A brief and Catholic history of one of the 21st century’s favorite words: propaganda

Walk down Via di Propaganda in Rome to reach the Propaganda Palace, where the word “propaganda,” and its role, was first developed.
Walk down Via di Propaganda in Rome to reach the Propaganda Palace, where the word “propaganda,” and its role, was first developed.
Image: Quartz/Ilaria Maria Sala
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As the global war against the coronavirus pandemic expanded in January and February, Chinese authorities launched battles on multiple fronts—including a propaganda campaign to obscure the virus’s origins and to defend China’s role in containing the pandemic.

Shaping that narrative might not have been vital to the containment of the virus, but it was—and still is—crucial for the Communist Party’s ability to emerge from this formidable crisis with its reputation unscathed, possibly even enhanced. From female nurses made to sacrifice their hair, to the ubiquitous red banners sternly telling people how to behave, the government doubled down on its full-scale propaganda approach.

Long seen as an intrinsic part of Communist regimes, you could be excused for thinking that the word “propaganda” was born at a secretive Soviet meeting, sometime in the early 20th century. But the origin of the word predates modern authoritarian regimes by about three centuries.

The word was in fact born in Rome—where even today you can walk down Via di Propaganda, as indeed many tourists do, whether they bother to look at the name of the road or not. It’s a short, busy path in the center of the Italian capital that takes you straight into the famous Piazza di Spagna, with its photogenic Spanish Steps. At one end of Via di Propaganda sits the Propaganda Palace, where the word, and its role, were first developed.

The full name of the building is Palazzo di Propaganda Fide, or Palace for the Propagation of the Faith. Near one entrance you can read in sculpted Latin characters what was inside: The Collegium Urbanum de Propaganda Fide, or Urban College of the Propagation of the Faith. The palace was built by Pope Urban VIII, in the high days of Roman baroque architecture, to host the Congregation for the Evangelization of People instituted by Pope Gregory XV (Urban’s predecessor) in 1622. This was a committee of Cardinals that oversaw the spread of Christianity by missionaries sent to non-Catholic countries. Propaganda comes from the Latin propagare, meaning to spread or propagate, in its ablative feminine gerundive form.

Its scope was, and still is, in its motto, taken from the gospel according to Matthew, the first book of the New Testament: Euntes Docete Omnes Gentes, or “Go forth and teach all the people” (Matthew 28:19), even if today the palace only hosts the administrative branch of the seminary. The college itself is now part of the Pontifical Urban University, also in Rome.

To this day, the palace belongs to the Vatican, and enjoys extraterritoriality, as the Vatican flag fluttering from its façade shows.

Two-and-a-half centuries after the establishment of the college, the word entered the Communist vocabulary with Georgy Valentinovich Plekhanov, a Marxist theorist in exile in Geneva who first advocated the strategy of using agitation and propaganda together in order to influence and mobilize public opinion—eventually shortened to agitprop—which was also used to target the Catholic church, the institution that Karl Marx called the opium of the people, like all religion.

Now, it is being deployed once more, to try and control a public health crisis made worse by China’s obsession with controlling information.