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Why reading Sacred Scripture may not be an unalloyed good June 28, 2012

Posted by Tantumblogo in awesomeness, Basics, Bible, Dallas Diocese, error, Interior Life, North Deanery, Tradition, Virtue.

There is a common assumption today that the Church’s hesitancy to widely distribute Sacred Scripture and have it read by the laity during parts of its history was a terrible mistake, an abuse, even.  I have been presented with such arguments myself, by presumably well meaning individuals, even clergy, who feel that the Church was in error in this practice, and badly so.  This hesitancy is presented as such an evil that it is turned into a club with which to beat the Church and Tradition, even by those within it.

But where did this concern over having uninstructed individuals reading Sacred Scripture come from?  In actuality, it came from many sources.  Historically, the Bible was transmitted by hand-written copies laboriously written by monks, often with many beautiful illustrations.  This was the practice from fall of the Roman Empire until the late middle ages.  At that time, there simply weren’t enough copies of the Bible to go around – most parishes had one copy for the clergy, if they had one at all.  And since most people could not read, this was not seen as a serious problem.

However, starting in the late 1400s, both the availability of books through the printing press, and the literacy of the population, exploded.  Suddenly, there were many more copies of the Bible available, and many more people to read them.  It is not coincidental that this explosion in Bible reading occurred at the same time as the protestant revolt.  In fact, it was private reading of Scripture and horribly misinterpreting it that led to the revolt.  As such, the Church was prudent in its distribution of Sacred Scripture and in “allowing” laity to read it, because so many problems had come from this practice.  In many, perhaps most locales, the laity were supposed to get permission from their priest/confessor (or sometimes even higher up) in order to read Scripture, after having established that they sufficiently understood Catholic Doctrine.  This practice was never tightly enforced, and there were many copies of bibles such as the Douay Reims and others that were widely read by many laity. How many of those went on to form bad ideas from misinterpreting Scripture and leaving the Faith is known only to God.

In Fr. George Leo Haydock’s notes on the Douay Reims Bible, this topic is discussed in reference to Acts Chapter 8.  In verses 27-39, the meeting between the Apostle Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch is described.  There is a particular portion relevant to this discussion:

[27] And rising up, he went. And behold a man of Ethiopia, an eunuch, of great authority under Candace the queen of the Ethiopians, who had charge over all her treasures, had come to Jerusalem to adore.[28]And he was returning, sitting in his chariot, and reading Isaias the prophet.[29] And the Spirit said to Philip: Go near, and join thyself to this chariot. [30]And Philip running thither, heard him reading the prophet Isaias. And he said: Thinkest thou that thou understandest what thou readest?[31]Who said: And how can I, unless some man shew me? And he desired Philip that he would come up and sit with him.

Haydock’s comments on verse 31 state:

How can I, unless someone show me, or be a guide to me, as in the Greek. Let every one, and especially the unlearned, take good notice of these words, not to wrest the Scriptures to his own perdition. [St. Peter notes the difficulty of understanding some Scripture in 2 Pet 3:16, stating that many souls twist and distort Scripture to their own destruction]  To follow his own private judgment, or his private spirit, is to make choice of a blind and incompetent guide, as to the sense of the Scriptures, and the mysteries of faith.  It appears this eunuch was not one of those, who are now so commonly seen, who think the Scripture is every where plain, and teh sense open to everybody. Such would do  much better to acknowledge, that they stand in need of a guide.  St. Jerome, in his letter to Paulinus, printed at the head of the Latin Bibles, shows the necessity of an interpreter. The apostles themselves could not understand the Scriptures till Christ gave them the knowledge. [Indeed, even when the had Christ with them, the Apostles STILL did not get the meaning of much of Scripture, and it was not until they had received the special Grace of the Holy Spirit that they really began to understand]

Now, Haydock was writing over 200 years ago, when illiteracy was still quite common.  But, I can’t say that, even though the vast majority can read and write, understanding of Scripture is immensely better today than it was then.  We still have many people, even many very learned people, who try to twist and distort Scripture through private interpretation to their own ends.  All one must is think about the “Metro” churches that serve the gay community, who pretend that Scripture does not condemn homosexuality as a lifestyle, and homosexual acts themselves as gravely sinful.  It does, in over a dozen separate statements in both Old Testament and New.  But, they have twisted Scripture out of all meaning to pretend it says the opposite of what it actually says.  There are hundreds, thousands such examples.

None of this is to say that individual Catholics should not read Sacred Scripture. I certainly do, every day, and I pray that more will.  But what it does mean is that we must be very careful when we do so, that we must pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit and that we must always look to the Authority of the Church for proper understanding of Scripture.  Sadly, that does not mean your local priest, because some hold very faulty ideas regarding Scripture and Dogma, but it does mean the authentic Magisterial teachings of the Church.

It also means reading a good, Catholic Bible.  I do not recommend most versions approved by the USCCB and used in Mass, such as the Revised Standard Version (RSV).  All RSVs since the mid-60s have been badly infected with modernism and novelties like “gender neutral” language.  The notes in some cases are terrible, even heretical, as Msgr. Charles Pope has lamented repeatedly.  I have a RSV from ’61 or 2 that is OK, but it’s hard to find nowadays.  And stay far, far away from the New Jerome Study Bible, or even the Jerome Study Bible of the 60s…….both are extremely modernist and twist, or outright reject, Catholic Doctrine.  Douay Reims is a great Catholic Bible, the precursor in many ways to the protestant King James version.  For a Bible with notes, the Haydock Bible is fantastic.  For detailed Scripture analysis, look for Cornelius a Lapide’s  Great Commentary on the New Testament (free here!) and St. Robert Bellarmine’s notes on Psalms.  There is more if you are interested.

So, when you read Scripture, pray for the Light of the Holy Spirit to guide you and look to the Truth that has been revealed through Christ’s Church.  If you don’t read Scripture now, be very careful in what bible you choose and make sure you have good spiritual guidance and are well versed in what the Church believes.  If you’re ignorant of both Scripture and Doctrine, I would suggest starting with a good book on Catholic belief like the Catechism of the Council of Trent, This Is the Faith, Fundamentals of Catholic Theology by Ott, or something similar.


1. Catechist Kev - June 29, 2012

50. Reading of Sacred Scripture (Sacrae Scripturae lectio)

A partial indulgence is granted to the faithful, who with the veneration due the divine word make a spiritual reading from Sacred Scripture.

A plenary indulgence is granted, if this reading is continued for at least one half an hour.

Wow, I guess we throw out this indulgence then? 🙂

(just bustin’ on you Tantam)

BTW, Ott’s book is “Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma” not “Theology”

tantamergo - June 29, 2012

I know I know. I just wanted to put some contrarian thoughts in people’s heads, a little slow down there.

Was that the indulgence Leo XIII gave in 1893?

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