Are Catholics into the Bible?

Catholics and Evangelicals are in total agreement that the Bible is the Word of God. It is the most happening book on the planet. This site has over 1000 Biblical quotes on it. I love the Bible. Amen! Catholics and Evangelicals use the same New Testament. Thirty-nine books of the Old Testament books are identical. Catholics and Evangelicals can get into the Word together. I think it is good that Evangelicals and Catholics have lively and animated discussions about the interpretation of Scripture. That's the spice of life. Evangelicals do that with each other all the time. That's part of the reason why there are so many denominations :-)

What does the Catholic Church teach about Bible access and reading?

In sections 131-133 of the Catechism we find this:

Hence "access to Sacred Scripture ought to be open wide to the Christian faithful."...Therefore, the study of the sacred page should be the very soul of sacred theology...The Church "forcefully and specifically exhorts all the Christian faithful...to learn the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ, by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures. Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.

We do not think it could be any clearer than this. The Church is telling Catholics "Read your Bibles." You may have heard that Catholics were not allowed read the Bible in earlier centuries. That is a very complicated subject that many Evangelical pastors have turned into a simplistic slogan against Catholics. In the days when peasants were illiterate, peasant Catholics depended on clergy who could read, on the Scripture stories as depicted visually on stain glass windows and statues. We explore the history of Catholic Bible reading here.

The message to Catholics of this generation, who are literate and able to read, unlike Christians in earlier centuries is "Read your Bibles." We thank our Evangelical friends for so enthusiastically getting into Scripture and helping turn the last century into an age of Bible literacy.

The Catholic Mass is totally Bible-centered

The Processional March of each Mass is lead by a person holding the Cross and then a person holding the Bible up high in the air. What many Evangelicals don't know is that each Catholic Mass has four Bible readings in it, and the Liturgy is pulled right out of Scripture (Mat 26:26-28, Mk 14:22, Lk 22:17). This layout of the Mass has continued for over a thousand years. If I follow Church advice and go to Mass everyday, I make a beautiful journey through the Bible. Perhaps by going to daily Mass we do not learn the chapter and verse numbers but it is still a wonderful exposure to Scripture. It is kind of like this. When we were kids we did not know all the street numbers in our neighbourhood like the postman, but we knew where everybody was because we were exposed to them every day. We got to know them. By going to Mass we get a fantastic exposure to God's Word.

Of course we have to study privately and/or in groups also and the Church instructs us to do that.

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The Catholic Church protected the Bible

The Catholic Church protected the Bible across the ages until the Gutenberg press was invented. Century after century, Monks in Monasteries faithfully copied Scripture. They were incredibly accurate. We have a modern discovery that is a testimony to how accurate the Monks were when they copied the Bible. The "Dead Sea Scrolls" were discovered in 1947 and they date back to 200 BC. They contain Old Testament books such as Isaiah. They predate some of the Monk's copies by 1500 years. Yet the hand copied Bibles created by monks are almost identical to the Dead Sea Scrolls. This is remarkable given that the Monks were working from copies of copies. It would take each monk a lifetime to copy one Bible and thousands of faithful Catholics dedicated their lives to this work. Catholics protected the Bible over the centuries of wars, famines, plaques, the fall of Rome, fires, and threats from all sides. This was long before any other denomination existed.

The Bible didn't just drop out of the sky, spiral bound, with an NIV sticker on it. The Catholic Church chose which books to include in the Bible in the Synod's of Hippo (393 AD) and confirmed it at Carthage (397 AD). A timeline of how the Bible came to us is here. Here are the words of Professor Peter Flint, the non-Catholic scholar who translated the only English version of the Dead Sea Scrolls which won first prize from the Washington Biblical Archeology association:

"Without the Catholic Church you have no Bible, just a bunch of books and letters. With the Church you have the Bible!"

Even the word Bible is a Catholic word. Surprisingly, the word "Bible" is not in the Bible. It means books from the Greek word βυβλος-byblos meaning "papyrus", from the ancient Phoenician city of Byblos which exported papyrus, the "paper" of the day.  We love the Bible. Honest!

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Does the Catholic Church agree that the Bible is the unerring Word of God?

The Church's official position on the complete inerrancy of the Bible

  • Vatican I: These books [of the canon] the Church holds to be sacred and canonical, not because, having been composed by human industry, they were afterwards approved by her authority; nor only because they contain revelation without error; but because, having been written under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, they have God for their author (De Fide Catholica 2:7).
  • Pope Leo XIII: "it is absolutely wrong and forbidden either to narrow inspiration to certain parts only of Holy Scripture or to admit that the sacred writer has erred" and condemned "the system of those who, in order to rid themselves of these difficulties, do not hesitate to concede that divine inspiration regards the things of faith and morals, and nothing beyond" (Providentissimus Deus 20).
  • Pius XII regarding Pope Leo XIII's quote: "[a] solemn definition of Catholic doctrine, by which such divine authority is claimed for the ‘entire books with all their parts’ as to secure freedom from any error whatsoever." He repudiated those who "ventured to restrict the truth of Sacred Scripture solely to matters of faith and morals" (Divino Afflante Spiritu 1).
  • Vatican II: In composing the sacred books, God chose men and while employed by him they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with him acting in them and through them, they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things that he wanted. Therefore, since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully, and without error that truth that God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation (Dei Verbum 11).

The Catholic position on Scripture has always been that it is without error on faith and morals and also on everything else. It is the word of God, word for word. The imperfect people who received inspiration to write it did not mess up when they put the pen to paper, even though they were fallible humans. Even with the rise of science Vatican I asserted it, Pope Leo XIII, Pope Pious XII, and Vatican II all reasserted the complete inerrancy of Scripture. The box to the right shows the councils and Popes' reaffirmation of this truth.

Some modern "theologians" at Vatican II wanted to limit the inerrancy of Scripture to "faith and morals" allowing "errors" in Scripture on historical events, dates etc... but Pope Paul VI stood by the Church's consistent position. The line "for the sake of our salvation" probably meant that God gave us Scripture for the purpose of our salvation. It does not make sense to say that God would put exactly what he wanted in Scripture and create an error there. To assume that the inspired writers made mistakes is to put the Bible on the same level as every other inspired book, which clearly it is not.

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Why do we sometimes need help interpreting Scripture?

Scripture says:

Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch...reading the prophet Isaiah...[Philip] asked "do you understand what you are reading?" He replied "How can I unless someone guides me?" and he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him (Acts 8:30-31)

Philip, who was an apostle and a representative of Christ's Church, helped the Ethiopian eunuch interpret the Scripture. In the Old Testament we read:

So the Levites read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. (Nehemiah 8:8 - my emphasis)

Catholics and Evangelicals agree that the Bible is the unerring word of God. Where we differ is where the burden of interpretation lies. Evangelicals follow Martin Luther’s feeling that an individual can interpret the Bible perfectly if they pray first. Catholics agree that the Holy Spirit guides our Bible reading and illuminates our understanding. I've had some amazing experiences with Scripture where the words just came alive for me.

However, I'm not sure that every time someone picks up a Bible, prays, and starts reading, that they are surrounded by the Holy Spirit, even if they are sincere. For example, Martin Luther, after praying and reading the Bible, decided that the Book of James didn't belong in the Bible. To me this is a problem, because here is a guy prayerfully reading the Bible, who decided parts of it didn't belong there, yet he said the Bible was the unerring word of God. This seems kind of cyclical to me. In the preface to his Bible, Martin Luther said:

"the St. James' Epistle is really an epistle of straw ... for it has nothing of the nature of the Gospel about it."

About the Book of Revelation, Luther said:

"I miss more than one thing in this book, and this makes me hold it to be neither apostolic nor prophetic.. . . and can nohow detect that the Holy Spirit produced it . . . there are many far better books for us to keep."

So even for Martin Luther, Scripture alone was not enough, he acknowledged that there needed to be human authority governing it, he just thought that the authority should be him, rather than the Catholic Church.

Some Evangelicals might say that that the Bible is self-explanatory and needs no interpretation. They say, "the main things are the plain things." My response would be that the Evangelical movement itself does not support that statement. Everyone interprets Scripture the moment they pick it up. Sometimes the Holy Spirit reveals stuff to us as we study which is great. But almost all of the conflicting views among Evangelicals are forwarded by sincere honest Christians who claim to be inspired by the Holy Spirit. Surely God did not want people to have conflicting interpretations of Scripture, because that would be in conflict with the Bible itself which calls us to unity. (Jn 17:21) Each of these 33,820 denominations was formed because people came to an irreconcilable difference over the interpretation of Scripture. If Truth is not relative then there can be only one Truth. Therefore, not everyone who honestly feels they are led by the Holy Spirit when reading Scripture is correct. It is sad but true.

Ironically, the way that many Evangelical denominations have decided to have unity with each other is to agree not to look at Scriptural references that they are in disagreement about.

To me this is an unauthentic and superficial unity, not the deep unity that we are called to. Many have written to me and said "the only thing that is important is that we agree that Jesus is Lord." I totally agree that Jesus is Lord, but if that is all we needed to know then I wonder why He gave us 1500 pages of Scripture. He could have just showed up for a day and said "I'm Lord" and did a big miracle and split, but He didn't. He taught his apostles, who were the Church, for 3 years. His apostles wrote down his words and eventually it became what we now call the Bible. I think this was Jesus' wish.

Many "Bible believing" denominations who say "Jesus is Lord" have now ruled that Gay Marriage and abortion are OK. This includes Lutherans, some Methodist churches, the United Church, Anglicans, Episcopalians etc. That is their interpretation of Scripture. I have a problem with that. I think Jesus understood the human mind's capacity to rationalize its own wishes even with the Bible in hand, and while saying "Jesus is Lord." I believe we need a higher authority than millions of diverse and conflicting Christians with Bibles in their hands. Catholics think that the final word on the interpretation of Scripture falls on the authority to which Jesus appointed. (Mathew 16:18-19).

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Paul and Barnabus consulted the central authority of the Church on the interpretation of Scripture

We have a Biblical example of the Church having a central interpreter in early times during the crisis of faith over circumcision. (Acts 15-16) Paul and Barnabus went to Jerusalem to settle the circumcision issue. "As they (Paul and Timothy) went through the towns they delivered to the believers the rules decided upon by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem, and they told them to obey those rules." (Acts 16:3) This is a good example of the Lord using the "Church" to decide on matters of interpretation.

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Isn't the Bible alone the only Authority? (Sola Scriptura)

That is probably the biggest division between Catholics and Evangelicals. So I thought I should explain it a bit and not leave it hanging, 'cause I can see how it seems blasphemous for a Catholic to say the Bible is not the "only" authority. Most certainly the Bible is infallible. However, Catholics believe that the Bible itself teaches us that the Church came before the Bible. Jesus did not write any books of the Bible. Jesus chose NOT to write but rather to build his Church, and 30-60 years later He inspired the members of his Church write down the Gospels. Several hundred years after that, He inspired members of his Church to decide what books belong in the Bible. A history of the Bible is here. If Jesus inspired members of the Church to infallibly write the Bible and later infallibly decide on what writings to include in the Bible, I think He can inspire the Church to make right interpretation of Scripture on matters that are critical to our salvation.

The following passage is often used to profess Sola Scriptura (Bible alone)

"...the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training" (2 Timothy 3:15-16)

The passage simply says Scripture is inspired and useful. Catholics totally agree. Water is necessary for my existence but is it all I need?  Most certainly not. Interestingly, there was no New Testament written back then so if this passage was saying Scripture is all we need, it would be saying that the New Testament wasn't necessary, which is obviously untrue.

Catholics believe that the "Bible alone" theory is not what the Bible teaches.

Nowhere in the Bible does it say the Bible alone is the only authority. However, the Bible does say that Jesus founded his Church and gave it all authority. (Mat 16:18)

Scripture says "And the Word became Flesh" (Jn1:1) It doesn't say "and the Word became paper." God became Flesh, He instituted and commissioned his Church. Later He inspired members of his Church to write, then He inspired members of the Church to discern which books to include in the Bible, and He inspired his Church to interpret it. This is what Catholics believe, and that is what all Christians believed for the first 1500 years of Christianity.

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Why does the Catholic Church think that its interpretation of Scripture is right?

Catholics believe Jesus ordained Peter and the Apostles to be the teaching authority over God’s Word to us. I believe that God gave Peter a special Grace to teach infallibly. Jesus said "...you are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of Heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in Heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." (Mat 16:18). I believe that Jesus extends this grace through Peter's successors to the present day Pope. We call this special grace infallibility. We think it is a rallying point and a great source of unity that Jesus summons us to in Scripture. More Christians are in unity with Rome in this way than all the other denominations combined.

The Catholic Church does not claim to fully understand all Scripture. There are many mysteries within its pages that still are not fully understood. What the Church is saying is that whatever has been revealed to it and set out in Dogma is true. There are many areas of Scripture that are still mysteries, and therefore not defined as Dogma. There is much for the Church to learn. I believe God is not finished with us. That is why we say that the Catholic Church is on a pilgrimage. (more about that below)

How is it possible for one organization to be confident in its claim of infallible interpretation of Scripture? Perhaps the question should be "Can God make it possible for one organization to have the power of discernment?" Could God do this if He wanted to? I believe every Christian would agree that He can do anything. The Church believes Jesus wanted to do this, He promised it, and He delivered. (Mat 16:18-19, 18:18, 28:20; Jn 14:16, 25, 16:13).

Catholics think that perhaps God organized the authority thing to prevent us from having a thousand variations of Catholicism based on every person who gets a conflicting insight about Scripture. If this happened, it would not be consistent with Jesus' wish for Unity. (Jn 17:20-23, 1 Cor 1:10; 12:25 Phil 1:27 Eph 4:13-15, Eph 4:5).

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Catholics take the Bible at its Word

A Catholic friend Gary Hoge says that he discovered that in most cases where Catholics and Protestants disagree over biblical interpretation, it was, ironically, the Catholics who interpreted the Bible literally, where we Protestants gave it a figurative, allegorical interpretation. For instance:

  • When Jesus says, "You must be born of water and the Spirit," Catholics interpret this literally: "Water" equals "water," i.e., baptism. But some Protestants say that the water refers to something else, perhaps the preaching of the gospel, or even the amniotic fluid of natural child-birth.
  • When Paul says that Jesus cleanses his church by "the washing with water," Catholics interpret this literally. "Washing with water" equals "washing with water"; another reference to baptism. But some Protestants say it refers to something else, perhaps the Scriptures.
  • When Jesus says, "If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven," Catholics, again, interpret this literally and believe that Jesus gave his apostles the authority to forgive sins in His name. But some Protestants say that this is just a reference to the apostles' authority to preach the gospel.
  • Again, when Jesus says, "This is my body," and "whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life," Catholics interpret this literally. The Eucharist is His body; it is truly His flesh and blood, though it does not appear to be. But most Protestants say that it remains only bread and wine (or grape juice) and that, once again, we should not take Jesus' words literally.
  • [and I add] When the Angel Gabriel says Mary is "full of Grace", and when Mary says "all generations will call me blessed" and "my soul magnifies the Lord" we take the Bible at its word.

...It seemed to me that Catholic theology usually allowed the Bible to simply mean what it says, without the complicated exegesis and linguistic gyrations that were sometimes necessary to make it support my beliefs. (From Gary Hoge)
Catholics do believe what the Bible says.

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Is Church authority squashing the individual's private interpretation of Scripture?

I don't think the Church is into squashing the individual. In fact it has great respect for the individual. Most of our Saints were simple individuals not in positions of power. Yet they have become great examples to the whole Church. The Church has great respect for these individuals who have said "yes" to the Lord. The Church learns from these individuals and has incorporated their interpretations of Scripture into doctrine. The Church relies on gifted individuals. The Church feels that God has anointed some individuals such as Thomas Aquinas with understanding. The Church goes into a process of prayer and discernment on the validity of interpretations by individuals and makes doctrine from some of the interpretations that emerge out of this official discernment.

The Church is totally cool with private interpretation of Scripture. In fact many of our doctrines were defined through the giftings of people like Thomas Aquinas and Jerome who had private revelations about the interpretation of Scripture. These insights went through a process of discernment, prayer and examination by the Church. Once accepted, they eventually helped mold our understanding of what God was saying to the Church through his Holy Word.

The Church is also cool with guys like you and me having private revelation, if it does not conflict with sound doctrine. If we have a new insight into an area, it can be discerned, prayed over and reviewed the same way as it was for Thomas Aquinas and others who helped mold the Church's understanding of Scripture.

We have a recent example of this. Thérèse de Lisieux was a young nun who died at 24 years old. She was a "nobody" in the Church - just a little nun in a far away Carmelite convent. The Church looked at her writings and they were floored! They made her a doctor of the Church and she has influenced modern thought about the Bible in a major way. My evangelical friends will be glad to know that her greatest contribution was her total abandonment and confidence in Jesus. She had a personal relationship to Him. He was her personal Saviour.

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What about the Catholic Church's evolving understanding, isn't that relativism?

Some Evangelicals might say that that the Bible is self-explanatory and needs no interpretation. My response would be that the Evangelical movement itself does not support that statement. I would say that that is pretty well the entire job of an Evangelical preacher, to help people interpret Scripture and put it into practice in their lives. There are presently dozens of conflicting interpretations of Bible passages by different Evangelical denominations and cell groups (i.e., the Rapture).  Everyone interprets Scripture the moment they pick it up. Sometimes the Holy Spirit reveals stuff to us as we study which is great. But almost all of the conflicting views among Evangelicals are claimed to be revealed by the Holy Spirit. If I believe that Truth is not relative then there is only one truth. Catholics think it's better that it is interpreted by the authority to which Jesus gave the authority. (Mathew 16:18-19). The Catholic Church doesn't claim that it understands everything about Scripture. Rather, it says that what has been revealed and defined as Dogma is true. The Church is on a pilgrimage of faith and its understanding of the mystery of God is evolving.

What many Evangelicals do not know is that no mainstream Evangelical denomination agrees with the writings of the early reformers on some fundamental issues; for instance, the perpetual virginity of Mary, the role of the Eucharist, contraception, etc... Martin Luther's writings (even after the reform) are closer to Catholicism than they are to modern ECLA Lutherans. I think this clearly shows that the Evangelical understanding of Scripture has "evolved."

Richard John Neuhaus describes the Catholic Church's Pilgrimage of Faith this way.

. . . the Catholic Church, knowing that theological formulations fall short of expressing the fullness of truth, trusts the continuing guidance of the Spirit in a course of doctrinal development toward the ever more adequate articulation of God's Word relative to the questions posed by the time . . .(3)

Article 66-67 of the Catechism says:

"The Christian economy, therefore, since it is the new and definitive Covenant, will never pass away; and no new public revelation is to be expected before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ."28 Yet even if Revelation is already complete, it has not been made completely explicit; it remains for Christian faith gradually to grasp its full significance over the course of the centuries. ...Christian faith cannot accept "revelations" that claim to surpass or correct the Revelation of which Christ is the fulfillment, as is the case in certain non-Christian religions and also in certain recent sects which base themselves on such "revelations".

Evangelicals had an "evolving understanding" of Scripture regarding slavery

Perhaps the best way to throw light upon the Catholic approach is to look a dilemma in the Protestant world in the last century. Many slave owners used Scripture to justify the slave trade. They had many Bible quotes to back it up. Some would say that people who were against slavery were against the Bible and therefore against God. However, good Christians had a revelation about the interpretation of Scripture. Careful and prayerful examination of these scriptural passages revealed that the abolition of slavery would in no way contradict Scripture. Although the Bible had not changed, its meaning on this matter sharpened. Scriptural understanding matured on this matter. After much pain, God's will on the interpretation of Scripture about slavery won out. Praise God. "Amazing Grace." (The Vatican's interpretation of Scripture always was against slavery.)

Right up until the 1500's Christians including the reformers such as Luther, Calvin, Wesley, and the Catholic church thought the planet earth couldn't move around the sun. They cited Scripture passages stating that the world was "immovable" therefore they felt it could not turn as Copernicus theorized. (i.e., 1 Chron 16:30, Ps 93:1, Ps 96:10, and Ps 104:5) 

Currently thousands of denominations are interpreting Scripture differently from each other, even though Scripture warns against this. (2 Peter 1:20) Each group is saying they have the correct interpretation. To me this is a perfect example of the "many truths" problem that is found in relativism.

Catholics feel that God is not finished with humanity and that He is constantly revealing things about his Holy Word to us. The Church is on a "Pilgrimage" of faith and understanding. It is maturing and evolving. I don't think the Bible is a dusty archaic book that is frozen in time. It is the living word of God.

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Evangelicals often trust an "authority's" interpretation of Scripture rather than their own personal interpretation

Not many of us understand Hebrew and Greek of 2000 years ago which is considerably different from today’s Hebrew and Greek. Each translation of the Bible is interpreted based on many historical factors such language usage of the time, etc. The Evangelical who reads the Bible in English, is already reading someone else’s interpretation of Scripture. They trust someone else’s judgment.

The minute we walk into Church and hear a pastor's sermon we are influenced on Bible interpretation. Every Evangelical who goes to a Bible study is being influenced by someone else's interpretation of Scripture. Every student in an Evangelical Bible College is being influenced. We must admit that we are all affected by many different influences when interpreting Scripture. And in a way, these Evangelical sources act as teaching authorities, the way the Vatican does for Catholics.

One of my Evangelical friends used to open up the New International Bible Commentary (an authority) in order to get the "right" interpretation. This does not appear to me to be consistent with his Sola Scriptural beliefs?  It seems that commentaries, concordances and even Bible studies are quite a Catholic idea in that they represent an "authoritative correct" interpretation of Scripture. Any Evangelical student in Bible college has accepted an "authoritative" interpretation of Scripture. But many of these organizations are in conflict with each other on the interpretation of Scripture even though their leaders are prayerful, brilliant, faithful and humble people. It still doesn't solve the unity problem. Who's right - they both prayerfully read their Bibles? Jesus wanted all Christians to be unified in their understanding of Scripture. We think the inspired authority explanation is more Biblical and offers a greater chance at Christian unity.

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Why do Catholics refer to the Catechism? Why don't Catholics just use the Bible?

If I walk into any Evangelical book store I will find abundant commentaries on the Bible. Every Evangelical seminary has hundreds of books that are studies to support the students on the interpretation of Sacred Scripture. Every denomination has statements about how it interprets Scripture. The Catechism is a synopsis of the Catholic faith. Its primary source is Scripture. Its other sources are the history and writings of the very first Christians (which we call the Church Fathers), the liturgy, and the Church's teaching authority which is called the Magisterium. If you want to know what the Church teaches about anything from abortion to the Trinity, you will find it in the Catechism. The Catechism in no way replaces Scripture. It is dependent on Scripture. You can read about the early reformers' catechisms here.

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Other Bible Topics

The Role of Tradition
How come Catholics were not allowed to read the Bible
OK what's the deal on these "extra" books in the Bible
History of how the Bible came to us

Notes:

(1) http://www.ccel.org/contrib/exec_outlines/matt/mt15_1.htm

(2) Father Mateo

(3) Evangelical and Catholics Together: Toward a Common Mission, edited by Charles Colson and Richard John Neuhaus, Dallas: Word Publishing, 1995, Neuhaus' chapter, "The Catholic Difference," 175-227; quote from 209-210:

Lord Jesus, let Your prayer of unity for Christians
become a reality, in Your way.
We have absolute confidence
that you can bring your people together,
we give you absolute permission to move.
Amen