One of the saddest results of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century was the distressing neglect of sacred Scripture that resulted in the Catholic Church. Officially, the church never neglected Scripture.
The pronouncements of the popes and the works of theologians are replete with quotes and references to the sacred texts, and the church did have popular methods of conveying biblical stories to the faithful. The solemnities and feast days of the church community celebrated all the great scriptural events. The Annunciation through to Pentecost and on to the second coming were always the stuff of Catholic liturgies. The rosary clearly was biblically based; the attached indulgences depended more on meditating on the mysteries of Christ’s life than on the actual recitation of the Hail Mary.
Catholic statuary and frescoes and especially stained glass windows offered visual allusions to all the great events of salvation history. Catholicism was always scriptural even if each believer did not have a sacred text ready at hand. Recall that during most of the church’s 2,000 year history, the majority of people could not read.
And even if they could read, hand copied and artistically illuminated manuscripts were precious items! Cathedrals were fortunate to possess Bibles, let alone manor houses and peasant dwellings.
Obviously, the printing press and especially moveable type ushered in a whole new era in scriptural availability. Translations of the sacred text into vernacular languages also made the word of God accessible to the educated household. Lamentably, the convenience of a printed text in one’s own native language dawned on the Christian world at the same time that many within that world were becoming disheartened with the clergy of the day. Inept sermons, scandalous living, and simplistic theology drove some believers to seek God only in his written word. The Bible replaced the church as God’s instrument of salvation.
Since the Reformation, the Bible has become so closely associated with Protestant Christianity and the sacraments so closely aligned with Catholic Christianity, that the two strains hardly overlapped on the popular level. Protestants repudiated the Eucharist and Catholics ignored the Bible. Protestant preaching became largely scriptural; Catholic preaching was predominantly theological. Protestant ministers could quote the Bible authoritatively and expansively; Catholic priests often proffered the lives of the saints or the musings of scholars. Even Catholic religious education classes and Catholic school rooms opted more for Bible stories rather than for the Bible itself. Catholicism was rich enough in tradition, sacramentality, and spirituality that it could survive this meager rationing of God’s word. And happily Catholicism avoided (until recently) the worse excesses of liberal Protestant investigations into Scripture. Nowadays there is great hope for a renewed scriptural appreciation within the Catholic world.
St. Peter commends the power of holy writ in his epistle read at Mass this weekend: “Indeed the word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart.” The word of God is broader than the Bible certainly, but it is effectively contained there. Pope Pius XII’s Divinoi Afflante Spiritu in 1943 and the Second Vatican Council’s decrees greatly encouraged the investigation of Scripture by Catholic scholars and lay people. The readings at daily and Sunday Mass were completely revised to include a broader selection of sacred texts.
Priests were encouraged to preach daily on the word of God. The Book of the Gospels was carried in procession and Bibles were often displayed prominently in sanctuaries, sometimes with a vigil lamp, sharing the reverence accorded the Blessed Sacrament. On the local level, Catholic involvement in the charismatic and Pentecostal movements led many local communities to establish Bible study groups. Catechisms for school age children became more scripturally oriented. Gradually Catholics are lifting their Bibles off their coffee tables and placing them on their night stands. Scripture is coming of age in the Catholic Church.