Catholics and the Bible

Bishop Richard Sklba of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee is an internationally recognized and highly respected Scripture scholar, and he is extensively involved in ecumenical and inter-religious activities throughout the U.S. and the world. Earlier this month, he wrote a wonderful article on the change in use and study of Scripture among Catholics, and he comments on the influence fundamentalists, particularly converts to Catholicism, are having on the way Catholics read the Bible:

It both frustrates and worries me that so many people use and misuse the Bible to prove their arguments without learning the history and culture of the authors, intended audience, and social location. It has rightly been said that one can “prove” anything using this text, and surely we have seen numerous examples over the centuries of how God’s inspired Word has been distorted to oppress, injure and even kill. The Pontifical Biblical Commission warns:

“The Fundamentalist approach is dangerous, for it is attractive to people who look to the Bible for ready answers to the problems of life. It can deceive these people, offering them interpretations that are pious but illusory, instead of telling them that the Bible does not necessarily contain an immediate answer to each and every problem. Without saying as much in so many words, fundamentalism actually invites people to a kind of intellectual suicide. It injects into life a false certitude, for it unwittingly confuses the divine substance of the biblical message with what are in fact its human limitations” (quoted from Origins, January 6, 1994, p. 510).

Prior to Vatican II, many Catholics rarely if ever opened their Bibles, that is if they had one, and surely had little use for studying the context of this sacred text because they allowed their priests to interpret it for them. In recent decades, Catholics have come to read their Bibles on their own more and more, but unfortunately it is rarely a study Bible that offers footnotes on history, culture, politics, symbols, etc… Reading the Bible is not necessarily an easy task because our 21st century culture is so far removed from the peasant, agrarian society of this literary, historically, and culturally diverse library (Biblia is Greek for “the books” or “library”) that spans at least 2,500 years with countless different authors and audiences.

In the U.S., where one is now just as likely to bump into a Catholic as they are an Evangelical Fundamentalist (both denominations teeter between 20 and 30% of the population), the fundamentalist influence on how Catholics read the Bible has swayed to taking passages and mere verses out of context and applying them to modern life, moral decisions and political arguments. Professors at Catholic universities speak of the change in students, both Catholic and others, over the past years, witnessing a new close-mindedness to reading Scripture form a historical and critical interpretation. Bishop Sklba, however, rightfully reminds us:

“It is Catholic to want to know the history of things. It is Catholic to insist that verses of Scripture never be taken out of their original historical and social context. It is Catholic to insist that effort be made to determine whether a passage from the Bible is poetry or history or general admonition to a specific cultural presumption. It is Catholic to distinguish direct affirmations from the unexamined assumptions of the past. Their astronomy is not ours, nor was their sense of family order identical to ours…It remains open to the judgment of the authorities in the church in order to offer assurance that a translation remains truly faithful to the original inspired text of the Bible. To help guide the understanding of individual readers, the Catholic Church insists that some explanatory notes be provided with every published translation. That is yet another way in which the Bible remains the Book of the Church!”

Bishop Sklba’s insistence that the Bible is a book for all people, and not just reserved for the elite, is heartening. It means that we all can and have the capacity to learn from and be inspired by the Scriptures to live our lives in a faithful manner. Yet we must be careful in reading it, for we do not want to disrespect God or our Judeo-Christian ancestors who were leaving us stories and lessons in their context and not ours. Bishop Sklba believes that “because Scripture is indeed an inspired work of literary art, it is open to a variety of legitimate interpretations, like all types of good literature … as long as they do not contradict or oppose the original meaning of the text itself.” So in reading and interpreting our religion’s sacred text, we must be diligent to do it justice, but we also must be open to the Spirit as She offers us new insights and lessons for our day.

Becky Schwantes, a Minnesota native, is currently a Master of Social Work candidate at Washington University in St. Louis. She earned her M.A. in Theology from the University of Notre Dame in 2008 and has worked as a parish faith formation minister, social worker and in college campus ministry. Becky also holds a B.A. in Theology and Social Work with a minor is Social Justice and Peace Studies from the University of Portland, Oregon. Her primary areas of interest are Christian Social Ethics, Eco-Feminist Theology, Mental Health and issues of Aging. In her free time, she enjoys traveling the world, walking labyrinths, singing, and laughing with friends. Her favorite saints are Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal.

11 thoughts on “Catholics and the Bible

  1. Fantastic post! You’re very right — it’s refreshing to see an increase in the number of Catholics who are actively studying the Bible, although we have to be careful of HOW we read the Bible. One of the areas of theology I’m personally fascinated by is the contrast between Catholic and Fundamentalist Biblical scholarship, and it’s something I try to stay abreast of. What it boils down to is that we need to approach the Bible with both faith AND reason in order to pull its full meaning from the text — but I agree that it’s absolutely critical for a revival among the Church for more Catholics to be very familiar with Scripture.

  2. Thanks for keying us into a great article. You’d think that converting from a solo scriptura background would prevent former protestant bible scholars from taking some things from the Bible too literal, especially in light of Tradition and the teaching of the Magisterium that must have attracted them to the Catholic faith.

    I have been reading Sacred Scripture regularly for the past four months, and have truely enjoyed hearing the Word of God sing to me from the page! Before, even in Catholic school, I barely picked up a Bible!

  3. I’m the same way — it wasn’t until I studied theology in college andstarted taking my faith more seriously that I really dove into the Bible. But I’ve immensely enjoyed my time in the Word, and the Holy Spirit has been a good companion to me, He’s shown me a lot of new things in the Bible that I never saw before.

  4. My mom and sister just saw this quote: “Dusty Bibles lead to dirty lives”. But what if you have 10? They’re bound to get dusty right!? ha.

    I think it is wonderful that more people are embracing reading the Bible, and I really love the study bibles that give background information as well as some good translation and clarification for the confusing parts. It makes it more accessible and hopefully less intimidating for some.

    Does anyone have a favorite translation? I have really been loving the Message Bible (simplified and contemporary language, sometimes a little too simplified) and the New Living Translation (Jehovah’s Witness translation). They don’t just give those out to anyone so I was super stoked to get one. They’re not Catholic bibles, so only for personal reflection but they really help me hear things in a new way and its so interesting to compare.

    For the ultimate parallel Bible resource, is great. Not many Catholic options however. When I bought my first Bible I remembered searching forever for Catholic Bible tabs, which I could not find for the life of me. Now they’re fairly plentiful I think.

  5. Bible Favorites? Depends on the use:

    Study Bibles:
    I definitely love my New Oxford Annotated with Apocrypha (Red cover, largish print-especially for the footnotes, NRSV translation). Its been with me for 6 years and the cover is now coming off, pages are falling apart, etc… Its been worth every penny for all of the course work and parish ministry its been through!

    I also highly recommend the New American Bible: Study Edition. There is one edited by and has commentaries from U.S. theologians and one from an International onslaught of Bible Scholars. Both are good, but they are different.

    Personal Prayer/Reflection:
    I love the New Jerusalem Bible for its Psalms. the poetry is great, and it is still fairly close to the original meaning. I don’t recommend it for study though, since the translation is old and does not necessarily convey the true meaning from the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek for much of the narratives.

    I also love, love, love Psalms for Praying: An Invitation to Wholeness by Nan C. Merrill. She has taken the Psalms and re-worked them through for hearts and ears of modern people (especially women). The original psalms are a must, but this is great for group prayer when you don’t want to interrupt with a lecture on culture and history or personal reflection…not to mention the images and poetry are gorgeous. Bishop Sklba’s not a big fan, because it does deviate from the authentic translation, but he says as long as it is noted that they are inspired psalms and not a translation of their own, its perfectly acceptable!

    Lastly, my mentor and friend really likes the Serendipity Bible for personal prayer. I haven’t really used it, but I completely trust his opinion on these matters. It has a personal bible study program and questions inlaid throughout it. It is NOT a study Bible, no footnotes for all the socio-cultural info, but it is nicely edited for reflection.

  6. Personally, I own a NAB, a Douay – Rhiems, and a NRSV- CE. I have been reading the NRSV – CE the most, sometimes looking back to the DR for comparison, and occasionally referencing notes in the NAB, which, though not a study bible, has a lot more notes than either of the other two.

    I have actually been occasionally attending a nondenomenational bible study because I want to get more in depth into the Scriptures, but on the occasions that I go, I find the reflections on the daily mass readings in my Magnificat to be more valuable. I have been trying to pinpoint the problem, and I think a lot of it has to do with taking small tidbits of a story and giving them broad applications.

    For example, the last one I attended, we looked at Acts Chapter 8 and the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch. Part of the passage mentions Phillip being told by an angel to travel through the desert. The leader of the study generalized this point exessively talking about how we are all called to travel long and potentially dangerous paths in God’s name, and that we need to strike out on these paths at the moments notice, when we hear the whisper in our ear.

    I personally think they missed the broader point of the story that the Scriptures can be confusing and that we need an authority to help us understand them, which I think is one of the themes of the article Bishop Sklba wrote.

  7. I once heard the Bible compared to a beautiful woven tapestry that is best looked at when you can take in the whole of its beauty. Certainly, it is good to go up to the tapestry to look at individual aspects and even study how the artist crafted it, but once go around to the back of the tapestry and start pulling out the individual threads and pick it apart, the whole tapestry loses its elegance and its beauty. So too for the Bible; it is best read as a complete collection that if you begin ripping passages or verses out of the entire context and history to prove things or apply it to modern situations where it doesn’t fit, then the whole of the Bible loses its beauty, power and meaning.

    I realized that in my recommendation of one the study Bibles that I gave an incorrect title. For the New American Translation, I recommend The Catholic Study Bible edited by Donald Senior and John J. Collins published by Oxford University Press (this is the American version) or for the International version, The Catholic Bible, Personal Study Edition: New American Bible edited by Jean Marie Heisberger.

  8. I remember reading once, somewhere (I do remember that it was a Catholic source) that we can look at the totality of the Bible as a narrative of the development of Humanity’s relationship to God. That is, in the beginning God is viewed superstitiously — as with any other Ancient deity, God can get moody and we mortals have to keep doing things to keep God happy and avoid punishment. But gradually, Moses and the prophets come to see a very different sort of God with very different priorities. And finally, Jesus brings us to a more complete understanding and a more intimate relationship with God.

  9. Josh- You are so right on with your analysis. I’ve taken several Scripture courses, and that is exactly the way all of the theologians seem to introduce the Bible. I seems like you keep proving the point that you don’t need a degree to be a theologian!

  10. Very well put, Josh! It’s always important for us to remember that even though the Bible is a collection of books, it’s still one Book! Good call.

    As for my favorite translations, I enjoy using The Message as a supplimentary resource, but only after reading the passage in another translation – NAB is a personal favorite.

  11. Today the PEW Forum on Religion and Public Life ( released the second part of its study on the Religious Landscape in America. As someone who finds these reports very informative on how our faith is received by the people, how religious life in America is working (or not working) to form Catholics as a community of the Body of Christ, and how pastoral ministers in the trenches (those of us who work in pastoral ministry, especially faith formation) can better help people come to know God through Scripture, Tradition and community life, I am concerned by the findings of this study. Here, I have copied the Pew Forum’s findings on Catholics’ beliefs on the Bible:

    “Literal Interpretation of Scripture Among Catholics
    23% Word of God, literally true word for word
    39% Word of God, but not literally true word for word
    27% Book written by men, not the word of God
    11% Don’t know/ refused/ other
    Question wording: Which comes closest to your view? The Bible is the word of God, OR The Bible is a book written by men and is not the word of God? [IF BELIEVE THE BIBLE IS WORD OF GOD, ASK:] And would you say that The Bible is to be taken literally, word for word, OR not everything in The Bible should be taken literally, word for word?”

    As you can see, only 39% of Catholics gave an answer that aligns with the Catholic Church’s way of reading Scripture. 23% hold a fundamentalist view. To be honest, I thought this would be higher than the 27% who do not believe that it is the Word of God at all, but both are problematic nonetheless.

    Personally, I feel this shows that there is a lack in our faith formation of teens and adults on how to read the Bible and what Catholics believe about the Bible. John Paul II and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in their 1999 pastoral “Our Hearts were Burning Within Us” clearly state that catechesis must be focused on adults for it is they who are “capable of an adherence that is fully responsible (JPII in Catechesi Tradendae, 1979).”

    What are other people’s thoughts on the Pew Reports’ findings in relation to the Bible? Since it just came out, I am still processing its implications for parish faith formation ministry, so I would love to hear other insights.

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