I have heard that the Catholic Church did not permit private ownership of scripture nor any attempts to read and understand it so that the only copies were the ones possessed by the Church and the only exegesis of the text was done by the Catholic clergy. Private ownership and interpretation then was a Protestant innovation. Is that accurate information? Or have I been misinformed?

If that is correct, when if ever did the Catholic Church official begin permitting private ownership and interpretation of the scriptures?

I suppose one could add translation by anyone other than the Catholic clergy to this question as well.

  • Just a heads up, before the printing press it was financially impossible for laymen to have a Bible. And even the Bible of the priest used to be chained to something near by as to avoid theft in view of the extremely high cost of a Bible. Making the Reformation's view of the Bible exclusively relevant to after the printing press. But idk about the Church purposely prohibiting reading if it although evidently interprétation was to be guided. Commented May 18, 2018 at 12:58
  • @DestynationY Thanks. I'm aware also of the fact that even after Gutenberg's invention illiteracy kept town criers necessary. However, scribes predate the NT and it would be possible. The Ethiopian eunuch being a prime example. I'm wondering though about whether the practice was forbidden. As I said, I heard that it was forbidden but am trying to obtain the documented historical facts of the matter.
    – Ruminator
    Commented May 18, 2018 at 13:03
  • 1
    Where did you hear this from?
    – guest37
    Commented May 18, 2018 at 16:33
  • An interesting question for the epistles of Paul were written to individual churches (or individuals). And he exhorted them to share them and to read each other's epistles. So - no prohibition from the apostles, it would seem.
    – Nigel J
    Commented May 22, 2018 at 16:08
  • @guest37 I don't really remember. I do know that Wycliffe met some resistance: christianity.com/church/church-history/timeline/1201-1500/…
    – Ruminator
    Commented May 22, 2018 at 16:14

2 Answers 2


Laypeople owned Books of the Hours and illuminated manuscripts of Holy Scripture before the printing press. (See the "Manuscript" Catholic Encyclopedia article for the history of manuscripts and copyists.) There was no ecclesiastical prohibition of such ownership.

St. Paula (347-404), a wealthy Roman lady who could thus afford manuscripts, studied Holy Scripture under the direction of St. Jerome and helped fund St. Jerome's Vulgate translation of the entire Bible. Thus, laypeople privately owning Holy Scriptures did exist very early on in the Church's history.

cf. How did the Catholic Church function logistically/liturgically prior to the invention of the printing press?


The Church has never proscribed private possession, reading, or translation of the Bible (and indeed the Douay-Rheims Bible, long the standard Catholic English translation, was published before the King James Version).

The Church was very concerned in the mid-16th century that Protestants had made their own decisions about what books to include in the canon and how they might be interpreted. In the fifth session of the Council of Trent, the Council made formal declarations on these subjects.

No one, relying on his own skill, shall... presume to interpret the said sacred Scripture contrary to that sense which holy mother Church,--whose it is to judge of the true sense and interpretation of the holy Scriptures,--hath held and doth hold; or even contrary to the unanimous consent of the Fathers; even though such interpretations were never [intended] to be at any time published. Contraveners shall be made known by their Ordinaries, and be punished with the penalties by law established.

And wishing, as is just, to impose a restraint, in this matter, also on printers... [this Synod] ordains and decrees, that, henceforth, the sacred Scripture, and especially the said old and vulgate edition, be printed in the most correct manner possible; and that it shall not be lawful for any one to print, or cause to be printed, any books whatever, on sacred matters, without the name of the author; nor to sell them in future, or even to keep them, unless they shall have been first examined, and approved of, by the Ordinary.... As to those who lend, or circulate them in manuscript, without their having been first examined, and approved of, they shall be subjected to the same penalties as printers: and they who shall have them in their possession or shall read them, shall, unless they discover the authors, be themselves regarded as the authors. And the said approbation of books of this kind shall be given in writing; and for this end it shall appear authentically at the beginning of the book, whether the book be written, or printed; and all this, that is, both the approbation and the examination, shall be done gratis, that so what ought to be approved, may be approved, and what ought to be condemned, may be condemned.

The Bible (like other books specifically thought of as Catholic) may be printed, circulated, read, and translated. But before they are, they must be examined, usually by the local bishop's office, and signs of approval must be printed in the book. Today these are known as the nihil obstat ("nothing stands in the way") and the imprimatur ("it may be printed").

  • Thanks very much. Do you know if that declaration was ever rescinded and if so, when? Thanks.
    – Ruminator
    Commented May 18, 2018 at 16:45
  • @Ruminator Which declaration? The statement of the Council of Trent about needing the approval of the bishop? No. As I implied in the last sentence, the requirement of approval is still with us. Commented May 18, 2018 at 16:53

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