Much has been written about the Catholic Church (both pro and con) concerning its faithfulness to the Scriptures. But today we’d like to pose some questions concerning Catholicism and its attitude toward the Bible over the years: Has the Catholic Church ever banned the Bible? Have popes ever forbidden the Scriptures to the common people? Have they ever tried to limit access to the Sacred Writings in the vernacular (i.e., the common language of the people)? In this article, we hope to clear up some misunderstandings concerning this issue.
Sometimes the Protestant claims against the Catholic Church on this topic are exaggerated. But there are extremes on both sides. But for those who believe that the Catholic Church has never restricted the reading of Scripture, please note the following…
A Few Popes
According to the "New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia" (online), here is a short list of popes and brief comments concerning their restrictions on the reading, owning, printing, or distribution of the Scriptures:
- Gregory VII (1080 A.D.) prevented the Bohemian people from obtaining the Bible in their own language because he feared it would lead to “irreverence and wrong interpretation of the inspired text.”
- Innocent III (1199) wrote to the Bishop of Metz (a city in France) and said that the practice of reading the Scriptures, though praiseworthy, was “dangerous for the simple and unlearned.”
- Gregory IX (1229), in the Council (Synod) of Toulouse, prohibited the laity (non-clergy) from having the books of the Old or New Testament, and “most strictly forbid their having any translation of these books.” (Canon 14 - Emphasis added)
- Gregory IX (1233), in the Council (Synod) of Tarragona, issued a similar prohibition, stating that no one (whether “cleric or layman”) may possess Scripture in “the Romance language” (referring to the vernacular). If anyone had such books, he was to turn the writings over to the authorities (to be burned), until he was “cleared of all suspicion.” (Canon 2)
- Gregory XII (1408), in the Third Synod of Oxford, only allowed the laity to read versions that were approved by the church authorities.
- Pius IV (1564), in his constitution, “Dominici Gregis,” published the “Index of Prohibited Books.” In it, Scripture reading was again limited to only those persons approved by the bishop.
- Clement VIII (1596) added the above restriction to the fourth rule of the Index.
- Sixtus V (1598) reserved this power of approval to himself or to the “Sacred Congregation of the Index.”
- Clement XI (1713), in his Papal Bull “Unigenitus,” in condemning certain teachings, questioned the necessity of reading the Bible.
- Benedict XIV (1757) allowed the reading of vernacular versions by the laity, but only with the Church’s approval, or with footnotes from the fathers or of “learned and pious authors.”
- Pius VI (1794), in his Papal Bull “Auctorem Fidei,” continued the condemnation by Clement XI (above).
- Pius VII (1816) warned against allowing the laity to read the Scriptures “indiscriminately” in the vernacular.
- Gregory XVI (1836) again allowed only Church-approved reading of the Bible.
- Gregory XVI (1844) repeated the same regulation (above) when writing against Bible Societies in his encyclical, “Inter praecipuas.”
A Few Others
All of these popes, and more, suppressed the Scriptures in some form or another. Other popes issuing similar restrictions include:
- Leo XII (1824) wrote against the work of the “Bible Society” in his papal encyclical “Ubi primum.”
- Pius VIII (1829) wrote against unapproved vernacular versions of the Bible in the papal encyclical “Traditi humilitati.”
- Pius IX (1846), in his papal encyclical, “Qui pluribus,” was writing against the Bible Societies who would “ceaselessly force on people of all kinds, even the uneducated, gifts of the Bible.” How horrible! What beasts these Bible Societies must have been, to “force” this gift of God’s Word upon the people!
- Leo XIII (1897), in his apostolic constitution “Officiorum ac Munerum,” softened the punishment for these “crimes” of Bible reading somewhat, yet continued to prohibit the Word in the vernacular. It was still only allowed by those who were approved by the Catholic Church.
For anyone who would like to research / confirm these facts, most (if not all) of these can be found online on Catholic websites (e.g., EWTN, the “New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia,” the official Vatican website, etc.).
So, if anyone tells you that the Catholic Church (through its popes) never restricted or banned the Bible, he is either misinformed or he is a liar. It may not have been a complete or total ban, but they were nevertheless bans which sometimes included severe (and punishable) restrictions.
But the question is, why would the Catholic Church ever ban Scripture AT ALL?
Catholics will say that these were only local bans, and supposedly, all these restrictions were only temporary regulations. Supposedly, they were protecting the purity of Scripture. They tell us that only the “unfaithful” or “corrupt” translations of the Bible were banned, or that it was only the “deuterocanonical-deprived” (Protestant) versions that were forbidden to be read by its members. They will say that the Catholic Church has only forbidden Bible reading when “it was almost certain to cause serious spiritual harm.” ("New Advent" article linked above)
Note that the Council of Trent’s Rule 4 on prohibited books (the section titled, “Ten Rules concerning prohibited books drawn up by the fathers chosen by the Council of Trent and approved by Pope Pius”) spoke of Scripture reading by the uneducated as doing “more harm than good” because it could be abused by certain people. But if that’s the case, why take a chance with the Eucharist? If they are afraid of having something precious (like Scripture) violated by abuse, then shouldn’t the Eucharist also be withheld for the same reason? The possibility of “serious harm” is certainly present here in the Eucharist, as well, since it too can be abused by the individual (1 Corinthians 11:27-29). But no one in the Catholic Church stopped giving the Eucharist to the poor and uneducated because of possible abuse. The fact is, personal Scripture reading, like receiving the Eucharist (or Communion), is an issue of personal accountability. Both are to be done responsibly, and with the right attitude. But keeping it away from those who don’t abuse it is not the answer.
And if these bans were only temporary, then why did pope after pope continue to issue them? It’s funny, but it seems that none of these quotes restricting the reading of Scripture ever mention being only “temporary.” If there was indeed some abuse of Scripture, then keeping the people from reading it was hardly the correct way of handling the situation. Remember, even in the days of the apostles there were Gnostics and other heretics who abused Scripture. But Jesus and the apostles often pointed the people to the Scriptures; they never tried to ban anyone from reading them because of possible abuse or misunderstanding. This would be like forbidding innocent couples to have children just because some might possibly abuse their children, or might not raise them perfectly.
One must ask, were these popes who restricted God’s Word really concerned about “maintaining the purity of the Scriptures”? Were these bans really put into place to prevent heresy, or was it something else? Could it be that they were trying to hide something? Or that it was all about power and control? According to Catholic Historian Paul Johnson:
“In the West, the clergy had begun to assert an exclusive interpretive, indeed custodial, right to the Bible as early as the ninth century; and from about 1080 there had been frequent instances of the Pope, councils and bishops forbidding not only vernacular translations but any reading at all, by laymen, of the Bible taken as a whole. In some ways this was the most scandalous aspect of the medieval Latin Church. From the Waldensians onwards, attempts to scrutinize the Bible became proof presumptive of heresy - a man or woman might burn for it alone - and, conversely, the heterodox were increasingly convinced that the Bible was incompatible with papal and clerical claims.” (“A History of Christianity,” Weidenfeld and Nicolson, Copyright 1976, page 273)
Why did it bother the Catholic Church so much to have the Bible in the language of the common man? They seem to be saying that it would be better to be altogether deprived of personal Bible reading than to have some misunderstandings of it (even if these misunderstandings could be corrected later).
After all, if the papacy and Catholicism itself are truly scriptural concepts, what did the Church have to fear by allowing them to freely read the Bible in their own language? Perhaps the Catholic Church was beginning to realize that many of its own members were recognizing the inconsistencies between Scripture and the Catholic Church’s doctrines.
And if the Catholic Church really wanted to clearly stress the pure truth to the common people, then why was the Mass performed for so long in Latin? Since the majority of the people were uneducated and only the educated understood Latin, then why have the Mass done in that language? If a proper understanding was so important (as they claim), why not have the Mass in a language that everyone could understand? On the one hand, they claim that it is important to avoid heresy and confusion, yet, on the other hand, they shroud the message in mystery.
It is these types of things that cause us to doubt the sincerity of the Catholic Church when they say that they are concerned for the souls of the common people, and that they wanted God’s Word put into their hands. There just never seemed to be any kind of priority, or much of a serious encouragement of Bible reading throughout the centuries on the part of the Catholic Church. It seems that only recently that this has changed to some extent.
There are also other reasons for questioning some popes’ concern for “protecting the purity of Scripture.” We will use some of the popes listed above (who banned or restricted Scripture) as examples:
First, Pope Leo XIII was known as “the Rosary Pope,” since he wrote so much about (and encouraged the use of) the rosary. He wrote at least eleven official documents on the rosary. But reciting the rosary is a totally unbiblical and pagan practice. See here:
If Leo XIII was truly concerned about keeping the truths of the Bible pure and undefiled, he would have led others away from this unbiblical (and anti-biblical) concept. And no doubt many other popes have encouraged praying the rosary, as well. But this does not support sound doctrine.
Next, Pope Pius IX also adds to our suspicion of an ulterior motive from the Church. In 1854, he “infallibly” proclaimed that Mary (the mother of Jesus) was “immaculately conceived”; that is, from the moment that she was conceived, she had no sin (and remained sinless throughout her entire life). This “infallible” teaching of Pius IX was not only not a biblical concept, but it was anti-biblical, as well. See here:
Is the doctrine of the “Immaculate Conception” another example of a pope’s concern for “doctrinal purity”? It seems that Pius IX was little worried about false doctrine or scriptural truth!
Another issue concerning Pope Pius IX is his behavior during the First Vatican Council, which he presided over, beginning in 1869. According to the “New Catholic Encyclopedia” (Copyright 1967):
“One of the chief issues dividing Catholics on the eve of the council was that of a possible definition of papal infallibility.” (Volume XIV, p. 561)
Pius IX’s definition of papal infallibility was different from many others in the Church, and this caused some very serious divisions in the Catholic Church.
Former Catholic (Jesuit) priest and historian, Peter de Rosa, gives us some interesting details on the events of that Council and how it was handled by the pope. For all practical purposes, the vote was rigged in the sense that many who attended the council were on the pope’s payroll and under intense pressure, so most dared not vote against him. For many bishops, it was either vote against their conscience or publicly offend the “Holy Father” by voting against him. Therefore, many of them abstained. Although many in the Church were against his constitution, “Pius IX refused to listen to the opposition, claiming he was ‘merely the mouthpiece of the Holy Ghost.’” De Rosa points out that the council’s decision “did not adequately mirror the mind of the Western church. A very important truth was at stake and the decree was felt by many to be defective.” One outspoken bishop (Strossmayer) complained that this particular council “lacks both liberty and truth.” (“Vicars of Christ, The Dark Side of the Papacy,”, Poolbeg Press, Copyright 2000, p. 133-136)
You see, for Pius IX, this was all about power; he was a power-hungry pope who pressured his subjects to “agree” with his unbiblical (and even non-Traditional) idea of papal infallibility. At one point, Bishop Guidi of Bologna pointed out that Pius’ view of infallibility was not supported by Sacred Tradition. Pius then thundered, “I AM Tradition… I AM the Church!” What a fine example of humility and sound doctrine! After this, any references to his concern for “purity of Scripture” ring hollow. It is evident that his concern was not about the purity of doctrine, but about CONTROL of doctrine.
Another pope listed above, Innocent III, initiated the Crusade against the Albigenses, which gave rise to the medieval Inquisition. So, the Catholic Church began putting many “heretics” to death. Other popes would participate in other crusades and inquisitions, as well. But is this the way Jesus taught us to deal with the enemies of the faith? Can we trust these popes’ loyalty to the Scriptures when they showed such disregard for the most basic principles of the gospel?
Question: Why doesn’t the Catholic Church kill heretics today? Obviously, they’d have to admit that this is wrong. Jesus never said to kill heretics. And if it’s wrong today, then it was also wrong in the days of the Crusades / Inquisitions. All of this killing of “heretics” was to maintain power for the Catholic Church. It was not about devotion to the truth or protecting Scripture.
What about the backlash from the Crusades and Inquisition? It is our personal opinion that it is because of the Catholic Church and their involvement in these events that more people have turned away from God and have become atheists than for any other reason.
The well-known German Catholic priest and theologian, Johann Joseph Ignaz Von Dollinger wrote about the Catholic Church’s inquisitions:
“From 1200 to 1500 the long series of Papal ordinances on the Inquisition, ever increasing in severity and cruelty, and their whole policy towards heresy, runs on without a break. It is a rigidly consistent system of legislation: every Pope confirms and improves upon the devices of his predecessor. All is directed to the one end, of completely uprooting every difference of belief... The Inquisition ... contradicted the simplest principles of Christian justice and love to our neighbor, and would have been rejected with universal horror in the ancient Church.” (The Pope and the Council, Roberts Brothers, Copyright 1870, p. 192-193)
No doubt, other examples could be given, but this is just a sampling of some popes’ attitudes and lack of true concern for Scripture. Here we see that the ones who banned or restricted the reading of the Bible (supposedly for reasons of “faithfulness”) are the very ones violating that same Bible. In at least some cases, their “concern” is at best, lip service, and at worst, deliberately withholding the Word of Life from the common people. But to restrict personal Bible reading is to restrict personal spiritual growth.
In fairness, it is true that over the centuries the Catholic Church had its monks copy and preserve the Scriptures. But we’ll have to give more credit to these monks than to some of the popes. Popes speak of concern for “serious spiritual harm” in the Church, yet they are masters of spiritual harm, due to their false doctrine and their power and influence. The bottom line is that the Catholic Church can hardly be considered a friend of the Bible, even today, when it has so many teachings contrary to the sacred Scriptures.