Roman Catholicism on Reading the Bible

Did you know that Roman Catholicism has historically opposed the idea that reading the Bible is for all people? Only certain people were given permission to read the Bible. The Council of Trent declared:

“Since it is clear from experience that if the Sacred Books are permitted everywhere and without discrimination in the vernacular, there will by reason of the boldness of men arise therefrom more harm than good, the matter is in this respect left to the judgment of the bishop or inquisitor, who may with the advice of the pastor or confessor permit the reading of the Sacred Books translated into the vernacular by Catholic authors to those who they know will derive from such reading no harm but rather an increase of faith and piety, which permission they must have in writing. Those, however, who presume to read or possess them without such permission may not receive absolution from their sins till they have handed them over to the ordinary. Bookdealers who sell or in any other way supply Bibles written in the vernacular to anyone who has not this permission, shall lose the price of the books, which is to be applied by the bishop to pious purposes, and in keeping with the nature of the crime they shall be subject to other penalties which are left to the judgment of the same bishop. Regulars who have not the permission of their superiors may not read or purchase them” (Rules on Prohibited Books, approved by Pope Pius IV, 1564).

This is an infallible decree from Pope Pius IV on a matter of faith and morals during the ecumenical Council of Trent. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that the pope and ecumenical councils are infallible when defining issues of faith and morals:

“It is this Magisterium’s task to preserve God’s people from deviations and defections and to guarantee them the objective possibility of professing the true faith without error. . . . To fulfill this service, Christ endowed the Church’s shepherds with the charism of infallibility in matters of faith and morals” (890).

In the infallible decree Unigenitus, Pope Clement XI condemned the following errors of the Jansenists:

  1. It is useful and necessary at every time, in every place, and for every kind of persons, to study and know the spirit, piety, and mysteries of sacred Scripture. 1 Cor. xiv. 6.
  2. The reading of sacred Scripture is for all. Acts viii. 28.
  3. The obscurity of the holy word of God is not a reason for the laity to excuse themselves from the reading thereof. Acts viii. 31.
  4. The Lord’s day ought to be sanctified by Christians with the readings of piety, and above all, of the holy Scriptures. It is damnable to wish to restrain a Christian from such reading. Acts xv. 21.
  5. It is an illusion to persuade oneself that a knowledge of the mysteries of religion ought not to be communicated to females by the reading of the sacred books. The abuse of the Scriptures has arisen, and heresies have sprung up, not from the simplicity of women, but from the haughty knowledge of men. John iv. 26.
  6. To snatch the New Testament out of the hands of Christians, or to keep it closed to them, by taking from them that method of understanding it, is to shut the mouth of Christ against them. Matt. v. 2.
  7. To interdict to Christians the reading of sacred Scripture, especially of the Gospel, is to interdict the use of light to the sons of light, and to cause them to suffer a certain kind of excommunication. Luke xi. 33.

This document meets the conditions for infallibility since Pope Clement XI was defining doctrine for all time and claiming to be protected from error by divine light:

“Having heard, therefore, the suffrages of the above-mentioned cardinals and other theologians exhibited to us both by word of mouth as well as in writing, and having invoked the protection of the divine light by proclaiming private and public prayers to that end, we by this our constitution, destined to be in effect for ever, declare, condemn, and reprobate all and each of the previously inserted propositions as false, captious, ill-sounding, offensive to pious ears, scandalous, pernicious, rash, injurious to the Church and her practice, and contumelious not only to the Church, but also to the secular powers; seditious, impious, blasphemous, suspected of heresy, and savouring of heresy itself, and also as abetting heretics and heresies, and also schism, erroneous, near akin to heresy, several times condemned, and finally heretical, and manifestly renewing respectively various heresies, and those particularly which are contained in the infamous propositions of Jansenius, taken, however, in that sense in which they have been condemned.”

These condemnations were reaffirmed by Pope Pius VI in Auctorem fidei which also condemned the idea that the church should introduce “the use of popular language into the liturgical prayers” which was overturned by Vatican II when the Tridentine Mass was set aside in favor of one where the popular language is used.

In addition, the Catholic Church has a long history of banning books and prohibited Catholics from reading the writings of Martin Luther and John Calvin. It is no wonder then that modern Catholics are confused as to why a pope would forbid anyone from reading the Bible when this is not the current teaching of the church.

One of the arguments used by Catholics that Scripture should not be read by all is based on Acts 8:30-31: “So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ And he said, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.” Therefore, because the Ethiopian eunuch could not understand Isaiah 53 unless Philip explained it for him, we need the Catholic Church to explain the Bible to us in order for us to understand it. This is the infallible proof text that is cited against proposition 81 in Unigenitus. But the reason why the Ethiopian eunuch could not understand Isaiah 53 is not because we need the church to interpret it for us, but because he had never even heard of Jesus and his death for sinners! If a person has read about the life of Jesus and then reads Isaiah 53, he will be able to understand that this chapter is a prophecy about his death. It does not take an infallible magisterium to teach people the gospel message. It is the responsibility of every Christian to do what Philip is doing here and tell the story of Jesus to those who have never heard the gospel before.

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