Q. Has the Catholic Church tried to keep the Bible from the people? I read that the Church tried to keep the Bible in Latin, which is unintelligible to most people; and that the Church has burned translations in the vernacular (the language of the people).
A. Catholic bishops, priests, and laypeople kept copies of the Bible safe — often at the cost of their lives — during the centuries of persecution when pagan Roman emperors decreed that all Christian sacred books should be burned. If the Church wanted to keep the Bible from her people, why did they do that? Then in later centuries, why did so many Catholic monks spend their lives making beautifully illustrated copies of Sacred Scripture? Critics of the Church condemn her for chaining copies of the Bible in churches. But this medieval practice, simply protected against theft — Bibles were quite valuable.
The Church’s enemies often maintain that the Church has opposed vernacular translations. So why did Pope St. Damasus ask St. Jerome to translate the Bible from Greek and Hebrew into Latin in the fifth century? To keep the common people from reading it? Not at all. At the time, Latin was the common language of the Roman Empire. Various peoples from Britain to Persia spoke it.
One effect of the Roman Empire’s collapse was the loss of a single unifying language. As a babble of local dialects sprang up across Europe, Asia Minor, and North Africa, Latin became the language of the schools, the professions such as law and medicine, and of course the Church. So, well into the Middle Ages, Latin was familiar to educated people who could read.
In seventh-century Britain, before the English language existed, a monk named Caedmon rendered into the common tongue a paraphrase of a good portion of the Bible. In the following century, St. Bede translated some of the Bible into the local language then common. In the ninth century, Also in the ninth and tenth centuries there appeared Anglo-Saxon Bible translations. Scholars of the Church brought forth a number of Anglo-Norman translations after the Norman conquest of Britain in 1066. Then of course there appeared the great Douay-Rheims translation of the New Testament in 1582. The translation of the Old Testament followed in 1609. These were just the translations in the British Isles. Before the Protestant movement began, there were translations into other languages as well. Common-language versions of the Bible, or portions of it, existed in French, German, Spanish, Italian, Old Slavonic, and other European languages. The Church did not object to these translations.
As for burning Bibles: Today we may find that practice objectionable, but in earlier times it was common to burn books regarded as erroneous (see Acts 19:19). The Catholic Church burned Bibles produced by John Wycliffe and William Tyndale, because they contained heretical commentary written by the translators. NonCatholics burned Bibles as well. For example, one of the pillars of the Protestant movement, John Calvin, consigned to the flames a Bible translation made by Michael Servetus, who was Unitarian. In fact, Calvin later had Servetus himself burned at the stake because of his beliefs. PT