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.

A Book Every Protestant Really Should Read

As I have grown older, I have realised more and more that what we as individuals believe about history is largely a bricolage of expedient half-truths (or outright falsehoods) that we have chosen in order to justify our own positions and practices in the world. This observation has made me question my own views about history in various ways, in particular that of the Reformation.

My view of the Reformation used to be basically the same as John Piper’s: post tenebras, lux. That is, after the darkness of Catholic Rome, with its superstition and idolatry and priestcraft and Latin, came the light of the Protestant Reformation, with the glorious revelations of justification by faith through grace alone apart from works, and all of this mediated through the glorious vernacular of an English Bible, having its roots in the fearless genius William Tyndale’s early translation, completed by the King James scholars in 1611. Who were these Catholics? Well, they were either evil priests, drunk on their own power, or they were misled layfolk, waiting to be liberated by having the Scriptues in their own language.

Well, Eamon Duffy has a rather different story to tell. And I have to say that reading The Stripping of the Altars from cover-to-cover is certainly a tonic to a naive and simplistic view of the Reformation. If I am honest I think that the observation made above about history and the Reformation applies to Protestants a lot of the time, because it is most expedient to Protestants to believe something like the John Piper view. It couldn’t possibly be the case that the Catholic Church wasn’t really that bad, that it didn’t teach a gospel of justification by works, that people did have portions of Scripture in the vernacular, that the Christian message was powerfully communicated to layfolk through an affective multi-sensory artistic liturgical tradition, that these layfolk, far from being misled simpletons, were actually deeply religious, well-informed and sincere Christians, that the vernacular translation of the Bible is actually responsible for the hyper-fragmentation of the Protestant Church that we find in our contemporary world, that the Protestant rulers were equally as bloodthirsty and capable of murder as ‘Bloody’ Mary – especially during the Edwardian and Elizabethan reigns – could it?

Eamon Duffy thinks so. And he too is using history for his own ends. The difference is though that he is a seminal and deeply scholarly historian whose work has argued this point so effectively that Reformation studies have been changed as a result. Whatever one makes of his elegy to a lost world of beauty and splendour, it behooves Protestants to take seriously the fact that there is another way of looking at the Reformation: not as a glorious liberation for the church, but as a total disaster for the whole of Western civilisation.

How do I respond to such a book? I have thought long and hard about it and I summarise my desired reaction in one word: contemplation. The fact is that this book enables those who do not find themselves in the Roman Catholic Church to try and understand something of the culture and feeling of those who do. To try and understand the grief that issues still from the desecration of Catholic monasteries in the sixteenth-century, the destruction and plundering of shrines, statues and relics, the theft of churches and cathedrals. If we can understand this historical legacy a bit better then this can help us to become more ecumenical towards Catholics and to hold out the olive branch of peace towards them. Maybe even repent and seek reconciliation and forgiveness for what has happened in the past.

The book was informed by a conviction that the Reformation as actually experienced by ordinary people was not an uncomplicated imaginative liberation, the restoration of true Christianity after a period of degeneration and corruption, but, for good or ill, a great cultural hiatus, which had dug a ditch, deep and dividing between the English people and their past. Over the course of three generations a millenium of splendour – the worlds of Gregory and Bede and Anselm and Francis and Dominic and Bernard and Dante – became alien territory, the dark ages of “popery”. Sixteenth-century Protestantism was built on a series of noble affirmations – the sovereignty of the grace of God in salvation, the free availability of that grace to all that sought it, the self-revelation of God in his holy word. But it quickly clenched itself round a series of negations and rejections. As its proponents smashed the statues, whitewashed the churches and denounced the Pope and the Mass, Protestantism came to be constituted in large part by its NO to medieval religion.

The Stripping of the Altars, then, was at one level an elegy for a world we had lost, a world of great beauty and power which it seemed to me the reformers – and many historians ever since – had misunderstood, traduced and destroyed.

Eamon Duffy, from the preface to the second edition of The Stripping of the Altars

Brendan Simms on Slave Labour in the Second World War

In 1942, ‘The British ‘warfare state’ showed that democracy and mass military mobilization were not only entirely compatible but a more efficient combination than dictatorship’, writes Brendan Simms in his Europe: the Struggle for Supremacy. Simms’ point in this section is that, whereas the German Axis powers utilised ‘the ruthless use of slave labour’ in order to produce armaments in their struggle against their enemies, and the Soviets ‘depended heavily on the forced labour of the Gulag’, Britain and America upheld ‘the most basic civil liberties’ of their citizens and actually outperformed their enemies’. I have no idea what contributed to the complete breakdown of moral order in Germany and Russia during these years. Why was slave labour seen to be an effective way of generating armaments? Why was the Gulag? Why did an equivalent thing not happen in Britain or America? Reading through a book like Simms’ reminds one of the brutality and murderousness of these horrendous dictatorships throughout this period. Here is the quotation in full:

The contending coalitions engaged in a massive domestic mobilization to generate the necessary resources and manpower. The entire US ecomony was now devoted the war effort…In 1942, Hitler put Albert Speer in charge of the war economy. Through innovation, organization and the ruthless use of slave labour he achieved a massive increase in armament productions. Early in the following year, the propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, increased the sense of psychological mobilization by declaring ‘total war’. The Soviet war economy, too, depended heavily on the forced labour in the Gulag. Very soon, Russia was also outproducing the Third Reich in most key categories of armaments. Perhaps the most remarkable mobilization, however, was that of Britian. Despite being cut off from vital European trade and raw materials by Hitler’s domination of the continent, she managed to produce armaments in greater quantity – if not always of better quality – than Germany. Britain was able to sustain not only her own efforts against Germany, but also had enough to spare considerable supplies for the Soviet Union after June 1942. Millions of men were recruited and sent to serve overseas. All the while, parliament continued to sit and most basic civil liberties continued to be respected. Once again, the British ‘warfare state’ showed that democracy and mass military mobilization were not only entirely compatible but a more efficient combination than dictatorship.

Brendan Simms