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Catholics and Protestants: the McLuhan difference

In communication on June 16, 2009 at 2:01 pm

The difference between Catholics and Protestants is the difference between oral and literate societies. More specifically, it is the difference between the intrinsic effects of oral and visual communication on one hand, and of print technology on another. Catholicism is to ritual as Protestantism is to rhetoric. The primary characteristic of the primary medium of the Catholic Church is visual; the primary medium of Protestantism is the printed word. Hence, the ultimate difference between Catholicism and Protestantism is the difference between the “messages” (in the McLuhan sense, i.e. “personal and social effects”) of visual and verbal media.

The printed word, which is the technology of literate societies, is the technology of individualism. The intrinsic effect of print communication is the isolation of the person from the tribe. In “The Holy War: Mac vs. DOS”, where the author identifies Mac as Catholic and DOS as Protestant, Umberto Eco writes:

[DOS/Protestantism] allows free interpretation of scripture, demands difficult personal decisions, imposes a subtle hermeneutics upon the user, and takes for granted the idea that not all can achieve salvation. To make the system work you need to interpret the program yourself: Far away from the baroque community of revelers, the user is closed within the loneliness of his own inner torment.

This observation confirms Marshall Mcluhan’s hypothesis of the individualizing effect of print, which is the technology of Protestantism. It is not surprising, therefore, that Protestants are divided into a multitude of sects, each taking liberties in interpreting the Scripture. This is a consequence of Solo Scriptura (the Scripture has sufficient authority in salvation), which necessitates not only the study of the Word of God as such, but of the word as such. The destiny of all Protestant theology is hermeneutics. And Protestants cannot form the same global village that Catholics have because of the polysemic effects of verbal signs which they depend on as the sole source of salvation.

Catholicism resembles a global village because of the nature of its primary medium — the visual image. Catholics “see” the same palpable thing. The consequence is the proliferation of rituals and traditions, akin to pre-literate societies. But Protestants suffer an “inner torment” because they individually imagine different things, because their faith demands a confrontation of the polysemy of signs.

Contrary to the notion that Protestants are more communal than Catholics, the Catholic Church is a much more communal faith, if we consider its deep structure of ritual and tradition. Protestants, though they meet more often, and sing and dance more often in their joyous gatherings, are sentenced to their own individual faiths.

Catholic and Protestant theologies are effects of the media they depend on.