Propaganda against the Church: The enlightenment

Author: Grzegorz Kucharczyk

Anti-Catholic propaganda during the Enlightenment built its message on the heritage of the Reformation. In addition, in the so-called salons of the Enlightenment there was extensive reading of so-called revelations concerning millions of victims of Church inquisition, as well as information on the so-called crimes committed beyond the walls of monasteries.

Catholicism – poverty and ignorance

The Enlightenment, however, added a new theme in this new anti-Catholic propaganda. This was the conviction that Catholicism is proof of the belated growth of civilisation, manifested in so-called old wives’ tales and ignorance. In this context, Catholicism was no longer the religion of those who showed no mercy, lusting for power and Machiavellian activists and rebels. In a word, it was now a religion that should be feared and one therefore that should be rejected. This propaganda in the Enlightenment began to change in this regard the accent of ‘danger’and persuaded that Catholicism is a religion not so much dangerous but one not suitable for a civilised person. Moreover, being a Catholic was not proof of a blind ‘Roman anti-Christ.’ but rather one of regression, an inability to keep up with progress and more so – a deliberate building of walls against humanitarian work.

In the Protestant press in 18th-century England, Catholic states were usually presented as backward countries where people lived in poverty and intellectual impoverishment

This anti-Catholic propaganda disseminated by Enlightenment elites can be observed especially when the Catholic community was subject to open discrimination and exclusion, on the part of the state. The example of the British Isles illustrates this well, when Catholics in the 18th century, for the past 200 years on the basis of so-called Penal Laws, were relegated to the status of secondclass citizens.

In the Protestant press in 18th-century England, Catholic states were usually presented as backward countries where people lived in poverty and intellectual impoverishment. In this way for example, France was presented, with whom Great Britain at that time in fact during that century was waging various wars both in Europe, as well as in the New World. This is analogous to the situation during the Reformation when for political reasons of rivalry with Catholic monarchies (Spain and Portugal), London (supported by the Netherlands) waged war not only with the aid of a fleet of warships, but also through the growth of open ‘black propaganda’ aimed at political and religious opponents.

In the 18th century, British periodicals, almanacs and calendars (at that time rather more like books) persuaded their readers that French peasants live in dire poverty. Usually these so-called discoveries were depicted with illustrations representing the French peasant in wooden clogs, tattered clothes and bent double. This state of affairs (which did not, however, relate to the facts in the communities of France) propagandists would explain by pointing not only to the blame of royal absolutism at that time France, but also reminding the ‘misguided’ influence of Catholicism, which in contrast to Protestantism, promotes laziness, and wastefulness – in a word, lack of good housekeeping and moral spine.

In this context there often appeared the motive of Catholic church holidays. Their large number – too much so in the opinion of propaganda – a number proof positive that hard work and creativity could not be expected of Catholics. This Catholic ailment was condemned not only in France but in Spain, as well as in nearby Ireland. One of the Protestant pastors in their publication in 1764 of a journey across Ireland bemoaned the fact of the ‘veritable flood’ of Catholic holidays observed by the natives who in this way brought laziness to custom and at the same time, praised the benefits of the Reformation, ‘which returned so many days lost under the guise of holy days.’

A New, Unknown Planet

It ought to be pointed out that in the propaganda of the Enlightenment directed against Catholicism, another new sub-genre was the record of journeys to Catholic countries that were left by members of Enlightenment elites (often Protestant). These served to prove the already accepted thesis of civilisational regression on the part of Catholic communities.

The British press in the first half of the 18th century can serve as an example, where a description of a certain Englishman’ journey to Italy was recorded. The sojourn in Loreto transpired to be a shock for the English visitor. He was not in the least taken aback by the Sanctuary of the Holy Family House there but something else: ‘it is indeed a shameful matter that such enormous treasures of precious stones and other riches are here secreted in churches while all the inhabitants of this town are dying of hunger.’ The underlying propaganda in this sentence persuades that not only does there exist poverty in the Catholic community, but also points out those who are to blame – the clergy making use of vota offerings on altars from people giving their thanks for received mercies.

Similar themes can be found in the descriptions of travels by German members of the Enlightenment, ones to Catholic parts of Germany, above all to Bavaria. This land ‘through the ages has allowed Catholic superstitions to grow there like weeds.’ The quoted words come from Friedrich Nicolai, one of the leading lights of the German Enlightenment, publisher of the multi-volume ‘Deutsche Bibliothek.’ At the end of the 18th century he visited Bavaria, in the largest of the Marian sanctuaries in that country, in Altötting, where he informed readers: ‘every year there embark on pilgrimage many thousands of stupid bigots.’ The column raised in Munich in honour of Our Most Blessed Virgin Mary (as thanksgiving for saving the town from Swedish invasion during the 30-year war) was at that time in his opinion simply ‘a column to stupid bigotry in the greatest possible misguided policy.’

Of a similar mind was another Enlightenment writer, Carl J. Geiger, who upon visiting the Bavarian town of  Eichstatt, ‘had the impression’ that the town (one of the most splendid examples of Baroque architecture in Germany) was founded as the seat of gloomy barbarism and stupidity, and the heavy, unhealthy air means that that the winds of orthodoxy and fanaticism do prevail here.’

Generally speaking, Catholics were therefore ‘different.’ They had a different way of building towns than so-called normal people, somehow breathed a different air and even their looks were altogether different. In the second half of the 18th century in the Enlightenment elites of Germany there began to become commonplace the concept of ‘religious physiognomy.’ Among the most important issues that were discussed by this new Enlightenment ‘science’ were the issues of so-called ‘Catholic looks.’ In general these were ‘unhealthy.’ Catholic women aside. The observant Nicolai noticed therefore that ‘there is something soft, shameful, something stubborn, something coiled up inside.’ Therefore, in addition, Catholic girls appear to be ceteris paribus, prettier than others.’

The so-called ‘other’ meant worse, for it was backward and also deserved to be ridiculed. In fact from the age of the Enlightenment one more element of anti-Catholic propaganda can be dated in the entire context – contempt for the faith of so-called ordinary people (Catholics). The above quoted Nicolai in a work published in 1781 On Religion and Religious Customs in Vienna claimed among others that: ‘the tradition of miracles and tall stories that are inseparable from Catholic religion have for centuries been developed so as to stymie the strength of human reason.’ A manifestation of this Catholic ‘old wives tale’ was according to the author the fact that ‘daily in Catholic countries a wafer allegedly transforms into God.’ In this way the miracle of transubstantiation occurring during holy mass was described.

Similarly, the central dogma for the Catholic faith was ridiculed in 1735 in the English publication under the singular title Transubstantiation Satirized. The so-called satire was among others, related to the publication of illustrations that showed the baby Jesus thrown under the mill stone out of which the Host arises. Such examples of satirical illustration of the Catholic faith in ‘enlightened’ publications can be found in great numbers.

A systematically conducted propaganda can completely falsify reality. Head of propaganda of the Third Reich, Joseph Goebbels, would say that it is enough to repeat a lie often in the right way so that people believe it

Catholic Poland – backward and inhuman

As mentioned above, a journey to Catholic lands for those of Enlightenment intellectual elites was comparable to arriving at some foreign planet, the discovery of a new, unknown land. After all, it is no accident that in the mainstream 18th century British press there was a constant comparison of the Catholic Irish to ‘American savages.’ In turn, the King of Prussia, Fryderyk II, because of his atheism was celebrated at Enlightenment salons as the ‘King Philosopher’ (further proof of propaganda and its manipulation of the language – equating philosophy with atheism), compared Poles after the first partition to the American Iroquois.

This Enlightenment ‘King Philosopher’ was not only the initiator of the partition aimed at the Republic of Poland but also belonged to the avant-garde of writers who depicted Poland as a backward country, on the brink of poverty, and ruled by an anarchistic nobility and ignorant Catholic clergy. In this way anti-Polonism here walked hand in hand with anti-Catholicism. It is such a view that the King of Prussia spread in often copious correspondence with the leading representatives of West European Enlightenment elites (Voltaire in the lead). These leading figures took up the torch of anti-Polish sentiment and anti- Catholic propaganda, seeing in these a justification for earlier adopted ‘black legends’ of Catholicism as a religion for the backward, as well as one that showed no mercy.

A systematically conducted propaganda can completely falsify reality. Head of propaganda of the Third Reich, Joseph Goebbels, would say that it is enough to repeat a lie often in the right way so that people believe it. This ABC of propaganda for every manipulator was not at all invented by this German politician. There were many before him. It is worth noting in this context the propaganda of the Enlightenment according to which Poland (Catholic and therefore backward) is not only a throwback to barbarism in Europe, but also a true ‘house of oppression’ for religious minorities in this Catholic country.

An excuse for such a propaganda attack became the 1724 Tumult of Toruń (Thorn). That is, skirmishes in Toruń between Catholics and Protestants, culminating in the latter attacking the local Jesuit College, which they completely plundered (the Catholic chapel near the College was also sacked). The reaction of the authorities was most severe. The court established by King August II sentenced several of the perpetrators of the Tumult (Protestants), including two mayors of Toruń, to a death sentence.

The reaction in all the Protestant countries to these events resulted in a campaign of blackening Poland as a ‘country of extreme religious intolerance.’ The theme of Catholicism as a religion ‘naturally directed towards violence’ returned. For example, in the British Protestant press there was a veritable storm of articles after 1724 that recalled the ‘Toruń Tumult’ that ‘Papism was always a religion of bloodshed that teaches the persecution of Protestants with fire and sword and the use of other inhuman cruelties.’

Equally, it should be noted that at the same time in Great Britain and Ireland subjugated to it, there were in force ‘penal laws’ directed at Catholics – that not only forbade Catholicism (most of all, Holy Mass), even at home, but also stripped Catholics of the majority of public rights such as holding public office, working as a teacher and gaining academic degrees. The right to inherit and buy land in the case of Catholics was also subject to prohibition.

It should be added that a similar system of discrimination of Catholics also was in place in Scandinavia where Protestants were dominant – as well as the Netherlands where Catholics could take part in Holy Mass in so-called underground churches and private homes – schuilkirken. The beginning of a legal system of equal rights for Catholics on the British Isles came only in the 1830.’, and in Scandinavia, only in the 20th century. It is worth noting that every attempt at a revision – not a complete lifting – of rights discriminating Catholics undertaken at the end of the 18th century by the British government met with the severe, negative reaction on the part of the Protestant majority.

When in 1778 the British parliament passed a bill allowing partial tolerance for Catholics – the Catholic Relief Act, The Bill did not, however, give Catholics full political rights such as voting and freedom of religion. In June 1780 there broke out anti-Catholic riots across London – the Gordon Riots. Even the embassies of Catholic countries were attacked and nearby places of Catholic worship. The government of the day was forced to send the army in to suppress the week-long anti-Catholic pogroms. As a result of these repressions, over 280 Protestant rioters died. Let us compare this to the victims of the Toruń Tumult, meant to be proof positive of ‘Bloodthirsty Papism.’

In the meantime, the Republic of Poland in the 18th century – a country allegedly one of intolerance and religious persecution – was one where indeed only a Catholic could rule as a king, and the lower house was also closed to dissenters. Those who were not Catholics at that time in Poland, however, had full public rights. Non- Catholics could work in local government, without fear or favour practice their faith and publish their books. In 18th-century Sejms there were even bills passed that allowed Muslims living in Poland (Lithuanian Tatars) to renovate or build new mosques. At the same time, there were no anti- Jewish pogroms noted in Poland. The allies of propaganda, however, in the 18th-century knew better: ‘Poland is a Catholic country, a country of intolerance and religious oppression.’ As the Good Book put it in another context: and this story is spread to this very day.

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