You’ve probably heard it over and over: Catholics don’t read the Bible. It’s been so widespread that there’s even a joke about it, saying that if you want to get quotes from the Bible, then you should look for a Protestant since Catholics don’t know their Scripture well. So is this even true?
Catholics read the Bible, but not as often as others. This doesn’t mean that Catholics don’t value or encounter the Bible at all. It only means that compared to other Christians like Protestants, particularly evangelicals, who believe and follow Scripture alone, Catholics read and study the Bible less.
So why don’t Catholics read Scripture more? Why and where did the accusations of Catholics not reading the Bible even come from? Is there even any truth to it? Continue reading to find out.
How Often Do Catholics Read the Bible?
If you ask how often Catholics open their Bibles and read them, most would answer “not regularly”. Others would also say “rarely” and some would answer “never”. While there is no definite answer, we can assume that Catholics don’t read the Bible as often as other Christians do.
However, if you ask Catholics how often they encounter the Bible, then you’ll have a different answer. Practicing Catholics would tell you that they hear the Bible and Scripture at every Mass. Many would also tell you that their prayers came from Scripture. This includes the “Our Father” and the “Hail Mary”.
You see, the Catholic Church allows its members to experience the Bible and its contents (Scripture) throughout every celebration, prayer, ritual, and even in the congregation’s responses during Mass. So while Catholics may not regularly read the Bible on their own, it’s not true that they don’t know, understand, or encounter it.
Does the Catholic Church Discourage Bible Reading?
The Catholic Church does not discourage its members from reading the Bible. In fact, it does the opposite. Pope Pius XII, for example, urged Catholics to read and study the Bible in his 1943 “Divino Afflante Spiritu”, saying:
“All the children of the Church, especially clerics, to reverence the Holy Scripture, to read it piously and meditate it constantly… that in these pages is to be sought that food, by which the spiritual life is nourished unto perfection… that the chief use of Scripture pertains to the holy and fruitful exercise of the ministry of preaching.”
Additionally, Pope Paul VI announced through the 1965 “Dei Verbum” or “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation” to do the same. In section 25, he said: “The sacred synod also earnestly and especially urges all the Christian faithful, especially Religious, to learn by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures…”
Through his Sunday Angelus address during the 2nd Sunday of the Word of God in 2021, Pope Francis also encouraged all members of the Church to “keep the Sacred Scriptures close at all times and to read them frequently”, adding that Catholics should read at least 3 or 4 verses of the Bible each day, quoting St. Jerome’s famous words: “Whoever ignores the Scripture ignores Christ.”
Pope Francis also pointed out that this is very much possible since the Bible has never been more accessible than today. It’s already available to everyone in every language, and even in digital and audiovisual formats.
That said, the Church does not forbid or prevent its members from reading the Bible. It even supports movements that invite everyone to read and study the Bible.
Why Do Catholics Don’t Read the Bible Often?
Since the Church does not discourage it and even urges its members to read it, why then do Catholics not read the Bible as often as other Christian denominations? Well, because of our doctrine on Tradition.
See, unlike other Christians, Catholics don’t rely on Scripture alone. According to the Church, the Word of God comes from both Scripture and Tradition (Catechism of the Catholic Church #97). These are two “distinct modes of transmission” with Scripture as the “speech of God… put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit” and Tradition “transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit. It transmits it to the successors of the apostles so that, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, they may faithfully preserve, expound, and spread it abroad by their preaching.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church #80-81)
Keep in mind that Tradition in the Catholic Church refers to the teachings that were passed on orally by the apostles. Such teachings are entirely found in Scripture. The only difference is how they’re shared. And so, through Tradition, the Church can interpret Scripture. It offers its teachings and guidance to make sure that whoever reads the Bible won’t bring their biases, and thus, avoid making false interpretations.
That said, this doesn’t mean that Catholics don’t have to read the Bible often. As the popes repeatedly said, all faithful should read and familiarize themselves with the Bible and Scripture as it is at the very core of the Catholic belief.
What is the History of Catholics and Bible Reading?
Catholics have long been accused of not reading the Bible. So how did this start and why? Well, it originally came from certain Protestants and the history of the Church.
Long before Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation, there was widespread illiteracy. So Catholics didn’t read the Bible because most people didn’t even know how to read back then.
Even the few who knew how to read couldn’t, because Bibles were hard to come by. Remember that this was before the printing press was invented. So making copies wasn’t exactly quick or easy as each one had to be painstakingly written by hand on parchments or scrolls. Not to mention that they were expensive, too.
Then when Gutenberg invented the printing press, which made Bibles readily available, and more Christians knew how to read, the Protestant Reformation had already kicked off. Scripture and private devotion to the Bible became central to their movement, which Catholic authorities took with caution.
The Catholic Church insisted that it should teach, translate, and interpret the Bible to prevent the faithful from being led astray. By then, while the Bible was also available to Catholics, it had already been deeply rooted in the Church’s traditions where priests had to tell its members about it. And so, much of the experience of Catholics regarding the Bible and Scripture didn’t change.
By the 1960s, the Church began various movements to better apply the Bible to the lives of its members. For instance, the parts heard at Mass were made longer, there were bible study groups, members were taught how to pray with Scripture, and even popular hymns were tied more closely to Scripture. As a result, Catholics started to read the Bible more.