Catholics and the Bible: Irony Calls to Irony
When I was a Baptist, I used to make fun of Catholics because of how little they knew about the Bible. Though I later had the wonderful and humbling experience of learning that I was wrong about the Catholic Church, I was, unfortunately, right about Catholics. It is distressing, of course, that as Catholics we neglect the many tools from the Deposit of Faith that are at our disposal, but without question one of the strangest weaknesses among Catholics is their amazingly poor knowledge of Holy Scripture.
Most of them are their own worst enemy if they get into a discussion about the Bible with their Protestant brethren. Instead of knowing the deep and full extent of how Catholic doctrine is supported by the Word of God, they are easily intimidated by any Bible-quoting Protestant. The Catholics not only look and feel foolish in such an argument, they are often vanquished by verses they simply have never read and certainly never contemplated. Pretty soon they are ready to toss out Purgatory and the priesthood, the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption, based on a few quick quotes from the Good Book for which they have no answer.
And then there are Catholics who, though not swayed by any Biblical argument from a Protestant, still treat the Scripture with an incredible lack of respect. I know Catholics who roll their eyes if I quote the Bible, and others who almost wear their ignorance of the Word of God as a badge of Catholic honor. I’m not sure what their reasoning is. Apparently they think that since Protestants know the Bible, therefore Catholics should not.
The irony of this is several-fold. It was the Catholic Church that gave us the Bible because it was the Catholic Church that determined which books of the Bible are in fact books of the Bible. It was the Protestants who claimed the authority of the Bible over the authority of the Church, and then, by their own authority, removed some of the books of the Bible. It is the Catholics who have the most scripture in their regular worship, three or four readings at mass, woven together to reveal the integrity of the Word. It is the Protestants who, in spite of their Bible studies, include surprisingly little Scripture in their worship services, focusing on short passages rather than tying together long passages. It is the Catholics who carry the Gospel, lifted high, in reverent procession at the beginning of the Mass, who proclaim at each reading, “This is the Word of God,” with the response, “Thanks be to God,” and “This is the Gospel of the Lord,” answered by, “Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ!” The Protestants don’t do that. And yet they claim to have a higher view of Scripture than Catholics. And the problem is that most Catholics believe them.
Hebrews 4:12 describes the Word of God as a two-edged sword. It is a weapon of defense against two kinds of enemies. It is, first of all, a weapon against the spiritual enemies of the faith. Bible-believing Protestants know this and demonstrate this. By studying and meditating on Scripture, they lead solid and steady spiritual lives, living a personal and dynamic faith that is evident in their moral behavior and daily work. But the sword cuts both ways. The Word is also used to defend the faith against attacks from human enemies, including those who protest against the Catholic Church. A Catholic who knows his Bible can use scriptural references to defend virtually all of Church teaching, including the doctrines about the Authority of the Church (I Thessalonians 5:12-13; I Timothy 3:15), the Primacy of Peter (Matthew 16:16-19), the Priesthood and the Eucharist (Malachi 1:11;Colossians 1:24-26; Luke 22:19-20; John 6), Tradition (II Thessalonians 2:15)), and even the unique role of Mary, whose soul magnifies the Lord and whom all generations shall called Blessed (Luke 1:46-48).
The Protestant version of history is that the Church kept the Bible hidden from the people, and only because of the Reformation did people begin to understand the faith as revealed through Scripture. But the facts are precisely the other way around. For fifteen hundred years the Church brought the Bible to the people in a myriad of ways, carving its stories in the very stones of the churches and illuminating its lessons through stained glass. This was before printing presses and widespread literacy. Meanwhile, faithful monks painstakingly and meticulously hand-copied the holy texts so that they could be preserved for future generations. The Reformers not only stopped teaching the fullness of the faith, but even got rid of the books of the Bible that were not to their liking. Ironically, the Protestants, by exalting the Bible, robbed themselves of the rest of the Church’s gifts, all of which are confirmed in Scripture: the Sacraments, the Saints, and the rich traditions that have carried Christian culture through the centuries.
As G.K. Chesterton says: “The Church has been accused of hiding the Bible; but had it been true, it would have been a less astonishing achievement than that of the Reformation, which succeeded in hiding everything else. It would be an easier task in any case to conceal from Western people a particular collection of Eastern chronicles; but the Protestant succeeded in concealing from them their own chronicles.”
But there is one more irony. In the wake of the Reformation, the Catholics have managed to hide the Bible. From themselves. It is time we re-discovered it.