The Question: Non-Catholics sometimes charge that the Catholic Church once proscribed the possession or reading of the Bible, yet Catholics are quick to respond that the Church has always encouraged reading the Bible. What is the truth?
The Response: History informs that reading and/or possession of the Scriptures in the vernacular or in an edition not approved by ecclesiasrtical authorites indeed was prohibited in in some areas of the Catholic world. I believe the following accounts, from one of my old books, should help you to see where the truth lies. The information in these reports was provided by a Dr. Kalley, Scottish physician and missionary, on the Portuguese island of Madeira. When Kalley arrived on the island, in 1838, he discovered that the Roman Catholic religion was established by law and that the Bible was a proscribed book. Nevertheless, the doctor set about opening the Scriptures to the people living in that benighted land. He opened and operated a number of schools where islanders might learn to read English, and soon had over 800 adults enrolled. The book Kalley used to teach his students was the Bible, a book his students had no knowledge of, and this is where the trouble started.
In a short time, hundreds of these hitherto ignorant people became intelligent readers of the Scriptures. The usual results followed. In the course of their readings, they met with many things inconsistent with the religious tenets which they had hitherto held. Some applied to the priests for a solution to their difficulties. The answers were not satisfactory. The priests were annoyed at inquiries displaying an intelligence which they could not successfully combat, and ere long both the schools and the Bible were denounced. The bishops and priests, indignant at the growing interest of the people in the Scriptures, declared that “the Bible was a book from hell,” and the sentence of excommunication was denounced against all who should read it. – Rev. Joseph F. Berg, D.D., The Open Bible: The hand of God in the Affairs of Men, (1971), J.R. Foster & Co., p. 386
Not only was Kalley and his group teaching the locals to read the Bible, they also were distributing Bibles all over the island. Soon, some of the locals quietly renounced Romanism and embraced the Christian faith. This so upset the authorities that, in 1843, several converts were sent to prison, their houses were ransacks and, when Bibles were found, they were confiscated and destroyed. Priests reported Bible readers to the government, and these were summarily arrested and sent to prison. Meanwhile, Mother Church heaped even more woes onto those whose only crime was reading the Bible. What follows is the full text of an order of excommunication pronounced against two Madeirans who dared to read the Bible:
Sebastian Cazemiro Medinna Vasconcellas, Leader of the Choir in the Cathedral, Synedic Examinator, Vicar-General of the bishopric of Funchal, in the island of Madeira, for the Most Excellent and Reverend Don Januaro Vicented Comacho of Her majesty’s Council, Dean of the Cathedral of Funchal, Commander of the Order of Christ, Bishop Elect of Castle Branco, Temporarl Governor and Vicar-General of the Bishop of Funchal, Porto Santo, and Arguinot---
To all the reverend vicars and curates, assistants and chaplains, as well as to all judges and justices of peace, to the delegates of the attorney-general, to the administrators of councils, and all officers of justice, and to all ecclesiastical and secular persons of every degree and condition in all the bishopric and out of it, to whom this my letter may reach, who may hear it, or get notice of it in any way, health and peace forever in Jesus Christ our Lord, who is the true remedy and salvation of all. I make known to you, that, having proceeded to an examination of witnesses, as competent to my office, it was proved by them, and confirmed by my sentence, that Francisco Pires Soares, married, and Nicolau Tolentino Vieyra, bachelor, both of this bishopric, residing in the parish of Santa Luzia, near the parish church, apostasized from the union and bosom of the holy Mother Roman Catholic Church and became sectaries of the Presbyterian communion, incurring by this ecclesiastical censure and canonical punishment of the greater excommunication. The censures requiring to be aggravated, I ordered this present letter to be written, by which I require and command, under pain of the greater excommunnication, all ecclesiastics, ministers and officers of justice, and others above mentioned, as soon as they shall have notice of it, not to touch or hold communication with those who are excommunicated by the curse of Almighty God, and of the blessed St. Peter and St. Paul, with those of Gomorrah and of Sodom, Dathan and Abiram, whom the earth swallows alive for their great sins and disobedience. Let none give them fire, water, bread, or any other thing that be necessary to them for their support. Let none pay them their debts. Let none support them in any case which they may bring judicially. Let all put them aside as rotten and excommunicated members, separated from the bosom and union of the Holy Mother Catholic Church, and as rebels and contumacious; for if any do the contrary, (which God forbid!) I lay, and consider as laid, upon their persons, the penalty of the greater excommunication. Therefore were there names and surnames expressly declared; and that all may know this, I order the reverend parish priests to publish this at the meeting on the first Sabbath or holy day, and to affix it on the door of the church, from which let no man take or tear it under pain of excommunication, until, by making satisfactioon for all, they merit the benefit of absolution.
Given in Funchal, under the seal of the Vicar-General and my signature, on the 27th of April, 1843. Jacinto Monteiro Cabrae, Writer to the Ecclesiastical Council, wrote this.
/s/ Sebastio Cazemiro Medina E Vas. – Rev. Joseph F. Berg, Op. cit., pp. 397-98
Wow! The severity of the sentence gives a good indication of just how vicious the Catholic Church can be when it has the backing of secular authorities. Consider the prohibition against providing even the most basic support, things like food and water, to the two. Of course, only Catholics would be concerned about being excommunicated for violating this prohibition, but bear in mind that Madeira was a Catholic province in a nation where Catholicism was the state religion. There would have been blessed few on that island, considering that a number of converts had been either driven off or imprisoned, willing to sustain the excommunicated men. But there were Christian men and women there, and their numbers grew, in spite persecution by the Catholic Church and her secular running dogs.
The tools of imprisonment, confiscation and excommunication were not sufficient to stem the growth of the Christian presence on Madeira, so it was determined to select one of the converts to be made an example of. Mrs. Maria J. Alves was selected as a suitable subject for Romish discipline. The enemies of true piety would deal with her in such a way as to inspire terror in the hearts of other converts, or so they thought. Her story follows:
On the 31st of January, 1843, she was taken from her family of seven children, the youngest an infant, and committed to prison. In a filthy dungeon, in Funchal, she spent month after month. Her sufferings were protracted, in the vain hope of procuring, by these means, a renunciation of her faith. Her firmness enraged the priests and government officers. On the 2d of May, 1844, she was brought to trial before Judge Negrao, president of the court. The indictment contained three charges: apostasy, heresy, and blasphemy. She was, however, tried on only one charge, viz., blasphemy. The accusation was, that she had refused to confess that the consecrated host, or wafer, in the hands of the priest, is the real body and the real blood of Jesus Christ, and had also refused to adore it! This was the blasphemy laid to her charge. When asked by the judge, “Do you believe that the consecrated host is the real body and real blood of Jesus Christ?” Mrs. Alves replied, with clear and emphatic utterance, “I do not believe it.” It can scarcely seem credible, but it is, nevertheless, the fact, that immediately after this frank avowal, the Judge arose, and passed upon her, in the following words,
THE DEATH SENTENCE
“In view of the answers of the jury, and the discussions of the cause, &c., it is proved that the accused, Maria Joaquina, perhaps forgetful of the principles of the holy religion she received in her first years, and to which she still belongs, has maintained conversations and arguments condemned by the church: maintaining that veneration should not be given to images; denying the real existence of Christ in the sacred host; the mystery of the most holy Trinity; blaspheming against the most holy Virgin, the mother of God; and advancing other expressions against the doctrines received and followed by the Roman Catholic Apostolic Church; expounding these condemned doctrines to different persons: thus committing the crimes of heresy, blasphemy, &c.-— condemn the accused Maria Joaquina to suffer DEATH, as provided in the law, the costs of the process, &c. to be paid out of her goods.
/s/ Jose Perreira Leito Pitta Ortegueira Negrao, Judge, &c.
Funchal Oriental, in Public Court, May 2d, 1844.” – Rev. Joseph F. Berg, Op. cit, pp. 399-400
The death sentence caused quite a row in the Christian world, and appeals were made to the Queen of Portugal to reverse the sentence. The queen’s counsel prepared an appeal, which he delivered to the Supreme Court in Lisbon. That court, in an act of judicial legerdemain, upheld the sentence and then commuted it on a technicality.
The court confirmed the sentence of death for apostacy, heresy, and blasphemy. But, as the defendant had been tried only on the charge of blasphemy, she could not competently be condemned for heresy and apostacy, therefore, the sentence was commuted. – Rev. Joseph F. Berg, Op. cit, p. 401
All the above happened years after the Inquisition supposedly had been suppressed in Spain and Portugal. Can there be any doubt how things would be in America today if the Catholic Church were able to obtain to a power position here?
Come soon, Lord.