a catholic never reads the bible alone
Updated: Sep 25, 2020
Edward R. Benet
(Originally published on 17.9.2020 at Catholic Stand)
Recently, I sent a summary of a homily from Vatican Radio to Thomas, a Protestant friend of mine. He came back to say that he found it excessively moralistic. The homily, Thomas felt, was encouraging people to “beat themselves up”. He thought that this approach would be particularly off-putting for young people who need to be attracted to the Gospel in a different way. When I took a second look at the homily, however, I realised that something else was going on – something that had been lost in the summary sent to Thomas. And our correspondence became a good occasion to make a distinction between Protestant and Catholic ways of reading the Bible. Let me explain!
First of all, what was the homily from Vatican Radio about? It was from a few Sundays ago and concerned Jesus’ startling reply to the Canaanite woman: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (Matthew 15:26). In response to this reply, the woman knelt before Jesus and said: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” The homilist, Fr Rosini, said that this woman’s attitude was exemplary. Each one of us is a “dog” in the Jewish usage of the term: pagan people with no right to God’s blessings. We all should consider ourselves unworthy of God’s grace, and yet kneel humbly before him, just like the Canaanite woman, trusting in his mercy.
As mentioned, Thomas expressed doubt about the benefits of feeling estranged from God. “Beating yourself up” with sentiments of unworthiness was a self-destructive tendency, he felt. He admitted that such an attitude found some support in the Psalms and in Job, but he could not see how it would find much sympathy in the New Testament.
Our brief correspondence on this matter brought out something about a proper Catholic reading of Sacred Scripture. A good Catholic homily does not take passages from Scripture and utilize them to defend relatively isolated statements. The Catholic way, rather, is to read the entirety of Scripture with the mind of the Church. What this sort of reading requires is that we interpret Scripture in the light of Sacred Tradition and the Magisterium. Admittedly, this might seem like a mammoth task. It involves being immersed in the Church fathers, the pronouncements of the ecumenical councils throughout history, the writings of the doctors of the Church, and much else besides. This “immersion” provides the believer with a vision over the totality of Scripture, all under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
But if this is what is needed to read Scripture “with the mind of the Church”, how can any individual Christian hope to succeed? This is the very point at issue! Personal reading of the Bible is good - don’t get me wrong - but a truly Catholic reading is never individual; it requires this deeper immersion in the life of the Church, its Tradition, the teachings of the apostles, and the treasures of the Holy Spirit found in the great Catholic writings of the past. I can’t just take down a Bible and expect this “immersion” to be the case automatically. But when I have received adequate catechetical formation, attended the sacraments regularly and engaged in a discipline of suitable spiritual reading, then the “immersion” begins to become a reality. To read the Bible in the right way, I need this wider Christian formation. In a sense, a Catholic never reads the Bible alone. To adapt Chesterton’s famous statement on Tradition: a Catholic reads Scripture “in union with the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors, the democracy of the dead.”
If someone picks up the Bible without this immersion, it can still bring graces and benefits. What happens, though, if I read a passage that is open to multiple contrary interpretations? The history of Protestantism, with its doctrine of sola scriptura, shows us what happens. When the interpretation of Scripture is a matter of my individual reading, cut off from Tradition and the authority of the successors of the apostles, then just about anything can be defended. The result is the proliferation of thousands of denominations, each with a divergent understanding of certain “key” passages in the Bible. Whereas individualist reading of Scripture can be divisive, reading with the mind of the Church is fundamentally unitive.
Let us take an example of a “problematic” passage from Scripture and compare a possible Protestant reading with a reading from “the mind of the Church”.
“Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:54)
In the light of this saying, how should we understand the Eucharist? A common Protestant response is to approach the matter symbolically. Jesus is not talking about actually eating his flesh, but receiving the benefits of his self-offering on Calvary. If I confess the name of Jesus, acknowledging him as saviour, then I reap the reward of eternal life. Let’s face it, this interpretation is plausible (ignoring for a moment the fact that the original Greek text repeats continually in the most graphic sense that we must “gnaw” on the flesh of Jesus if we are to have eternal life).
How does a Catholic approach the Eucharist in the light of this passage? Again - and this is the point - a Catholic, typically, does not take up the Bible and make an individual passage the basis of particular doctrinal stances. Even if John the Evangelist had decided to omit Chapter 6 with its powerful discourse on the Bread of Life, Catholics would still believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The Scripture is beautiful and precious, but, standing alone, it proves nothing. As St Paul says, the Church of the living God “is the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). The Church, right from the beginning, before John wrote his Gospel, believed that the Eucharist was a real participation in the sacrifice of Christ, where we enter into communion with his body. We find it alluded to in story of Emmaus, explicitly described in the Last Supper institution accounts, clearly enunciated in St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, professed even to the shedding of their blood by apostolic fathers such as Ignatius of Antioch (who testified in writing that the Eucharist is “the flesh of our Saviour, Jesus Christ”), elaborated in the Church fathers, pronounced by various ecumenical councils, and stunningly confirmed in a series of approved Eucharistic miracles. Thus, when a Catholic reads John 6, he already knows what Jesus is talking about. Reading that passage can help him to deepen his appreciation, wonder and love for the Eucharist, but the reading is not decisive for his grasp of what the Eucharist is. That understanding requires something broader. It requires that “immersion” we spoke about earlier, which permits him to read with the mind of the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Thomas, being a good Protestant, has an impressive familiarity with the Bible. I couldn’t help but notice this the very first time we met. We happened to be sitting beside each other on a transatlantic flight and I saw that he was spending the entire journey perusing his Bible, whilst every other passenger in my range of vision was hooked up to the twaddle offered by the in-flight entertainment system. When he reads the Bible, his openness, sincerity and love for God’s word are always going to stand him in good stead. The Lord, however, has given us the Church as a gift for our salvation, for drawing us into the life of God. If Thomas reads the Bible as an individual cut off from the mind and life of the Church, then his reading is going to be lacking in something beautiful, rich and important.
This takes us back (finally!) to Fr Rosini’s homily on Vatican Radio. Was he really advocating that we “beat ourselves up” when he said that we should confess that we are unworthy “dogs” like the Canaanite woman? Did Fr Rosini fail to read this passage with the mind of the Church? Was Thomas right to wonder if this quality found much sympathy in Scripture? If we take a look at Scripture through the lens of the writings of the Church fathers and saints, however, we see that there is indeed a kind of self-disparagement that is necessary for ongoing conversion. This is not the frustration of someone who regrets the fact that they have not measured up to their own egoistical expectations (more on this negative form of self-loathing later): there is also an essential and healthy form of self-disparagement, and it is called humility! In the “mind of the Church”, for two thousand years, this virtue has been considered foundational in the spiritual life, and a central trait of Christ himself.
Space does not permit an enunciation of the manner in which this attitude literally oozes from the Bible. In the psalms; in the prophets; in Mary’s Magnificat (where her own lowliness is contrasted with the overflowing magnanimity of God); Luke’s parable of the unworthy servants; in the Prodigal Son, where the return to the Father begins with the confession of unworthiness; in the Sermon on the Mount, where the importance of humility is shown by the fact that the central exposition of Jesus’ teaching begins with the line: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3); in the story of Zacchaeus and the episode of the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet with her tears, two people whose lives are transformed by the fact that they have been forgiven much (“Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little” (Luke 7:47)); and in Philippians, where St Paul tells us that the essential attitude of a Christian is humility (“. . . in humility count others more significant than yourselves. . . Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself . . .” (Philippians 2:3-8)). And in many other passages besides. In fact, Jesus explicitly condemns the self-righteousness of the Pharisees when he tells them that “the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matthew 21:31). These sinners, unlike the Pharisees, realize their lack of worthiness, turn to the Lord and repent.
Thomas correctly pointed out that there is a form of “beating yourself up” that is unhealthy. Sorrow for sin is good if it leads to, or is accompanied by, recourse to the loving mercy of God. But if I am sorry for my sin because I have failed to measure up to certain expectations I had for myself; if I am filled with frustration at my own lack of response to the Lord; then my “sorrow” might just well be an expression of ego, of a preoccupation with my own righteousness. We can make a useful and genuine distinction here. There is such a thing as genuine remorse, which is grounded in true sorrow for my failure to love, my betrayal of God and others. And there is another kind of remorse, which is anger, frustration or impatience with my own failures. This second kind of remorse is destructive of self and others, and is ultimately grounded in the ego.
So, was Fr Rosini’s homily on the Canaanite woman “out of sympathy” with the Bible? Hardly! It was very much a reading with the mind of the Church. According to that mind, self-disparagement is never good if done for its own sake. Thomas would certainly agree with that. Conversion requires a correct perspective on my own distance from God, my absolute need for a saviour, my status as a mere creature, the fact that I have earned nothing and deserve nothing. This perspective must also include the realisation that God is infinitely loving and merciful. In other words, my vision must remain fixed on two elements: the poverty of myself and the merciful fullness of God. Thus, we give the Lord glory, remembering that we are only “jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us” (2 Corinthians 4:7).