To explore this question We will need to look at three separate issues. (1) The history (2) The situation earlier in this century (3) What's it like today?
(1) History - Why didn't people in the Middle Ages read the Bible?
The Bible was on scrolls and parchments during the early centuries of Christianity. No one had a "Bible". In the Middle Ages, each Bible was written by hand. Most people were, at best, only functionally literate. That is partially why they used stained glass windows and art to tell the Bible story. The printing press was not invented until 1436 by Johann Gutenberg. Note: The Gutenberg Bible, like every Bible before it, contained the Deuterocanonical books - or "apocrapha" in Evangelical circles.
So prior to 1436, the idea of everybody having a Bible was out of the question, even if they could read. It's hard to imagine a world without photocopiers, printing presses, email and websites.
After the invention of the printing press, prior to Luther's Bible being published in German, there had been over 20 versions of the whole Bible translated into the various German dialects (High and Low) by Catholics. Similarly, there were several vernacular versions of the Bible published in other languages both before and after the Reformation. The Church did condemn certain vernacular translations because of what it felt were bad translations and anti-Catholic notes (vernacular means native to a region or country).
The Catholic Douay-Rheims version of the whole Bible in English was translated from the Latin Vulgate. It was completed in 1610, one year before the King James Version was published. The New Testament had been published in 1582 and was one of the sources used by the KJV translators.
The Latin Vulgate was always available to anyone who wanted to read it without restriction. Some Evangelicals have said that it would only have been usable by people who read Latin. But in the 16th Century there were no public schools and literacy was not that common, especially among the peasants. Those people who could read had been well educated and could read Latin. We got an email that said:
The Church still had its readings and services in the dead language of Latin ...The Church fought to keep the Bible in Latin even though it could not be understood by most people of the time.
Mark Bonocore responds:
Latin was far from a dead language. It was the language of theology and science (the language of all educated peoples throughout Europe and beyond) well into the 17th and 18th Centuries. For example, when Isaac Newton published his works on physics, he published them in Latin so that all of Europe could read them. The same was true of all other scientific and scholarly advances.
The reason that the Protestant reformers used vernacular languages was because (a) most educated people did not take the reformers seriously and (b) they used the masses to get power for their movement. The pamphlets published by Luther and Calvin were filled with all manner of crude and dirty language (lots of references to "shitting," "pissing," and "farting"), and this was done to capture the imagination of the common man and to create popular uprising against the social establishment.
The Bible could very much be understood by people with the intelligence and ability to understand its theological content -- most of whom spoke Latin. Most common people of the time, however, could understand neither the language nor the content ...and most common people are still clueless about the content of the Bible today ...which is why Protestants provide "ministers" to interpret it for them.
We should also remember that the Jews had always kept their Bible in the Hebrew until the 19th Century. The Greek versions of the Jewish Bible made in ancient times had been co-opted by the Christians so the Jews basically abandoned them. Any Jew who wanted the read the Bible was expected to make the effort to learn Hebrew.
Some Evangelicals have accused the Catholics of burning people for reading the Bible. Mark Bonocore responds:
We must be careful not to project modern, American sensibilities (in regard to freedom and justice) into the context of medieval history. In the Middle Ages and before 1776, there was simply no such thing as separation of Church and State, not in Catholic countries OR in Protestant countries. If we "burned people for reading the Bible," then the Protestants burned people for praying in Latin or hearing the Catholic Mass (something they unquestionably did in England, Geneva, and Scandinavia, etc.). At this time in history, heresy was also a secular crime; and the powers of a particular country treated it as such. Despite the "spin" that some Evangelicals put on the Catholic position, the Catholic Church was never opposed people reading the Bible. What it opposed was people reading interpretations the Bible apart from the teaching authority of the Church, which would lead to the kinds of problems we have today with 30,000 denominations interpreting Scripture differently. The Bible itself warns against this. (2 Peter 1:20). With the invention of printing, there was a communications explosion, and one suddenly saw lots of people making very poor and heretical translations of the Bible and popularizing them throughout Christendom. The Church tried to stop this.
The common people of the middle ages had no intellectual defense with which they could make a reasonable judgment about the Truth. They were almost as vulnerable to the heresies that were sweeping through their communities as a person standing in front of a gun. Except a lot more than their lives was at stake, their eternal lives were in jeopardy. Today, if someone went out into the street and started shooting people, we wouldn't say, "let him go ahead and do it, people can protect themselves...it's their own fault if they are shot to death." The Church was very worried that people who were influenced by these heresies were going to spend eternity in hell. No one was punished for simply believing a heresy. The crime was teaching it, and leading others astray. The Church felt it was their job to protect the souls of the innocent. In hindsight, we see that we would have done better by not using force.
Some Evangelicals accuse the Catholic Church of "Chaining Bibles". The Church DID chain Bibles in the Middle Ages; and for the same reason that the Telephone Company chained its directories to the booth in the 1960's -- to prevent people from STEALING them. They were chained so that everyone could read it, in the congregation.
We must remember that each Bible had to be copied by hand and that it took many years of a monk working behind the walls of a monastery, called a scriptorium, to do this. Each Bible was made on vellum (sheep hide), it took 250 sheep and 1000's of hours to make every Bible. According to standards today, each one of these Bibles would be worth about $100,000. Records have been compiled which show that there were 5,000 chained books in 11 Protestant and 2 Catholic libraries. The Reformers, likewise, chained their Bibles in their churches for at least 300 years. Therefore, Catholics were not alone in chaining Bibles.
We've interviewed dozens of older Catholics, and ex Catholics, including those who now go to Evangelical Churches, to try to gain an understanding of the charge that Catholics weren't allowed to read their Bibles in the 1930's - 1970's.
It is true that earlier in this century, in some Catholic circles, people were not encouraged to read their Bibles. This discouragement was a mistake. The Church does not claim that these types of mistakes have not been made. Catholics believe that although the teaching of the Church is "infallible" on matters of doctrine, the Church is not "indefectible." Sometimes God chooses people who fall. He has done that since the beginning of the Church. (i.e., Peter and the first apostles).
It was never forbidden to read the Bible. But some priests were worried that congregations would come up with dozens of conflicting interpretations of Scripture. These priests knew of over 300 Protestant denominations who had distinct beliefs about the interpretation of Scripture. Many of these interpretations conflicted with each other yet every one of them claimed divine inspiration. As a whole, neither Catholics nor Evangelicals are into relativism (which says there are many truths). So we have to conclude that the vast majority of conflicting Evangelical biblical interpretations are incorrect since only one can be true. (Perhaps this is a powerful argument against Sola Scriptura - Bible alone.) Some priests saw this divisional process in Protestant circles and felt it was a danger.
Eleanor, an elderly lady in our Church, explained that Catholics went to Catholic school. That was in the day when they really were religious based schools. They had religion class for 40 minutes every morning which taught the basics of the faith, including many articles based on Scripture and Latin. The Evangelical counterpart to this was once a week of Sunday School, which is only 20% of what Catholics were getting. Eleanor loved the nuns who were her teachers. Eleanor's mother went to Church every morning at 6 am. Even though the Mass was in Latin, the Bible readings were in English. As mentioned above, there were four readings at every Mass. Most families had a family Bible although it is true they favoured hearing the Bible reading during Mass where there would be a homily explaining the readings. Joan, a lady in our church said this:
...in grade 6 or 7 all the students in our class were given the New Testament and encouraged to read it every day. The teacher (a nun) started us with the Acts of the Apostles and I remember becoming soooo excited...and I still get that way! ...I do remember being told by my grade one teacher...to listen well to the Bible readings at Mass on Sunday because that was Jesus talking to us...My grandmother used to quote Scripture to her neighbors...She heard it at church or from the priests and remembered it...and used it!
Today, Catholics who are faithful to the teaching of the Church are totally into the Word. The level of education is higher than it has ever been and people are better able to comprehend its meaning. The New American Bible has a preface from the Vatican that regular private Scripture study is a blessing (an indulgence is received) to all Catholics who crack open the Word. We love digging into the Word with my Evangelical friends. And hey, our Bible was not copied out by hand. Thank God for the printing press.
Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ
St. Jerome, quoted in the Catechism CC133
The first section was researched by Art Sippo, Fr. Terry Donahue (CC), Mark Bonocore, and Hugh (of this site)
(2) Father Mateo at www.cin.org
(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.