By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Since Pope Paul VI created the Synod of Bishops in 1965 to give the bishops of the world a voice in governance of the universal church, the body has met 21 times. Among other things, these sessions have sometimes been criticized as overly abstract and out of touch with the concrete realities in various parts of the world.
Perhaps aware of that concern, participants in the next Synod of Bishops in October, this one devoted to the theme of the “Word of God,” decided to conduct a sociological survey of attitudes towards the Bible in various nations. Sponsored by the Catholic Biblical Federation and carried out by GFK Eurisko, Italy’s leading market research organization, the survey polled people in the United States, the United Kingdom, Holland, Germany, Spain, France, Italy, Poland and Russia. Plans call for four other countries shortly to be added to the mix, all in the global South: Argentina, South Africa, the Philippines, and Australia.
Luca Diotallevi, an Italian professor of sociology, described the study as “the most systematic scientific undertaking yet attempted to compare, on an international scale, levels and forms of familiarity with the Scriptures.”
The results, which will likely serve as a baseline for the synod’s reflections, were presented on Monday at a Vatican news conference. Among the more striking findings:
•tThe United States has by far the highest level of its adult population that claims to have read at least one passage from the Bible in the last year (75%) and to have a Bible at home (93%), but it doesn’t score better than anyone else on tests of basic Biblical literacy. For example, large numbers of Americans, just like people in the other eight countries surveyed, mistakenly thought that Jesus had authored a book of the Bible, and couldn’t correctly distinguish between Paul and Moses in terms of which figure belongs to the Old Testament.
•tEven within highly secularized nations such as France, the U.K. and Holland, broad majorities report a positive attitude towards the Bible, describing it as “interesting” and expressing a desire to know more about it.
•tBroad majorities also describe the Bible as “difficult” and express a need for help in understanding it – suggesting, according to the authors of the study, a “teaching moment” for the churches.
•tFundamentalists, or those who take a literal view of Scripture, do not know more about the Bible than anyone else. In fact, researchers said, it’s readers whose attitudes they described as “critical,” meaning that they see the Bible as the word of God but in need of interpretation, who are over-represented at the highest levels of Biblical literacy. In other words, fundamentalists actually score lower on basic Biblical awareness.
•tIn virtually every country surveyed, those who take a “critical” view of the Bible represent a larger share of the population than either “fundamentalists” or “reductionists,” meaning those who see the Bible simply as literature or a collection of myths and legends. In the United States, “fundamentalists” are 27 percent of the population, “critics” 51 percent, and “reductionists” 20 percent. Interestingly, both Poland and Russia have a similar share of “fundamentalists,” despite lacking the strong Evangelical Protestant tradition familiar in the U.S.
•tThere is no apparent correlation between reading the Bible and any particular political orientation. In other words, it’s not the case that the more someone reads the Bible, the more likely they are to be a political conservative or liberal.
•tAside from the United States, there’s broad support in most nations for teaching the Bible in public schools, suggesting that large numbers of people attach cultural importance to the Bible even if it’s not part of their personal belief system. (The different result in the United States, according to researchers, flows from America’s unique tradition of church/state separation, in which families and churches rather than public schools have been the primary carriers of religious instruction).
•tThere no longer appear to be major differences in Biblical reading patterns and Biblical familiarity between countries with Catholic majorities and those with Protestant majorities, suggesting that, in the words of Bishop Vincenzo Paglia of Terni, Italy, the president of the Catholic Biblical Federation, the Bible has become “the ecumenical book of all believers.”
The bottom line, according to the study, is that the Bible is not the object of a “sect,” but rather a book that continues to inspire interest and fascination among a broad majority even in highly secularized and post-confessional cultures. In addition, people also report that they want help making sense of the Bible, suggesting that the stereotypical classic Protestant stance of sola scriptura, of each individual believe reading the Bible on his or her own, isn’t the dominant position these days. Most people seem to want guidance, suggesting a “church-generating” capacity inherent in Scripture.