted seven passages – make that verses – of Scripture, I simply could not believe it. After all, Catholic apologists throw around so many of what they claim to be the RCC position on only God knows how many passages and verses in the Scriptures that I had thought darned near the entire Bible had been subjected to Magisterial interpretation and definition.

I wanted to verify what Flanagan and Schihl claimed, so I wrote to the senior Catholic authority in matters of doctrine, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Cardinal Joe did not reply, so I wrote to the senior papal official in the United States, the Papal Nuncio. That gentlemen did reply, informing me that he did not know how many Bible verses had been definitively interpreted, and enclosed a Xerox page from the Catholic Almanac, which informed that not many Bible verses had ever been interpreted definitively by the Magisterium.

Continuing my search, I next wrote to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. The Very Reverend J. Augustine Di Noia O.P., Executive Director of the Secretariat for Doctrine and Pastoral Practices, responded with a courteous and informative letter. In his letter, Monsignor Di Noia mentioned that he had called upon the services of an eminent theologian for a response to my question. The theologian's response cited R.E. Brown, “Hermeneutics,” New Jerome Biblical Commentary, (Prentice-Hall, 1990), 1146-65, at 1163-54. The ten definitively interpreted passages? These were identified as:

John 3:5 --- sacramental baptism (Trent)
John 20:23 --- sacrament of penance (Trent)
James 5:14-15 --- Anointing of the sick (Trent)
Matthew 16:16-17 --- Primacy of Peter (Vatican I)
John 21:15-17 --- Primacy of Peter (Vatican I)
Genesis 3:15 -- - Immaculate Conception (Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus and Pius XII, Munificentissimus Deus

I don't know how many verses there are in the Latin Vulgate Bible but I do know there are, according to Thomas Hartwell Thorne (1780-1862), 41,173 verses in the Authorized Version, or King James Bible. Using the numbers provided by Monsignor Di Nioa, it works out that Rome has definitively interpreted only 0.0002428% of the total number of verses that appear in the 'Protestant' King James Bible. Given that Bibles used by Catholics incorporate the Apocrypha, they have even more verses to be interpreted, which means that the hard-working Magisterium has furnished the Catholic faithful with definitive interpretations of an even smaller percentage of their Bible.

Many passionate, yet misinformed, non-Catholic apologists are wont to charge that Catholicism long prohibited the Catholic laity from reading the Bible. In my studies of Catholic doctrine and practice, I have yet to encounter such a broad prohibition, though indeed Bibles in the vernacular and those published by non-Catholic presses have been prohibited to most Catholics at various times in the past. In fact, 'Mother Church' has been offering indulgences as inducements to encourage Catholic laymen to read their Bibles. However, it is also true that the Council of Trent, in its Fourth Session, proscribed the finding of any interpretation of Scripture contrary to that held by 'Mother Church' in these words:

Furthermore, in order to curb impudent clever persons, the synod decrees that no one who relies on his own judgment in matters of faith and morals, which pertain to the building up of Christian doctrine, and that no one who distorts the Sacred Scripture according to his own opinions, shall dare to interpret the said Sacred Scripture contrrary to that sense which is held by holy mother Church, whose duty it is to judge regarding the true sense and interpretation of holy Scriptures, or even contrary to the unanimous consent of the Fathers, or even though interpretations of this kind were never intended to be brought to light. Let those who shall oppose this be reported by their ordinaries and be punished with the penalties prescribed by law... - Paul III, Decree Concerning the Edition and the Use of the Sacred Books, Council of Trent, Session IV, April 8, 1546, Denzinger 786

So, how are Catholic faithful to know “that sense which is held by holy mother Church” if that entity has only definitively interpreted 10 verse of well over 40 thousand? Of course, one can look in the Catechism or just about any one of the veritable flood of documents that pour forth from the Curia, but the verses to which they refer are not definitively interpreted and, therefore, are subject to changing understandings.

How much more simple to rely on the guidance and illumination of the Holy Spirit when studying the written Word of God.

All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.--2 Timothy 3:16-17

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