Should You Read Non-Catholic Materials?

A correspondent writes:

I am presently attending a Bible study.  During our small group discussion, a question arose from someone in our group.

We would like to know if it is wrong for us to read and examine other books and Bibles that are not Catholic-based to see what they have information-wise pertaining to spiritual matters.  For example, we both have Life Application Study Bibles and enjoy reading the associated study footnotes.

My opinion is that the Holy Spirit guides us with discernment especially when we pray before reading or delving into other Christian denomination books and Bibles.  I guard myself (my heart, mind and spirit) so that I’m not influenced in any way that could conflict with Catholic beliefs.  If I’m not sure or confused about an issue (e.g., Why do we believe this and they that?”), I said I then will go to a religious authoritative person to have any questions or issues addressed or I check Internet sites like  I believe I am exercising my ‘child-like faith’ with wanting to know and love more, which draws me closer to Him and to others, while using my adult judgment. I also believe that, when we know more about other religions and philosophies (Christian, Jewish, Eastern, scientific, etc.), it helps us to practice love, respect others, and establish a common ground for our relationship and possible future discussions for witnessing for Catholicism. If I didn’t understand or have knowledge of what they believe, I may not be able to convey my Catholic beliefs and doctrines as accurately.

The other person in our small discussion group is concerned that when we read, we can be swayed / influenced to turn from our Catholic beliefs and choose another path.  Are we able to guard ourselves enough (with the Holy Spirit’s assistance), spiritually and mentally, to protect our Catholic faith or is avoidance of other doctrines the answer?  Is it a matter where it differs per individual and how strong their faith is (figuratively, those who are nursing vs. those eating solid food)?

Please share your opinion and feel free to correct me where I’m wrong.  Thank you!

I think that you and the other person in your Bible study have valid points. There is not a one-size-fits-all answer on this one.

On the one hand, there is a great deal to be learned from non-Catholic sources, including non-Catholic religious and philosophical ones. St. Thomas Aquinas did an enormous service for the Church by showing how Christian faith can be related to the thought of non-Christian thinkers, such as (and especially) the pre-Christian philosopher Aristotle. Aquinas’s attitude was that all truth is God’s truth, and so if you find truth in a non-Christian source it not only will not contradict the Christian faith but it also will be of use to Christians. The more truth, the better!

His attitude was thus to exercise critical thinking in reading materials from non-Catholic sources (and from Catholic ones, for that matter!). Although St. Paul said it in a different context, the idea also applies here:

Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil. (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22)

This philosophy has also carried down to our day. In fact, in the books he is writing on the life of Jesus, Pope Benedict regularly interacts with the ideas of the American Rabbi Jacob Neusner, whose perspective on Jesus he finds to have value, even though he doesn’t agree with everything. (And he’s willing to reference Neusner in public—and thus implicitly encourage others to see what Neusner has to say.)

If you have a good grounding in your Catholic faith and can exercise critical thinking in what you read then there is nothing to fear in non-Catholic writings, and there is much to be learned from them! Though we have the fullness of religious truth, we do not have a monopoly on truth, and the perspectives of others can help bring out things that we as Catholics may not have known or may not have fully worked out yet.

In my own work, I use non-Catholic materials all the time. In fact, my favorite commentaries on the book of Genesis are by Jewish authors (Rashi and Nahum Sarna), there are Evangelical commentaries on certain books of the Bible that I learn a great deal from (the writings of N. T. Wright and James Dunn come to mind), and there are things to be learned even from folks who do not have any faith.

The key to being able to sift through this material and find what is good in it, though, involves more than praying to the Holy Spirit, and here is where I think your friend has a good point. One must also have a firm knowledge of your own faith in order to be able to think critically about material presented from other perspectives.

While one certainly should and must rely on the Holy Spirit for guidance, the Holy Spirit does not promise to protect us from coming to mistaken conclusions just because we pray to him. He also wants us to study, internalize, and thoroughly know our own faith. And then, with his guidance, we can approach materials from other perspectives profitably and with confidence.

Because everybody in our culture is taught to regard himself as an expert on religion from the time of birth, it is easy—often far too easy—for us to imagine that we have the kind of knowledge of our own faith that is needed to accurately identify beliefs that conflict with it. Indeed, we’d often feel insulted if someone suggested that we don’t! “What do you mean I don’t know my Catholic faith well enough to know what contradicts it!”

Yet there are a great many people who, in fact, don’t have a good grasp on the Church’s teaching even though they think they do.

And then there are people who, while they know the teaching of the Church well, may be experiencing an emotional crisis or a crisis of faith of some sort, and this would interfere with their ability to productively and serenely interact with materials from non-Catholic authors.

Certainly the safest course is to stick with Catholic materials, and as a general matter this is advisable, particularly for those who are less educated in their faith or who are going through difficult patches in their lives, but if you are well educated in your faith and able to exercise the critical thinking necessary to profitably sift what you are reading, there is nothing to fear from doing so.

There is thus no one-size-fits-all answer. It depends on each individual and where that person is in their intellectual, emotional, and spiritual journeys.

In terms of the group—since people may be at different stages of those journeys—I would recommend erring on the side of caution (a flock travels at the speed of its slowest member), and if you use non-Catholic materials (or less-reliable Catholic ones, which can even be more insidious since they may have been written by wolves in sheep’s clothing), point out their limitations and strongly caution people against using them uncritically.

I hope this helps, and best of luck!

What are your thoughts?