Question: Is it true that Catholics shouldn't read the Bible by themselves? Our priest seems to think we'll misunderstand if he's not there to comment. Will we? I attend Mass regularly, so I hear the Bible read every Sunday, but I don't feel like I know it very well. I wonder what's worse — misunderstanding the Bible or missing it altogether?
Discussion: Your last question nicely summarizes two common extremes, neither of which depicts the ideal. On one extreme, some people read their favorite parts of the Bible without getting the full sweep of salvation history, so they might fail to see the ongoing development of our unique but vital relationship with God. Worse, they might take a verse or two out of context to prove a point that additional verses disprove. On the other hand, some people seem afraid to read the Bible at all, often for the very reason you alluded to in your first question: they've been told they can't possibly understand Scripture without clergy or a teacher of religious education beside them to explain a complex subject or answer pertinent questions that arise.
Either situation can certainly be helped by guidance from a priest who has studied the Bible and reads it often for personal edification. If that describes your pastor, you might approach him about leading a class that gives a solid overview of both the Old Testament and the New but with special emphasis on the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.) Like many priests though, yours may have an overly extended schedule. If so, you might ask him to suggest one of the courses produced by a reputable Catholic publisher. For instance, you might look for a Church-approved course that offers a study package which includes a textbook and a workbook for the individual participants, a leader's guide for round-table discussions among each group of parishioners, and a video tape for the entire group to view during each weekly session. Some of these types of Bible studies may require regular attendance by a minimum number of parishioners, but most can be adapted to as few as five people or as many as your Church hall can hold.
In deference to your pastor and in hope of keeping the peace in your parish, the above suggestions offer steps toward becoming better versed in Bible verses. But your first question needs to be answered too. It's a big one! To reiterate: Is it true that Catholics shouldn't read the Bible by themselves? No. That's not true, especially since most adult Catholics can now read!
Prior to printing presses, most people could not read unless they aspired to becoming scribes or joining a Holy Order. Besides this, a single hand-penned Bible with a hand-stitched, hand-tooled binding cost more than an average worker could make in a month until Johannes Gutenberg got the presses rolling in the middle of the 15th century. Only sixty-five years later, however, the Reformation began. Although the Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic texts had already been translated into languages commonly used at the time, the Bible did not become readily available in the homes of most parishioners until it could be printed. But then commentaries sprang up, too, with comments on Holy Scripture varying widely and causing some measure of confusion. Then and now, for example, various "study" editions of the Bible include footnotes that are not part of the actual biblical text but, instead, offer flawed interpretations of Scripture. Understandably, such problems caused both clergy and laity to be concerned that individual readers of the Bible might be lead astray.
In 1943, however, Pope Pius XII wrote the encyclical, Divino afflante Spiritu, which, in part, said, "We ought to explain the original text which was written by the inspired author himself and has more authority and greater weight than any, even the very best, translation whether ancient or modern. This can be done all the more easily and fruitfully if to the knowledge of languages be joined a real skill in literary criticism of the same text." Later, in Part I of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Article on "Sacred Scripture" stated that "access to Sacred Scripture ought to be open wide to the Christian faithful." With the "study of the sacred page" as "the very soul of sacred theology," 133 of that same Article goes on to say, "The Church 'forcefully and specifically exhorts all the Christian faithful . . . to learn the "surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ," by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures. "Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ."'"
With those words to stimulate and encourage Bible study, Catholic scholars set to work on producing accurate, contemporary translations with cross-referencing and footnotes to explain the meaning of Scripture. For example, you'll find the New American Bible (NAB) translation in such well-footnoted editions as The Catholic Study Bible and the St. Joseph Edition. The ever-popular Revised Standard Version (RSV) with Apocrypha (such as The New Oxford Annotated Bible) offers another good choice as do the New Jerusalem Bible (NJB) and the Catholic edition of the easy-to-read Good News Bible.
Because of these concerted efforts among Bible scholars and Catholic theologians, you don't have to reinvent the light bulb! You can now read the Bible in a group or alone in the middle of the night and immediately have your questions answered. For instance, the footnotes at the bottom of a page might explain the social customs or historical context relating to that Bible story. Or the notes might offer an alternate reading of the words translated in a particular verse. Or the notes might refer you to another chapter that discusses a topic more fully, keeping the reading in the context of a larger Biblical truth.
With footnotes and other reliable resources to answer your questions as you go along, you can understand what you're reading and also what the Church has to say about key issues in the Christian life. That's particularly important since the teachings of the Church are themselves based on the Bible and are intended to show you how to live this life in the fullness of Christ. It is, of course, your life. However, if you want to get to know God and the Biblical foundations of the Church in Sacred Scripture, pray at the beginning of each Bible reading for God to guide you. Then, with the help of the Holy Spirit, feel free to read and read and read.