Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History

by Rodney Stark.
Templeton Press, 2016.
Hardcover, 280 pages, $28.

Rodney Stark, while doing research into the history of religion, discovered that the popular history of Catholicism is rife with errors, errors that have been repeatedly exposed as such by serious historians. However, the people who read pop history do not typically read serious historians, and so only a work of pop history can correct the errors in other works of pop history. Thus this book.

Each of the book’s ten chapters addresses a subject concerning which the Catholic Church has been held to have behaved badly. Each chapter begins with a number of examples of writers condemning the Church for some fault, which is useful in showing that Stark is not going after straw men. Nor does he claim that the Church, or those that claim to act in the Church’s name, are uniformly blameless. Rather, his debunk of the more extreme claims has a historiographical purpose: to show that the accusations against theChurch are themselves driven by an anti-Catholic animus rather than scholarly research or factual accuracy.

Stark, a professor of history at Baptist-affiliated Baylor University, first takes up the topic of Jews and the Catholic Church. Stark notes that while Christians sometimes attacked or killed Jews between 500 and 1400, the Church hierarchy consistently defended the Jews. For instance, during the First Crusade, some crusaders decided that, before they went all the way to the Middle East to fight “God’s enemies,” they should “take care” of those enemies who were living next door in Europe (i.e. Jews). And so a certain Emich of Leiningen set out to kill Jews in the Rhineland. Their first stop was Speyer, but:

The bishop of Speyer took the local Jews under his protection, and Emich’s forces could only lay their hands on a dozen Jews who had somehow failed to heed the bishop’s alarm. All twelve were killed. Then Emich led his forces to Worms. Here, too, the bishop took the local Jews into his palace for protection. But this time Emich would have none of that, and his forces broke down the bishop’s gate and killed about five hundred Jews. The same pattern was repeated the following week Mainz. Just as before, the bishop attempted to shield the Jews, but he was attacked and forced to flee for his life.

In the Second Crusade, St. Bernard of Clairvaux rode to the Rhine Valley—apparently the worst place in Medieval Europe to be a Jew—and, as told by a Jewish chronicler Ephraim, said, “Anyone who attacks a Jew and tries to kill him is as though he attacks Jesus himself.”

During the Black Death, rumors arose that Jews were poisoning wells and causing the plague deaths. But, “Pope Clement VI, who directed the clergy to protect the Jews, denounced all claims about poisoned wells, and ordered that those who spread the rumor, as well as anyone who harmed Jews, be excommunicated.” In short, attacks on Jews in the Middle Ages almost always arose from “the mob,” and were resisted by the Church hierarchy.

And so through today. Stark goes on to thoroughly debunk the idea that Pope Pius XII was “Hitler’s Pope,” citing the hundreds of thousands of Jews saved by the Church during World War II, some of them sheltered from Nazis in the Vatican itself. In fact, in the years after the war, a number of prominent Jews, such as Golda Meir, praised Pius for his efforts.

Stark is somewhat less objective when it comes to the so-called “lost gospels.” These gospels are, to a great extent, “Gnostic” in character. The trait that characterizes gnosticism, in general, is that it is neither works nor faith that bring salvation, but knowledge. More specifically, it is usually secret knowledge, available only to spiritual adepts, that saves. And even more specifically, that knowledge is often held to be the knowledge that the physical world is a prison, trapping the adept in his or her body and blocking the adept from realizing the soul’s true nature, as a resident of a better, divine realm. Gnostic texts often set out an elaborate metaphysics of this imprisonment, involving multiple levels of divine beings. In particular, one divine being, the demiurge, had fallen from the Pleroma, the divine realm, essentially gone mad, and created a prison—the physical world—in which he could entrap other spiritual beings and garner their worship. Gnostics often identified this crazed divinity with … Jehovah, the Hebrew God.

This may seem mad or it may seem insightful, but Stark adopts an odd way to describe these beliefs: “[For Gnostics] God is the epitome of evil and the gleeful cause of human suffering.” But no gnostic would likely say that about “God” with a capital G: they always seemed to hold that the god who created the physical world was a distinctly lesser divine being, and that “God,” the ultimate divinity, is good and uniting with him is the true goal of Gnostic practice.

Over the nextfew pages, Stark demonstrates that he understands this quite well, and yet he (or perhaps an editor) continues to call the gnostic demiurge “God” with a capital G. It is as though someone took the fact that orthodox Christians believe that there is a fallen divine being, namely Satan, who epitomizes evil, and claimed that therefore Christians believe that God is evil! Gnostic beliefs seem nutty to Stark, and that is understandable: they have so seemed to many others, including the Church fathers. But the way these beliefs are presented is arguably misleading.

Stark’s next chapter debunks the notion that there were massive “forced conversions” to Christianity in late antiquity. His own work (The Rise of Christianity and The Triumph of Christianity) has shown that the main factors prompting conversions were social and doctrinal: “socially, Christianity generated an intense congregational life” and “doctrinally, in contrast to paganism’s belief in limited, unreliable, and often immoral gods, Christianity presented an image of God as moral, concerned, dependable, and omnipotent.” He demonstrates that the Christian emperors continued to employ large numbers of pagans as consuls and prefects. He quotes the Code of Justinian, from as late as the sixth century, declaring: “We especially command those persons who are truly Christians, or who are said to be so, that they should not abuse the authority of religion and dare to lay violent hands on Jews and pagans, who are living quietly and attempting nothing disorderly or contrary to law.” Of course, this means that there were Christians doing these things, but their acts were not official policy.

In another chapter, Stark shows how the belief in a “Dark Age” is essentially dead among serious historians. He quotes Warren Hollister: “To my mind, anyone who believes that the era that witnessed the building of the Chartres Cathedral and the invention of parliament and the university was ‘dark’ must be mentally retarded.…” And he demonstrates that, contrary to the myth promoted by “Enlightenment” thinkers, almost all of the major figures in the scientific revolution were religious, many of them very devout. Isaac Newton, for instance, devoted more time to biblical scholarship than to science or mathematics. The idea of a “Dark Age” was a piece of Enlightenment propaganda.

Stark relates how recent historical research has revealed the Crusades as largely a response to Muslim aggression in the Middle East. Most of the crusaders were motivated by a religious belief that they were on a mission from God, not by a desire to grab wealth from the Muslims. In fact, crusading was expensive and the Crusader states established in the Middle East had to be constantly subsidized by a flow of silver from Europe. The crusaders certainly committed what wetoday would regard as atrocities, but they were the standard for war at that time, and similar acts were committed by Muslim armies.

Stark next turns his attention to the Spanish Inquisition, today a symbol of oppression and persecution. But as Stark makes clear, by the standards of the day, the Spanish Inquisition was actually fairly innocuous. Torture, for instance, was a standard way of getting confessions at the time, and while the Inquisition employed it, it did so within strict guidelines secular courts often lacked. In fact, the Inquisition’s reputation was so much better than that of the secular courts that defendants would try to get their trials moved to an Inquisition venue.

Stark spends some time blowing apart the myth that having faith means rejecting reason. He quotes various Catholic thinkers, such as Quintus Tertullian: “Reason is a thing of God, inasmuch as there is nothing which God the Maker of all has not provided, disposed, ordained by reason—nothing which he has not willed should be handled and understood by reason.” Or, from Clement of Alexandria, we have: “Do not think we say these things [Christian doctrines] are only to be received by faith, but also that they are to be asserted by reason. For indeed it is not safe to commit these things to bare faith without reason, since assuredly truth cannot be without reason.”

The idea that faith is the opposite of reason is a fairly recent idea, and would have stunned most Christians from the time of Christ through the Middle Ages. It is based on a (willful?) misunderstanding of what was meant by “faith.” So, for instance, when Bertrand Russell writes, “We may define ‘faith’ as a firm belief in something for which there is no evidence,” we should recognize this as another piece of propaganda and not a reasoned philosophical position. In fact, “faith,” properly understood, is every bit as necessary to science as it is to Christianity. We might see Michael Polanyi on this point, or consider this passage:

“I’ve found that a big difference between new coders and experienced coders is faith: faith that things are going wrong for a logical and discoverable reason, faith that problems are fixable, faith that there is a way to accomplish the goal. The path from ‘not working’ to ‘working’ might not be obvious, but with patience you can usually find it.” (Emphasis mine.)

Indeed, this is something I continually have to convey to my own computer science students: they must first believe that our whole enterprise is rational, and will make sense given time, before they will be able to commit to making the effort necessary to overcome all the obstacles to understanding they will face along the way. (Believe that they may know?) In any case, as Alfred North Whitehead has noted, science did not develop in Christian civilization by accident: the faith that creation is fundamentally reasonable was the basis for the whole scientific enterprise.

Stark runs into some problems when he attempts to address more technical aspects of the history of science. For instance, he writes, “To make his system work, Copernicus had to postulate that there were loops in the orbits of the heavenly bodies … However, these loops lacked any observational support; had they existed, a heavenly body should have been observed looping.” What are we to make of this? Copernicus introduced epicycles (Stark’s “loops”) precisely to get his system to fit with the observational data! The “observational support” was that, with the loops, Copernicus could predict where planets would appear reasonably well, but without them he could not. Stark writes that “a heavenly body should have been observed looping,” when in fact, for Copernicus, that is exactly what we are observing all the time.

Thanks to Kepler’s discovery of elliptical orbits, we now have a simpler system for explaining these apparent loops, but the point is that Copernicus introduced epicycles as the only way he could envision to explain the actual observations.

Furthermore, Stark seems to think that “loops” had to be introduced into the planets’ circular orbits to get the orbital period correct: “it would not do for the earth to circle the sun in only three hundred days.” But one can always change the diameter or speed of a circular orbit in one’s model and thus get the orbital period correct. The real problem with positing circular orbits instead of the actual elliptical ones has to do with the relationship of different segments of a planet’s orbit, as can be seen with a visual aid:

In the portions of a planet’s orbit where the ellipse is flatter than a circle, the planet will appear to move too fast for it to have a circular orbit. And in the portion of its elliptical orbit where the ellipse is more curved than a circle, the planet will appear to move too slowly.

So the problem is not that circular orbits show planets having years of too short (or too long) a duration—that problem could be trivially corrected. Instead, the problem is that if we mistakenly assume circular orbits, we are left with having to introduce “loops” to explain why some portions of a planet’s orbit proceed faster than other portions.

Stark next addresses the history of the Catholic Church vis-à-vis slavery. He notes that while slavery was hardly questioned in antiquity, the Catholic Church gradually eliminated it in Western Europe during the Middle Ages. When Aquinas condemned slavery as “contrary to natural law,” this soon became the official Church position. Recent controversies concerning Catholic colleges like Georgetown, which did own and sell slaves, make this a pertinent point, as well as the fact that slavery continues across wide parts of the non-Christian world.

Some Church officials, even some popes, continued to own slaves. (But some popes also engaged in fornication and had children out of wedlock, despite official Church opposition to sex outside of marriage: this shows that popes do not always follow Church doctrine, not that Church doctrine permits fornication.) And the Spanish and Portuguese imperialists often continued to enslave people, despite Church opposition. But when Spain colonized the Canary Islands in the early 1400s and started enslaving the islanders, the action prompted Pope Eugene IV to declare that “these people are to be totally and perpetually free and are to be let go without exaction or reception of any money.”

In the 1500s, Pope Paul II asserted that “the same Indians and all other peoples—even though they be outside the faith … should not be deprived of their liberty or their other possessions … and are not to be reduced to slavery.…” The Inquisition took up the matter in the 1600s, and asked:

Whether it is permitted to buy, sell, or make contracts in their respect Blacks and other natives who have harmed no one and have been made captives by force or deceit?

And it declared, “Answer: no.”

In fact, the papacy denounced slavery in 1462, 1537, 1639, 1741, 1815, and 1839.

Stark’s second-to-last chapter shows that the supposed close link between the Church and authoritarianism is actually rather flimsy; for instance, while the Church supported Franco in the Spanish Civil War, it did so because the Republicans were busily murdering Catholic clergy. Stark’s final chapter denies the link between the rise of capitalism and the Protestant Reformation, arguing that all of the necessary ingredients were already present in Scholastic economics, the large-scale enterprises run by monasteries, and the entrepreneurial Italian city-states.

Stark’s overall thesis, that popular history is frequently anti-Catholic in ways that serious historians today recognize as without factual basis, is certainly correct. And he is correct in suggesting that rectifying this bias is important: far too often, the Catholic argument against, say, abortion “rights” is dismissed with a “well, what does one expect from such a pro-slavery, anti-science, anti-Semitic, authoritarian institution?” But the importance of the project makes it unfortunate that Stark has been sloppy in his research in several sections of this work.  

Gene Callahan is a Lecturer in Computer Science and Economics at St. Joseph’s College and a Research Fellow at the Collingwood and British Idealism Centre at Cardiff University, Wales. He is the author of Economics for Real People and Oakeshott on Rome and America.