Catholic Bible Studies
James McCarthy

Given Romeís exclusive claim to the right to interpret Scripture and to teach it with authority, it is not unanticipated that most Catholics have little interest in Bible study. Only since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) has the Church even encouraged lay Catholics to read Godís Word, decreeing: "Access to sacred Scripture ought to be open wide to the Christian faithful."

Since Vatican II Catholics have become more familiar with the Bible, and some parishes have started Bible studies. This is the most promising development in modern Roman Catholicism. Nevertheless, it should be noted that Catholics approach Bible study in a different manner than evangelical Christians. The goal of Catholic Bible study is not to explore the Scriptures so as to discover what they teach. Rather the purpose is to learn how the Scriptures contain the Churchís teaching. Consequently, when a biblical command such as "do not call anyone on earth your father" (Matthew 23:9) is encountered, Tradition, not context, determines its meaning.

The focus of Catholic Bible studies can also vary widely from that of their evangelical counterparts. My wife, Jean, and I first started attending our parish study shortly after we trusted Christ and were married in 1975. We had learned the gospel through a home study sponsored by a small Bible church in San Francisco. We were excited about the truths of Scripture and pleased to learn that our parish was starting a Bible study. After a few months of attending it, however, we were disappointed to find that our parish "Bible study" had more to do with planning wine and cheese parties and gambling trips to Reno, Nevada, than it did with the Bible. After two years of going nowhere, we became hopeful when the parish hired a new director of adult religious education with a post-graduate degree in theology from the University of Notre Dame. He announced that we were going to study the book of Job. The evening of the first class, however, he made a confession. "I have to admit," he said. "I donít know why the book of Job is in the Bible. In my preparation for this course, I didnít get much out of it. But weíre going to study it anyway and see what happens."

Jean and I were stunned. How could anyone get nothing out of an inspired book! We were still attending the home Bible study through which we had come to know Christ. Dale, the teacher, was a pipe fitter with a local utility company. With a group of about 20 young adults, we were studying the book of Ephesians. We often spent 90 minutes discussing three or four verses. The time was filled with lively discussion and the spiritual nourishment from Godís Word. Now our learned Catholic teacher was telling us that an entire book of the Bible was all but worthless. The comparison was striking. We decided that night that we had had enough of Catholic Bible study and left the Church a short time later.

Parish studies can actually be detrimental to seeking Catholics. Often the parish priestís primary motivation for starting one is to counteract evangelical studies in the neighborhood. The priest, having learned that parishioners are studying the Bible with non-Catholics, decides to regather his flock by starting a Bible study of his own in the church hall.

It is not unusual for the teacher at such studies to begin by undermining the authority and credibility of the Scriptures. I have seen priests mock "Bible Christians" and "fundamentalists" as ignorant buffoons who take everything in the Scriptures so literally that they canít tell the difference between plain and figurative language. At one Catholic study I visited, the priest raised a Bible and announced, "The Catholic Church is not a Bible-based church." His words were directed at Steve and Patty, parish youth leaders who had invited me to visit the study. They had been reading the Bible on their own and bringing their questions to the priest. Apparently they had challenged the Churchís authority one too many times. The priest wanted them and everyone else in attendance to know that he wasnít going to tolerate anyone judging the Church by the Bible. The priest then proceeded to explain how the Bible is a difficult book to understand, full of myths and errors. It is questionable, he said, if even the words of Jesus in the gospels were really authentic. Wise Catholics, he advised, leave interpretation to the Churchís scholarly bishops.

The purpose of such denigration of the Bible and Bible-believing Christians is to inoculate seeking Catholics against evangelization. The tactic is generally effective. Those using it, however, will one day have to give an account to the Lord, who pronounced judgment upon the Pharisees for doing the same, saying, "you shut off the kingdom of heaven from men; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in" (Matthew 23:13).


i. Second Vatican Council, "Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation," no. 22.

Adapted from Conversations with Catholics by James G. McCarthy (Harvest House Publishers: Eugene, 1997)

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