Brandon's Notepad

July 28, 2016

Catholic Mass Bible Readings Coverage

ShortURL: wp.me/pb7U7-1Q3


Do Catholics read the Bible? You bet they do! But some other Christians want you to think otherwise. Here’s a good lesson on how to lie with infographics.


The Accusation

Catholics are often accused of claiming to be Christian and yet not reading the Bible. In one respect this is true, because the average Catholic is less likely to sit down and read the Bible from cover to cover in the same way an Evangelical Christian might. Like anything else, Catholic and Evangelical populations could be surveyed and the results analyzed statistically, and in doing so you will likely find plenty of people who do not fit the stereotype: Catholics that read their Bibles all the time and Evangelicals that don’t.

In Reality

What Evangelicals don’t realize is that Catholics hear much more of the Bible than they read. There are four readings (OT, Psalm, NT, Gospel) assigned for each holy day of obligation (i.e. all Sundays and certain feast days). There are also three “cycles” arranged such that the Gospel of Matthew is covered in Cycle A, Mark in Cycle B, and Luke in Cycle C. The Gospel of John is spread across certain days throughout the year, but especially in the seasons of Lent and Easter.

The Infographic

A year or so ago, someone I follow on Twitter posted an infographic, which can be found here on imgur, that plots the readings throughout the liturgical the year. The imgur post includes a bit of explanatory information about how to read the graph, followed by the following note to the reader: “Notice all of the blank space. Only 14.2% of the entire bible is read during mass over the course of three years.” Yikes! Only 14.2%? That’s not a lot!

Something’s Not Quite Right

Yes, the graph shows a lot of blank space; however, notice that time is depicted on the X-axis. This means that the plotted area does not actually represent the pure volume of content. How should this graph be read then?

Assumptions

I decided to conduct a little test to see how accurate the 14.2% claim actually is. To do this, the following assumptions were made:

  1. The graph is intended to be an accurate representation of the data.
    Which is the claim being made, right?
  2. Each of the black hash marks represent one holy day.
    There are 52 Sundays and about 5 non-Sunday Holy Days of Obligation, making 57 total. The year is depicted as a 286-pixel block, which means each mark should be 5.02 pixels wide on average. Indeed, spot-checking reveals that most are either 6 or 7 pixels wide, with a few as short as 4 pixels.
  3. Each of the black hash marks represent a unique section of Scripture.
    It is unclear exactly how the volume of content is presented here. Do the marks represent whole chapters? Individual stories? Segments of verses? But it doesn’t really matter, because the next assumption is that…
  4. The height of the plotted area represents 100% coverage of Bible content.
    The plotted area is 741 pixels in height. According to multiple sources on the Web, the Protestant Bible contains 1,189 chapters, which is greater than 741, so each mark can’t represent a chapter exactly. The Catholic Bible contains a few additional books, but not enough to allow for each pixel to represent two chapters.

Method

The test required some simple graphical manipulation of the picture using a paint program (in the case I used GIMP). There were three basic steps:

  1. Remove time from the graph.
    This was done by extending each of the black hash marks to fully cover the year in which it was found. I did this for all marks in all three years, and then cut most of each year out, leaving only a thin ribbon to represent it’s coverage.
  2. Find the cumulative coverage.
    Using the layers feature, I moved a copy of each year’s content volume to form a column of combined (or cumulative) coverage.
  3. Compress the volume to determine percentage.
    This was tedious, but I removed all blank space between the bands of black on a copy of the cumulative column, resulting in a 315-pixel bar, and placed it on top of a grey, 741-pixel tall background.

The Result

My cumulative coverage columns are shown to the right of the original graph below. The columns for Cycles A, B, and C are labeled accordingly, the combined coverage column is labeled with a Sigma, and the percentage coverage column with a percent sign. The result is that a whopping 42.5% of the Bible is read during Mass on Sundays and Holy Days alone.

Lectionary_Coverage

Notice that there is essentially full coverage of the Gospels over three years, nearly full coverage of the rest of the New Testament, a heavy concentration on certain Old Testament books (e.g. Genesis, Exodus, major prophets like Isaiah), and lighter coverage on books that even Protestants don’t pay much attention to (e.g. Numbers, Kings, Chronicles, minor prophets, etc.).

Conclusion

The poster’s claim that only 14.2% of the Bible is read during days of obligation is incorrect. This is obviously not a perfect test, because there are a lot of assumptions and unknowns about how the original author is depicting the data; however, the margin between 14.2% and 42.5% is far too wide to be simple error.

Is the imgur poster trying to mislead you, assuming you will simply take the graphic at face value? Maybe. I have considered the possibility that the 14.2% claim was based on the percentage of the plotted area covered by black pixels, in which case the poster actually misinterpreted the graph. It is not clear whether or not the person who posted the graphic on imgur and the author of the graphic are the same person.

Wait, There’s More…

This infographic covered readings for holy days on which Catholics are required (yes, not expected, but required by Church law) to attend so that they may hear them, live them, and share them with others. What is not covered are the readings for the rest of the week! Most Catholics don’t attend daily Mass, but those that do will hear even more of the Bible! You can visit the Liturgy page on the USCCB website for more details on that.


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