Sunday, February 14, 2010

Spanning the Protestant / Catholic divide - Part I "Why Don't Catholics Know the Bible"

Intro: I have been interested in improving communication and reducing confusion between Protestants and Catholics for some time. My pet theory is that we often misunderstand and talk at cross purposes because we have different 'culture' and language, and that even when we use the same words, we may not understand them the same way. So this series is not meant to be apologetic so much as it is meant to be focused on the differences in how we approach Faith and the world.

While eating Mexican fast food with a large group of guys after a 12 step meeting last night I got into a conversation with a knowledgeable and fairly open minded Protestant. John mentioned that he was impressed that I was well informed about my faith and that in his experience Catholics have not been able to answer his questions and they didn't know the Bible.

So John asked me “Why don’t most Catholic know the Bible? ” Also I think he asked if reading the Bible on one’s own was discouraged by the Church.Afterward I wasn’t satisfied with my answer, so now I’m blogging about it. The question is not as simple to answer as it is to ask! My response was (roughly): “Catholics should read the Bible more on their own, but probably most don’t read it often. The Catholic Church is a Church of the Bible. I think its partly that it’s very comfortable being a Catholic. The Sacraments are efficacious regardless of my personal understanding.” It was an inadequate response. We were one conversation in a group and it wasn’t a time when we could focus on really fleshing things out.

So I’d like to take a crack at it here. The problems and solutions for dialoguing with Protestants has been one of my main lines of thought over the past few years, so I am planning to make this a series.

Answer Part A
Catholics do know the Bible! Yes, contrary to what nearly all Protestants and most Catholics believe, Catholics do actually know the Bible. I would even say that it is reasonable that in general the average ‘practicing’ Catholic knows the Bible roughly as well as the Average Protestant!

Catholics just don’t ‘know’ the Bible the same way that Protestants ‘know’ the Bible, or at least the way Catholics think that most Protestants ‘know’ the Bible. Usually Catholics feel inferior about our Bible knowledge because we can’t turn right to the Chapter and Verse for hardly anything, and we don’t generally have any verses perfectly memorized.On the other hand, Protestants are often portrayed in fiction and film and occasionally turn up on our door step seeming to know Chapter and Verse all up and down and forwards and backwards through the whole Bible.

And it is generally true that many ‘serious’ Protestants especially those from very Evangelical or Fundamentalist backgrounds will have spent more time personally reading the Bible and will have memorized at least a couple of dozen verses up to maybe a hundred or so. Thus as a Catholic I feel very inferior because I just paraphrase, usually mix up passages from a couple of places and have a hard time locating any of it quickly by Chapter and verse.

On the other hand, Catholics who attend Mass every Sunday hear a lot of scripture! Three readings usually one Old Testament, one New Testament (epistles, Acts and Revelation) and one Gospel each between 5 and 15 verses or occasionally longer. In the 3 year cycle of readings for the Sunday Mass we hear a pretty healthy fraction of the Bible and certainly all of the most significant passages.

From the readings at Sunday Mass alone, nearly every Catholic who consistently attends Mass weekly is very familiar with all the really significant parts of scripture. I’m not implying in the least that we should call that “good enough” or that there is nothing of value or importance that we’re missing. What I am saying is that Catholics who actually attend Mass actually do know reasonably well what is in the Bible – we just aren’t very good at finding it.

At the same time, I’m not convinced that taken as a whole Protestants really know the Bible all that well. Certainly among certain branches of Protestantism there is a very strong tradition of Bible study, and there are Protestants who really do know the Bible in and out. But I have questions. How often is Bible knowledge heavily focused on particular passages and books – spotty? How often is Bible knowledge focused on memorizing isolated verses and proof texting? How often is Bible knowledge distorted by rigorous use of a particular hermeneutic or denominational understanding?

What I quickly discovered in my own journey is that often times the “Commanding Knowledge” of the Bible I was confronting was pretty easy to deflate. Just memorizing 7 verses supporting the Catholic doctrines and insisting on reading verses in context, and having confidence to know that there are answers and I found that most debates with Protestant Bible thumpers ended very quickly and they seldom make another run at me.

Answer Part B
We have tried / are trying. All my lifetime I’ve known that reading the Bible either personally or in a study group is very much encouraged. Certainly since Vatican II the Church has strongly encouraged Bible reading. Every parish I’ve ever attended was continually offering and starting Bible studies.

I think a healthy majority of practicing Catholics have made an effort at one time or another to ‘read the Bible’ and a pretty good percentage has joined a Bible Study group at least once. Yet overall, it doesn’t seem like serious Bible reading has ‘caught on’ among Catholics. Still, I think most Catholics have managed to read Genesis, the Gospels, a healthy selection of the Psalms and a spattering of everything else.

Answer Part C
Basic Explanation: Reading the Bible is HARD. It’s difficult to build a habit. The Bible is readable in some areas, but many books are very dry, or confusing. Some parts of the Old Testament are difficult to relate to the present. We don’t know the history and background well enough to really keep track of what is going on in the historic books. Romans in particular and large parts of the other Pauline epistles are very confusing to follow and sort out. Not to mention Revelation.

It is generally not something we grew up doing, and seeing our parents do, so we don’t have a framework for it. Generally, Catholic religious education both at the parish and at home, doesn’t focus on the Bible. One result is that the Bible isn’t seen as the source for what we need to know – which is partly true. Another result is that we don’t learn a basic familiarity with Catholic principles for interpreting scripture (literal, allegorical, moral and anagogical senses) and don’t get a ‘feel’ for the various types of literature in the Bible, and a general sense of the history of Israel and how the prophets fit in with the Chronology. Then when we come to the Bible as an adult, we have a hard time ‘developing our sea legs.’

Answer Part D
For Catholics there is no ‘need’ or question that drives us to read the Bible! This is the answer I was trying to get at with my initial reply. As Catholics, we are content with our 'uncertain' salvation. We accept our Sacramental System and that's that. We just don't worry about Calvin, vs. Zwingli vs. Luther vs. Wesley vs. NT Wright when it comes to salvation. The average Catholic seldom or never gets into theological debates unless we’re “attacked” by Protestant evangelizers.

And this is actually HEALTHY. We know that we are justified through Faith in Jesus Christ. We know that we were Baptized and that we receive Communion and go to Confession and most of us have been Confirmed. We know that these Sacraments are Mysterious and real symbols of God’s grace and that we receive the free gift of God’s grace through the sacraments. We understand that our minor sins are forgiven in the two confessions we make during every Mass and that we are united to Jesus Christ by receiving His Body and Blood in the Eucharist. We understand that when we confess serious (or minor) sins to a Priest and receive absolution we don’t have to worry anymore if we are “truly sorry;” the sacrament is not dependent on our subjective emotional feelings. Once we’ve received absolution – from Jesus through the Priest we know for sure that we are forgiven from ALL our sins.

The average Catholic could use a refresher course on the details of being in a “state of grace” and how that relates to what Paul is talking about in Romans regarding being in the Spirit and the Obedience of Faith as opposed to being “a slave to sin” or “in the flesh.” I think that nearly all practicing Catholics have the essential understanding intuitively, even if they are pretty fuzzy on the details and vocabulary. And again, grace doesn't require our knowledge or comprehension.

Having the Sacraments, particularly Baptism, Confession and Eucharist leads to a great sense of security. Catholics who actually attend Mass regularly at least intuitively understand the Sacraments and as a result, the questions, theological or personal or ecclesiastical , that might make Bible study an urgent priority just aren’t there for us.

That leaves a perfect lead in for Part II in this series: Why Do Protestants focus so much on reading the Bible?

1 comment:

  1. Excellent.

    One addition? What we mean by "know" is loaded word. As a Protestant I "knew" the bible largely by my own interpretation of it, sola scriptura, bible only, just the bible and me. Sounds good but it's a position of subjective weakness. Protestants themselves understand this if they don't also admit it because the bible is not as clear and self interpreting as they (as I used to) claim. Thus many writers in the past 500 years have said a lot of things to help other Protestants "understand" the bible. Naturally, with each of them coming from a sola scriptura base, significant differences arise, and arise often enough to cause Protestants to continue to protest, split and divide. While this is politely explained as being different branches of the same tree it is in fact the sectarianism that St. Paul, in sacred scripture, condemns.

    Catholics "know" sacred scripture under the Christ ordained guidance of the objective, living teaching authority of the Church. As rich as this Tradition is, as you have already there is a weakness of not engaging with, in taking personal responsibility for "knowing", i.e. reading and studying, the bible themselves. However, this is, I believe, changing exponentially since Vatican II and especially as former ordained Protestant ministers, theologians and historians have converted to the historic Church, the Catholic Church, bringing with them (us) a deep appreciation for knowing, loving, studying and applying the word of God themselves (again, in concert with sacred Tradition).

    God bless you Paul as you share you faith and your love and respect for the bible with our very dear and beloved separated brethren.