Can I Study the Bible on My Own?

Can I Study the Bible on My Own?

This piece was originally featured in the Southern Nebraska Register’s “Ask the Register” column on September 22, 2023, which can be found here.

Q. Is it okay for me as a Catholic to study the Bible on my own, or to participate in a Bible study group which is not led by a member of the clergy?

A. One evening, after leading a Bible study consisting mostly of Catholics, one of the participants shared with me that in her growing up years she had been taught that Catholic laity are not supposed to read or study the Bible, especially on their own. Bible study, she was told, is reserved for bishops and priests.

In a two-part article, “Can Catholics Be Bible Christians?: Debunking Some Popular Myths,”  I address some of the confusion surrounding this topic, through myths such as: Bible study is more a Protestant activity than a Catholic activity (they have the Bible, we have the sacraments); the Magisterium tells us everything we need to know about the Bible; the Mass readings and the priest’s homilies are good enough (we don’t need more Bible than that); studied understanding of the Faith threatens a dynamic personal relationship with Jesus, since prayer rather than knowledge is the real key to vibrant spirituality.

While some Catholics might cling to these views as a pretext for biblical ignorance, many are simply unaware that each of the above notions misrepresents—even counters—the Church’s explicit and repeated admonitions to the lay faithful. Consider a small sampling from the Catechism and Dei Verbum:

CCC §131 “And such is the force and power of the Word of God that it can serve the Church as her support and vigor and the children of the Church as strength for their faith, food for the soul, and a pure and lasting font of spiritual life” [DV §21]. Hence “access to Sacred Scripture ought to be open wide to the Christian faithful” [DV §22].

CCC §133 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’” [DV §25; and St. Jerome].

Or consider the papal appeals throughout the centuries. For example, Pope St. Gregory the Great, who likened the Scriptures to “a letter from the omnipotent God to his creature,” reprimanded Christians for neglecting “to read them fervently.” He urged all believers “to meditate every day on the words of your Creator, [to] learn the heart of God in the words of God.” 

Pope Benedict XV said that his “one desire for all the Church’s children” was that, “being saturated with the Bible, they may arrive at the all-surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ.” Pope Benedict XVI expressed his “heartfelt hope for the flowering of a new season of greater love for sacred Scripture on the part of every member of the People of God, so that their prayerful and faith-filled reading of the Bible will, with time, deepen their personal relationship with Jesus.” 

Our current Holy Father, Pope Francis, insists that “The Bible cannot be just the heritage of some, much less a collection of books for the benefit of a privileged few. It belongs above all to those called to hear its message and to recognize themselves in its words. . . . In this regard, renewed efforts should be made to provide members of the faithful with the training needed to be genuine proclaimers of the word.” 

The Church’s position could not be clearer: Loving, learning, and living God’s word in the Bible is part of what it means to be authentically and faithfully Catholic.

Our Blessed Mother is the perfect example. Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), where we hear her speak most deeply from her own heart, is more densely saturated with scriptural allusions than almost any other New Testament passage. It is, as one Protestant commentator observes, “a virtual collage of biblical texts” (Joel Green). By my estimate, Mary’s song of praise contains no fewer than 20 echoes of Old Testament passages. It is obvious that Mary was full of God’s words before she was full of God’s Word, which probably explains why she was prepared to respond to Gabriel’s announcement in the manner that she did: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word.” She who upon her Son’s birth “treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” was already in the habit of doing that very thing with the Scriptures she had learned and apparently had memorized. Our Blessed Mother exemplifies what a life devoted to the study of God’s word looks like, and in this she is a model disciple of our Lord.

Are there some cautions to be heeded when it comes to personal and small group Bible study? Yes, to be sure. “I can do it myself” is endearing and laudable when a 4-year-old is learning to make a bed or tie shoes. The same is neither clever nor commendable when it comes to studying the Bible. 

As Catholics, we believe that Bible study properly flows from the heart of the Church through the lens of the Church by those who find their home in the Church. This has implications for those who are qualified to lead a small group Bible study, for example (they should be approved by a faithful bishop or priest). But there is no implication that the study of Sacred Scripture is therefore restricted to the homily or to the leadership of a cleric. 

And there certainly is no suggestion in Church teaching that Bible study belongs to Protestants, or that Catholic converts should know the Bible better than cradle Catholics. On the contrary, since “The Bible Is a Catholic Book,” as apologist Jimmy Akin boldly (and accurately) asserts in a volume by that title, it follows that Catholics should be the very best students of Scripture. That’s why we have The Emmaus Institute for Biblical Studies (he says shamelessly) and other dependable resources (such as The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible or the Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture) to assist us.