The Catholic Attitude Towards Reading Scripture
[pg. 4] ... The conduct of the Catholics with regard to holy Scripture is undeniably and professedly different from that of Protestants. Protestants, all such at least as in any degree pretend to piety, have, as a matter of course, a Bible on their book-shelves, and make more or less a point of reading it; and all, whether pious or not, and whether they read the Bible or not, fully admit it to be their duty to read it; whereas thousands of Catholics live very piously and die very happily, without ever having had a Bible in their possession; and so far from its being considered every one's duty to read it, in some persons, and under certain circumstances, such a study has been discouraged, and even prohibited.
This difference of conduct is quite enough to account for the popular outcry, inasmuch as it is plain to all that it is not accidental, but resting on a real difference of principle; and that Protestants should have construed that difference in the way most to flatter themselves, and to condemn us, whom they have been sworn in, as it were, to hate from their very cradles, is perhaps no more than was to be expected. At
[pg. 5] any rate, such is the case. Protestants read the Bible; Catholics do not: and why? "We need not go far for a reason," say the Protestants; "the Protestant religion is in the Bible, the Catholic is not; therefore Protestants are urged to read the Bible to confirm them in the truth of Protestantism, while Catholics are forbidden to read it; lest they should discover the falsehood of Catholicism." This theory certainly accounts for the facts in question, and in the way most satisfactory to those who have framed it; it overlooks, it is true, the strange improbability that the Church should watch over a certain volume from age to age with jealous care, loudly proclaiming to the world that that volume is the inspired word of God, and yet all the while consciously persist in teaching a doctrine contradicted by that inspired word: but greater difficulties that these are swallowed every day by determined prejudice; and it is usually of as little avail to point them out, as it was for the lamb in the fable to ask how she could possibly have muddied the stream for the wolf, who was at that very time drinking nearer the fountain-head.
Some, however, there my be who really wish to be candid and to see the truth; and to such
[pg. 6] it may be worth while to explain, one for all, that if Catholics do not read the Bible in the same way as Protestants do, it is not, as Protestants assert, because the teaching of their Church is such as to dread being confronted face to face with Scripture, nor because they less fully believe than any Protestant can do in the inspiration of Scripture; but simply because they do not believe in their own individual inspiration as interpreters of Scripture. Scripture they well know can make no mistake; but they are in no way sure that they themselves can make no mistake as to what Scripture means. They believe that there is one authorized interpreter of Scripture, and one alone,―the Holy Catholic Church, which is divinely guarded from all possibility of error, being informed by the same Holy Spirit by whom Scripture was inspired, and therefore alone able to penetrate it real meaning. Her interpretation of it he trusts with unhesitating certainty; while to trust any crude theories be might himself be tempted to form respecting it, would seem to him simply ridiculous. Thus he [the Catholic] never dreams of reading Holy Scripture with the view of gathering from it the articles of his belief; indeed, to do so would be to cease at
[pg. 7] once from being a Catholic in heart; and any one reading Scripture in this spirit, or in danger of doing so, would certainly be forbidden to read it at all, if he desired to continue in the communion of the faithful; for he would be virtually denying that the Church is the sole infallible interpreter of Scripture, whereas the acknowledgment of her as such is the very fundamental principle of Catholicism. Catholics, then, do not study the Scripture to learn their faith, but to grow in holiness; and for this purpose selections from Scripture, or meditations, and devotional works on Scriptural subjects (in which Catholicism is rich beyond what Protestants can imagine), are found to be more useful, and also to give more insight into the real spirit and meaning of Scripture itself, than the unaided study of the entire Bible. It is surely, then, nothing very wonderful that the Bible, as a whole, should be found less frequently in the hands of Catholics than in those of Protestants, whose principle in this matter is altogether opposite. While Catholics acknowledge but one authoritative interpreter, Protestants hold that every man in his own interpreter; that from "the Bible and the Bible only" every man is bound to learn all that he must believe in order
[pg. 8] to be saved; that if he prays for the help of God's Holy Spirit, this alone, without human aid, will guard him from all material error; that no church, no body of men, no teacher whatever has any Divine authority to interpret Scripture for him; he must do it for himself, and he can. If, then, Protestants must gather for themselves from the bare text of the Bible, the knowledge of those truths which they must believe if they wish to be saved, what can they do, what must they do, but pore and ponder over that text from day to day, and from year to year, so long as life endures? To do this is but to be consistent; but they should not find fault with Catholics for being consistent also; both parties act in this particular as they must act on their respective principles. The only question is, Which principle is the true one? or, in other words, What seems to have been in this matter the will of Almighty God, by whom the Scriptures were given, and to whom alone it belongs to determine their use? Was it His design that each individual should gather his faith out of Scripture, has He provided also an infallible interpreter.
Before considering this question, however,
[pg. 9] we must remark, that nothing can be more unjust than the way in which it is usually stated by Protestants, as though the parties are opposed to each other were the Bible and the Church. "I hold by my Bible," they say, "and you hold by your Church;" thus representing the Church and the Bible as two hostile fortresses, as it were, flanking the battle-field on either side, to which the contending parties respectively betake themselves. It is no such thing: the real question lies between the Church and the individual, the Bible being the subject-matter common to both; and the point at issue, Who is to interpret the Bible? which the Catholic believes to be the Church, and the Protestant himself; so that "the Church" and "himself" are the parties opposed, not the Church and the Bible. That the Bible is the inspired word of God, Protestants and Catholics are perfectly agreed in believing. It is true, Catholics do not hold, as Protestants profess to do, that nothing can possibly be matter of divine revelation which is not contained in holy Scripture, nor do Protestants themselves in fact, though they do in words; for they believe the inspiration of holy Scripture to be matter of Divine revelation, yet this, from the very nature of the
[pg 10] case, cannot rest on the testimony of Scripture itself. So, too, with the duty of baptizing infants, and of observing Sunday instead of Saturday as the Christian holiday, on which points Protestants believe and act as Catholics do, while yet they would be puzzled to find Scripture warrant for so doing. ...
Source: Library of Controversy - The Clifton Tracts, by the Brotherhood of St. Vincent of Paul, Volume 1, How Do We Know What The Bible Means?, published about 1854 in New York by P. J. Kenedy, Excelsior Catholic Publishing House, 5 Barclay Street, pages 4-10. (Boldface emphasis has been added)