With the election of Benedict XVI and the evident jubilation at his reign in many Catholic quarters, the intellectual elite has again returned to its habit of bashing the intelligence of Catholic laity. To be fair, this is hardly a new phenomenon. For centuries, non-Catholic Christians have remarked on the evident sheep-like ignorance of Catholics. The papists have a robot-like obedience to a pontiff that thinks for them because they are too ignorant to think for themselves.
It is often remarked that stereotypes do not arise out of nothing. No matter how slanderous the stereotype, at least some small part of it must have its origin in reality or the stereotype would not be adopted as true by the culture.
Consider, for instance, that slaves who are regularly whipped tend to be less than enthusiastic workers. This is a fact. It is also the origin of an American stereotype concerning men with dark skin. Similarly, Jews were, for centuries, lawfully forbidden from working in most trades. About the only profession they were permitted to work in was banking. A man’s got to make a living, but those who had reason to be dissatisfied with bankers rarely noticed this. Instead, they noticed that most of the bankers they worked with had a specific non-Christian origin. Today, suicide-bombers and other terrorists tend to be a different kind of non-Christian. While most members of Islam do not blow themselves up in crowded cafes, the stereotypical Muslim is the suicide bomber.
In much the same way, the stereotypical Catholic is stupid. Why? The answer is quite simple, and quite well-known to an industrial society: it is the classic “legacy system” problem.
The History of Ignorance
Prior to the invention of the printing press in 1450 AD, literacy was an expensive hobby. A book the size of a Bible cost as much as a private airplane does in today’s dollars. Vellum and parchment writing materials were made of calf, kid or lamb-skin. It took an entire herd of animals to supply enough skin for a single book. Only rich men could afford that kind of wholesale slaughter, or the expense of hiring a writer who could copy the book out by hand over the course of months or years.
Just as most of today’s population knows nothing about flying airplanes, so most medievals knew nothing about reading. They didn’t need to.
The printing press and Luther changed all that. By 1500, the cost of a book had dropped to two percent its former value. As literacy began to grow, Martin Luther proposed a novel idea (pardon the pun). The words of Scripture meant not what the Catholic Church said they meant, rather, those words meant whatever you wanted them to mean. Luther was the first deconstructionist.
St. Jerome famously said, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” Since less than ten percent of the Roman population could read, we can be sure that Jerome was not insisting on literacy. While Catholics can practice their faith regardless of literacy rates, Protestants suffer no such luxury. It is nearly impossible to be an illiterate Protestant.
This put America in a unique situation. Protestants colonized America, which is to say, literate men colonized America. Prior to 1800, over 99% of the inhabitants of the British colonies were Protestants. America didn’t have a legacy system to maintain. Europe did.
As even the lowliest technician knows, the biggest impediment to upgrading a computer network is the legacy on the desktops. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of older machines are out there. They all have to be upgraded or replaced before new software can be rolled out.
A company that has just formed does not have this upgrade issue. It can buy the newest, cheapest equipment and begin operations before a well-established company has even finished filling out its purchase orders.
America had no illiterate legacy population. Precisely because of its peculiar foundation, American literacy ran above 95% even before the Revolution. This level was maintained through roughly 1870. Immigrants were the only fly in the “total literacy” ointment. When European immigrants came across the water, they tended to be illiterate. Literacy might have been growing rapidly in Europe, all things considered, but Americans didn’t consider all things. Instead, they simply noted that the Catholic immigrants were mostly poor and unable to read. Catholics were stupid.
Catholicism in America did not grow through conversion. It couldn’t. The Catholic population was too poor, too small and spread too thin. Few Catholics knew their own Faith well enough to proselytize even if the American population had been open to such a thing, and American Protestants weren’t. No, Catholicism in America grew almost entirely through immigration. Even as late as 1920, an estimated 75% of the American Catholic population were European immigrants.
Catholics may have founded nearly every major university in Europe, their monasteries may have kept the very skill of literacy alive during the Black Plague and the famines, they may even have invented the printing press which allowed literacy to become commonplace, but none of that mattered. Americans only knew poor, illiterate Catholics. Thus, Catholics are stupid.
The Importance of Literacy
Christ preached to a population that was between one and ten percent literate. The most literate of that population, the scribes and lawyers, rejected Him. Catholic Faith spread through the lower echelons of Roman society first, the segments least likely to be literate. It was the literate segments of Roman society that ferociously maintained their pagan ways. It was the literate population that fueled the Arian heresy. It was the secular literati of European society who insisted on burning witches and following socialism, both in its national (Nazi) and international (Communist) forms.
So, when we see modern intellectuals make snide remarks, we should not be surprised. “Anyone who has not read Foucault, Derrida or Andrew Sullivan is really not literate,” they say. Let us grant the statement without argument, as we have already granted similar statements concerning Arius, Marx and the rest. It hardly matters. As was noted before, faithful Catholics don’t need to be literate, as the world views literacy, in order to be faithful to Christ.
This essay is taken in part from information available in Deception: Catholic Education in America.