You have probably heard of Pop Rocks, the once ubiquitous candy popular with kids back in the 1960s and 1970s. Kids would bite on a Pop Rock, and the small amount of carbonization released would give them a tingling sensation in the mouth.
But Pop Rocks became more famous as the source of a classic urban legend. It quickly traveled from playground to playground throughout the country that if you swallowed a bunch of Pop Rocks whole and then drank any kind of carbonated soda, your stomach would explode.
It was said that the child actor who starred as “Mikey” in the old Life breakfast cereal commercials (“Give it to Mikey. He won’t eat anything!”) died in just such a fashion after gorging on Pop Rocks and downing a six-pack of cola. Pop Rocks, it was said, were pulled from the market after Mikey’s untimely demise.
Well, as widespread as the stories of killer Pop Rocks were back in the 1970s and early 1980s, the candy never exploded, the actor who played Mikey is still alive and well, and Pop Rocks are still marketed today. But the Pop Rocks story remains a classic urban legend, and there are grown-ups today who will cite chapter and verse as God’s own truth of the killer candy and the death of Mikey.
In my days during college in the late 1960s, it was common knowledge that the actor who played “the Beaver” on Leave It to Beaver was killed by friendly fire in Vietnam. Jerry Mathers is still with us. Back in the 1950s, a mother could always tell a story of a kid—a child of a friend of a friend—who lost his arm to a passing truck when he let it hang out the car window.
Like fairy tales, urban legends are cautionary stories. But unlike fairy tales, they are always told as fact.
E-mails buzz every day with a thousand urban legends, and the Internet serves as both incubator and distributor of thousands more. For example, gang members drive the streets with their headlights off. If you flash your headlights at them, you’re marked for death. The police can’t do anything about this, but they have warned people not to flash their lights at passing cars.
He Said What?
Of course, just as ubiquitous as stories about Pop Rocks are what I call Catholic urban legends.
Here’s an example:
Brave Galileo has been forced by the Inquisition in 1633 to recant his teaching that the Earth in fact orbits the sun. But as he exits the star chamber of the inquisitor judges, he exclaims: Eppur si muove! —”And yet it moves!”
Kids are taught that brave declaration in schools, columnists cite it, game shows have it as a question and answer.
But it never happened. Galileo never said it. There is no record of any such quote ever mentioned in historical records of the period or in anti-Catholic propaganda of the era, of which there was plenty. Galileo certainly never acknowledged or claimed to have said it, and he lived for nearly ten more years.
In fact, the first discernible public claim to any such quote attributed to Galileo was written 125 years after his death by a French anti-clerical propagandist. It was an invention, another bit of propaganda devised in the eighteenth-century battle between the so-called French Enlightenment and the Church.
But “And yet it moves!” quickly passed into 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 faith, which it equated with superstition, and the Catholic Church, which it viewed as dangerous to free thought.
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.
Catholic urban legends abound in our world. A good number of them are what we might call theological urban legends. These are beliefs defined by outsiders as Catholic beliefs that Catholics don’t believe: the old canards that Catholics worship Mary, that Catholics are forbidden to read the Bible, that the pope can invent new Catholic teachings and toss out old ones at will. These are common in Evangelical tracts aimed at converting Catholics.
But there are others that persist in the public arena that might be called historical urban legends, such as the famous Galileo declaration. These are fabrications of history cited as truths. They are part of our cultural DNA, passed on from generation to generation. They are not the product of anti-Catholicism but normative thinking for the enlightened person.
While just as silly and wrong-headed as the Evangelical tracts, they persist in the public arena—among Catholics and non-Catholics alike—as part of an.aspect to Western thought that took root particularly in England and, subsequently, the United States. They are history rewritten from the post-Reformation anti-Catholic propaganda wars, but they have been repeated so often for so many years that they are accepted as truths. At the same time, new Catholic urban legends are born every day, built on the assumptions of the old ones.
The case of Galileo provides a treasure trove of Catholic urban legends. The Inquisition, the Crusades, slavery, the papacy in general, and Pius XII in particular have similarly generated tall tales accepted as the unvarnished truth.
Which is not to say 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. Most of us have difficulty accurately recalling what we did last week and why we did it, let alone interpreting events from 800 years ago based on scanty evidence.
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. It’s no longer a discussion of the issues at hand in the trial of Galileo; it’s having a contemporary discussion of the relationship of science to religion based on rhetoric never stated at the time.
Catholic urban legends have a lot in common with Pop Rocks. They have the same characteristics as most secular urban legends:
They are ubiquitous. One of the difficulties in refuting them is that simply everyone believes them. Nothing the makers of Pop Rocks could do would bury the urban legend because everyone simply believed it, no matter the science. Catholic urban legends are not the strange beliefs of one particular sect; they are part of the Western cultural inheritance shared by everyone, Catholics included. They are believed because everyone believes them.
They are presented as absolute fact. Back in the 1970s, you didn’t have to “prove” that Mikey died from exploding Pop Rocks. He just did; everybody knew that. The same is asserted of the Catholic urban legends surrounding Galileo, for example. Like assuming that the world is round and that we breathe the air around us, people are not required to prove such assertions. They are simply accepted as fact. Catholic urban legends are presented with the same aura of universal certitude.
They are based on real events. Pop Rocks existed, “fizzed” when you bit into them, and parents in Seattle got nervous about them. That didn’t mean they would explode in your stomach, but it did mean that you were talking about something real, not fantasy or fairy tales. Similarly, 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, but the legends have been grafted onto the actual history.
They are populist cautionary tales. The urban legend of Pop Rocks was meant to warn kids on a populist level that unfeeling corporations would kill for profits unless somebody reins them in. Catholic urban legends are meant to silence the countercultural voice of the Church. Often invented in the past as part of post-Reformation theological propaganda, they are used today to dismiss Church positions out-of-hand. Like anti-Catholic rhetoric, they are employed to argue against Catholic positions in the public arena without having to refute the logic, meaning, and purpose of the Church’s positions. The Church is anti-science as proven in the Galileo urban legend, and therefore its position on embryonic stem cell research can be dismissed without arguing the merits of that position.
Let’s Have Fun
But that’s not to say that discussion of Catholic urban legends can’t provide some fun. If you can’t have fun discussing the legend of Pope Joan, you just don’t know how to have a good time.
Yet, it must be kept in mind that even the silliest of Catholic urban legends have a serious purpose—undermining the validity of the Church. That’s why studying and understanding Catholic urban legends is a vital part of contemporary Catholic apologetics.