Making Church Matter Scripture

Catholics Don’t Know the Bible

August 29, 2013

Let’s face it, Catholics are largely ignorant of the Bible. It’s a sad fact, but a true one. It’s not their fault though. It’s the fault of parish priests and church leaders reaching back generations. It’s the fault of the whole Counter-Reformation approach to Scripture that has characterized the Catholic Church for hundreds of years.

Before the Reformation, Bibles weren’t available because books were rare and expensive. People had to go to church to hear Scripture. After the invention of the printing press this changed, for Protestants, who encouraged congregants to get to know the Scripture. Meanwhile many Catholic leaders, fearing that personal Scripture reading without the direction and authority of the Church could lead to serious error (which is true) actually discouraged Bible reading (which was unfortunate). The Second Vatican Council clearly reversed this approach, but in the intervening decades little seems to have changed.

Here’s my take on why: the quality of preaching. A lot of preaching, my own included for years, teaches people to be uninterested in Scripture, or worse, to hate it.

There was a preacher at our church who, instead of preaching, used his time in the pulpit to do deep exegesis of the Scripture texts. Every week he would work his way through the readings with his historical critical tools and his Greek and Hebrew translations proving, week after week, there was nothing in the text of any interest to anyone (but him).

Another popular approach in my experience is what I would call “demythologizing” the text; this is where the preacher makes it “real” by eliminating the supernatural (you know, telling us angels don’t really exist or the Epiphany didn’t actually happen). You have probably heard this one: Jesus really didn’t multiply the loaves and fishes. What happened was that the people actually had all that food, they were hoarding it. When the little boy shared his lunch, Jesus motivated the others to do the same. Jesus didn’t really multiply anything.  In other words the Word of God can’t really be trusted. This was the theory asserted by the priest who taught Scripture in my high school (that would be my Catholic high school). As a fearless sophomore I challenged him in front of the whole class. “”If Jesus could rise from the dead, he could multiply bread, so I guess you don’t believe in the Resurrection either.”” I got detention for a week.

Sometimes the sum total of our preaching can reduce the Biblical message to Jell-O or, on the other hand, simply silly and irrelevant. Another approach we’ve all been subjected to presents Scripture as only harsh and judgmental, something to be avoided.

The quality of our preaching, as well as the content, will shape the way our communities approach and use Scripture. One of my goals each week when I step into the pulpit, is to make my listeners want to go home and pick up the Bible.

If you are a pastor or teacher or deacon or communicator of God’s word in anyway, your view and attitude towards Scripture will form the attitude of the people in your pews. Be conscious of what you are doing. Here are three steps:

  1. Show your respect for Scripture. Honor it, and approach it with honor and reverence.
  2. Show the accessibility and utility of Scripture. Let your listeners know that what they are dealing with, among other things, is useful information.
  3. Show your enthusiasm and excitement for Scripture, let the people you’re talking to see your attitude shining through.

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  1. All my 73 years have heard the readings at Mass but could not always understand or identify with many of the readings. Sometimes even now, I realize my understanding was in error. I now use two references to help me receive a guided deeper understanding.
    First: “Breaking Open the Lectionary” by Margaret Nutting Ralph, use Cycle A/B/C. I read it before Sunday Mass and take notes while listening to the homily for another teaching.
    Second: “The Great Adventure, A Journey Through the Bible” 24 week study has help me to connect the old and new testaments with greater understanding. Jeff Cavins & Sarah Christmyer’s series is excellent, with an outstanding video every week. We have now moved on to “Matthew, The King and His Kingdom”, while other groups have gone on to “Acts.” There are several groups going through this series. For a small Tennessee Catholic Church, full of northerns hungry for the word, this has whet our appetite for more.

    Our St, Ignatius Group read your book and identified in so many areas. I received your book information from a friend in Louisville KY. I introduced it to our church staff who is taking a serious look at it all. As president of the Cumberland Mt Deanery Coucil Catholic Women I am introducing your book to our sisters in Christ both in the deanery and the Knoxville Diocese.
    Thank you for your honesty and sharing.
    Our daughter lives in Baldwin MD and pray we can gather the family to attend Christmas Mass this year at The Church of the Navitity.

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