Interpretation of Scripture

Thanks to all of you in advance for your explanations and help as we enter the Catholic
Church. It will be a “hard row to hoe” with family who are non-catholic. Mentalities are hard to conquers but when I don’t have an answer I know where I can run.

My current question is I regards to interpreting Scripture. I have been told there was a time when the Catholic leaders did not want Catholics reading the Bible. It was read and interpreted by the priest only.

What do you know or say to that?

What I say is:
There was a time prior to the invention of the printing
press that the majority of the world’x population
was illiterate. They couldn’t read a Bible and could
not afford a handwritten one. Therefore the priests
read the Bible to them and explained what they read
in the homily/sermon.

I also learned some things in regards to this from my Catholicism class (although feel free to correct me, memory little fuzzy).

In addition to the fact that Bibles weren’t mass produced back then as now, there is also the fact that the interpretation of scripture in itself was largely reserved for priests and other religious vocations. One issue is that with the magisterium and concise consistent interpretation of scripture, it was feared that reading scripture alone could result in personal interpretation (or misinterpretation) of scripture that went against doctrinal/dogmatic teachings of the Church.
I think the fact that there are thousands of Protestant denominations shows some truth to the matter.

However, I believe since Vatican II with Dei Verbum, the church has been much more lax about this and changed its stance and actually supported scriptural analysis since, especially because of how far Protestant denominations have gone in their own scripture studies in the several centuries they’ve existed.

And, after the printing press was invented and people began to learn to read and write, several loosey-goosy translations were done without Church approval. Remember, the Scriptures are the Church’s book. It’s canon was approved by the Church. The NT especially was written by the Apostles or their disciples. Also, Christ gave authority to his Apostles and the successors to teach, preach and baptize, not to the average person. You may want to cite:

2 Peter 1:20 First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, 21 because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.

Welcome Home!

The Church has never prevented the faithful from reading the Bible. In charity, it is up to the person in your family making the claim to prove it, which they will not be able to.

They may bring up a fact that in Churches, especially in Europe, bibles were chained to the Santuary or otherwise locked up. This has nothing to do with not allowing the faithful to read Scripture but all to do about keeping safe the few handwritten and handcopied bibles available at the time (recall that this was before the printing press and all bibles were hand copies).

What the Church did require of the faithful, even those rich enough or fortunate enough to have their own copy of Scripture, was that the Church was the sole authoritative interpreter - exactly the same as it is today.

What everybody else has said. There are two main arguments often produced by anti-Catholics.

One, that the Bible was in Latin and the Church resisted translating it into the various local languages. This is simply not true. There were literally hundreds of different translations into the various languages of Europe prior to the Reformation. Interestingly, if you read the original introduction to the King James Bible you will see this truth acknowledged.

most nations under heaven did shortly after their conversion, hear Christ speaking unto them in their mother tongue, not by the voice of their minister only, but also by the written word translated.

What the Church did was forbid unauthorised translations because these either deliberately mistranslated certain passages to support false doctrine or added footnotes to ‘explain’ passages in an heretical fashion.

Two a local Council in Tolouse, during a struggle against the Albigensians did absolutely forbid the private possession of certain translated versions of the Bible and this is often presented by anti-Catholics as if it were a universal prohibition. It was no such thing. It arose in a specific local area to deal with a specific local issue and lapsed when the issue ceased to convulse that region of France.

It is also worth remembering that in pre-literate societies people were no less intelligent than in literate ones. Literacy was limited not because of a wicked plot by the Church but because until the invention of both printing and cheap paper universal literacy was not possible. The Church though taught people in the language they could ‘read’ ie pictures. European Churches were saturated with images taken from the Bible stories and people were taught these stories by means of the images. A medieval European peasant could probably ‘read’ and understand a great cathedral like Notre Dame de Paris a hundred times better than a university educated 21st Century American.

The recommendation that Christians not read scripture was a response to both the invention of the printing press and the Protestant reformation.

For the first time in history people were able to procure a Bible with relative ease and were interpreting scripture apart from the Church. The Church was right to try to stop the errors and recommending that scripture not be read by the laity was part of that effort in some places. Unfortunately that mindset persisted well into the 20th century.


I am unfamiliar with a recommendation that Christians not read scripture, as you say, other than a debunked myth saying so. Can you point me to something from the Catholic Church, officially, that said this? It would contradict so many other statements by popes, Church Fathers and even St. Jerome who translated the Vulgate, encouraging reading of Scripture (as well as Mass attendance, in which Scripture is proclaimed).

Why chain bibles in churches, making them available for any Christian to read (when no one would afford his or her own) if no one was allowed to read them?

Now, interpretation is another thing. As we know from Christianity, particularly outside the Magisterium, and from 2 Pet 3:16, correct interpretation by readers is not easy. The Reformation was a confusing time for people, tossed here and there by the winds of various doctrines, but today even more so. Praise God for His wisdom. No wonder Jesus established a living authority!

Yes, I thought Vatican II played a part as well.

The reason for my question stemmed from a family member who doesn’t share my passion for the Church and she defends “only the Bible” mentality. I haven’t found the words yet to try to explain the Magisterium and Tradition. That will be a future conversation.

Many posts have addressed this question well. Here is another thought:

The CC for centuries hired scribes to transcribe the Bible, this is why we have the Bible today. It is the CC who made sure that this translation was done correctly and is still doing that. Had they really wanted to keep it from the people, would they have made so many manuscripts and made sure that this was done judiciously in order to preserve the Word?

The second thing is related to the illiteracy of people. Many people could not read (still many can’t). This is why so many carvings and paintings are in the Churches so that the average person could experience the bible stories…This is not the works of a Church wanting to keep people in the dark, this is a Church doing everything in it’s power to bring the Word to the people.

God Bless You

Many good points have already been made, and I apologize if I repeat them while attempting to build on them.

Vatican II reiterated what the Church has always taught, that the faithful should study scripture on a regular basis. However, the CC has always cautioned the laity against interpreting scripture on their own. The Church wants people to ask questions about what they are reading. That is how we grow as individuals and as a community.

We do not grow when we blindly follow along or when we choose to say we know better than 2,000 years of the best and brightest theologians.

As has been pointed out, many people in the early church could not read, and Bibles were not just books but works of art to rival those of the great painters and sculptors. Every page of vellum was hand made. Every character was written by hand, and every decoration drawn by that same hand.

This made the Bible one of the most valuable books in the world. To allow the faithful to have access, the Church chained Bibles in their early parishes to keep them from being stolen.

Because people in the early church couldn’t read, the Church paid for art to represent the important characters and stories of the Bible. It allowed them to connect with the words they heard in the Mass or read in the Bible but didn’t understand.

There was a time when all Bibles were handwritten. One Bible could take over a year to write and was usually done by monks and nuns. As the printing press was not invented until the 15th Century, there was usually only ONE bible per church and yes sometimes the Priest would chain and lock this Bible away. Who would blame him? If he lost that one, it may be a while before he received a replacement.

The majority of the population was illiterate. Education was only afforded to the elite, aristocracy and governing classes.

Stained glass windows and statues, carvings in churches/cathedrals also told biblical stories to the majority who could not read or write.

Individuals reading and interpreting Scripture and formulating Doctrine is an anathema to the CC. This practice is a new phenomenon. The Early Church from the time of the Apostles never did this. The Apostles interpreted Sacred Scripture, formulated Doctrine and then taught the masses.

Early attempts after the invention of the printing press to restrict Catholics from owning a Bible was because they foresaw what was coming. i.e. individuals deciding for themselves what should be Doctrine and splitting away to form their own churches and when they disagree with what that church is saying, they split off and form their own church etc etc until you have what we have today. Thousands of churches and/or individuals all claiming to be ‘infallibly’ teaching the correct interpretation.

The Holy Spirit can never be the author of confusion.

Today all Catholics read and reflect on Scripture I don’t attempt to interpret Scripture though. I have the Catechism for that.

It is not a myth. There were times and places where private interpretation of Scripture apart from the Church got so bad that private reading had to be suppressed. I have nothing official to point to - I don’t have time for that.

There was a case in France where someone was teaching error and pointing to the Bible as their source - they were reading out of context - and the error actually caused riots. I do not recall when or where but the Church forbade reading the Bible as a way to quell the riots.

I know people who in the 1950’s were told that it was best to leave the Bible to professionals. I had a Catholic man in his 60’s tell me that I had no right to hold Bible study in my home unless a priest was present.

We have to face facts and not bury our head in the sand. It did happen, but it was localized and to address specific problems.


I’m 58 been Catholic all my life my husband is nearing
70 been Catholic all his life pre Vatican II our parents
and grandparents all Catholic as well in Maryland, Indiana, Colorado,
Arkansas, California and Canada and no one can remember
A Catholic Bible suppression at any time for any
reason. Let’s take our heads out of the sand and
simply admit this is and always has been an ongoing
anti catholic MYTH designed to denigrate the Church.

If on the other hand you can provide some type
of concrete proof of your assertions? That would be great.

Actually, I think that you are referring to the burning of bibles which incorrectly translated by heretical groups. This statement only goes to support that the CC is very committed to the integrity of the bible, its accuracy and its holiness. The CC allows the people to get the word of God, not the word of some dude or heretical group.

Case and point, do you know anyone who quotes the bible out of context to suit their thoughts?

On your second point…Let`s say that you are correct, let’s say that some priest did say what you claim, there is a big difference between a priest stating something that is untrue and the doctrine of the Catholic Church.

I’d like to be sure I understand your comments.
In your first post you stated the Church, during the protest against her, recommended Catholics not READ Scripture.

Subsequent posts did not substantiate that, but discussed interpretation rather than reading.

Is it possible you initially typed “read” in error, when you really meant the Church recommended Catholics not try to “privately interpret apart from the teachings of the Church”?

Thanks & God bless.


I don’t think that’s the case at all. Someone mentioned that the Bible is the most talked about but the least read book. Today’s Catechism isn’t much different. As opposed to the Baltimore Catechism, for example.

Good one! Yes, I’ll remember that.

Yes, you are correct. She is not in favor of the decision really. I think it is a mentality problem. So many myths have be debunked in my journey and I’m glad the myths are gone!

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