Catholics and the Bible

A priest told me that he was invited to a meeting of the clergy in his town. All the other participants were Protestant ministers.

The organizers had placed the priest’s name in the category for “Non-Biblical Religions.” Before he could say anything, a Baptist minister stood. “How” this minister said, “could we ever list a Catholic priest as ‘non-biblical’? None of us Protestants would have the Bible were it not for the Catholic Church!”

This minister hit the nail on the head. No one today, of any religion, would have the Bible if it had not been for Roman Catholic efforts long ago to keep the Bible alive.

Printing has not been here forever. It came along when Johannes Gutenberg invented the first primitive printing press in Germany in the 15th century. He produced the first printed version of the Holy Bible. It was the only version used by European Christians at the time: the Latin Vulgate, long the official Bible of the Catholic Church.

It had no competition of any significance. There were then no Protestants in the world.

Before Gutenberg, every book was hand-written. Not surprisingly, books were scarce.

The Catholic Church’s role in preserving the Bible came about precisely because the Church — as stated innumerable times by popes, bishops and ecumenical councils — maintained that the Bible is the revealed word of God.

In this thinking, the Catholic monasteries that began in Western Europe in the sixth century devoted themselves to preserving the Bible. Monks painstakingly copied the Bible by hand, producing new copies.

Books produced in this way were very expensive. Only royalty and the rich could afford to have a Bible in their homes. If a parish church had the resources, it would acquire a Bible, but it would have to protect the Bible from theft. So Bibles were kept under lock and key or fastened by a chain to the floor. Not to make it difficult for people to read the Bible, just the opposite: to guarantee access to anyone who wanted to read the Scriptures.

By the same measure, a copy of Virgil’s “Aeneid” would have been closely guarded. Every book was valuable.

Gutenberg’s printing process changed this significantly. Bibles became mass-produced, as it was at that time, and more widely available, but most people could not read and write. They had to depend on homilies by priests or stained-glass windows to know the Bible stories.

Everything together — Gutenberg, greater literacy and, with the Reformation, arguing back and forth — revolutionized Bible study.

In several places, Protestant scholars translated the Bible into everyday languages. Latin lost its monopoly. Then in the late 16th century, English Catholic biblical experts came together to translate the Bible into English. By that time they had to work in France to keep their heads, as Catholicism was a crime in England. They principally labored in Douai and Rheims; hence their translation is called the Douai-Rheims Bible.

Meanwhile, back in Britain, King James I of England, VI of Scotland, commissioned an English translation for Anglican use. Over the years, it became the standard Bible for English-speaking Protestants of all varieties.

The King James Version, as it is called, certainly is superb English prose, but its appearance hardly represented the arrival of a Bible for use by Christians.

The Catholic Church had kept the Bible alive for all the centuries prior to the King James Version.

Indeed, as that Baptist minister said, nobody today would have the Bible were it not for the Roman Catholic Church.

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.