The independent fundamentalist church I went to as a boy gave me a fantastic amount of Bible knowledge. There were Bible drills in Sunday School, Bible memory contests, and Bible quizzes, not to mention a complete grounding in all the characters and exciting stories from the Bible.

As I got older, I listened to long Bible sermons and went to home Bible studies, youth Bible camps, and a Bible holiday club. I ended up going to an Evangelical University where Bible study was part of our everyday schedule. As a result, I learned that the Bible was God’s inspired word to heal and reconcile the human race.

Our Christian home wasn’t particularly anti-Catholic, but some of our preachers were, and the general impression I got was that Catholics not only didn’t read the Bible, but that they weren’t allowed to. How could Catholics believe the Bible if they didn’t read and study it like we did?

It’s true that many Evangelicals know their Bible upside down and backwards, and compared to them, Catholics sometimes seem ignorant of the Bible. But that’s only an appearance. During this, National Bible Week (Nov. 15-21), let’s sort out how Catholics use the Bible.

Prayer book or rule book?

The truth is simply that Catholics and Evangelicals use the Bible in different ways. Therefore they have different kinds of Bible knowledge. Evangelicals use the Bible as a source book for doctrine and right moral teaching, and that’s good. 2 Timothy 3:16 says the Scriptures are “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.” Evangelicals also use the Bible for personal devotions and inspiration. This, too, is Biblical. Psalm 119:27 says, “Let me understand the teaching of your precepts; then will I meditate on your wonders.”

Ordinary Catholics might not be so adept at quoting chapter and verse, but they do know and use Scripture regularly, albeit it in a different method. For a Catholic, Scripture is not so much a book to be studied as a book to worship with. (Psalms 119:7)

Some time ago, a friend of mine compared the amount of the Scripture used at Mass to that used in an Evangelical Protestant service. The Catholic Mass was almost 30 percent Scripture. When my friend checked the content of his local Bible-based Evangelical church, he was surprised to discover that the total amount of Scripture read took just 3 percent of the service.

When Catholics go to Mass, they hear a reading from the Old Testament, they say or sing one of the Psalms, then they listen to a reading from the Epistles, then a Gospel reading. The whole structure fits together so that the Mass is focused on Christ in the Gospels.

Catholics follow a three-year cycle of Scripture reading, so a Catholic who goes to church faithfully will – over those three years – hear almost all of the Bible read. Furthermore, the responses and the words of the Communion service are almost all from Scripture. So a church-going Catholic does know and use Scripture – its just that he uses it primarily for meditation and worship (Psalms 119:48) – not primarily for personal information and instruction.

You can think of it this way: Evangelicals use the Bible as a rule book. Catholics use it as a prayer book.

Built on the apostolic tradition

The “prayer book” method is the way Scripture has been used for thousands of years. The Jews recite the Old Testament law in their worship daily. The psalms were the hymn book of the Jews. The New Testament is composed of apostolic letters of instruction read to the churches. The Gospel grew out of the apostles’ preaching about Jesus. In the early Church, they read the letters of the apostles, recited the psalms, and used portions of Scripture to praise and worship God just as Catholics do today. (Ephesians 5:19)

Like Evangelicals, Catholics also use the Scripture to determine doctrine and moral principles – it’s just that the Catholic lay person or pastor doesn’t do so on his own. As Paul gave Timothy the apostolic authority to “rightly divide the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15), so Catholics believe their bishops have inherited the authority of the apostles to teach doctrinal and moral truth faithfully.

They base this belief on St. Paul’s clear instructions to Timothy, “the things you have heard me say … entrust to reliable men so that they may in turn teach others” (2 Timothy 2:1 – 2). Therefore, it is the bishops — living, praying, and working in a direct line from the apostles – who use the Bible to determine Christian doctrine and moral principles. That Catholic doctrine and moral teaching is biblically-based is easy to see. Try reading any official Catholic teaching documents and you will find they are – and always have been – permeated and upheld with Scripture.

Nevertheless, memories are long. Some extreme Protestants like to say that the Catholic Church not only forbade people to read the Bible, but they deliberately kept the Bible in Latin, chained it up in churches, and even went so far as to burn popular translations of the Bible. Are these stories true?

Burning Bibles

Like most myths, the stories are both true and false. It is true that Bibles were chained in churches, but they weren’t chained up to keep people from reading the Bible. Before the days of printing presses, books were precious items. The Bibles were chained for security reasons the way phone books used to be secured in a phone booths: not to restrict them, but to make them available to everyone.

Did the Catholic Church forbid the Bible to be translated into the ordinary language of the people? No. The Catholic Church encouraged translations into the vernacular from the beginning. The earliest English version of the Bible for instance, is a paraphrase version of Genesis dating from the year 670. However, before the invention of the printing press, widespread translation of the Bible was unnecessary because those who could read understood Latin.

Once the printing press was invented and literacy grew, more translations were made. In a few places, the authorities did burn some translations of the Bible which were deliberately faulty or which carried heretical notes, but this was an attempt to preserve the purity of the Scriptures, not to keep it from God’s people.

‘Take and read’

St. Augustine was converted when he heard children singing, “Tolle legge. Take and read! Take and read!” It was the Bible he picked up to read and the saving words of Scripture transformed his life and brought him to a true and constant conversion.

Our individual Catholic lives and the life of our Church would be infinitely improved if more of us took Bible reading seriously. We Catholics need more Bible scholars amongst our pastors. We need more homilies that are rooted in a profound understanding of Scripture. We need more resources for personal Bible reading. We need to understand the Scriptures better to see how our faith is rooted and grounded in the Bible. We need to hear the children singing, “Tolle legge. Take and read! Take and read!”

Our own official teachings encourage us to read, study and learn the Scriptures. Dei Verbum – a document about God’s Word from Second Vatican Council says, “…all clergy should remain in close contact with the Scriptures by means of reading and accurate study of the text…similarly the Council earnestly and expressly calls upon all the faithful…to acquire by frequent reading of holy Scripture the excellent knowledge of Jesus Christ (Philippians 3:8) for as St. Jerome said, ‘Ignorance of the Scriptures is indeed ignorance of Christ.’”