Is the Vulgate the Catholic Church’s Official Bible?

The Vulgate historically has been an extraordinarily influential translation in the Latin Church.

Prologue of the Gospel of St. John from the Clementine Vulgate.
Prologue of the Gospel of St. John from the Clementine Vulgate. (photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

St. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate is the most influential Bible translation in the history of western Christendom.

As a translation, it’s been astoundingly important — even more than the King James Version.

For many centuries, it effectively was the Bible for countless Christians.

Through long ages in the west, educated people could read Latin but not Greek or Hebrew, and there were few Bible translations in the vernacular available.

There is no getting around the fact that the Vulgate has a uniquely influential place here in the west—or that it continues to have a unique role today.

But does that make it the Catholic Church’s “official” Bible?


How would you show that?

If you wanted to show that the Vulgate was the Catholic Church’s “official” Bible, you’d need a text where the Church declares it the official one.

Otherwise, it’s not.

Since “official” is a legal status, such a text would belong to canon law, and the logical place to look for it would be in the current edition of the Code of Canon Law.

But there is no such text.

The Vulgate is not mentioned in the current Code of Canon Law. Neither is it mentioned in the original, 1917 edition of the Code. Nor is it mentioned in the 1990 Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches.

So we are not off to a promising start.

We will need to look at other documents of current law and see if any of them declare the Vulgate to be the Church’s official Bible.

Before we do that, though, we should clarify an important point.


The Original Languages

Despite its influential role, the Vulgate is a translation.

It thus does not contain the text of the Bible in the original languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek).

While it can play a useful role as a translation, it cannot replace the original language texts.

This is an important point, because some Catholics have placed so much stress on the Vulgate that some people have been confused on this point.


Trent’s Statement

To see this, let’s start by looking at what the Council of Trent had to say regarding the matter:

[This] 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 [Decree Concerning the Edition and Use of the Sacred Books, 1546].

Or, more simply:

[This Synod] ordains and declares, that the said old and vulgate edition ... be, in public lectures, disputations, sermons and expositions, held as authentic.

“Authentic” in this context means “authoritative.” So Trent is saying that, of the Latin editions available in its day, the old Vulgate was to be considered the authoritative edition for use in lectures, debates, sermons, and expositions.

Note the qualifiers: “out of all the Latin editions, now in circulation.”

Trent isn’t saying anything about original language editions. It’s just talking about Latin ones.

It also isn’t saying that the old Vulgate can’t be superseded later by a newer Latin translation.

Both of these points will be important.


Pius XII’s Statement

In 1943, Bl. Pius XII commented on Trent’s statement, writing:

And if the Tridentine Synod wished “that all should use as authentic” the Vulgate Latin version, this, as all know, applies only to the Latin Church and to the public use of the same Scriptures; nor does it, doubtless, in any way diminish the authority and value of the original texts. 
For there was no question then of these texts, but of the Latin versions, which were in circulation at that time [Divino Afflante Spiritu 21].

Here Pius XII does two important things.

First, he makes the point we’ve already mentioned — that the Vulgate does not “in any way diminish the authority and value of the original texts” (i.e., the ones in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek).

Second, he clarifies that Trent’s declaration “as all know, applies only to the Latin Church.”

This is important because the Latin Church is not the whole of the Catholic Church.


Non-Latin Catholic Churches

There are more than 20 other Churches — the Melkite Church, the Chaldean Church, the Maronite Church, etc. — that are also part of the Catholic Church.

These Churches — being in the East — historically did not use Latin.

Instead, they celebrated the liturgy and read the Scriptures in other languages, such as Greek and Aramaic.

Thus, rather than using the Latin Vulgate, Greek-speaking Catholics historically have used the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament and the original Greek New Testament.

Aramaic-speaking Catholics historically have used an edition in Syriac (a form of Aramaic) known as the Peshitta.

In these Catholic Churches, the Vulgate was never the primary version of Scripture.

We thus need to be careful that we don’t represent what Trent said as applying to the whole Catholic Church. It doesn’t.

As Pius XII pointed out, it applies only to the Latin Church.


Current Law?

Since the time of Trent, canon law has been completely reorganized, and thus we need to see what current law has to say concerning the Vulgate.

We’ve already seen that the Vulgate is not given any special status in the current codes of canon law (Western or Eastern), but this does not mean it isn’t dealt with in other legal documents.

In fact, St. John Paul II dealt with it in a 1979 apostolic constitution known as Scripturarum Thesaurus.

This document promulgated a new, revised edition of the Vulgate — known as the Nova Vulgata, Neo-Vulgate, or New Vulgate — which had been in preparation for some time.

In this short document, the pope makes some of the points we have already discussed — such as when he notes that “in the regions of the West the Church has preferred to the others that edition which is usually called the Vulgate.”

However, the point we are interested in is what he says to say about the legal status of the current edition of the Vulgate. Concerning it, he says:

By virtue of this Letter we declare the New Vulgate edition of the Holy Bible as “typical” and we promulgate it to be used especially in the sacred Liturgy but also as suitable for other things, as we have said.

“Typical” is a term of art in canon law. To declare something to be the typical edition of a work means that it is the authorized reference edition that is to be consulted in cases of dispute.

Thus here John Paul II declares the New Vulgate to be the typical edition — or authorized reference edition — of the Vulgate.

This, not prior or parallel editions, is the one that the Church will be using.

He also promulgated it “to be used especially in the sacred Liturgy” — about which we will have more to say — and “also as suitable for other things,” the other things including “sharing the word of God with the Christian people” (at least those who speak Latin).

John Paul II thus did not declare the New Vulgate to be the official Bible of the Catholic Church.

He declared it the typical edition of the Vulgate and he authorized it for certain uses, especially in the liturgy.


The New Vulgate in the Liturgy

When the liturgy is celebrated in Latin (at least in the ordinary form), the New Vulgate is the translation used in the Scripture readings.

It is also used when Scripture is quoted in the prayers of the liturgy.

Its role also was clarified in a 2001 document known as Liturgiam Authenticam, which was released by the Congregation for Divine Worship (CDW). It provided that:

It is not permissible that the translations [of the liturgy] be produced from other translations already made into other languages; rather, the new translations must be made directly from the original texts, namely the Latin, as regards the texts of ecclesiastical composition, or the Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek, as the case may be, as regards the texts of Sacred Scripture.
Furthermore, in the preparation of these translations for liturgical use, the Nova Vulgata Editio, promulgated by the Apostolic See, is normally to be consulted as an auxiliary tool (no. 24).

Thus when the Latin Church’s liturgy is translated into vernacular languages like English or Spanish, the Scripture readings are to be based on the original biblical language but the New Vulgate is to be “consulted as an auxiliary tool.”

The document goes on to name the situations in which the New Vulgate is to be consulted. They concern things like when translators have to choose:

  • among different manuscript traditions (no. 37)
  • among possible renderings of passages that have traditionally been rendered one way in the liturgy (no. 41a)
  • how to render certain words that can sound strange in the vernacular if rendered literally (no. 43)

Because of questions that arose concerning Liturgiam Authenticam, the CDW later sent a letter which discusses the matter further. In part, it said:

It is reasonable that a translator of the Scriptures should work with the original languages before consulting other versions, including the Latin.
Afterwards, however, it can only be beneficial for a translator to consider the Latin text as a window through which to view the same Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic text from the standpoint of a healthy sympathy with the best insights of the Latin Church over the centuries.
This is substantially what the recent Instruction calls for as regards the preparation of translations intended for use in the Roman Liturgy.

It was thus clear that the New Vulgate be used as an aid — an auxiliary tool — in developing liturgical translations. It does not serve as the base text to be translated.


The Accuracy of the Vulgate

No translation of a lengthy text is able to capture all the nuances found in the original language, and thus no translation is perfect in that sense.

What degree of accuracy does the Church claim for the Vulgate?

Pius XII stated:

[The] special authority or as they say, authenticity of the Vulgate was not affirmed by the Council particularly for critical reasons, but rather because of its legitimate use in the Churches throughout so many centuries; by which use indeed the same is shown, in the sense in which the Church has understood and understands it, to be free from any error whatsoever in matters of faith and morals; so that, as the Church herself testifies and affirms, it may be quoted safely and without fear of error in disputations, in lectures and in preaching; and so its authenticity is not specified primarily as critical, but rather as juridical.

Here the pontiff indicates that the Vulgate was “free from any error whatsoever in matters of faith or morals” — meaning that it contains no theological errors, for these would have been discovered in the long centuries of its use in the Church. It was therefore safe to quote without fear of theological error.

However, this does not mean it is not subject to revision and improvement as a translation of the original languages. Thus Pius XII noted that Trent did not view the Vulgate as authoritative in the Latin Church “particularly for critical reasons.” Indeed, he noted that:

It is historically certain that the Presidents of the Council received a commission, which they duly carried out, to beg, that is, the Sovereign Pontiff in the name of the Council that he should have corrected, as far as possible, first a Latin, and then a Greek, and Hebrew edition, which eventually would be published for the benefit of the Holy Church of God (no. 20).

Thus even at Trent it was asked that a corrected edition of the Vulgate be produced which would improve it as a translation, even though it already contained no theological errors.

In the same way, the Church makes no claims to unalterable perfection for the New Vulgate. The CDW explained:

While constantly defending the inerrancy of the Sacred Scriptures as such, the Church has never claimed unalterable perfection for her own officially approved Latin edition of the Scriptures, and has sought to improve that version several times.
It is not to be excluded, and indeed, it is to be expected, that such work continue in the future.


The Bottom Line

From what we’ve seen, the Vulgate historically has been an extraordinarily influential translation in the Latin Church.

It has been given special recognition by the Church, and it does not contain theological errors.

At the same time, it has always been recognized that it could be further improved, like any biblical translation.

The current edition, known as the New Vulgate, is the typical Latin edition of the Scriptures used in the Latin Church, especially in the liturgy.

However, none of this supports the claim that the Vulgate is the official Bible of the Catholic Church as a whole.

It is an important translation that the Latin Church uses for certain purposes, but the Church has not declared any single edition of the Bible to be its sole and definitive version.

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