Printing Technology and the Form of Religion

What effect did the printing revolution and the successful Protestant Reformation it helped engender have on the Roman Catholic Church? The Church fully understood the impact of literacy, the dissemination of printed books, and the secular frame of mind that they produced on its doctrinal monopoly. For many centuries the Church engaged in censorship of ideas and science that it deemed ''heretical,'' including the Crusades at Albi, campaigns against all kinds of opponents (Jews and Muslims were often subject to interdict), and assaults against any threat to the economic interests of the church. Inquisitions were a product of the early medieval period. But the printed word and the literacy that it engendered was something else entirely. Book censorship and book burning became the main tools of the church to rid itself of heresy. Even before Luther, Calvin, and other Protestant reformers, the Church recognized the power of the printed word to challenge its interests. In Spain most particularly, repression of books and censorship of ideas were in full swing by 1490. More than six thousand volumes on sorcery and magic were burned in that year at Salamanca32 along with Hebrew bibles and any other works deemed antithetical or critical of received Roman Catholic theology. The most virulent repressions of the Inquisition were practiced in Spain with the full approbation of the civil and royal governments. Books in Spanish but printed in Germany and elsewhere in northern Europe were being imported into Spain. Those caught in this trade could be imprisoned or tried for heresy. Permits to read books had to be acquired; bishops and papal inquisitors were the only people who could read without regulation.33 In Italy, censorship of scientific writings and the printing of scientific and other writings were used as political devices to suppress church competitors of all kinds— writers, scientists, and booksellers for example. As Burman notes, book censorship had "the most disastrous effect... on the development of scientific thought in Italy; the lead which Italian scientists and philosophers had achieved during the Renaissance was truncated and never recov-ered.''34 Censorship and intellectual repression may have had much to do with the lack of progress in these countries in future centuries.

In 1520 Pope Leo X produced a Bull, an official papal directive that excommunicated Martin Luther, forbidding the printing, distribution, or possession of his writings.35 An Index of Forbidden Books was concocted, first under the management of the Roman and Spanish Inquisitions and later consecrated under the "Congregation of the Holy Office,'' only to end in 1966. The index was an acknowledgment that free thought, unrestricted explorations of science using the scientific method, and individualism of any stripe would not be tolerated by the Roman Catholic Church, except under its own interpretive rules. An expanded Tridentine Index, established at the end of the Council of Trent in 1564, restricted the reading of the Bible in the vernacular to those who could obtain permission from an inquisitor or bishop.

All this did not alter the expansion of new forms of Christianity, which morphed into thousands of Christian church forms over ensuing centuries. The Council of Trent, often cited as the crown jewel of the Counter-Reformation, had little effect on the wholesale side of Church behavior—on the abuses of the upper levels of church authority (e.g., cardinals, pope, and curia) (see chapter 6). The Roman Catholic Church itself has been slow to restructure its positions on the censorship of science and individualism, with some change occurring only in the latter part of the twentieth century. The four thousand works listed in the 1945 Index included both works and authors, including those of Hume, Voltaire, Zola, Locke, Smith (The Wealth of Nations), Mill (Principles of Political Economy), Defoe, Gibbon, and other writers whose work constitutes a history of Western thought, literature, and philosophy. The Catholic Church's assault focused, and to a large extent continues to focus, on nineteenth- and twentieth-century liberalism and on individualism. While many prohibitions on published books have been deleted, the Church still reserves the right to censor books by Catholic authors submitted before publication, paying particular attention to those dealing with sensitive issues on priestly celibacy, the role of women, divorce, abortion, gay rights, and so on.36 The form of contemporary Roman Catholicism has changed only slightly since the later Middle Ages, but the forms of Christianity underwent a sea change during the scientific-technological revolution. The unremitting fight against individualism and liberalism was in fact joined anew in the twentieth century by Cardinal Merry del Val. The association of the Inquisition with censorship ended in 1908, but the crusade against individualism and an individual's recourse to his or her own conscience continues to be a part of Roman Catholic rule making, now called the "Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.'' Philosophers and theologians teaching in Catholic schools and universities remain, under Pope Benedict XVI, subject to censorship by bishops and other church authorities, as do books published by Catholic authors relating to Catholicism.37 The dangers that some see in "secularization" and individualism justify such activities. We simply note that printing technology was a shifter in that it encouraged and fostered the Protestant revolution against the Roman Catholic monopoly.

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