Hey, how about those Dominican Sisters of Mary? They’ve made it all the way to the final round of the American Bible Challenge!! What winsome ambassadors those ladies are – radiantly Christian and really, really good with a Bible. We can hope that this will serve to allay some of the Evangelical concerns about the Catholic Church’s stance vis-à-vis Bible-reading. Let’s just say there’s a lot of weirdness out there. Many Evangelicals “know” that Catholic nuns are ignorant of Scripture (of course they must be, the thinking goes – if the Church allowed nuns to read the Bible, the Church wouldn’t have any nuns!) If you google around, you can find testimonies by former nuns who claim that the Church discourages or makes difficult or even forbids Bible-reading by religious sisters. Three former nuns tell their stories:
In fact, during the whole 10 years I was in the convent with 200 other nuns, we had one Bible between us. But – we never opened it.
When I had those quiet times in my room, I remember one time trying to read the Bible but found it very boring. I was in the convent for almost two years and I can only remember picking up that Bible that one time.
Following her operation she awoke praising the Lord for sparing her life and asked me to read aloud from the Bible. I began to shake all over for, as a Roman Catholic nun, I was never allowed to read the Bible.
Two of these stories demonstrate a lack of interest in the Holy Scriptures on the part of some nuns, which is sad but plausible. The third, however, corroborates the suspicions of Evangelicals who have been told that the Church would really, really rather that Catholics not crack open the Bible lest they find out how badly they have been hoodwinked. The Bible-smart Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, with their glowing faces and Christ-like demeanor are hard at work laying that myth to rest. It’s kind of hard to support this story of the “forbidden Bible” when comparing it with the success of the sisters on the Bible Challenge, or with the historical record, for that matter. After all, Pope Leo XIII, who reigned from 1878 to 1903, made no secret of the fact that he thought that Bible reading is kinda important:
…it is well to recall how, from the beginning of Christianity, all who have been renowned for holiness of life and sacred learning have given their deep and constant attention to Holy Scripture.
Those who believe in the putative diabolical conspiracy to keep religious sisters ignorant of the Scriptures have a hard time explaining words like that; the pope was basically exhorting anyone who wishes to lead a holy life – like nuns – to immerse herself in the Bible. Of course, a variation of the myth claims that the Catholic Church, which USED TO forbid nuns to read the Bible, has been forced to change its tune by the constant clamor of Bible-loving Protestants against this obvious injustice. The historical record, again, makes that claim look pretty dopey. Take St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who lived and died in 19th-century France:
In my helplessness the Holy Scriptures and the Imitation are of the greatest assistance; in them I find a hidden manna, genuine and pure. But it is from the Gospels that I find most help in the time of prayer; from them I draw all that I need for my poor soul. I am always discovering in them new lights and hidden mysterious meanings.
So I sought in holy Scripture some idea of what this life I wanted would be, and I read these words….
It has long been the custom among men to reckon experience by age, for in his youth the holy King David sang to His Lord: “I am young and despised,” but in the same Psalm he does not fear to say: “I have had understanding above old men, because I have sought Thy commandments, Thy word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my paths; I have sworn, and I am determined, to keep the judgments of Thy Justice.”
We live in an age of inventions; nowadays the rich need not trouble to climb the stairs, they have lifts instead. Well, I mean to try and find a lift by which I may be raised unto God, for I am too tiny to climb the steep stairway of perfection. I have sought to find in Holy Scripture some suggestion as to what this lift might be which I so much desired, and I read these words uttered by the Eternal Wisdom Itself: “Whosoever is a little one, let him come to Me.”
I opened, one day, the Epistles of St. Paul to seek relief in my sufferings. My eyes fell on the 12th and 13th chapters of the First Epistle to the Corinthians. I read that all cannot become Apostles, Prophets, and Doctors; that the Church is composed of different members; that the eye cannot also be the hand. The answer was clear, but it did not fulfill my desires, or give to me the peace I sought.
Then descending into the depths of my nothingness, I was so lifted up that I reached my aim. Without being discouraged I read on, and found comfort in this counsel: “Be zealous for the better gifts. And I show unto you a yet more excellent way.” The Apostle then explains how all perfect gifts are nothing without Love, that Charity is the most excellent way of going surely to God. At last I had found rest.”
In a nutshell, St. Thérèse had a Bible and she knew how to use it, unlike the ex-nuns quoted above.
Bible-literate nuns could be found wherever and whenever female religious orders existed. Sister Juana Inés de la Cruz of 17th-century Mexico wrote a letter (now known as “A Reply to Sor Filotea de la Cruz”) in which she cites or alludes to Lk 1:43, 1 Sam 9:21, 2 Cor 12:4, Jn 21:25, Ex 33:13, Est 5:2-3, Ps 50:16, 2 Cor 12:11, Dan 9:21-27, Job 38:31-32, Gen 18:23-33, Mk 3:6, Jn 11:47-57, Ex 34:30, Jn 11:47, Isa 11:10, Lk 2:34, Mt 27:28-31, Job 1:7, 1 Pet 5:8, Jn 12:31, Gen 3:18, Lk 23:27-28, SoS 3:11, Jn 11:8-9, Jn 10:1-31, Jn 11:16, Jn 10:32-33, Lk 22:54, Lk 9:33, Lk 22:57, Lk 22:56, Judges 4:4-14, 1 Kings 10:1-3, 1 Sam 1:1-20, 1 Sam 25:2-35, Est 5-9, Josh 2:1-7, 1 Cor 14:34, Titus 2:3-5, Wis 1:4, Rom 12:3, Ps 141:5, Joel 2:13, Pr 31:23, Lk 7:44-45, SoS 1:2, Ps 116:13, 1 Tim 2:11, Mk 16:1, Jn 12:3, Lk 10:40-42, Acts 17:28, Titus 1:12, Lk 1:46-55, and Ex 2:1-10.
Imagine if she had been writing a book….
By the way, where did she get all that from if the Catholic Church allowed her no access to a Bible?
The case of St. Teresa of Ávila needs no comment; she is said to have quoted from Scripture over 600 times in her writings. St. Teresa lived in 16th-century Spain, at the time of Martin Luther who as everyone knows spent a great deal of time studying the Bible, which the Church made no attempt to keep from him, when he was an Augustinian monk.
Of course many religious sisters have been unable to read the Scriptures for themselves; in that case the Church herself taught them the Scriptures. St. Clare of Assisi, who lived in the 13th century, was “unlettered” and learned the word of God from the friars who preached at her abbey. As the Golden Legend tells us:
On a time it happed that the pope Gregory defended that no friar should go to the house of the ladies without his leave. And when the holy mother St. Clare knew that, she had much sorrow in her heart, because she saw well she might not have that which was needful, which was the nurture of Holy Scripture, and said to her sisters with a sorrowful heart; Now forthon well may the pope Gregory take from us all the friars, when he hath taken from us them that nourished our souls with the Word of God. And anon she sent again all the friars of her house to the master or minister, for she said she had nothing to do to have friars to get them bodily bread, when they failed them that nourished her and her sisters with the Word of God. Anon as the pope Gregory heard this tiding he repealed that which he had defended, and set all at the will of God.
Other nuns were better educated. History records that St. Gertrude the Great, a nun in 13th-century Germany, devoted herself to studying the Scriptures, patristic writings and theology, and wrote simplified versions of difficult scriptural passages in Latin and in her native German. Her devotion to the Bible comes as no surprise, because her abbess, Gertrude of Hackeborn, required her nuns to be well-educated in the Scriptures.
St. Leoba, an 8th-century native of England, traveled with St. Boniface to the court of Charlemagne, where she was a good friend of and tremendous influence upon his queen, Hildegarde. St. Leoba’s Vita tells us that “So great was her zeal for reading that she discontinued it only for prayer or for the refreshment of her body with food or sleep: the Scriptures were never out of her hands…. When she lay down to rest, whether at night or in the afternoon, she used to have the Sacred Scriptures read out at her bedside, a duty which the younger nuns carried out in turn without grumbling.” And the Vita Sanctae Geretrudis tells us that the Belgian St. Gertrude of Nivelles was very familiar with Holy Scripture, to the point where she had much of it memorized. Perhaps these were exaggerations, but they are strange claims for contemporaries of Sts. Leoba and Gertrude to put into writing if the 7th– and 8th-century Catholic Church did not permit nuns to read the Bible.
Examples stretch from the 19th-century American St. Elizabeth Ann Seton who “prayed her way through life’s joys and struggles using Sacred Scripture,” to 5th-century French abbess St. Caesaria of Arles who insisted that her nuns be literate so that they could read the Scriptures, because “There is no doctrine which could be better, more precious and more splendid than the text of the Gospel. Behold and retain what our Lord and Master, Christ, has taught by His words and accomplished by His deeds!” Saints like Thérèse, Elizabeth Ann, Teresa, Clare, Gertrude, Caesaria and Leoba, and run-of-the-mill sisters like Juana and Gertrude of Hackeborn lived in different parts of the world in different centuries over the past 1500 years – where and when exactly did the Catholic Church keep the Scriptures from its religious sisters??
Have there been nuns who were ignorant of the Scriptures? I’m sure there have been, and still are. The point is, there has never been a Church conspiracy to keep them that way.
Former nuns hoping to sell horror stories to those with a conspiracy-theory bent have fallen on hard times. While there have always been (and sadly, always will be) religious sisters who find the Bible boring, the Church has never stood between them and Jesus. History is full of biblically literate, Christ-honoring religious, and the Dominican Sisters of Mary put a modern-day face on that. And I say, God bless them!! All the best to them – if the Bible Challenge would quiz the contestants on the 7 books Protestants removed from the Old Testament, I know the sisters would have the competition all sewn up!
Does or did or will the Catholic Church ever keep religious sisters from reading the Holy Scriptures?
Nun of the above.
On the memorial of St. Mateo Correa Magallanes
Deo omnis gloria!