Bearing False Witness: A Prize-winning Historian Takes on Anti-Catholic Prejudice
Even if you are not Catholic, to understand today's culture wars, you must understand Catholic history.
Even non-Catholics will benefit from Rodney Stark’s 2016 Templeton Press book Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History.
This edifice, Western Civilization, of which you are both participant and beneficiary, has been under assault by cultural leaders for decades – see, for example, Keith Windschuttle’s 2002 “The Cultural War on Western Civilization.” Professors have been teaching students that horrors such as the Atlantic Slave Trade and the Holocaust are the only products that Western Civilization has to offer. In 1991, Lee Bass donated twenty million dollars to Yale to teach Western Civilization. “Yale teachers regularly bash the West and traditional American values and also ridicule and harass students who disagree,” students reported. Bass protested; Yale returned his money, and was willing to sabotage a potential further grant of five hundred million dollars.
Cultural Relativism is dogma. To say that one culture is superior to another is to sin and invite punishment. Given how horrible The West is, other choices on the civilizational menu are presented as tastier and more nutritious. Alternatives include Communism, Islam, and multiculturalism. On May 6, 2016, Mark Tushnet, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Harvard, declared that “The culture wars are over; they lost, we won.” Tushnet wants liberals to “take a hard line” and treat conservatives, people with traditional understandings of gender, and persons of faith in the same manner that the victorious Allies treated defeated Nazis.
Let’s just throw out the past and start at year zero. The problem is, of course, that “clean slate” types, from French Revolutionaries to the Khmer Rouge, inevitably end up murdering large portions of their populations.
One cannot understand the West without understanding Catholicism, its oldest institution. One cannot understand hatred of the West without understanding anti-Catholicism. Read Rodney Stark’s new book to discover your own true history – the history Yale would not teach you – the history that at least one Harvard prof might reduce to scorched earth – and to plot your own best future.
Counter-jihadis will benefit from Stark’s book. Throughout jihad’s history, in response to external threat, non-Muslims have turned on each other, inadvertently helping jihad. In 1937, another target misunderstood the enormity of his enemy because of his focus on anti-Catholic animus. Sigmund Freud was urged to flee Vienna to escape the inevitable Anschluss. He replied that he didn’t fear Nazis; his “real enemy” was the “Roman Catholic Church.” In a similar vein, superstar atheist Richard Dawkins says that “the Catholic Church is a disgusting institution, the second most evil religion in the world.”
Both Barack Obama and Bill Clinton deflected attention from jihad by dangling the bright shiny object of the Catholic boogeyman – ISIS is not that bad, nor was 9-11, because “the Crusades!” This diversion of attention occurs at all levels of society. In 2013, Nigeria’s Boko Haram destroyed fifty Catholic churches. Some internet posters were not sympathetic. Rather than discuss how to address Boko Haram, posters denounced Catholicism as Satanic, citing age-old anti-Catholic material including the 1563 Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Similarly, on April 11, 2016, Jihad Watch reader Hugh quoted Luther and called Catholicism “the wretched devil,” another poster wrote, “Muslim tolerance is not very distinct from the Catholic tolerance shown by the Spanish Inquisition.”
In their anti-Catholicism, liberal atheists nod in agreement with Protestant right-wingers. Christopher Hitchens smeared Mother Teresa; on May 15, 2016, a Baptist minister posted his “impression” of Mother Teresa screaming in Hell. A liberal blog referred to Catholicism as “mumbled incantations in front of a large statue of a mostly naked European bloke nailed to Roman torture implement and an act of ritual cannibalism.” After The Guardian published an atheist protesting anti-Catholic rhetoric, the site was flooded – with anti-Catholic rhetoric. Samples: “F - - - the pope,” “superstition and strange muttered incantations,” The Catholic Church “does not truly allow for development, criticism, fallibility.” As one poster put it, “thirty minutes and already all the comments entirely validate the point of the article.”
Rodney Stark is a best-selling and prize-winning author. Bearing False Witness would make a fine beach book. His prose is rapid, authoritative, and utterly clear. Stark earned a Berkeley PhD. He is the author of thirty-eight books. He can pirouette from a sweeping summary of many centuries’ arc to the intimate details of private moments that take place in hushed, anonymous corners and vivify remote eras. Stark is fearless; he quotes material, such as Peter Schafer’s controversial work on the Talmud, that others might fear citing.
In recent years, many authors have chipped away at anti-Catholic myths. Henry Kamen published The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision in 1997. Scholars like Lyndal Roper have overturned every popular assumption about the who, what, when, where and why of the witch craze. After John Cornwell published the shoddy Hitler’s Pope, Rabbi David G. Dalin published The Myth of Hitler’s Pope. Indeed Rodney Stark himself has published previous rebuttals to anti-Western propaganda, including his 2010 book, God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades.
Professional historians have been saying among themselves for years that there actually never were any Dark Ages, and that the entire concept was invented to bash the Catholic Church. Bogus Dark Ages historiography has its own Wikipedia page. Historians’ shop talk has not yet filtered down to the masses. Just the other day one of my Protestant Facebook friends mentioned her homeschooling lesson passing on to her student and son the Dark Ages / Age of Reason dichotomy.
The Big Lie dies hard even among PhDs. In their recent, well-received books, The Moral Arc and The Better Angels of Our Nature Michael Shermer and Steven Pinker repeat as true a foundationless anecdote about German priest Friedrich Spee. These atheist authors depict Spee as a Catholic nincompoop who requires tutoring by a secular leader. In historical fact, Spee, in the scrum of mob insanity, risked his own life by publishing Cautio Criminalis, an argument against witch trials. His book helped to end these trials.
Even if you’ve read other recent scholarly books addressing anti-Catholic myths, Bearing False Witness is worthy. It condenses and efficiently organizes a vast battery of material on a broad scope of topics. Debaters will not only want to buy this book, they are going to want to hand it to their opponents and say, “Do yourself a favor. Shut up and read this.”
Stark is not Catholic. He was raised Lutheran, went through a period of agnosticism, and, in a 2007 interview, he described himself as an “independent Christian.” He reports, “I did not write this book in defense of the Church. I wrote it in defense of history.” The book makes no attempt to convert the reader.
After Protestantism broke from Catholicism in the sixteenth century, Protestants busily began cranking out lurid fantasies of the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the witch trials. Protestants generated inaccurate accounts for the same reason that all identity groups demonize their other of choice. In the language of scholar Henri Tajfel, Protestants were maximizing positive distinctiveness. That is, to make membership in Protestantism more appealing, Protestants depict Catholic identity as utterly repugnant. Alas, Protestant propaganda plays into the hands of those who would smear all Christians, all Westerners, and indeed all people of faith as sadistic, irrational, triumphalist bigots.
Anti-Catholic propaganda is hardwired into our neurons. We unthinkingly parrot the metaphors “witch hunt” and “inquisition.” We are much less likely to turn to the French Revolution’s “reign of terror” for our metaphor, though that anti-religious exercise killed about as many people in one year as died during the two hundred years of witch trials. We rarely resort to “show trial,” though the Soviet government killed perhaps a million of its own citizens during just two years of the Great Purge.
Stark takes on ten mythologized topics: anti-Semitism, suppressed Gospels, persecution of Pagans, the Dark Ages, Crusades, the Inquisition, the development of science, slavery, authoritarianism, and modernity.
Stark grounds every assertion in peer-reviewed scholarship by the biggest names in their fields. Each chapter includes mini-biographies of these key scholars. He provides a bibliography of hundreds of books and articles, a good percentage published by university presses.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum refers to anti-Semitism with the conventional moniker of a “two thousand year hatred” – thus equating it with Christianity. Stark points out that those who insist that anti-Semitism has been temporally and geographically coterminous with Christianity can easily be proven wrong. Anti-Jewish persecutions predate Christianity, and Christians for many centuries were a minority sect without the power to persecute anyone. Christians in America today do wield power and show little interest in persecuting Jews. Western Christians did not murderously persecute Jews in any historically significant way until the eleventh century when “the conflict with Islam boiled over …” this “changed perceptions of religious threats.” When anti-Jewish violence broke out, popes condemned it and bishops and knights protected Jews. In short, anti-Semitism is not essential to Christianity; rather, it is a phenomenon dependent on external factors.
In recent years theologians like Elaine Pagels have championed Gnostic Gospels and argued that the early Catholic Church learned to be violently oppressive of dissent by practicing on the Gnostics. No, Stark writes. The Gnostic Gospels were nothing more than marginal and “ludicrous.” They died a natural death.
Similarly, Catholics are meant to have practiced their totalitarianism by viciously stamping out Classical Paganism. In fact, the switch from Paganism to Catholicism was gradual and blurry. As Stark puts it, “not even Saint Augustine could convince his flock that bountiful crops and good health” should not be “subcontracted to pagan gods.” In Iceland, Helgi the Lean “believed in Christ, but invoked Thor in matters of seafaring.” On the other hand, Pagans were willing publicly and gruesomely to torture Christians to death, even after Constantine accepted Christianity. A Pagan emperor forbade Christians from taking part in the education of the children of the elite. He’d be right at home today at elite colleges, where Christians are underrepresented among both faculty and students.
“The standard account of the Spanish Inquisition is mostly a pack of lies, invented and spread by English and Dutch propagandists in the sixteenth century during their wars with Spain and repeated ever after by the malicious or misled historians.” Stark backs up this assertion with university press scholarship. One of the wilder facts: the Spanish Inquisition, in the person of Alonso de Salazar Frías, aka the Witch’s Advocate, put a brake on the witch craze in Spain.
“No Catholic Church, No Scientific Method” is the title of a 2011 Scott Locklin article. Stark would agree. Stark grounds the scientific method in the Catholic approach to God and to knowledge, and contrasts both to those found in other belief systems such as Islam and Confucianism. Stark walks the reader through the development of scientific inquiry. He lists the most prominent figures. Many were not only devout Christians; many were clergy. “Just as there were no Dark Ages, there was no Scientific Revolution.” Again, these are fighting words. Stark has the scholarly muscle to hit them home.
The Atlantic Slave Trade is a very tough topic; Stark discusses it with sang froid. He uses hard statistics to argue that, as hideous as slavery was, overall, slaves fared better in Catholic areas than in Protestant ones, and they were more likely eventually to be freed. Popes repeatedly condemned slavery, and it was their lack of temporal power, not their lack of conscience, that prevented their condemnations to result in an earlier end to the Atlantic Slave Trade.
Stark chides historians for not paying adequate attention to efforts by Jesuits to empower Native Americans to stand their ground against the Spanish and Portuguese colonial onslaught. Jesuits gave their life to this decades-long effort and achieved quite a lot. Surprisingly, Stark does not mention the 1986 film The Mission.
Very big names have condemned the Catholic Church as authoritarian. Reinhold Niebuhr said that the Catholic Church could not be part of a free society. John Dewey condemned the Church as a “reactionary world organization.” Sidney Hook called the Church “the oldest and greatest totalitarian movement in history.” Stark quotes Bernard Lewis’ observation that separation of church and state “is, in a profound sense, Christian.” Stark writes, “the Church made it possible to examine the basis of worldly power and the interplay of rights and rule.” That’s a pretty major accomplishment, one many societies, where religion and state are intertwined, could not make.
Max Weber attributed capitalism’s success to Protestantism. Stark says that Weber is “obviously wrong.” Stark traces the development of capitalism back through medieval times, to monasteries. He quotes Thomas Aquinas on the morality of pricing food sold in a famine zone.
Bearing False Witness does not whitewash Catholicism. With the same cool courage he displays with all controversial material, Stark acknowledges that some Jesuits did own slaves; some mobs did massacre Jews; some popes did father bastards. How, then, for two thousand years, has Catholicism produced priests willing to risk martyrdom in their attempts to empower the wretched of the earth, eloquent popes who articulated the evils of slavery, anti-Semitism, racism, and Nazism, women who transcended what society wanted women to accomplish? How did Catholicism nurture the intellectual life that gave the world the triumphs of Western science? Stark never strays from his laser focus. He does not attempt to answer this question. I will so attempt: because Catholicism is founded on the unique truth of an omnipotent and loving God who created all humanity and cares about the fate of each individual person, and who adjures us to love each other as He loves us, it was able to overcome the inevitable rot found in any human institution, and keep alive the spark ignited when Abraham first heard and obeyed the command to “Go!”
There are a few things I wish Stark had done differently. I wish his chapter on anti-Semitism had mentioned Edna Bonacich, as well as more recent work by Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein. Stark writes, “popular comedians no longer tell scurrilous jokes about priests or the pope, nor do many Protestant preachers still thunder on about the sins of the Vatican.” Alas, Bill Maher has made a career of denigrating Catholicism (as documented by the Catholic League) and plenty of Protestants disseminate anti-Catholic propaganda. Chick Publications, which Stark does not mention, is going strong. In spite of a few small quibbles, this book has my highest endorsement, for everyone from Catholics to atheists who appreciate brave truth-telling on important topics.