Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Chaining Bibles and Other Catholic Atrocities

Did you know that Catholic Churches used to chain their Bibles to their churches?

And that the Council of Trent forbade Catholics from reading the Bible?

Not until the last 40-50 years was a Catholic allowed to read the Bible!

Okay, so these are some of the accusations that I've heard regarding the Catholic Church and the Bible. I love the Catholic Church and I love Scripture, so I don't love these accusations. Actually, in kind of a twisted way, I do like them because they fascinate me.

I haven't done extensive research, but I am pretty sure that it is true that Catholics chained their Bibles to their pulpits. That sounds horrible given our current culture, and the accusation is then made that Catholics were trying to prevent the guy in the pew from really getting to read what was being said. The implication is that this gives the priests more power to teach whatever they or the pope wants without having to deal with Joe Smith's questions about what Scripture actually says.

Let's look at the culture at the time that they did this. There was no printing press, so each Bible had to be meticulously copied by hand. Scriptures were regarded as precious, and this was shown in part through "gilding" the Bible, so it often had a fair amount of gold in the pages of Scripture. There were those that wanted to steal these large, heavy books for the gold. Further, Bibles were not cheap or easy to come by. If you lost one, you were not going to be able to get a new one quickly. In chaining Bibles to the churches, they were not trying to keep Scripture away from the people, but were rather trying to preserve it for everyone.

And I recently got to read a rant about how the Council of Trent forbade Catholics from reading the Bible, put the Bible on a list of forbidden books, and made it a mortal sin for Catholics to read the Bible. The conclusion was that Catholics were not able to read the Bible until Vatican II.

I am equal parts annoyed and amused at the rant, because it is so over the top. I just read some of the documents from the Council of Trent regarding this. If you would like to check them out, they are here and here. The Council did not forbid Scripture, it forbade certain translations of Scripture, especially translations that were being done in a hurried and sloppy manner and without appropriate accountability. Yes, it did have a low view of vernacular translations of the Bible. Not because it wanted to keep people from reading Scripture in their own language, but because they wanted to keep people from reading incorrect translations of Scripture. Yes, it did say that reading books from the forbidden list did constitute a mortal sin, but not that reading Scripture itself from a credible translation was a mortal sin.

And therefore, I would submit that perhaps the charges against Catholics in history regarding the Scriptures are not so heinous. In fact, given that they were done out of such high regard for the purity of Scripture, perhaps there was even a certain nobility in their actions, whether or not you strictly agree with their methods. Personally I do agree, but then we all know my bias!

***I saw this over at Dawn's. I thought it sounded like fun, but I honestly don't plan ahead enough to usually participate in things like this. It turns out that the post that I happened to write today fits in well with the theme, so I'll link up. Head over there if you would like to see some other things that Catholics have to say about the basics of our faith.


  1. Amen! Yes I did hear that the catholic church used to tie their bibles up , sorta like they do with telephone books today ! That was a great post and I enjoyed reading it , thank you!

  2. Great job! I heard all of that growing up. One I thought about and realized how incredibly expensive books were at the time of the reformation, it seems pretty improbably that Martin Luther somehow managed to make it possible for each and every person to have the bible to interpret for themselves in their own house!

  3. hah, I've never heard those accusations. I have, however, heard many Protestants say that most Catholics just go to church and never read their Bibles, because their faith is not personal.

    And I have met people who grew up Catholic, converted to Protestantism, and also accuse the Catholic church of these things. I think it's just a matter of 1) what church you happen to go to and if they do a good job at encouraging their parishoner's faith. 2) if your parents do a good job at planting and nurturing the faith of their children.

    Those two things apply to any church (not just Catholic. If those two things I mentioned above are not present in your upbringing then you could encounter a devout, spirit-filled people or congregation and be drawn to it, assuming that everyone in the church you grew up in was as far from personal faith as yourself.

  4. Great post! I was going to say the same thing as Jackie about the phone book (did we read the same book?), but she beat me to it. :)

    It's also a common accusation that the bibles were in latin to keep people from reading it. The truth of the matter is, until very recently, anyone who could read was able to read latin. It was part of your education, if you got one at all. Until the industrial revolution, and for some period afterwards, the illiteracy rate was somewhere around 90%. Where I live, latin has only been dropped from the curriculum in French-language schools in the past 50 years.

    And Kacie, I found your comment about faith not being personal interesting. What is faith if it's not personal?


  5. Young Mom- Actually, I've heard the speculation that the Protestant Reformation wouldn't have been able to happen as it did if not for the invention of the printing press 50 years before. I don't know if that's true, but it's an interesting thought.

    Kacie- I know what you're talking about. In some cases it is possible that the reason few people read their Bible is because they were going through the motions only, but I also think that part of the reason for this is that a lot of the focus on reading Scriptures in the Catholic Church is on the public reading of Scripture (in the liturgy). I think that's very important, but I also think that part of what you're addressing is because for a long time Catholics haven't been very comfortable with privately reading Scripture. I'm really glad that there has been an increased emphasis on Scripture study in more recent years in the Catholic Church. Starting from the top down at Vatican II!

    Carolyn- great point about Latin and literacy. I always forget about that connection.

    Jackie and Carolyn- Thanks for stopping by!

  6. Very interesting! And great explanations. I enjoyed the comments, too. Thanks for playing!