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Controlling the Information

December 4, 2020 (774 words)

The printing press made the Protestant Reformation possible, once the Catholic Church could no longer control information. This may not be a new theory, but lately it seems to be popping up in places I frequent for information and entertainment, like the Atlantic, NPR, and Madam Secretary. The offhand, goes-without-saying way this claim is routinely asserted takes me by surprise, since it runs so counter to my own experience with and understanding of Catholicism. And that surprise prompts this good-natured rebuttal.

What we have here is a weighty subject serious people write big books about, sometimes even devoting entire careers to exploring the historical period in question. You’ll be happy to know I do not trade in that sort of detailed scholarship.

Since I am only given a few hundred words to work with at any given time, my take on this matter will not tax your attention span the way a big book might.

The popular mind has grown accustomed to a central idea: By the time Martin Luther came along the Catholic Church was up to no good and deserved to be trashed, for lack of better word. Europe and the soon-to-be-discovered New World would be better off once this corrupt institution was knocked off its perch.

But how can this assessment be accurate, when the mission of the institution in question has always been to lead all souls to heaven? Granted, some of those who ensconce themselves in positions of power while promoting our Lord and Savior have been known to fall short and fail, succumbing to the allure of those seven deadly sins that ensnare us all. At times such failure is nothing less than spectacular. That said, egregious behavior on the part of certain individuals does not justify our assigning nefarious motives to the entire enterprise, or impugning its long history.

The intermittent failures only prove Catholicism is in constant need of renewal, since its practitioners are all flawed human beings. (I believe the popular expression is “garbage in, garbage out.”) Its saving grace is Christ’s assurance the Holy Spirit will never abandon His Church. As proof of this concept, humanity has consistently welcomed a steady stream of reform-minded believers down through the centuries, who appear among us on an as-needed basis. Many of these inspired men and women are recognized as saints. Some are referred to as “doctors” of the Church.

So my argument is not that Mr. Luther is unequivocally wrong. Only that his body of work constitutes a classic case of throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Of course the printing press was a marvelous invention making information more readily available to the masses. It also benefited the cognoscenti, by powering the Scientific Revolution. But any invention or innovation can be used for good or ill. That an articulate and highly intelligent rebel was right there to take advantage of the situation, using the vernacular to spread his unorthodox views about orthodoxy, is not exactly a glorious ringing of the freedom bell it has subsequently been interpreted as being.

Marty’s determination to topple papal authority reflected the growing sentiment across Europe to caste off all previously held authority, custom, and tradition. Since history is written by the winners, we are pre-disposed to accept this 16th century upheaval as a triumphant liberation from a tyrannical impediment to self-actualization.

That few are given to question what has solidified into a comfortable secular consensus shows how difficult it can be for any of us to see the forest for the trees. One of Luther’s guiding principles was the “Brotherhood of Priests,” in which we all “take control of our own faith.” Another was his insistence that scripture alone, apart from tradition, define Christian practice. And who gets to interpret Scripture? Why, we all do, each according to our own lights. Read the Bible for yourself, now that the printing press has made it easy to get hold of one, and draw your own conclusions.

The resulting cacophony has been deafening. “Redistributing power into the hands of the people” has not proven to be the antidote to errant thinking we originally hoped for.

Let me close with this simple question: Have you ever heard of trying to save someone from their own worst instincts? That, in a nutshell, explains the role of Holy Mother Church in our lives. We must remain receptive to her quiet wisdom, despite the distractions. It is transmitted through the writing of eloquent spokespeople – the high and mighty – and in the daily habits of the humble faithful we are fortunate to rub elbows with from time to time, who are themselves profound exemplars of a hard-to-practice, easy-to-disparage ethos.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr
December 4, 2020

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