Hobbling Scripture

Mary Ann Collins
(A Former Catholic Nun)

October 2001

        Do you remember hobble skirts? They were long skirts which were very tight at the bottom and they didn't have slits, so a woman could only take little steps. In order to do any real walking, a woman had to take lots of quick little steps. You couldn't do serious walking in a hobble skirt.

        Then there was the waltz gown. Do you remember Cinderella going to the ball in that beautiful gown? Her movements were graceful and agile. Her full skirt gave her the freedom to dance beautifully.

        Since the Middle Ages there has been an ongoing conflict between those who want to see Scripture hobbled and those who want to see Scripture released so that it can function effectively in people's lives.

        With the Catholic Church, this hobbling has taken many forms. The strongest was keeping the Bible in Latin and resisting its translation into the language of the common people.

        Under Roman rule, Latin became a universal language. So when the Bible was originally translated from Greek and Hebrew into Latin, that made it more available to people. However, with the collapse of the Roman empire, Latin was spoken less and less. In time, only scholars understood it. The vast majority of people no longer spoke it.

        Starting about 1080 there were many incidents where the Pope, Church councils, or individual bishops forbid the translation of the Bible into the language of the common people (the vernacular). [Note 1] Men such as William Tyndale were burned as heretics for translating the Bible into English. [Note 2]

         Laymen were not even allowed to read the Bible in Latin. Reading the Bible was considered to be proof that someone was a heretic. Men and women were burned at the stake for reading the Bible in Latin. [Note 3]

        People were so hungry to know what the Bible said that when an English translation of the Bible was finally made available, people packed the church where it was kept, while men took turns reading the Bible out loud. As long as there was daylight, men kept reading the Bible while the crowds listened. [Note 4]

        When I became a Catholic, the Mass was still in Latin. I was good at languages. I could think in French (as opposed to having to translate everything). I had three years of college Latin, and one year of German. I bought a French Bible, but I didn't get much out of it. Reading it was a struggle because my vocabulary was limited and I had to constantly use a dictionary. After laboring to slowly read a passage in French, I would then read the same passage in English and discover that I had missed a lot. My comprehension was so much better in English.

        At High Mass, the Scriptures were sung in Latin. Great respect was shown for the Bible. It was a large, ornate book. The priest would cover it with incense, and bow and kiss the book. He took the time to sing the Scripture verses in Gregorian chant, which is beautiful and feels mystical.

        At High Mass, the one thing I could not do was to understand the Scripture that was sung. With my three years of college Latin, I could occasionally pick out the meaning of a word here and there. But that was nothing like understanding the Scripture passage.

        The end result reminds me of the Andy Warhol painting of a can of Campbell's tomato soup. The museum paid thousands of dollars for that painting. Many people come to see it. The painting is described in the museum tour book. You can study the picture. If you are an artist, you can paint a copy of it. You can do everything except eat the soup. And why does Campbell's make tomato soup? So that people can eat it. Why did God give us the Bible? So that people would read it and learn from it and be transformed by it.

        There are other ways that the Catholic Church hobbles Scripture. Long before I became a nun I was reading the "Divine Office" (the "Breviary" which is read or sung by priests and monks and nuns). I was told that by doing this I was reading all of the psalms every week. That was partially true. Short psalms were included in their entirety. But for the longer psalms, you read only a portion of the psalm. Every week you read those same verses again, but you never read the rest of the psalm. In addition to the psalms, there were short portions from the Old Testament and the New Testament, as well as antiphons (songs or hymns which could be sung or read).

        It took me over an hour to read the "Divine Office" every day. Because I spent so much time reading things from Scripture, I thought that I was familiar with the Bible. But all I was reading was a small portion of it, over and over and over. I didn't know the rest at all. In my earlier days I used to read the Bible, but the "Divine Office" took so much time that I stopped reading the Bible.

        Jesus told a parable about the sower who sowed the Word of God on different kinds of soil. (Luke 8:5-15) Religious devotions that keep us too busy to read the Bible choke out the Word of God.


        The first English translation of the Bible was made in 1382 by the followers of John Wycliffe, with his help and inspiration. An improved version was completed in 1388. Wycliffe's followers were known as Lollards. They were severely persecuted. [Note 5]

        A century and a half later, the Tyndale-Coverdale Bible was published in 1535. William Tyndale and Bishop Miles Coverdale translated the original Greek and Hebrew texts into English. Tyndale was executed for heresy. His Bible was published in Germany, where Tyndale had taken refuge. [Note 6]

        Forty-seven years later (1582), the first Catholic translation of the New Testament into English was published. It was known as the Douay Rheims. It was a translation of the Latin (Vulgate) Bible into English. The Douay Rheims Old Testament was published in 1609. [Note 7]

        At the end of the ninth century, King Alfred had wanted all essential Latin texts to be translated into English. Writings of the Early Fathers were translated from Latin to English. But somehow the Latin Bible had to wait seven centuries before the Catholic Church translated it into English. [Note 8]


1. Paul Johnson, "A History of Christianity," page 273. The author is Catholic.

2. "Tyndale, William" in "World Book Encyclopedia" (on CD-Rom).

3. Paul Johnson, "A History of Christianity," page 273.

4. This information comes from an on-line biography of William Tyndale which is available at http://elvis.rowan.edu/~kilroy/JEK/10/06.html

5. "Wycliffe, John," "Lollards," and "Bible" in "World Book Encyclopedia" (on CD-Rom).

6. "Tyndale, William" and "Bible" in "World Book Encyclopedia" (on CD-Rom).

7. "Bible" in "World Book Encyclopedia" (on CD-Rom).

8. Paul Johnson, "A History of Christianity," page 157.

USE OF THIS ARTICLE: You have my permission to copy this article, to quote from it, and to distribute copies of it.

Copyright 2001 by Mary Ann Collins. All rights reserved.

E-MAIL: MaryAnnCollins@juno.com

www. CatholicConcerns.com