Like most American Protestants and secularists, I grew up believing that the Catholic Church was single-handedly responsible for 90% of the bad things that have happened since Jesus ascended...
- Anti-Semitic Behavior? Check.
- Pushing Europe into the Dark Ages? Check.
- Leading the Crusades? Check.
- Starting an Inquisition? Check.
- Hindering Scientific Progress? Check.
This isn't exactly the kind of resumé that any organization, much less a church, wants to have. And yet it's been common knowledge that, had the Catholic Church never come on the scene, Europe would have experienced much more peace and prosperity over the past two-thousand years.
But what if none of that is true?
In his latest book, Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History, Rodney Stark argues that things are not at all as they seem to be.
But wait! Before you brush all of this off as a piece of revisionist history from an overly-enthusiastic Catholic historian, you should know that Rodney Stark is neither Catholic nor part of any Catholic university. He grew up as a Lutheran (he never describes his current religious beliefs) and teaches at one of the largest Southern Baptist Universities in the world. Stark is no Roman Catholic apologist. As he writes in the introduction, "I am not a Roman Catholic, and I did not write this book in defense of the Church. I wrote it in defense of history."
The thesis-thread that Stark weaves throughout this work is rather simple: Much accepted history has been written by opponents of Catholicism in particular, and religion in general, as a result, they've cherry-picked much of their history to make Roman Catholicism appear much worse than it actually was.
Rather than write a narrative that works through the entire history of the church, correcting errors where they've previously been reported, Stark attempts to debunk ten myths (or truth-stretching) regarding the Catholic Church's role in history. These include: a history of anti-semitism, the suppression of other gospels, persecuting peaceful pagans out of existence, leading Europe into the Dark Ages, crusading to line the coffers of the church, the Spanish and Roman Inquisitions, executing scientific heretics, looking the other way on (and even sanctifying) slavery, supporting authoritarian governments, and holding Europe back from entering modernity.
Each chapter begins with the conventional history, complete with Catholicism (or perhaps the pope or some bishop) as the villain. Once the traditional telling has been recounted, Stark turns it on its head by examining the evidence (some of which has only recently been discovered or closely inspected) and showing the reader that often, that traditional telling has been very wrong. Each chapter also includes a list of leading scholars whose work influenced Stark's arguments. This is incredibly helpful for anyone who wants to fact-check Stark and trace his arguments to their sources. In addition, there are 21 pages of notes and bibliography/recommended reading - that's nearly 10% of the entire book. It should be obvious that Stark has done his homework.
As I read, there were a number of things that utterly shocked me. For example, did you know that the era known as the Dark Ages is a complete myth? According to his research, "serious historians have known for decades that this scheme is a complete fraud - 'an indestructible fossil of self-congratulatory Renaissance humanism.'" Many of the leading voices of the Enlightenment were both anti-Catholic and anti-religion. They worked to paint the progress that took place during their era as being birthed due to religion's shackles being thrown off. But the facts simply don't back that up. Many advances were made during the so-called Dark Ages in a variety of fields and Stark gives a brief overview of them. The so-called Enlightenment was an outgrowth of what had been going on for generations in Catholic monasteries and universities.
Likewise, you may be surprised to find out that the Spanish Inquisition led to relatively few deaths and "maintained unusually decent prisons." Or you may find it hard to believe that the Crusades were a series of wars that were largely fought to protect Christian pilgrims as they made their way to the Holy Land. Or it may be shocking to learn that the Church helped abolish slavery in Europe (for the first time) in the eleventh century.
I know, I know. Some of you are probably thinking that I've drunk the kool-aid of Catholic propaganda. But it isn't so. Neither I nor Stark believe that the Catholic Church has been without her sins. Stark recognizes that there have been very bad popes, bishops, cardinals, and Catholics. His argument is not that the Catholic Church is a church without spot or wrinkle. His argument is simply that much of the history we've imbibed regarding Catholicism has been poisoned by opponents of religion and Catholicism. With that said, I do feel as though there are places where Stark may be doing the same thing he accuses his opponents of doing - focusing on the good of Catholicism with only a brief paragraph or two about her sins. But this could be because this work is seeking to provide balance to a very one-sided argument. Over all though, the evidence seems to point to Stark's thesis being true.
Like Stark, I'm not a Catholic and I'm not interested in defending the Catholic Church. But I am interested in defending and believing the truth.
And the truth will stand up to scrutiny no matter what opposition it faces.
It's time we examine the evidence more closely regarding what sins Catholicism may or may not be guilty of - lest we find ourselves guilty of Bearing False Witness.
May we seek the Truth above all.