Monday, June 15, 2009

Why Don't Catholics Know the Bible?

My online "Bible as Literature" class begins today and as students introduce themselves I hear a lot of this: "I was raised Catholic and, despite years of private Catholic school education, I have a limited knowledge of the Bible."

I reassure all students that it's ok to come to the course unacquainted with these ancient texts and no one should feel awkward about it. It's very common.

Still, I find it odd that this is so awfully common among 'cradle Catholics' and I wonder why this is so. I have a few thoughts about it.

First, many life-long Catholics see their Catholic ID as more of an ethnic thing rather than a personal faith thing - kinda like being Jewish but not really believing. Lacking some decisive, self-conscious moment in their lives when they made a clear commitment to belong to Christ wholly - apart from baptismal promises made on their behalf as infants - the 'religious' aspect of being Catholic is de-emphasized - except for making sure all the practices are correct. This may result from a lifelong faith education that tended to focus on traditions of behavior and practices, rather than Biblical study, theology and church history. The fervor of the convert wasn't there. This is a somewhat generalized statement, I know, and I apologize for casting such a wide net. But I find that most college-aged Catholics have been poorly 'catechized' and as a result they reject something they never really understood, and more often than not because they had it 'shoved down my throat' - a phrase I hear often. And they certainly never got any Biblical backing to what they were taught.

But leaving 'cultural' and highly secularized Catholics behind, let's consider those who take their faith more seriously. Even among these Mass-attending, rosary-praying folks, there is very little knowledge of the Bible. Part of this is a religious issue of where the 'authority' lies. For Catholics, it is found in three places:

1. The Bible (although it isn't really taught systematically). For years before Vatican II, laypeople were not encouraged to read the Bible at all, perhaps out of a concern that untrained readers might mis-interpret stuff and get odd ideas, and the Church is big on holding fast with
integrity to a passed-down body of received truths, called "the deposit of faith.' While this attitude has officially changed, there has not been a habit of Bible-reading in Catholic homes for generations, unlike devout Protestant homes.

Even so, there are 4 Scripture readings at every Mass - an Old Testament reading, a Psalm, an epistle, and a Gospel reading. These are carefully chosen and beautifully interwoven according to a theme so they relate to each other. They are selected so that a congregation gets through most of the Bible in a 3-year cycle. However, despite years of exposure, most Catholics don't know the Bible. You can really tell when the readers (lectors) get up to read and stumble all over the passages as though they'd never seen them before. This is astonishing to devout Protestants, who love the Bible, know its books and writers, the historical background, the characters and storylines of narrative sections, and commit passages to memory.
2. The second source of authority is "The Magisterium" of the church, a fancy word for the official teaching that is preserved over the centuries from error. The idea is to keep the 'deposit of faith', received from Jesus and the original 12 apostles, intact and consistent. Study of "The Catechism" is held to be more important, since this is where the teaching of the Church is clarified and systematized. The new version commissioned by John Paul II is elegantly written, by the way. There are loads of great Bible refences in the footnotes. But the discussion of those passages and the ideas in them as explained in the Catechism are considered more important. This is hinted at when 'Learning the Faith' is the phrase you hear most often, not 'learning the Bible.'

3. The third leg of this 'stool' of authority is something called 'sacred Tradition,' a religious term referring to the teaching of the apostles and their official successors under the guidance of the Holy Spirit as promised in John 14:26 (in particular, the successor to the See of Peter, the bishop of Rome). Protestants have a particular problem with this usually because they confuse it with the burdensome legalistic 'traditions' Jesus harshly criticized in Mark chapter 7. Catholics mean something different - as in 2 Thessalonians 2:15 - and this is an unfortunate area of semantic misunderstanding.

Anyway, my point really was this: The Bible is only one of three areas where Catholics derive their understanding of what is true and good in belief and practice, whereas most Protestants (especially more conservative ones) look to the Bible ALONE as their source of spiritual
authority (well, at least their denomination's understanding of it). The Protestant 'battle cry' was 'solo Scriptura' - Scripture alone. As a result, they study it a lot more regularly as individuals and in groups and know it much better. It is the Word of God and it speaks with full and final authority (II Timothy 3:16 is quoted to support this). I don't mean to say that Catholics hold
the Bible in lower regard - they affirm II Timothy 3:16 (if they know it) and regard these texts as inspired and authoritative, too. What Catholics will add is this: remember that the Church was there - and fully authoritative - before the New Testament was put together. The New Testament derives its authority from the Church, which had the final say about which books were genuine and which were spurious. The Bible's authority, historically speaking, rests on the Church's authority. It's an excellent point. But the consequence is this: less Bible reading among Catholics, because the authority is considered to be in the Church, and not so much in the Bible (even though, officially, it is the authoritative Word of God). St. Jerome said "Ignorance of the Bible is ignorance of Christ." The Living Word is found, figuratively speaking, in the written word. I wish more Catholics followed Jerome.

Well, I hope some of that made sense. I'd like to see comments from Catholics about why there is so little familiarity with the Bible among Catholics, besides the fact that way too many of them are 'nominal' and 'cultural' Catholics and simply don't care.

One final thought: even the configuration of church design says something about this issue. Protestant churches have the lectern/pulpit front-and-center, a design change since the Reformation when the "Word of God" was declared to be the only source of authority and so it took center stage. Preaching from the Bible is the central part, often the longest part, of Protestant services. For Catholics, the pulpit is off to the side and the 'homily,' usually a lot shorter than any Protestant sermon (and rarely as good), is one brief part of the Mass. Instead, the altar is front-and-center, because that's the central emphasis of worship - experiencing the atoning sacrifice of Christ as it is 're-presented' there in sacramental elements (not
'repeated,' as too many Protestants misunderstand). So Protestants emphasize "the Word," and Catholics/Orthodox divide their worship into two equal parts, the liturgy of the Word and the sacramental liturgy of the Eucharist.

Catholics really ought to become more familiar with the Bible and I'm glad to see earnest Catholic students in my class. My tone will remain objective and academic and they are free to take away whatever religious value they want. Becoming basically "Biblically literate" is important for any educated person and that's all I'm really after.

You know, there are notable efforts to get Catholics to read and understand the Bible; Dr. Scott Hahn, Jeff Cavins, Marcus Grodi and others have active ministries trying to get Catholics to read and study the Scriptures.

It isn't surprising that these guys are all former evangelicals.


Andy said...

Hi Johnny,

I'm an adult "convert" (from agnosticism) to Catholicism who knows his Bible well, and your post seems fair and balanced. I am not familiar with the reasons as to "why" most Catholics don't know their Bible very well because it is very foreign to me to not know the Bible. I think it may be that those Catholics simply trust the Church and that allows them to more innocently practice their devotions. Plus I feel that Bible study itself is more of an intellectual path to holiness, as where devotions are more of a path via the heart. Everyone has their own path I guess.

Also, among your links to consider, I think your "coming home network" link is out of date as it leads to a financial site. You might mean "".

Thanks for your post.

Unknown said...

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.
Catechism of the Catholic Church

I would add too that I learned to love and read Sacred Scripture-- as a Catholic...since I converted...

Also I would note Pope Benedict is a great lover and promoter of Sacred Scripture --and he is not a convert from Evangelicalism....

(as were Popes before him...just cause culturally some Catholics did not read the Bible as much --due to problems after the Protestant movements --does not mean the Church was not asking them to!! they were..just think of the great encyclicals from Popes of the 1800's and 1900's)

johnny dangerous said...

Greycat, you are completely right, and I'm glad the Catechism and the current pontiff, who is a fine theologian and pastor, encourage Bible reading and study.

Kristeen said...

I can only speak to my experience and the experiences of those around me...I was raised Catholic and I never read the bible because the personal reading of it was not something that was elevated in importance either by my parents, our priets and pastors or my teachers in Catholic high school. The same goes for my friends and extended family members in my peer group (I'm 34). I think if you are told that there's a good chance you will misinterpret it if you don't have the Catholic church's teachings and interpretations well learned or at your side, you have no motivation to read it. If I can't understand it, why would I waste my time - the church has already done it for me, so I just need to go to them for everything I need to know in the bible. Even if the official doctrine says that it encourages bible reading, I never saw that in practice. I have never seen my mother (the Catholic of my parents) read the bible. As you stated, the traditions and obedience to the church were taught to me to be of the highest importance. But being literate in the bible was never mentioned. I think that our parents' generation still held to the pre-Vatican II notion of reading the bible to be dangerous, because I did hear that told to a friend by one of her aunts. My aunt has told me that she was instructed to not read it because she could misunderstand it and go to hell.It is worth mentioning that I am half Filipino through my mother's side and the Philippines is where she and my aunt were raised. It's also worth mentioning that when I decided to read the bible from cover to cover, I made the decision to leave the Catholic Church. It's a tragedy, in my opinion, because I think I would have not chosen to do some of the hedonistic things I did had I known God personally without the intervention of the church.

johnny dangerous said...

While you've left the Catholic Church, I hope you have found a church home elsewhere where you can worship God 'in spirit and in truth', as Jesus told the Samaritan woman in John 4. It is really too bad your aunt was told not to read the bible because she might misinterpret it and go to hell. That is the absolute wrong thing to say. The Bible is not difficult to understand; it is mostly in the form of historical narrative (that is, stories) and poetry. Some of it requires a bit more historical background, which isn't hard to get. Reading the bible ought to illuminate and deepen one's faith and one's practice within the Catholic Church, where the scriptures are a major part of the Mass.

kregerjd said...

I was raised in a Catholic home, but as you mention. Scripture was never taught except what was being taught in the church. When I was younger I hated church because I couldn't find the meaning in it as a child. I reneged a few times as a kid trying to open the Bible and read, but I didn't really know how to start so I ended up quoting when I got half way through Genesis. Later God called me back to Him, and I am reading the Bible just fine now. Where I have had many heart felt moments. I am not apart of a church since most of them are cults by definition. The love of God alone will allow people to encounter the Living Word through the Written Word.