From game shows to comedy sketches, from allegedly serious scholarship to anti-Catholic tracts stuck under windshield wipers in the parish parking lot, Catholic urban legends are the myths of history that everyone—including many Catholics—assumes to be true. These legends create the cultural shorthand of anti-Catholicism that is so much a part of the American scene. They are considered the product of an informed mind and can crop up anywhere from the floor of the Senate to an editorial in your local newspaper. I’m often asked where Catholic urban legends come from. The simple answer is that many are as old as sixteenth-century Reformation propaganda, which formed the roots of nineteenth-century American nativism, which evolved into the leftist European anti-clericalism of the post-World War II period.
Through the centuries, we have seen these urban legends flourish in a host of books meant to titillate the general population by instructing them in the alleged facts of the Catholic Church and the Catholic faith.
Attempting to pick the five most influential books in creating Catholic urban legends is both daunting and a matter of opinion. But in selecting this inglorious list, I have tried to focus on those books that had the most widespread influence in creating and sustaining Catholic urban legends in the popular mind. I have also focused on those that primarily helped to create persistent Catholic urban legends in the United States.
William of Orange’s Apologie (1581)
Written by French Huguenot Pierre Loyseleur de Villiers, this anti-Catholic political tract became hugely popular in England and helped to define for centuries the public image of the Inquisition, and therefore, the Catholic Church. Intended as a propaganda tool in the Dutch revolt against Spanish rule, the tract was less a defense of revolution than a Calvinist apologia. But it helped to shape the popular image of the Catholic Church, through the Inquisition, as the historic enemy of true religion, the subverter of political liberty, and the natural enemy of anyone who loved freedom. It painted a picture of the Inquisition as the power behind every Catholic throne, controlling kings who became mere puppets in its hands.
William’s Apologie was based largely on A Discovery and Plaine Declaration of Sundry Subtill Practices of the Holy Inquisition of Spain, published in 1567, translated into numerous languages, and still in print 200 years later. Its author was Reginald Montanus (a pseudonym), and it created the image of the Spanish Inquisition as persecuting the innocent, its leadership venal and deceitful, every step in the procedure a violation of civil and natural law. It also propagated the idea that Spanish leadership was ignorant of it and, at the same time, controlled by it.
The Spanish Inquisition was a political and social tool primarily targeting conversos, well-to-do Catholic families with Jewish ancestry. But it was through works like Montanus’ and the Apologie that the Inquisition became in the popular culture the brutal machinery that slaughtered millions of Protestants.
This creation of an all-powerful and all-encompassing theocratic “Inquisition” had a powerful impact in England. The fear of a Spanish invasion to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I led to a government-sponsored propaganda campaign that painted the Catholic Church as a violent, deceitful enemy of liberty and the true faith. That was the image that would be carried to the American colonies along the Atlantic seaboard.
The Inquisition as depicted in Reformation anti-Catholic propaganda is perhaps the most persistent image of Catholicism, appearing in everything from later editions of John Fox’s Book of Martyrs to Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum” to D.W. Griffith’s film Intolerance.
Though the rise of secular historical studies in the late nineteenth century began to dismiss this popular caricature of the Inquisition, not until the second half of the twentieth century did serious historical study show the complicated and diverse nature of the Inquisition from country to country and century to century. Unfortunately, the Catholic urban legend of the Inquisition, defined in Reformation and post-Reformation polemics as a universal Catholic machinery of repression centered in Rome, has remained a part of the normal cultural and political language of today.
Master Key to Popery (1729)
One of the most popular genres of anti-Catholic literature featured the alleged revelations of former priests about the inner workings of the Church. Invariably, the Church was presented as the enemy of true faith, whose motives were accumulation of power and the seduction of women by a supposedly celibate clergy. The Church not only taught error to the ignorant masses it controlled but knew that it was error and taught it anyway to keep its nefarious hold on Catholic life. The Church’s greatest weapon in maintaining this control, along with the Inquisition, was the confessional.
The Master Key to Popery, or the Great Red Dragon as it was also called, appeared in English in 1729 and was written by Anthony Gavin, who claimed to be a Spanish priest who fled the country and became an Anglican.
The importance of the Master Key to Popery lies its persistence: It remained just as popular in the nineteenth century as in the eighteenth—and can still be purchased today. In crafting a virtual encyclopedia of anti-Catholicism and Catholic urban legends, Gavin levies about every attack possible on the Church from the perspective of an eighteenth-century Protestant.
“Having abjured the errors of the Romish religion,” an 1854 introduction states,
[Gavin] felt constrained to warn others of the insidious arts to which he had been himself the victim, and to point out the absurd contrivances by which the priesthood of that denomination impose upon the credulity of the ignorant and the unsuspecting. In doing this he has given to the world a mass of facts which cannot be disbelieved, not controverted, and which must satisfy every intelligent mind of the gross fallacy of the doctrines of that ancient church, and the dreadful corruptions practiced by those who administrate its concerns.
The Master Key to Popery had it all: seduction in the confessional, the horrors of the Inquisition, the Crusades, image worship, the sale of indulgences, the idolatry of the Mass, and the deceitfulness of Church leadership. More than anything else, it engrained into early American culture three of the most persistent Catholic urban legends: that Church leadership does not believe its own teachings but forces them upon an ignorant flock; that the Church is the committed enemy of natural rights and freedom; and, in later editions, that to impose Catholic belief the Church has the particular aim of overthrowing America and American liberties.
The Master Key to Popery provided the blueprint for a host of so-called ex-priests who rode the tent-preaching circuit or published their own revelations, including the enormously popular (and still in print) Fifty Years in the Church of Rome (1886) by Charles P. Chiniquy. Chiniquy was a Canadian priest who came to the United States and was eventually thrown out for, among other complaints, burning down a church and attempting to abscond with its funds. His greatest claim to fame was the creation of President Lincoln’s “Dark Cloud prophecy” that warns of the Vatican taking over America. The Dark Cloud prophecy was still being distributed when John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960.
Awful Disclosures (1836)
The Awful Disclosures, which became popularly known as the Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, the grail of anti-Catholic books, was said to be one of the most widely read books in nineteenth-century America. Monk claimed to tell the story of her life in a convent: a tale of perverse Catholic priests and barbaric penances forced on captive young women. She alleged to have discovered a gruesome graveyard under the convent for the slaughtered babies of the nuns and the tortured sisters that refused to submit to the priests.
The story was quickly proven to be a hoax and Monk a fraud, but the damage was already done. The book fanned the flames of a rising anti-Catholic nativism that would lead to the creation of the Know-Nothing Party in the mid-nineteenth century, the popular American Patriotic Association (which claimed that an imminent Catholic uprising would overthrow America and result in the slaughter of all Protestants) in the late nineteenth century, and to the rejuvenated Ku Klux Klan that remained a powerful political force until the middle of the twentieth century.
The Awful Disclosures has never been out of print in the United States. It remains one of the most widely distributed “religious” titles of all time, selling untold millions for many publishers for nearly 175 years. Pornographic versions have been published, as well as toned-down efforts for the more sensitive. A hardbound commemorative edition was released in 1996 with a $35 price tag.
Monk’s story popularized many traditional.aspects of anti-Catholicism and Catholic urban legends in America: the perversity of Catholic priests; the alien nature of the Catholic religion as compared to the purity of the American experiment; the Church’s tyranny over its ignorant flock; the Church’s singular desire for power and its use of violence to impose its power; and the danger to America from the Catholic immigrants coming to our shores.
American Freedom and Catholic Power (1949)
Written by Paul Blanshard, American Freedom and Catholic Power was a runaway bestseller in its time and also remains in print today. Blanshard’s book essentially presented the new, secular anti-Catholicism, which took the old canards and urban legends, stripped them of their denominational theology and Reformation-based rhetoric, and repackaged them as a secular philosophy ready for the “culture wars” that would soon reshape the American political and social landscape.
Blanshard’s antipathy to Catholicism began with his involvement in the birth control movement, but soon extended to the very nature of the Church itself. He saw the Catholic Church as an anti-democratic force bent on world domination, an alien power in American society determined to keep the masses poor, ignorant, and breeding. Blanshard viewed a growing Catholic population in America as inevitably leading to the establishment of Catholicism as the official religion, enforcement of Catholic morality in public school teaching, and the universal imposition of Catholic teaching on marriage, divorce, and birth control—an argument that would become central to the pro-abortion movement.
Blanshard also made clear that his arguments were not with Catholics themselves, but rather with the Catholic hierarchy. This position would also become a central rhetorical flourish of secular anti-Catholicism in the culture wars, but really no different than the argument from the Master Key to Popery in the early eighteenth century. Blanshard also argued that if Catholicism could become “Americanized”—freeing itself from hierarchical control and doctrinal and moral dogma—it would no longer create a problem. This core perspective has come to dominate media treatment of the Church in America since the early 1960s.
Blanshard’s enormously popular book established the tone of contemporary anti-Catholicism and the perpetuation of Catholic urban legends in the secular culture. Despite the modern veneer, Blanshard appealed to the same old, same old: an alien religion that desired to undermine American democracy; a hierarchy controlling ignorant Catholic masses; a medieval, anti-science and anti-enlightenment religion attempting to impose its antiquated views on American society solely in the interest of extending its own power.
An Embarrassment of Riches
Our final library selection is more difficult. My first inclination was to include the myth of Pope Pius XII as a Nazi collaborator. This legend began in earnest in 1963 with a drama created for the stage by Rolf Hochhuth, an otherwise obscure German playwright, called The Deputy. We can include the popularization of that thesis in John Cornwell’s Hitler’s Pope. Notwithstanding the fact that no serious historian today agrees with the deconstruction of Pius, the Catholic urban legend of Pius as a Nazi collaborator persists on a popular level because of these two works and a few recent imitators.
There is also Lawrence Lader’s 1966 work Abortion, which propagandized the idea that any legislation prohibiting abortion was a devious, un-American plot by the Catholic hierarchy to force its peculiar morality on all of America. In the 1973 majority decision in Roe v. Wade, which mandated legal abortion nationwide, Justice Blackman cited Lader’s Abortion eight times.
But at this point, I have to choose another title as my fifth listing in the most influential anti-Catholic books.
The Da Vinci Code (2003)
Dan Brown’s bestselling novel contained a good summation of traditional anti-Catholic urban legends: a violent Catholicism willing to use any means to hide the fact that it knows its essential beliefs are false and has deluded the ignorant masses for centuries.
Though Brown’s book is relatively new, it lasted on the hardbound and paperback bestseller lists for years, its message reaching millions. Add to that the popular, if excruciatingly dull, movie made from the book along with its DVD release, and more people will be exposed to these Catholic urban legends through The Da Vinci Code than the Master Key to Popery, and even the Awful Disclosures, ever reached after all their centuries in publication.
Brown’s book also spawned a host of imitators—both novels and faux histories—that continue to cram the bookshelves. At one point, three of these novels rooted in Catholic urban legends were regulars week in and week out on the New York Times Best Sellers list.
There’s no telling whether Brown’s book will have the staying power of the Awful Disclosures or if the trend in anti-Catholic publishing is just this moment’s passing fancy to make a buck. But whatever the case, Brown’s success assures both a new generation immersed in anti-Catholicism and proof of the continued popularity and acceptance in mainstream America of Catholic urban legends.