The Enduring Myths Of Catholic Inequality

Anti-Catholic calumnies remain deeply embedded in our culture. Professor Rodney Stark's Bearing False Witness hopes to refute them

Piers Paul Read

Can historians ever be detached about the past, or is their judgment inevitably affected by their own loyalties and affiliations? In the introduction to his Saints, Sacrilege, and Sedition, Eamon Duffy, Professor of Christian History at Cambridge University, indignantly refuted the charge that he, and other Catholic historians, were biased in their revisionist view that the Protestant Reformation was not welcomed by the English, who were only weaned from the old religion after more than a century of cruel coercion. Was it, he asked, because he was the son of a Welsh nonconformist minister that the journalist Sir Simon Jenkins could still insist, despite all the evidence, that the English had “come to regard the Roman church as an alien, corrupt agent of intellectual oppression, awash with magic and superstition”?

Professor Rodney Stark, the author of Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History, is at pains to point out that he is not a Catholic. He was raised a Lutheran, and teaches at a Baptist university in the United States, but in the course of a long career teaching and writing on the sociology of religion, he was struck by the blatant anti-Catholic prejudice still to be found among historians: “I did not write this book in defence of the Church. I wrote it in defence of history.”

Professor Stark refutes ten anti-Catholic calumnies still “deeply embedded in our common culture”. The institutional Church was not anti-Semitic; it did not suppress the apocryphal gospels; it did not persecute pagans; it did not plunge Europe into “a millennium of ignorance and backwardness” in the Dark Ages. The Crusades were not motivated by greed, and the Spanish Inquisition did not torture and murder “whuge numbers of innocent people”. The Church did not impede the development of science; nor did it condone slavery or support authoritarian regimes except where they defended Catholics from persecution; and it did not thwart economic enterprise prior to the Protestant Reformation.

Stark does not ask his readers to take his word for his debunking of anti-Catholic history: each of his ten chapters has a boxed display containing the names and credentials of the historians whose researches he has drawn upon to make his case. Stark’s villains are the Protestant propagandists at the time of the Reformation, and the anti-clerical philosophes of the Enlightenment — “Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Hume, Gibbon . . .” together with “their modern counterparts such as Carl Sagan, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins”. Undoubtedly the most sensitive question is the reputed anti-Semitism of the Catholic Church. Following the conversion of Constantine and the establishment of Christianity as the state religion, Jews were subject to discriminatory laws, and there were the pogroms in the Rhineland during the First Crusade; but, as Stark points out, the killing of Jews was not instigated by the Church. Quite to the contrary, the popes repeatedly issued Encyclicals forbidding the persecution of Jews and forced conversions, and where possible during the Rhineland pogroms, Jews were protected by the Catholic bishops. Stark thinks it possible that, without the Church’s protection, the Jewish communities in Europe might not have survived.

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.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"