QUESTION: Some people say that the Catholic Church is afraid of private interpretation of Scripture. Isn’t that what we all do every time we take up the Bible? Isn’t that what we are supposed to do, apply it personally to our lives?
ANSWER: There are several meanings for the phrase “private interpretation of Scripture.” The answer to the question posed above depends upon which of these meanings one chooses.
One meaning often heard begins with a person opening the Bible to a passage and asserting that the Bible has “clearly spoken to me.” They continue by explaining what everyone else should obtain from that same passage. This is one classic example of private interpretation of Scripture.
What’s wrong with this approach? It seems that there is a kind of exalting of self when one asserts that he or she has the definitive answer to what a particular biblical passage means. How is it possible for a person to make such an assertion without reference to anyone else (living or historical)? How is it that one individual can be the sole interpreter of the Bible apart from any believing community? Surely we must admit that we are not the first to read the Scriptures. Doesn’t it matter what other people understood about the Scriptures?
The Catholic view is that an individual is not the sole interpreter of the Bible. The Scriptures were written in the context of a community of faith, and they should be understood within a community of faith. The pastors, teachers and the faithful of that community are responsible to hand on that understanding to each new generation. It is from within the community then that we obtain valuable and necessary insights into the meaning of biblical passages.
In this sense, the Catholic Church does not approve of private interpretation of Scripture. To do otherwise would invite any individual to set themselves up on a par with the entire tradition of faith.
While acknowledging the significance of the community context of the Scriptures, the Catholic Church does not have official opinions on every single passage of Scripture. There isn’t an official commentary on every line of the Bible. In this regard, the footnotes of Bibles approved for Catholic use explain the context and allow us to have a much deeper appreciation of the passage and how it may apply to our lives.
There is also another understanding of the private interpretation of Scripture. That occurs when an individual reads and studies the Scriptures and discerns what its meaning is for his or her life. That meaning, prayerfully and carefully obtained, provides us a personal meaning of a timeless word of God.
As Catholics, our Bibles are not chained shut as some would believe or teach. The Catholic Church proclaims the Bible as the living word of God and invites all to partake of its richness in both the liturgical and private setting.
What the church desires is for us to appreciate the Bible in its context. What it does not uphold is the validity of one individual’s private interpretation as equal to the faith tradition of the church community.
Father Bober is pastor of St. Kilian Parish in Adams and Cranberry townships.