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The Bible Forbidden to the Laity

Question: You said that the Catholic Church forbade the common people from reading the Bible in their own language. Where’s the evidence for such a claim?

Answer: There were times when the Catholic Church officially deprived the common people from reading or even possessing the Bible in their own language. The historical fact is admitted by Catholic writers:

‘In early times, the Bible was read freely by the lay people, and the Fathers constantly encourage them to do so, although they also insist on the obscurity of the sacred text. No prohibitions were issued against the popular reading of the Bible. New dangers came during the Middle Ages. When the heresy of the Albigenses arose there was a danger from corrupt translations, and also from the fact that the heretics tried to make the faithful judge the Church by their own interpretation of the Bible. To meet these evils, the Council of Toulouse (1229) and Tarragona (1234) forbade the laity to read the vernacular translations of the Bible. Pius IV required the bishops to refuse lay persons leave to read even Catholic versions of the Scripture, unless their confessors or parish priests judged that such readings was likely to prove beneficial.’ (Addis and Arnold, Catholic Dictionary, The Catholic Publications Society Co., N.Y., 1887, p. 82).

The following two quotations are taken from the Council of Toulouse and the Council of Trent in the thirteenth and sixteenth century respectively.

‘We prohibit also that the laity should be permitted to have the books of the Old and the New Testament; unless anyone from the motives of devotion should wish to have the Psalter or the Breviary for divine offices or the hours of the blessed Virgin; but we most strictly forbid their having any translation of these books.’ (Edward Peters. Heresy and Authority in Medieval Europe, Council of Toulouse, 1229, Canon 14, p 195.)

‘Since it is clear from experience that if the Sacred Books are permitted everywhere and without discrimination in the vernacular, there will by reason of the boldness of men arise therefrom more harm than good, the matter is in this respect left to the judgment of the bishop or inquisitor, who may with the advice of the pastor or confessor permit the reading of the Sacred Books translated into the vernacular by Catholic authors to those who they know will derive from such reading no harm but rather an increase of faith and piety, which permission they must have in writing. Those, however, who presume to read or possess them without such permission may not receive absolution from their sins till they have handed them over to the ordinary. Bookdealers who sell or in any other way supply Bibles written in the vernacular to anyone who has not this permission, shall lose the price of the books, which is to be applied by the bishop to pious purposes, and in keeping with the nature of the crime they shall be subject to other penalties which are left to the judgment of the same bishop. Regulars who have not the permission of their superiors may not read or purchase them.’ (Council of Trent: Rules on Prohibited Books, approved by Pope Pius IV, 1564).

This is in stark contrast to the Reformers like Wycliffe, Luther and Tyndale who laboured tirelessly to give the Word of God to the people in their own native tongue. In my country, Malta, which is intensely Roman Catholic, the first efforts to translate the Bible into the Maltese language were done by the handful of Protestants on the island. In fact the first complete Bible in Maltese was published by a Protestant society, despite all the opposition encountered from the Catholic establishment.

Thank God the modern Catholic Church has changed its position. I rejoice that many Catholics are now reading God’s Word for themselves, and hopefully, through the message of the Bible, many will come to experience the grace of salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.

© Dr Joseph Mizzi