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VATICAN LETTER May-2-2008 (840 words) Backgrounder. With graphic posted May 1. xxxi

Not an easy read: Survey indicates Bible hard to understand

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The Bible: Most people in Europe and North America have one and some of them actually read it, but more than half of them say it is difficult to understand.

A survey commissioned by the Catholic Biblical Federation found that even those who reported reading the Bible said it was not easy to understand.

Luca Diotallevi, the Rome-based sociology professor who coordinated the survey's working group, said, "This is very important: People described the Bible as difficult whether or not they said they read it."

"The people of God are asking for help reading the Bible," he said in an April 30 interview.

The Catholic Biblical Federation commissioned the survey as part of its preparation for the October world Synod of Bishops, which will focus on the Bible.

During an April 28 Vatican press conference, the federation and GfK-Eurisko, which conducted the survey, presented preliminary results from nine countries: the United States, United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Poland and Russia.

The survey results are based on telephone interviews conducted in November with 13,000 adults.

Asked, "In the past 12 months have you read any passage from the Bible?" 75 percent of U.S. adults said "yes."

Their European counterparts were far behind them, but Diotallevi said the results coincide with other surveys on the differences between U.S. and European religious attitudes and practices.

Diotallevi said a few more Protestants than Catholics reported having and reading the Bible, but the difference was so slight that it "was not statistically relevant."

The percentage of Europeans affirming they had read a Bible passage in the previous year varied from a high of 38 percent in Poland to a low of 20 percent in Spain.

But the huge differences all but disappeared when those surveyed were asked whether they considered the Bible's content to be "easy" or "difficult."

The spread of those who said it was difficult went from 56 percent in the United States to 70 percent in Germany.

The percentage of respondents who said they had a Bible at home was 93 percent in the United States, 85 percent in Poland, 75 percent in Italy, 74 percent in Germany, 67 percent in both the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, 65 percent in Russia, 61 percent in Spain and 48 percent in France.

The survey designers also tested for what they defined as an individual's "index of biblical knowledge," by asking seven very basic questions, such as "Are the Gospels part of the Bible?" and "Did Jesus write a book of the Bible?"

Diotallevi said the scores of Catholics and Protestants were not significantly different because while slightly more Protestants reported reading the Bible "they have a greater tendency toward fundamentalism, giving what we would consider a wrong answer. For example, many of them maintain that Jesus is the author of the Gospels."

When asked to describe the Bible, the most popular answer in every country except Germany was, "The Bible is the inspired word of God, but not everything in the Bible should be taken literally, word for word."

In Germany, 40 percent chose the phrase about the Bible being inspired, but more respondents -- 42 percent -- said, "The Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history and moral precepts."

Diotallevi described as fundamentalist those who chose the response: "The Bible is the actual word of God, which must be taken literally, word for word."

Poland was the country with the highest percentage of fundamentalists, with 34 percent affirming the statement. In the United States 27 percent said it was literally God's word and in Italy 23 percent said so.

One statistic bishops are expected to discuss during the synod is the relatively infrequent use of the Bible for prayer, the "lexio divina" promoted by the church.

Survey respondents who said they prayed were asked, "How do you do it?"

While 37 percent of U.S. respondents and 32 percent of Polish respondents said they use the Bible to pray, only 9 percent of people in the United Kingdom, France and Italy reported praying with the Bible and only 6 percent of Spaniards said they used the Bible for their prayers.

In France and in Italy, the top answer was, "I recite words that I know by heart."

In all the other countries, the most popular method of private prayer was using one's own words.

Those interviewed also were asked about their political orientation; in order to have comparable statistics, the survey did not ask people which party they belonged to, but rather to describe themselves as right wing, center-right, center, center-left or left wing.

He said the number of people who read the Bible "was more or less equal" in each of the political categories.

"But on individual issues, reading the Bible was strongly predictive," Diotallevi said. The statistical breakdowns were not available in late April, but he said those who reported reading the Bible were those most likely to oppose abortion and euthanasia.


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