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Friday, January 9, 2009

Catholic Literacy

Jennie raised an interesting point in the comments section, and as we haven't had a new post in a bit, I thought I would explore it in a new post.

Jennie wrote:
my understanding is that, in general, protestants, or Bible-only christians, have, especially in the past, placed much more emphasis on memorizing and reading scripture than catholics have and therefore have placed more emphasis on teaching reading and scripture to their children and converts. . .

Catholics seem to have placed more value on songs and images to learn, and not on the written word, and not on preaching so much either. But God's word is the most important thing, whether you hear it or read it; it must be stressed and valued above all other teaching.

What I think when I read this is that you have an image of Middle Ages Catholicism here, as the Catholic model. Stained glass windows depicting Bible stories were certainly the norm of at that time, but that also predated the printing press.

Most of my non-Catholic friends send their children to Sunday School while they attend church services. There, their children sing songs and color pictures of Bible stories. My children sit through Mass with me. They listen to readings from the Bible, and recite prayers from Scripture. In this time period, the roles seem reversed to me.

Jennie then provides some examples:

By the mid-18th century, the ability to read and comprehend translated scripture led to Wales having one of the highest literacy rates. This was the result of a Griffith Jones's system of circulating schools, which aimed to enable everyone to read the Bible in Welsh. Similarly, at least half the population of 18th century New England was literate, perhaps as a consequence of the Puritan belief in the importance of Bible reading. . .

Interestingly, in 1893, a company of Vaudois migrated to the United States and founded the town of Valdeses, Burke County, North Carolina. At the time, a local newspaper wrote:

"All the little Waldensian children are taught to read and write at a very early age, and their knowledge of the scriptures would put to shame many of our church people of maturer years. They speak both French and Italian very fluently, and are all apparently very bright and intelligent and very anxious to learn the language of this new country."
(cited in a review of Wylies book History of the Waldenses, on Amazon.com)


Those are both around the same time period. Let me give some Catholic examples from that time period.

St. Katherine Drexel
In 1891, with a few companions, Mother Katharine founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People. The title of the community summed up the two great driving forces in her life—devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and love for the most deprived people in her country.

Requests for help reached Mother Katharine from various parts of the United States. During her lifetime, approximately 60 schools were opened by her congregation. The most famous foundation was made in 1915; it was Xavier University, New Orleans, the first such institution for Black people in the United States.

Sisters of Loretto
In 1811, Mary Rhodes came from Maryland to visit relatives and saw the lack of educational opportunities for pioneer children. Settling in Kentucky, Rhodes began teaching her own relatives basic skills and catechism. Soon neighbors asked her to teach their children, and as the number of pupils increased, Rhodes welcomed the assistance of Christina Stuart and Ann Havern. These three pioneer women, with Father Nerinckx as their spiritual guide, formed the Little Society of the Friends of Mary Under the Cross of Jesus in 1812.

After the Mexican War, the United States gained possession of the vast Southwest with a mostly Catholic population. In 1852, Bishop Jean Baptiste Lamy of Santa Fe requested the help of the Sisters of Loretto to work with the Spanish-speaking children of Santa Fe. Six sisters traveled by river boat to Independence, Missouri, and then followed the dangerous Missouri Trail 900 miles overland to Santa Fe. In Indian country, they came across others of their order who had been teaching Osage children in Kansas since 1847. One sister died of cholera on a river boat and another of exhaustion and terror after an Indian attack on their wagons.

In November 1852, they opened their first school, the Academy of Our Lady of the Light, an all-girls school in Santa Fe, which flourished until the late 1960s. Moving south to Las Cruces, the Sisters of Loretto founded Loretto Academy in 1870, another all-girls school offering classes in reading, spelling, algebra, modern and ancient geography, lace work and piano. This school played an integral part in the educational growth of the Mesilla Valley until it closed in June 1944.

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton

Elizabeth opened Saint Joseph's Free School February 22, 1810. It educated needy girls of the area and was the first free Catholic school for girls staffed by sisters in the country. Saint Joseph's Academy began May 14, 1810, with the addition of boarding pupils who paid tuition which enabled the Sisters of Charity to subsidize their charitable mission. Saint Joseph's Academy and Free School formed the cradle of Catholic education in the United States.

Mary Elizabeth Lange

It did not take Elizabeth long to recognize that the children of her fellow refugees needed an education. She responded to that need in spite of being a Black woman living in a slave state before the Emancipation Proclamation, where the education of slaves was against the law. She used her own money and home to teach Black children.

For ten years, Elizabeth and her friend Marie Magdaleine Balas, offered free education until, inevitably, finances became a problem. Providence intervened through the person of Reverend James Hector Joubert, S.S., who, with encouragement from Monsignor James Whitfield, Archbishop of Baltimore, challenged Elizabeth to establish a religious congregation for the education of Black children. Reverend Joubert would provide direction, solicit financial assistance, and encourage other "women of color" to become members of the first order of African American nuns in the history of the Catholic Church. On July 2, 1829, Elizabeth and three other women pronounced promises of obedience to the Archbishop of Baltimore.


I would also say that this Catholic literacy was not new to that time period. Consider the case of St. Francis de Sales.

Francis decided that he should lead an expedition to convert the 60,000 Calvinists back to Catholicism. But by the time he left his expedition consisted of himself and his cousin. His father refused to give him any aid for this crazy plan and the diocese was too poor to support him.

For three years, he trudged through the countryside, had doors slammed in his face and rocks thrown at him. In the bitter winters, his feet froze so badly they bled as he tramped through the snow. He slept in haylofts if he could, but once he slept in a tree to avoid wolves. He tied himself to a branch to keep from falling out and was so frozen the next morning he had to be cut down. And after three years, his cousin had left him alone and he had not made one convert.

Francis' unusual patience kept him working. No one would listen to him, no one would even open their door. So Francis found a way to get under the door. He wrote out his sermons, copied them by hand, and slipped them under the doors. This is the first record we have of religious tracts being used to communicate with people.

The parents wouldn't come to him out of fear. So Francis went to the children. When the parents saw how kind he was as he played with the children, they began to talk to him.

By the time, Francis left to go home he is said to have converted 40,000 people back to Catholicism.

Clearly, the people in this area had to be literate for tracts to have been effective. The tracts are in print today, and available as The Catholic Controversy, published by Tan books. I have a copy, and Francis is extremely familiar with Scripture, and makes almost all of his arguments based on Scripture.


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7 comments:

Barbara C. said...

I think that Jennie senses a certain dichotomy between Catholics and Protestants when it comes to Biblical literacy, but not in the way she understands it.

Protestants have had a tendency to memorize scripture word for word chapter and verse. Since scripture is all they will acknowledge, this makes sense to an extent.

Catholics have been more content to learn the general stories and parables and roughly what section of the Bible they are in. For average Catholics the focus has been more on what the points or teachings of certain Bible stories are as opposed to the exact wording and location. Furthermore, many Catholics do not realize that so many of the rituals we follow are steeped in Scripture. We don't just read the Scripture; we experience the scripture.

I think many Protestants assume that because Catholics don't memorize scripture by chapter and verse that we don't "know" or "read" the Bible at all, when we really we just assimilate the information differently.

Kelly said...

I think that Jennie senses a certain dichotomy between Catholics and Protestants when it comes to Biblical literacy, but not in the way she understands it.

In a previous comment, Jennie said that the Catholic Church intentionally kept people illiterate in order to keep the Bible hidden from them. That is why this post is focused on actual literacy.

Barbara C. said...

There was a related comment Jennie had made about Protestants focusing more on reading scripture and preaching while Catholics still focused more on pictures and songs.

I think these anti-Catholic ideas that Catholics don't read the Bible come from two erroneous observations at either end of the time-line.

On one end you have the Catholic Church historically trying to prevent erroneous and unauthorized translations that reflect heretical doctrine, which is portrayed in Fundamentalist Skewed History 101 as the Catholic encouraging illiteracy, especially of the Bible, in order to maintain their control of the people.

This idea is re-enforced by modern observation that Catholics in general don't tend to memorize chapter and verse, so the conclusion is drawn that they don't read the Bible at all and this is how the Church keeps people enslaved. "If Catholics just read the Bible they would see that the Church is wrong." That's what I was getting at.

I must say, Kelly, you're right on top of things for someone who just had a baby not more than 24 hours ago with three other children around. Of course, the baby is probably the easiest one to deal with.

Jennie said...

My comment on the catholic church 'keeping their people illiterate' was in the context of past history, not present day. I know that, at least in developed western countries, bibles are readily available, most people are literate, and catholics are generally encouraged to read scriptures. Also, I know there are exceptions to the general practices of the Church in the past. In general the heirarchy of the Church has not been interested in general or biblical literacy in the past, or in undeveloped catholic countries today.

You are right about the protestant practice of teaching children separately from adults using songs and stories and pictures. There is a movement among some to bring children back into the service with their families so they can hear God's word and learn to participate in worship at an early age.

Elena said...

In general the heirarchy of the Church has not been interested in general or biblical literacy in the past, or in undeveloped catholic countries today.

But that's simply not true! Catholic missionaries, priests and nuns have gone all over the world and even in this country set up schools.

Have you ever heard of the Maryknoll Sisters?

Jennie said...

Elena,
I admit I tend to dwell on the past and don't know very much specifically about what catholics do around the world today. (Don't laugh)
First of all, the original discussion was based on what Candy said about catholics keeping the bible from people in the past, so that was my subject. Secondly, I do know that catholics do much good around the world in many ways, such as pro-life work for one.
Thirdly (if that's a word), I am glad that catholics are learning the scriptures, and hope that this will lead many into a greater knowledge of the truth. Maybe in some ways, American catholics put evangelicals to shame, because the latter are going the wrong way fast, and forgetting their biblical heritage. That's not to say, however (as you know) that I think the catholic church as a whole is in the truth. This is a time of Apostasy, we believe, and many people are going astray.
Fourth; I can't help seeing that many catholic countries are still backward in literacy and education, and that contributes to my understanding of what I have learned of past practices.

Elena said...

I admit I tend to dwell on the past and don't know very much specifically about what catholics do around the world today. (Don't laugh)

I'm not surprised at all. From your comment it was pretty clear that you did not know that the Catholic Church is one of the biggest charity providers in terms of education and medical care in the world.


First of all, the original discussion was based on what Candy said about catholics keeping the bible from people in the past, so that was my subject.

And we're pretty much clarified that. The Catholic Church DID NOT keep the bible away from the people. In fact it continued to teach the people the gospel despite the high illiteracy rate and the lack of printed materials to teach from. Candy has mentioned bibles chained to the church, but that is much like references books that are forbidden to be removed from a library- the bibles were costly and time consuming to reproduce and so they were kept safe in the church for the sake of the people.


Secondly, I do know that catholics do much good around the world in many ways, such as pro-life work for one.

Ah well thanks for throwing us that bone I guess. The Catholic church is the only church that has not bent in the area of contraception, abortion, and marriage.

Thirdly (if that's a word), I am glad that catholics are learning the scriptures, and hope that this will lead many into a greater knowledge of the truth. Maybe in some ways, American catholics put evangelicals to shame, because the latter are going the wrong way fast, and forgetting their biblical heritage.

I can't comment on that. The Protestant Christians I know are good, Godly people who would find Candy's articles and charges to be complete crapola. We have a mutual respect.

That's not to say, however (as you know) that I think the catholic church as a whole is in the truth.

There is only one Catholic Church. There aren't parts of it in the truth and parts of it out of the truth. Obedient, devout, Catholics who are following the teachings of the church under the guidance of the pope and the magisterium believe in one truth.

This is a time of Apostasy, we believe, and many people are going astray.

This is true. Which is why I am standing firm in my Catholic Faith.


Fourth; I can't help seeing that many catholic countries are still backward in literacy and education, and that contributes to my understanding of what I have learned of past practices.

You should read up on the history of Nigeria. I think you'd be surprised to learn about their government and history and how Catholics (priests and nuns in particular) have been arrested and murdered.

Then do a quick google search of the Catholic missionaries in South America who have been shot.

It's not the church holding these people down...