A few years ago I wrote a book that was very pessimistic about the future of the Church in the United States. American Catholicism is a religion, I argued, in a state of probably irreversible decline. It is on the road, not to total disappearance exactly, but to a reduced state in which it will have no more than a small impact on American society and culture. Since writing the book, I have often wondered if I had been too pessimistic. I hope so. Even while writing I hoped I was wrong. Indeed, I hoped that my pessimistic prognosis might serve in a small way as a wake-up call and might therefore help to reverse the Church’s decline.
But when, rambling through the Internet recently, I stumbled on a Rasmussen poll that had to do with Bible-reading in the United States, I couldn’t help but feel that my pessimism is well grounded.
According to the poll, 25 percent of Evangelical Protestants read the Bible daily, as do 20 percent of other Protestants, while daily Bible-reading is done by only 7 percent of Catholics. Now this result didn’t bother me very much, since one can be very familiar with, and very greatly influenced by, a book without reading it on a daily basis. I myself don’t read the Bible daily; nor do I give a daily reading to Plato or Shakespeare; and it’s years since I read Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy. Yet I know that all these writing have had a strong influence on the way I look at life and the world.
Far more disturbing was the poll result that showed that 44 percent of Catholics “rarely or never” read the Bible, while this is true of only 7 percent of Evangelicals and 13 percent of non-Evangelical Protestants. The level of religious vitality must be very low in a Christian church in which 44 percent of the membership almost never bothers to read the Bible.
Of course, there is an old tradition among lay Catholics of not reading the Bible. Prior to the Protestant Reformation, this non-reading was a natural byproduct of the fact that the vast majority of lay Catholics were illiterate. Besides, such Bibles as were available were written in Latin, not the vernacular languages. And then, once the Reformation took place, Bible-reading took on the color of being a distinctively Protestant thing, therefore something faithful Catholics should avoid. Protestants, after all, appealed to the authority of the Bible to challenge the authority of the pope and the bishops, and when they read the Bible they came to certain theological conclusions that conflicted with Catholic doctrine. Reading the Bible was dangerous for Catholics.
In the long period from the Council of Trent to Vatican II, a period of approximately four centuries, the Catholic Church adopted a highly defensive mode of being. There were two great intellectual dangers to the Faith — first the Protestant danger and then the secularist danger that stemmed from the Enlightenment. The Index of Prohibited Books was created to defend Catholics against these dangers. Of course, it was impossible to put the Bible on the Index, since the Bible, according to Catholic teaching, was the inspired Word of God. But if the Bible couldn’t be banned, at least Catholics could be effectively discouraged from reading it. There were several ways of doing this:
- A strong emphasis on Natural Religion had the effect of depreciating the value of Revelation generally.
- A strong emphasis on Tradition as a second source of Divine Revelation had the effect of depreciating the value of the Bible.
- Secondhand narrations of biblical stories, instead of moving Catholics to consult the original sources (the Bible itself), more often gave them the impression that it was not necessary to examine the Bible.
- Catholics were told that they must not read Protestant translations of the Bible (e.g., the Authorized Version); if they insisted on reading the Bible, they must read properly annotated Catholic translations.
- Some gentle ridicule directed at the Biblicism of our “separated brethren” taught Catholics to shy away from the Bible.
- In general, Catholics were seldom seriously encouraged by their priests and nuns to search the Scriptures.
All this changed, officially at least, at Vatican II, which dropped the Church’s 400-year-old “defensive mode of being.” Lay Catholics were now at long last given the green light to read the Bible; indeed, they were encouraged to read it. Yet today, nearly a half-century later, 44 percent of American Catholics “rarely or never” read the Bible, and only 7 percent read it on a daily basis. How can this be?
Part of the answer, of course, is inertia. Four centuries of a certain policy cannot be changed immediately overnight — any more than an aircraft carrier at sea can make a turn of 180 degrees on a dime. Another part of the answer is the sacramentalism of the Catholic Church: To save your soul, it is more important to participate in the sacraments than to read the Bible. But a third part of the answer is, alas, that the leadership of the Church (I mean its bishops and priests) have not stressed the importance of Bible-reading for shaping the Christian mind and heart.
The leadership of the Church in the United States has been guilty of many failures in recent times — the sex-abuse scandal, a failure to resist the sexual revolution, a failure to mobilize Catholics effectively as an anti-abortion cultural force. Add to these failures the failure to persuade Catholics to become a Bible-reading people.