There is a popular Protestant polemic that Catholics don't (or didn't) want people to read the Bible. It is often furthermore assumed that the Catholic Church went so far as to ban people from having the Bible in their own language.

Supporting the claim are the stories of:

  • Martin Luther who is sometimes thought to have been persecuted for translating the Bible into German, but who in fact was accused of heresy, and in any event, was not the first to translate the Bible into German.
  • William Tyndale who was executed for heresy, but also did not even make the first English translation (rather there were others already extant)
  • John Wycliffe who is often credited with the first English Bible, although older versions went back to the 6th Century, and who nonetheless was never charged with heresy until a good 30 years or so after his death.

In each of these cases, however, the position does not seem to be the act of translating the Bible, or of making it available, but rather of heretical teachings from these translations.

And, clearly the example of the Jesuits, translating the Scripture into hundreds of languages, seems to run counter to the claim that translating Scripture or encouraging lay popele to read it was heretical.

So, the question is, is there any papal directive that specifically addresses the possession of the Scripture in a vulgar (i.e. native) tongue, or addresses the translation of Scripture outside of Latin in a negative light?

  • I understood from High School English that the origin of the English language is identified to be in the year 1066, so I'm not sure there could be translations prior to that.
    – Narnian
    Jul 16, 2013 at 14:21
  • Bible-researacher.com addresses the same question at section three of this page. Jul 16, 2013 at 14:51
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    @Narnian that would be the advent of middle English, when french was introduced to the language and it became less of a Germanic language. Old English is much older then that, but is much more related to German then it is to modern English.
    – Ryan
    Jul 16, 2013 at 17:17
  • @AffableGeek: I can't help but think it has something to do with this question I asked, not particularly the argumentation (translations) but the power and control: christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/15903/… Jul 16, 2013 at 19:25
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    @GregMcNulty So, I looked at that question, and I disagree. Your question is along the lines of "How do I know someone didn't add doctrine?" Mine really is "Does the Catholic Church force people to hear the Scripture read by Priests in Latin?" kind of thing. I'm talking about translation, you are talking about modification. Very different beasts. Jul 16, 2013 at 19:53

3 Answers 3


Quoting from The Story of Christianity, chapter thirty (emphasis added):1

When Alexander died, Hildebrand was elected pope, although the order prescribed by the Second Lateran Council was reversed, for it was the people who demanded his election, and the cardinals who agreed. He took the name of Gregory VII, and continued the work of reformation in which he had been engaged for years. His dream was of a world united under the papacy, as one flock under one shepherd. Among the many steps he took in this direction, he declared that the Bible should not be translated into vernacular languages, for the ministry of teaching and interpretation must be in the hands of Rome...

Additional Context: Chapter thirty is entitled "Movements of Renewal," and Gonzalez is describing the Roman Catholic Church in the eleventh century, following the corruption which existed during and after the decline of the Carolingian empire. The "reformation" referred to is not the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, but rather the eleventh century ecclesiastical reformation internal to the RCC, as initiated by monks from Cluny and other monasteries.

  1. The Story of Christianity, Revised Edition, by Justo Gonzalez. Volume I, p. 337.
  • Wikipedia uses Deanesly, Margaret (1920) The Lollard Bible and Other Medieval Biblical Versions. Cambridge: University Press as a source for both Gregory VII and Innocent III. If Deansley or Gonzalez (2010?) quote sources we might have more than a bare claim. Wikipedia suggests early translators were attacked for heresy, not specifically for translating, and that many scholars disagree with Deansley.
    – Bit Chaser
    Jun 14, 2014 at 18:36

The evidence that the Church has ever completely forbidden the translation of scripture is dubious at best. As is stated in Wikipedia, there are a few times when a given college of bishops or a given region might have forbidden the vernacular, but these were almost always at times when mis-translations were more common than adequate ones. In these cases, the Church decided to whitelist instead of blacklist.

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    I think you should be looking at the documents of The Church for this - not Wikipedia.
    – Waeshael
    Jul 17, 2013 at 21:51
  • Tyndale was hanged by the Church for his translation of the Bible, as were several others.
    – Waeshael
    Jul 17, 2013 at 22:11
  • @Waeshael Tyndale was killed by agents of the King of England because he opposed the divorce. Jul 17, 2013 at 23:23
  • @Waeshael Since you are the one insisting that there is a document that shows the Catholic Church collectively forbid the translation of Bibles, it is incumbent upon you to provide a demonstration that one exists. It is not my responsibility to prove that none have ever existed. Jul 18, 2013 at 1:15
  • I have moved the answers to a conversation stack. Hope you will have a look at it.
    – Waeshael
    Jul 18, 2013 at 11:59

Not today. The Vatican uses the Vulgate in the Liturgy, and does not prohibit the Liturgy used outside the Vatican to be translated into the vernacular of any country. Since Vatican II, scholars and clergy have been encouraged to read other translations. In the USA, the American Catholic Church has adopted several translations including RSV, NAB, NSAB, and NRSV.

In the fourth session of the Council of Trent (1545-1563) the Vulgate was declared to be authoritative. It had already been in use by the Roman Catholic Church since the 5th. cent.

Moreover, the same sacred and holy Synod,--considering that no small utility may accrue to the Church of God, if it be made known which out of all the Latin editions, now in circulation, of the sacred books, is to be held as authentic,--ordains and declares, that the said old and vulgate edition, which, by the lengthened usage of so many years, has been approved of in the Church, be, in public lectures, disputations, sermons and expositions, held as authentic; and that no one is to dare, or presume to reject it under any pretext whatever.

Translation into other languages by Roman Catholics was forbidden by Papal decree until Vatican II. Of course, before the Reformation everyone in the West was a Roman Catholic, including Tyndale.

The Eastern Orthodox churches are different. Their New Testament and Old Testament have always been in Greek, and Syrian since the 4th. cent. (The Aramaic Gospels in the Brit. Museum are signed and dated AD 464.)

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    Could you reference that decree? I've already done a +1, but before I accept, I'd love to have that. Thanks! Jul 16, 2013 at 17:21
  • OK, first, even if the Council had said that (which it didn't, by the by), that was a legal norm, and as such that standard would have been abrogated by the Pio-Benedictine Canon Law. Jul 17, 2013 at 4:46
  • As a proof that translation was acceptable and common, I submit the original, French Jerusalem Bible. That was completed in 1956 and was properly endorsed by a Church official. Jul 17, 2013 at 4:47
  • @IgnatiusTheophorus you seem extreamly biased towards the church not banning. Also the question deals with medieval times, which 1956 does not qualify as. You can not use that then as 'proof' that 1000 years ago translations were appropriate, common, and acceptable...
    – Ryan
    Jul 17, 2013 at 15:46
  • Start with the COuncil of Trent "scripture tradition and the Canon" 8 April 1546, second Decree. Then Gregory XVI 8 May 1844 on "Sectarian Bible Societies" Section 84 which includes the statement "readings of the vernacular translation were permitted if they were "approved by the Holy See" and published with "notes taken from the Holy Fathers of the Church..." - In America, bible translations are generally approved only by the American Catholic Church.
    – Waeshael
    Jul 17, 2013 at 22:10

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