As a Catholics, you’ve probably heard, “Catholics don’t read the Bible.” “They don’t even have Bibles in their pews!” Followed by examples of Bible “abuse” in the past of the Catholic Church where she chained Bibles to the pulpits (true) so the faithful couldn’t study them (false), or burned copies of the Bible (true) because, again, the Church didn’t want the faithful to study them (false). This characterization contains a bit of truth, along with some natural misunderstanding.
Children of God who are nurtured by Sola Scriptura as their rule of faith have a very different relationship with Sacred Scripture than both modern and historical Catholics. These devoted Christians have at least one copy of God’s Written Word, and many will lovingly delve into those pages daily for their source of God given nourishment. They can’t imagine a spiritual life that isn’t drenched in the pages of Scripture. Thus, they are simply appalled that a Catholic may not own a Bible at all! And again wonder, why are there no Bibles in the pews at a Catholic church?!
Modern Catholics do not share this same relationship with Sacred Scripture because historical Catholics did not. Catholicism has a 2,000-year history, and due to this, the average Catholic has been brought up in the vestiges of an ancient faith that predates widespread literacy and the printing press. For the first 1,500 years of the Church, all Bibles were hand-written by scribes, to painfully exact standards. If a scribe made a single mistake on a piece of parchment, the entire piece of parchment would be destroyed and rewritten, to ensure only pristine copies of Sacred Scripture were released to the public. These Bibles took years to complete and cost three years’ wages. Copies of God’s Word were so expensive and rare, that the local churches would chain them to the pulpits to prevent theft, protecting the availability for all the congregants. The average layperson didn’t own one of these Bibles because of the expense and rarity, not to mention that person’s inability to read. Their daily spiritual lives did not revolve around individual study of Sacred Scripture, instead they found spiritual nourishment in other ways, namely prayer and the Mass. The historic Catholic would travel to mass (available daily) to hear God’s word read from the ambo and explained in a homily. His soul would be nourished not only by hearing the written word, but also by his prayerful presence with the Blessed Sacrifice of the Mass. Outside of the Mass, his daily life would be sustained through a devotion to prayer.
Today, some Catholics still may not own a Bible, though many do. We’re still raised with an emphasis on mass attendance, frequency of sacraments, and a rich prayer life for our faith formation. We still don’t have Bibles in our pews, but instead, we have missals which contain the passages to be read each day for Mass, along with the prayers that are used during Mass. These missals ensure that our priests are reading the same three to four selections of God’s written Word as all the other priests, in all the other parishes that day. The missal ensures that faithful Catholics have read most of the Bible in three years of daily mass attendance, which makes for a pretty hefty emphasis on Sacred Scripture.
Read more in the “Why Do We Do That?” series from Deacon Mike Fritz.