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.