Pope Clement XI, "Unigenitus" (1713) & Scripture


Hi all,

I was reading something that mentioned that Pope Clement XI had forbidden Christians to read Scripture. Not trusting that this was wholly accurate, since the source was a little anti-Catholic (not horrifically, but a little), I went to www.papalencyclicals.com, and looked up the 1713 bull of Pope Clement XI, Unigenitus, (this was the work cited), and sure enough, the criticism wasn’t completely accurate, but nevertheless certain things are a little concerning.

Among the condemned propositions were as such:

  1. It is useful and necessary at all times, in all places, and for every kind of person, to study and to know the spirit, the piety, and the mysteries of Sacred Scripture.
  1. The reading of Sacred Scripture is for all.<I guess this means that it isn’t necessary for everyone to read it; Catholics can be illiterate>
  1. The sacred obscurity of the Word of God is no reason for the laity to dispense themselves from reading it.
  1. The Lord’s Day ought to be sanctified by Christians with readings of pious works and above all of the Holy Scriptures. It is harmful for a Christian to wish to withdraw from this reading.
  1. It is an illusion to persuade oneself that knowledge of the mysteries of religion should not be communicated to women by the reading of Sacred Scriptures. Not from the simplicity of women, but from the proud knowledge of men has arisen the abuse of the Scriptures and have heresies been born.<I’m not sure what the meaning of this is.>
  1. To snatch away from the hands of Christians the New Testament, or to hold it closed against them by taking away from them the means of understanding it, is to close for them the mouth of Christ.<I sort-of understand this, since I assume it means that it’s the Church, not Scripture itself, that is the mouth of Christ.>
  1. To forbid Christians to read Sacred Scripture, especially the Gospels, is to forbid the use of light to the sons of light, and to cause them to suffer a kind of excommunication.<This I don’t understand.>
  1. To snatch from the simple people this consolation of joining their voice to the voice of the whole Church is a custom contrary to the apostolic practice and to the intention of God.<I’m not really sure what this means; it might not even be related.>
  • Clement XI, Unigenitus

You can find the bull here: papalencyclicals.net/Clem11/c11unige.htm

I know the Catechism exhorts all Christians to read Sacred Scripture, which is why this is such a surprise. I really would like to know what this means.

Thank you!,
Benedicat Deus,


I will try to explain some of what you don’t understand, although I am not a theologian, none of this is obscure. If I am wrong, someone who has the knowledge please correct me.

  1. The reading of Sacred Scripture is for all.–Throughout history most people have been illiterate, yet they know Sacred Scripture because it has been read or preached to them. It has been passed on by word of mouth, in the liturgy, by preachers, etc., and by religious artwork, such as the great stained glass windows in the great cathedrals. Sacred Scripture is for everyone, and the Church has the responsibility of passing it on in any way that can be understood, whether people can read or not.

  2. Some people believed women should be excluded from the knowledge of Scripture because they thought they were too simple to understand it. The Pope is saying that this is false thinking, an illusion, and that heresies have arisen and the Scriptures abused not by women, but by proud men, who have given their own interpretation to Scripture rather than look to the Church for it. IOW, it is not women who are too simple to understand–it is men’s own arrogance in thinking they can interpret Scripture without the guidance of the Church that leads to heresy and abuse of Scripture.

  3. Christ speaks to the Church through Scripture. If Scripture is forbidden them, they have silenced Christ.

  4. Jesus is the Light of the World. He is the Word made Flesh. The Light of Jesus in the Word illuminates men. Christians are the “sons of light”–sons of God and co-heirs of Christ. If one denies them the use of Sacred Scripture, they are being cut off from the light, a sort of ex-communication from Jesus. It is not referring to the Church discipline of excommunication. It is referring to cutting people off from the knowledge of Jesus through Sacred Scripture.

  5. The Apostles never kept people from the knowledge of God. In the early Church the letters and writings that make up the New Testament were passed around and read during the meetings of these Christians. This was the custom of the Apostles, and was the way God wanted it to be (his intention). So to deny people the Scriptures is to deny them what God intended and the tradition of the Apostles.

Rather than forbidding people to read Scripture, it seems the Pope is saying the exact opposite: forbidding people to read scripture cuts them off from the Word of God. However, they cannot interpret it without the guidance of the Church, as that can (and has) led to heresy and the abuse of Scripture. It should be read and interpreted in the light of Church teaching about it. I see nothing in here that condemns the reading of Sacred Scripture. He is saying, instead that it is essential that Christians become familiar with Sacred Scripture. I don’t know where these people get such ideas.



I think CB got it.


The only problem is that all of these propositions are condemned, which is what I don’t understand.


1713 was the middle-late period of the Protestant reformation. The Methodists were just breaking off from the Anglicans who had broken off from the Catholics. Lutheranism was strong as were the Calvinist churches. The early 1700’s was also the beginning of the age of enlightenment which stressed reason and individualism.

The short answer is that all of the above combined to create an atmosphere where people were able to buy books freely, including the Bible, and draw their own conclusions. The Church’s reaction at times was that Scripture should be left to the professionals, going so far as to discourage reading of scripture among the laity.

Catholics don’t like to hear that this actually took place and bringing it up usually results in many angry rebuttals, quotes to the contrary and demands for proof. Unigenitus is one such proof. I have taken much flak for stating as much but the truth is the truth. The Church reacted, sometimes violently, against the Reformation, including discouraging private reading of scripture at times. People were reading scripture on their own and coming up with some pretty whacky ideas because they didn’t understand the context of the passages. One such idea led to civil unrest in an area of France and the Bible was temporarily put on the index of forbidden books until the unrest subsided.

This is what you are seeing in Unigenitus. It was a product of its own time and written for its own time. It has to be read in the context of what was happening when it was written. The points cited were specific rebuttals to specific challenges against Church authority and the teaching office of the Church from the Protestant Churches at the time, many of which were quite powerful and growing.

The Second Vatican Council was, in many ways, a reversal of the defensive mindset of the Church in reaction to the Protestant Reformation. Instead of being defensive against an increasingly educated population, the Church opened up it’s teaching and freely shared the Good News. Hence the term “Throw open the windows.”

Unfortunately the defensive mindset still exists today. I invited a couple to join my Bible study and the gentleman replied, “I would never go to a Bible study unless it was run by a priest.” It didn’t matter to him that it was the widely accepted Jeff Cavins/Great Adventure series.



DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit www.catholic.com.