The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has recently released 10 points for fruitful Scripture reading, and much of it is very useful. It reminds me, however, of what I call the Modern Myths about Catholics and the Bible:
1) Catholics don’t know the Bible. You hear this everywhere – it is the source of accusations from Protestants and inside jokes by Catholics. Yet I do not think it is really true. A few years ago, I picked up a “Bible Trivia” book while visiting my relatives in Ohio. I went through the questions with my brother-in-law, who is a Fundamentalist Christian, and my wife, who is a cradle Catholic. My wife did far better answering the questions than either my brother-in-law or myself (a former Protestant). She has never been in any formal Bible study, but she has attended the Mass for so long that she truly “knows” the Bible. It is true that most Catholics can’t cite chapter and verse like Protestants do, but my own experience is that most practicing Catholics have a better overall understanding of the underlying mosaic that is the Bible than do most practicing Protestants.
2) Catholics need to have Bible studies like Protestants. It has become common in many Catholic parishes to have small-group Bible studies. These groups model themselves after Protestant Bible studies, in which a small number of people (usually under 10) gather at someone’s house and discuss a certain Bible passage. There is not usually a member of the clergy in the group, and often there is no real leader – a different person leads at each meeting. Whereas I don’t think these meetings are necessarily bad, they are ripe for abuse and also are not consistent with the best of Catholic tradition regarding Scriptural studies. A more appropriate means of personal Bible study is one that has been recommended and practiced in the Church for centuries: lectio divina.
3) Protestant sermons are much better at explicating the Bible than Catholic homilies. There is truth in this but the problem with this statement is that it is comparing apples to oranges. As Catholics, we do not consider our worship experience – the Mass – as the appropriate place for Bible study. Yes, the Scriptures are a central element in the celebration of the Mass (see point #1 above), but the purpose of the Mass is to worship the Almighty God, not to understand the precise meaning of the Greek word behind a certain Bible verse. Protestants (especially low-church Protestants) do not typically see their Sunday morning services as worship services in the Catholic sense of the word “worship.” Their services are intended to help people to understand the Bible and apply it to their lives. Period. Furthermore, without the Eucharist the sermon becomes the central part of the service and therefore is considered much more important than a Catholic homily during Mass.
4) Catholics do not appreciate the Bible as much as Protestants. When I listen to a Protestant radio show or read a Protestant spiritual book, I am often struck by how often the speaker/author states, “the Bible says…” I heard a show on the radio recently where the host was quoting something that Jesus said and he started it with, “the Bible says…”! The truth is that the Bible doesn’t say anything – it is not a person, it is a book. Frankly, Protestants often do not just appreciate the Bible, they idolize it. Catholics, on the other hand, should instinctively understand the proper place for the Bible: it is the written Word of God and the most important writing ever, but it is not the end of our Faith, but a means in which to encounter the living Word of God, Jesus Christ. A great example of this proper appreciation is the Mass: we hear the Word proclaimed early in the Mass in order to more properly receive the Word eucharistically later in the Mass.
I hope and pray that all Catholics truly appreciate the Scriptures, but it is important that our appreciation is properly ordered and within the overall boundaries of the Catholic Faith.