Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition … to Be Explained Fairly
Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History
by Rodney Stark. - Templeton Press, 2016.
In each chapter, Stark takes on a well-established anti-Catholic myth, gives a fascinating history of how each myth became the conventional wisdom, and presents a startling picture of the real truth.
BY GENE CALLAHAN
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 the Church 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 next few 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 we today 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.”