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No such protection was extended to the pagans who still worshipped the gods of ancient Rome, but here again the myth that paganism was brutally suppressed by the Church turns out to be false. Stark lists the religious affiliation of those appointed as consuls and prefects by the Emperors from Constantine (died 337) to Theodosius (died 455): under only two was there a majority of Christians — and that a bare one. As for the thousand years that followed the fall of the Roman Empire, pejoratively called the “Dark Ages” by Enlightenment historians, “Even the respectable encyclopedias now define [them] as a myth”. Thanks to pressure by the Church, by the advent of the Middle Ages slavery in western Europe was virtually extinct: the labour of slaves upon which the Romans had depended was replaced by water and wind power. The Church founded universities and encouraged a flourishing of art and architecture — culminating in the magnificent mediaeval cathedrals.

For a Roman Catholic reviewer, Stark’s book is inevitably welcome, but also enlightening. I knew of the revisionist work of Henry Kamen on the Inquisition, and Jonathan Riley-Smith on the Crusades, but the chapters on science, philosophy and the technological achievements of the Dark Ages were a revelation. Stark limits himself to the correction of historical errors; he does draw up a balance sheet listing the good and the bad, such as the condoning of torture, in the Church’s record, or ask why the bias arose, though he notes that many of those who falsified the record of the Catholic Church, from Reginald Montanus in the 16th century to James Carroll, Karen Armstrong and John Cornwell in the 20th, were once priests, nuns or seminarians.

Bearing False Witness, though wholly convincing, will not, I suspect, change many minds. It is hard to efface prejudices that form part of one’s self-image. As Linda Colley wrote in her book Britons:

Religion was the crucial unifying force in most nations within Europe as outside it. Sweden and Holland, for instance, owed their initial self-definition to Protestantism quite as much as Great Britain did, and so, later on, did the newly independent United States of America.

Few now believe in the teaching of Luther or Calvin on Justification, or sola scriptura, but, as we see in the case of Sir Simon Jenkins, the myths of Catholic iniquity are embedded in many a Briton’s sense of who they are. Just as the French do not like to admit that their philosophes paved the way for totalitarianism, or Americans that the founding fathers of their Land of the Free owned slaves, so no amount of historical research will persuade today’s sceptics and secularists that, from the fall of the Roman Empire to the rise of the nation state, the Catholic Church was the source of most that is best in our civilisation; and that death camps and gulags are only to be found when Christianity lost its hold on the conscience of Europeans.

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Robert Sharpe
May 23rd, 2017
10:05 PM
I strongly suspect that the real reason Mr McManus left the Church was because he couldn’t be arsed to get out of bed on a Sunday morning. Anyone who believes that Germany is, or ever was, a ‘largely Catholic country’ has clearly had way too much beauty sleep.

Sean Loughlin
May 2nd, 2017
2:05 PM
I find it curious that the first comment on this excellent review of what appears to be an excellent should be from an ex-Catholic who trots out his own list of prejudices and fallacious statements. QED.

Michael McManus
April 27th, 2017
9:04 AM
This made me think of Sellar and Yeatman's 1066 And All That: Catholics Good, protestant critics Bad. I was an unhappy pupil of a Jesuit grammar school in the 1950s. Four recollections of priests' opinions expressed in 6th form discussions: the 200 plus protestants burned by Queen Mary did not justify the title Bloody Mary for they were enemies of the true faith; to understand the holocaust in a balanced way you had to remember that the Jews demanding Christ's death had said, 'Let his blood be upon us and our children'; Pope Pius XII was correct in cooperating with the Nazis (as was then believed he had) because they were the legitimate government of a largely Catholic country; the IRA were forced to resort to extreme measures in order to secure Catholicism and achieve freedom. It was obvious even to callow teenagers that burning and gassing people was always wrong and that the IRA were fascist thugs. That ordained priests could suggested otherwise was the principal reason I and others left the church for good.

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