Why Catholics See the Bible Differently than Protestants

The story behind the Catholic approach to Scripture.

In Catholic circles, the joke goes that if you want to quote from the Bible, find a good Protestant to help you. There is some truth to that. Catholics generally don’t know their Bible as well as Protestants, especially evangelicals, whose worship and private devotion are centered on Scripture. Catholics rely on the Bible, of course, but they also turn to rituals to enact the full meaning of Scripture.  Why do Catholics engage the Bible differently than Protestants?

In the beginning of Christianity, the Word of God was primarily heard. One way of considering how Catholics approach the Bible is by tracing the historical movements from hearing the Bible to seeing, singing, reading, praying, and living the word of God.

Like their Jewish ancestors, the first Christians told stories around a meal.

Christianity is a story — good news, in fact — and like any good story, it is told from one generation to the next. Like their Jewish ancestors, the first Christians told stories around a meal. The birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus changed the ancient storyline. As they told the familiar story of Israel from this Easter perspective, the early church began to write it down, allowing the story to be shared more broadly and consistently.

By the end of the second century, the core books — the four Gospels, and the letters attributed to Paul, Peter, and John — were fixed in the canon of what we call the New Testament. By 400 A.D., there was consensus around all 27 books of the New Testament.

Without the printing press, the books of the Jewish and Christian scriptures had to be painstakingly copied by hand. Bibles were rare and expensive. Deacons, priests, and bishops were entrusted with proclaiming the scriptures, in Latin throughout the Roman or Western Church, and then preaching about them, sometimes in local language. These clerics mediated the good news to ordinary Christians, most of whom could not read. So did parents, who told familiar Bible stories to their children. Tales of saints, exemplars of Christian living, became popular. Embellishment added to their allure. Gregorian chant developed as a helpful way to remember scripture through hearing.

In the Middle Ages, the Bible could be seen. Pageants and processions brought to life familiar biblical scenes. St. Francis of Assisi in the 13th century introduced the now-familiar nativity scene to visually demonstrate the Christmas story. Stained glass windows and statues adorned churches and cathedrals to captivate the senses and inspire the hearts and minds of worshippers.

For Catholics, the sacraments, which are biblically rooted, are a path to holiness distinct, but not removed, from the reading of scripture.

The mystical interplay between hearing and seeing explains the attraction of the Catholic sacraments, rituals wherein familiar words, actions, and the ordinary stuff of this world — water, oil, fire, incense — take on a certain beauty and depth. In the sacraments, the Divine is revealed without exhausting the Divine presence. With a sacramental imagination, for example, the believer witnesses water washing away sins, and ordinary bread and wine becoming the real presence of Christ in the Eucharistic meal. For Catholics, the sacraments, which are biblically rooted, are a path to holiness distinct, but not removed, from the reading of scripture.

The cry of the Protestant reformation of the 16th century was sola scriptura (“by Scripture alone”). Luther worried that the ecclesiastical traditions that developed over the centuries — including sacramental rituals and teachings of church authorities — were obscuring the centrality of scripture as the revealed word of God. The cry was more easily heeded because just decades before the reformers, Gutenberg invented his printing press. With more readily available Bibles in hand, and growing literacy among Christians, Protestant clergy kept scripture central to worship and encouraged private devotion to the Bible.

Catholic authorities reacted with caution, insisting that the Bible must be authoritatively translated, taught, and interpreted lest the ordinary Christian be led astray by ignorance or fancy. Catholics too had Bibles more readily available, but they, in a sense, already had the Bible rooted in the vast traditions of the faith: they had priests to tell them about the Bible, and rituals to enact the meaning of scripture, plus a wealth of art and architecture and pious devotions to inspire the Catholic imagination.

So much of a Catholic’s experience of the Bible depends on the deacon or priest who proclaims and preaches on the biblical text.

The Second Vatican Council in the 1960s both validated and inspired movements to better integrate the Bible into the devotional life of Catholics. Protestant and Catholic scholars delved more deeply into the historical contexts and literary forms of scripture. In its revision of the liturgy, the Catholic Church significantly expanded the parts of the Bible heard at Mass, and popular hymns were tied more explicitly to scripture. Better educated in the basics of their faith, and learning from their Protestant brothers and sisters, Catholics read the Bible more.

They also learned to pray with scripture. Inspired by the Council, religious orders shared their animating spiritualities more broadly. For example, the Benedictine devotion of lectio divina, a meditative reading of scripture, became more popular, as did the Jesuit approach of contemplation: using one’s imagination to enter into the sights and sounds of a biblical scene. (The movies Noah and Son of God are examples of this technique of praying with scripture, writ large).

So much of a Catholic’s experience of the Bible depends on the deacon or priest who proclaims and preaches on the biblical text. The preacher can enliven or deaden the inspired word of God. In his apostolic exhortation The Joy of the Gospel, published late last year, Pope Francis offered extensive and frank advice to preachers. The homilist fosters a conversation between God and God’s people, he writes. The preacher must not only know scripture, but “must know the heart of his community,” offering them an account of hope and a gospel of joy. (And, he writes to the applause of many, homilies must be brief, not taking on “the semblance of a speech or a lecture.”)

Like other Christians, Catholics today hear, read, see, sing, and pray the Bible. Technology and social media have facilitated this multifaceted immersion into scripture. But all of this — even the most eloquent preaching or expertly performed ritual, even the fanciest apps or the most brilliant stained glass — means little unless the Bible is lived in ordinary lives of faith, hope, and love.

Image by Chris Sloan.


Kevin O'Brien Kevin O’Brien, a Jesuit priest, is Vice President for Mission and Ministry at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He is the author of the award-winning book, "The Ignatian Adventure: Experiencing the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius in Daily Life."
  • http://davidsonofjack.blogspot.com/ David Baldner

    Thank you for this beautiful discourse. So right, your last sentence sums it up well: “But all of this — even the most eloquent preaching or expertly performed
    ritual, even the fanciest apps or the most brilliant stained glass —
    means little unless the Bible is lived in ordinary lives of faith, hope,
    and love.”

  • David L. Moore

    Scripture was central for Jesus, and he berated the Pharisees for throwing over the Word of God for their tradition. The canonical New Testament is the apostles’ doctrine as it was written down by the apostles themselves and, in some cases, by their close collaborators. The curch’s pretention to apostolic authority is an empty claim if its teaching or practice effectively denies the clear teaching of the apostles found in Scripture.

  • BM

    Give us a break !!! What a lot of worthless god-hype. There is no god so stop wasting your time.

    • saneandreasonable

      The burr is up your*** about others believing in God. What’s with that?

  • fatboyinde

    You sort of forgot about the part where the Catholic Church forbade anyone to own a Bible, to have a Bible written in a language that they understood, and to read the Bible for themselves. As recently as 100 years ago, it was forbidden for Catholic priests to own their own Bible. Is it any wonder that the typical parish priest has never read, must less studied, the Holy Bible? The Mass throws in a few verses here from this book and a few verses there. Go ahead, ask the priest about the entire book, if you want to embarrass him. In so many ways, the Catholic Church continues to forbid knowledge of God’s Word, just as it has done historically. And, yes, I would love the author to refute anything I’ve written here, but he cannot.

    • Joey Goodwin

      You are ignorant beyond belief. Refuting such ignorant claims would be casting pearls before swine.

      • fatboyinde

        You make a good point, Joey, now I think your Mommy is calling you for dinner; time to leave her basement.

        • Joey Goodwin

          Always nice when trolls out themselves, obviating the need for actual discourse.

    • empathylouis

      Well, the main reason for this was that, until recently, rare holy scripture was actually suppose to be held/chained in a Church, b/c it was a valued treasure. Many churches during the first 1500 years of Christendom had a difficult time in actually coming into possession of a full complete copy of scripture because of its rareness/expense (this does not even take into consideration that during the first 400 years after the death of Jesus, there was no general consensus on what books should be officially a part of scripture or that until the 16th century, the laity were, for the most part, illiterate). Scriptures, during this time, were highly decorative and could take many years to complete, since they were all written by hand. Only nobility or rich merchants could have afforded a complete copy of scripture. It wasn’t until 1456 AD, that Gutenberg’s invention allowed for the mass production of scripture (this was supported by the Church). So, for the first 1500 years, the Church showcased scripture mostly through artwork or statuary. This was a significant way to preach the Gospel to the illiterate masses. An example of this would be the Stations of the Cross or the many different pieces of art that Church possesses. Personally, I question the notion that priests could not own their own bible 100 years ago. I know that there are Benedictine priests that do not own physical possessions, but rather share their possessions with their brother priests, but, how could these priests get through their seminary studies without having scripture readily available to them?

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