Externals of the Catholic Church – The Catholic Bible

We Catholics should be well informed as to our Church’s teaching concerning the Holy Scriptures, which are one of the two great foundations of our faith. This is more necessary at the present time than ever before. In the early days of Protestantism the Church had to combat the error of the “reformers” that the word of God was contained in the Bible alone; but in these irreligious days, when so many so-called Protestants have come to treat the Bible as an ordinary book, when some of them even regard it as “a series of Oriental myths,” we Catholics should know what our Church holds and teaches concerning it

The Written Word of God

The Bible consists of a number of writings, or “books,” written in different ages by men who were inspired by God. The books written before the coming of our Lord form the Old Testament; those written by His Apostles and Evangelists, the New. In the Catholic Bible there are forty-five books in the former and twenty-seven in the latter. The Protestant versions usually exclude seven books of the Old Testament and part of two others. The Latin Bible was translated from the Hebrew and Chaldean originals by Saint Jerome. It came gradually into use throughout the Christian world, and hence is known as the Vulgate or “common” version. It was finally approved, and all other versions were excluded, by the great Council of Trent.

Our Church holds, and has always held, that the Sacred Scriptures are the written word of God. In the words of the Council, she believes and teaches concerning the books of the Old and New Testaments, that “God is the author of each” – and, believing this, she also believes that the Scriptures can contain nothing but perfect truth in faith and morals.

But if this be so, does it follow that God’s word is contained only in them? By no means. Our Church affirms that there is an unwritten word of God also, which we call Apostolic Tradition; and she maintains that it is the duty of a Christian to receive the one and the other with equal veneration.

How do we know that this teaching of our Church is true? From the whole history and the whole structure of the Old and New Testaments. If our Lord had meant that His Church should be guided by a book alone, why did He not at once provide the Church with the book? He did not do so. He commanded the world to listen to the living voice of His Apostles. “He that heareth you, heareth Me.” For about twenty years after the Ascension there was not a single book of the New Testament in existence; and the various Epistles were written by the Apostles at infrequent intervals thereafter, to give to widely scattered churches instruction on points of doctrine and morals, and to correct prevailing errors and abuses. There is no mention of even an incomplete collection of the New Testament books until the year 180. All that these early Christians had was the living voice of the Church, contained in the preaching and teaching of the Apostles and their successors. As there was no New Testament during all those years, and as a large part of Christian doctrine is in no way contained in the Old Testament, it is evident that the Scriptures could not have been in those days the sole deposit of Christian faith.

Interpreting the Scriptures

The Bible, in the words of Saint Peter, contains “things hard to be understood.” Who is to be its interpreter? Is it the individual, as Protestantism asserts, or is it the Church of God? A favorite and most impractical theory of the early “reformers” was that each Christian should interpret the Scriptures for himself. The Catholic teaching is that this is the work of the Church, the divinely appointed teacher of truth, against which “the gates of hell shall not prevail.” What has been the outcome of the Protestant idea of “private judgment”? If God had intended that each man should be his own interpreter – if the Holy Spirit were to guide each – the result would be, undoubtedly, that all would agree; for the Spirit of God could not teach truth to one and error to another. But what has been the actual result? Division and confusion, the multiplication of sects and heresies – united in nothing save their antagonism to the Catholic Church – and finally, the total rejection, by many, of the inspiration and the authority of the Bible.

“But your Church has condemned the reading of the Bible.” This is true – in a certain sense. Her practice has varied with varying circumstances. She has forbidden at times the unguided use of the Scriptures. Parts of the Bible are evidently unsuited to the very young or the ignorant; and Pope Clement XI consequently condemned the proposition that “the reading of the Scriptures is for all.” The watchful discipline of our Church has been exercised to keep her children from error or from moral evil. During the Middle Ages, when heresies were rife and corrupt translations of the Bible were numerous, the indiscriminate reading of the Scriptures was forbidden by various Councils. The Church, looking upon herself as the interpreter of God’s word, strove to guard her children from the dangers which would arise from such reading. But when the Vulgate version was authorized she insisted upon its use by the faithful in general, with the recommendation that such explanatory notes should be appended as should preclude all danger of abuse.

Moreover, we Catholics hold that the reading of the Bible is not strictly necessary. The Apostles established the Church and converted a part of the pagan world without a Bible. Many nations have received the faith without being able to read. If the study of the Scriptures had been a requisite for conversion or salvation, a great part of the world would have been left without this means of grace, at least until the invention of printing. The Catholic Church, then, regards the Bible as one source of our holy faith, but holds that its use by all her children is by no means necessary, and not even advisable, except when its meaning is expounded and interpreted by her infallible authority.

The “Chained Bible”

Rather amusing (and somewhat exasperating) is the old and oft-repeated assertion that “the Catholic Church chained the Bible.” She did, undoubtedly. The statement is perfectly true. Each church, in the Middle Ages, possessed usually a single copy of the Scriptures, a ponderous folio volume; and this was often chained to a reading-desk – for the same reason that money is put into an iron safe; because it was worth stealing. A Bible copied by hand on parchment required three years’ labor, and was valued at about $1500. Would it not have been unwise, to say the least, to leave it “lying around loose”?

The Douay Bible

The translation of the Holy Scriptures used among English-speaking Catholics is commonly called the Douay version – though somewhat incorrectly, for the Bible was not translated into English at Douay, and only a part of it was published there. Besides, the text in use at the present day has been considerably altered from that which originally bore the name of the Douay Bible.

The college at Douay, in France, was founded by exiled English priests in 1568. Within a few years political troubles caused the removal of its members to Rheims, and it was in the latter city that several of them undertook the work of preparing an English version of the Scriptures. The New Testament was published at Rheims in 1582, and the Old Testament at Douay in 1609.

The language of this first edition was fairly accurate, but was in some places uncouth and defective in style, following too closely the idioms of the language from which the translation was made. Consequently amended editions and even partially new translations were made, and of these the most widely used is that of Dr. Challoner, published in 1750, and plentifully provided with his notes, which have been added to since that time by various other editors.

The first Bible published in America for English-speaking Catholics, a reproduction of Challoner’s second edition, was issued at Philadelphia in 1790; and between 1849 and 1857 Archbishop Kenrick published an excellent revision of the Douay version.

How does our Catholic Bible compare with the so-called “Authorized Version” (a revision, made in 17 11, of the “King James” Bible), commonly used by the Protestant sects? The style of our Bible is often inferior; its matter is often superior in accuracy. The Doctors of Rheims and Douay made a closely literal and usually correct translation of the Latin text of the Vulgate, and their crudity of style and occasional slight errors have been largely eliminated by succeeding editors. The Protestant Bible is a masterpiece of English literature, generally beautiful in style and diction; but its text is distorted here and there to support Protestant doctrines – and it is, after all, only a part of the whole Bible, rejecting several books which our Church has declared to be a part of the written revelation of the Word of God. Being a masterpiece of literature does not make the “Authorized Version” a trustworthy guide to faith or to salvation.