Saturday, December 05, 2009
My Snarky Little Exaggeration on 16th Century Roman Catholic Apologetics
"I had another problem with Mr. Swan's article though. His snarky little exaggeration of history about noone wanting to read Catholic apologist stuff in the 16th century is something I still intend to address" [source].
These are the words of Roman Catholic blogger Paul Hoffer (no stranger to this blog). He's responding to this point I made recently:
Roman Catholic apologetics has come a long way. In the written disputes and published propaganda between sixteenth-century Protestants and Roman Catholics, the mass-marketing victory clearly lay in the hands of Rome's detractors. Protestants out-published Rome's apologists winning the popular opinion. Roman Catholic works were unlikely to sell, and therefore not sought out by printers. Rome exasperated the loss by not supporting her apologists in their written endeavors.
I admit, I had to look up the word "snarky". Based on its use with the term "exaggeration", I think I've got the gist of the sentiment being expressed. In terms of dialog, Mr. Hoffer is typically smooth in demeanor, so I was actually a bit surprised by the tone of his comment. Perhaps though he was simply speaking in the lingo franca of the Catholic Champion (It's always helpful to speak the same language as your host).
I've actually made the same comment before about the sixteenth century propaganda war. I did so back in June 2009. In that earlier comment, I actually footnoted it, but this time chose not to (In retrospect, perhaps I should have). My footnote stated:
1. David V.N. Bagchi, Luther's Early Opponents: Catholic Controversialists 1518-1525 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 218-219. Catholic apologists were often provoked to bitterness from lack of papal support. Cochlaeus, one of Rome's most zealous defenders complained to a high Roman Catholic official, "If I am ignored by you any longer, I shall wash my hands of the Catholic cause and denounce all bishops and prelates before God and before men" (Bagchi, 219). Cochlaeus, devoted to defending the Roman Church despite no help from her, went on to publish vigorously against the reformers, maintaining his own printing press. Johann Eck, perhaps the leading sixteenth century Catholic apologist, complained throughout his career over a lack of sufficient or sustained material help from Rome (Bagchi, 218).
David Bagchi's book happens to be one of my favorite books on Reformation studies. If I had to make a top ten list, it would definitely be on it, near the top. I actually went out of my way a few years back to track him down and write him a thank you letter for this book. He informed me that he was working on expanding and revising it, so I look forward to the new edition.
In a very non-polemical tone, Bagchi analyzes the written output of the Catholic controversialists from 1518-1525, the crucial years of the literary battle between Luther/Protestantism and Roman Catholic controversialists, and the subsequent failure of those Roman Catholic writers (Bagchi, p.9). While Mr. Hoffer is more than capable of locating this book to read pages 218-219 as cited above, the following information is from pages 198-200:
Finally, we come to the question of the volume of Catholic controversial publishing. In recent years there have been a number of statistical studies of the use of the press at the time of the Reformation. A consistent result of such studies is the apparent quantitative disparity between pamphlets and books published in favor of the Reformation and those published against. M. U. Chrisman's study of polemical pamphlets published in Strasbourg between 1520 and 1529 shows an overall ratio of Protestant to Catholic publications of 5.5 to 1. R. G. Cole's analysis of the Freytag collection of sixteenth-century pamphlets (a collection biased in favor of the major Protestant reformers) produces a ratio of 7.8 to 1. R. A. Crofts based his research on the British Library's holdings of early printed books from German-speaking countries, which he believes to be a more random collection than the Freytag. His figures for the years 1521-30 produce a ratio close to that of Chrisman, 5.7 to 1. Edwards has analyzed Luther's total output and compared this with W. Klaiber's bibliography, supplemented where necessary by other standard biographies of individual controversialists. By excluding from the count Luther's non-polemical titles and polemical works directed against other Protestants, Edwards obtained a Luther to Catholic controversialist ratio of 1.7 to 1 for the years 1518 to 1544. This would also be consistent with a Protestant to Catholic ratio of 5 or 6 to 1 over the same period.
Of course, these statistics have to be used with care, not least because the evidence we have comes largely from titles that have been collected—and therefore selected—at some stage, and it almost certainly gives no very accurate representation of the actual output of sixteenth-century presses. The cumulative evidence can cut both ways, either canceling out the biases of collectors or compounding them. But the cumulative evidence strongly suggests that there was a significant disparity.
Does this disparity reflect a lack of demand for Catholic polemic, and therefore quantify to some extent the degree of their unpopularity and thus of their failure? Or does it reflect an inadequate supply of prolific writers, indicating a reluctance among Roman loyalists to take up the pen to the extent that their Reformation counterparts did? The immediate cause of the discrepancy was, of course, lack of demand. The statistics that show the 5:1 predominance of Protestant pamphlets are drawn from the catalogues of private and public collections. By their very nature, they record only those books that found a purchaser. Generally speaking, books that remained unsold and were otherwise disposed of by printer and retailer cannot be counted. As a matter of fact, these low-budget publishing ventures seem to have depended heavily on demand. This, in turn, would mean that publishers would tend to refuse work offered by Catholics; indeed, we find controversialists such as Emser and Murner having to bear their own publication costs. When a printer did produce Catholic tracts it was more likely to be a matter of conviction rather than of business sense, and he had to subsidize them by producing anti-Catholic tracts too. In addition, he (no women were involved in the printing of Catholic pamphlets at this stage, to my knowledge) ran risks from Protestant authorities because they enforced libel laws selectively and from Catholic authorities because they did not. But this raises the question, Why didn't Catholic works sell?
The problem was to a large extent one of presentation. Defenses of the Roman Church were more likely to be in Latin and were often written in a heavy, "scholastic" style. They were rarely as short as their Reformation counterparts. Their content was also unexciting compared with that of their rivals. The controversialists' work lacked the appeal of the new, and unlike the reformers they could not draw upon the anti-curialism that was particularly prevalent in Germany. Romanist pamphlets did not sell because they were too long and boring. But why did their authors adopt such an unattractive style? Was it perhaps because they were ignorant of the propaganda possibilities of shorter tracts? This is unlikely, because religious writers before the Reformation both exploited the vernacular tract and perceived its potential for agitation.
Perhaps Mr. Hoffer has some tidbits about later Roman Catholic efforts in the sixteenth century. My comment above though was specific to that period scholars identify as the propaganda battle between the two sides. Perhaps Mr. Hoffer isn't familiar with this, and made his rather harsh comments out of ignorance (I'm only using this term in the sense of lack of knowledge, not stupidity). And by the way, I don't mean anything to be taken in any sort of snarky sense.
"Surveys of the Catholic literary effort against the early Reformation underscore the self-sacrificing spirit of the Catholic defenders, but relate no significant successes in countering the powerful influence of Luther's polemics. The defensive theology of these apologists suffered from the negative task thrust upon them, from having to fight on terrain chosen by the opponents, and from the writers' inexperience in using Scripture in the new critical manner so different from the methods of scholastic theology" Source: Jared Wicks tr., Cajetan Responds: A Reader in Reformation Controversy (Washington: The Catholic University Press of America, 1978), p. 255, footnote #2].