Bible-Reading CatholicsMay 9th, 2012 | By Tom Riello | Category: Blog Posts
A number of people are understandably concerned that becoming Catholic means neglecting the Bible, with many being taught by their Pastors or teachers that the Catholic Church either forbids the reading of the Bible or, at the very least, does not encourage it. Many former Catholics, due either to poor formation or indifference, often perpetuate the story that the Church encourages only the priest or bishop to read and interpret the Bible for Catholics. Even some Evangelical scholars present Catholic teaching this way: some because they are truly ignorant about such things and others because it helps them score “beauty points.” These caricatures are not helpful, but they do live in the minds of many who are outside the Church and, I must admit, even inside the Church. If you are thinking about the Church, this is a legitimate concern. Certainly, if the Catholic Church did teach that we should neglect the Bible, or even more, forbade the reading of the Bible, or only encouraged the clergy to read the Bible for us, that would be a problem, to say the least, and you would be right to question becoming Catholic. The fact, however, is the Church teaches no such thing, as demonstrated by the following quotation, “Our one desire for all the Church’s children is that, being saturated with the Bible, they may arrive at the all surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ” (Spiritus Paraclitus #69). Here Pope Benedict XV states that it is the prayer of the Church that her children be completely nourished by the Bible and so come to a deeper knowledge and intimacy with Jesus Christ. The Pope’s words call us to read Scripture not just to learn about Jesus Christ, but to know Jesus Christ as He is revealed to us on the Sacred Text.
I venture to say that many people would have been more likely to guess that an Evangelical preacher penned the above words rather than a Pope, let alone a Pope who ruled from 1914 – 1922, some forty years before the start of Vatican II. In fact, one caricature that we can safely put to rest is that the Church before Vatican II did not encourage the faithful to read the Bible. The simple fact is that in a fifty year period, three Popes wrote three significant encyclicals on Scripture. One used such descriptive language about the Bible as, “a Letter, written by our heavenly Father, and transmitted by the sacred writers to the human race in its pilgrimage so far from its heavenly country” (Providentissimus Deus #1). Another exhorted the faithful to, “read daily the Gospels, the Acts and the Epistles, so as to gather thence food for their souls” (Spiritus Paraclitus #43). Still yet another reminded the faithful that the Scriptures were, “given by God . . . in order that these Divine Oracles might ‘instruct us to salvation, by the faith which is in Christ Jesus’ and ‘that the man of God may be perfect, furnished to every good work’” (Divino Afflante Spiritu #49).
So what is the point of mentioning caricatures, the Bible, and the Church? I shall offer two reasons: (1) easing the fears of those becoming attracted to the Catholic faith but who are concerned about the things told to them that Catholics are said to believe, especially about the Bible; and (2) explaining why becoming Catholic will deepen and vitalize your reading of the Bible.
First, the process of becoming Catholic can be downright frightening for the convert. It is quite typical for a convert to the Catholic Church to be surprised that they are moving toward Rome. Often times, the thought is, “any Church but that Church.” For the would-be Catholic, such practices as devotion to Mary and the Saints, the Sacraments, obedience to the Pope, and other “suspicious” beliefs and practices only but confirm in their minds their worst fears about Catholicism. Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen was right when he said, “There are not more than a hundred people in the world who truly hate the Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they perceive to be the Catholic Church. . . . As a matter of fact, if we Catholics believed all of the untruths and lies which were said against the Church, we probably would hate the Church a thousand times more than they do.” Thus, when dealing with the issues of conversion to Christ and His Church, many potential coverts are wrought with fear at best, and outright hatred at worst, at the mere thought of becoming Catholic. Add to the mix what spouses, parents, children, cousins, friends, fellow church members and mentors may think about such a move, and you have a recipe for paralysis by analysis. G.K. Chesterton observed, I think rightly, “It is impossible to be just to the Catholic Church. The moment men cease to pull against it they feel a tug towards it. The moment they cease to shout it down they begin to listen to it with pleasure. The moment they try to be fair to it they begin to be fond of it.” Those considering the claims of the Catholic Church have a vested interest in keeping their guard up against conversion to the Church.
This is why stories of those who come into the fullness of the Catholic faith never grow old for me. Many give up so much on the temporal level, from the fracturing and loss of family relationships, the sacrifice of professional esteem, and in many cases, added to that loss, is the forfeiting of employment and loss of income. While none of us should base our faith commitment on someone else’s conversion story alone, the fact is, conversion stories do have a place in helping us process our own journeys, not least of which is to help us ask the right questions. In just the last handful of years there have been many notable scholars who have entered the Church, such as Bruce Marshall, Rusty Reno, J. Budziszewski, Douglas Farrow, Reinhard Hutter, Frank Beckwith, and Mary Moorman, to name just a few. And over the past decades, the list includes such luminous figures as Dr. Scott Hahn, Dr. John Bergsma, Dr. Kenneth Howell, Dr. Peter Kreeft, Dr. Robert Louis Wilken, the late Cardinal Avery Dulles, Father Richard John Neuhaus, and Father Louis Bouyer. The list could go on.
Now some might say: “What of Catholics becoming Protestants?” Certainly many Catholics leave the Church and become Protestant but what I want you to consider is that in many cases the Protestant convert to Catholicism risks more than the Catholic leaving the Church when you look at it from the temporal realm alone. Take clergy converts, for starters. If a Protestant clergyman leaves his communion, he loses his employment, in many cases also his home (because in some pastoral calls a house is provided), his family, if his wife and children are not on board, professional disapproval and loss of friendships. He also does not have any guarantee that moving forward will mean that he would get to do what he loves, teach the faith. In the tragic case of a Catholic priest leaving the Church, consider what is not lost on the temporal level. Typically the Catholic priest adds a wife, he adds income which is not too difficult because the average diocesan priest does not exactly make a lot of money, he can be more discriminating in accepting a job because he will usually not have the income demands of a Protestant cleric, who needs to provide for his family, and you can add that he also gains the ‘freedom’ to travel and go where he wants, no longer tied to a diocese. In fact, when you compare the converts most well trained in theology in both Protestantism and Catholicism, it is the Protestant who is more likely to convert. A priest, a close friend of mine, put it this way, “The best prospects out there to become Catholic are Protestants who take their faith very seriously. They want to know the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ of faith and if they continue to be open to a deepened faith, they will begin, at some point to ask the right questions. Before people can ever get the right answers, they must first learn to ask the right questions. Committed Protestants are often closer to the truth of the Catholic faith than many Catholics. That is why they add such vitality when they join the Church established by Jesus Christ.”
For those who are considering the Catholic faith, ask yourself this: Are all these scholars, pastors, and teachers deceived? Why would such converts give up, in so many cases, the comforts of family, employment, and friends? In other words, from a temporal, this-world-only perspective, they lose, and in many cases, they will never make up what they lost. It is possible that they are wrong but at the very least, this “counting of the cost” corresponds with what Jesus Christ demands of His disciples (Luke 14:28).
As for the reverse of Catholics leaving the Church for Protestantism, often, though not always, to be fair, it is the poorly catechized Catholic who grew up in a home where the faith was not central to life, or in other cases, a marital impediment (divorce, remarriage etc…) is the reason for leaving. Rarely does the Catholic leave the Church because he has discovered in his studies that the Church is wrong about contraception or that the early Church did not believe that the ministry of Peter is the visible sign of unity in the Church. In fact, those questions do not ordinarily arise in the minds of most people, let alone Catholics. Usually a Catholic leaves the Church because his Catholic upbringing was mostly nominal, therefore, it did not resonate with his lived experience. The extent of his knowledge of the faith usually did not exceed that of an adolescent because for many Catholics, tragically, the sacrament of Confirmation is understood as a graduation from Church and not an entering into a deeper commitment to Christ and the Church.
To those considering the Catholic faith, I encourage you to continue down that path. You should count the cost, and you should continue to study. If the Catholic faith is the true faith, you should not be afraid to continue seeking. What is there to fear? It may be hard, and it will be. It may cause great stress, no doubt. It may make you feel overwhelmed, to be sure. But what is there to fear in searching out and knowing the truth? Jesus commands us not to fear (Matthew 10:24-33). In his introduction to the world’s stage, Blessed Pope John Paul II offered hope to a worried world with the words, “Do not be afraid.” Why should we not be afraid? Because Christ has overcome the world. St. Basil the Great offers us wise insight on putting things in their heavenly and eternal perspective:
If you take away my possessions, you will not enrich yourself, nor will you make me a pauper. You have no need of my old worn-out clothing, nor of my few books, of which the entirety of my wealth is comprised. Exile means nothing to me, since I am bound to no particular place. This place in which I now dwell is not mine, and any place you send me shall be mine. Better to say: every place is God’s. Where would I be neither a stranger and sojourner? Who can torture me? I am so weak, that the very first blow would render me insensible. Death would be a kindness to me, for it will bring me all the sooner to God, for Whom I live and labor, and to Whom I hasten.
That being said, I want to stress that becoming Catholic is not only about what you are giving up. Becoming Catholic is also about what you are gaining. This leads to my second point about Bible reading. I can say that becoming Catholic has enriched my reading of the Bible, not lessened it — renewed it, and not stunted it. I suspect that this is surprising for some. Why would becoming Catholic lead to a more substantial engagement with the Sacred Text? The reason for this is the Magisterium, the very authority that many claim makes reading the Bible superfluous for Catholics. Quite a few Evangelicals believe that the Magisterium provides all the answers for the Catholic, and as a result, Catholics have no need to read the Bible or can gain very little from such reading. The former Cardinal Ratzinger is quite helpful in explaining what it means to be obedient to the Magisterium:
The Magisterium, as representative of the universal Church, can claim the respect, indeed the obedience of the preacher . . . the presumption of correctness, so to speak, is in favor of the Magisterium. That does not mean that the Christian conscience has been disengaged, it can very well come to the judgment that this directive or that declaration does not really represent the universal Church. Accordingly, it is true that the weight of the Magisterial statements corresponds to the degree of the universality . . . the limit of obedience to the Magisterium, which does in fact exist . . . does not mean that someone can in principle appoint himself judge over the Magisterium: it should cost something before one thinks he may decide otherwise (Dogma and Preaching, p. 35).
Leaving aside the fact that the Magisterium does not “provide all the answers for a Catholic,” and does not demand that a Catholic disengage his conscience as the current Pope pointed out, how does the Magisterium help deepen one’s Bible reading? I can answer simply that the Magisterium provides the Catholic interpreter with the guidance and direction necessary to explore the Bible by its proposal that the Bible is to be read in both its literal and spiritual senses, of which there are three spiritual senses: allegorical/typological, moral and anagogical (CCC paras. 116-117). The Magisterium also directs us to read the Bible in light of the following three-fold criteria: being attentive to the content and unity of the entire Scripture, reading the Bible within the living Tradition of the whole Church, and being attentive to the analogy of the faith (CCC paras. 112-114). This direction frees the Catholic to navigate the riches of the biblical story as an individual but not in isolation. Rather, because the Catholic does not have to determine what the faith is, deciding what is or is not “biblical,” he has a foundation on which to build when reading Scripture. If I may offer a helpful illustration: Parents will tell their children where they can and cannot go when playing in the yard. They might want to build a fence to keep their children safe. This fence, while setting limits, actually provides the children a safer environment in which to play and explore. Who would think that these parents were limiting the freedom of their children? The same goes for the relationship between law and freedom. Law, in its proper use, is a gift given by God not to restrict freedom but to allow human freedom to flourish. In fact, this illustration is not merely a hypothetical. It is what we experience in contemporary society. Many people assume that the law is an imposition on freedom. The average person thinks freedom is the ability to do whatever I want, whenever I want. True freedom, however, is freedom for moral excellence. The Magisterium functions in some sense like the fence in the backyard or the proper use of law in society, providing the fertile ground that allows biblical studies to flower.
Non-Catholic exegetes often argue over what is the best method of biblical interpretation. Some advocate the grammatical and historical method. This method seeks to get at the grammar of a text and its historical background in order to derive the right interpretation. There certainly is truth in this method, but if this view is the exclusive method, the biblical text risks being reduced to a history lesson, an event of the past disconnected from the present. The redemptive and historical approach is another method that is praiseworthy. The exegete aims to understand how the text reveals the redemptive action of God in the story. Thus, the story of David and Goliath is not about overcoming the Goliaths in your life, as one Reformed writer is prone to remind us, but about how God, through David, defeated Israel’s enemies. This method, if left unchecked, tends to push to the side the moral lesson that the text provides.
However, as in many things, the Catholic is not faced with an “either/or” dilemma. Instead, the Catholic exegete is able to glean many different meanings from the same passage or story. For example, to continue with the David and Goliath story, he can and should look at the historical context of the story. He then should go on to explain how in this story God is acting through David to defeat Israel’s enemies, the Philistines, through their representative Goliath. The exegete does not have to stop there, because he could see in this story a type of what is to come, namely, Jesus Christ’s defeat of Satan. And most certainly, the story has a moral message, encouraging the believer not to fear whatever circumstance that comes his way because Christ has overcome and He has given us and continues to give us the graces necessary to overcome any obstacle.
The Magisterium provides the guidance that prevents the interpreter from either focusing exclusively on the literal sense, or from over-spiritualizing everything. The story of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26-39 gives us a glimpse of the necessity of guidance in understanding the meaning of the Scripture. The eunuch was reading from the prophet Isaiah when Philip came upon him. Philip asked him if he understood what he was reading, to which the eunuch replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” The eunuch asked Philip if the prophet Isaiah was referring to himself or someone else. Philip then told him about Jesus. The story informs us of the necessity of guidance when reading Scripture. It also demonstrates the need for a spiritual and typological hermeneutic. If Philip only had recourse to the literal, then how could he help guide the eunuch to understand that this story was pointing to Christ? In fact, it was typology that empowered the early Church to fight against the gnostics, on the one hand, who denied the legitimacy of the Old Testament story, and to make the case to the Jews, on the other hand, demonstrating that the Church’s message was truly Israel’s message now fulfilled in the Person of her Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. Typology, guided by the Magisterium, also connects the Ark of the Covenant with Mary, especially in the travel narratives in 2nd Samuel 6 and Luke 1, the Royal Steward of Isaiah 22 with the promise to Peter in Matthew 16, the Twelve tribes of Israel with Twelve Apostles, and the people of Israel with the Church (1st Peter 2).
In closing, we began talking about the fears that come upon us when it dawns on us that we find ourselves moving toward full communion with the Catholic Church. Those fears are normal and are to be expected. However, those fears must not paralyze us from moving forward. You should continue down the path of study that you have begun. You might consider acquiring some excellent books that demonstrate the depth and riches of Catholic biblical interpretation. I recommend that you look at Brant Pitre’s Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, Scott Hahn’s The Lamb’s Supper and Hail, Holy, Queen, Father Aidan Nichols’ Lovely Like Jerusalem or John Bergsma’s Bible Basics for Catholics: A New Picture of Salvation History to help you get started. While the Catholic is to have a deep reverence and respect for the Scripture, and is to take seriously its warning about twisting Scripture (2nd Peter 3:16), hopefully you have come to see that the Catholic has no reason to fear Scripture. Instead, Scripture’s proper home is the Church, and in particular, the Sacred Liturgy. Listen well to the words of Jesus Christ, who tells us, not to fear. How can we fear the Church, when it is His Body?