In Search of Better Stories

Bearing False Witness

I grew up in Baptist Fundamentalism, among other things, I was fed a steady diet of Chic tracts: Anti-Catholic propaganda that came in the captivating form of comic books. They were riveting and deeply troubling. Since no one offered a corrective and I was as naive as they come. I grew up intensely suspicious of Catholics, equating them somewhere between the level of Hitler and the Devil. 

As the years have passed, I became a student of history (unlike Jack Chic), and I became friends with several Catholics who are lovely Christian people. Similar to Chic, secular culture has continued the early protestant tradition of demonizing the Catholic Church. Historian and Protestant Rodney Stark has had enough! His book is a reasonably heated attempt to set the record straight. 

Myth 1 — Roman Catholics are anti-semite Jew killers.

 Cornwall and Caroll are 2 of the primary anti-catholic writers who assert that Catholic Christianity at its core is anti-Semitic. “The road to Auschwitz starts at Golgotha” Caroll tell us. Tellingly, Jewish scholars don’t even believe this! Stark pins this fiction on angry Catholics who want to liberalize their religion. 

 Jews and Christians played nicely until the 11th century, the continual advancement of Islam, caused some Christian’s to begin to feel threatened by the Jews. It seems that Germanic peoples have always had a special hatred for the Jews. To them, the Jews were a fifth column. There is no need to go on a crusade to the Holy Land to clear out non-Christian’s when it could be done at home against the Jews. But they did so against the direct commands of the Catholic church. The church has been consistent in it’s commitment to the well being of Jews. The Bible promises that Jewish people will one day convert and so the Catholic church views them as brothers and sisters as yet “unaware.” Indeed, the “11th commandment” as some Catholic scholars refer to it, is to protect the Jewish people. Nowhere in Catholic literature were they to be subjected to forced conversion or violent mistreatment.

For example, when the plague came, Jews were blamed, but the church stepped in and forcefully stamped out any anti-Jewish action, except for Germany where their power was least influential. Granted, it was no picnic being a Jew in Medieval Europe. Interactions between the two groups were limited. Inter-marriage forbade. Badges had to be worn. Often Jews lived in ghettos, permission to build synagogues had to be granted, there was always controversy surrounding Sabbath practice. But it is an absurd fiction to say, as some do, that Muslim’s treated the Jews better than Christian Europe. Stark reminds us that Muhammad himself beheaded 700 Jews in Medina after he forced them to dig their own graves. Many Jews in Moorish Spain were forced to convert to Islam on pain of death. Jews experienced discrimination in Medieval Europe but not death.

Myth # 2 The Catholic Church brutally suppressed paganism.

 Paganism was not stamped out by persecution from angry and violent Catholics. Emperor Constantine is on record speaking against the oppression of Pagans. There are numerous historical examples of Christians and pagans working together. The recent discovery of an ancient calendar further solidifies that Christianity and Paganism existed peacefully side by side. There was no “stamping it out” by Catholics. Overtime the tired story paganism faded away. Unfortunately, Christian historian Eusebius did brag on occasion about crushing pagans. His few comments took precedence in the minds of early protestant historians looking to excoriate the Catholic church, and later by 18th and 19th-century anti-religious historians looking to blame everything wrong in the world on the church. But Eusebius’ comments are historically spurious, nothing but a triumphal polemic, not accurate history. 

Myth #3 The Dark Ages

 There were no dark ages. Regardless of what Voltaire, Bertrand Russell, and others have said. Their view of things is so poisoned that historical truth is the casualty of their thoughts. Distinguished medievalist Warren Hollister puts it this way: 

 “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 or at best deeply, deeply ignorant.” 

 Every civilization in human history embraced slavery. It was only in the “dark ages” of Christian Europe where it was extinguished. Everywhere else it continued unabated. 

 The northern Italian Renaissance was made up of bitter people who wanted to brag about the glories of Rome while at the same time throwing shade on the advancements of Northern Europe. The only way to do this was to hang a dark cloud over northern Europes accomplishments. Hence “the dark ages.”  

 Voltaire, Hume and Gibbon were proud of their era. They ignored all the progress that led them to the greatness of their time. They were like spoiled and ungrateful children who smacked the mouth of their fathers and grandfathers who raised them. A great irony for the poison pens of writers like these is that the very languages they used to darken the past and brighten the present were developed and perfected during the “dark ages.”  

Myth #4 Medieval Catholic Christendom was Anti-Science

 Medieval Europe was the first to dissect bodies; this quest for knowledge of an empirical nature set the table for modern science. If science is not “dark” then neither can be the “dark ages” of Europe because it is from there that science as we know it today, originated. Christians believed in an intelligent designer and a rational creation. This freed them to pursue science. China, Islam, and ancient Greece didn’t see it this way at all. For example, in Islam, it was blasphemy to investigate anything other than the “will of Allah.” For the Greeks, matter was alive, and so it did whatever it wanted. Science is not possible with these world-views.

 51 out of the top 52 early scientist’s were Christians, 1/2 of that number being devout Christians. (ordained ministers, deacons, etc.) If there were no Dark Ages, then there was no renaissance either. People didn’t wake up one morning cast off the restraints of religion and embrace science as the better way. That narrative is categorically false. Sir Isaac Newton put it best. “If I see farther, it is only because I stand on the shoulders of giants.”  

Myth #5 The Spanish Inquisition was a senseless slaughterhouse.

 It turns out there is a lot of data to study regarding the inquisition. They kept records. Stark read them all. In 44,000 arrests over a couple of centuries, only 800 received the death penalty. That’s less than 1%. The death rate from regular prisons in both Catholic and Protestant areas from that era was way considerably higher, so much so, that potential convict’s regularly “blasphemed” so they could get into the inquisition prison. The numbers were inflated by Protestant propaganda specialists from that era and assumed accurate by modern scholarship, which, according to Stark, is a crying shame.

 One of the challenges that the Medieval church faced was church magic versus non-church magic. If church magic works because of God than how is it that non-church magic works too? Magic could be anything that someone used to help someone else. It could be some trick, potion, incantation, or even a prayer. If the magic didn’t have the official green light from the church, and it worked, it must then be from the devil, and that was a capital offence. Some estimates have as many as 9,000,000 “witches” and “unsanctioned” magic workers killed off during the Dark Ages. Stark reduces that number to 60,000. Most of which were in Germany, where the church never really had control. Ironically, the fewest witch deaths were in Spain where the inquisition was. 

 The inquisition itself started as a result of Muslim advance. Jews were fleeing more and more into Northern Spain; it was safer for them in Christian lands. Over time many Jews legitimately converted to Christianity. Die-hard Jews were angry that their numbers were shrinking to conversion and so they accused the converts of faking it, many “old school” Christians agreed, primarily because they felt like the converted Jews were taking jobs and land from them. S.I. was started to figure out this mess. They couldn’t figure it out, so in 1492 they expelled all Jews who would not convert. The bottom line for Stark is that the inquisition did not kill many alleged Jewish converts to Christianity, or accused witches at all, and percentage-wise, not many people at all.

 Starks argument kind of goes like this: Hey, Every Christian of every stripe was happily killing each other in that era, why do we seem to blame only the Spanish Inquisition, especially since they were the least violent of them all?” That’s a far question in support of setting the record straight, but it does little to help engender any confidence that Christianity, on the whole, was any better than any other system. So that’s a bit depressing. However, Stark has an entire book that tries to convince us that it was much better. See my review of that book here

Myth #6 The Roman Catholic Church Was Pro-African Slave Trade

 Consistently all through the slave era, the Catholic Church issued one papal bull after another condemning slavery in the strongest terms: Excommunication. You could not be a good Catholic and own slaves. Unfortunately, Rome was weak during this time. Nation-states were flexing their muscles and religion was not welcome to get in the way. Spain even sacked Rome during this time. Spain and Portugal were Catholic sure, but they were disobedient to the official Catholic position on the matter. To Hart’s point in his book Atheist Delusions, this was not the era of wars of religion; this was the era of wars of nationalism. The desire to be wealthy and powerful as nations led to slave atrocities (among other things). Sadly, Biblical justification’s for slavery came from Protestant groups, but not from any official Catholic position. Jesuits missionaries were not allowed to read the Papal Bulls in the new world, when they did anyway they were labelled as anti-nationalist and killed. 

 Even still Catholic missionaries persisted in the new world with anti-slavery perspectives. It was the Catholics of the French and Spanish colonies that were the first to write codes which were the first help to slaves. By 1830 13% of blacks in French and Spanish colonies had obtained their freedom, in all other non-Catholic colonies the number of freed slaves was at less than 1%. Catholics allowed for the baptism of slaves, taught them religion and made provision for their freedom (The same approach they had taken in the early medieval times to eradicate slavery from Europe) Astonishingly by the mid 1800s 41% of blacks in the predominantly Catholic city of New Orleans had succeeded in getting their freedom, whereas all the other cities in the non-Catholic south were less than 5% 

 Certainly, the Catholic Church is no perfect institution, since the time of Constantine the church has been steadily accruing power, which has not always been in its best interest. Add to power, money and you have a deadly combination. It was monks who developed a cash-based economy. It was monasteries that became centres for commerce. The spiritual elites of these cloisters not only managed to make a living off of grains and wines they also figured out how to market their religion. Whether selling indulgences or accruing land for spiritual goods and services like prayers and petitions to God for the dead etc. Corruption was inevitable. Mistakes were made. The church of piety did not always win out over the church of power. To such a degree that Denis Diderot of the French Revolution felt compelled to say:

“Mankind will only be free when the last king is strangled by the entrails of the last pope.”

 That’s a pretty grim condemnation, and it is not without some merit. However, Stark contends, successfully in my estimation, that Diderot and all the other anti-Catholic haters are off base in their wholesale condemnations of a Church that has far and away done more good than harm for humanity. 

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