The Catholic Church’s Past Attitude Toward the Bible
THE book A Guide to Catholic Reading makes the following interesting statement: “Most lay Catholics of the older generation will agree that reading the Bible without proper supervision was frowned on by most Catholic priests and nuns. Happily the situation has changed radically and today Catholics are urged, exhorted, and entreated on every side to read the Book of Books.”
Undeniably, the Catholic Church’s attitude toward the Bible has “changed radically” over the past few decades. More popular Catholic translations of the Bible in modern tongues have appeared during the past 30 years than during the preceding centuries. But what is 30 years in the history of a church that claims to date from the time of the apostles? What has been the Catholic Church’s record over the centuries? Has it shown love for the Bible, by making it available to Catholics and encouraging them to read it? Or has it shown hatred for Bible lovers?
Before and After Charlemagne
In all fairness, it must be stated that the Church of Rome first favored the translation of the Holy Scriptures into the vernacular. It must not be forgotten that the common language among the early Christians was Greek. This continued to be the case for several centuries after the apostasy set in with the death of the apostles. Evidence of this can be seen in the fact that at the First Ecumenical Council, held in Nicaea in 325 C.E., the sessions were held, not in Latin, but in Greek, and the famous Nicene Creed, said to be the “unshakable basis” of the Catholic faith, was drawn up in Greek.
Rivalry between Rome and Byzantium (Constantinople), as to which would be the religious capital of the Church, developed during the fourth century C.E., and language entered into that rivalry. The eastern part of the Church, under the Patriarch of Constantinople, used Greek in its liturgy, and it possessed the entire Bible in Greek (the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Greek Scriptures). However, the common language spoken in the west was not Greek, but Latin. Various “Old Latin” versions of the Scriptures existed, but none of these predominated as the standard translation. So toward the end of the fourth century Damasus, bishop of Rome, commissioned a scholar named Jerome to produce such a standard version of the Bible in Latin.
Jerome did not use classical Latin, but Vulgar Latin—the language of the common people. Eventually, his translation came to be known as the Vulgate (editio vulgata, common or popular edition). It became the standard Bible of the Catholic Church for over a thousand years, remaining such long after Latin became a dead language. But the important fact is that the Latin Vulgate was originally a common-language Bible.
With the breakup of the Roman Empire and of the secular school system that prevailed in Roman times, the upper clergy of the Catholic Church had the virtual monopoly in the field of education. They woefully neglected this opportunity, and this resulted in the widespread ignorance that became characteristic of the Dark Ages.
Toward the end of the eighth century Emperor Charlemagne deplored the crass ignorance of the people and of the lower clergy of his realm. He has been called the “creator of medieval education.” He summoned to his court such scholars as English theologian Alcuin, who revised the corrupted text of Jerome’s Vulgate. Charlemagne ordered the creation of scriptoria, or writing rooms, in monasteries, for the copying of manuscripts. His efforts to promote education benefited mainly the clergy and the nobility, for these manuscripts were in Latin, which, by then, was being replaced by vernacular languages among the common people of Europe.
Crumbs for the Common People
True, under the influence of Charlemagne, the Council of Tours, France, held in 813, decreed that homilies, or sermons, for the common people should be translated into the local language. But no such decree was issued for translating the Bible itself for the people. By way of excuse, the Catholic Encyclopedia states:
“Books only existed in manuscript form and, being costly, were beyond the means of most people. Besides, had it been possible for the multitude to come into the possession of books, they could not have read them, since in those rude times, education was the privilege of few. In fact, hardly anyone could read, outside the ranks of the clergy and the monks.” But whose fault was it that the masses remained illiterate? And why did the Roman Catholic Church wait for King Charlemagne to promote education, even among the lower clergy?
Instead of favoring education among the masses and translations of the Bible in the local languages, the Catholic Church encouraged the production of ‘books of the ignorant’: picture Bibles (such as the Biblia pauperum, or Bible of the poor), Bible histories, miracle plays, statues and carvings, church wall paintings and stained-glass windows on Bible themes. Such were the crumbs that the Catholic clergy let drop from the rich spiritual table of Bible knowledge, which they kept for themselves and for a few privileged kings and nobles.
Charlemagne’s education campaign had unforeseen consequences for the Roman Catholic Church. After Charlemagne’s death—as education spread among the lower clergy and the nobility, and as manuscripts of the Bible circulated in Latin—priests, monks, kings, queens, medieval lords and noble ladies began asking questions about Catholic doctrine as compared with the Bible. They also clamored for the Bible in the vernacular, and at that time the Roman Church allowed portions of the Scriptures to be translated for the clergy and the nobility.
Some of those who read the Bible—even some of the clergy—became pre-Reformation dissenters. To name a few, Berenger of Tours (died 1088), Peter of Bruys (died 1140) and Henry of Lausanne or of Cluny (died in prison after 1148) were all French priests who placed the Bible above Catholic dogma and suffered for it.
Moreover, as the common people heard sermons in their native tongues and saw Bible themes illustrated in picture Bibles (written in Latin) and in various works of religious art, their appetite was whetted for Bible knowledge. “Unauthorized” translations of parts of the Bible began to circulate, and dissenting groups such as the Waldenses began preaching Bible truths in France, Italy, Spain and other European countries. This was something for which Rome had not bargained. Thus, from the 12th and 13th centuries onward, the attitude of the Catholic Church toward the Bible changed radically. For Rome, it became a dangerous book, as the following historical facts will show.
[Picture on page 4]
Jerome was commissioned by Damasus, bishop of Rome, to translate the Bible into the Latin of the common people
[Pictures on page 5]
Charlemagne’s program of education benefited mainly the clergy and the nobility
[Picture on page 6]
When dissenters began to preach the Bible, the Church’s attitude toward it changed