Recently I watched a program which discussed the belief in the Bible as the Word of God before and after the Reformation. There were the usual ‘experts’ who gave their comments but in this particular program I must say they seemed to represent only Protestant thought and one that was particularly negative concerning the Catholic Church at that. Although some of it was very interesting, I felt that it misrepresented what the Roman Catholic Church has historically taught and still teaches concerning the Bible.
The line went, “The Catholic Church tried to keep the Bible from the people. We see this because the Bible was only in Latin, people were not encouraged to study the Bible and it was not translated into the languages of the people until the Reformation.” Although this is a popular fable passed around it is certainly not the complete story.
It is true that the language used by the Catholic Church for Scriptures and as well, the Mass, was Latin and remained so until Vatican II in the 1960s. In fact Latin is still the official language of the Church and important documents are still written first in Latin, thus not favoring any other particular language in use today.
In the Europe of the Middle Ages this had some other advantages. It was not uncommon for scholars to study in a university far away from their own country. Scholars and other educated people all understood Latin so one could be an Englishman studying in a university in, say, Bologna and still be able to understand the Mass. The university lectures would also be in Latin making it easier to study wherever you wanted to. Latin was a universally understood language in the Europe of the Middle Ages even more so than English is in the world today.
Now, of course, there were those who did not read or understand Latin: the common, uneducated people, and one might suppose they were at a distinct disadvantage. However, except for Scripture readings, the Mass follows the same pattern every time it is celebrated (even today) and those who attended would be familiar with the language they heard each Sunday. Furthermore, the homilies (or sermons) were in the language of the people so the teaching of the Scripture was in a language they could understand. It is probably true that the average person knew more of the Bible in the Middle Ages than they do today. The sermon at Mass, the art in the stained glass and paintings, the morality plays presented in the market – all these things taught the “unlettered” men and women the gospels in spite of the fact that they did not know Latin.
In any case, it was probably not until the late Middle Ages that the uneducated English could read their own language. Chaucer, who was born in 1340 or 1344, was the first to write in the language of the common man in England. How many ordinary people could read English? Until the printing press was invented probably not many.
It does seem though that in England the Scriptures in the language of the people lagged behind compared to other European languages. Remember that England had had Norman kings who spoke French and that only French or an Anglo-Norman dialect was spoken at court from the tenth to about the fourteenth century. English peasants called the animals in the field, cows, pigs and sheep but at court where the meat was served at meals they were boeuf, porc and mouton (which later came into English as beef, pork and mutton).
So much for England. Were there Scriptures in the language of the people in other countries in Europe?
Bishop Ulfilas (318-388) devised an alphabet for the Goths and translated the Old and New Testaments into their language soon after.
Another of the earliest translations of Scriptures must have been in 411 into Armenian by Mesrob who also invented their alphabet.
In the ninth century St. Cyril and St. Methodus invented an alphabet (the Cyrillic alphabet still used in Eastern Europe) for the Slavs and translated a Bible into Bulgarian.
Parts of Psalms, Revelation and some of the Old Testament were translated into French as early as the seventh century. A complete version of the Bible was made in the thirteenth century.
In Italy a complete version of the Bible in vernacular Italian was available in 1472 and this manuscript is now in the National Library at Paris.
There were numerous versions of parts of the Bible in German as far back as the seventh and eighth centuries and there was a complete Bible in the fifteenth century before the invention of printing and well before Luther’s New Testament in 1522.
The first Bible in Dutch was printed at Delft in 1475.
The first complete Polish Bible was printed at Kracow in 1561.
There were even portions of Scripture translated into Arabic as early as the tenth century and an Arabic Bible was published at Rome in 1671.
So we see that there were Scriptures in languages other than Latin available well before the Reformation. The Reformation or the Protestant Movement in the 16th century had the advantage of a newly invented printing press. The inventor of moveable type was the German, Johan Gutenburg (1400?-1468?) who, by the way, was a Catholic.
Before the printing press, Catholic monks had been copying Scriptures by hand from the earliest manuscripts down through the centuries We must remember that if they had not preserved God’s word neither Catholics or Protestants would have the Scriptures today.
Not only is it said that the Catholic Church did not have Scriptures available in the common languages, the Church is also accused of keeping the Bible away from the people, even going so far as chaining Bibles in the Church! Remember that before printing had been invented the Bible was hand-copied and therefore copies were both rare and expensive. Chaining the Bible to the Church would keep it from being taken away and therefore making it more available to those who were able to read. One can compare this with telephone books that are chained up at public telephone booths today – not to keep people from using them but keeping them available for all.
Did the Church discourage people from reading the Scriptures and “Bible study”? The answer to this is “yes” and the feeling of the danger of Bible Study has continued to recent times. Even though one might see Bible studies taking place in Catholic parishes today there are good reasons to discourage personal “Bible study”. One only has to look at the results of ‘uncontrolled’ bible study – the thousands of new denominations and even cults that develop because someone interprets a Bible verse in his or her own way. The resulting deep divisions are often over minute differences of Biblical interpretations. One simple example is: Paul wrote that a woman should cover her head in church. Is this something which reflects the culture of the time or is it a commandment from God that should be followed today? Some Protestant churches insist on women wearing hats in church but most do not.
Reading the Bible within the context of the Church is however encouraged by the Catholic Church today. With the guidance of scholars of the Church we can understand Scripture by knowing what the writer meant and how it was understood in the culture of the listeners of the time and then move on to what it can mean for us. The Church has people who are experts in languages, culture and translation who can help us understand the Scriptures. Furthermore, in the Catholic church perhaps the major reason for reading Scripture is that it might be obeyed, not so much that we need to dissect it every which way in order to understand it. Is it really so difficult to understand what it means to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” for example?
As to how the Catholic regards Scripture one only has to look at the following quotations to get an idea of this:
St. Jerome (340-420) said, “Not to know the Scriptures is not to know Christ.”
A document from the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) states, “Among other things that pertain to salvation of the Christian peoples, the food of the Word of God is above all necessary, because as the body is nourished by material food, so is the soul nourished by spiritual food, since, '...not by bread alone doth man live, but in every word that proceedeth from the mouth of God.'" (Matthew 4:4).
And finally, from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “In Sacred Scripture, the church constantly finds her nourishment and her strength, for she welcomes it not as a human word, ‘but as what is really is, the word of God.” (103)
“And such is the force and power of the Word of God that it can serve the Church as her support and vigor and the children of the Church as strength for their faith, food for the soul, and a pure and lasting font of spiritual life. Hence, access to Sacred Scripture ought to be open wide to the Christian faithful.” (131)
It is sad to see ignorance that causes misunderstandings amongst Christians but sadder still to see ignorance perpetuated by television programs and books written by those who should have done their research beforehand.