On missionaries: Catholic vs Protestant

Robert Woodberry says they differed crucially in their approaches to church and state, and to mass education.



Robert Woodberry says they differed crucially in their approaches to church and state, and to mass education.


In some of the things I’ve talked about I make a distinction between Protestants and Catholics. That distinction is more important in the 19th and early 20th century than it is now.

Catholic missions started much before Protestant missions, and in the early waves of Catholic missions they were much more critical of the state than in later periods of time. But you tended to have a closer relationship between the church and the state in Catholic colonial territories, where the Spanish and Portuguese crown could put forward the bishops and pay the salary of the clergy, and could punish them a lot more easily. And so over time their criticism of colonialism diminishes. Whereas Protestants, at least in the English … in the Anglo world, and the Scandinavian world, developed voluntary organisations that sponsored missions. So they were not sponsored by the state, and they were able to be much more critical in later periods of time. Over time the Catholic church has changed that relationship with the state, and it now is maybe even more critical of abuses that happen in the non-Western world than Protestant missions or religious organisations are.

There’s also a crucial distinction, historically, in terms of views about who needs to have access to the Bible. So for Catholics, elites needed to be able to read the Bible, but ordinary people did not. So when Catholic missionaries went around the world, they tended to create elite education and elite printing. And similarly in Europe, it was more elite-focussed education.

For Protestants, they believed that everyone had to be able to read the Bible for themselves, which meant that people had to have access to Bibles and other religious texts that were in a language that ordinary people could read, and that they had to be able to read. So because of this sort of religious distinction – this focus on people reading the Bible – they were much more likely to have education in the local language. They were much more likely to have mass education, educating poor people and women. They were much more likely to introduce printing and introduce printing on a massive scale, which made it widely available and cheap enough that ordinary people could buy. However, over time, in contexts of religious competition, Catholic missionaries adapted similar strategies. So if the Protestants are doing mass education, then Catholics also did mass education.

So if you look at, for example, a country like the United States or England or Australia or India, where you have Protestant-Catholic competition, Catholics have an amazing educational system which is extraordinary, and often they have the very best schools. In a context where they didn’t have competition with Protestants, say Spain or Italy or Mexico, they didn’t do the same thing, they didn’t do the mass education. And they have elite schools, but they don’t have the same mass educational system.

Over time the Catholic church has changed on that. So it’s not just Vatican II, the reform process starts earlier, but Vatican II is a good sort of cut point, if we want to make one, where the church changed its stance on having the mass in Latin versus vernacular languages; in terms of having laypeople reading the Bible; in terms of the preferred relationship with the state, etc. And since then the Catholic church, regardless of whether there’s Protestant competition or not, has tended to do more mass education and more printing and other things like that, but during the time period where I’m talking about, the 19th and early 20th century, they were quite distinct. And the impact of the 19th and early 20th century are still felt in terms of the economic and political conditions of societies around the world.