Bearing False Witness by Rodney Stark

imageSubtitled Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History, Stark’s latest work takes ten commonly held critical views concerning the Roman Catholic Church and obliterates them from the face of the planet using sound argument, scholarly citation and statistical analysis.

This book uses plain English and I very much appreciate this approach. The fact is that Stark is not making a rhetorical case for Catholicism (indeed, he is not even a Catholic) but he is offering a robustly constructed historical argument in precise though often confrontational language. This makes the book easy to read, understandable, and accessible. This approach is also unfashionable. The academic world tends to look down on writings that are constructed using plain English. I am convinced that this is because of the wide-ranging influence of fraudalent obscurantists like Jacques Derrida whose postmodern idiom has become a smokescreen for a generation of social scientists whose rhetorical flourishes exist simple for the purpose of obscuring the fact that their arguments are baseless, empty or (most of the time) non-existent. How refreshing therefore to read a book written by a top academic who wants to communicate clearly and forcefully to a wide audience with actual arguments that are backed up by logic and evidence rather than fashionable and elitist posturing.

Stark takes aim at ten commonly held beliefs regarding the supposed backwardness and immorality of the Roman Catholic Church and sets the historical record straight. Two of these chapters stood out for me. Chapter 9, Holy Authoritarianism, takes aim at the myth that the Catholic Church has historically supported dictators and opposed democratic and free forms of society. In a moving series of pages, Stark recounts the horrendous persecution and martyrdom that the Catholic clergy and monastic communities suffered during the French Revolution, the Russian Communist Revolution and the Spanish Civil War. During the latter, for example, the Church was accused of siding with Franco and Hitler against the left-wing Republican revolutionaries. What is often forgetten about the Church’s stance is that it was provoked by the murderous anti-clericalism of the revolutionaries. This desire to rid the state of religion and the subsequent torture and murder of priests, monks and nuns was almost exactly the same in France and Russia during their revolutionary periods:

In 1936, the struggle between the Republican radicals and the conservatives (who controlled the Spanish army) came to a crisis, touching off an anti-Catholic massacre. Scholars now agree that beginning slightly prior to Franco’s intervention in Spain and lasting several months, Republicans murdered 13 bishops, 4,172 diocesan priests and seminarians, 2,364 monks and friars, and 283 nuns – a total of 6,832. And, as in Russia, the deaths often involved bizarre brutality. Some “were hanged, drowned, suffocated, burned to death, or buried alive. On many occasions, victims were tortured…which could include forcing the victims to strip naked, beating, cutting, skinning and mutilation. In the cases of mutilation, there was a morbid fixation on genitalia….Finally, irrespective of the type of death they had suffered, the corpses fo clerics were likely to be dragged through the streets, exposed in public places or desecrated in many ways”. (p.205) (Quotation from de la Cueva, 1998, 368.)

One of the interesting things about Stark’s book is that he rarely speculates on why exactly these anti-Catholic beliefs proliferate and persist to the extent that they do. This is probably because Stark is presenting a factual case which he doesn’t want to obscure through speculation. But, in this case, it seems to me that the willingness to believe that the Roman Catholic Church is an instrument of totalitarian oppression is part of a general myopia especially amongst young hipsters in the West who consider it cool to promote left-wing political viewpoints. Their ignorance of the literally hundreds of millions of people who were murdered under left-wing governments in the twentieth century and their belief that the Nazis and their supporters (including the Catholic Church) were the sole criminals of this period excuses the need to think more seriously about the consequences of the political viewpoints they are promoting.

Secondly, Stark’s chapter on science lays out very clearly the falsity of the belief that modern science appeared out of nowhere around the seventeenth century thanks to martyrs and heroes like Galileo and other proto-secularists. Many people are aware of the almost total falsity of the story of Galileo’s supposed persecution at the hands of the Catholic Church, but perhaps fewer are aware of the overstated place of Nicolaus Copernicus and his ostensible “Copernican Revolution”. The fact is that Copernicus contributed nothing to cosmology apart from the one piece of speculation that the sun was the centre of the solar system, and this he tried (and failed) to prove by speculating that the orbit of the surrounding planets were circular and not elliptic (as Kepler realised a century later). This realisation was simply the next logical step in a series of scientific discoveries that had been going on in Church-founded universities for literally hundreds of years. Stark summarises:

Of course, even with Kepler’s additions, there still was no explanation of why the solar system functioned as it did, or of why, for example, bodies remained in their orbits rather than flying off into space. The achievement of such an explanation awaited Isaac Newton (1642-1727). But over several prior centuries, many essential pieces of such a theory had been assembled: that the universe was a vaccum; that no pushers were needed because once in motion, the heavenly bodies would continue in motion; that the earth turned; that the sun was the center of the solar system; that the orbits were elliptical. (p. 151)

Again, why does the belief persist that the Church opposes “science”? I honestly have no idea but, once again, it takes a certain amount of willful ignorance on the part of Dawkins and others to be unaware of the fact that, rather than being an enemy of modern science, the Catholic Church practically invented it. And there was certainly no break in its development between the so-called Dark Ages and the arrogated Renaissance-Enlightenment periods.

A quick summary of some of the other chapters:

Sins of Anti-Semitism – Although anti-Semitism has been rife throughout history, the Catholic Church has never officially sanctioned it and, throughout the period of the Crusades, openly opposed anti-Semitic mobs in the form of its bishops who protected and sheltered many thousands of Jews in the Rhineland area to their own peril.

The Suppressed Gospels – The Catholic Church didn’t supress the other “lost” Gospels. Rather, these books are centuries older than the canonical Gospels, fraudelent in their authorial claims and Gnostic in theological outlook – often in extremely mysogynistic terms.

Monsters of the Inquisition – Contrary to the ubiquitous belief that the Spanish Inquisition was a murderous outburst of sadistic violence against heretics, it was actually moderate and civilised compared to other penitential systems in mainland Europe. From 1480-1700, for example, an average of ten people per year were sentenced to death under the Inquisition – a low number and ‘a small fraction of  the many thousands of Lutherans, Lollards and Catholics…that Henry VIII is credited with having boiled, burned, beheaded or hanged’. From 1530-1630, the English averaged 750 hangings per year, many of them for minor thefts.

Blessed be Slavery – Rather than sanctioning and promoting slavery for most its history, the Catholic Church abolished slavery a thousand years before the birth of William Wilberforce, and then opposed its resurrection in the Americas. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, for example, clearly outlaws the practice, a prohibition that is indicative of the Church’s general historical stance towards it.

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Julian of Norwich on God’s Meaning

Julian of Norwich’s fourteenth-century works are the first recorded by a woman in the English language. Her two surviving texts recount her extrordinary series of religious visions that she had as a young woman whilst she lay ill apparently on her deathbed. They mostly concern the figure of Christ as he hangs on the cross, his wounds and his blood and what these things represent about God’s love for humanity. But they also constitute a myterious parable of a Lord and his servant, which she later realises is a picture of the fall of man and of the incarnation, viewed both at once from God’s perspective.

The visions and their interpretation are incredibly beautiful and to me have the ring of authenticity. I think that the spiritual insight she gained from them is quite incredible, especially considering her social standing.

Julian is perhaps still so popular today because of the hopefulness and the sanguinity of her writing. There is a constant tension that runs through Julian between what she has seen of God and what she knows the Church teaches. She is most famous for saying that everything will be well and all manner of things will be well. In the end, according to Julian, we will see everything that is currently wrong put right. But at one point she wonders about the way that the Church teaches that many will be punished by God in hell for their wickedness. It is at this point that she has a further insight about the future: God will do a great deed at the end of time that will put all things right. And so all things will be well, but we just do not know how, because we do not know what the nature of this great deed will be. And in this way she avoids saying anything that explicitly contradicts the teaching of the Church, whilst maintaining the coherence of her vision.

When one reads Julian, one is in the presence of a God who is not angry and demanding of mankind, but who is full of love and grace, who is not harsh but tender and merciful and, interestingly, one who is repeatedly referred to as ‘courteous’ – as in polite and chivalrous. Julian even goes so far as to say that God never needs to forgive us because he is never angry with us. She is at pains to stress that, although we should hate sin in us more than the fires of hell itself, when we do sin we should be cheered by the love of God and by the recollection that God judges us more leniently than we judge ourselves, and we should most certainly not look upon the sins of others in anything but compassion.

The most moving section of the book for me is the final chapter, in which Julian, having thought about her visions for many years, wonders finally what was their overall meaning. What was God trying to say to her? The final paragraph of the book gives us the answer: his meaning was love.

And from the time that this was shown, I often longed to know what our Lord meant. And fifteen years and more later my spiritual understanding received an answer, which was this: “Do you want to know what your Lord meant? Know well that love was what he meant. Who showed you this? Love. What did he show? Love. Why did he show it to you? For love. Hold fast to this and you will know and understand more of the same; but you will never understand or know from it anything else for all eternity.” This is how I was taught that our Lord’s meaning was love. And I saw quite certainly in this and in everything that God loved us before he made us; and his love has never diminished and never shall. And all his works were done in this love; and in this love he has made everything for our profit; and in this love our life is everlasting. We had our beginning when we were made but the love in which he made us was in him since before time began; and in this love we have our beginning. And all this shall be seen in God without end, which may Jesus grant us. Amen.

St Benedict on the Path to Justice

The Rule of St. Benedict was written around 540, five years before Benedict’s death in 545. It is a very simple outline of what, according to Benedict, it takes to set out on the path to a righteous life. The first and most obvious thing to say is that it takes total commitment, and not in an esoteric or cognitive sense, but in an actual embodied handing over of one’s possessions and one’s person to the monastic community. It is very sobering to read this book and to imagine the sense of loss and stripping away that would occur if the reader were to take it seriously and embark upon this road. 

But the basic thrust is to provide a manual for the monk to fight against the work of the devil in his soul. Benedict is, let us say, not sanguine about human nature. He sees the soul as a battleground between the forces of good and evil. Which will win is dependent upon whether the monk will choose the path of humility or of pride. The fires of pride are stoked by envy and gain, so possessions are not permitted and everyone must have the same. Pride is tempted by position and rank, so if a brother is promoted he must be chosen because of his humility and if his promotion causes him to behave in a haughty manner he must be cautioned and demoted. Pride is manifested in laziness and disobedience; so if a monk repeatedly displays these things he must be warned and, if he does realign himself to godly behaviour, he must be beaten. The monk must pray and read and rise during the night to sing Psalms with the other brothers, this to continully focus his mind upon God and so to triumph over his own miserable condition.

What is remarkable about this is that it is a compromise for St. Benedict, who had started a monastery many years previously but had imposed a rule upon his monks that was so demanding and punishing that the brothers had conspired to poison him to death. He had realised that, although he was capable of the most incredible feats of endurance and abstinance, the normal man simply was not, and so a rule for that normal man. But a rule all the same that appears challenging to the modern ear. The final section of the work is entitled ‘The rule is only a start on the path to justice’:

We have written this rule so that by living by it in accordance with the monasteries we may demonstrate that we are to some extent living virtuously and have made a start on the religious life…But we are lazy and live reprehensible and careless lives, and we ought to be ashamed of ourselves. Whoever you are then, who are hurrying towards the heavenly country, observe this little rule for beginners which I have written with Christ’s help, and then with God’s protection you will at least reach the greater heights of wisdom and virtue I mentioned earlier in this work.