The Baronius Douay-Rheims pocket Bible is a fantastic tribute to the Catholic response to Protestantism. The Douay-Rheims translation originated in the English College of Douay, France, and was published two years before the Protestant King James Bible. The English College was a haven for British Catholics during the years immediately following the exile imposed by Elizabeth I. The Douay school acted as the English Catholic seminary during the first decades of Protestant England and eventually sent well over 300 priests to England, 160 of which were martyred by those who insisted that religion should be subservient to the state. Many of these martyrs returned to their homeland carrying the Douay-Rheims translation. Following their example, when the first English Jesuits traveled to Maryland, they also carried the Douay-Rheims.
The leather-bound Baronius Douay-Rheims is incredibly beautiful in its simplicity. Pocket sized, the Bible is complete with gold-edged pages and two ribbons. The illustrations inside are wonderfully done; neoclassic and awe-inspiring. I have never been a fan of “realist” religious art. I simply do not care what a Biblical scene “actually looked like” because it is more important to focus on what is going on beyond the mere physical appearances of those present. The Douay-Rheims illustrations communicate the sense that there is something important, and even earth-changing, in each etching.
This sense of reverence goes to the heart of why so many Catholics still appreciate the Douay-Rheims translation. In addition to retaining the older names of the books (The Book of Revelation is instead The Apocalypse of St. John the Apostle), the translations themselves, perhaps because of their age, convey a sense of poetic formality not found in modern translations. For example, consider how beautiful the Douay-Rhems recounts the events of Pentecost:
And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a mighty wind coming, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them parted tongues as it were of fire, and it sat upon every one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and they began to speak with divers tongues, according as the Holy Ghost gave them to speak.
And now the New American translation:
And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were. Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.
The first text conveys a sense of reverence not found in the second. It is also worth mentioning that the footnotes of the Douay-Rheims seem more attuned to explaining the text in light of Church doctrine while most modern translations are far more concerned with explaining historical-critical critiques of the text. If I wanted unreliable footnotes I would read a Unitarian Bible.
The Douay-Rheims Bible is a direct translation from the Latin Vulgate, although the translators did use earlier Greek and Hebrew scrolls to determine where the word “the” should be placed throughout the text, a subtlety that was not common in English translations during the time period. It is not always clear to Catholics why a translation from the Vulgate is far superior to translations based on Greek and Hebrew originals. First, the Catholic Church declared Jerome’s Vulgate the official Bible of the Church during the Council of Trent, giving it authorized standing. Second, Jerome composed his Vulgate prior to the fall of Rome. Many ancient texts and documents did not survive the destruction of Rome and rise of the Dark Ages. Jerome likely had access to manuscripts which have since been destroyed, meaning that his Vulgate is probably the most complete picture of the original texts we will ever have.
The purpose of the Douay-Rheims Bible is to give a literal English translation of the Vulgate. The literal translation, more than anything else, is a conveyance of the events which took place in the Bible, and is designed to give the faithful a sense of heritage and insight into the life of our Lord. The Bible does not pretend to be the most accurate English translation of the original texts in the sense that it does not accommodate colloquialisms and other contextual clues. This is not an oversight. It is a recognition of the proper use of the Bible by the laity; a hearkening back to an era in which the laity were not encouraged to use the Bible to form their own opinion about things. There is something freeing in the knowledge that the Douay-Rheims is designed for prayerful and leisurely use, not for lay scholarship.
I simply can’t think of a better book to have on your night table than the Douay-Rheims Bible. Beautiful, reverent, and well-made, the book recalls the struggles of English Catholics, helps inform the current generation about how Church doctrine relates to Scripture, and imparts a sense of prayerful respect for the texts themselves. No Catholic Gentleman’s shelf is complete without one.