Propaganda as Public Relations during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation

The dome of an old Roman Catholic Church in Italy.

What do oppressed, angry men do when they feel desperate?

They revolt. They fight with all of the hope in their souls and strength in their hands for freedom. Even facing insurmountable odds, fueled by fearlessness, men will confront any force that obstructs their liberty.

Often, these revolts result in gruesome battles that end in a long list of casualties, except when the pen is exchanged for the sword.

Probably, the most practical and valuable tool of its time made its entrance on the world stage probably averting a veritable war across Europe. With the invention of the printing press, multiple copies of all types of literature could be mass produced and disseminated across Europe, as opposed to handwritten copies that cost a fortune to make.

While the printing press played a significant role in the Renaissance, it played a role in a mostly bloodless revolution that took root in religious Europe—the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation.

Why would the Roman Catholic Church have a need to spread the word when it pretty much ruled medieval Europe?

For centuries, the Roman Catholic Church was the dominating ruling authority in Europe, an unwavering authority that prevented anyone from daring to question its power or strength. One could understand why men would fear confronting religious authority, as the Crusades centuries earlier, laid a foundation that established the Roman Catholic Church as a formidable force during this time.

The Printing Press (Editors, History.com)

However, with the rise of the printing press and the advent of the Renaissance, men began to think, even more so, began to be dissatisfied with the religious government, doctrine and dogma.

Some of the major issues Church leaders contended with include:

  • Facing criticism over church abuses like nepotism (giving positions to one’s family), pluralism (bishops being in charge of multiple dioceses), simony (selling positions), and absenteeism (bishops not visiting their dioceses).
  • Facing criticism as it related to the Church’s obscene amount of wealth.
  • Criticism as it related to Church bureaucracy.
  • The Renaissance
  • European monarchs desiring to take more control in the ruling of their countries.
  • The fact that church texts were in Latin, a language foreign to most commoners outside of Italy.

In addition to being accused of selling absolution, being secretive, and ruling with autocratic authority, the Roman Catholic Church coming into the 14th century had serious public relations issues.

For example?

The church faced criticism from some of the most vocal detractors, detractors including Martin Luther (Germany), Hulderich Zwingli (Switzerland) and John Calvin (Switzerland).

Martin Luther featured on the cover of Time Magazine on March 24, 1967. (TIME)

To address these charges, the Church engaged in almost a verbal and visual war with its detractors all in attempt to defend itself in the eyes of the public, a public that was growing to be exceedingly politically savvy and sophisticated as a result of becoming a more literate society.

On both sides, the war of words and pictures ensued in an effort to sway public opinion to either side. In effort to win public support, both the Church and its opponents used pamphlets, songs and visuals to convey their ideas.

The church’s detractors would commonly take familiar tunes of the church and change the words so the songs became parodies of religious songs but also sent a message. The church, alternatively, would use images demonizing its opponents or calling them whores of Babylon!

And then, the church separated….

Years earlier, King Henry VIII, had already established the Anglican Church and made himself the head of the Church of England.

Northern European countries split from the Roman Catholic Church and formed what is commonly known as the Protestantism.

Southern European countries, conversely, remained loyal to the Catholic Church and the religious government with the Pope as its head.

And by the end of the 1600s, the Church reorganized itself and began to repair its badly tattered image.

How does the church repair its damaged image and reputation across Europe?

One word—propaganda.

During this time,….

  • Pope Gregory XIII organized the Committee for the Propagation of the Faith, which held seminars and disseminated printed catechisms across Europe. These outreach efforts were designed to educate people about the church.
  • Pope Urban VIII established the College of Propaganda to help educate priests.
  • Pope Clement VII founded the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith all for the purpose of spreading Catholicism.

These attempts to address its public image problem is commonly known as the Counter-Reformation, the internal revolution of the church to address past abuses.

And for public relations?

The first time the word propaganda was used was when Pope Gregory XIII coined it. While propaganda has very negative connotations by today’s standards, the Catholic Church used words, images, and teachings to improve its self-image as opposed to brute force.


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