By JOHN YOUNG
I heard a priest declare in a homily that in the days before Vatican II that Scripture reading was a “no-no” for Catholics. Other Catholics, whether clerical or lay, while not going that far, believe that the Church before Vatican II didn’t encourage lay people to read the Bible.
Frank Sheed, in his book The Church and I, published in 1974, states that even the committed laity, before the Second Vatican Council, “…saw theology as all-sufficient, Scripture as a quarry from which we could dig out supporting texts” (p. 288). According to Sheed, Catholics in general simply didn’t appreciate Scripture as something that should permeate their lives and vitalize their theology.
Sheed goes further, insinuating that Rome failed to encourage Bible reading by the laity. He writes: “Pius XI did remind us of Jerome’s words [that ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ] and did attach an indulgence to a quarter-hour of Scripture reading. That was something new and good; but it seems a tiny inducement to urge us away from sterility.”
That statement amazed me. Sheed himself had for many years urged Catholics to gain a close personal knowledge of Scripture, so it is strange that he hadn’t realized the Popes had done the same. Regarding indulgences: Pope Leo XIII, in 1898, had granted an indulgence of 300 days for devoutly reading the Gospels for 15 minutes, and a plenary indulgence, obtainable monthly, for daily reading of the Gospels (see Rome and the Study of Scripture, p. 29).
Benedict XV, in his encyclical Spiritus Paraclitus, published in 1920, stated: “Hence, as far as in us lies, we, Venerable Brethren, shall, with St. Jerome as our guide, never desist from urging the faithful to read daily the Gospels, the Acts and the Epistles, so as to gather hence food for their souls.” He continues by praising the Society of St. Jerome, which, he notes, he was himself instrumental in founding. “The object of this Society is to put into the hands of as many people as possible the Gospels and Acts, so that every Christian family may have them and become accustomed to reading them.”
Pius XII, in the encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu, urges the bishops to encourage “. . . all those initiatives by which men, filled with apostolic zeal, laudably strive to excite and foster among Catholics a greater knowledge of and love for the Sacred Books.” He expresses the wish that Scripture, especially the Gospels, be read daily with piety and devotion by Christian families.
In 1952 a Catholic Bible Week was organized in the United States by the Archconfraternity of Christian Doctrine, and Pius XII sent his apostolic blessing, expressing the hope that “the faithful of the United States, not only during Bible Week but subsequently as well, will give themselves in increasing numbers to a more frequent reading of the Bible” (Rome and the Study of Scripture, p. 116).
I agree with Sheed that most Catholics before Vatican II didn’t appreciate the importance of Scripture reading. Some feared it would lead lay people into error. I encountered that attitude, but was encouraged and reassured by what the Popes had said.
Most Catholics today are aware that the Church wants people to read the Bible, but most don’t realize that many Scripture scholars undermine divine Revelation by their erroneous theories. The Bible has God as its principal author, and therefore everything it teaches is true; but numerous prestigious scholars reject this, and their skeptical views filter down to lay people — in part through errors in homilies by priests who have been misled.
I heard a homilist contrast the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke to imply that they contradicted each other, whereas they are complementary but not contradictory. He said, among other points, that Luke tells us the Holy Family was in a stable, whereas Matthew says the Holy Family was in a house. (The obvious response is that whereas Luke is speaking of the night of our Lord’s birth, Matthew is speaking of the coming of the Wise Men, probably weeks later, by which time Joseph had presumably found more suitable accommodations.)
Many homilies and books cast doubt on supernatural elements in Scripture, as when diabolical possession is interpreted as mental illness or perhaps epilepsy. Prophecies are seen as being statements made after the event — as when our Lord’s prediction of the coming destruction of Jerusalem is seen as an instance of the Gospel writers putting this prophecy in His mouth after the event had occurred in AD 70.
In the earlier part of the 20th century the Pontifical Biblical Commission (PBC) kept a close watch on the publications of Catholic biblical scholars, and issued rulings on disputed questions. As a result biblical commentaries kept well within the bounds of orthodoxy — some say they were overcautious. Then in the 1970s Pope Paul VI demoted the PBC: It had been an organ of the Magisterium, but now became merely an advisory body.
I believe there is an urgent need for Rome to scrutinize more closely the writings of Scripture scholars, for many are undermining God’s Revelation in the Bible. Ironically, at a time when most Catholics are aware of the Church’s call to read Scripture, too many of the scholars who should be guiding them are leading them astray.
A close, personal knowledge of Scripture is important, and especially of the Gospels: There we see God in a human nature – working, suffering, teaching, associating with the people around Him. The more familiar we become with God’s book, the Bible, the more deeply we come to know and love the faith.
Frank Sheed’s book To Know Christ Jesus is an excellent guide to Jesus in the Gospels; it is the result of long years of meditation by Sheed on the Person of Christ and illustrates vividly how very nourishing the Gospels can be for our relationship with Jesus.
In Scripture reading, though, we need to remember St. Peter’s warning to the first Christians, some of whom had misinterpreted St. Paul’s Epistles: “There are some things in them [Paul’s letters] hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:16).
While the prevalent problem today is skepticism about the historical reliability of Scripture, some Catholics tend to the opposite extreme, taking as historical fact what is (or may be) symbolism. An instance of this is the over-literal interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis.
The solution is simple: Follow the Church’s Magisterium and those scholars who are faithful to the Magisterium. As Vatican II said: “But the task of authentically interpreting the Word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ” (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, n. 10).
The same constitution, speaking of the four Gospels, says: “Holy Mother Church has firmly and with absolute constancy held and continues to hold that the four Gospels just named, whose historical character the Church unhesitatingly asserts, faithfully hand on what Jesus Christ, while living among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation until the day He was taken up into Heaven” (n. 19).
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(John Young is a graduate of the Aquinas Academy in Sydney, Australia, and has taught philosophy in four seminaries. His book The Scope of Philosophy was published by Gracewing Publishers in England in 2010. He has been a frequent contributor to The Wanderer on theological issues since 1977.)