We often hear the question asked, sometimes even by the well-instructed: “Is it safe to read the Bible?” The answer, of course, is: “Yes, certainly; the Church blesses and encourages the habitual reading of Holy Scripture by all the faithful.” Still, however, the question reveals certain worries in the minds of Catholics that should not be dismissed lightly. For while meditation on the Word of God could be said to have made all the saints, it is also quite true that the mis use of Scripture is responsible for all heresies.
Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, all somehow claim to live by the Bible; but how few are they who do so in fact! Consider the Holy Bible in its two Testaments as revealed by the Holy Ghost, essentially differing only according to whether they were written before or after the coming of Jesus. The only purpose of the Old Testament is to foretell that coming of a Saviour and to show how the whole world was being prepared for His work of redemption. The principal message of the New Testament is the continued presence of Christ with us in His Church. To use the Bible correctly, therefore, and in accordance with the purpose for which it was given, the Old Testament ought logically to lead to faith in Jesus; the New Testament ought to bring one to the true Church; and the Church and her Sacraments ought to lead to sanctity. Yet the Jews refuse to take the first step, Protestants refuse to take the second, and God knows how few are the Catholics who take the third.
And so it is that, as in the case of all other great gifts of God, we men manifest the evil genius of our fallen nature, especially in the way we make bad use of the Bible. St. Peter warned of this danger, when he spoke of men who “wrest the Scriptures to their own damnation” (II Pet. 3:16).
With that caution in mind, let us cite two hazards or difficulties facing anyone who undertakes the study of the Holy Scripture. First, there are now versions of the Bible — some even published under Catholic auspices — which are in fact distortions and falsifications of the Word of God. Second, there is a great and growing body of literature about the Bible (apparently due to an obsessive preoccupation with God’s Book, even where faith in God is altogether missing), and the great part of such literature proves to be in the nature of snares or distractions. It is a snare when it insinuates and inculcates false philosophies such as are now in vogue. It is a distraction when it manages to keep the mind of the reader (as well as the writer) fixed on all kinds of curious interests, always somehow short of the all-important one of salvation.
So the wary layman understandably is more inclined to follow the prudent counsel given to a tourist in the Alps: “What is the safest way to climb the Matterhorn?” asked the tourist. And the mountain climber replied, “Stay away from it!”
But can we, as Catholics, stay away from the Bible? In an apparition to Saint Teresa of Avila, Our Lord Himself told her that all the evils in the world, and especially all the troubles in the Church, are due to ignorance or contempt of Holy Writ.
Besides, the Bible is our Book; its message is our message; its visible monument in the world is our Holy Church. It is on the authority of our Church, the Holy Roman Church, that we know, or, for that matter, that anyone knows, what writings are inspired by God. Ours is the Church that has preserved Sacred Scripture through the centuries, being the only one that is coeval with it. Ours are the scholars and doctors who guarded its integrity. Ours are the saints who brought its message to life in their lives. And ours are the martyrs who confirmed its divine authority by their blood.
It will therefore be ours to encourage and to cultivate, by means of this column in each issue of the Housetops , the proper and habitual study of Holy Writ. We must recover our Bibles from their graves of dust and bring them back to life. For in this work we will become imitators of the saints — our heroic brothers and sisters in the Faith of all Catholic ages.
For the moment, let us simply offer these few fundamental and practical suggestions as guidelines to this endeavor: A Catholic who would acquire the daily habit of reading the Word of God must do it as a child of Faith. He must seek to understand the Scriptures as Our Lady and Saint Joseph understood them. He must be guided by the infallible teaching of the Church. He must be sure to use a truly Catholic version, supplying help on difficult passages from the insight and knowledge of the saints. (The best version in English is still the Douay-Rheims, translated by English scholars exiled on the Continent during the Elizabethan persecutions.) And he must also remember that the best commentary on Scripture is Holy Scripture itself (as when the New Testament explains the Old) and the use made of Scripture in the traditional liturgy of the Church.
As a final thought, Holy Church, like a Mother, blesses the study of Sacred Scripture with and indulgence. We find it in The Raccolta, the official compendium of Catholic prayers and devotions, under Number 645:
“The faithful who spend at least a quarter of an hour in reading Holy Scripture with the great reverence due the Word of God and after the manner of spiritual reading, may gain an indulgence of three hundred days.” (The new Handbook of Indulgences says this, giving a more generous indulgence: “A partial indulgence is granted the Christian faithful who read sacred Scripture with the veneration due God’s word and as a form of spiritual reading. The indulgence will be a plenary one when such reading is done for at least one-half hour [provided the other conditions are met].”)
This was granted by Pope Leo XIII on the Feast of Saint Lucy, December 13,1898. Let us thank the Patroness of eyes, that sweet virgin martyr, who on her own Feast day obtained for us this favor — a blessing, as it were, for the most beautiful use to which we can apply our eyes.