Were Lay People Prevented From Reading the Bible Before the Modern Times?


One of the myths that often circulates about the history of Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, is that laypeople were discouraged or outright prevented from reading the Bible before modern times. To understand the real story, we need to delve into the historical context, the teachings of the Church, and the facts about how the Bible was disseminated among the faithful. Let’s clear up misunderstandings and present the facts with support from the Catechism and Holy Scripture.

The Early Church: A Communal Experience of Faith

In the early days of Christianity, the Bible as we know it didn’t even exist. The early Christians relied on oral traditions, as well as a handful of texts and letters. Community gatherings were a primary way of sharing the message of Christ, and the Apostle Paul even addresses this in his letters. When Paul says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Colossians 3:16), he’s not speaking about people reading the Bible individually, but about the word of God being present within the community.

What the Catechism Says

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) itself stresses the importance of Sacred Tradition alongside Sacred Scripture (CCC 82). The Church understands the Bible as the inspired word of God but recognizes that its interpretation and understanding come within the community, safeguarded by the teaching authority or the Magisterium (CCC 100–110).

Medieval Times: The Role of Monasticism and the Clergy

The early medieval period saw the Church focus on preserving texts and maintaining orthodoxy, particularly through monastic communities. Monasteries were often the centers of learning, and the monks were among the few who could read or write. Yes, most laypeople could not read the Bible, but that was more because they couldn’t read at all, not because the Church actively prevented them from doing so.

The Latin Vulgate

The Latin Vulgate, translated by St. Jerome, was the primary version of the Bible available throughout medieval Europe. The common argument is that because it was in Latin, a language not understood by the majority, this prevented people from reading the Bible. But, think about it: even if it had been translated into the vernacular languages, most laypeople could not read it anyway due to widespread illiteracy.

The Reformation and Counter-Reformation

The period of the Reformation saw significant controversy over Scripture and its interpretation. Protestant reformers criticized the Catholic Church for keeping the Bible “locked up” in Latin. In reality, the Church was already translating the Scriptures into vernacular languages. The Council of Trent reaffirmed the importance of both Scripture and Tradition (CCC 81).

The Church’s Stance

It was during the Counter-Reformation that the Catholic Church produced its own editions of vernacular Bibles to counter poorly-translated Protestant versions. Some local church authorities were cautious about unmonitored reading of vernacular Bibles, mainly due to the rise of various Protestant interpretations. However, the Church never made a universal proclamation forbidding laypeople from reading the Bible. On the contrary, it always encouraged a love for Scriptures.

Modern Times: The Bible for Everyone

Fast forward to today, and you’ll find the Catholic Church highly encourages the reading of Scripture. Documents like Dei Verbum from the Second Vatican Council explicitly emphasize the importance of Scripture in the life of the Church (DV 21–26). Numerous popes, including Pope Francis, have frequently urged Catholics to carry a small Bible or Scripture passage with them.

The Role of the Laity

In modern times, the laity are not only encouraged to read the Scriptures but to immerse themselves in them. The Church teaches that the study of Sacred Scripture should be central to sacred theology and various forms of Christian instruction (CCC 132).


While it’s true that many laypeople couldn’t read the Bible for themselves until more recent times, it wasn’t because the Church was keeping it from them. Instead, it was largely due to social and educational limitations. From its earliest days, the Catholic Church has valued the Scriptures as the inspired word of God and has encouraged its thoughtful and prayerful reading within the context of the faith community. To suggest otherwise is to misunderstand both the historical circumstances and the Church’s own teachings on the importance of Sacred Scripture.

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Note: While content aims to align with Catholic teachings, any inconsistencies or errors are unintended. For precise understanding, always refer to authoritative sources like the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Always double-check any quotes for word-for-word accuracy with the Bible or the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

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