Catholic Urban Legends
by Robert P Lockwood
When I was in college during the late 1960s, it raced through the campus that the actor who played the "Beaver" on the television show "Leave It To Beaver" was killed by friendly fire in Vietnam.
The fact was that young Jerry Mathers, the "Beaver," was alive and well and had never even served in Vietnam. But the legend outpaced the reality, and Mathers had to actually issue public denials of his death before things started to calm down. Months later there were still kids weaving the cautionary tale of the "Beaver" as a symbol of our generation dying in Southeast Asia.
The story of Jerry Mathers is a classic urban legend. To briefly define, urban legends are not so much fairy tales, but specific, believable stories told as fact with a populist appeal and a moral to the story. They show up everywhere, are repeated routinely, and are so widely accepted that they become part of the common cultural baggage. Everyone assumes the urban legends are true because everyone tells them as truth.
But they are not true. Just like Jerry Mathers allegedly dying in the jungles of Vietnam when in reality he was fine, urban legends having nothing to do with facts. They play on events to create an alternative reality that tells a story that better fits our perceptions or prejudices.
There is a subset of urban legends that are just as widespread, just as believed, and just as false. I call these "Catholic Urban Legends." They are distortions or fabrications from history that are part of the common anti-Catholic baggage that is carried around by many, Catholics included.
A simple example: The brave scientist Galileo has been forced by the Inquisition in 1633 to recant his teaching that the earth orbits the sun. But as he exits the Inquisition trial he exclaims loud enough for his loving supporters to hear: Eppur si muove!-"And yet it moves!"
Galileo never said it. The first mention of any such statement came nearly 125 years after his death. It was an invention, another bit of propaganda created in the eighteenth-century battle between the so-called French Enlightenment and the Church.
But Eppur si muove! became part of the corpus of Western thought. By the nineteenth century, every Protestant school child would have known it. Most Catholics would have heard it as well, and no doubt believed it real. To the scientific community it became a rallying cry against the Catholic faith and in support of scientific truth as the only real truth.
Today, Galileo’s quote is a given, bound to arise in any conversation touching on the relationship of faith and science in general, or the Catholic Church and the modern world in particular. But it is simply a Catholic urban legend.
The Makings of a Legend
Catholic urban legends have the same characteristics as most secular urban legends:
Often invented in the past as part of post-Reformation theological propaganda, Catholic urban legends are utilized today to dismiss Church positions out-of-hand. Like anti-Catholic rhetoric, they are a way to argue against Catholic positions in the public arena without having to actually refute the logic, meaning, and purpose of the Church’s positions: The Church is anti-science, as proven in the Galileo Catholic urban legend, and therefore its position on embryonic stem cell research can be readily dismissed without arguing the merits of that position.
- They are ubiquitous. One of the difficulties in refuting them is that simply everyone believes them. Catholic urban legends are not the strange beliefs of one particular sect. They are part of the Western cultural inheritance shared by everyone. They are believed because everyone believes them.
- They are presented as absolute fact. People are not required to prove such assertions. They are simply accepted as actual fact. Galileo's stalwart statement to the Inquisition doesn't have to be defended; it is simply cited as unvarnished truth.
- They are based on real events: Urban legends are commonly based on something real, not fantasy or fairytales. The trial of Galileo took place. There were Crusades and Inquisitions. Pius XII was pope during World War II. Catholic urban legends are usually rooted in real historical events. It’s just that the legends have been grafted on to the actual history.
- They are populist cautionary tales. Urban legends are almost always cautionary tales-they mean more than just the events described and are often propaganda from a particular perspective. The alleged death of Jerry Mathers in Vietnam symbolized an innocent generation dying in Vietnam as a result of the allegedly evil, uncaring administration of President Johnson. Catholic urban legends are meant to silence the counter-cultural voice of the Church.
Catholic urban legends are passed on from generation to generation and viewed not as the product of anti-Catholicism, but as normative thinking for the enlightened person. They have been repeated so often for so many years that they are accepted as basic truths. They are fabrications of history cited as truths.
I am not arguing that the lessons of history or the interpretation of historical events are not open to debate and contrary opinions. Thousands of books have been written on the origins of World War I with a thousand different explanations for the same actual events. The Crusades and the events surrounding them are immensely complicated. After years of study, fair-minded people can reach fair-minded conclusions contrary to each other.
But Catholic urban legends are not varying interpretations of history. They are falsifications of history. They are mistakes in fact, or more likely converting legend and propaganda to fact, until the truth of the actual events are forgotten in the culture and the public mind.
Crusades and Inquisitions
There is the common Catholic urban legend of the Crusades. This Catholic urban legend teaches that the Crusades were an unwarranted European invasion of an innocent Islamic people instigated by Pope Urban II in 1065.
But the Crusades were never portrayed in such a fashion until the dying Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries used them as an example of European colonialism to stir up contemporary Islamic nationalism. It was later picked up as another example of Catholic intolerance.
The simple historical fact is that the Crusade announced by Pope Urban II was the answer to an urgent plea from the Eastern Byzantine emperor for assistance against an Islamic invasion from the Seljuk Turks. The Seljuk Turks had overrun Armenia and threatened Constantinople itself. The Eastern imperial army had been virtually destroyed at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, and the Empire survived solely on deft diplomacy to neutralize the Seljuk advance. In 1095, representatives from the East begged for assistance to ward off the Seljuk Turks and to ensure that safe passage would remain to the Holy Land for Western pilgrims. The Holy Father agreed and issued the call for a crusade to rescue eastern Christendom from Islamic invasion.
Why did the Crusades happen? They were not a Church-ordered attack on innocent people. They were a direct response to the invasion of the Byzantine Empire by the Seljuk Turks.
The Spanish Inquisition shares the title of "The Granddaddy of Catholic Urban Legends" with the trial of Galileo. One thing is certain: Virtually everyone has heard of the Spanish Inquisition, and rare is the person who understands the historical reality of it.
The historical reality of the Spanish Inquisition has its own tragedies. They should be neither whitewashed nor dismissed. But the Catholic urban legend of the Spanish Inquisition is little more than post-Reformation propaganda. That legend holds that the Spanish Inquisition, dominated by the papacy with cackling monks torturing the innocent, killed hundreds of thousands of Protestants branded as heretics.
Just a few basic points to keep in mind when you run into this Catholic urban legend:
As in many parts of Europe, those who were not "conversos" and were tried by the Inquisition were Catholics who had made crude anti-religious sentiments, were renegade priests, or simply annoyed their neighbors. For the most part, the Spanish Inquisition was an exercise in controlling unsociable behavior and looked for repentance as a final outcome. It was not hunting down heretics because, quite frankly, there were few, if any, heretics in Spain. But the "Black Legend" of the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition persists to our day, despite serious historical studies-by non-Catholic scholars-that regard most of it as anti-Spanish propaganda from an Elizabethan England fearing a Spanish invasion.
- The Spanish Inquisition was at its height in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. During that period, there were approximately 2,000 victims, not untold millions.
- Monks never tortured anyone, as they were forbidden to do so by the laws of the Church.
- The Spanish Inquisition was aimed primarily at practicing Catholics-families of Jewish heritage that had converted to the faith (many for generations). They called them "conversos," and the charge was that they were practicing the religion of their ancestors secretly.
- There were few, if any, "Protestant" victims of the Spanish Inquisition simply because there were no Protestants in Spain. Luther’s revolt never took hold anywhere in Spain.
- The motivating factors for the Spanish Inquisition were primarily greed, jealousy, and racial enmity. The "old Christians" saw these "converso" families having great success. They considered them impure racially-at a time when the reunited Spanish peninsula had defeated Islam-and wanted their money and their influence.
- Both Pope Sixtus IV (1471-1484) and Pope Innocent VIII (1484-1492) complained about the treatment of the "conversos," but they had no authority over an Inquisition that was controlled by Spanish civil authorities.
From its English heritage, the United States made many of the post-Reformation Catholic urban legends its own. But we also developed any number of unique Catholic urban legends to fit our own political and social purposes.
Veterans of the pro-life movement remember well that when the legalization of abortion became an issue in the United States, the debate focused more on the Catholic Church than abortion itself. The claim was made that the Church was attempting to impose its morality on the country. Instead of trying to defend a practice that horrified most Americans, proponents of abortion wanted to make the debate a church-state issue.
The Catholic urban legend surrounding abortion is that it was Catholic "power" that had made abortion illegal in the United States, forcing a religious belief into secular law. The reality is that laws against abortion developed throughout the nineteenth century in the United States at a time when the Catholic Church had little or no influence on public policy.
Laws against abortion resulted from increased medical knowledge of fetal development. The "pressure" to make abortion illegal came from a combination of anti-prostitution movements, civic reform movements attempting to improve the life of immigrant women, and, most important of all, the support of the entire medical establishment. It was a liberal effort that would also receive strong support from the women’s suffrage movement. But the Catholic urban legend persists that the Church was the power behind such legislation, though there is no historical evidence whatsoever to back that claim.
Pope Pius XII: No Friend to the Nazis
In recent years, another powerful Catholic urban legend has been the charge that Pope Pius XII did nothing in World War II to protect the Jews of Europe in the face of the Nazis. Pius has been painted as nearly a co-conspirator in the Holocaust, and this has certainly become the popular image. It is absolute nonsense, and over the last few years most historians have come to see it as such.
The simplest response to the Catholic urban legend of the alleged silence of Pope Pius XII in the face of the Holocaust is two-fold:
- The Nazis considered Pius such an enemy that they had hoped to kidnap him. Though without an army or a weapon, Pius was considered a dangerous enemy of Hitler and hardly a friend of Nazi Germany.
- In the aftermath of the war, Jewish sources estimated that as many as 800,000 Jewish lives were saved in Europe by the direct actions of the Church under Pius. Even if that number was wrong by half, the Catholic Church under Pius saved more Jewish lives than any entity, any government, any army, any international organization that existed in Europe.
The Catholic urban legend of Pius grew out of a left-wing post-war intellectual culture that resented the anti-Stalinist, anti-Communist agenda of his later pontificate. Discredit Pius, and his agenda could be discredited as well.
Pius died on October 9, 1958. On that day Golda Meir, future Israeli prime minister and then Israeli representative to the United Nations, said on the floor of the U.N. General Assembly, "During the ten years of Nazi terror, when our people went through the horrors of martyrdom, the Pope raised his voice to condemn the persecutors and commiserate with the victims."
For the Record
A final note on Catholic urban legends, returning to Galileo. In1992, Cardinal Paul Poupard presented to Pope John Paul II the results of the Pontifical Academy study of the 1633 trial of Galileo. He reported the study’s conclusion that at the time of the trial, "theologians failed to grasp the profound non-literal meaning of the Scriptures" when they condemned Galileo for describing a universe that seemed to contradict Scripture.
Headlines around the world screamed that the Vatican "finally admitted Galileo was right." And thus a final Catholic urban legend surrounding Galileo was born that it took until the late twentieth century for the Church to remove the condemnation of Galileo's scientific observations.
To set the record straight: Galileo died in 1642. In 1741, Pope Benedict XIV granted an imprimatur to the first collected edition of the complete works of Galileo.
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Robert P. Lockwood is the director for communications for the Diocese of Pittsburgh and general manager of the Pittsburgh Catholic. His latest book is A Guy’s Guide to the Good Life: Virtues for Men (Servant Books).
This article first published in the Mar/Apr 2010 issue of Lay Witness magazine and is reproduced with permission. Copyright © Catholics United for the Faith
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