Dec 15, 1999

Selling Bibles to Generation Y

Online Edition
Vol. V, No. 9
December 1999/January 2000

National Catholic Youth Conference is an occasion for
Selling Bibles to Generation Y

by David A. Murray

How do you extend the shelf life of a defective Bible translation explicitly disapproved by Rome for liturgical use, which contains "inclusive language" and trendy views championed by theological liberals? Re-package it for "youth" and market it to Generation Y teens, who presumably won’t know any better.

That seems to be the strategy behind the ballyhooed "Catholic Youth Bible" which was rolled out at the National Catholic Youth Conference, held in Saint Louis the third weekend in November 1999.

The Catholic Youth Bible, published by Saint Mary’s Press, is in fact the New Revised Standard Version, with youth-oriented commentaries and introductions added.

Scripture Congress for Teens

The Youth Congress on Scripture, a separate event within the National Catholic Youth Conference (see related article), introduced this new version of the Bible. It was made up of several hundred teens selected by their parishes or Youth Offices who got free copies of the Catholic Youth Bible for taking part in the exercise. The other attendees paid: Brian Singer-Towns, general editor, told Adoremus that three thousand had been sold by Saturday evening, with another day still to go, although the new Bible will not be officially released until February.

The Youth Congress opened with a skit in which four teens played Bible readers with differing degrees of knowledge of the Bible. One character tells the others, "Bishops know we’re not Bible scholars; they don’t expect us to know everything!"

Later, Righteous Philemon (youth minister Mike Tyson of Rochester, NY) appeared in jester’s cap to host "Who Wants to Be a Teenage Catholic Millionaire?", a spoof of the recent quiz show, in which the tables of teens competed with each other to answer questions based on passages in the Catholic Youth Bible. His jokey patter was full of pop-culture references like the Simpsons.

In the afternoon, Bishop Richard Sklba, auxiliary bishop of Milwaukee, gave a talk on six Catholic things to be aware of when reading the Bible. "It’s Catholic to know that the Church has put this Bible in your hands," he said. "Bishop Harrington, who is sitting right over there, approved it". Bishop Bernard Harrington, of Winona, waved and smiled at the kids. Winona is the home of Saint Mary’s Press, publisher of the Catholic Youth Bible. Bishop Harrington, installed in January 1999, gave it his imprimatur.

Bishop Sklba, also chairman of the NCCB’s Ad Hoc Committee for the Review of Scripture Texts, did not mention that this special edition of the Bible for Catholic youth is the New Revised Standard Version, a translation that the Vatican has declared unacceptable for use in the Church’s liturgy — in large part because of its commitment to so-called "inclusive language". Instead, when he addressed the Youth Congress, Bishop Sklba advised the teens to study all translations and said,

We study the translation to make sure that it’s as close as possible to the original languages… We make sure that not one crumb of the meaning is lost… 

Coming soon to your parish

The publisher of the Catholic Youth Bible, Saint Mary’s Press, a subdivision of Christian Brothers Publications, is headquartered on the campus of Saint Mary’s University in Winona, Minnesota.

Originally a publisher of textbooks and course materials for Catholic schools, Saint Mary’s Press now publishes a variety of materials for catechetics and youth ministry. Singer-Towns was hired by Saint Mary’s Press specifically for the Youth Bible project. He said his twenty years of youth-ministry experience qualifies him.

The Catholic Youth Bible has an initial print run of fifty thousand copies, which Mr. Singer-Towns says he expects to sell within a year from its official publication date in February 2000.

The demand for yet another version of the Bible came from youth ministers, Singer-Towns said. No surveys of youth were done. Youth ministers relied on their experience.

In 1994 and 1995, a focus group of youth ministers negotiated with Thomas Nelson, a firm that publishes mostly Protestant Bibles. (The National Council of Churches of Christ holds the rights to the NRSV.)

Writers and editors

A starting list of 45 possible commentary-writers were sent letters; those who responded were eventually winnowed down to the current fourteen.

Most of the contributors are youth ministry workers. Some have theological credentials. Cathy Cory chairs the theology department at the University of Saint Thomas in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and Daniel Ponsetto is chaplain of Boston College. Edward Kunzmann is described as a Chicago investment consultant who has taught theology in Catholic high schools.

One contributor, Gary Dreier, is a Lutheran pastor in Rochester, Minnesota. Consultants include feminist scripture scholar Pheme Perkins, Professor of New Testament at Boston College.

No Catholic bishops were involved in the preparation of the Youth Bible, according to Singer-Towns. Review copies were sent to "fourteen or fifteen" bishops who were thought to be willing to offer review quotations.

The publicity materials offered approving quotations from Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany, and Bishop Harrington, whose imprimatur was required.

Youth-oriented commentary

The selling point of the Catholic Youth Bible is supposed to be its youth-oriented commentary. Youth ministry workers are big on "meeting youth where they’re at". Singer-Towns cites statistics that, he claims, show that while sixty percent of Protestant teens read the Bible, only twenty percent of Catholic youth do so. This justifies the effort to get youth to read the Bible.

The problem is that the language that kids use or are exposed to "where they’re at" is so impoverished and superficial that it is an unfit medium in which to discuss Gospel truths. The result is watered-down text-bites, either in introductory comments to the books of the Bible or in boxed notes cluttering the pages of the text. A commentary note on Genesis says,

The beginning of wisdom is acknowledging that a higher power is at work in our life, that our universe has purpose, and that everything was created by God. The ancient writers and editors of Genesis expressed these ideas in the Creation stories. The church affirms these beliefs. They are expressed in a prayer called the Apostles’ Creed (6).

This is, at best, a lowest-common-denominator kind of language that makes too many concessions to a shallow secular mentality. Genesis doesn’t merely "express beliefs" of the ancient authors; it communicates truths that remain true apart from our belief or expression. It is God’s word, not man’s. Language like this threatens to "spiritualize" away the truth of Scripture.

Some notes are unobjectionable. One advises teens to obey authority: "So, the next time you are having a problem with a person in authority, ask yourself, Might obedience in this situation somehow bring me closer to God?" (241). Another says that "Jesus has been with you from the moment of your conception" (1232), and a note in Matthew relates the slaughter of the innocents to abortion (1124). Another urges teens to avoid "the temptation and illusion of pornography" (736). One note even admits that "our faith is more than feelings. God’s love and mercy do not depend on our ability to feel ‘warm fuzzies’" (1217).

"God in the gut"

Many notes are merely banal. Others reflect a kind of narcissistic piety that proper Scripture study should be leading teens away from:

Lord, have I ever made you cry? angry enough to yell? tickled enough to laugh? I hope you know me so well that my every movement, my every breath is noticed by you, Jesus, because that is the image of you I can talk to, a God who can relate to me and accept me in all that I do (1263).

Another note, entitled "God in the gut", claims "One of the best places to look for God’s direction is that feeling in the center of your stomach when you are faced with life’s dilemmas".

Cutesiness — and worse — abounds in notes and comments on the Scripture. The Book of Jonah, for example, is described as a hilarious satire, and young Catholics are expected to snicker at comments like, "along comes a taxi in the form of a large fish’s stomach", and "the reader is giggling at the goofiness of pigs and sheep in sackcloth" (1072).

"Myths" and "fictions"

The notes are eager to stress that Catholics are not "fundamentalists" who take Scripture as a "scientific document" (although the world of youth ministry otherwise behaves as though denominational boundaries did not exist).

One note says that "Genesis was written not as a science article but as symbolic stories, sometimes called mythic stories, that convey great moral and spiritual truths".

But the editors use words like "myth" in careless ways in notes that describe the books of Ruth, Esther, Judith and Tobit as "fictions"; and dismiss the book of Jonah as a "biblical satire" and a "fictional short story".

Without the proper qualifications, these terms can seriously mislead young readers, suggesting an equivalence between Bible stories and pagan myths.

The introduction to the Book of Matthew repeats the 50-year-old higher-critical opinion that the Gospel accounts were merely "stories" concocted by later generation reflecting how "Jewish Christianity" understood itself within its narrow cultural context. Notes on the Eucharist (1190, 1237) speak of it as a "shared meal" and "common celebration of faith"; but fail to give any clear statmement of Catholic doctrine.

Instead, we are told, Jesus "identified [bread] as his body", and "identified [wine] with the New Covenant sealed by his blood" (1237).

At best this is an ambiguity that conceals the truth.

"Ethnic" perspectives encourage syncretism

Serious problems emerge in other notes. Some are designed to express "ethnic" perspectives, although Singer-Towns glumly acknowledged that only four — African-American, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American — were able to be included, and so didn’t really represent the "diversity" he would have liked to see.

Some of this "ethnic" commentary is so ludicrously forced and out of touch that it can only have emerged from the hothouse world of the youth-ministry establishment. One can only wonder what, for example, an African American reader would make of the following patronizing nanny-bite, presented under the heading "In God’s Image" :

God does not make mistakes, people do. Some African Americans might be tempted to deny their African heritage, to forget their roots, to even change their physical appearance in order to fit into Anglo culture. We must remember that physical features — African American or otherwise — are not accidents. God planned for them; we are all made in God’s image.

If we are to authentically love ourselves, we must love our whole selves. For African Americans, this includes a love for ebony-hued skin, tight curly hair, thick lips, and wide noses (7).

But other "ethnic" notes raise real theological problems, actively encouraging syncretism — the improper mixing of Christian beliefs and practices with pagan ones.

In the book of Ezekiel, a note describes the Native American sweat lodge ceremony and says it "ritualizes the cleansing and conversion Ezekiel proclaims in Ezek. 36.25-6" (1005).

An "Asian American" note in 1 John equates the Sacrament of Reconciliation with a Hmong ritual of seeking advice from a shaman, thus erasing the distinction between human reconciliation and the restoration of grace offered by God in the Sacrament (1471).

A note in the book of Joel equates Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness with Native American "vision quests" (1057).

Apparent conflicts between some notes seem to reflect careless editing. In a note in the Gospel of Luke, we’re told that we say the words "Lord, I am not worthy" before receiving Communion "not to emphasize our sinfulness but in humble recognition of God’s awesome gift of Jesus, whom we are about to receive in the bread and wine of the Eucharist" (1132).

Another note, however, informs us that the same words "indicate … our willingness to accept’s God’s forgiveness and healing in our life" (1212).

A "Live It!" note on Psalm 82 singles out AIDS as a "Matter of Justice", rather than euthanasia or persecution of Christians, which surely are also compelling examples of injustice.

Catholic heritage missing

Some notes sound as if they are explaining or introducing Catholicism to non-Catholics.

In the book of Luke, we read that "Catholic Christians have a special devotion to Mary. They celebrate her virginal conception of Jesus on the feast of the Annunciation. They believe that Mary was born free from original sin," etc. (1199).

The use of "they " instead of "we" distances the reader from the beliefs described and raises other questions.

Does this reflect an assumption that Catholic teen readers are starting out from a ground zero of total ignorance, and have never been exposed to even the most basic Catholic teachings and beliefs? If so, their "Catholic literacy" will not be notably increased here.

Missing are quotations from the Early Church Fathers or great saints or scholars of the past. Even 20th century saints like Maxmilian Kolbe and Edith Stein don’t make it into these pages, although we get Martin Luther King, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, etc. Why?

"Inclusive language" at issue

Egregiously, a note in the book of Hosea instructs teens to pray, "God, loving father and mother, thank you for your generous and unconditional love…" (1049). And in the biblical timeline at the end of the volume appears the "Time of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs", with "Abraham and Sarah, "Isaac and Rebekah; Jacob, Leah and Rachel; Joseph and Asenath" (1542).

The "Pray It!" note on Psalm 150 (690) rewrites the Psalm, eliminating pronouns for God, and contemporizing the instruments ("Praise God with bongo and maracas").

The determined avoidance of the masculine pronouns He and Him for God throughout the text often results in an awkward repetition of "God … God … God" depressingly familiar to any who attend "progressive" liturgies with neutered prayers. In the Introduction to the Pentateuch, for example, we read

In the Pentateuch, God reveals how much God loves the human race and how much God loves us personally. God wishes to be in a relationship with us today just as much as God did back then. The Pentateuch reminds us that we are all children of God (3).

The publication of the NRSV Catholic Youth Bible may be viewed as another incident in an ongoing struggle (sometimes visible, sometimes submerged) between the Vatican and translators, or, more accurately, between orthodox and feminist scholars, over the issue of inclusive language. It is hard not to see its publication as an attempt to pass on theological and liturgical progressivism to a generation which turns out in the hundreds of thousands to see the Pope.

Why was the NRSV used?

Why choose a translation so militantly committed to "inclusive" language? The choice, said Singer-Towns, was between the New American Bible, used for the Lectionary in the United States, and the NRSV. He admitted that the issue of the Vatican’s disapproval of the NRSV did come up. "I certainly agree with inclusive language", he readily acknowledges, and claims that young women often bring up with youth ministers their "anger" at language which they feel excludes them.

Singer-Towns denied that the Catholic Youth Bible was intended for liturgical use. Why, then, was the original Preface to the NRSV included in the text and printed prominently in the promotional "sampler" for the Catholic Youth Bible? It was written by Franciscan Father Anthony DiLella, Professor of Biblical Studies at the Catholic University of America and one of the NRSV’s translators, who states that

Roman Catholics will welcome this edition of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible for personal reading and study as well as liturgical usage. Based on the latest manuscript discoveries and critical editions, it offers the fruits of the best biblical scholarship in the idiom of today while being sensitive to the contemporary concern for inclusive language when referring to human beings (xxi).

The American bishops’ conference initially approved the NRSV (it still bears the 1991 imprimatur of Archbishop Daniel Pilarzcyk, then NCCB president). But the translation was rejected for liturgical use by the Vatican in 1997, due mostly to the NRSV’s use of "inclusive language".

No bishop or scripture scholar is unaware of the importance of the issues involved. The matter of "inclusive language" and its effect on the meaning of Scripture and liturgical texts was the subject of considerable debate — even conflict — throughout the years when new translations of the Roman Missal (Lectionary and Sacramentary) were being considered.

In 1995, the Vatican issued "Norms for Translation of Scripture Texts for Liturgical Use". They were made public two years later.

The Vatican Norms were in essence a point-by-point negation of the US bishops’ 1990 Criteria for the Evaluation of Inclusive Language Translations of Scriptural Texts Proposed for Liturgical Use, adopted in preparation for the revision of the Lectionary for Mass. (See AB July/August 1997)

As everyone understood, these Norms rejected out-of-hand the use of politically charged devices such as "inclusive language". The Vatican Norms state:

The translation of Scripture should faithfully reflect the Word of God in the original human languages. It must be listened to in its time-conditioned, at times even inelegant, mode of human expression without ‘correction’ or ‘improvement’ in service of modern sensitivities. (§3)

Why, then, was this translation, which the Holy See found unsuitable for use in the Church’s Liturgy, selected for Catholic teenagers? Why interlard the pages of the text with dozens of prominently featured notes clearly deemed by the editors to be "corrections" and "improvements" precisely "in service of modern sensitivities"? It is further mystifying that four bishops have publicly associated themselves with this defective Bible.

The Catholic Youth Bible’s superficial and misleading commentaries, along with its neutered language, are like screens between the intended readers and the full truth of the faith that is their right by baptism.

Is it possible that some teens will break through these screens to explore more deeply the full truth of their Catholic heritage? Of course. God can write straight with crooked lines.

Yet far more than a few crumbs have been lost in this version of the Bible. Its many errors and omissions make the Catholic Youth Bible not so much like a loaf of bread with one corner torn off, as like bread adulterated with foreign ingredients.


David Murray attended sessions of the National Catholic Youth Conference, including the Youth Congress, and interviewed the Catholic Youth Bible‘s General Editor, Brian Singer-Towns.

Helen Hull Hitchcock contributed to this essay.



David Aaron Murray