well, st. augustine warned against interpreting genesis literally circa 400, so the "literalist" interpretation of the scripture wasn't universal.
Yes, Razib, exactly, Augustine about 1600 years ago:
We must be on our guard against giving interpretations which are hazardous or opposed to science, and so exposing the word of God to the ridicule of unbelievers (De Genesi ad litteram, I, 19, 21, especially n. 39).
And the policy of the Catholic Church for years was to prevent the Bible itself from being translated into the vernacular, so that it would be more accessible to the layperson. That said, my point was merely that the power of the church (small "c") wasn't broken by scholarly textual analysis of the Bible. The Church (capital "C") began losing its grip thanks to the Reformation (which by and large insisted on a more literal interpretation of the Bible than the Church was ever comfortable with); Christian churches began to lose their grip on temporal power through secular, political movements (started, often enough, by otherwise very religious men). The American and French Revolutions, and the Napoleonic conquest of Europe, more or less finished the job.
I'm not sure where this idea comes from, but many people seem to be under the mistaken impression that the Catholic Church tried (or still tries) to hide Scripture from the lay person.
It is true that the Church is very serious about protecting the Word from poor translations. But this is hardly a sinister plot to hide the truth. The Church tries to ensure that its members have access to scripture, written or spoken, presented in a manner that leaves no doubt what God intended it to say.
If you actually go to a Mass anywhere in the world, you will hear at least four extended excerpts from the Bible; either in the same theme or illustrating a promise and a fulfillment - the first reading usually comes from the Old Testament, a psalm is then recited or sung, a second reading comes from the New Testament, followed by a reading from the Gospel. All of these readings are carefully scheduled in advance to cover all the major themes of the Bible over the course of a four-year cycle.
This is not just the pastor picking and choosing quotes he likes, this is a concerted effort to bring the whole of the Word to the people. Moreover, it does not assume that the churchgoers can read, a major issue in the past and in many parts of the world today.